Place-names and Politics : The 1st Ordnance Survey, Part 3


 ‘Ulster-Scots’ criticism of the Ordnance Survey : 

In recent times it has been reported that the 1st Ordnance Survey has come under criticism from Ulster-Scots groups.

The geographer David Polley has written a M.Litt on Ulster-Scots place-names in Ulster which provides us with a useful critique of the Ordnance Survey from the Ulster-Scots viewpoint.

Polley (2000, 108) has claimed that ‘Ulster-Scots may have been ‘edited out’ of the official place-name record,’ referring specifically to the place-name forms chosen by the Ordnance Survey.

For example, referring to Kircubbin, Ards, Co. Down, Polley states …

[D]espite a two hundred year history of use the Kirk form was dropped by the Ordnance Survey (specifically John O’Donovan), on the grounds that it ought to be Kircubbin … The old (and more Scots) of Kirkcubbin is still used by the Presbyterian church and the Orange lodge in the village, and this off hand swipe by O’Donovan is often quoted to show his bias against the Ulster-Scots language (Polley 2000, 109).

Polley interprets O’Donovan’s decision to chose the form Kircubbin over the ‘more Scots’ form as a ‘swipe’ at the Ulster-Scots language.

Yet, as O’Donovan points out,  if he had followed the normal modus operandi of the Ordnance Survey, he would have proposed the form ‘Carcubbin’[1] (NIPNP vol. II p. 92, Polley 2000, 109).

It is true that O’Donovan expressed negative views towards what he termed ‘Scotch’ speech[2], for example he described Hurtletoot, Antrim, Co. Antrim as a ‘Scotch barbarism’[3].

However, it can be seen that O’Donovan held negative views of newly coined names when these ‘fancy’ names replaced the original Irish name, regardless of language[4].

The number of townland[5] names originating in the Scots language is quite low, even according to Polley’s research, which makes occasional errors in the identification of Scots elements.

His research shows Scots elements in place-names are to be found in their highest percentages in minor names, i.e. non administrative names.

He interpreted the difference in the percentages of Scots elements to be found in minor place-names and townlands, which are administrative units, as evidence of under-recording of Scots place-names by the survey.

This is founded on a misunderstanding of the role of the first Ordnance Survey which collected relatively few minor names in any language being a mapping exercise concentrating on administrative divisions.

In addition, the nature of the Plantation, involving large-scale transfer of land ownership, mitigated against the replacement of townland names of Irish language origin with those of Scots or any other origin as McKay (2009, 18-19) explains :

Given the great numbers of Scottish immigrants who settled in Ulster from the seventeenth century onwards this fairly low rate of influence may seem surprising. However, it reflects the fact that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the native Irish townland unit was accepted by the government as the basic administrative unit and the original townland names were given official status in the grants and patents which conferred legal title to the land. It was therefore something of a legal imperative for the Scottish settlers to adopt the native Irish townland names and it is no surprise that for the most part they followed this course rather than inventing new names of their own[6].

It was this legal adoption of the Irish townland for administrative purposes, normally with a form of its original name at the time of the Plantation which explains the lack of Scots place-names inNorthern Irelandrather than a deliberate policy on the part of the Survey.

However, whilst there is no evidence to  suggest ‘that the Ordnance Survey indulged in a significant under-recording of Ulster-Scots place-names’ per se, it does seem to be the case that Scots words / forms such as brig (bridge) and loanen (lane) were not recorded in Scots orthography but written in Standard English, the de facto official language of administration.

A critical factor in Scots language elements being anglicised, or closely related English language forms being given in preference, is the fact that ‘[t]he authorities entered [into the Ordnance Survey Name-books] were more often than not the names of the elite, ministers, doctors, respectable farmers, gentry, magistrates, officers of the British army, teachers and heads of councils’ (Ó Cadhla, 219).

These ‘elites’ would be highly unlikely to furnish the survey with Scots language forms since Standard English was a sign of cultural superiority and education.

Another factor to be taken into account is that many of the Scots planters in Ulster came from areas of Scotland such as Galloway (Gall-Ghaidhealaibh) and the Machars (Machair) in which place-names of Gaelic origin are the norm.

[1] O’Donovan entry in the OSNB reads “Kirkcubbin Ceathramh Ghobbáin ‘Gobban’s quarter’. This should be Carcubbin. The presbyterians wish to make everything Kirk. Kircubbin”; Hughes states however that Kircubbin is of ‘uncertain origin’ (NIPNP vol. III, 1992 : 92). What is not in doubt however is that it originates in the Irish language and that there was indeed a church.

[2] Ordnance Survey Name-Sheets, Antrim Parish.

[3] Ibid.

[4]  For example, he is quoted in Dunne (1849-51) p. 358 as stating, ‘I trust, if ever we come to publish the ancient Irish work called the Dinnseanchus, we shall be able to recover all the ancient names of our great mountains, which now go under such undignified appellations as Tory Hill, Bessy Bell, Mary Gray, Katty Gallagher &c.’

[5] A townland is the smallest administrative land unit inIreland.

[6] McKay’s research indicates that ‘of 16, 139 townlands inUlster, 200 or 1.24% show evidence of Scots influence’ (McKay 2009, 18). This figure is approximately half that arrived at by Polley’s research.


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  • harold

    Great stuff Ciarán.

    The Irish for townland is usually given as baile fearainn, but this is not used by Gaeltacht residents. They use baile.

    I feel the key to understanding Irish, or to be more correct Gaelic life is contained in this word baile.

    It does not mean village or town. It is a defined area of land (a townland if you must) in which certain families live. Usually their holding does not cross the boundary of a baile, and baile land is usually handed down the male line.

    Thus the connection between blood and soil at the root of Gaelic settlement, and life.

  • wee buns

    Very interesting indeed – do you happen to know if P.W Joyce who started his work ‘Origin and History of Irish Place Names’ in 1845 – might he have collaborated with the likes of O’Donovan? Thanks.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Presumably McKay would have been aware of Polley’s research and so must have written off around half of the place-names Polley suggested.

    btw, what happened to the bibliography? Only the introductory piece actually gave the details of the books, essays, etc. that were referenced in the text.

  • mollymooly

    The Placenames Database of Ireland lists 2,710 “minor features”, two-thirds in just three counties: Galway, Mayo, Donegal, and most of these in Irish-speaking areas. Probably this is partly because the database’s main 2012 purpose is recording Irish names, so it makes sense to prioritise those areas. However, cross-checking with the first-edition Ordnance Survey maps there does seem to be a greater density of minor features noted in the corresponding areas than elsewhere; so maybe there was a bias in the 1830s as well.

  • Wonderful – a David and Goliath (aka Ciarán) tussle over placenames. Why can’t they just follow the Scottish example and provide meanings for the various elements, irrespective of linguistic origin?

    I was told many years ago that I was living in ‘the toon’ ie the clachan that would once have been the centre-piece or heart of the townland. At some point the townland appears to have been divided into 30-acre strips and homesteads were probably then built in those strips that were too far away from the clachan. In 1860 at the time of Griffith’s Valuation there were 8 dwellings in the toon, some with gardens and/or farms attached.

    The minor names appear in church records, in some censuses and on the Griffith’s valuation maps. Were I to do a place-name meanings report I would follow the Scottish example; I would also place the minor names immediately after the townland name – not a cursory list tacked on at the end with a dismissive, say, English form.

    I mentioned Drumnagessan the other day – a suggested Irish form in “Place-names of NI Vol 7” is Droim na gCeasán – ridge of the baskets(?). Some friends from the ‘minor’ Coolnagor were here this morning and it’s suggested Irish form is Cúl na gCorr – the back of the rounded hills. The equally minor Carn Hill and Goukstown have been ignored but were easily recognised by my friends. All four names are clearly marked on the circa 1860 Griffith’s maps. The final two appear as Cairn Hill and Gowksourick Brae in the 1803 Traill Census of Ballintoy. My friends recognised the sourick as sorrel, an edible plant, but they didn’t recognise the Gowk/Gouk as cuckoo. They pronounced it gokes’toon.

  • Ciarán Dunbar

    Wee Buns,

    To be honest, I don’t know.


    “btw, what happened to the bibliography?”

    The next and final entry in this series will reveal all.


    The term ‘minor name’ is a mere technical one, it means no slight.

    The linguistics of interpreting them can be somewhat different from that regarding admin units as in many cases no historical spelling exist – or very few.

    Local knowledge, topography and knowledge of dialect are key.

    This is my favored field. At the moment I am looking at the causeway coast but as you can see, I need to do some field work and if possible, research any historical forms – which I am sure exist.