Etymology of Edinburgh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The etymology of Edinburgh traces the origin of the name of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The city is known as Edinburgh in English and Scots, and Dùn Èideann in Scottish Gaelic, both of which are derived from the older place name Eidyn. It is generally accepted that this name derives ultimately from the Celtic Common Brittonic language.[1][2][3]


Several medieval Welsh sources refer to Eidyn. Kenneth H. Jackson argued strongly that "Eidyn" referred exclusively to the location of modern Edinburgh,[4] but others, such as Ifor Williams and Nora K. Chadwick, suggest it applied to the wider area as well.[1][2] The name "Eidyn" may survive today in toponyms such as Edinburgh, Dunedin, and Carriden (from Caer Eidyn, from which the modern Welsh name for Edinburgh, Caeredin, is derived), located eighteen miles to the west.[3]

Present-day Edinburgh was the location of Din Eidyn, a dun or hillfort associated with the kingdom of the Gododdin.[5] The term Din Eidyn first appears in Y Gododdin, a poem that depicts events relating to the Battle of Catraeth, thought to have been fought circa 600. The oldest manuscript of Y Gododdin forms part of the Book of Aneirin, which dates to around 1265[6] but which possibly is a copy of a lost 9th-century original. Some scholars consider that the poem was composed soon after the battle and was preserved in oral tradition while others believe it originated in Wales at some time in the 9th to 11th centuries.[7] The modern Scottish Gaelic name "Dùn Èideann" derives directly from the British Din Eidyn. The English and Scots form is similar, appending the element -burgh, from the Old English burh, also meaning "fort".[8]

Some sources claim Edinburgh's name is derived from an Old English form such as Edwinesburh (Edwin's fort), in reference to Edwin, king of Deira and Bernicia in the 7th century.[9] However, modern scholarship refutes this, as the form Eidyn predates Edwin.[8][10] Stuart Harris in his book The Place Names of Edinburgh declares the "Edwinesburh" form to be a "palpable fake" dating from David I's time.[11]

The first evidence of the existence of the town as a separate entity from the fort lies in an early 12th century royal charter, generally thought to date from 1124, by King David I granting land to Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. This suggests that the town came into official existence between 1018 (when King Malcolm II secured the Lothians from the Northumbrians) and 1124.[12] The charter refers to the recipients (in Latin) as "Ecclisie Sancte Crucis Edwinesburgensi", by the 1170s King William the Lion was using the name "Edenesburch" in a charter (again in Latin) confirming the 1124 grant of David I. Documents from the 14th century show the name to have settled into its current form; although other spellings ("Edynburgh" and "Edynburghe") appear, these are simply spelling variants of the current name.

Other names[edit]

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, Edinburgh is labelled on this T and O map of the British isles from c. 1300

Auld Reekie[edit]

The city is affectionately nicknamed Auld Reekie, Scots for Old Smoky, for the views from the country of the smoke covered Old Town.[13][14] Robert Chambers who asserted that the sobriquet could not be traced before the reign of Charles II attributed the name to a Fife laird, Durham of Largo, who regulated the bedtime of his children by the smoke rising above Edinburgh from the fires of the tenements.[15][16][17]

Athens of the North[edit]

Some have called Edinburgh the Athens of the North for a variety of reasons. The earliest comparison between the two cities showed that they had a similar topography, with the Castle Rock of Edinburgh performing a similar role to the Athenian Acropolis. Both of them had flatter, fertile agricultural land sloping down to a port several miles away (respectively Leith and Piraeus). Although this arrangement is common in Southern Europe, it is rare in Northern Europe. The 18th century intellectual life, referred to as the Scottish Enlightenment, was a key influence in gaining the name. Such beacons as David Hume and Adam Smith shone during this period. Having lost most of its political importance after the Union, some hoped that Edinburgh could gain a similar influence on London as Athens had on Rome. Also a contributing factor was the later neoclassical architecture, particularly that of William Henry Playfair, and the National Monument. Tom Stoppard's character Archie, of Jumpers, said, perhaps playing on Reykjavík meaning "smoky bay", that the "Reykjavík of the South" would be more appropriate.[18]


Edinburgh has also been known as Dunedin, deriving from the Scottish Gaelic, Dùn Èideann. Dunedin, New Zealand, was originally called "New Edinburgh" and is still nicknamed the "Edinburgh of the South".

Other nicknames[edit]

The Scots poets Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson sometimes used the Latin form of the city's name, Edina, in their work. Ben Jonson described it as Britaine's other eye,[19] and Sir Walter Scott referred to the city as yon Empress of the North.[20]

Other variants include Embra, or Embro[21] (contracted forms), and Edinburrie.

Within Scotland itself, Edinburgh is also sometimes referred to just as "the Capital".


  1. ^ a b Williams 1972, p. 47; 64.
  2. ^ a b Chadwick, p. 107.
  3. ^ a b Dumville, p. 297.
  4. ^ Jackson 1969, pp. 77-78.
  5. ^ Gardens of the 'Gododdin' Craig Cessford Garden History, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 1994), pp. 114-115 doi:10.2307/1587005
  6. ^ "The Book of Aneirin". Retrieved 2014-05-09. 
  7. ^ Evans 1982, p. 17.
  8. ^ a b Room, pp. 118–119.
  9. ^ Blackie, Geographical Etymology: A Dictionary of Place-names Giving Their Derivations, 68.
  10. ^ Gelling, Nicolaisen and Richards, pp. 88–89.
  11. ^ Harris, Stuart (1996). The Place Names Of Edinburgh. London. p. 237. ISBN 1904246060. 
  12. ^ Campbell, A. (January 1942). "Two Notes on the Norse Kingdoms in Northumbria". The English Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 225, pp. 85-97
  13. ^ Scott, Walter. The Abbot. Retrieved 2011-08-11. 
  14. ^ Carlyle, Thomas. Historical Sketches... pp. 304–305. Retrieved 2011-08-11. 
  15. ^ Grant, James. Old and New Edinburgh. Retrieved 2011-08-07. 
  16. ^ Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. p. 168. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  17. ^ "Reekie". Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  18. ^ Stoppard, Tom. Jumpers, Grove Press, 1972, p. 69.
  19. ^ "The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson". Retrieved 2010-10-10. 
  20. ^ Marmion A Tale of Flodden Field by Walter Scott. Retrieved 17 April 2007.
  21. ^ "For Embro' wells are grutten dry" Elegy On the Year 1788, Robert Burns