Hunting in the Boarwood: Language, Place-names, History and Myth



Imagine someone standing on a soapbox in the middle of the Steelyard, shouting these two sentences: not so long ago they would have been led firmly to Old Bangour, nowadays perhaps left to roam the streets. But the first statement is probably true; the second definitely is. And as newspaper headlines they both have a certain fascination.

What do we know about the languages that have been spoken in West Lothian? Before we go any further it’s important to remember that language is not the same as race. Language spreads like culture: if it gives me prestige, if it’s cool, then I’ll use it, like a new car that everybody else is buying, like Academy slang. Not everybody who speaks the English language is English, as millions of Scots, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians (even aborigines) will swear. And not everyone who drinks coke and wears a baseball cap backwards is an American, though perhaps they’d like to be. This attitude is why for a long time it was thought that to speak with a West Lothian Scots accent was ‘not speaking properly’. But the Americans who visit our island don’t change the way they speak (just one of many accepted forms of English): why should they, and why should we? It is important to remember our roots, and our tongue roots deep!

Since the glaciers vanished away at the end of the last Ice Age (about 11,000 years ago) many languages have moved into these small islands off the coast of Europe that we live on. We have no idea what the earliest tongues might have been, and they could have come from anywhere along Europe’s seaboard (although it’s important to remember that we were still part of the continent in those days): there is early evidence for links with the Mediterranean, or even further east.

Most of these languages (some of them unknown) have died out, two of them (Manx and Cornish) quite recently, though attempts are being made to give them the kiss of life. Four remain, three of them Celtic: Gaelic, Irish (closely related to each other and Manx) and Welsh (a cousin of Cornish). English, the one being used here in this text, is called a Germanic language, though it too is related to Celtic in complex ways nobody understands properly yet, and owes much to the Normans; Scots is its big sister. Part of the problem is that none of these languages was written down until less than 1500 years ago, which might seem a long time, but isn’t where language is concerned. But because we do have written records of them, it’s hard to see past their surface attraction into our dark prehistory, and our more ancient ancestors. This is where a study of place names can help.

A recent (1997) discovery during archaeologically-linked DNA testing showed that an English schoolteacher living in Somerset is the direct descendant (by his mother’s line) of ‘Cheddar Man’, whose 9000-year-old skull was found in a cave. Since he speaks English and was born in England we call him an ‘Englishman’, yet his ancestor sang through that same skull-mouth to his children, chatted, made silly jokes and told camp-fire ghost stories in some other lost language over 8000 years before English existed, and a good 5000 years before any Celtic speakers could have arrived on our island (Celtic didn’t exist then either). And we still think of the ‘English ‘as ‘incomers’!

At one time in the Iron Age (around 2000 years ago) there were Celtic speakers settled right across modern-day Europe from Ireland in the west to Galatia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and from southern Spain to the Baltic, which means that many millions of Europeans (as well as people throughout England) could claim descent from Celtic folk. So it’s wrong to think of ourselves as a ‘Celtic’ nation; it’s a useful label but only tells (a small) part of the story. Our genealogy goes back much further.

This article is about language (and especially place-names) as a way of accessing history. The Bathgate area is world-famous for its fossils; our place-names too carry fossils of tongues now dead or moved on. The word Bathgate itself (that we use so often and hardly think about) is an excellent example of this, as we shall see.

When the Romans were trying to occupy the whole of our island, the Bathgate area was at the frontier of an Empire that stretched 2500 miles east to modern Iraq (and 1800 miles south into Africa) with a line of customs-posts, the Antonine Wall (built around 140AD), only about two hours’ walk away. This Wall, stretching from Carriden on the Forth in old West Lothian right across to the Clyde, was built as an attempt to control the local folk who, perhaps like the native Americans (Indians) of the Wild West, were not taking kindly to squatters (in this case an organised army) moving in and taking over.

For many reasons, not least the resistance they met, the Romans only managed to hold the Antonine Wall for about the same length of time as the recent Berlin Wall existed: 30 years, or one generation at most,. For the people living at that time the construction would have been significant enough, though, with its great turf-and-earth rampart, wide deep ditch, military road, forts and beacon platforms girding the island’s slim neck like a spiked collar.

Roman soldiers on duty here were not all what we would call Italians, but came from right across the Empire (including parts of what is now Germany, Switzerland, Austria and even northern England). Some would have talked in Celtic, some in Germanic, some in more exotic languages, but their common tongue would have been ‘vulgar’ Latin, a spoken form as different from written classical Latin as West Lothian dialect is from what used to be called ‘BBC English’. At Bar Hill near Kirkintilloch a company of archers from as far away as Syria (on the hot shores of the Mediterranean in the Middle East) was stationed. Unlike modern soldiers, when not being transported by boat these recruited bowmen would have walked (or ridden if lucky) the many dusty miles here and would have known the change of landscape, peoples and cultures throughout the Empire in a way we can hardly appreciate. What they thought of our midges and the damp climate, turning these same dusty paths to thick mud, can only be imagined. Perhaps these are two reasons why they left.

Altars (inscribed in Latin) to their alien gods have been found along the Wall, and there is even a record of a Middle Eastern civilian called Salmanes (possibly a merchant) buried near it, again at Bar Hill, showing once more that the ‘Romans’ did not travel alone. Some locals would have learned Latin in order to trade with the army, and from this it is likely that some modern West Lothian folk have ancestors among its followers, if not among the troops themselves.

One of these altars, ploughed up in 1956, was set up at VELUNIA (or VELUNIATE, we’re not sure of the exact name), at modern Carriden, by the local councillors, who seem to have thought of themselves as Roman citizens; perhaps we see the same impulses at work here that still cause our modern councillors to tout for prestigious foreign business. Velunia is what we call a ‘Romano-British’ place-name, a Latinisation of a native Celtic word such as *wallaunos or *wellaunos[1]. It means ‘well-defended, walled (place)’ or ‘goodly (place)’.

It’s possible that the first element *wall- is the last one in modern Kinneil, which might then be one of our oldest recorded place-names, able to tell us much: Kinneil is an English version of Gaelic ceann fhail ‘Wall’s End’ which is itself a translation of the original Brythonic Penguaul, which means the same. This change of languages is why it is vital to examine the earliest spellings of a place-name before making a decision about it, much like archaeologists going down to the lowest, oldest strata of a dig, and finding a mysterious skull. We know about Gaelic and English, but what language is Brythonic?

To find out, we need to look again at Bathgate.

What language does it come from?

The two elements bath and gate both make sense in English, but together they make nonsense at best. Perhaps knowing that gate in Scots means ‘way, road’ (as in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Canongate) we could hazard a guess that Bathgate means ‘road to the bath, or spa’. It would be a wrong guess: woods and bogs and burns were many, but there never was anything like a spa here.

Is the name really English? Could it be Gaelic? Nothing fits here either.

Now we enter upon a mystery. For some strange reason most people think (maybe because they have been taught it from an early age) that everyone in what is now West Lothian spoke Gaelic until the English came along, when Lothian became part of Northumbria. This sets up an us against them situation, but the truth is far more complex: at no time in history did everyone in West Lothian speak Gaelic.

Both Gaelic and English are late-ish incomers as languages. Gaelic was spoken in Ireland, by the Scots who were themselves Irish and later gave the name to our land. They began to come across towards the end of the Roman Empire (roughly 4th-5th centuries) to the western areas, notably Kintyre and Argyll. At around the same time, Angles from northern Europe began to arrive here in the (south-)east of what is now Scotland, some at Roman invitation. They eventually established a flourishing 7th century kingdom called Bernicia in Northumbria (based around Bamburgh Castle) and later gave their name to England and its language (which only began to reach its present style after the Norman invasion[2]). And like every language that has arrived in Britain, these tongues have been affected by those already spoken here (by the folk who were learning the new one).

Who lived on our island before these two peoples came to join them?

When the Romans arrived, it was inhabited almost entirely by what we used to call ‘ancient Britons’, who gave their name to it: (Great) Britain. Their language has been called British, Brythonic and Brittonic. North of the Forth lived the folk who later became known as the Picts, who spoke a closely related tongue perhaps more similar to the Gaulish Celtic spoken across the channel. As the lists of Pictish kings contain such bizarre names as Usconbuts, Bliesblituth and Uipoig namet, some scholars have speculated that an older language (not related to Indo-European languages such as Celtic and Germanic) also existed in Pictland, and was used for ritual and magical purposes. Modern scholars are taking a more sceptical view and would argue that these kingly names are scribal copying errors: spelling mistakes in other words[3]!

Both Pictish and Brythonic are called P-Celtic languages, while Goidelic (Gaelic’s ancestor) is Q-Celtic: in modern Welsh, for example, ‘head’ is pen, and ‘five’ pump, while in Gaelic they are ceann (anglicised Kin- in place-names, as in Kinneil) and cóig. The two types split at least 2000 years ago, though it may be that P-Celtic was a later version of Celtic spreading from the east which never reached Ireland (or Spain, where it was also spoken). In place-names another example of the difference is P-Celtic aber ‘river-mouth’, Q-Celtic inver-. In Pictland and Wales there are many abers, from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth. In Lothian we have Abercorn ‘mouth of the Cornie Burn’ and Aberlady, curiously at the mouth of the Peffer Burn, but also Inveravon, Inverleith and Inveresk.[4]

Benorth Forth, Gaelic slowly spread eastwards, eventually absorbing Pictish, which died out some time around the 9th century. In Lothian, on the border between Brythonic and Pictish, things were a wee bit different.

The British inhabitants of West Lothian that the Romans would have known spoke Brythonic: *wallaunos was one of their words. They continued to speak the same tongue long after the Romans left these shores. But just as Pictish slowly soaked into Gaelic, so Anglian gradually absorbed Brythonic, especially after the siege of Edinburgh in 638, when it’s considered that all of Lothian became part of Northumbria. It is now realised that there was a considerable British contribution to Northumbrian culture, and much intermarriage.

By this time Brythonic had changed into the beginnings of a modern language. In England (where it was mostly still spoken as well) it grew into an early form of Welsh, and further south into Cornish. The Breton tongue of Brittany is very closely related to this later form of Brythonic. Welsh was eventually restricted by the spread of the Anglo-Saxon language to Wales, just as Gaelic is nowadays still being pushed west and north (and isolated in patches) by its descendant, English.

In Lothian and Strathclyde terms the language Brythonic grew into is called Brythonic, but this is more to do with geographical area and political correctness than language: from records and scholarship we can deduce that there was hardly any difference (no more than a dialect one) between Brythonic and the Welsh of that time. Pictish too was very similar. Brythonic continued to be spoken in the British kingdom of Strathclyde (just over the Lothian boundary) until the 11th century at least; it was used even later in Cumberland. This is modern Cumbria, from which we have coined Cumbric, now better called Brythonic: the Welsh name for Wales, Cymru, is another version of the same term, meaning ‘kindred-country’. Place-name studies suggest that the Brythonic language might have lasted long in southern and more remote parts of Lothian as well.

For instance, some Lothian, Berwickshire and Peeblesshire names such as Tranent, Trabroun and Penicuik had late-ish Brythonic forms, and Stow-in-Wedale, in southern Midlothian (as was) has many Brythonic place-names. Our Pentland Hills represent Brythonic pen llan ‘Top of the Moor’ or ‘Muirhead’, showing the notorious ‘Welsh’ ll-, a pronunciation change which didn’t happen until around the 11th or 12th century. As we have seen, a new language brought by new folk is not like a disease, infecting and killing everybody in its path: it spreads slowly and gradually until everyone speaks it. So there’s a very real chance that Brythonic lingered in Lothian up until Norman times[5].

This too was the period when most Gaelic speakers arrived in the area as landowners (although there had been much earlier contact, battles not least), and that is why Gaelic was never spoken by everyone here: Anglo-Norman (French) would have been heard alongside the Celtic, as well as an early Scandinavian-influenced form of Northern Middle English, which grew into what we now call Scots (but was called Inglis ‘English’ even by its users until at least 1494). At some time there had been peaceful settlement from Scandinavia, as a few farm-names such as Humbie ‘Hound-farm’ and Illieston ‘Ill-Leifr’s steading’ tell us. With Latin used for church matters, twelfth century Lothian would have seemed quite cosmopolitan[6].

Our first example of Bathgate’s name, vital to any investigation, comes from this same period. Could it be Brythonic?

It was written Batket in 1153, and also Bathcat and Bathkat around the same time. Knowing what we do of spelling practices in those days, we can guess that these represent something like Bath-ket (with -th- as in then). Bathgate is in fact formed from two Brythonic elements, words which grew into modern Welsh baedd ‘boar’ and coed ‘wood’: it means ‘boar wood’. If it was a modern Welsh place-name it would be written Baeddgoed and pronounced in some areas Baath-gode (with long -a- and the same -th-). Amazingly, the modern local pronunciation of Bathgate (Bathket or Bathgit with the very same -th-), still heard in the town (especially among older folk) is ancient, coming down the many centuries from Brythonic.

We know from the order of the two elements that the place-name could be a very old one, perhaps dating back to our ancient British ancestors. When the Romans were here, the name Bathgate would have been sounded something like *Bai(d)oketon, though it is important to remember that we have no record of the name until a millennium later, and that these same Iron Age Britons, as represented by the scholarly colleges of Druids (their lawyers-teachers-priests-poets), chose not to commit certain matters to writing.[7]

So, Bathgate (like many place-names) is one of these living fossils, much like a nickname given at primary school and grown out of, or the faded snapshot of a curly-headed boy of four, who is now a bald old man of eighty: the Brythonic tongue has died here, and there are neither wild boars nor wild woods where the town now stands. We know from historical records (and names such as Boghall and Inch which means ‘island in a moss or bog’ < Gaelic innis) that the low-lying areas were boggy (with birch, willow and alder), while higher up towards the Bathgate Hills the landscape would have been more wooded (oak, hazel, birch etc.).

To the pagan Celts, the wild boar was seen not just as a beast to hunt (it is possible that only the king was allowed to hunt it), but as a divine animal from the Otherworld, associated with territory and kingship, and it may be that our name Bathgate has a mythic significance. We can compare The Boar’s Rake (where rake means ‘track, path’) near St Andrews, where a legendary boar is said to have run round the district, defining its boundaries, and the famous ‘Pictish’ boar carved on a rock at Dunadd, where both Gaelic and Pictish kings were inaugurated.

Here we reach another aspect of place-names: not only do they access history, they can also encode myth, and ancient ways of thought and belief.

To the pre-Christian Celts, like all early folk, the landscape was full of meaning. Their culture was complex and highly evolved, but they did not live in cities and towns like the Romans. They were farmers and country-dwellers (who also maintained companies of warriors and Druids): the mountains and hills, rocks, rivers, firths, wells and woods, the sea and the starry sky were a backdrop for myths and legends of their goddesses and gods, tales of their heroes and heroines.

There is evidence that rivers in particular were seen as divine: the great river that sluices through Strathclyde (Strat Clut in Brythonic) was called *Clota ‘The Cleanser’ in Brythonic, while the Forth was known as *Woritia (which became Guerit in Brythonic), possibly ‘The Slow-runner’, though there was a second name, something like *Boderia, which may mean ‘Deaf One, Silent One’ and be connected with a battle-goddess. Many battles were fought on the shores of the Forth, particularly between Carron and Avon. The Avon, a common river-name found as Afon in Welsh (and still pronounced in the Brythonic way here), simply means ‘(The) River’ < Brythonic *Abona. All three names are feminine.

There are still traces of the heroes in our landscape: Wallace’s Cave by the Avon is where the medieval freedom-fighter is said to have hidden at some time (he is known to have stayed at Torphichen Preceptory). It may have been thought that he slept (uncomfortably) on Wallace’s Bed at the summit of Cockleroy, but perhaps the site was named for an earlier hero before Wallace’s time[8]. Cockleroy itself, with its Iron Age hill-fort, probably Gaelic cochull ‘hood’ + ruadh ‘red’, is a type of poetic naming if true: the crimped red rocks of its western peaks resemble a tightly-pulled cap, or hood.

The Fairy Leap near the Scottish hero’s bed marks a supernatural entrance into this world from that of Otherworld folklore, a realm which may also be visible in Arthur’s Seat to the east, named for the much older Sleeping King of British legend, common wherever the Brythonic tongue was spoken, from Britanny via Tintagel in Cornwall to Alyth in Strathmore across the Tay[9]. Unlike William Wallace, Arthur might not be historical, and it is likely that he owes much to Celtic gods, one in particular, who, like Arthur, had early links with the whole of Lothian.

Many of the Celtic heroic and divine names have been lost, but one god above all has left his mythic presence across the landscape. From Roman writers we know that the chief Celtic god of the Iron Age was the one identified with the Roman Mercurius, our Mercury. To the Anglians he was known as Woden and gave his name to our middle day of the week: Wednesday[10]. He was seen as the divine ancestor, the Father, and was god of all the arts, of fertility and wealth, of commerce and communication, of roads and traffic (a good god for our age!); his feast day was held in early August, at an early harvest time formerly known as Lammas ‘Loaf-mass’. He was god of hostings, whether feasts and fairs, or battles; he provided mead for his warriors, just as his consort (or queen), the goddess of the land (a representative of the Mother Earth Goddess), provided food for her children.

The Celts knew him as Lugus, meaning ‘Light’ (and also ‘Raven’): in Brythonic he developed into a hero called Lou, in later Welsh Lleu (Llaw Gyffes) ‘Deft-handed Lleu’, named for all his dextrous skills. And he gave his name to Lothian.

In Roman times our land was known as *Lugudunon ‘Lug’s hill-fort’; this became *Loudin (pronounced Louthin with that same -th-), written in Anglo-Saxon as Loðene, and Normanised as Lodonesia. Another early spelling was Loeneis, and from this grew the name Lyonesse of Arthurian legend (which is now supposed to be a sunken land off Cornwall!). An Arthurian hero called Drystan, who became the Tristan (or Tristram) famous world-wide as lover of Isolt (or Isolde), came originally from Loenois, another spelling of Lothian. However, the famous King Loth of Lothian never existed: his name was invented from Lothian.

In East Lothian is a standing stone called The Loth Stone, said to be where this king lies buried, just below Traprain Law. On this hill, also called Dunpelder, are the remains of a vast Iron Age hill-fort, in Brythonic *Din Pelidr ‘Fort of the Spears’, which was the capital of the *Wotadini (usually written in the Roman form VOTADINI), the kindred who lived across Lothian throughout the Roman occupation.[11] It may be that this was the fort known as *Lugudunon; on the other hand, the fort where Edinburgh Castle now stands is another good candidate, or it could be that the land was named for several forts given to the god.

Because of their survival at Dunpelder through the Roman period, historians have believed that the kindred struck some sort of deal with the invaders, but this, like most matters of that time, is no more than a guess. The Wotadini were, though, a major force in Iron Age Scotland, as they were to be in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ following the Roman retreat. This period is better known as ‘The Heroic Age of the British Old North’: in Welsh tradition the Men of the Old North were almost mythical heroes who would return again to free their land from the invading Saxons, Vikings, and Normans (or anybody who harassed the island).

It was from Edinburgh (Din Eidin or Eidin Vre) that the Wotadini, whose name had by now changed in the new Brythonic tongue to Guotodin, set off in the mid-6th century for a battle at Catraeth (Catterick in North Yorkshire), a vital cross-roads on Dere Street[12]. Bernicia (Northumbria) did not exist yet, and the fight was for territory. It used to be thought until very recently that the warriors were Brythonic-speaking British on the one hand versus Germanic-speaking Anglians on the other, but a good case has now been made for Anglians and Britons on both sides, with the British still dominant at this time in both camps.

Whatever the case, the Guotodin lost the battle (and most of their men), according to the collection of poems which commemorates the event, known in modern Welsh by the name of the kindred and of the land: Y Gododdin[13]. At that time their territory stretched right down to what is now Durham, and *Loudin was (probably) just the northern part of it, the area now known as The (Three) Lothians.

These poems are very special, because (outside of Greek and Latin) they are the first recorded poems from the whole of Europe, and the oldest in Britain. Not only that, they offer us the earliest mention of Arthur anywhere (6th or 7th century), showing that his name has been known here for almost a millennium and a half. Most of them were composed in Lothian, and written down shortly afterwards, and the tragedy is that hardly anyone in modern-day Lothian has ever heard of them, though it is likely that the 300 or more warriors who fought have descendants here today. While recognised in Wales, both kindred and poems (as well as the Brythonic tongue they were written in) are a heritage that no-one in Scotland wants to claim.

But the Wotadini were not the only Iron Age kindred of Central Scotland known to us. In Strathclyde lived the *Domnonii[14] possibly ‘Folk of the god Domnu (The Deep One)’, whose name may linger in Cardowan (Wishaw) and Dowanhill (Milngavie). Their capital in the Heroic Age was Alt Clut ‘Clyde Rock’ (Dumbarton Rock); Dumbarton ‘Fort of the Britons’ is named for them. Further south (in the middle and eastern Borders) were the *Selgowes ‘The Hunters/Folk of the Hunter-God’, whose territory was based around the Eildon Hills (and possibly Hownam Law in Roxburghshire).

North of Forth, the *Wenikones ‘The Hound Kindred’ inhabited Fife and Kinross, while the *Maiatai (whose name cannot be translated) lived in what was known until recently as Stirlingshire, the kindred-name remaining in Dumyat (a hill-fort overlooking Stirling) and Myothill (another fort near Falkirk). These folks’ territory was known in the Heroic Age as Manaw (possibly the land of the British sea-god Manawydan) and may have belonged to the Gododdin at some point: Slamannan ‘Moor of Manaw’, Clackmannan ‘Stone of Manaw’ and Kilmannan ‘End of Manaw’ preserve the name. The region’s headquarters were at Stirling, then known as Iodeo: the Firth of Forth had the Brythonic or Pictish name of Merin Iodeo ‘Stirling’s Firth’. North of these two probably Pictish kindreds were the famous Caledonii ‘The Hard Ones’, bonnie fechters who gave Scotland its romantic name of Caledonia. Their name in turn survives at Dunkeld ‘Fort of the Caledones’, nearby Rohallion ‘Rath (fort-enclosure) of the Caledones’ and on the conical mountain above Loch Rannoch known as Schiehallion ‘Fairy-hill of the Caledones’.

Place-name studies (especially in England) together with archaeology have shown that our major territorial divisions are very old, probably stretching back beyond the Romans and into the Bronze Age, further back than linguistic and place-name evidence can take us: in fact it is quite rare for any recorded Scottish place-name to remain from before Norman times. There is one name in West Lothian, though, which may date back far enough, to a time when an Indo-European language called ‘Old European’ was spoken here. It is possible that this tongue grew into Celtic by what has been called ‘cumulative Celticity’; on the other hand, it may be that the culture that used to be known as ‘Beaker Folk’ brought an early form of Celtic to these shores. Or more probably a bit of both. Archaeologists now realise that the sudden use of beakers does not necessarily mean the arrival of a horde of incomers, but reflects cultural changes in the area, much like the wearing of baseball caps, or the rapid growth in the last 30 years or so of Asian restaurants; there may be some exotic incomers, but they do not necessarily take over: they are welcomed and absorbed into the community along with their ‘new’ customs.

The river Almond (written Aumond in 1420) is quite possibly Old European, coming down from something like *Ambona ‘Great Water’. If so, it could have been a word spoken by the late Neolithic builders (around 2500BC) of the henge on Cairnpapple Hill, one of our oldest monuments, dating back around 5000 years from the present.

Cairniepapple (as it is still called in Torphichen), probably represents a Brythonic *carn i papil ‘cairn of the tent, or shieling’, denoting an upland area where cattle were taken in the summer. In 1947-48 the site was thoroughly excavated by Professor Stuart Piggott who speculated that it might have been the place named in the 8th century Ravenna Cosmography (a comprehensive list of places in the Roman Empire) as Medio Nemeton, near the Antonine Wall.

The two elements medio ‘middle’ and nemeton ‘sacred grove, sanctuary’ are well-known Celtic words found elsewhere, but nowhere else together, which suggests that this unique central sanctuary had great status for the Iron Age Celts. Piggott found evidence that Cairnpapple had been in use from the Neolithic (about 3000BC[15]) to the Iron Age, if not the first centuries of the Christian era (but before Christianity had reached here).

The well-known medieval sanctuary at Torphichen, headquarters of the Knights of St John (the Knights Hospitaller), has an ancient cup-marked stone at its midst (and four other stones marking the sanctuary boundary). It has been argued that the central stone was taken downhill from the henge to form a Christian sanctuary. Cairnpapple is still within Torphichen parish (possibly another ancient division), so it stands to reason that the two sites, linked by the stone, represent the same sacred place, rather than two separate ones.

Cairnpapple’s location ideally fits the criteria required for an Iron Age sanctuary: it sits at the highest point (nearest to the heavens) for miles around, on the very edge of Lothian (dedicated to Lugus who was also god of high places), central to the four kindreds (Wotadini, Domnonii, Maiatai and Wenikones), and watching over the Forth-Clyde line, a natural boundary separating Britons from Picts, later fortified by a Roman wall. Major routes head north, south, east and west around the Bathgate Hills, while from the mound the view stretches over 100 miles from sea to sea, from the Isle Of May to the Isle of Arran, and from Breadalbane to the Lowther Hills on the old borders of Dumfriesshire.

If Cairniepapple, at the middle of the island where Druidry is reckoned to have originated, was Medionemeton ‘The Middle Sanctuary’, then it was more important than we can ever imagine: to the Iron Age Britons of what is now Scotland (and perhaps for thousands of years before) the hilltop mound would have been the Navel of the Earth, the Centre of the Universe.

Further Reading

BREEZE, David J. Roman Scotland: Frontier Country. Historic Scotland 1996.
BROMWICH, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Welsh Triads). Cardiff 1961, repr.1991.
DIXON, Norman. The Place-names of Midlothian. (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh 1947).
GELLING, Margaret. Signposts to the Past. Chichester 1988.
HARRIS, Stuart. The Place Names of Edinburgh: Their Origins and History. Edinburgh 1996.
JACKSON, Kenneth Hurlstone. Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh 1953, repr. 1995.
___ The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem. Edinburgh 1969.
KOCH, John T. The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain Cardiff 1997.
MacCANA, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology London 1970.
MacDONALD, Angus. The Place-names of West Lothian. Edinburgh 1941.
MACKAY, Rev P H R. Sanctuary & The Privilege of St John. West Lothian History and Amenity Society c.1976.
NICOLAISEN, W F H. Scottish Place-Names: their study and significance. London 1976.
PIGGOTT, Stuart. ‘The Excavations at Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian’ in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 83 (1947-1948), 68-123.
REES, Alwyn & Brinley. Celtic Heritage. London 1961, 1976.
WATSON, William J. (The History of) The Celtic Place-names of Scotland. Edinburgh 1926, repr. 1993.
WILKINSON, John Garth. West Lothian Place-names. Torphin 1992.
___ Cairnpapple: The Middle Sanctuary? A Quest Through the Sacred Landscape of Scotland (almost finished as of February 1999).
WILLIAMS, Ifor (ed. BROMWICH, Rachel) The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry Cardiff 1980

[1] An *asterisk denotes a conjectured form that has never been written down but can be deduced in accordance with linguistic laws: a good guess in other words.
[2] From France in the 11th-12th centuries; some of the ancestors of these Normans ‘Northmen’ had a couple of centuries earlier been Viking pirates who hit the shores of Britain killing, burning and looting. Once again, it illustrates the great diversity of folk who have reached and had influence on our island.
[3] Our history and medieval manuscripts are full of these: it may even be that our earliest saint, St Ninian didn’t exist as such. His name is more likely to have been Winnianus or the like, misread in what is called minim-confusion. As an example: write minimum without dotting each i and see how many ways it can be interpreted.
[4] Peffer too is akin to Welsh pefr ‘bright, shining, sparkling, pure’. Some aber- names were translated into inver- names, though there are only a few examples of this: Inverbervie near Montrose was Haberberui in 1290, and at Abernethy in Perthshire there is an Innernethy (for Inver-nethy) on the same stream, but it is likely that the process was widespread.
[5] Tranent (Treuernent c1144) in East Lothian, for example, is ‘Farmstead of the Streams’ Welsh tref yr neint. Examples of local Cumbric names are: Ochiltree ‘High Farmstead’, Tartraven ‘Hill of the Small Farmstead’ and Linlithgow ‘Loch in Damp Hollow’. Many major Scottish names are also Cumbric (or Pictish): eg Glasgow ‘Green Hollow’ and Perth ‘Wood, copse’, as well as most rivers: Dee, Don, Tay etc.
[6] Some examples of Gaelic place-names around Bathgate are: Balba(i)rdie ‘Farmstead of the bards’, Ballencrieff ‘Farmstead of the tree’, Drumcross ‘Ridge of the cross’, Torbane ‘White hill’, and The Knock ‘Knobbly hill’.
[7] From this the perverse notion that they were illiterate and too ignorant to read or write has sprung up. But the Celts of Gaul, Spain and elsewhere were well able to write, and Britain was considered the centre of Druidry, with an oral literature second to none. The altar at Carriden, even if Romanised, shows that the natives had access to scribes when they wanted. Our name would have been latinised and written down as *BAIOCETUM or the like.
[8] Saints’ names represent the heroes of the Christian faith: St Machan (Ecclesmachan) St Serf (Abercorn, where there was an early monastery) St Ninian (Blackness). All these saints would have spoken a P-Celtic tongue.
[9] The opinion that Arthur’s Seat has nothing to do with Arthur but is either ‘Archer’s Seat’ or Gaelic Ard na saighde ‘height of the arrows’ stems from a 18th century antiquary called Maitland who saw the crags as being suitable for archery butts, and has no evidence whatsoever behind it. In the 16th century it was Arthurissete ‘Arthur’s Seat’ and one of the earlier Welsh tales has Arthur fighting ‘dog-heads’ (perhaps werewolves) on minit Eidin ‘Edinmount’, which may be the same hill.
[10] Compare French mercredi ‘Mercury’s Day’ = Wednesday.
[11] In some books you’ll find a ‘tribe’ called Gadeni supposed to have lived here. This name comes from a mis-reading of old manuscripts and should be forgotten. Kindred has been used here rather than tribe with all its associated savagery.
[12] Dere Street (followed closely by the modern A68) is ‘the road to Deira’, that is ‘Yorkshire’ south of the Tees, immediately south of that part of Northumbria to be known as Bernicia.
[13] It is also called Canu Aneirin ‘Aneirin’s Song’ after the bard Aneirin or Neirin who is said to have made it. In John T Koch’s brilliant new (hypothetical) reconstruction of the poem among the oldest lines (pre-638AD) are these, in which the bard addresses the land and its chief ancestral focal points (possibly again at Traprain Law): Leech lou-tut, tut lou-breg / Uotodin streg – streg ancat. In more modern Welsh this is something like: Llech lleutud, tud lleu-vre / Godod in ystre -ystre anghat. ‘The Stone of Lug’s kindred, the folk of Lug’s hill-fort / at Gododdin’s frontier – the frontier held.’ ‘The Stone of Lug’s kindred’ could well be the Loth Stone.
[14] Sometimes written as Damnonii, where Dumnonii would be more correct; there were Dumnonii in southern England who gave their name to Devon. However, the local form was probably *Domnonii.
[15] Earlier than he had imagined: methods of dating have changed.