Cauther: The land of hard waters

Article in Konect Directory Calders edition February 2011

by John Wilkinson

Mid Calder, East Calder, West Calder. Three separate villages. In the Scots tongue they’re each called Cauther. Together they’re known as The Calders. We use the names so often that we hardly think about them. But what does Calder mean? 

 Until the local government ‘rationalisation’ of the mid-1970s, The Calders (including Pumpherston and Kirknewton) were part of Midlothian, as they had been for centuries. Apart from Pumpherston they were always divided from West Lothian by the River Almond.

Almond is a word we’re familiar with: a type of eye-shaped ‘nut’ (the kernel of a stone-fruit) grown on an almond tree, and used in cooking. If we pound it into a paste with sugar we get marzipan for Christmas cakes. But our river has nothing at all to do with marzipan, or even almonds. So why does it look like it does? And what does it really mean?

            A clue: marzipan is marzapane in Italian, marcepaine in French, and was long called marchpane in English. Different languages change the basic word to suit. So which languages do Calder and Almond come from?

            To answer these questions we have to delve into ancient history. The science of genetics tells us that our ancestors have been here since the Ice Age. In the 12,000 or so years since then, many languages have spread into our small islands. We have no idea what the earliest ones might have been, and they could have come from anywhere: we were still part of the continent in those days. There is genetic evidence for early links with the Mediterranean, or even further east.

            The earliest languages died out, and two of the more recent ones (Manx and Cornish) followed recently, though their fans are giving them the kiss of life. Four remain, three of them Celtic*[1]Irish, Scottish Gaelic (which grew out of Irish) and Welsh. The fourth, English, is called a Germanic language, but it too is related to Celtic in complex ways, and owes much to the Normans. Scots is its big sister. All have had an influence in West Lothian.

We can tell this from a study of place-names. A place-name is like a snapshot that keeps things as they were while they themselves change: like a photograph of a blonde girl with ringlets and ribbons who’s now a grey-haired 90-year-old lady with a stick. And like an archaeological dig, place-names can lead us back through different levels of history to the time when the photo was taken, when the place-name was coined.

Almond looks English, but it isn’t. That’s because it’s been handled so much over the years (like a much-looked-at photo). The first record of it is from 1420, when it was written down as Aumonde. In 1556 it was Awmond and had become Almond by 1593, though we know it was pronounced Ammon in 1843, which is how local folk still say it.

Like many river-names, it’s one of our oldest, and might date back as far as the Bronze Age or beyond: in other words it could be over 4000 years old, coming from a language that place-name scholars call ‘Old European’, that they think perhaps grew into Celtic here. The river Aman in Wales has the same name, because the same language was used all over what we now call ‘Britain’.

Long before it got confused with a nut, Almond started out as something like Ambona, where amb- refers to ‘the water’ and -ona makes the water both ‘female’ and ‘great’: we could call our river ‘big female water’, ‘Great Water Lady’ or even ‘Great River Goddess’. While we still treat rivers as sewage drains, our Celtic ancestors saw a source of life and a divinity in our waters and respected them. So next time you say the river-name Almond, think: I am using a Bronze Age artefact that is not only ancient, but holy!

Calder looks Scottish, but it isn’t. Here we run into problems: it’s actually Welsh. This needs some explanation. It doesn’t mean the Welsh came up here, named it and were chased back to Wales by angry locals with spears. Place-names don’t change that way.

Most people’s history starts with the Romans. When they were here about 2000 years ago, the whole island had long been inhabited by Britons, who spoke British. We used to call them ‘Ancient Britons’. Those who lived in the unconquered northern part became known as Picts, and their language evolved into Pictish. To the south it evolved into Brythonic, sometimes called Cumbric as it lived on in Cumberland and Wales, called Cymru in Welsh (pronounced Cumrie). As the Romans only manned our Antonine Wall for about a generation, Lothian was on the edge of empire and shared elements of both Pictish and Brythonic, which were closely related in any case.

After Gaelic came, originally from Ireland, Pictish died out around 900AD, but Brythonic went on developing into Welsh, and was still spoken in Lothian when the Normans arrived less than a thousand years ago. It survived perhaps as late as 1300, though by this time it was low status. William Wallace, whose surname means ‘Welshman’, may have known it. It’s important to remember that our ancestors spoke Brythonic before they spoke Gaelic, then Scots. This is a surprise to some, as this sort of history isn’t taught in schools.

In Norman times (1153) Calder was written Caledouir, in 1170 Kaledofre and Kaldover in 1178. Caled is ‘hard’ in Welsh (as in Caledonia), and dwfr (‘doover’) is ‘water’ (Dover in England comes from the same word). By the 1700s, changing all the time, it had become Cather, but in British times it would have been something like Caleto-dubras ‘hard waters’, named for the Almond and the two other rivers that make Midcalder an almost-island at the heart of The Calders, with its own old centre around Calder House, the Kirk of Calder, St Mungo’s Well and the ancient mound called The Cunnigar, or Witches’ Knowe.


West Lothian Place-Names was published in 1992. The first edition of 1000 sold out and is now online and free for all at www.cyberscotia\west-lothian-place-names.

This work is being updated and an expanded second edition currently being prepared. It will examine as many place-names as possible, including field-names and other names not always found on maps (such as The Given JawThe Leeden  [Leyden] Brae).

If you know of any local place-names of any sort, old or new, or wish to help in collecting them, please get in touch either via Konect or to

Every contribution used will be acknowledged.

[1] Celtic pronounced Keltik and nothing to do with Old Firm football. 

© Lothian Publications Ltd 2014