Preliminary Remarks on Norman Dixon’s ‘The Placenames of Midlothian’
PhD, University of Edinburgh, 1947 (354 pp.).
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This remarkable collection and analysis of the macro- and microtoponymy (i.e. all place-names great and small) of the pre-1975 county of Midlothian has lain unpublished and difficult to access for 62 years. Scotland has very few counties which are surveyed to the kind of standard which in England since 1923 has become the norm. Since that year the English Place-Name Society has published 84 volumes covering almost the whole macro- and microtoponymy of the country, county by county, parish by parish. In that time Scotland has managed to publish one volume which covers a county in the same detail, to the same standard, and following a similar format: that is Angus MacDonald’s Place-Names of West Lothian (1941). Thanks to a substantial grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to the University of Glasgow, the toponymy of pre-1975 Fife will soon join this select band of Scottish counties.¹ Within this context it is therefore all the more remarkable that a full county survey, whose publication could have doubled the number of such in Scotland at any time in the last 62 years, is only now emerging into the public domain.
It is not that the study of place-names (toponymics) in Scotland has stood still since 1947, far from it: to gain an impression of the wealth of material which has appeared on the subject, including regional studies, in recent years, you only need to look at the bibliography on the Scottish Place-Name Society (SPNS) website www.spns.org.uk/classtext.htm. However, the thorough, careful and informed collection and analysis of names, as exemplified in Norman Dixon’s work on Midlothian, underpins all other toponymic endeavours, and it is this that has been to a large extent lacking in the field of Scottish place-name studies. It is to do something towards rectifying this situation that the SPNS undertook to digitise two key place-name works of the 1940s: Norman Dixon’s Midlothian PhD and May Williamson’s ‘Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties’ (University of Edinburgh, 1942), which went ‘live’ on the SPNS website earlier this year. While important new research continues to be produced on Scottish place-names, such research is expensive in terms of time, money and expertise. The SPNS is a modest organisation which is run entirely by volunteers. While the Society is involved, and wants to become more involved, in the support of new work, it seemed to the Committee, encouraged and supported by the wider membership, that a very effective use of its limited resources would be to make more widely available what already exists, and has existed for a long time, known and used by all serious scholars in the field, but in a form very difficult to access. While the intention is that, following the web-publication of both these magna opera, they will be made available in hard-copy, the fact that both these works are now digitised means that at the touch of a button a full search can be made for any word, name or feature. This is especially important, since, even for those who did go to the trouble of visiting the Edinburgh University Library or School of Scottish Studies to consult these works, there was no easy way of unlocking the riches which lay within, since neither works has an index. The digital search facility has overcome this considerable obstacle simply and effectively.
The hard graft of typing the 107,000 words, many of them early forms, dates and sources, as well as elements from various languages, Welsh, Old English, Gaelic, Scots and Old Norse, has been admirably and accurately undertaken by Sheena Conroy and Margaret Shearer. No matter how carefully and painstakingly the typing of such a difficult text is carried out, errors are bound to creep in, which means that proof-reading becomes especially important. This work was begun by Maggie Scott, whose own PhD on ‘The Germanic Toponymicon of Southern Scotland: Place-Name Elements and their contribution to the Lexicon and Onomasticon’ (2003) had made much use of Dixon’s work. Her appointment as lecturer in English Language at the University of Salford meant that she was unable to continue with the task, which was then taken over with enthusiasm, commitment and thoroughness by Norman Dixon’s son, David Dixon. A great debt of gratitude is owed to all involved in bringing this work to completion. In these acknowledgements mention must also be made of Henry Gough Cooper, who has so competently and professionally nurtured and developed the SPNS website from its very earliest stages, and who thus provides and maintains the medium through which important texts such as this can reach a world-wide audience.
As mentioned above, Scottish place-name research has not stood still since Norman Dixon completed his work on Midlothian, and, while this was ‘state of the art’ in 1947, there is much that could be up-dated and emended in the light of more recent scholarship in Scotland as well as in neighbouring countries, especially Northern Ireland and England. In reading through the text and applying the corrections supplied by Maggie Scott (for the Introduction and the text up to and including Borthwick parish) and by David Dixon (for the remainder of the work) I have added a handful of footnotes where I spotted something which could be simply updated or emended, but these additions make no claim to being either exhaustive or consistent. An important further contribution could be made to Scottish toponymics in general, and to our understanding of the social, linguistic and environmental history of south-east Scotland in particular, if Norman Dixon’s scholarly and pioneering thesis could be re-examined and re-worked in the light of advances of the last 60 years. This exciting process can now begin in earnest with its digitisation and publication.
¹ To be covered in 5 volumes, with 3 volumes already in print; for full details see
http://www.gla.ac.uk/departments/celtic/projects/ then select ‘The Expansion and Contraction of Gaelic in Medieval Scotland: the onomastic evidence’.
Scottish Place-Name Society