Bodotria c.80 Tacitus Agricola, ch. 23 [the Clyde and the Forth (Clota et Bodotria) are separated by a narrow distance]
Boderiae Aest c.150 Ptolemy [with Aest for Latin aestuarium ‘estuary’]
merin Iodeo ? early medieval Gododdin MS B 27 [13th c.; Cardiff Free Library, Cardiff 1; see Jackson 1969]
Mur nGuidan 800 x 900 CGSH 722.106 [mid-12th c., Book of Leinster; ‘Mothers of the Saints’ tract defining the area held by St Serf ‘eter Sliabh Nocel (for nOcel) 7 Mur nGuidan’ (‘between the Ochil Hill(s) and the Firth of Forth’)]3
Mur nGuidna 800 x 900 CGSH 722.106 [late 14th c., Book of Uí Mháine; ‘Mothers of the Saints’ tract]
Mur nGiudan 800 x 900 CGSH 722.106 [late 14th c., Book of Lecan; ‘Mothers of the Saints’ tract]
Ihwdenemur c.850 x 1152 St Andrews Foundation Legend B, Wolf. 1 [late 13th or early 14th c. copy]
ripas uadorum Forthin 971 x 995 Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (Anderson 1980, 253) [14th c. copy; ‘the banks of the fords of Forth’ (now known as the Fords of Frew)]
co Forcu x 1057 Lebor Bretnach (van Hamel 1932, 14) [ms. late medieval, Book of Lecan; for Fort(h)u (o crich Chat co Forcu ‘from Caithness or Sutherland to Forth’); translated by Skene ‘from the region of Cat to Forchu’ (1867, 43). ES i, cvii, footnote 2, final paragraph, tentatively suggests reading this as Foirtriu, which can safely be rejected]
co Foirchiu x 1057 Lebor Bretnach (van Hamel 1932, 14) [ms. c.1400 Book of Ballymote; for Foirthiu; see previous entry]
fer ic Foirthe x 1120 O’Brien 1952, verse 22 [ms. c.1120; ‘men at (the) Forth’]
Forthe na fledól x 1120 O’Brien 1952, verse 49 [ms. c.1120; ‘king of (the) Forth of the carousing’]
usque in Scotwad c.1163 Vita S. Oswaldi, 339 [quod in Scottorum lingua Forth nominatur (‘which is called Forth in the language of the Scots’)]4
in Foreth 1163 x 1164 RRS i no. 243 [= Scone Lib. no. 5; ‘a net in the Forth at Stirling’ (unum rete in Foreth apud Striuelin)]
flumen Fordense 1175 x 1199 . Vita Kentigerni (Jocelin) Ch. 11
amnem que Forthe nuncupatur c.1200 Vita Sancti Servani (Macquarrie 1993, 140) [‘the river which is called Forth’]
inn eptir Myrkvafirði c.1200 Orkneyinga saga c.83 [‘in along the Firth of Forth’ (Myrkvafjörðr)]5
Froch 1202 x 1214 De Situ Albanie (Anderson 1980, 242) [14th c.; presumably for *Froth; see discussion Forth 4. below]
Werid 1202 x 1214 De Situ Albanie (Anderson 1980, 242) [14th c. copy; for more on this, see discussion below]
Scottewatre 1202 x 1214 De Situ Albanie (Anderson 1980, 242) [14th c. copy; see also discussion Forth 5. below]
usque ad mare Frisicum quod nunc vocatur Scotticum 1265 x 1295 Florence of Worcester vol. ii, 250 (John of Eversden) [‘as far as the Frisian Sea, which is now called the Scottish (Sea)’. See discussion Forth 5. below]
mare Scotie 1265 x 1295 Florence of Worcester vol. ii, 250 (John of Eversden) [the northern limit of Bernicia as ruled by King Oswald, the southern limit being the Tyne (Tina)]
Forth 1471 x 1479 Wallace vol. i, 11
Forthae Aestuarium 1654 Blaeu (Pont) West Fife
The Fyrth of Forth 1654 Blaeu (Pont) West Fife
Forthae Aestuarium 1654 Blaeu (Gordon) Fife
The Fyrth of Forth 1654 Blaeu (Gordon) Fife
Forth River 1783 Stobie

The river and firth or estuary, which takes its name from the river, has had a variety of names in the different languages spoken on its shores through the ages. The most extensive discussion of these names, all of which are listed above, can be found in Watson 1926, 51–4.

The following forms can be identified, and will be dealt with chronologically.

1. Bodotria etc., from Classical sources, Watson would derive from a Celtic root which produced Old Irish bodar, modern G bodhar ‘deaf’, Welsh byddr, and which in connection with water means both ‘silent’ and ‘sluggish’ (1926, 52). This is certainly an apt descriptor of the River Forth as it meanders through the carselands of Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire. Watson states that this name has no linguistic connection at all with any of the later names. There are several other proposed etymologies, both pre-Celtic and Celtic, which are discussed in detail by Rivet and Smith (1979, 269–71, under ‘Bodotria (?)’), including Watson’s, which they suggest ‘should not be too hastily dismissed’. Another Celtic possibility, based on a Ptolemy variant Bogderia, might be that the name contains the root *bogdo- ‘bend, curve’, again very appropriate to much of the river (ibid. 271); while Andrew Breeze has recently suggested a plausible emendation to *Boudra or (later) *Bodra ‘dirty one’ (Scottish Place-Name News Spring 2006). G. R. Isaac is of the opinion that there is too much doubt as to the underlying form to allow any meaningful interpretation.6

2. ‘The sea of Iudeu’ appears in both Irish (e.g. Mur nGuidan) and Welsh (e.g. merin Iodeo) sources. In the form from the St Andrews Foundation Legend B, Ihwdenemur, the order of generic and specific is reversed, ‘Iudeu sea’, with Iudeu perhaps used adjectivally. This structure is the same as in Slethemur, the accompanying name for the Firth of Tay. While the Legend exists as a mid-twelfth-century text, there is a much older stratum of names, both place- and personal, which goes back to the Pictish period, so Ihwdenemur may well represent a Pictish name for the Firth of Forth, just as Slethemur seems to preserve uniquely a Pictish name for the Firth of Tay.

Iudeu is generally accepted as the British name for Stirling. The evidence for this identification is most extensively set out by Kenneth Jackson (1981).7 As Jackson points out, the orthography of Middle Irish muir nGiudan (from CGSH 722.106, ‘on the mothers of the saints’) must derive from Bede’s Old English Giudi (Jackson 1981, 6 fn. 19). There are dissenting voices as to the identification of Iudeu etc. with Stirling, but on the present evidence I would accept Jackson’s identification.8

3. Forth. As mentioned above, Watson states that there is no linguistic connection between Bodotria and Forth, which first appears (in G form) as Forthin in a text which dates back to the late tenth century.9 This is probably correct, the main obstacle to making any link being the initial sound, which for Forth would have been in early Celtic, as well as in later Pictish, the semi-vowel u, whereas the forms from Classical sources clearly have initial b, representing a labial stop. Watson suggests for Forth an underlying *uo-rit-ia ‘slow-running one’. The British or Welsh reflex of this name is Werid, for which see below.

4. Scotwad (Vita S. Oswaldi) might be taken as a transmission error for *Scotwater etc. were it not for Scotorum Vadum ‘ford of the Scots’, in a late twelfth c. chronicle from Yorkshire, which A. O. Anderson identifies as the Forth (SAEC 68); while the two northern English recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1072 have ‘æt tham Gewæde’ (MS E) and ‘ofer thæt Wæth’ (MS D), and the Annals of Waverley have ‘apud Scodwade’ (SAEC 95). All these contain variations of Old English (ge)wæd ‘ford’. If these references are indeed to the Forth, then they probably refer to the Fords of Frew west of Stirling (a view strongly argued by Breeze 1992). Alternatively there may have been confusion in an English-speaking environment between Forth and English ford ‘ford’. This confusion could only have been made by writers ignorant of the geography of east central Scotland. The matter is further complicated, however, by the unequivocal use by both Fordun and Bower of Scotiswath to refer to the Solway. In Scotichron. Bk. 2, ch. 2 (vol. 1, 170–1) Fordun writes: ‘rivers such as the Forth, which is also called the southern firth or the Scottish sea, and the river Esk, which is called Scotiswath or Solway’.10 In Scotichron. Bk. 3, ch. 7 (vol. 2, 18–19), in a description of Hadrian’s Wall, Bower himself writes: ‘extending to the river Esk, which is also at other times called Scotiswath’.11

5. In a description of Scotland written c.1200,12 known by its opening words as De situ Albanie (‘On the lay-out of Scotland’) the Forth is referred to in four different languages. The passage, which is describing Fife, is as follows: ‘ab illa aqua optima que scottice uocata est Froch, britannice Werid, romane uero Scottewatre id est aqua Scottorum quia regna Scottorum et Anglorum diuidit et currit iuxta oppidum de Striuelin usque ad flumen aliud nobile quod uocatum est Tae’. That is: ‘from that very good water which in Gaelic is called Forth (*Froth), in British Werid, in French Scottewatre,13 that is water of the Scots, because it divides the kingdoms of the Scots and the English and runs beside the town of Stirling, as far as the other noble river which is called Tay’. This explanation of the name ‘water of the Scots’ is found also in John of Eversden’s late thirteenth-century continuation of the Chronicon e Chronicis of Florence of Worcester et al. The whole passage reads: ‘Nordhumbria est a magno flumine Humbro (vocata a rege Hunorum, Humber ibi vocato) usque ad mare Frisicum quod nunc vocatur Scotticum, quia Anglos et Scottos dividit’. That is: ‘Northumbria is from the great river Humber (named from the king of the Huns, there called Humber) as far as the Frisian Sea, which is now called the Scottish (Sea), because it divides the English and the Scots’.14

At the same time Eversden uses yet another name for the Firth of Forth, mare Frisicum ‘the Frisian Sea’. This name he explains as follows: ‘It was called of old the Frisian Sea, because the Frisians with the Danes often and very frequently used to land there with there ships, and afterwards along with the Picts and Scots used to ravage Northumbria’.15 Eversden is drawing here on an earlier tradition which is found in various recensions (editions) of the Historia Brittonum, a text which ultimately dates to the early ninth century. In the best witness (BM Harleian 3859), which dates from c.1100, the following statement occurs in relation to the Anglo-Saxon settlement in the north, following the summoning by Hengist (Hencgistus) and Vortigern (Guorthigirnus) of Hengist’s son Octha and nephew Ebissa to fight against the Scots (contra Scottos) and to settle in regions ‘which are in the north next to the wall which is called Guaul’.16 Octha and Ebissa duly arrive with 40 ships, ‘and when they had sailed against the Picts they laid waste the Orkney Islands and came and occupied many regions beyond the Frenessic Sea’.17 Slightly later recensions called this sea the Frisian Sea (mare Fresicum), and a twelfth-century gloss has added after it ‘which is now between us and the Scots’ (qui inter nos Scottosque est), obviously referring to the Firth of Forth. The Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum (known as Lebor Bretnach), which dates from the eleventh century, has a different take on this, describing the Muir Frisegda as the sea which is to the north of the Gael (.i. muir fil a leith fri Gaedealu fotuaid).18 There is still some way to go before we can fully understand what the earliest authors of this text had in mind when they wrote mare Frenessicum and mare Fresicum, but there is no doubt that at least in some traditions it came to be understood as the Firth of Forth, and it is this tradition which Eversden follows.

6. Myrkvafjörðr. This is used to refer to the Firth of Forth in the thirteenth-century ON text Orkneyinga saga, mentioned in connection with events dating to the first half of the twelfth century.19 ON myrkvi (gen. sing. myrkva), cognate with English ‘mirk’, is mostly used with the meaning ‘thick fog’ rather than ‘darkness’, and probably refers to the haar or thick coastal fog which is such a common feature of the Firth of Forth in the summer months. The second element is ON fjörðr, dative firði ‘firth’, thus the whole name may be translated ‘haar firth’. However, the matter is complicated by the existence of Myreford in the late eleventh- or early twelfth-century Durham text ‘De Primo Saxonum vel Normannorum Adventu’. In the section on the succession of the earls of the Northumbrians from the mid-tenth century, we are told that in the time of King Edgar of England (957–75) Eadwulf called Evilchild was placed over the Northumbrians from the Tees as far as Myreford (Eadulf cognomento Yvelcild a Teisa usque Myreford preponitur Northymbris), with one of the early manuscripts of this text having the form Myreforth (Historia Regum 2, 382). A. O. Anderson identifies this as the Firth of Forth, following Skene, who would read Myrcford, thus seeing it as an adaptation of the ON Myrkvafjörðr (SAEC 77 and footnote 3). Geoffrey Barrow, however, argues that it cannot be the Forth, and suggests that it was a crossing of the Tweed (1973, 153, quoted by Duncan 1975, 96, footnote 37). A. A. M. Duncan, while agreeing that it cannot be the Forth, states that it ‘is, surely, the Solway’. This identification seems to rests wholly on his interpretation of the names Myreford or Myreforth and Solway, both of which he would argue contain words for ‘mud’ (ON mýrr ‘mire, bog’ and OE sol ‘mud’). There are, however, problems with this, and the authors of the Place-Names of Cumberland suggest a more plausible derivation of Solway (thirteenth-century forms of which are Sulewad, Sulewat, Sulway, Sulewaht and Solwath) from ON súl ‘pillar’, referring to the Lochmaben Stone which marked the Scottish end of the ford, and ON vað ‘ford’ (39–40). All in all, the identification of Myreford etc. with the Firth of Forth should not be ruled out.

The many rocks and islands in the Forth are dealt with under their respective parishes: Car Craig, Craigdimas, Haystack, Meadulse and Oxcars, are all dealt with under ABO, Inchkeith under KGH, Isle of May under ANR.

The NGR is of a point roughly mid-way between North Berwick on the south shore of the Firth of Forth and Earlsferry on the north.


This place-name appeared in printed volume 1