What’s in a Name?

Edinburgh, nicknamed Auld Reekie1 .  A name recognised throughout the world.  Scotland’s capital city since 1437.  But Edinburgh has only existed in name for less than 1000 years.  What does it mean?  What was it called previously?  Well, the second part of the name is easy enough to explain.  Burgh, a Scots word meaning City- though sometimes town or castle.  So Edin-City is a literal translation of the name so far.  But where does the Edin originate?2

This is where it gets complicated.

Edwyn’s Town

A common tale is that it is named after a ruler, King Edwin (b. 586- d. 632 AD).  Edwin ruled Northumbriafig 1  from around 616 AD.  Northumbria was an area of land which once contained the South East of Scotland and the North east of England.  The city was named Din Eidyn at this time, which according to some sources translates to English as Edwyn’s Fort- Din meaning fort of course.  However, not only does the word Eidyn have another meaning, but it is also referred to as having existed in 600AD- when Edwyn was only 14 and Northumbria ruled by King Aethelfrith.  Another problem is that at this stage in history Din Eidyn is not part of Northumbria, in fact Northumbria won’t even exist in name until 654.

In 600, and for the whole of Edwin’s reign, the area is still the Kingdom of Bernicia, a smaller province compared to the much larger Northumbria which was formed when the Kingdom of Bernicia and the southern Kingdom of Deira were united.  The Kingdoms were united during the reign of Edwyn’s predecessor Aethelfrith, but the name Northumbria is not used until after his death.

And it gets even more complicated.  Bernicia was not the original name for the area either.  The natural inhabitants, who were invaded and conquered by the Angles and incorporated into Bernicia, where the Welsh Goddodin tribe.  The Goddodin had also referred to Edinburgh as Din Eidyn.  So we have the name being used in the 6th century- before Edwyn was even born!  Before Northumbria existed, before even Bernicia had become the dominant state.

City of the Welsh?

So, if Din Eidyn does not mean Edwin’s Fort, then what does it mean?  Well, the fort part is right.  Din does indeed mean fort3.  But what of the Eidyn part?  There is a lot of debate over what Eidyn actually means, and the suggestions are ten a penny.  What is certain, is that the name has been in existence long before Edwin came along, some sources say as early as 350 AD.  Eidyn is actually a Welsh name and makes more sense in that case to originate with the Welsh Goddodin as opposed to the Anglicised Britons of Bernicia.  Eidyn could well be a personal name and it had certainly been used as a surname by some rulers, most likely to denote where they were from.

Popular translations of Eidyn have included Ridge, Slope and “clings to the side of a rock”.  Considering Edinburgh is built on 7 hills, and the fort being rather prominent on Castle Hill, maybe the Rock/ Slope translation is indeed the correct definition.  This is also confirmed by the fact that the similar sounding Gaelic word Eideanndoes indeed mean “Rock Face”  But whatever Eidyn translates as, one thing is certain- Edwyn had nothing to do with it.



1: Auld Reekie is a nickname that originated in the 19th century.  It refers to the fact that, due to pollution from chimneys and smoke, a thick cloud was said to be seen from several miles away.  Auld Reekie translates as Old Smoky and not Old Stinky as many visitors to the city believe.

2: Edinburgh is the English name for the city and has been used since it first appeared on a charter dated 1124.  It most likely came to be known by that name sometime between 1018, when Malcolm II annexed it into his growing nation that would come to be known as Scotland, and 1124.

3: Din and Burgh basically mean the same thing.  Eidyn is the linking word Din Eidyn and Edinburgh both translate as the same thing- Fort of the Rock Face.

4: This is most likely the correct spelling.

Fig 1:  Northumbria (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kingdom_of_Northumbria.png)

Selected bibliography:

Mackay, George.  Scottish Place Names.  Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2000.

Rampant Scotland. “Did you Know?- Scotland’s Cities.”

http://www.rampantscotland.com/know/blknow_cities.htm (4th Dec. 2009.)

Somerset Fry, Plantagenet.  The Kings and Queens of England & Scotland.  Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1990.

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