Document 1409

Pentlands and Other Borders Hill-names

Author(s): Peter Drummond

Copyright holder(s): Peter Drummond


Most place-names contain standard toponymic elements: in village and farm names, are found elements like Aber- or Bal- or Kil- or Pit-. In hill-names there are also such elements: in Gaelic there are Ben, Sgurr, Carn, etc or Norse Fell; in the Borders we would naturally expect Scots or English elements. The Pentlands are normal in that they contain many of the standard name-elements of the Borders hills. This is not a new discovery. Back 230 years ago, a Captain Armstrong of Innerleithen wrote thus:

"Hills are variously named according to their magnitude: as Law, Pen, Kipp, Coom, Dod, Craig, Fell, Top, Drum, Tor, Watch, Rig, Edge, Know, Knock, Mount, Kaim, Bank, Hope, Head, Cleugh-head, Gare, Scarr, Height, Shank, Brae, Kneis, Muir, Green, etc" (1775)

Some of these elements are inaccurate - a hope is invariably a valley, for instance - and he misses out some other common ones like cairn, pike, seat and side. However over half of these elements are found in the Pentlands range.

So what does Pentlands itself mean? It has nothing to do with the Pentland Firth (a corruption of Norse Pictland or Pettland), for there are no Norse names round here. The earliest occurrence is of the habitation name, circa 1150, as Pentlant, a little east of the northern part of the hills: the hamlet is still there, now Old Pentland, near IKEA. On Blaeu's map, one hill in the north of the range - possibly Castle Law or nearby - is named as Pentland Hill. Now hills are sometimes named after farms at their foot (e.g. Turnhouse Hill, Carlops Hill), and very rarely vice versa. And it is likely that by chance this one hill, named after the hamlet or farm, in turn gave its name to the whole range. So what did the hamlet name mean? Pen is clearly Welsh or Cumbric, meaning 'head' (cf Penicuik, Pencaitland), while llan (pronounced thl - note Blaeu's Penthland spelling) can mean a church, or simply a glade or enclosure. Seeing a 'range' is a relatively modern concept: in Gaelic, the Cairngorms are the Monadh Ruadh (i.e. singular); in southern Scotland, the Lammermuirs (from lambre mor) and Moorfoots (from mor thwaite) began as singular hill-masses, becoming plural only latterly. Individual hills were named earlier, but "seeing" a whole and distinct range came later - thus 'the Pentlands' was a convenient label when travel speeds advanced sufficiently for them to be passed or negotiated in a day, before moving on to other areas.

Moving to individual hills, let's look at them in their probable language groups.

The oldest names are apparently of Cumbric or Brittonic origin. Caerketton, towering over the Hillend ski slopes, was often mapped as Kirkyetton, but there is no such church anywhere near here. There is however an old fort on the eastern shoulder, which would suggest an origin in caer, a fort. Carnethy, the second highest in the range, may come from the root carn, since there is a large prehistoric cairn on top. A connection has also been suggested with the Welsh 'Munro' called Carneddau (meaning cairns), plausible because it fits very well with the Welsh pronunciation. [A 1682 map had it as Kairnathur (which invokes the legendary king) but this is surely a phonetic misinterpretation.] The Cumbric word mynydd, still found in Welsh, and meaning hill or mountain, is almost certainly the root of Mendick; and may well be the source of the several nearby hills with mount names - The Mount, Byrehope Mount, Faw Mount and Mount May, and The Black Mount. Further north in Scotland mount is derived from Gaelic monadh - The White Mounth, Mount Blair - but these seem to be an exceptional cluster, away from Gaelic source areas, and near Mendick.

There are some Gaelic names, but only a few, and their distribution is interesting - they are generally lower hills (five of them bear the symptomatically-small element tor) and are clustered around the western fringes of the range, unable to penetrate through to the east at all - it's as if the Pentlands were a barrier to the movement of Gaelic speakers. And of course protecting Peebles-shire cattle and maidens from the Gaelic caterans and reivers. Dunsyre Hill in the far south-west has ancient cultivation terraces striping its sides, and is probably dùn siar (western fort): where's the eastern one? - probably Keir Hill near Dolphinton, three miles east, keir being a Scots word for fort derived from caer. Mealowther on the west is probably Meall Odhar (dun-coloured hill), being mapped in 1821 as Millowderhill - there's another hill of this name near East Kilbride. The Gaelic creag appears in Craigengar (of the hare) and Craigentarrie (of the bull) - the latter a mere hillock which has lost its original reference to the name of a farm, now ruined too! Torweaving is possibly from tòrr uaimhinn, hill of horror or devastation - and it's such an innocuous swelling, too! And of course up in the north-west corner we have the three little 'uns - Torphin, Torduff, and Torgeith - volcanic pimples, one mainly quarried away, respectively the white, dark and windy tors.

The majority of the hills have Scots or English elements. (See the piechart on the back cover.) Some, like Turnhouse Hill and Spittal Hill, are simply named after the farm below them, whose stock were probably put out to graze on them in summer: Spittal is from the hospice (hospital) run by the monks at Newhall. Others are descriptive of the landscape, like Black Hill (formerly Loganhouse Hill from the farm below, but much better identified by its dark heather cover): above Dolphinton there are a Black Mount, heathery, and its neighbour White Hill, pale grass-covered. The West Kip (photos above and on back cover) is a lovely pointed hill seen from north or south, and has a little projection near the top seen from east or west, thus fitting the dictionary definition of a kip to a tee - as does the Kippit Hill in Dolphinton, said by legend to be where the devil sieved out the sand from the boulders he threw into Biggar Moss. But many of the greater and lesser names in the range find an echo from Captain Armstrong's 1775 list of elements: Bleak Law, East Kip, Dod Hill, Green Craig, Windlestraw Top, Cock Rig, Bavelaw Edge, Cairn Knowe, Muckle Knock, Faw Mount, Dun Kaim, Kay Bank, Greystone Head, Yield Brae and Allermuir. Not to mention two of The Pike, a Green Side, and a Seat Hill. Nearly a score of Scots hill-name elements, packed into a small but lovely range of hills.

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APA Style:

Pentlands and Other Borders Hill-names. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from

MLA Style:

"Pentlands and Other Borders Hill-names." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 24 July 2024.

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Pentlands and Other Borders Hill-names," accessed 24 July 2024,

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 1409

Pentlands and Other Borders Hill-names


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 100+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2005
Word count 1111
General description Academic article

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Scottish Placename Society
Publication year 2005
Part of larger text
Contained in Scottish Place-Name News, 19, Autumn 2005
Editor Bill Patterson
Page numbers 4-5

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 986
Forenames Peter
Surname Drummond
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired teacher
Place of birth Edinburgh
Region of birth Midlothian
Birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Coatbridge
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Teacher
Father's place of birth Edinburgh
Father's region of birth Midlothian
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Teacher
Mother's place of birth Linlithgow
Mother's region of birth W Lothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area wLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All circumstances
French Yes Yes No Yes
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No Yes No No