As every frustrated family history researcher knows, the further back you go in time the harder it gets.
Sources dry up and what little information there is may be incomplete or contradictory. General historical research is just the same and the job of reconstructing the distant past is extremely difficult.
Archaeology helps but it’s not always available and gives only a partial picture.
It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw when you are missing pieces, don’t know how many there are and have no idea what the finished image looks like.
But there is one area of study that cuts through the gloom and shines a light on distant decades – the names of places.
One glance at a local map provides a feast of names many of them thousands of years old and most with a story to tell about the particular field, or settlement, hill or stream they describe.
Often they tell us about the shape of the land, or what it was used for in ancient times. Sometimes they preserve the name of a building or person long departed, like Jenny Mair’s Burn or Maggie Woods Loan.
Occasionally the meaning is fairly obvious like Standalane or Greenhill and sometimes it’s not too difficult to work out, like for example Cobblebrae in Carron near the place where the little ferry boat (the cobble) carried passengers over the river in ancient days.
Simple enough . . . but how about Balquhatston or Pamphellgoat?
More often than not the task of unpicking the meanings from words which may have changed language or spelling many times is not at all easy.
There are many Gaelic elements as well as more ancient Pictish forms. Bantaskine is a good example.
It first appears as ‘Pettintoskan’ meaning something like ‘land belonging to a township or settlement’. The ancient parish of Bothkennar is also Gaelic in origin, the ‘both’ part meaning church and the rest probably referring to a Celtic saint, giving us ‘the church of Saint Cainner’.
Quite often the modern name bears no relation to its original meaning.
Lionthorn has nothing to do with lions or thorns but at one time was written as ‘Lying Tam’, which, in its original form, probably meant a mossy hill.
By a process of error and misunderstanding it was eventually corrupted to the present version.
You would need to be a detective to make sense of it all and help explain how our area developed as it did. Fortunately, we have our own ‘Sherlock Holmes of the Place Names’ in John Reid who has given a lifetime to mastering these complexities and in so doing has made the life of every local historian present and future that much easier. John’s phenomenal study ‘The Place Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire’ not only explains the complicated process by which the words evolved but provides over 3,000 meanings covering every corner of the district.
I think it is the best reference book ever written about the history of our area and will remain the authoritative work on the subject for many decades if not hundreds of years.
When it was first published back in 2009 it sold out very quickly but I’m delighted to say that it has been reprinted and is available from the Local History Society or Waterstones in the High Street.
So if you’re puzzled about Slamannan or Skinflats, Foggermountain or Fankerton, Todhill or Tygetsheugh, Dalderse or Drumbroider then puzzle no longer.
Help is at hand.