A nail to hang a place on

Or, me talking about maps again.

Names change as both language and places change. The village I grew up in has a name – Newburgh – which it has borne since the 12th or 13th century and clearly no longer merits. Some town names’ spelling – and meaning – alter over the centuries, but this one hasn’t.

Local example: there’s a tiny village in Fife near Cupar, called Moonzie: a curious enough name, but until the 13th Century it went by the wonderful moniker of ‘Urhithumonesyn’. You can see the modern name in the old, as if waiting to be birthed: that –monesyn becoming Moonzie.

Historically, most settlements took their name from either a prominent geographical form, or the name of a figure of authority. At root, place names across Europe can be strikingly similar: for instance, many Flemish place names end in -beke or -gem, which correspond to the English language -beck or -ham. Other examples just from Flanders are Eikenberg = Oak Hill and Valkenberg = Falcon Hill, either of which might plausibly appear on a British map.

Not all changes are organic. Ben Nevis, for instance, is an anglicisation of Beinn Nibheis. These largest of geographical forms were important enough to need named on the new Ordnance Survey maps of the wild and treacherous Highlands in the 18th century. An outcrop or glen that wasn’t notable retains the original gaelic to this day. Brian Friel’s play Translations explores this in an Irish context. Sometimes place names are not merely chiselled to fit the ruling language, but are changed outright for ideological reasons: St Petersburg > Petrograd > Leningrad (and back).

But back to Fife. Maps, as ever, don’t always tell the true story. A little huddle of houses on the A913, where it forks towards Auchtermuchty1, appears on maps as Den of Lindores, but no-one ever calls it that: it’s Glenburnie.

The hill behind my childhood house, where the fields break against a whin-smothered cliff, has an area known as ‘Susie’s Planting’. I never questioned, or knew, what a ‘planting’ might be. The maps have an answer: it’s ‘Susie’s Plantation’ after a historic witch (who was hanged from the Scots Pine that stands here), but the local elision rolls more easily off the tongue.

The hill itself is “Ormiston Hill” but of course to the locals it’s just “the hill”. The summit  is “the Black Cairn” (and marked as such on maps), and the area just beyond, on the south-facing slope is known to all (delightfully) as “The Fox’s Playground”. But this appears on no map.

13-08-2018 09-27-27
1930s map of Newburgh. There’s an awful lot going on.

Near the bottom of the High Street, for all the years of my early childhood and until refurbishment in the late 1980s, stood a huge derelict townhouse. Although only two storeys high, it was (in my memory, until I found the image linked above) set further back from the road than its neighbours, was broader than them too and had a pathway running up the side, all of which gave it a muscular presence.

This was “The Bad Man’s”.

There were rumours. A bad man lived here; had lived here; hid out here when he wasn’t abducting children. I have a memory of walking up the street from a friend’s party, aged 7 or 8 and (possibly suffering the effects of too much sugar) seeing a cackling, bearded face in an upper window which scared the life out of me. And yet the rumours stemmed from nothing, because the house – or, more accurately, the pathway beside it and the expanse of wasteground it led to – was called The Back Manse. Chinese Whispers bred nightmares.

I imagine most places, from the smallest hamlet to a corner of the largest city, have areas whose names appear on no map, nor in any official document, and which only a communal attempt at mapping (a “parish map“) may reveal to the outside world.

We’re all familiar with new streets named after what was bulldozed for their construction, and so it is that an early 90s housing development in Newburgh, in honour of the orchards that used to cover the slopes of the town, bears the name Aippleyairds. Yes, that’s how the Fife accent would say “apple-yards”. But the name has always sounded a false note to me. Pretentious is not a word I use pejoratively, but Aippleyairds sounds pretentious, aspiring to some sort of authenticity. It’s a name to draw tourists; it’s a name for a cafe. It’s not a name, I don’t think, that would have come from common usage. And with all place names now indexed and logged, and new streets created by trans-national construction firms, what scope is there for the continual organic evolution of place names?

Newburgh right now.


1 A name to conjure with, if ever there was one. Home to The Proclaimers and known to all in Fife as just Muchty. The neighbouring village of Strathmiglo is just Strath, and (another name whose weirdness you take for granted as a child) Kingskettle is Kettle.


Further reading: Fife Place-name data

Vintage maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

4 thoughts on “A nail to hang a place on

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