17th Conference 1974

The 17th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held at the University of Stirling, 5-6 January 1974. Minutes Secretary not recorded.

Saturday 5 January

4..20 p.m. “Mediaeval Scottish History – Philologist’s Mite”, a talk by Mr Aitken. Chairwoman: Miss Stewart

Mr Aitken set out to summarise the findings of himself and others relating to language in Scotland mainly in the 12th and 13th centuries. The history of any language can be divided into internal and external history. The former relates to the changes within the language itself and the latter to the place of the language in society.

A. Internal History

1. Pronunciation. Pronunciation was important since it can often be related to regional and national divisions. Despite 16th century criticism of new-fangled English pronunciation, Scots, till the 15th century, was generally in line with northern English, since those differences in local accents which existed within the dialect wore not sufficient to make the language a point of political and social distinction. Those differences lay in the lengthenings and shortenings of Scots and northern English, and in the larger number of doublets in early and middle Scots. It rust be remembered that the immigrant English who laid the basis of later Scots did not all speak the same dialect and that Scots was closer to northern than middle or south English.

2. Spoiling. Nevertheless the Scots spelling system was unique as in its use of “quh” and of “l” in “halk”. In other ways, however, the vernacular spelling in Scottish documents kept up to date with English conventions: “ou” was used to represent the “oo” sound in 14th century as soon in Scotland as in England. Ono can conclude from this that there was both literary and personal communication of vernacular writers in Scotland and England, a field for the historian to explore.

3. Vocabulary. The lexicography of Scots included many borrowings from other languages.

  • i. Anglo-Saxon: Evidence of Anglo-Saxon borrowings dating from the 15th century and earlier can be seen in the descriptions of 16th and 17th century witch trials: the suffix “shot” as in elfshot.
  • ii. Gaelic: The influx of Gaelic words was the earliest, some being found in the 12th century, often occurring in a Latin context: “Davoch” and “cain”
  • iii. Scandinavian, northern and middle English: Those borrowings could be either function words with a grammatical purpose such as “gar” and “mon” or content words. Although many Scandinavian words appeared in Scots only one, “kirset”, was exclusive to Scots, after the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and French words. Many northern and middle English words were not received by Scots such as “es” for “is”. Since northern and middle English absorbed more Scandinavian words it would appear that Anglo-Danish immigrants to Scotland were responsible for the Scandinavian words in Scots.
  • iv. Flemish and Dutch: Few of the French borrowings were exclusively Scots though some differences, such as the palatal “l”, can be found between Scots and English Anglo-Norman French. From this survey Aitken concluded that mediaeval Scots was part of the English linguistic continuum.

B. External History

1. Early place names. The Border counties show evidence of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon names which can be related to settlement in the south east and in the Solway region: ton, ham, warf names such as. Winchburgh, Berwick and Lasswade. Moro study, however, is required of Peebles and West Lothian since they were in effect frontier areas.

2. Later Scots place names. Names, including the elements “toun” and “peth” occur in 12th and 13th century along with names based on Anglo-Saxon Christian names, such as Eddleston from Edulf. Danish Christian names are seen in such places as Covington, Dolphinton and Swanston: Flemish in Thankerton, Symington and Roberton and Norman in Philipston and Riccarton. Careful collection of these and other examples would, Mr Aitkon asserted, produce evidence of a varied racial stock in 12th and 13th century Scotland.

3. Burghal names. A trend to favour Norman, Anglo-Danish and Flemish personal names is evident especially in the newly established burghs. There is in the 12th century evidence of a national mixture in the burghs similar to that on the land: Forman, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Danish and Flemish names occur while nearly all the terminology of the language of the burghs is Anglo-Danish, eg. Aldorman, grieve, burch, toft and kirset. Apart from a “Lorimer” in Perth there is no visible trace of French or Flemish material in the burghs till the 13th century.

It was therefore clear Mr Aitken argued, that the burgesses spoke northern/middle English which had been Scandinavianised, no Celtic are a little French. He illustrated this point by quoting one or two examples from personal names given in the 1317 Roll of the Aberdeen Burgh Court. This Roll also mentioned various people with descriptive names such as Mr “Ayedrunk” and Mr “Wyclair” (?) or “lay blame”, the Procurator Fiscal.

Few Scottish place names were of French origin, Beauly and Belsies being two examples.

From this examination Mr Aitken concluded that since the French influence amongst the aristocrats did not permeate to the lower levels of society most new place names can be traced to northern English. Till the 14th century when French was still used in letters, French nay have been a second language for social climbers, although by the time of Barbour it had ceased to be so. Tentatively, Mr Aitken offered the suggestion that French may have been dropped in the early 14th century when the Scots aristocracy wished to be distinguished from its English counterpart.

Finally Mr Aitkon emphasised that more work was required on early place names, 12th century settlers and Christian name fashions.


Professor Barrow drew attention to the difficulty in analysing Scottish place names. Not only had the French custom of double nomenclature, though only of fleeting importance, been current in Scotland in places such as Kirkpatrick Fleming but also French forms were used for Scottish names, such as “Dunbretagne” for Dumbarton. French influence could also be soon in the use of “reia” a strip of land. Finally he stressed that “Herdmanston” came not from herdsman but from the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Danish “herridman”. Mr Seller wondered whether the technical language of the law would have been of French origin, whether “wrang” and “unlaw” were earlier or later than “tort” and “unraison”. The use of “bel” in place names, raised by Professor Legge, could be either from French or from Brittonic as Professor Barrow illustrated in Bowmont. Rev Dilworth added that in the Highland “bel” was used in names of baillies.

In response to questioning by Mr Cant about the confused linguistic situation north of the Tay Mr Aitken emphasised that a recognisable northeastern dialect was spoken. He agreed with Dr Simpson that the common Germanic background of the languages spoken in the burghs must have helped communication there. Dr Murray, thinking of the need for mediaeval philologists, mentioned the case of the German philologist who wrote to the SRO before the first World War asking for a list of vernacular documents before 1400. Fifty years and two world wars later he had written back asking for more!

The chairwomen thanked Mr Aitken for giving his talk which had been most interesting.

Sunday 6 January

11.00 a.m. “Iona”, illustrated lecture by Mr Fisher. Chairman: Mr Dunbar

The Conference had already viewed a display of diagrams, plans and photographs prepared by Mr Fisher. The chairmen informed the Conference that Mr Fisher had been conducting excavations on Iona. Mr Fisher began by giving a brief non-architectural history of the site. The centre of the Columban network revived by the son of Somerled, it was visited by various travellers in the 17th century and later, whose descriptions have survived.

The abbey is situated on a fertile raised beach. Surrounded by one vallum or perhaps two, the water supply may have come from the nearby Lochan Mor. Of the earliest remains the most notable are the vallum and the stone crosses. St Matthew’s Cross shows a resemblance to the Book of Kells as does the carving of the Virgin and Child on St Martin’s Cross, an unusual scene for the 8th century. The views of Charles Thomas on the abbey at this time have now been superseded, Mr Fisher said. In the burial ground the early Christian chapel of St Oran had been fitted with a 12th century doorway. The tombs of the kings, described by Dean Munro, resemble 11th or 12th century mortuary houses though the inscriptions which he recorded having seen in the “Street of the Dead” were late mediaeval tourist attractions. Of other mediaeval monuments there are a nunnery, the remains of which are late Romanesque and several late west Highland tombstones.

Turning to the abbey, Mr Fisher wondered why a Benedictine house had been founded at such a late date and whence the monks had come. The earliest part of the abbey is the Romanesque north transept which must have been part of a small cruciform church with a short chancel.

In the 13th century the chancel was altered so that one advanced up steps from the choir to the sanctuary. Twin lancet windows, noted by Pennant, in the gable of the north transept may also be ascribed to this century, as may the chapter house and the elegant octagonal double columns of the cloisters. In the late 13th century the massive south transept, linked by a stair to the upper level of the choir was constructed, as an appendage rather than the start of a rebuilding.

The church as now seen is predominately 15th century work, perhaps financed from the abbey’s own resources rather than by the Lords of the Isles. Despite the haphazard architectural planning of this period there is good carving on the capitols of the aisle pillars and fine window tracery in the tower, perhaps based on Irish sources, since much of this work was probably executed by naturalised west Highlanders of Irish provenance.

Mr Fisher concluded by describing the post-reformation dilapidation and the cutting off of the south choir aisle and nave as a result of Charles I’s order in 1634 to repair the cathedral after the establishment of a new chapter for the Isles in 1615. The buildings survived thus until the 19th century.


Replying to Dr Kirby, Mr Fisher said there was a possibility of re-excavating to obtain pollen samples and pointed out that the cemetery area, since it had been continuously used was of little archaeological value. Mr Fisher explained that the surname Obralcan(?) about which Professor Borrow had enquired was a frequent west Highland name perhaps originating in Ireland. They were masons and one had inscribed his name on the cathedral at Iona in the middle third of the 15th century as well as on a cross at Ardchattan.

The problem of the churches held by Iona in Golloway, raised by Dr Cowan led Mr Fisher to wonder whether thare may net be an early Christian church under the nave, which might have had endowments in the south west. The chairman thanked Mr Fisher for his enjoyable and interesting talk.