th’ fleety wud

'A river separates water and so it should.' – Gertrude Stein

th’ fleety wud is a place-aware mapping of the Upper Teviot watershed from the source at Teviot Stone to the Rule Water. It’s a new project that continues my collaboration with Gill Russell; we’re working with assistance from Kate McAllan, and referring to Douglas Scott’s online survey, A Hawick Wordbook, as a resource.  In a wider sense the context for the work is the turn towards understanding or reading the landscape anew, which I call place-awareness – if this movement is a response to cultural nationalism, then it's also, more importantly, a concern to understand human dwelling and our relation to earthothers  in the context of the climate change crisis.

th’ fleety wud extends my work with place-name translation as a means to pursue ecopoetics, looking into the specific issues of the watershed and flooding. My friends at CABN coordinated the project as part of a wider body of work in response to the damaging floods of 2005, and it will evolve in tandem with those – in other words, we will all be worrying about public art and wishing we could plant more trees.

the river has water in it
the rain has flooding in it

The title comes from one of the place-names I found in Douglas Scott’s Wordbook: th’ fleety wud, or Fleety Wood, as the name appears on the OS map. The meaning is most likely The Flooding Wood. This post includes photographs from our first field trip, a walk down the Slitrig Water from Shankend, along the old railway line, to find the wood, understand the name, and map the tributaries (or, the tributaries, of the tributary, of The Teviot).

 Fleety Wood and the Slitrig Water (KM)
It’s not Fleety Wood that floods but the haugh below. The Slitrig Water is described as an idyll in the old Gazeteer, as 'a troutful rivulet with shelving descents, bold green heights, and little haughs tutted with woods'; but its spates are part of the flood problem in Hawick. In my mapping I give the name of this rith as cut-a-way water, derived from W.S. Robson:

Jeffrey in History or Roxburghshire derives Slitrig from OE slitan, a narrow cut or cleft, and rig, a back or high line of ground. He says the name Slitrig signifies a stream which runs through a narrow opening or slit in the rig or ridge of hills, but this derivation is unfortunately based on a corruption of the river’s name. The earliest form is Slitrith and rith is OE for stream. The first element in the name may be OE slite, a straight and narrow cut or incision, or it may be a shortened form of Slittrer, to slide, to glide. In the latter case Slit rith may signify a stream that seems to glide. In the former case the word Slit may express the action of the rith upon the hills, literally a rith or stream that cuts it way through.

Cogsmill Burn (AF)

This is Scott’s summary of the names, most of which we visited.

The river rises in several headwaters, Flosh Burn and Leap Burn meeting, becoming Lang Burn and being joined by Langside Burn where the Slitrig proper starts. After that it is joined by: Hope Sike; Penchrise Burn; Gibby’s Sike; Cogsmill Burn; Barnes Burn; Pagton Burn; Horsley Burn; Acreknowe Burn; Flex Burn and the Smaile Burn…

Acreknowe Burn (AF)

th’ fleety wud is a critical analysis of the watershed itself, and the models of culture and consciousness that arise from it.

a map of kinship

a model of consciousness:

a unique vascular pattern

The watershed is also an invitation to walk in a different way. As Kate and I made our way down the Slitrig over two days of cloud and sun we both felt our awareness slip from the road and views of the hills, into the details of waters and sykes, burns hidden among umbrellas of Burdock, glinting in pinewoods, or wittering in a meadow. We had first of all to find the burns, crossing and re-crossing the Slitrig, climbing wire fences, finding gates, figuring out how the road followed the river that made the valley.

The mood sounds idyllic, and it was, but the import was the delays of the burn; how they related to spated alluvials; how that quality of slowness, that richness of vegetation, were the obvious biodiverse solutions to flooding. The microtonal is opposed to the monocultural; the solution is rooted in the banks of the river.

Our second day ended with a crossing of the Slitrig to find flowerless yellow flags by the confluence with the Pagton, and then flowers beyond that, and a fleet hare. And a final leap across rocks to the tiny Smaile or Small Burn, opposite the housing estate at the edge of town.

Pagton (AF)

This toponymic mapping project continues work I’ve done on the river-names as expressions of the force of water in the landscape, which can, in turn, be related to the current transition to renewable energy – the road north and skying feature the old Modernist hydro project, in particular the ‘water-garden’ at Dalchonzie, and my ongoing gathering project in The Cairngorms, discusses new community micro-hydro schemes, such as Corriemulzie.

waters focus the weather’s forces

the waters begin again and again
and again

the waters are all so nearly alike in their differences

in its motion the water adds time to the landscape

water-mint on Acreknowe burn: ‘the mint / makes islands / of our tongues’, (AF)

Gill and I have explored the river walk as one of the defining concepts of what I, teasingly, call The New Walking. A model for this is the naturalist William MacGillivray, who, in his writings on Upper Deeside published 1850, suggested the botanically minded should walk alongside a river to its source, making digressions, using the returning journey to carry out closer inspections of objects of interest. The learning comes in the to-and-fro, in the tasty details of ramsons, sorrels and water-mint, which slow the walk down.

the road goes from A-B
the path follows the burn
from S-B, to N-U, and R-

some walk the watershed by confluences
others go to the source of every tributary

the Slitrig Water at Fleety Wood, or Fluty Wud

The flow of water was something Stonypathians were acutely aware of. I grew up with a moorland water supply that turned baths brown every spate, was blocked by frogs stuck in the pipes every spring, and froze every winter. The folk of Hawick see the Teviot differently since the floods. Listening leads to learning.

when the witter’s doon the bath’s broon

‘look: the river is a water / listen: the river is a witter’ (AF)

Scott’s emphasis on Borders speech gives witter: Sc, water, i.e. river or loch, especially 'a watercourse, bigger than a stream but smaller than a river', and the witter-gate, which refers to a watershed ; also witter craw, Sc, dipper. Local voices define a poetics of the ear and tongue that is also knowledge of how things work. This is ecopoetics, not poems about nature, but knowledge embodied in sound and motion.


the river is
the river is

a water
a witter

 Langburn, before it becomes the Slitrig Water (KM)

th’ fleety wud is a work of wittering. It is through an understanding of names that we remember the river speaks, and learn again to listen.

the water never finishes what it has to say

sometimes the water cannot contain itself

the bends of the river are amplifications

an alluvial arc marks the spate

 Horsley Burn (AF)

In my Cairngorms work I’ve come to appreciate the Gaelic analysis of waters offered by such terms as caochan, allt, alltan, and feith. Now I am learning the alluvials of Brythonic and Old English of Borders Scots names, such as syke and hope.

names colour the watershed

a sike is a wetted crease hid in pale grass

place-names arise from nature
and are entirely artificial

names are best understood in their places

word-mntn (White Hill, AF)

The same set of local rules extends to hill names, as with pen, which is Welsh for hill; similar to the Gaelic ben, beinn. The languages are, of course, referred to as P and Q-Celtic. The pen element is rare, but occurs in names such as Penchrise Pen – a double hill – and Ettrick Pen.

The Law is a harder climb for some than others

mind your P’s and Q’s: a pen is a ben

a life is composed of howes and knowes 

Stell, Slitrig Water (KM)

I’ve come to think of the localism of language, or dialect, as a form of technology: names given in local elements and speech patterns impart specific meanings that speak to contexts, natural forms, and the potential of the landscape.

I grew up in hill farming country and behind Stonypath, on the route of our traditional family walk, there were three sheep fanks. Hereabouts, in the lands of Teviot, the names change, just like the shift from allt to burn, giubhais to fir or pine, that Ken and I recorded in Perthshire, in the road north.

a dividing wall: fank or stell

each glen wears the shelter of its stell as a lucky ring

there were fir-stells as well as drystane-stells

 the Upper Teviot watershed from Teviot Stone to Rule Water: Gill Russell, with Alec Finlay, 2017

The Upper Teviot watershed covers an extensive area so I decided to focus on a single tributary, the Slitrig Water, which flows directly into Hawick. Below I have listed the names, from the confluence with the Teviot to the source, with my initial translations for those that are not personal names, and which I was able to do.

Barnes Burn, near Stobs (KM)


SL01        SLITRIG WATER  cut-a-way river

SL02        SMAILE BURN  small burn

SL03        FLEX BURN  flecked burn

SL04        ACREKNOWE BURN  crop-patch knowe burn

SL05        HORSLEY BURN  horsegraze burn

SL05.1     MARCH SIKE  boundary rill


SL07        BARNES BURN  barns burn



SL09        GIBBY’S SYKE


SL11        PENCHRISE BURN  ringed hill burn

SL12        HOPE SIKE  dent rill

SL13        LANDSIDE BURN  longside burn

SL14        LANG BURN  long burn

SL15        LEAP BURN  lap burn

SL16        FLOSH BURN  mire burn

Some notes: Paul Brough helped us locate the Smaile Burn, based on Scott’s description of it ‘running underground from the Nipknowes to Haggishaa, with the original course being over the Vertish, and on to the Slitrig’. Williamson gives the Flex Burn as deriving from Scots fleckit, referring to broken, variegated land. The Acreknowe is, Scott says, probably from the Old English acweorn cnoll, meaning acorn hill, and indeed, he says there are the remains of an old oak wood. In contrast, in her thesis published in 1942 May G. Williamson gives this as OE æcer, cultivated land, or local dialect, aiker, sharp, keen, pointed, applied to the hill face. For now I plumped for the crop-patch theory, though these disputes are the poetry of toponymic studies, as we try to listen in to the speech of a distant era. As discussed already, Penchrise Pen is, Scott says, ‘a curious double use of the ancient p-Celtic root ‘pen’… a rare local survival of the old Brythonic or p-Celtic ‘pen’.' He supposes that the name possibly means the hill with the girdle, referring to the Iron Age fortifications, although the origin of ‘chrise’ is not at all clear. The DSL gives flush, flosh: piece of boggy ground, especially one where water frequently lies on the surface, a swampy place, a pool of water in a field.

Slitrig Water by Little France (AF)

Wandering through the OS map and the writings of Robson and Scott, I’ve begun to open up some of the playful, mimetic, and symbolic meanings of place-names within the region, revealing aspects of ecology and class, privilege and power, loss and potential. To me the significance of the names is that they suggest approaches to remediation and transformation, and offer a meeting ground for negotiating change.

a transformation
Hagburn to Hawk Burn

a change of heart
from Staney Burn to Honey Burn

an alteration in attitude
Hangingside to Hawthornside

a shift in perception
Woollee to Wolfelee

there are always names that refer to ‘them’, or ‘the others’

Laird’s Hill, exactly where you’d expect it
between Rut Head and Eldrig

planted in the right place
Cherry Cottage on Sunnyside

Some notes: Hagburn: Douglas Scott records this name in his Wordbook, meaning bird cherry (gean or hag), now Hawk Burn on the OS, west of Rubers Law. Honey Burn: Scott records the former name of this tributary of the Teviot as Staney Burn. Woollee: the change of name probably arose in the nearby farm, Wolfhopelee; according to Tancred’s Rulewater and its People. Wauchope: possibly from the name local Old English speakers used to refer to local Welsh speaking tribes by; hope, Sc, howe or hollow, and wahl, Old English, foreigner, serf. Rut Head and Eldrig are names relating to deer-hunting; an elrig, elrick, or eilrig is a natural deer trap.

Horsley Burn (KM)

every town once had its commonty… immemorially

in The Wightman Era we remember The Common Riding was a radical political action

bourtrees mark boundaries

over time Lover’s Loan becomes Lover’s Lane

a political sign:
the British Railways Boards hereby give note that this way is not dedicated to the public

Langside Burn from the viaduct at Shankend (AF)

the hill burn toddles down and falls
toddles down and falls
and falls

break the skin of the river

put your face though the water
listen to it witter

Penchrise Burn, by the railway (KM)

As an experiment, to close this post, I’ve gathered some of the orthographic renderings of the names – again, using Scott’s Wordbook as a source – to let the sounds have prominence.

h ar-s ık

h op-s ık


sli’-rik wi’-ur



th’ fleety wud
alec finlay with gill russell, 2017

the project will culminate in a publication in Autumn 2017

photography: AF, Alec Finlay; KM, Kate McAllan

funded by Creative Scotland, and commissioned by the Borders Heritage Festival (co-ordinated/supported by CABN)

With thanks to Jenna Corcoran, Mary Morrison, Claire Pencak, and Paul Brough.

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