Thursday, 15 May 2008

Archive: Scottish Placenames...

Scottish Place-Names by WFH Nicolaisen
Celtic Placenames of Scotland by WJ Watson

My wandering brain's been wondering about evidence for deities in Scotland recently, so I decided to pick this one up. I've seen a few authors confidently asserting that Banff takes its name from the Irish deity Banbha, along with Slamannan taking its name from Manannan (sorry, I've yet to figure out the shortcuts to put in the proper accents) and wanted to get to the bottom of it, because these were just casual mentions without anything of substance to back it up. Since I studied onomastics at uni (it's a fancy word for the study of proper names, which probably makes it sound more interesting than it actually is), I had an idea of the books to look at, and I eventually managed to get hold of them.

Watson's book was the first comprehensive look at the subject, way back in the 1930s, and it wasn't until the 70s when Nicolaisen published his book that the subject had anything of substance added to it. It's a very neglected area of study, then, and I have to admit, my enthusiasm for it will never match that of the authors or my lecturer, who's hard at work trying to bring the field into the twenty-first century with some 'exciting' new discoveries. Perhaps if academics were more willing to look into the pre-Christian evidence I'd be a bit more interested, but because it's such an uncertain area of study with very little in the way of hard facts, I suppose it's understandable that most academics won't put their neck on the line.

Anyway...Looking at Watson's book first, I'd say of the two this was the most readable, although considering the fact that both books deal with a very specialised area, I think it's safe to say it will only appeal to people who really want to know about this stuff. Watson confines himself to examining Celtic placename evidence only, so on the one hand I found it more relevant to me, because obviously that's where my interest lies, but on the other hand this means it lacks much in the way of context. Nicolaisen's book examines all the languages that have affected the evolution of placenames in Scotland and to ignore the non-Celtic influences does mean you're only getting half the picture, so to speak.

There's plenty of useful stuff here (which I'll go into later, comparing with Nicolaisen), and the style of writing is a little more accessible. The style of language is perhaps a little antiquated and dated these days, but it's not like having to plough through Shakespeare or Chaucer. Watson also has a tendency to ramble and go off on tangents somewhat, so at times it feels like there are some conclusions and adequate analysis missing from what's being discussed before a different subject is introduced. Being focused on Celtic placenames means it's more comprehensive than Nicolaisen's work, but Nicolaisen does a good job of picking up on the most important points in Watson's work (particularly the example of pit- placenames as evidence of the spread of the Picts) and updating them or even refuting them. This means that it's very difficult to consider either book in isolation, because while I prefer Watson, Nicolaisen provides some important additions.

Nicolaisen' book is still the main text for study in this field, and it's understandable. Unlike Watson's book, Nicolaisen takes a much more critical view of the subject and takes care to introduce the key issues affecting the subject, like language change and how it's affected the changes in placenames which might not be so apparent to those studying it - after all, we only see what gets recorded. It's not just that it's more up to date that makes it a 'better' book in this respect, it's been consciously written for a more modern academic audience, and addresses the needs of that audience. Nicolaisen also goes beyond just listing what the placenames mean like Watson tends to, and explores what implications name elements in particular might have in terms of their spread - such as evidence for the spread of Christianity, cults of saints within the church, and cultural groups, for example. While Watson does this too, it gets lost at time in his tangents.

It's perhaps because of this critical, academic (and dry) approach that I just don't like Nicolaisen's book (that and the fact that the majority of it formed the basis of some of the most boring lectures of my life, so I admit I'm not without bias here) because generally it isn't all that readable. At times Nicolaisen labours the point somewhat, and in the introduction goes into excruciating detail in examining the evolution of the names that Falkirk has had - from the earliest evidence of Egglesbreth to Varia Capella and then Fawkirk to Falkirk, all of which overlap slightly and seemed to have co-existed with later names for a time, and all of which translate as "the speckled church", thus proving that in some places at least, languages didn't just immediately replace old ones but existed side by side with them for some time and people had at least some understanding of both. He then essentially dismisses the importance of the point by saying that Falkirk is a rare example of this, leaving one to wonder why the hell he's just spent a whole chapter banging on about it...

What follows is an overview of the different languages that have shaped the placenames of Scotland, from English, to Scandinavian, to Gaelic, P Celtic (which he defines as Cumbric and Pictish), and the elusive 'pre-Celtic'. It's this last chapter on 'pre-Celtic' names that's the most interesting in terms of what I was looking for, for pre-Christian evidence, but on the whole it's unsatisfactory because Nicolaisen is fairly dismissive of the subject and seems loath to go into any detail about it.

It's Watson who points to the Banff/Banbha connection, and hints at a connection between Slamannan and Manannan (but seems to conclude, inconclusively, that it is in fact related to the Manau tribe and has something to do with a rock), and also mentions examines the meaning of the river Clyde and relates *Clota to a river goddess. Nicolaisen makes no mention of Banff or Slamannan in this context (though he does translate Slamannan as 'hill or moor of the Manau'), but does refute the Clota/river goddess connection: "Clyde is much more likely to have been a primary river-name. We are not denying that there was Celtic river-worship, but it should not be assumed for rivers whose names permit a straightforward 'profane' explanation." Although he has a point - assumptions shouldn't be made, and this is what Watson essentially does in equating the name as a goddess - this is hardly a thorough examination or refutation of the name, and it would be nice to see something that looks at the subject in more depth. Likewise, Watson's examination of other names associated with bodies of water could do with expanding on.

As much as you might notice how much I don't like the book in terms of style, it can't be denied that Nicolaisen's book is an important piece of work and in a sense my bias against it is probably doing it a disservice to some degree. If you're at all interested in linguistics and placenames in general, then both books are an important addition to the shelf, just don't expect to be entertained while you're learning.