Simon Taylor – Aa the airts: directional words in Scottish place-names

Aa the airts: directional words in Scottish place-names

Simon Taylor


A summary of a paper given to the Cognitive Toponymy Symposium, University of Copenhagen, 4 June 2014.


I will concentrate in this paper on Scottish place-names derived from two of its most toponymically productive languages: Scots and Gaelic.



In Scots the main directional words or affixes are east(er), west(er), south(er), north(er), very rarely, and more in a later, Scottish Standard English (SSE) context, north-east and north-west. However, there are others, which express relative position, such as hither and yonder, as well as mid or middle. These can all be termed horizontal, operating as they do chiefly on the horizontal plain. Another set of affixes are those which express vertical relationships, such as Sc over (SSE upper), Sc nether (SSE lower), Sc heich (SSE high) and Sc laigh (SSE low). And finally there are those which express relative size, such as Sc meikle (also mickle and muckle) ‘big’, versus Sc little (sometimes wee).


They are chiefly, though not exclusively, deployed when older land-units become divided to create smaller, but still viable, farms or estates. The most usual way is to divide one of these units into two parts, Easter and Wester. An early example from Fife is Pitcorthie in Carnbee parish. This first appears (as Pethcorthin) in 1266, and at various times thereafter until 1351, when Westirpetcorthy is first mentioned, and seven years later, in 1358, Estirpetcorthy comes on the scene. And on the modern map you will still find two separate farms: one called Easter Pitcorthie, while earlier Wester Pitcorthie is now simply Pitcorthie (for full details, see PNF 3, under Pitcorthie in Carnbee parish CBE).


These older land-units can be relatively large, later supporting several viable farms. An exceptionally large unit is represented by Urquhart, in north-west Fife, which occupies around five square kilometres and which today consists of six separate farms: Easter Nether Urquhart, Easter Upper Urquhart, Wester Nether Urquhart, Wester Upper Urquhart, as well as two others no longer containing the name Urquhart, Lacesston, referred to as Middle Urquhart in 1538, and Lappie, frequently referred to as Lappy- or Loppy-Urquhart. From affixes such as ‘Easter Nether’ it is clear that the process of subdivision continued over a considerable period (see PNF 4 under these various names for more details).


Affixes are often unstable. For example, on the modern map north of Kirkcaldy in Fife you will find Wester Balbeggie, Middle Balbeggie and Easter Balbeggie. However, on a map of 1775 there are only two divisions of Balbeggie, Easter and Wester, and what was then called Wester Balbeggie is now called Middle Balbeggie!


There can also be variation over time between types of affixes. For example, Over Stenton and Nether Stenton (Kinglassie parish, Fife) appear on an 1828 map as East and West Stenton, respectively (see Figs. 1 and 2).

Fife Map 1828

Fig. 1: Sharp, Greenwood and Fowler map of Fife, 1828. Image from

 1950 Map

Fig. 2: Ordnance Survey map 2.5 inch, 1950s. Image from


Most Scots affixes can also combine as a specific element with Scots toun ‘farm’, later frequently reduced to –ton in unstressed final position, as in westerto(u)n, easterto(u)n, netherto(u)n, overto(u)n, yonderto(u)n, middleto(u)n, and very occasionally northton and southerton. These are frequently used in the construction Westerton of X, Netherton of X, and can be used as an alternative for Wester X, Nether X etc., e.g. Wester Strathenry (Fife) appears also as Westerton (of Strathenry).


Forty years ago the historical geographer R. A. Dodgshon observed the fact that the directional affixes east(er) and west(er) were much more frequently applied to divided land-units in Scotland than north(er) and south(er), even when the orientation is more north-south than east-west. This is well illustrated by the figures which he produced in his article on sunwise division of land in eastern Scotland (1975): taking the place-name index of RMS viii (1620–1633), he counts 287 farm- or place-names incorporating east/easter and variants, and 316 incorporating west/wester and variants, while only 38 incorporate south/souther and variants, and 35 north/norther and variants (ibid. 7). He suggests that this ‘curious imbalance’ is linked to the traditional land-divisions of ‘sunny’ (eastern) and ‘shady’ (western) halves.



Affixes such as those discussed above are rarer in Gaelic, chiefly because the larger land-units more prone to division were in areas where Scots was already established at the time of such division. What I want to highlight here is a phenomenon in which the vertical and the horizontal interact. It concerns the Gaelic directional words s(h)ìos ‘down’ and s(h)uas ‘up’ (note that the lenited forms shìos and shuas express rest, while the unlenited forms sìos and suas express motion). Already Edward Dwelly in his The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (1901–11) observed under sìos: ‘In W. of Ross shìos and sìos naturally mean west and westward respectively, that is down the course of the streams and valleys, and shuas and suas [up], east and eastward. … These meanings of sìos and suas are now perpetuated in a curious way in the east of Ross-shire when speaking in English; e.g. ‘go east to the kitchen’, ‘go west to the byre’ etc. expressions that strike anyone as very comical till he understands how they originated and that they have no connection with ear [east] and iar [west]. This does not apply exclusively to Ross-shire.’ And later in the same entry he states that in Perthshire, s(h)ìos ‘down’ means ‘east, eastwards’, since Perthshire lies east of the main watershed in the central Scottish Highlands, so that all the watercourses flow in roughly from west to east.


Fig. 3: Detail of OS 6 inch 1st edn (c.1870) of two burns flanking the hill called An Socach (‘the snout-shaped’), with suas ‘up’ applied to the more westerly one, and ear ‘east’ to the more easterly. As it lies east of the main Highland watershed, this conforms to established usage. Image from, with my additions.


Some anomalies may be observed. For example, Binnein Shìos (NN49 85, altitude 667 m) is described in the Ordnance Survey Name Book c.1874 as ‘a very prominent hill on the southern side of Loch Laggan, and about one mile and a half to the west of Ardverikie Lodge, and lying between Loch na h-Earba, and Loch Laggan. It is entirely isolated from other hills and is very conspicuous, as it is very craggy, and goes to a small point on the top. It means, East Pinnacle.’ (OS1/17/44/19, from Only about 3 kilometres to the south west is Binnein Shuas (NN46 82, altitude 746 m). These lie west of the main watershed, so should really be the other way round, with s��os ‘down’ = west. However, not only are these near the watershed, they are within the parish of Laggan (Inverness-shire), which straddles the watershed, and whose parochial and population centre lies on the eastern side. It is this which probably accounts for the ���������������������������eastern usage’ observed here.


Interaction between Scots and Gaelic directional usage

Both the aspects discussed above under Scots and Gaelic come together in Banffshire in the North-East. In a short article, one of a series on the place-names of the North-East written by W. F. H. Nicolaisen for Leopard Magazine, he writes the following: ‘Victor Gaffney, in his very fine study of The Lordship of Strathavon: Tomintoul under the Gordons, in the Third Spalding Club (1960), reports how in the names Wester (or Upper) Camdel (in which the land of Tomintoul was situated) and Easter (or Lower) Camdel neither altitude nor the points of the compass were the actual distinguishing criteria but rather how in Banffshire wester could mean ‘upstream’ and easter ‘downstream’ based on the fact that in this part of Scotland the rivers flow into the eastern seaboard whereas, for example, water courses on the West Coast flow in the opposite direction so that easter and wester have the opposite meaning there. He also points out elsewhere that of the three farms Easter, Mid and Wester Fodderletter [in the same parish, namely that of Kirkmichael], on the left bank of the A���an, Easter Fodderletter lies north-west of Wester Fodderletter, for the same reason. In this case, easter equals ‘north’ and wester ‘south’ because of the direction in which the river flows’ (1997, 18). As we have seen from the work of Dodgshon, above, there were other forces at play when it came to the application of east(er) and west(er) as opposed to north(er) and south(er), and there is clearly much work still to be done in teasing out the different strands of perception underlying such affixes.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Dodgshon, R. A., 1975, ���Scandinavian ‘Solskifte’ and the Sunwise Division of Land in Eastern Scotland”, Scottish Studies 19, 1–14.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H., 1997, ‘Quest for early names’, Leopard Magazine (University of Aberdeen, March 1997), 18.

PNF: The Place-Names of Fife, 5 volumes: see Taylor with Márkus, below.

Taylor, Simon, with Gilbert Márkus, 2009, Place-Names of Fife Vol. 3 (St Andrews and the East Neuk) (Donington) [PNF 3].

Taylor, Simon, with Gilbert Márkus, 2010, Place-Names of Fife Vol. 4 (North Fife between Eden and Tay) (Donington) [PNF 4].

Taylor, Simon, with Gilbert Márkus, 2012, Place-Names of Fife Vol. 5 (Discussion, Glossaries, Texts) (Donington) [final volume of a five-volume series] [PNF 5]. See especially the discussion on Directional and Positional elements, pp. 189-90. See also under easter in the Elements Glossary (pp. 363-4).


Follow Me on Twitter

Powered by Tools for Twitter