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13 December 1999

What’s in a place name? Everything

New Statesman Scotland - We live in a beautiful land with a rich history, but careless, uni

By Rob Corbidge

Anthropologists use place names to map the spread of long-dead cultures, as they often outlive the people who named them and are then adopted by succeeding peoples. Picture, then, an anthropologist travelling from one of the leading universities in prosperous sub-Saharan Africa 1,000 years hence. Her mission is to help define the spread of a culture known as Scottish across the northern parts of an island off what was once Europe. Like many in her field, she must use the names of places to map the area covered by these Scottish people, since much of the written, filmed and recorded evidence has been lost. She travels to an area roughly halfway between the formerly large settlements of Edinburgh and Glasgow and there finds the stubby remains of houses occupied by these Scottish peoples, arranged in neat rows. She diligently notes the names of them as told to her by native farmers in the area: The Fairways, Woodville Court, Slateford Green, Cranley Manor, Hillcrest, Orchard Grange, Greenbank Village, The Hedges, Friars Grove, Kingsmeadows, Kingsburgh and The Pine Woods. The remains are dated to mid-1999 and, comparing the place names with the university database, she concludes that the Scottish were the same people as those who lived in Surrey at the same point in time, albeit with less imagination.

A fanciful story maybe, but one with seeds of truth in it. There can be few such obvious indicators of the paucity of imagination and lack of cultural understanding among housing developers active in Scotland as the place and road names chosen for the clusters of dwellings they construct. The crass, meaningless names listed above are taken from a recent property supplement in the Scotsman.

Where are these places supposed to be? What are their names supposed to signify? Setting aside the fact that the houses they are attached to are usually built on top of the wood/orchard/meadow/greenbank they are named after, their vapidity is astounding. They smack of the synthetic white-picket-fenced development recently built by the Disney Corporation in the United States. But this is Scotland. We have real beauty, real people, real history.

To add insult to injury, these names bespeak a faux English rural idyll. Make no mistake, they are equally hated in England, but at least they would sound right if you knew the country only from the distance of atlas. Scottish they are not.

One might point out that many of Britain’s large homebuilders are based in England, but undoubtedly their staff in Scotland are largely Scottish and purely Scottish companies are offenders, too. It is relevant that many of the worst excesses are attached to the ribbon developments on the main commuter routes in the central belt. Perhaps these are some kind of human warehousing system, for people to sleep, eat and procreate in and then push off for another day at the call-centre – and are named with as much care.

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Honesty would result in a place called Twingaragegraveldrive24hourcctv; instead we apparently prefer Anodyneville.

Most of the names we have had handed down to us evolved in an organic manner. They were route markers in a time when travel was much more hazardous; they noted a piece of interesting geography or the most important building in the area. Dumbarton, for example, probably means “Fort of the Britons”. The Sauchie in Sauchiehall Street means “surrounded by willows”; compare this to the chokingly bad The Hedges.

There are several options to choose from to remedy these outrages. There is no need to plunder falsely the Gaelic lexicon in search of appropriate names, nor to look to the obscure ancient British tongue that was prevalent in many parts of Scotland. Nearly every area has its local history society, a consultation with which would cost developers no more than a small charitable donation. Looking at a detailed Ordnance Survey map or, failing that, a few days spent in a nearby public library would yield interesting results; even a search through the original title deeds of any given piece of land, for that matter.

A good example of this sympathetic method is the recent announcement by a Borders farmer of his intention to build a new village to attract people to the area. He has chosen to name it Cardrona, after a local forest. Against the examples noted above, this is a modest stroke of genius.

And what of the Scots tongue as a source? Its champions argue for its official recognition as a separate language. While this may be going too far, there is no doubt that English, when pronounced with one of the many Scottish accents and peppered with words exclusive to this land, has a character all of its own and one completely possible to put down on paper, or on signposts.

It is always possible that the developers’ off-the-peg names will die once the last JCB has left the site. The risk, however, is that they won’t – and one day that poor anthropologist will make one hell of a mistake about the Scots.