Burntisland - Derivation of the Name

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'Burntisland' is pronounced like the two words, 'burnt' and 'island', together, with the emphasis on the middle syllable.

As for the derivation, the simple truth is that no-one knows for sure how the town got its unusual name. But that has certainly not prevented much speculation by local historians. And, with recent writers suggesting that 19 different spellings of the name have been identified in old records, there is plenty of scope for the eager etymologist.

The most oft recited version is the literal 'burnt island' one. Here it is, as related by the Reverend James Wemyss, Minister of Burntisland, in the 'Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799':

"It is difficult to ascertain the origin of the name. The traditional story is that it arose from the burning of a few fishermen's huts, upon a small island on the west side of the harbour, which induced them to take up their residence where the town now stands."

The favoured island for this tale is the Green Island, originally just offshore but now obliterated by harbour and shipyard developments. Or how about the Black Rocks in the bay? - certainly an island at high tide, and just the right colour!

Andrew Young, the pioneering photographer and well known local artist and historian, devoted several pages of his 1924 'History of Burntisland' to reviewing the evidence. In the end he left it at that, and did not plump for one option or the other. But on the face of it, he produced compelling evidence that the 'burnt island' theory is very suspect.

It is certainly worthwhile having a look at what Andrew Young said in his book:

"The derivation of the name Burntisland has occasioned some debate. To some it presents no difficulty - there's a little island in the harbour, and the rocks look 'burnt'. This tendency to swallow plain English in these latitudes is common. [Passage with examples omitted]

Sibbald refers to the legendary burning of fishermen's huts on the island, and a supposed attempt of the Romans to destroy the town by fire, and quotes the lines of a 'native poet':

Brave ancient isle, thy praise if I should sing,
The habitation of a Pictish King,
Dreftus, who made against the Roman strokes,
Forth's snakie arms thee to enclose with rocks,
They often pressed to vanquish thee with fire,
As Macedon did the sea embordering Tyre,
But thou didst scorn Rome's captive for to be,
And kept thyself from Roman legions free.

Sibbald says 'Brintlandt' is a place-name in Denmark, but his pet theory is that 'elen in the old language signifies a bay bowed like the flexure of the elbow, and brunt, in the Gothic tongue, a fire burning - that is the Roman night light on the tower at the harbour.' The name often occurs without the 'd' in early Council records - Brintilun and Brint Ilun - and in this form is very like the sound given to it by old residenters now. It is written variously in the early Council Records and Exchequer Rolls - 'Ye* Brint Eland' and 'Ye said Iland' (1540), 'Ye Brynt Yland' (1546), 'Brint Iland' (1592), 'Brintiland' (1592). At first sight these seem proof positive that the name was derived from 'Burned' and 'Island'. But the names existed previous to 1540 in the form Bertiland, probably pronounced Bert ilund. The names given above, written by Edinburgh clerks under the growing influence of English, were headings to accounts of the harbour works, which involved what we call the green island at both ends, and with this in their mind it was easy to change 'Bert ilund' into 'Brint iland'. Speed shows that in 1506, when the town was a Burgh of Regality under the monks of Dunfermline, the name was Byrtiland, and it is Byrtiland in the second Burgh Charter of 1585. Fernie, who had powers, quoting an old document, spells it Bertiland. Miss Blackie, in her 'Etymological Geography', gives Bertiland as the earliest form, and considers it of Scandinavian origin. The harbour would be useful for those robber Danes. 'Ye said Iland" is very misleading. It is common in Fife to prefix the definite article to the name of a place - the Raith, the Kettle, the Methil, the Elie, and even to leave out a portion of the name, as 'the Dour' for Aberdour, 'the Horn' for Kinghorn.

It is certain that in early charters the name Bertilund referred solely to the Harbour, Piers, and houses as distinct from the Castle and lands of Wester Kingorn. In 1538, in the Chartulary of Dunfermline, there is a grant of the fort of Wester Kingorn and the lands of Erefland and Cunyingarland. The latter is thought to describe rabbit warren (cony, a rabbit).

* [Footnote.] The 'y' in 'ye' is said by students to be the Anglo-Saxon letter 'thorn', the sound of which was that given to us to 'th'. 'Ye' thus was pronounced 'th'. In the records in 1611 'them' is spelled 'yame'. I prefer an explanation less 'learned'. For a long period in the Council Records 'the' looks like 'tye'. At this time (the) loop of the h was inverted and below the line. Examples of this appear in my facsimile of the cordiner's seal of cause in another chapter. In course of time the 't' was definitely dropped , leaving 'ye'."

More recent commentators, without any great confidence, have tended to trot out the simple answer - something burnt or looking burnt, on an island. However, Robert Livingstone, local historian and then Provost of Burntisland, came up with another possibility. Writing in The Fife Free Press of 29 May 1954, he said:

"Does the town derive its name from the Binn, this famous landmark, which adds so much beauty to the town? According to a kind correspondent, it probably derived its name from this source, and I quote my correspondent: 'The name derived from the Old British (i.e. early Celtic) words Bryn Telin, meaning 'the half carcase hill' - a reference to the Binn, a part of which was presumably blown outwards (not upwards, as was usual) by prehistoric volcanic eruption. It was very common for places in Celtic Britain to be named after some local landmark. The word Binn itself is very possibly the word Bryn, which may have passed through stages Bryn, Byrn, Birn, Binn, the present spelling being due perhaps to a mis-reading of an old manuscript.' "

Other theories, none of which have received much support, are that the name is connected with, variously:

* the burning of the land for improvement
* the Scots word 'bruntlin', meaning a burnt moor
* the land belonging to Bert or Bart

To end on a lighter note - a visitor to Burntisland asked a local lady whence came the town's odd name, and the reply, apparently given in all seriousness, was: "The volcano [the Binn] erupted, and set the town on fire.

May 2013 - comments by Colin Booth, formerly of Kinghorn and now residing in Aberdeenshire:
If you want to research the original meaning of the town name of Burntisland please check out Celtic Place-Names in Aberdeenshire by John Milne written c1912, which can be found online. It lists a Bruntland which means small hill which would fit in with the harbour area of the original town of Burntisland and matches older spellings of  the town name.
Note practically all Scottish town names are Gaelic in origin - just look at Kinghorn for a corruption of Caen Ghorn to see the Gaelic evolve over time and Aberdour is obviously Gaelic in origin too.
All three names are listed as locations in Aberdeenshire in the above book, which for me highlights the influence of Gaelic upon the whole of Scotland's place names and showcases Gaelic as a very descriptive language of locations especially if you were by travelling by foot in a much smaller world as our ancestors would have been.
[Please click here to see the relevant entry in the John Milne book (opens in a new tab or window).]

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