Questions unanswered over Selkirk’s earliest history

It is admirable that some more of the history of Selkirk is at last being unearthed by excavation but it is important to question some of the prevailing assumptions, expressed in the letter from Walter Elliot (February 28) which are unsupported by evidence and at least offer an alternative 
theory.

Firstly, the name of Selkirk, in the opinion of Roman scholars such as Professor David Breeze and others, may derive from the Selgovae tribe who inhabited this region. The Solway may get its name from the same source. The belief in the Anglo-Saxon origin of Selkirk’s name is just a theory for which there is little evidence.

The comprehensive History of Selkirkshire compiled by Thomas Craig Brown in 1886 predated the knowledge and discovery of Trimontium in 1911 and the fact that the Borders was a very active area in Roman times. The 1949 discovery of Oakwood fort additionally put Selkirk slap bang on a road between the two Roman forts and in the middle of Selgovae territory.

It was the custom in Roman times to have an annual parley with the native tribes at a specified place or “locus”. For example, the Manau stone and the Clochmaben Stane have been identified as the “loci” respectively for the Manau Votadini inhabiting the Clackmannan area and the Locus Maponensis of the Maponi tribe around Gretna. The Locus Selgovensis, the meeting place for the Selgovae which, along with the others, was listed by early second century geographers, has never been identified. It could easily be from where Selkirk got its name. The locus would have been at a convenient spot not far from Trimontium and on the same side of the Tweed for easy Roman access (and if necessary escape from the reportedly belligerent Selgovae). Selkirk is such a 
place.

Existence of the local Celtic tribes and the Roman past of the area were unknown to Craig Brown in 1886 so he is excused for trying to explain Selkirk’s name, as he does, by importing an Anglo-Saxon word “scheles” for the “Sel” part. About the “Kirk” part there is no argument. Craig Brown’s received wisdom does need some updating.

So Selkirk is just as likely to have got its name from a persistence from Roman times as it is to have got it from an undocumented Anglo-Saxon origin. This would put Selkirk’s history back a further 700 or 800 years and fits with King David’s 12th century statement that Selkirk was ‘my ancient town’.

Likewise, and secondly, there is no evidence at all that the site of the abbey was where the ruined Lindean Church now stands. The much relied upon suggestion that the name of the nearby Batts field and burn refers to “Selkirk Abbatis”fails to convince when one realises that there are Batts near churches in many places in Scotland for instance, in Galashiels and St Andrews. The batts or “butts”were places where, by law, archery was practised in mediaeval times, usually after the Sunday service at a site nearby the church. That the abbey being in the Kilncroft area makes much more sense.

Archaeological digs could reveal much more history round Selkirk; it is a pity that the serendipitous need for a drainage pipe at Philiphaugh and not a thirst for accurate knowledge was the catalyst for another fascinating discovery. Perhaps the road to knowledge is via more drainage pipes! Lindean Church, Selkirk Castle and Whisky Castle in Kilncroft don’t need pipes – more’s the pity!

Dr Lindsay Neil

Selkirk