What’s in a place-name? An interview with Colin Mackenzie

This latest interview in my series about creative and inspiring people living in Dumfries and Galloway, is someone I have never met. Indeed, when I contacted him earlier this year, he informed me that he was about to leave his home region and relocate to Orkney. So I’m looking forward to meeting with him in person some day – in one or other of those places.

Colin is a primary school teacher, a linguist and an expert on place-names, a field of study known as toponymy. Using a variety of methods and new programs for studying maps he has built up a remarkable knowledge of the place-names and associated stories of Dumfries and Galloway.

He is highly trained in his area of study and holds a PhD, but his research is a labour of love that he works on alongside his ‘day job’ and he has eschewed any thought of a university career. He is the kind of person who makes the world a richer place, but seeks no particular reward or recognition in doing so. He has harnessed modern social media for the best of reasons – to share in detail what he has learned about the names of places that are all around us.

In this interview Colin provides a fascinating insight into how we are connected to the people who have gone before us, and how in every era, people give names to the places and landscapes around them. I hope you enjoy reading his answers to my questions, and do follow the links he has listed at the end. His work is a rich assembly of insights that has real potential to change how we look at our everyday world.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about where you were born and grew up and your early life experiences? 

I was born in Dumfries and grew up in the middle of the Kirkcudbrightshire countryside – between Beeswing and Kirkgunzeon – in a house surrounded by fields. I spent most of my childhood guddling in burns and climbing trees. 

Q. Where did you go to school and what educational path did you follow subsequently? 

I went to Kirkgunzeon Primary School and Dalbeattie High School. I liked the idea of a science career while I was at school. I was quite set on forensic science until an eye-opening work experience placement put me off that for good. I enjoyed physics and applied, fairly haphazardly, to physics and engineering courses at Scottish universities. I settled on a course at Glasgow University because it was the closest by train. After visiting a friend and sitting in on a maths lecture, I realised I’d made a mistake. I’d recently picked up a book on English grammar and thought it seemed interesting, so changed my course to English Language. The English Language department at Glasgow teaches linguistics – which is what I was interested in when I applied – and literature before 1500. I took modules in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic and ended up staying to write a PhD on those languages. By the end of my PhD, I was ready for a change and trained as a primary school teacher.

Q. Were there any indications in your early life of the kinds of interests you now have, relating to place names, language and history? 

There probably were. I’ve always liked words and the outdoors. I have an early memory of finding a 1:25000 map of our area and being interested that a wee burn we crossed on the way to school not only had a name but that it was a name I couldn’t understand. I had no idea at the time that you could find out a place-name’s meaning and what it could tell you. It wasn’t until I reached university that I discovered the things I’m most interested in now – historical linguistics and place-names – even existed as subjects to be studied. Our first lecture on the history of English introduced the family tree of Indo-European languages and I was immediately hooked. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to encounter – almost by chance – a field of study that has interested me ever since. 

Q. OK, can we unpack this a little bit? In particular, tell me more about the PhD. What was the scope of the work, how did you undertake it and what would you say were the main findings or results?  Was there a reason not to pursue a University career afterwards? 

My PhD was concerned with ‘personhood constructs’ (concepts analogous to ‘mind’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’ etc.) in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic. Concepts like this exhibit a great deal of cross-cultural variation which is often hidden when they are translated into English (or any other language). A good comparison is colour-terms. Languages delineate the visible spectrum in different ways. Some languages will use two words to refer to what we think of as ‘blue’. Others will have one word which covers parts of what we think of as green, blue and grey. The situation is similar with personhood constructs, only the variation can be more pronounced as we don’t have access to observable referents for ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ in the same way we do for the concepts we label as ‘yellow’ or ‘red’.  

Old Norse-Icelandic and Old English each conceived of a primary personhood construct responsible for thinking, feeling, knowing, wanting and courage. I was interested in how the Old Norse-Icelandic concept related to the better studied Old English one. The first part of my thesis was concerned with establishing a methodology for expressing the differences between two closely related concepts – something that is difficult when relying on English equivalents such as ‘mind’ and ‘heart’. The rest of the thesis involved gathering data from as many sources and genres of Old Norse-Icelandic texts as possible (sagas, Eddic and skaldic verse, ecclesiastical and medical texts, translations of medieval French romances) and then analysing it on its own terms and with reference to other psychological traditions in the medieval north Atlantic. 

I was able to demonstrate that the cultural model of the ‘mind’ in Old Norse-Icelandic was conceived of differently to how it was in Old English, despite a number of formal similarities. Specifically, I showed that the elaborate ‘hydraulic’ conceptualisation of thoughts and feelings boiling and seething within a person’s chest – imagery ubiquitous in Old English poetry – was not a feature of the Old Norse-Icelandic system. I also showed that the Old Norse-Icelandic system had far less in common with circumpolar ‘shamanic’ understandings of how a person’s ‘spirit(s)’ operated than had previously been proposed.  

There were a number of reasons for not pursuing a university career afterwards. Precarious employment and the prospect of moving between cities and countries a number of times before securing a job no doubt played a part. Running out of steam was another. I’m very pleased I took another path; the university system just now doesn’t look like one I would have enjoyed. I’m happy researching for its own sake, rather than as a means of earning a wage. 

Q. How have these linguistic interests found their way into your primary school teaching? Can you give some examples? 

The appeal of primary teaching was getting to cover a wider range of topics than just languages but there are plenty of opportunities for weaving in my linguistic interests. We have looked at runes when studying Vikings and the roots and meanings of place-names when researching the history of our local area. I hope the biggest impact of my linguistics background has been taking a non-judgemental approach to the non-standard language we are all surrounded by in our daily lives. We were told not to use slang when I was at school. It took a surprisingly long time for me to realise that ‘slang’ was being used as catch-all term for language that was disapproved of, rather than some objective linguistic category. I feel very lucky to be part of a school where we take an active interest in Scots language teaching and have been pleased to have contributed to that. 

Q. Your D&G place-names work on Twitter has become wide ranging and quite technical. For someone who is unfamiliar with it, can you talk us through how you started it and the various approaches you have been taking, and also your use of techniques like Geographic Information Systems? It seems like Twitter is just the ‘front end’ of a very rich research programme that you are pursuing independently? 

Scots hiding in plain sight: a quarrel is a quarry

I started the D&G Place-Names Twitter account on 1 January 2019 with the twin aims of sharing the place-names research I was reading and getting out on my bike more. The original plan was to cycle to places recorded on Timothy Pont’s 16th century map of Nithsdale and tweet about those names. However, I quickly gave up on the restriction of tweeting about places I’d visited as there are so many interesting names that are more than an afternoon’s cycle away.  

D&G accounts for about 10% of the place-names in Scotland so there’s a lot to find, explore and share. I still spend a lot of time scrolling through the OS maps hosted by the National Library of Scotland and the Ordnance Survey Object Name Books and tweeting names, etymologies and stories that stand out. However, the project quickly grew arms and legs and I started taking a more systematic approach to exploring D&G’s toponymy. 

The catalyst was learning how to use QGIS – an open-source geographical information system mapping program – to create distribution maps of place-names. Place-names tell stories and they tell them in lots of different ways. Each place-name is a micro-story, a record of how people in the past conceived of and interacted with their landscape. Together, they act like threads in a tapestry and you can learn a great deal by stepping back and looking at the patterns made by plotting tens, hundreds, or thousands of place-names at a time. I’ve made hundreds of place-names maps which can be found across my Twitter feed and website. Most of these were a few hours’ work at most. However, I’m currently working on mapping Gaelic place-names in southern Scotland which has already taken several months. I finished Galloway in January and am almost done with Dumfriesshire. You can see the progress so far here Another larger project I’m working on is a survey of New Abbey place-names. I’m collating early spellings of each name in the parish and analysing their meanings. It’s slow work. 

Although my main focus is on place-names research, there are so many other fields it overlaps with that I also work a little on Galloway literature, folklore and Scots. I’ve pulled a lot of what I’ve found together on my website. The appeal of Twitter is that you can post some interesting information in a couple of seconds. Converting those ideas into blog posts can take a day or two. Turning that research into articles takes much longer still. I’ve gathered a lot of information over the last four years and I’m planning to take a break from collecting new material to publish some of what I’ve found so far. 

Twitter can be a hostile and negative environment for many users but it has connected me to interesting people and given me a platform to share my research. In light of recent developments I am slightly questioning the wisdom of posting 6000+ research notes on what is looking more and more like a precarious platform. We’ll see what the future holds.

Q. On that last point, are you part of a network of people who have similar interests, locally and further afield?  

Toponymy is a fairly small field but it doesn’t take long before you bump into people online who are involved in researching place-names. Social media has been a brilliant resource for sharing ideas and asking questions. If anyone is interested in Scottish place-names, I suggest they take a look at the Scottish Place-names / Ainmean-àite na h-Alba Facebook page.  

I’m a member of the Scottish Place-Name Society and the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland. Locally, I’m in contact with the team involved with the Borgue Area Field Names project. We are very fortunate that Michael Ansell and Alan James, experts on the languages of Galloway’s landscape, live locally. Both have been very generous with their knowledge and expertise.

Shakeabodie Rock: According to the OS Name Book, the nearby Foul Hole was “much frequented by spectres, witches, warlocks etc which caused passers by to shake or tremble and from the proximity of the rock to the above place it is supposed to have derived its name.”

Q. I understand that you will be leaving Dumfries and Galloway soon and heading for Orkney. Will you stay in teaching and what are your future plans for place-name and related work?

Since starting this interview, my wife and I have arrived in Orkney and I’m teaching on one of the smaller islands just now. I’ve switched to tweeting mostly about Orkney place-names but am continuing with my larger D&G projects. In addition to writing up some of that research, I’m planning to digitize more of Robert Trotter’s (1833–1907) writing on Galloway folklore and tradition. I spent the weeks before leaving collecting as many of his articles from the Galloway Gazette as I could, so I have enough material to keep me busy for a while.

I’m still very interested in D&G place-names, particularly those that aren’t recorded elsewhere. I’d love to hear about names for fields, trees, stones, beaches that people use for the landscape around them. A good example is Elephant Rock on Hestan Island. It’s a perfect name but isn’t recorded on the Ordnance Survey. It would be good to gather and map as many of these types of names as possible before they’re lost.

You can find or contact Colin in the following ways:

Twitter: @dgplacenames

Website: dgplacenames.wordpress.com

Facebook: D&G Place-Names [https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100087626441623]. I rarely post on this but it’s a good way to get in touch if you don’t have Twitter.

Email: dgplacenames@gmail.com

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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