|The Queensberry Hill from the Ae Forest|
Queensberry - What’s in a Name
Seen from Dumfries and the Annandale valley, the Queensberry is a conical hill, rising above the foothills of the Ae and Kinnel Rivers. It sits alone, and is distinct from the other hills, rising like a fecund belly.
I believe that landmarks, such as the Queensberry, were singled out as ‘manifestations’ of the divine in ancient times. In Scotland, the names of some hills, such as Caisteal na Caillich in Aberdeenshire, and hills called paps, are references to an ancient goddess.
This being the case, my idea about the Queensberry isn’t so outlandish.
But this hill had me stumped: did the Duke of Queensberry, and his estate, come from a family name, or was he named after the area? I set to work, ploughing through local antiquarian society records. From 1882 there is a reference to Queenshill, or Queensberg, in the description of a members’ outing. I also discovered that the first Earl of Queensberry, Sir William Douglas, was Viscount of Drumlanrig (1637-1695). The land was bequeathed to him during a visit by King Charles I, in 1633. Douglas built Drumlanrig Castle, but lived in Sanquhar castle.
I figured that I needed to find out if the hill’s name was Queensberry before William’s title. The best way to check this was to rifle through the National Library of Scotland’s online map vault. This is an amazing resource for anyone interested.
After much trawling, I found a hand drawn map by Timothy Pont, dated between 1583-96. Pont was a Fife man, who studied at St. Andrews in the 1500s. He undertook a mission to produce maps of Scotland and get them published, creating the first proper maps of the country. In the sketch of the area in question, Pont names the conical hill as Queensberry - so the hill existed before the title. With a large grin on my chops, I ticked that box and moved on. What next? How about looking at the origins of the name?
Etymologically let’s break it down:
Queensberry, Queensberg, Quenysbery, (c. 1485, Wallace).
Queen - cwēn, Old English = a particular queen, or simply meaning ‘woman’.
In Proto-Celtic: Ben, proto Indo-European, *gwenh = woman.
Anglo Saxon - cenē, plural, cweneēs. Prot Germanic - *kwenō - kwenōniz = Queen
Old Irish ben, Irish - bean, Celtic bena.
Berry - Berg, Old English = A hill.
|Queensberry from the Blue Cairn|
The History of the Land
The area was once Old Welsh speaking and of Brythonic Celtic origin - culminating in the kingdom of Rheged, which stretched as far as Carlisle and Stranraer. However, by the 6th Century A.D. the kingdom had fallen under the rule of the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia.
The lands around the Queensberry, which includes the Forest of Ae, are still very much wilderness. The foothills that skirt the fertile Vale of Annandale, bordering the Kinnel to the east of this wilderness, and the the hills that gird Nithsdale to the west, are dotted with settlements, hill forts, enclosures and other archaeological remains. Cairns, such as Long Cairn, are situated in the heights. The rugged foothills have been lived on for centuries, for the lower ground was mostly bog and marsh.
Where ancient settlements existed in the pre-Christian past, we must assume that there was provision for each community’s needs; shelter, trade, food and worship. The Celts were known for their religious groves, but less so for their temples. It was said they worshipped in the open air. Geography, not buildings, were of importance to these tribespeople, especially pre-iron-age.
It is nature that governs the choices of the sacredness of the terrain. A distinct landmark draws symbolic anchors. The stories carried by the peoples was transposed onto their settled locations, and, as new stories came, these were similarly woven into the landscape. The earth was no dead thing; it was animate, alive. Everything had its spirit, every fold in the land desired explanation. Some places just have presence. They affect us, draw us, almost inexplicably, like a mountain peak, a shard of rock. Heights draw the eye.
The Queensberry hill, isolated from other hills, and therefore iconically distinct, formed a symbolic centre. I feel that this sacredness is hinted at in the name, and also location of the hill.
|Queensberry rising above the forest and the windmills|
The Otherworldly Heights
The highlands, the peaks and the wilderness possessed an otherworldly aura to the ancient tribes. Here the liminal zone was one where boundaries between the mundane and the sublime were crossed. There’s a reason that the Bronze-agers chose to bury their dead on the hilltops. This was the realm of the gods and spirits, to which they consigned their ancestors, thus weaving their communities into the drama of the living land. These places were where commune was possible with the dead, with spirits and even their deities.
This is not to single the Queensberry out as the only such hill. Of course not. The landscape of Greece abounds with sacred landscapes references - mountains, springs, rivers, etc - the Bronze-age British landscape was no different. There would be many sacred landscapes, pivoting on a sacred central point, with other sites radiating from it, according to myth and religious needs of the community. This template is still found in tribal societies and known from others in antiquity.
This idea is important. In an age where everything it steadily commoditised, we need to regain this sense of sacred linking with the land. If we did see the landscape with a sense of awe, surely we'd respect it better? If the stories of your ancestors were woven into the basic tapestry of the land (your gods, your spirits), wouldn’t this make you less likely to abuse it?
We can gain an immense sense of wonder at the science of it all, for sure. But when I walk amongst the wild, and walk the silent tracks, the Queensberry nudging into view, until it squats like a giant tumulus across the span of the horizon, I feel a sense of that awe that is ‘other’. The awe that is immeasurable, unconfined and wells from deep within.
1 - The Transactions & Proceedings of the Dumfries & Galloway Scientific, Natural History Antiquarian Society - 1880-83, 1896-7, 1993
2 - Celtic Place Names in the Borders - May Gordon Williamson
3 - An Etymological Lexicon of Proto-Celtic - Matasovic
4 - The Anglo Saxon Charms - Felix Grendon
5 - Gallo-Brittonic Etymological Dictionary - Edward Hatfield
6 - European Paganism - Ken Dowden
7 - Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic; Landscapes, Monuments & Memory - Mark Edmonds
8 - Cosmos & History - Eliade Mircea