Monday, 30 November 2015


 ‘Beeswing!  There is a poetry of place here’ said Jane McKie, commenting on the names of the villages she had passed through on the way to Castle Douglas last week.   I have driven through Beeswing several times but the name never fails to surprise me – such an English word in the Dumfriesshire landscape.  I wondered what minute attention to detail would cause a place to be called Beeswing.  Was there an apiary there?  It could be a name from Tolkien.  I imagine an elfin queen with a cloak made from bees’ wings, like a benign version of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in her famous beetle wing dress.  Or was the name a strange mutation from the Scots?

A quick google put me right.  The village used to have the more prosaic name of Lochend (it is situated at the end of Loch Arthur – a contender for the Lady of the Lake, as the name suggests – more romance).  However it was renamed in honour of the racehorse, Beeswing (1833 – 1854), a phenomenal winner of 51 races out of 63, including the Preston Gold Cup seven times and the Newcastle Cup six times.  She was from the North East of England but her mother was called Ardrossan Mare so that at least is a Scottish connection, though rather distant.  I would like to know why it was this particular village that decided to rename itself after a racehorse. 
Another place name caught my attention last weekend – Kirkgunzeon.  It sounded like a mixture of Scots and Cornish.  I looked up the name and discovered that Gunzeon is a variant (or wayward) spelling of a saint’s name, Winnen (Gaelic Finnen).

All this week I have been reading Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks.  Each chapter is an encounter with a landscape writer.   A glossary of words associated with that landscape ends each chapter.  These glossaries are a medley of Scots, Gaelic, Welsh, Shetlandic, local dialect, scientific, official and meteorological words, etc. 

What I have noticed in these glossary lists is the way that languages and dialects seep into one another.  For example, MacFarlane includes the word ‘clarty’ (of earth: sticky, boot-clingy) as Scots.  Yet it is a frequently used dialect word in the north of Cumbria where I live.  There’s so much rain that our boots are clarty most of the year.  Did the word travel over the border on the shoes of the Border Reivers’ horses?  He cites ‘Foggagey’ as another Scots word meaning ‘rank, tufted, matted grass’, yet my father in Warwickshire, where I grew up, called such grass ‘foggage’.   ‘Sike’ is listed as Yorkshire for a small stream or ditch yet it is a common place name in Cumbria (eg, Greensyke) and is used by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson in his poetry.  ‘Lode’ is a fen drain in East Anglia but its meaning of a water course must be echoed in the Cotswold river Evenlode.

These glossaries are both fascinating and frustrating.  It’s fun to know that an icicle is an ‘aquabob’ in Kent and a ‘clinkerbell’ in Dorset, but I do think MacFarlane is cheating to include some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ neologisms, such as ‘twindle’ and ‘heavengravel’.  There are annoying omissions.  He includes several Shetland ‘simmer’ (summer) compounds but not the often used ‘simmer dim’ which describes the wonderful residual light of Shetland midsummer nights.  And some ubiquitous Welsh landscape words are missed out – such as cwm (valley) and afon (river).

MacFarlane admits that the glossaries are a reflection of ‘my own particular interests and affiliations’.  He points out that there are a large number of very localised landscape names which are now falling out of use.   I can see that such names can easily be lost when we travel by vehicle and not on foot, when fields are recorded by number and not by name, when language is mediated by the television or the internet.   He quotes Tim Dee, ‘Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’   Yet a nineteenth century racehorse called Beeswing is immortalised in a small village in the South of Scotland.

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