Place-Names as a Clue to the Flemish Presence in Scotland

Morvern French
Friday 7 March 2014

In recent years significant academic work has been done on place-names in Scotland with a view to understanding their origins. Place-names can potentially shed light on patterns of medieval settlement. Scholars have found that toponyms—that is place-names—provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration. This blog posting draws on the findings of author Peadar Morgan’s PhD thesis in this field.

Identifying Flemish Place-Names

In a recent publication, Andrew Smith (2008 and 2008b) discussed the relationship between upper Clydesdale Flemish landowners and Kelso Abbey. He speculated that these Flemings acted as “middlemen in the wool industry” for the monks, adding that this “will forever remain uncertain unless new evidence is uncovered.” One potential source of evidence may lie in the toponymic record (see definitional box below), that is, the place-names that have survived the vagaries of time and documentation. Such studies can be a useful mine of information on ethnic histories. So it is for the Flemish in Scotland, although, as shown below, the evidence is not plentiful or totally conclusive.


Toponymy is the study of place-names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology. A toponymist is one who studies toponymy.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

An ethnonym is the name applied to a given ethnic group.

Orthography is the conventional spelling system of a language.

An ethnonym is a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known (OED, s.v.), whether coined by the ethnic group itself — in this case the Flemings or Flemish — or given to it by others. The interaction between ethnic groups has led to several ethnonyms being used to form place-names in Scotland over the centuries and in the various languages that have been present here. But simply finding “Fleming” in a place-name on the map is no guarantee that it has an ethnic derivation.

Only two current Scottish place-names can be said, with confidence, to have an ethnic origin: Flemington in Ayton parish in former Berwickshire,[[1]] and Flemyland in Dalry, Ayrshire.[[2]] Three others, no longer on the map, might well also count as ethnic: Fleming-Beath† in Beath, Fife;[[3]] Flemingis-land†[[4]]> in Kettins, Angus;[[5]] and Flemingtoun† in Roxburghshire.[[6]] Taking the modern border with England out of the equation brings three more names into a wider picture, in former Cumberland: Flimby[[7]] and Flamiggs[[8]] near Cockermouth, and Fleming Hall near Gosforth.[[9]] All of the above place-names have been designated as “probable”—meaning probably having an ethnic reference—in the map below.

There are others names, however, that while lacking evidence to link them directly with the Flemish ethnicity, cannot be ruled out either: Fleminghill in Kilmarnock parish, Ayrshire,[[10]] and five of the places called Flemington, in Aberlemno in Angus,[[11]] Petty in Inverness-shire,[[12]] Cambuslang[[13]] and Dalziel[[14]] Lanarkshire; and Newlands in Peebleshire.[[15]] Likewise, the former settlement of Fleemington† in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire,[[16]] Towart-Fleeming† (now Toward Taynuilt) in Dunoon & Kilmun, Argyll,[[17]] and, near Carlisle in Cumberland, the inlet Fleming Halse†.[[18]] The place-names described in this paragraph are considered to be “possible” in the map below.

The main difficulty with interpreting Fleming as an ethnonym lies in the fact that the word is also used as a surname. A reference to an individual as “the Fleming”—such as Berowald the Fleming—cannot be taken as an ethnic description. Sometimes the definite article “the” is used somewhat randomly in recording medieval surnames. With the ethnic label, there was a tendency towards using the noun Fleming as a prefix with the force of an adjective (OED, s.v.), already apparent in Older Scots as in Fleming lauch (‘law’, 1357), Flemying schip (‘ship’, 1544), Fleming berge (‘barge’, by 1568) and Flemyng wobster (‘weaver’, 1600) (DOST, s.v.).

Place-names of special interest

The Fleming surname arose from the adoption of the ethnonymic label as a surname by families of immigrants, with several, perhaps unrelated, individuals appearing on record with the name in the second half of the twelfth century (Black 1946, 268). Hammond (2007, 39) has pointed out, however, that there is only evidence for the surname developing in one noble family, that of the knight Berowald the Fleming (alias Berewald Fleming, floruit 1160 Moray; PoMS, person 333). F. Lawrence Fleming (2011) takes a similar position in his books on the genealogy of the Fleming family.

But the label for the knight Bartholomew Fleming (floruit 1235–64; PoMS, person 4710) did continue in his line to at least Robert Fleming (floruit 1270–82; PoMS, person 12826). Their residence of Warderis-Fleming† in Insch, Aberdeenshire,[[19]] would seem to preserve this family name as an affix, and this was retained even after the family name of the owner changed. An Older Scots affix is also found in the village and parish-name Kirkpatrick-Fleming, in Dumfriesshire,[[20]] in which parish were also to be found Flemyng-landis†[[21]] and Flemyngraw†[[22]] in that parish are presumably to be associated. These are most likely surname oriented place-names given their late appearance and the strong local tradition that a family of the name Fleming had been a major landowner in the area. It is safe to assume that Fleming place-names not recorded before the start of the Scottish Standard English period, c.1700, are named for the family.[[23]] In 1881, the surname Fleming was common across Scotland other than the northern Highlands, a pattern that extended into former Cumberland, but not Northumberland; the greatest incidence was in central Scotland and Lanarkshire (GBFNP).

The one Gaelic place-name referring to a Flemish link is A’ Mhòine Fhlanrasach, ‘the peatbog associated with (the) Flemish’.[[24]] This is the equivalent of the English name for Flanders Moss, a wide area in the parishes of Drymen, Kippen and Port of Menteith in former Stirlingshire and Perthshire earlier called Tilly-Moss.[[25]] It has been suggested that Flanders is invoked in the English name because of association with Flemish immigration and/or drainage expertise; but in fact the reason for the name is unknown. The Gaelic name, with an adjective, may imply a topographical comparison with the raised bogs of Flanders, perhaps bestowed by soldiers returning from the European wars of the seventeenth century, rather than referring to people. However, the late-recorded Gaelic name might have arisen as a translation of Flanders Moss, as the tradition of incorporating a country-name to indicate association with an alien ethnicity is unknown in Gaelic.

Flemish immigration is, however, cautiously considered by English authorities to have left its mark in place-names, as in Flempton in Suffolk.[[26]] Despite arriving in the train of the Norman Conquest of England of 1066, the Flemings still had an impact on the Old English toponymy of the far north of England in Flimby. Though seemingly re-analysed with the Middle English reflex Flemynge used attributively,[[27]] it is likely to date to the late eleventh century, when the personal names of colonists in Cumberland were likewise being attached to the Old Danish settlement generic noun (Parsons & Styles 2000, 105).

The tendency towards the use of the Fleming ethnonym before a noun appears in the place-name Flemyland. Also, land possession and/or settlement may be signified by the genitive in Flemingis-land† (though occupied by one Alexander Scot in 1547) and in Fleminghill (1654 Fleamingshill). An adjective appears in reference to land possession only once, as flemisse (for the Older Scots adjective Flemis). Fleming-Beath† is a variable thirteenth and fourteenth-century name at the start of numerous divisions of the lands of Beath with familial affixes often added to the existing name. As pointed out by Taylor (PNF i, 312), it is found in its first few years as a recorded name with an affix preceding it, an affix following it, or with the Older Scots genitive ending is. However, it also has the form flemisse Beeth, recorded sometime between 1230 and 1239, showing the name of the proprietor, former Dunfermline Abbey tenant William (the) Fleming, to be more than just a surname (contra loc. cit.). He had perhaps come to the Benedictine institution from a similar institution in Flanders.

In analysing those Fleming-names containing a noun meaning a settlement, three patterns emerge. First, there is no indication of settlements being named for immigrant Flemish colonisers.[[28]] Of the thirty-six individuals recorded as “(the) Fleming” from 1093 to 1286 (PoMS), remarkably only one shows any correlation with these locations, but this three times. However, William Fleming, floruit 1196–1229 (PoMS, person 1066), is unlikely to be commemorated in these names. He is only a witness in respect of transactions affecting places close to, but not including, Flemington in Aberlemno (the gift sometime between 1196×99 of the church of Guthrie to Arbroath Abbey, PoMS, factoid 4564), Fleemington† (the confirmation in 1195×99 of the land of Moniabrock NS352632, Lochwinnoch, PoMS, factoid 4116) and Flemington in Avondale (the gift in 1229 of teinds of grain in Avondale, PoMS, factoid 44274), all first recorded later, in 1331×72, 1544 and 1816 respectively.

Second, a geographical association, and some known tenurial links, with religious houses are revealed in several instances. These houses belong to:
1) the Benedictines in Dunfermline Abbey (Fleming-Beath† created from within abbey lands for one of its tenants) and Coldingham Priory (Flemington, Ayton, within 6.5km);
2) the Cistercians in Holm Cultram Abbey in Cumberland (Flimby, with nearby Grange Farm serving the abbey (c.1215), and with its deer-park of Flemeby Parke† (1538 PNCu 2, 299), if correctly identified, located near the abbey), Calder Abbey in Cumberland (Fleming Hall, 3km) and Coupar Angus Abbey (Flemingis-land†, ½–6km);
3) the Premonstratensians in Dryburgh Abbey (Flemingtoun†, in Roxburghshire and paying annual dues); and
4) the Tironensians in Kilwinning Abbey (Flemyland, 2km, and marching with a place called Monkredding NS323454 in Kilwinning).
Note also Fleminghill, 1.2km from a place called Monkland NS468396 in the same parish of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire.

Proximity in itself does not demonstrate tenurial or other association, but the case of Flimby serves to remind that links may exist even when there is a separation of 22.5km. The most likely nature of this link is the medieval export of wool to the cloth industries of Flanders, identified by A.A.M. Duncan (Atlas 1996, 237) as having been undertaken, inter alia, by the Benedictines in Dunfermline and Coldingham and the Cistercians in Coupar Angus (Holm Cultram and Calder being outwith his survey area). As mentioned above, Smith (2008 and 2008b) has demonstrated a tenurial association of upper Clydesdale Flemish landowners with Kelso Abbey, and has speculated that they acted as “middlemen in the wool industry” for the monks. It is suggested that for all the monasteries listed above, and not just those identified by Duncan, the place-names give at least a hint of association in wool production.[[29]]

As part of a third pattern, two settlements in Lanarkshire, Flemington in Avondale and Flemington in Cambuslang, have reported links to the weaving trade, with weaving forming the greatest employment in the former in 1843, and a cotton mill having been in the latter. There was settlement of foreign craftsmen, including Flemish weavers, in Scotland as a result of legislation to encourage such immigration in 1582, 1594 and 1600 (Donaldson 1976, 244), but this scarcely explains either. Flemington, Avondale, is a small settlement of perhaps just three buildings, first recorded in 1816. It cannot be assumed, given the lapse of 200 years, that the name is settlement related, and like Flemington† in Glasgow (apparently post-dating the 1773 Ross Map), is likely to be surname related. Flemington, Cambuslang, on the other hand, was first recorded in 1440, well before the immigration acts. Indeed, the three Flemington-names in Aberlemno, Cambuslang and Petty, are not in the proximity of a monastery, and are in any case recorded before the sixteenth century. Flemington in Peebleshire is known to date from before 1583 (Canmore, 49968), when some houses were burnt down, and is on record as 1755 Fleemington Mills (Roy Map), by 1767 Flemington Mill (GC iii, 148), and 1858 Flemington-mill (manuscript Ordnance Survey Original Object Name Books, 32:15), though by 1858 there was no longer a mill in operation. But it is not known what kind of mill was at this relatively remote rural location. The immigration encouraged in 1582 may already have been under way, if not with the intensity deemed necessary for the economic aims of the Government. So it is not impossible that Fleming-names from earlier in the sixteenth century referred to economic migrants. But that weaving possibility for some names, and that of a wool trade association with religious houses for others, remains to be evidenced. Which is where the Scotland and the Flemish People project can prove so important.

Dr Peadar Morgan has recently completed a part-time Ph.D. with the School of History at the University of St Andrews. His thesis, on Ethnonyms in the Place-names of Scotland and the Border Counties of England, is available at Peadar is Research and Corpus Planning Manager with Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

– Adair Map 3: ‘A Mape of the countries about Stirling’, by John Adair, 1680s, at, held by the National Library of Scotland, Adv.MS.70.2.11.
– Addison, William, 1978, Understanding English Place-names (London).
– Atlas 1996: Atlas of Scottish History to 1707, eds Peter G.B. McNeill and Hector L. MacQueen, with Anona Lyons, 1996 (Edinburgh).
– Black, D.D., 1857, ‘Notice of the Excavation of a “Pict’s House,” on the Farm of Stensall of Kergord, Zetland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2, 452–4.
– Black, George Fraser, 1946, The Surnames of Scotland – Their Origin, Meaning, and History (New York), repub. 1996 (Edinburgh).
– Blaeu Map: Atlas novus, Vol. 5, Atlas of Scotland, by Joan Blaeu, 1654 (Amsterdam), at the National Library of Scotland.
Canmore: sites database, at , Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Cold. Corr.: The Priory of Coldingham: the correspondence, inventories, account rolls, and law proceedings, of the Priory of Coldingham, ed. James Rain, 1841, Surtees Society, 12.
– Donaldson, Gordon, 1978, Scotland: James V-James VII, Edinburgh History of Scotland, Vol. 3, paperback edn (Edinburgh; hardback edn 1976). Follows earlier edns in 1965 and 1971.
DOST: A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue from the Twelfth Century to the End of the Seventeenth, eds William Alexander Craigie et al., 1931–2002, at Dictionary of the Scots Language ~ Dictionar o the Scots Leid.
Dunf. Reg.: Registrum de Dunfermelyn: liber cartarum abbatie Benedictine s. s. Trinitatis et b. Margarete Regine de Dunfermelyn, ed. anon., 1842, Bannatyne Club, 74.
ER: The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (Edinburgh).
– Fleming, F. Lawrence, 2011, The ancestry of the Earl of Wigton and other essays relating to the family history of the Flemings (Northampton).
– Forrest Map, 1816: The county of Lanark from actual survey, by William Forrest, 1816 (Edinburgh), at the National Library of Scotland.
GBFNP: Great Britain Family Names Profiling, at University College London. Formerly “National Trust Names”. A research project for the web-based dissemination of the geography of genealogy. 1881 data from the UK Census, and 1998 from Experian International Ltd, presented by frequency per modern postal area.
GC iii: Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland Made By Walter Macfarlane, Vol. 3, by W. Macfarlane, eds Arthur Mitchell and James Toshach Clark, 1908, Scottish History Society, 1st series, 53.
– Hammond, Matthew H., 2007, ‘The use of the name Scot in the Central Middle Ages’, Part 1, ‘Scot as a by-name’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 1, 37–60.
Holm Cultram Reg.: Register & Records of Holm Cultram: the cartulary and other records of the important Cistercian house of Holm Cultram, eds Francis Grainger and W.G. Collingwood, 1929, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 7, at , Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.
– Mills, A.D., 1998, A Dictionary of English Place-names, 2nd edn (Oxford).
– Nimmo, William, and Gillespie, R., ed., 1880, History of Stirlingshire, 3rd edn (London and Glasgow; 1st edn 1777; 2nd edn 1817).
OED: Oxford English Dictionary, 1928–, at Oxford University Press.
OSnb: Ordnance Survey Original Object Name Books, county surveys as below, 1845–78 (see NAS MSS, above). Consulted on microfilm copies and photocopied indices in the library of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh.
– Parsons, David, and Styles, Tania, eds, 2000, The Vocabulary of English Place-names: brace-cæster (Nottingham).
PNCu: The Place-names of Cumberland, Parts 1–2, by Bruce Dickins et al., 1950, English Place-Name Society xx–xxi.
PNF i: The Place-names of Fife, Vol. 1, West Fife between Leven and Forth, by Simon Taylor, with Gilbert Márkus, 2006 (Donington).
PoMS: Paradox of Medieval Scotland 1093–1286, bibliographical database by Dauvit Broun et al., 2010, at , University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh and King’s College London.
RMS: Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum ~ The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland (Edinburgh).
– Ross Map, 1773: A map of the shire of Lanark, by Charles Ross, 1773 (s.l.), at , National Library of Scotland.
– Roy Map: ‘[Roy Military Survey of Scotland]’ by William Roy, 1747–55, at , National Library of Scotland, held by the British Museum, K.Top.48.25-1.a-f.
RSS: Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum ~ The Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland (Edinburgh).
St Bees Reg.: Register of the Priory of St Bees, ed. James Wilson, 1915, Surtees Society, 126.
– Smith, Andrew T., 2008 and 2008b, ‘The Extra-Monetary Dimensions of the Lesmahagow Feu-Fermes’, Part 1, History Scotland 8:1, 31–7, and 8:2, 14–20.
TCWAAS: transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 1866–.
– Watson, William John, 1909, ‘Topographical Varia, [1 and 2]’, Celtic Review 5, 148–54, 337–42.

[1] At grid reference NT940608; the earliest record collected by me being in 1235, as Flemigtona (Cold. Corr., 241).
[2] NS309453; 1755 Fleymilland, (Roy Map).
[3] NT140890; 1220×35 Beeth Fleming (Dunf. Reg. no. 177).
[4] The symbol † is used here to indicate an obsolete name.
[5] NO237390; 1574 copy of 1547 Flemingis-land (RMS iv no. 2252).
[6] Near NT591316; c.1535 Flemingtoune (Dunf. Reg. no. 331).
[7] NY023333; 1333 copy of 1171‒5 Flemyngeby (TCWAAS 3, cited in PNCu 2, 286).
[8] NY057330; 1652 Flemrigge (PNCu 2, 274).
[9] NY050032; 1419 Flemynghall (St Bees Reg., cited in PNCu 2, 395.)
[10] NS478388; 1654 Fleamingshill (Blaeu Map).
[11] NO526556; 1331×72 Flemyngtoune (RMS i App. 2 no. 1523a.)
[12] NH802536; 1456 Flemyngtoun (ER vi, 215).
[13] NS665593; 1440 confirming a charter of 1421 Flemyngton (RMS ii no. 254).
[14] NS767560; 1513 Flemyngtoun (RMS ii no. 3882).
[15] NT167451; 1583 Flemington (Canmore, 49968).
[16] NS366603: 1544 Flemingstoun (RSS iii no. 854).
[17] NS133683; 1513 Tollart Flemyng [recte: given as two names] (ER xiv, 518).
[18] NY319635; c.1234 Fleming halse (Holm Cultram Reg. no. 25).
[19] NJ593288; first with “Fleming” in 1492 Wardris Flemyng (ER x, 767).
[20] NY276700; first with “Fleming” in 1509 Kirpatrik-Flemyng (RSS i, 1905).
[21] NY250753; 1462 Kircconveth [‘Kirkconnel’] a.k.a. le Flemyng-landis, owned by the Fleming family of Kirkconnel (RMS ii no. 85). Kirkconnel was at the centre of its own parish till 1609, when it was united with Kirkpatrick-Fleming (Canmore, 67053).
[22] Near NY264729; 1492 Flemyngraw (ER x, 766).
[23] Unmapped Fleming, near NY617325 in Cumberland, 1950 (PNCu 1, 244); Fleming Hill†, Kettle, Fife, near NO300064, 1836 (Fraser Map, cited in pers. comm., Simon Taylor 2010); Fleming Strip NT560382, Melrose, Roxburghshire (Ordnance Survey mapping); Fleming’s Wood NT401661, Cranston, Midlothian (Ordnance Survey mapping); Flemington NS706449, Avondale, Lanarkshire, 1816 (Forrest Map); and Flemington† NS604674, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, 1816 Flimington (Forrest Map). Fleming Mill† NY275697, 1858 (OS 6″ 1st edn), was named from its location in Kirkpatrick-Fleming; Flemington† HU393546, Tingwall, Shetland, is due to landowner-imposed renaming in the nineteenth century, of unknown motivation (Black 1857, 453).
[24] 1909 A’ Mhòine Fhlànrasach (Watson 1909, 153).
[25] 1680s flandersmoss (Adair Map 3), 1777 Tilly-Moss, replaced by Moss-Flanders (Nimmo 1880 i, 17, 217).
[26] 1098 Flemingtuna; interpreted as the ‘settlement of the Flemings’ in Addison 1978, 94, and, with less certainty, in Mills 1998, s.n.).
[27] Though the medial vowel e of some early forms appears to show the a of the Old Norse genitive plural, its presence is inconsistent and not securely recorded before 1201. A final e is found in variant forms of the Older Scots, Middle English and English Standard English ethnonym.
[28] Note that the lands held by four new twelfth-century Flemish landlords in Clydesdale, investigated in detail by Smith (2008 and 2008b), bear no relationship to the corpus of Fleming-names.
[29] Flamiggs (1652 Flemrigge, with rig ‘ridge’) might also qualify as grazing, if correctly identified by the study as applying to the upland area of Broughton Moor. It lies on the border of the parish named for Flimby, so could otherwise (or also) mark the limit of the territory of that community. Flamiggs, therefore, probably belongs with the only set of Fleming-names likely to contain the ethnonym, those that might be associated with medieval religious houses that were involved in the wool industry. Fleming Halse was recorded c.1234, but the Flemings were already in Cumberland in the late eleventh century, as shown by Flimby, so a derivative family-name is also possible. The nature and location of the tidal inlet, with a long but narrow feeder stream near the end of the headland formed by Rockcliffe Marsh, suggests that this area was grazing land for the Fleming(s).

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