Seeing and not seeing saints in the landscape

Thomas Owen Clancy writes:

Happy Feast of St Brigit of Kildare! St Brigit, who according to tradition died in the early 6th century, and for whom we have written Lives and other texts dating back to the 7th century, was the founder and first abbess of the monastery of Kildare in Ireland. She is one of the most important of Ireland’s saints, and this is represented as well by her presence in the toponymy of Ireland, and of Scotland also.
Place-names containing the names of saints are called hagiotoponyms (for a map of all the hagiottoponyms relating to Brigit in Scotland, see
It is with this type of place-name that this Cognitive Toponymy reflection is concerned, focussing on Brigit, today’s patron saint.

Many hagiotoponyms are the names of churches, whether still in use, in ruin, or even in some cases when the name has only been retained by a local farm. Many of St Brigit’s place-names are of this form—in Scotland, these tend to appear as Kilbride (from Gaelic cill ‘church’ and the saint’s name) or Kirkbride (with a Gaelic loan-word from Old English, rendered here as Kirk). Like most such church names, the name has been created not because of how the place was perceived, but because the church held a relic of the saint, or was in some other way dedicated to her. While there is nothing particularly cognitive about the naming process, there are interesting questions to ask about how such names then invite people to view the landscape around them, now or in the past.

Perhaps more curious is the fact that St Brigit is associated with many wells in Scotland, as she is in Ireland. Holy wells often have saints attached to them, but Brigit is one of the most common such saints. Whilst some such wells, especially in Ireland, are called for Brigit because of legends of her involvement in their creation or blessing, that cannot be the case for the Scottish wells. Instead, we seem to be dealing with some sort of associative overlap between the healing power of springs and wells, and attributes of this particular saint. There may also be some gendering of the landscape at work here as well—the two most common saints associated with wells in Scotland are Brigit and Mary.

Because St Brigit is commonly rendered in Scots and Scottish English as ‘Bride’, there are other features of names relating to her that are of interest. While there are many places called ‘St Bride’s Well’, there are also many ‘Brideswells’, ‘Bridie’s Wells’ and similar (there is a Bridewell in the City of London also). As a result of the reformation, and perhaps also just a tendency to reduce names to easily understood narratives, some of these names were re-analysed as if they contained the common word ‘bride’. So, for instance, Bride’s Well, in Maybole parish, Ayrshire (NS 293149) was surely named for the saint (given the neighbouring medieval parish of Kilbride). But in the mid-19th century this is what was being said of the well:
“The Name is traditionally said to have originated from the circumstances of a Bridal party having at one time passed close past this place, and the bride feeling faint & thirsty, she stooped down to drink, but while doing so, the ring dropped off her finger & disappeared & all their efforts to recover it, proving useless, it has ever since retained the Name of the Bride’s Well.”
(OS Name Books, courtesy ScotlandsPlaces: )

It is not so simple as to say all such features are hagiotoponyms: consider Bride’s Bed in Lochlee parish, in Angus (NO 392 796). This is a rock formation, and other ones nearby are ‘Smith’s Gutter’ and ‘Gryp’s Chamber’—perhaps this feature did indeed look to someone like a bridal bed. The Ordnance Survey Name Books explanation is more solemn, quoting Jarvise’s Land of the Lindsays:
“Another ill fated spot bears the name of the Bride’s Bed, and so called, it is said, because of a young bride having lost her life there in crossing the hills from Clova.”

In the course of the Cognitive Toponymy project, we have thought a great deal about why certain names are applied to places—perhaps less about how people perceive those names, and how their sense of the landscape is transformed by the information that names appear to convey about it, and the stories they go on to tell as they see that landscape in a new way.

St Bride's Well

St Bride’s Well, Kirkbryde, Kikcolm, Wigtownshire

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Food for thought

It is well known that body parts often form place-names and place-name elements. When this happens, it is usually because the observer (namer) sees a likeness between a landscape feature and, say, a person’s shoulder, nose or foot. Less known, however, is that food terms occasionally also creep into our place-names. A fine example of this is the Danish field name Flæskebøste, which is a Jutish dialect word for a smoked ham. It is mainly found in Southern Jutish field names but is also recorded once in East Jutland, north of Aarhus (see figures 1 and 2).

And what is a smoked ham doing in field names, then – you might ask? In some cases it is seemingly the name of an elevation, and, thus, the lumpy appearance of a hill may well have been compared to that of a smoked ham. That certainly seems to be the case with the East Jutish example and possibly also in some of the Southern Jutish names.

Whatever the reasons behind naming, there can be little doubt, however, that the strangeness of a smoked ham suddenly occurring as a field name set the local inhabitants’ minds into action. In the East Jutish example, the field of Flæskebøste is accompanied by the localities Flæskeside (A Side of Pork) and Svinehoved (Pig’s Head). Here, one kind of pork product has spurred a small, local name environment commemorating products from pork. In Southern Jutland, on the other hand, they seem to have been more interested in eating the smoked ham, as in two unrelated examples, the neighbouring field to a Flæskebøste is called Sennepkop (Mustard Pot) – you need mustard for your smoked ham.

However, the fun doesn’t stop there. In the Southern Jutish parish of Ravsted, the name Flæskebøste seems to have spurred a regular naming spree. Next to Flæskebøste we find Tallerken (Plate), Gaffel og Knive (Fork and Knives), Kopper (Cups) and Kruller (Cups, i.e. a local dialect word for cups made out of clay). Not only do we have a nice smoked ham here, we have the entire cutlery set to feast with.

What is going on here? Since we are dealing with historical material, it is difficult to know which of the names came first but it seems very clear that the unusual semantics of one name has triggered a re-conceptualisation of the name environment surrounding a place-name like Flæskebøste/Smoked Ham. The unlikely form of a name spurred the local people’s imagination and gave rise to topically related names in the vicinity – a new name environment was born!

Merry Christmas everyone, let there be feast and merriment – possibly also a slice of smoked ham with a nice big, dollop of mustard…

Peder Gammeltoft


Peder's blog figure 1

Figure 1. Occurrences of the name Flæskebøste in Denmark

Peder's blog figure 2

Figure 2. Dialectal distribution of the word flæskebøste in Jutland.

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PhD studentship on Berwickshire place-names

A funded PhD studentship on Berwickshire place-names has just been advertised at This is a great opportunity to undertake doctoral research at the University of Glasgow under the supervision of Prof. Carole Hough and Dr Simon Taylor. The studentship is part of a three-year project, Recovering The Earliest English Language in Scotland: Evidence from Place-Names, funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

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Cognitive Toponymy project extended!

We are delighted to say that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has agreed to extend the Cognitive Toponymy project until June 2016! We intend to use the time to reflect on the project, look at what we have learned, and plan the way ahead. We would very much value your opinion, so please let us know what you think!

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Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience Seminar on Monday 13th October at 4:00pm

There will be a Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience seminar on Monday 13th October at 4:00pm in the Seminar Room, 58 Hillhead Street

SPEAKER: Frank Durgin & Alisa Mandrigin , Swarthmore College, USA & University of Warwick, UK (invited by Lucy S. Petro)

TITLE: The angular expansion hypothesis of locomotor space perception


The conscious perception of locomotor space (or action space) seems to be greatly distorted (ground distances appear much shorter than they are; hills look much steeper than they are, etc.) yet perception provides the basis for excellent control of action. Could large and systematic distortions in perceived locomotor space be for the purpose of action control? As a rough analogy, note that perceptual sensitivity trumps perceptual accuracy in the control of action – or watchmakers wouldn’t use magnifying glasses. I will review a large body of evidence suggesting that many well-documented and systematic biases in the perception of locomotor space arise from an angular coding scheme that may provide more efficient motor specification and/or feedback sensitivity for the control of action. Two interesting characteristics of the theory are that (1) its development is based on parameter measurement rather than null-hypothesis testing, and (2) much of the data used in support of the theory was collected or replicated by other labs before the theory was proposed. The critical new empirical observation of the theory is that while angular variables, like egocentric direction, are fundamental to action control, they are grossly and systematically distorted in spatial perception. This observation is sufficient to explain a great deal of historical data. The critical new theoretical observation is that stable distortions of this sort may be quite useful for action.

More information can be found here:

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Imaginative – and less so …

Why do people choose the place-names they do? Well, human beings are incredibly imaginative creatures. Let us take places in a landscape as an example. Landscapes come in different forms, colors and shapes. Some of these forms are very easy to associate with something well-known, for instance a body-part: hills likened to breasts (cf. the Science Sunday Answers on this web page).

7. Paps of Jura by mike donnelly PAINT

The Paps of Jura are named collectively from their rounded shape. As with many other hills, they are likened to breasts, known in Scots as paps.

Forms and shapes might not always be as clear as in the hill-breast case but this is no obstacle to human imagination, on the contrary: parts of the landscape that somehow stand out, shaped by wind and rain, are easily transformed into and conceptualized as specific objects from human life or even protagonists in stories or events, for instance a shepherd’s hat or a sleeping warrior (cf. again the Science Sunday Answers):

6a. Shepherd's Hat by Mark MacQueen PAINT

6b. Shepherd's Hat (Antiquary)

Shepherd’s Hat, an island in the Sound of Mull, is named from the shape of a traditional shepherd’s hat, as seen in the illustration below, which was taken from Walter Scott’s “The Antiquary” (drawing by J. B. MacDonald; etching by T. J. Dagleish).

3. The Sleeping Warrior by Michael Hambly PAINT

The Sleeping Warrior, part of the north Arran hill range, is named from a resemblance to a resting human figure.

Sometimes, however, people choose another strategy that might seem less imaginative when they want to refer to and talk about places in their surroundings. People can distinguish between places, typically (parts of) farms, villages or parishes, simply by adding a characterising element like one of the cardinal directions or Upper – Lower, Outer – Inner, as in for instance Nørre (Northern) Skjoldborg  – Sønder (Southern) Skjoldborg or Yder (Outer) BjerrumInder (Inner) Bjerrum. These examples are all Danish but are also well-known in other languages, including English and Scots.

This is not a surprise, really. The characterising elements are all basic parts of spatial language, and used over and over again in everyday speech by everyone. They can easily be brought to use when we wish to distinguish between places, for instance the northern part of a place or the more remote (outer) part of a place. But there is probably a more close connection: the use of basic elements from spatial language is more specifically motivated. It is quite possible that these affixes were chosen as part of the place-names because the places, or the areas in which the places were situated, were already being referred to conventionally by a whole speech community using exactly these elements from spatial language. Sentences like we are going out to the lighthouse or Tom is living down South (i.e. in the southern end of the village) are very frequent in Danish. When a whole speech community agrees upon combining ‘out’ with the lighthouse, and ‘down South’ with the part of the village where Tom is living, the lighthouse is established as belonging to an ‘out-place’ and Tom is identified (among other things!) as someone living in a ‘down-South-place’ – it becomes part of common knowledge in the speech community. Specific parts of the local surroundings are given different colours. This has been shown in an investigation of the references made by the inhabitants of a small dialect-speaking community in Denmark. The figure below shows how the inhabitants agreed upon how to refer to specific places or areas in their local landscape: ud ‘out’, over ‘over’, op ‘up’ and ned ‘down’ were used systematically and consistently with these areas or places.


When people colour their surrounding landscape in this way, they have certainly paved the way for using the same spatial elements as characterising affixes in place-names. A less imaginative strategy than transforming shapes into hats or warriors – but certainly a very efficient one.

Post by Henrik Hovmark

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World concepts – what do they say about us?

World concepts – what do they say about us?

How do we see the world? Well, the quick answer is: That depends entirely on which perspective we see the world from. In our daily lives we normally see the world from ground level whilst walking or driving through the landscapes surrounding our lives.  Naturally, this view gives us a short-distance view of the world, as landscape features or buildings often impede our views. In addition, our proximity to the ground naturally limit how far we can actually see.

Should we be as fortunately to stand in an entirely open space, e.g. a low-lying island in a sea, it looks like we are standing in the middle of the world with everything unfolding as circular space around us. In this view, our world move outward from ourselves past something known (our island) slowly into the nothingness of the unknown (the periphery). In this respect, this way of seeing the world is very similar to how we construct our identity in ever outward expanding circles of less and less importance to us.


If we try and transpose this view from the ground perspective to a bird-eye view, we do not necessarily see the same kind of world – not today, anyway. Seen on a world map of the predominant Mercator type, Copenhagen is very off-centre, and my sense of identity does not progress outward in concentric circles but rather in wobbly spaces, ever changing, as I go out and discover more and more of the world.


However, if we go back to the very earliest maps that survive until today, a significant proportion of these are of the so-called ‘Jerusalem type’, referring to a map type that always have the city of Jerusalem in the center. In the medieval Christian world, Jerusalem was seen to be the center of the world, so maps written in the Christian tradition would naturally have Jerusalem at it center with the best known parts of the world being closest to Jerusalem and the lesser known parts straddling the periphery. As such, this type of map resembles both how we perceive of the world from a ground perspective as well as how we intuitively define our identity with the most important (ourselves!) in the center with less and less important things being situated further and further away in the periphery.

Since airplanes and hot-air balloons did not exist in medieval times, it seems natural that a map portraying the world should be drawn in this way, thus matching not only how the world could be perceived from a ground perspective and how we as human beings construct identity from a center-periphery perspective.

Medieval Map

Since the old ‘Jerusalem type’ maps seem to owe at least some of their appearance to how we perceive identity, do we then see this map type also at smaller scales? We do indeed – a very interesting selection of hand-drawn maps by local vicars as part of their reporting interesting aspects of their parish(es) to the antiquarian survey undertaken by Ole Worm of all of Denmark in the first half of the 17th century. The West Jutish part of the survey contains 27 maps depicting the parishes described by the local vicar. These maps are drawn at a time when printed maps are still a relatively new phenomenon, why the Mercator map tradition we now orient ourselves in relation to was not the established one yet.

Hand drawn map

So, how were these maps typologically? There were generally three types. Some maps, albeit in a clear minority, were drawn in a generally geographically true matter, a similarly small number were drawn in an almost aerial perspective. The most common group, however, were drawn in the ‘Jerusalem type’ tradition but with a considerably degree of variation in the actual execution, detail and precision between the maps. The common denominator between the maps is the central position of the church – which is not surprising, as this was the most important thing around for the authors, the vicars. The various villages, farms, mounds and streams are either scattered more or less regularly throughout the map, or simply on the rim as on the map of Lunde parish, albeit being situated in a general direction in relation to the church. Apart from this, these maps do not have any geographical reality drawn into them, as can be seen from a quick comparison between the 17th century parish map and a modern one.


So why did these maps get drawn in this way if they could only show the general orientation of everything of interest in relation to the local church? This is difficult to say. ‘Jerusalem type’ maps could not have been very common in 17th century West Jutland, as they were largely outdated by then. Considering the close proximity (closer culturally than geographically) to the Netherlands, one could rather expect to see maps laid out in the new Mercator style the Dutch maps were exponents of. Since we do not this type much among these hand-drawn maps, I suspect that they are not necessarily influenced by other map types but rather by the cognitive processes used in how we construct identity. If this is so, the ‘Jerusalem type’ would thus represent the “natural” way of perceiving the world – starting from the important, progressing through to the least important. In the eyes of Christianity the most important place was Jerusalem – in the eyes of the local vicars it was the parish church, their Jerusalem.

Post by Peder Gammeltoft


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Advancing Onomastic Research

PhD School at the Faculty of Humanities at University of Copenhagen  Advancing Onomastic Research held its inaugural PhD School at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen (2nd-6th June 2014). The aim of the course was to provide “a new, international network between onomastic PhD-students”.  Theoretical as well as practical aspects of onomastics were covered by the course lecturers Prof. Carole Hough, University of Glasgow; Prof. Thomas Clancy, University of Glasgow; Prof. Simon Taylor, University of Glasgow and Assoc. Prof. Peder Gammeltoft, University of Copenhagen. The course usefully coincided with the Cognitive Toponymy Symposium One: The Geographical and Mental Compass. Day one focussed on the theme of Presenting Onomastic Research. Carole Hough discussed the many facets of Onomastic research before each PhD student introduced their topic and research to date.  Thirteen students participated from Denmark, Finland, Estonia and the United Kingdom. This aspect of the programme inspired plenty of discussions and interaction, particularly among the field-name and minor name researchers. The use of onomastic labels (for example specific and generic) emerged as a major concern in this research area and the students debated whether the traditional onomastic labels can be applied to minor names in the same way as they can be applied to major names. This resulted in an excellent opportunity to discuss some of the challenges faced by students working with place-name data and to explore emerging ideas as a group. The day came to a close with a session on effective presentations led by Simon Taylor and Peder Gammeltoft, although debates over terminology are still on-going!


The discussions continue…

 Onomastic Theory and Methodology was the order of day two. The programme  was diverse and covered the topics of Hagiotoponymy (Thomas Clancy), Names  and Grammar (Carole Hough), Names and Semantics (Peder Gammeltoft),  Surveys and Sources (Simon Taylor), Toponymics in a multilingual setting –  problems and possibilities (Simon Taylor) and Onomastics in a monolingual   setting- interesting at all? (Berit Sandnes). Each session was interactive with lots   of input and examples provided by the students.


Mapping out some onomastic categories.

The Geographical and Mental Compass Symposium took place on Wednesday. The PhD students were joined by other researchers for a day of fascinating dialogue about cardinal compass points, river compasses and of course the mental compass through the ages. For the full programme click here. On the penultimate day the focus moved to Online applications in Onomastic Research. Bo Nissen Knudsen from the University of Copenhagen, Department of Name Research joined the group to introduce some of the Danish resources. This was followed up with an envy inspiring trip to the Name Research Section where students saw the fantastic resources available in the department and clustered excitedly around historical maps and documents.


Exploring the Name Research Section 1

The practical GIS and online mapping session in the afternoon also proved invaluable. The day proved to be so useful that a consensus was reached to plan another session in the coming months. The final day extended the focus from current research to the future of Onomastics with sessions on planning funding applications and ideas for future projects. Overall, the week proved to be a huge success. This first PhD training course in Onomastics allowed students from all over the world to come together to network and discuss ideas. The practical workshops stopped a few thesis headaches in their tracks and fantastic ideas for future projects developed. But you don’t just have to take my word for it. This is what some of the other attendees had to say: “The course was a great mix of practical workshops, engaging discussions, and expert advice, as well as giving us the chance to meet students from several other countries. This made for a terrific week, with plenty of chances to pool our knowledge, find common ground with other students, and picture future projects. We all came away very much satisfied with the course, and looking forward to next year’s!” Alice Crook, University of Glasgow   “all those who turned up to the course will really benefit from the great teaching and fascinating content of the course. The atmosphere was friendly and constructive. A great week.” Emily Pennifold, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies   “It was a good week with a great group of people” Graham Collins, University of Nottingham

Post by Alison Burns

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What is cognitive toponymy?

The term ‘cognitive toponymy’ emerged from an international symposium held in Glasgow in April 2013. The day’s papers had highlighted different ways in which perceptions of the environment are reflected in place-names, and in which the place-names themselves may in turn influence subsequent perceptions. At the end of the afternoon, a lively round-table discussion discussed ways of taking these ideas further, combining approaches from the different disciplines represented – archaeology, geography, history, landscape studies, linguistics, psychology and so on. So here we are: an interdisciplinary project focusing on mental models of places. Over the next two years we’ll be exploring various aspects of the place-names of Scotland and Denmark, with a view to capturing some insights into the synergy between people and places, both in the past and at the present day. Do let us know if you’re interested – we’d love to hear from you!

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