Scots aim to find what's in a name

June 7, 1996

Dunshelt or Dunshalt? The small Fife village confusingly boasts both spellings in its road signs. The second spelling has emerged from the belief that the name comes from "Danes' Halt", the place where the Danes arrived by boat before setting off to pillage the countryside.

An attractive theory, but unfortunately untrue, according to Simon Taylor of St Andrews University's Scottish Studies Institute. The name comes from the Gaelic, "dun" meaning a fortification, with the prehistoric fort still visible.

"Archaeological information can be encoded in place names, but it's important to decode them correctly," he said.

Place names can also offer invaluable help to linguists, historians and geographers, and Dr Taylor is one of a group of academics from St Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow University that has just set up the Scottish Place Name Society, which is seeking public support for research in this area.

The Scottish society, open to non-academics as well as academics, has been launched more than 70 years after its English counterpart, which may largely reflect the complexity of Scottish names.

Dr Taylor said English scholars were dealing principally with a single major language, Anglo-Saxon, while Scottish researchers had to be expert in Celtic, Germanic, Old Welsh, Gaelic, Norse and Older Scots, which emerged in different layers in different parts of the country. "Scotland probably has the most complicated linguistic history in northern Europe, with each area having its own sequence of languages such as Pictish, Norse, Gaelic and Scots."

The society will promote a place-name database, building on work at Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies, and drawing together research from the past 60 years.

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