Scottish Place-Name Society | G. W. S. BARROW, Honorary Preses of SPNS – A toponymic tribute by Simon Taylor
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G. W. S. BARROW, Honorary Preses of SPNS – A toponymic tribute by Simon Taylor

On 14th December 2013 the death occurred of Professor Geoffrey Barrow at his home in Edinburgh at the age of 89. His qualities and achievements as one of the greatest of all Scottish medieval historians have been justly praised and enumerated by David Torrance in an obituary, which appeared in the Herald on 20th December, and by Dauvit Broun in a warm appreciation, which appeared in the same paper on 30th January last. Neither mentions specifically Geoffrey’s remarkable contribution to the study and understanding of Scottish place-names, nor to the fact that he was Honorary preses of the Scottish Place-Name Society.

Geoffrey (often referred to affectionately as GWSB, the initials of his full name, Geoffrey Wallis Steuart Barrow) and the other great Scottish place-name scholar, W. F. H. (Bill) Nicolaisen, each generously agreed to take on the important titular role of preses when the Society was launched in 1996. Preses (plural presides), a Scots loan-word from Latin præses, means ‘chief, president’, chosen because it was less Clan-like than the first and less formal than the second, the cognate ‘president’. That both Geoffrey and Bill enthusiastically accepted this role was an important vote of confidence from the academic establishment in the Society in its still very uncertain infancy. Geoffrey spoke at the conference ‘Uses of Place-Names’, which was held in St Andrews in 1995, at which the decision to found SPNS was taken, and his paper ‘The Uses of Place-names and Scottish History – Pointers and Pitfalls’ went on to be published as one of the most important chapters in the edited proceedings of that conference in 1998 (see Bibliography, below, for full details). Over the years Geoffrey attended many of the SPNS conferences, both as part of the audience and as a speaker. His benign presence and apposite, informed and perceptive contributions enriched both formal and informal discussion. One of his last papers of all was on the lost place-names of Moray, which he delivered at the SPNS conference in Elgin in May 2008, and which appeared with this title in the Journal of Scottish Name Studies in the same year. He declared it his last published article, which it was.

His engagement with Scottish place-names went back much further than the 1990s, however. Early on in his long career he came to realise how important place-names were in understanding the pre-documentary and early documentary period of Scottish history. Place-names were an integral part of one of his most important and influential pieces of writing, the first chapter of The Kingdom of the Scots, first published in 1973, ‘pre-feudal Scotland: shires and thanes’, singled out by Dauvit Broun as ‘not only a tour de force of early medieval scholarship, but … hugely influential on the way historical geographers and archaeologists as well as social historians have thought about early British society’ (Herald ‘Appreciation’ 30 Jan. 2014). In this chapter the evidence of place-names, some of it presented in the form of place-name maps, was marshalled to great effect to throw light on early administration and administrative units, and may be seen as one of the game-changers in Scottish toponymics. GWSB ‘Popular Courts in Early Medieval Scotland: Some Suggested Place-Name Evidence’, 1981 and 1992); the pre-documentary history of Christianity in Scotland (‘The Childhood of Scottish Christianity: a Note on Some Place-Name Evidence’, 1983, and ‘Religion in Scotland on the eve of Christianity’, 1998); ‘Land Routes: The Medieval Evidence’ 1984, 1992) and fine-grained socio-linguistic history (‘The Lost Gàidhealtachd of medieval Scotland’, 1989, 1992). Each one of these may be regarded as the bedrock of all future scholarly investigation of these different aspects of toponymics, with each standing as eloquent and inspirational testimony for how much the careful study of place-names can bring to the wider disciplines of social, political and linguistic history.

My own personal scholarly debt to GWSB is immense. He co-supervised my PhD, which was on aspects of the place-names of Fife (1995). As part of the supervision process he provided me with a swathe of his unpublished charter transcriptions, which not only informed my thesis but also went on to enrich in multifarious ways all the volumes of Place-Names of Fife. He took a lively and encouraging interest in these volumes as they emerged over the period between 2006 and 2012, and I would regularly receive hand-written letters, with their hall-mark Scottish lion-rampant stamps, containing expressions of appreciation along with acute observations and difficult questions. I received the last one of these letters only two months before his death.

I will end this short tribute with a select bibliography of Geoffrey’s more important toponymic works. This list is not in any way exhaustive, either absolutely or even in toponymic terms, and does not take into consideration his fundamentally important editions of royal charters (David I, Malcolm IV and William I), as well as other edited collections, relating mainly to Fife. All these provide early forms of place-names, reliably transcribed, edited and located. A complete bibliography of his work up until the end of 1992 can be found in his Festschrift Medieval Scotland, Crown, Lordship and Community, edited by Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer (Edinburgh 1993), the bibliography itself compiled by his daughter, Julia Barrow. According to the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) another 32 items were written by him between 1993 and 2008.

Barrow, G. W. S., 1959, ‘Treverlen, Duddingston and Arthur’s Seat’, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club 30, 1-9.
Barrow, G. W. S., 1980, The Anglo-Norman Era in Scottish History (Oxford) [important discussions of personal names in place-names, especially in Scotland south of the Forth-Clyde line; also a useful list of the earliest Scots (‘Middle English’) words, several embedded in place-names, from Scottish charters before c.1250, chiefly from ‘non-English-speaking districts’ (Appendix C)]
Barrow, G. W. S., 1981, ‘Popular Courts in Early Medieval Scotland: Some Suggested Place-Name Evidence’, Scottish Studies 25, 1-23 [see also Barrow 1983a and 1992]
Barrow, G.W.S., 1983, ‘The Childhood of Scottish Christianity: a Note on Some Place-Name Evidence’, Scottish Studies 27, 1-15.
Barrow, G. W. S., 1983a, ‘Popular Courts in Early Medieval Scotland: Some Suggested Place-Name Evidence – Additional Note’, Scottish Studies 27, 67–8 [see also Barrow 1992].
Barrow, G. W. S., 1984, ‘Land Routes: The Medieval Evidence’, in Loads and Roads in Scotland and Beyond, edd. A. Fenton and G. Stell (Edinburgh), 49-66 [also in Barrow 1992, 201-16, entitled simply ‘Land Routes’].
Barrow, G. W. S., 1988, ‘Tannochbrae and all that: “Tamhnach” (Tannoch etc.) in Scottish placenames as an indicator of early Gaelic-speaking settlement’, in A Sense of Place: Studies in Scottish Local History (A Tribute to Eric Forbes), ed. G. Cruickshank (Edinburgh: Scotland’s Cultural Heritage), 1-4.
Barrow, G. W. S., 1989, ‘The Lost Gàidhealtachd of medieval Scotland’, in Gaelic and Scotland/Alba agus a’ Ghàidhlig, ed. W. Gillies (Edinburgh), 67-88 [also in Barrow 1992, 105-26].
Barrow, G. W.S., 1992, Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages (London) [Chapter ‘Popular Courts’ (217-45) amalgamates Barrow 1981 and 1983a; contains also Barrow 1984 and 1989]
Barrow, G.W.S., 1993, ‘The Anglo-Scottish Border: Growth and Structure in the Middle Ages’, in Grenzen und Grenzregionen; Frontières et régions frontalières; Borders and Border Regions, edd. W. Haubrichs and R. Schneider (Saarbrücken), 197-212. [210-12 for discussion of close correlation between distribution of Ingliston and mottes, with distribution map p. 212]
Barrow, G.W.S. 1998, ‘The Uses of Place-names and Scottish History – Pointers and Pitfalls’, in The Uses of Place-Names, ed. S. Taylor (Edinburgh), 54–74.
Barrow, G. W. S. 1998a, ‘Religion in Scotland on the eve of Christianity’ in Forschungen zur Reichs-, Papst- und Landesgeschichte, ed. K. Borchardt and E. Bünz, Part 1 (Stuttgart), 25-32 [nemeton-names; discussed in detail also in Barrow 1998]
Barrow, G. W. S., 1999, ‘French after the Style of Petithachengon’, in Church, Chronicle and Learning in Medieval and Early Renaissance Scotland: Essays Presented to Donald Watt on the Occasion of the Completion of the Publication of Bower’s Scotichronicon, ed. Barbara E. Crawford (Edinburgh), 187-93.
Barrow, G. W. S., 2008, ‘The Lost Place-names of Moray’, JSNS 2, 11–18.

Simon Taylor.

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