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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

The Place-Names Nottingham (ND 215 355) and Snottergill Burn (ND 203 507). 
(by George Watson.)

Nottingham, with its 'ingham' ending, stands out among Caithness place-names. This termination is more common in England around the better known Nottingham and Birmingham, with the northern limit of the group marked by Coldingham and Tyninghame, in SE. Scotland. Johnston noted 'one lonely ham away up near Forse in Caithness, spelt Notingham in the book of Scone in 1272’. The church of Kildonan had been granted to Scone between 1164 and 1225 and Bishop Gilbert Murray acknowledged this, as the abbot of Scone's prebend, in the constitution of his new cathedral (1224-1245).

In 1273, the Dean and Chapter elected the Abbot of Scone as Bishop of Caithness and the clerk who presented the case to the Pope, was Mr Henry of Nothingham. (incidentally the Pope annulled the result and advised the Dean and Chapter to try again). Mr Henry's designation probably came from within the diocese, i.e. at Forse.

A much later charter of 1408 certainly states that "Mariot Cheyne ........ granted to Kenneth Sothirland ........ the lands of the 3 davachs of Nothigane in the earldom of Catanes' . Spelling variations illustrate its continued use to the present day; ie Nodingham, c1600; Nothingham,1726; Noringham,1735; and finally Nottingham, 1872. The 'd' in Nodingham is a transliteration of the Old Norse [ON] đ which was pronounced like 'th' in father.

The geographical isolation of the Caithness example suggests that it was home grown from Old Norse roots. A model for its construction can be seen in the title of the well-known 12th century, 'Orkneyinga Saga' which translates as ‘The story of the Orkney Folk': applied to Nodingham this gives, the abode of the Noth folk', where 'Noth' is either a family name or perhaps a version of the ON 'naut' meaning cattle.

The similarity between ON and Anglo-Saxon can be seen in the history of the English Nottingham. When the Danish army wintered there in 876 it was called Snottingaham; a footnote adds, "Snottingaham is probably derived from the patronymic Snottinga, descendants or family of a certain Snuot or Snot. Snottar is Anglo-Saxon for Wise".

ON 'snotr’ also means 'wise' and appears in Snoterfield (between 1734 and 1738) and Snottergill Burn in Watten parish. {'Burn', of course, is a much later Scottish appendage when ON 'gill' was no longer meaningful.) Snottergill can be identified on the 6" OS map (1872) as a sizeable watercourse, which collects and carries the natural drainage from the Dubh Lochs of Shielton, to the Burn of Acharole.

Several chalybeate [iron rich] springs and a well, beneficial to those suffering from anaemia, are indicated in the head waters from the dubh lochs. Where these small streams combine to become the Snottergill there is a 'petrifying [lime rich] spring' whose wholesome effects are obvious in a nearby enclosure named Greenfolds. This calcium addition not only improved the grazing, it strengthened the bones of the animals who fed there. Towards the downstream end of Snottergill the OS map also shows a 'sulphureous [sic] spring'; a type favoured at many a Victorian health spa. The benefits of these trace elements are now masked by improved farming techniques but it was probably the effects of this complex hydrology that first attracted early farmers, including perhaps a 'wise' Snott family, to the very edge of the moor.  

Notes and References
1. Place-names of Scotland, James B Johnston, reprint 1970, pages 51, 52.
2. The Medieval Church ln Scotland, lan B Cowan, ed. James Kirk, 1995, page 93.
3. Caithness and Sutherland Records, Alfred W Johnston And Amy Johnston, 1928, page 37.
4. Origines Parochiales Scotiae vol2, pt2, page767. Quoting Fors charters.
5. Map Caithness, Timothy Pont c1600.
6. MacFarlane's Geographical Collection, 1725.
7. A Short Geographical Survey of Caithness, A Bayne, 1735.
8. C 1872, Ordinance Survey Name Book, Latheron Parish, page 99, map 33-11-6.
9. British Place-Names in Their Historical Setting, Edmund MacClure, 1910, page 244.
10. The Mey Letters, John E Donaldson, 1984. Pages 59,60, 63, 82 & 95.

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