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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