Why I study place-names

I never really set out to study place-names when I began my Uni career, and I certainly didn’t see myself, as an American outsider, writing up a PhD on Scottish place-names in New Zealand. When I received my bachelors in Anthropology, I had a fairly clear idea of where I wanted to go with it- I wanted to get a Masters in Celtic Studies so I could have a ‘region’ by which to apply anthropological theories to, and then get a PhD so I could pursue a life of academia with ideally a Professorship someday down the road. Part of me still holds onto the dream and the desire to pursue a career in academia, but the more cynical and, to be fair brutally realistic, part of me, began exploring other avenues some time ago. Wherever my current scholarly trajectory takes me in the future, I’m thankful that somehow it’s led me to the discovery of onomastics and the study of place-names.


A young budding Anthropologist at the College of Charleston. 

In Anthropology we were always taught to ask the ‘so what?’ questions. People with unlimited free access to office coffee machines tend to drink more coffee…so what? What does this say about society? About how we spend our money on local coffee shops versus the free stuff at the office? Does this contribute to elevated stress and agitation levels in the office or does the removal of the worry of paying for coffee or making time to stop for it on the way in keep stress levels down? What would happen if this privilege went away? Merely finding a conclusion to a question is only one part in the deeper understanding of an issue. As a result of this type of thinking I have rarely been satisfied with the methodical process of claiming ‘X says Y so that means Z’. I need to know what happens after we know that it ‘means Z’. What are the wider implications of ‘Z’?


On the hunt for answers on Barra place-names for my Masters dissertation!

When I was introduced to place-name studies by my, now supervisor, in a class during my Masters in Celtic Studies, it got my mental cogs whirling. I had never considered the deeper meanings behind names, be it personal names, place-names, etc…I just took them at face value. Realising the social connotations of place-names and the significant amount of history names carried with them immediately made me crave to learn more. Finally, after struggling for some time to find my ‘place’ within Celtic Studies, I had found my niche.


Masters in Celtic Studies graduation at the University of Glasgow

I started picking out place-names in the literature I read on medieval Ireland and Scotland, and pieced together the commentary the names had on the language (and cultural) interactions in different regions through history. I compared what I was finding to modern maps, and started messing with ordinance surveys and learning about map-making and land policy and planning. I’ve reached a point in my interest in this topic that I feel perhaps I would like to pursue some governmental position dealing with land policy, and how my training in researching through past maps, deeds, purchase records, and of course, place-name etymology, could be used to help communities understand their past and plan for their future. It was in viewing the Scottish landscape as this ever-shifting canvas that I began thinking about Scottish names abroad, specifically ones I was aware of in New Zealand.


Sometimes field work can be treacherous… beware of quick sand is a lesson I should have taken more to heart growing up!

Having previously lived in New Zealand, I was aware of the Scottish cultural influence in the country, but never paid much mind to the place-names. Now I see them dotted all ver the country, particular in my region of study- Otago. It is amazing how different experiences in life pop back up and sway the path you’re on, which is exactly what has happened here. My time in New Zealand was not academic, it was a working holiday visa year where I worked, lived, travelled, and enjoyed a bit of a break between degrees. When I return to New Zealand in March for my research trip, I know I will not be looking at it with the same eyes as when I left. I cannot wait to keep adding to my passion for place-names as I take in more and more information, and to trust in the path I’m on where I find true inspiration. Sometimes it’s not clear where you are going with something, but you have to see it through, and in this case it has led me down a path I did not even know existed a few years ago, despite it enriching my life so much now.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email atb.leysen.1@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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