Afton Water, Glen Afton

Place-name:Afton Water
Suggested Meaning:1. water-course, river 2. brown stream
W. afon ‘ water-course, river’
G. abhainn ‘water-course, river’
G. abhainn ‘stream’ + G. donn ‘brown’
S. water ‘large stream’
(as in heirarchy burn < water < river)
Place-name:Glen Afton
Suggested Meaning:valley of Afton
S. glen ‘valley’
Place-Name : Afton
Blaeu Coila (1654):Afton R.
OS Names (1855-1857):Afton Water, Glen Afton
Location:OS Map Six-inch Scotland 1888-1960
Other Early Forms
Afton R. (Blaeu Atlas, Coila Provincia, 1654), Achtoun flu. (Blaeu Atlas, Nithia Vicecomitatus, 1654), Water of Afton (Roy, Military Survey, 1752-55), Glen of Afton ( Armstrong, Ayrshire, 1775), Glen Afton Wr. (Ainslie, Map of Southern Scotland, 1821), Afton Water (Thomson, Ayrshire, Southern Part, 1828).


The Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-57) entry for Afton Water reads –

A rapid stream rising on Alhang Hill, the Boundary between Galloway and Ayrshire, and flowing in a northerly direction through Glen Afton, unites with the River Nith at the village of New Cumnock.

Map 1: Source of Afton (OS 1857) | Reproduced with permisson of the National Library of Scotland

The landscape changed dramatically in 1931 when Ayr County Council began work on creating the Afton Reservoir with the Afton Water dammed at Craigbraneoch Hill and four years later the Afton Water Works were formally opened. Forestry at the southern end of the reservoir were named Afton Plantations.

Map 2: Source of Afton (OS 1953) | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotalnd

Monthraw Burn was no longer a tributary of Afton Water, as both now entered directly into the reservoir.

Afton Water flows north through Glen Afton a distance of approximately 8 miles from its source, or 5 miles from the Afton Reservoir , until it meets with the River Nith at the heart of the village of New Cumnock.


  • The Roarin’ Linn ( Scots ‘noisy waterfall’) is not marked on any OS Map but is a favourite spot to visit.
  • Danny’s Brig is named after counciller Daniel Robertson and it replaced the ford on the path from West Park farm to Afton Road.
  • The Afton Water meets the River Nith at Pier Point, apparently barges for transporting gravel from further up the Nith were tied up here.


1. Welsh, Cumbric afon ‘water course-river”

The place-name afton may derive from one of the common Celtic forms that define a ‘water-course, river as summarised by W.F.H Nicolaisen [1].

The place-name Afton may be of Welsh, Cumbric, Brittonic origin as opposed to Gaelic that tends to yield the harder sounding ‘v’ names such as Avon in Avondale, now Strathaven (i.e. an equivalent of Glen Afton) .

  • afon (Welsh, Cumbric, Brittonic)
  • abhainn (Gaelic)
  • abann (Old Irish);
  • auon (Cornish, Breton)
  • abona (Gaulish)

Andrew Breeze identified a number of Ayrshire towns which were named after rivers including Ayr, Girvan and Irvine. He suggested that Cumnock fell into the same category from Welsh cymynog ‘hewing, cutting; slaying; hewer; slayer’, where the river name would have been afon cymynog [2]. Although Breeze did not identify the Afton Water, which flows past Cumnock Castle, as ‘the cutting one’, it does imply that the term afon ‘water’ would have been in use in the Cumnock area.

2. Gaelic abhainn ‘water-course, stream’ and Gaelic donn ‘brown

The Rev. James B. Johnston [3] suggests Afton Water, New Cumnock is probably Gaelic abh donn ‘brown stream, perhaps reflective of the Afton being in spate and its waters swollen from its tributataries gushing through peaty lands. Quite a contrast from Robert Burns observation in Sweet Afton [4] –

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides’.

Robert Burns, Sweet Afton (1791)


1. Scots water ‘large stream’

The Dictionaries of the Scots Language entry for water reads [5] –

WATER, n., v. Also watter, -ir. (1) A large stream, usu. thought of as intermediate in size between a burn and a river, freq. a tributary of a main river or occas. applied to the upper reaches of what becomes a larger river Freq. in river names as Water of Avon, Water of Ayr, Water (of) Esk, — (of) Eye, — of Leith, Allan Water, Luther Water, Fenwick Water, Ale Water, Rule Water, Gala Water.

Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd.

The addition of the pleace-name element water to Afton reflects there was no appreciation that this place-name already referred to a water feature.

In terms of water-course the order of magnitude is considered to be burn < water < river. Although there is a number of other waters in the parish of New Cumnock these are primarily associated with neighbouring parishes/counties – Deugh Water / Water of Deugh, Kello Water, Guelt Water and Black Water.

Other water tributaries of the River Nith as it makes it way to the Solway Firth include Kello Water, Crawick Water, Euchan Water, Mennock Water, Enterkin Burn, Carron Water, Cample Water, Scar Water and Cluden Water.

The word waters appears in the closing verse of “Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes” made famous by Robert Burns and often atrributed to New Cumnock born Tibby Pagan. Here, waters is used in the sense of a generic term for all water-courses [6] –

While waters wimple to the sea,
While day blinks in the lift sae hie,
Till clay-cauld death sall blin my e’e,
Ye sall be my dearie.

Robert Burns, Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes (1789)

However, it should be noted that Afton appears as Afton R., i.e. Afton River, in Blaeu Atlus, Coila Provincia (1654).

Map 3: Afton R. (Blaeu Coila Provincia 1654) |Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland


The Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-57) entry for Glen Afton reads –

A picturesque glen through which flows Afton Water. It bears its name from the source of the Afton ….to Afton Bridge.

Map 4: Glen Afton & Afton Wtaer (OS 1864) | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
farms of Glen Afton

The name appears as Glen of Afton in Amstrong’s Map of Ayrshire (1775)

Map 5: Glen of Afton (Armstong 1775) | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The form Afton Glen also appears occassionally. At the 41st Annual Reunion of New Cumnock Schoolfellows, held on the Town Hall on 31st December 1900, New Cumnock-born Thomas McWhirr, was in the chair. Now living at Queen’s Park, Glasgow his speech was brimming full of ideas to address his concern about the lack of ‘means for recreation and amusement in out native village’.

Prior to the reunion McWhirr had already taken the first step by writing to the superintendent of the G. & S. W. Railway requesting that a sign-board be erected at New Cumnock Station under the existing sign-board to the following effect “For Afton Glen”. Although his suggestion was rejected, he was informed that ‘the illustration and notice we already give of Afton Glen appeared for the first time in our last season’s Tourist Guide‘ and offered that if changes were to be made to the Guide, Mr McWhirr would be given the opportunity of providing ‘a more extended notice of Afton Glen than presently appears‘ [7] .

The form Afton Glen resurfaced in the 1970’s when C.W.Hall Ltd. Hosiery on the banks of the Afton Water changed hands and was renamed Afton Glen Textiles Ltd.

Afton Water from the roof of Afton Glen Textiles (Robert Guthrie 1978)

Scots glen ‘valley’

The Dictionaries of the Scots Language entry for glen reads [8] –

GLEN, n.1. A valley or hollow gen. traversed by a stream or river, usu. but not necessarily narrow and with steep sides; in longer rivers connoting the mountain valley in the upper reaches as opposed to the strath or broader vale below; in small streams, a dell or ravine, a den.

Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd
Glen Afton © Copyright Johnnie Colquhoun and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A single track road with passing places on the west of the Afton Water runs through spectacular scenery from the Afton Cemetery to the Afton Reservoir.

Glenafton Sanatorium

In December 1900, in order to address the large number of consumptive or tuberculosis cases in Ayrshire, a circular entitled ‘CONSUMPTIVE SANATORIA. A SCHEME FOR AYRSHIRE’ was sent to all the medical men in the County of Ayr‘ on behalf of the Directors of Ayr County Hospital, in which one of the considerations was ‘the want of a suitable establishment in or near the County of Ayr, where the modern treatment can be obtained by both sexes at a moderate cost‘ – with the money to be raised by public subscription [9].

By April 1903, a site on Ashmark farm in Glen Afton, some 800 feet above sea level and which also included parts of Carcow Glen, had been selected for the Ayrshire sanatorium [10].

Map 6. Glen Afton Sanatorium / Hospital |Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Three years later on the 30th June 1906, the Countess of Eglinton and Winton, wife of the Right Hon. the Earl of Eglinton and Winton, Lord Lieutenant of the County, officially opened the Glen Afton Sanatorium. At that the time there were 14 beds in the Sanatorium with scope for a further 40 beds as finances permitted [11]. Dr. John J. Shepherd was appointed resident medical superintendent and Miss Katherine M. Mackenzie as matron [12].

The Ayr Advertiser or West Country and Galloway Journal 10th Dec 1903 [13]

In 1908 the sanatorium was transferred to Local Government and was now referred to formally as the Ayrshire Sanatorium but still known locally as Glenafton (Glen Afton) Sanatorium. At that time Dr. Edward Prest succeeded Dr. Shepherd as the medical superintendent [14].

By the 1950’s there was now a decline in the need for TB treament as new medicines came to the fore and the Glenafton Sanatorium duly transformed to Glenafton Hospital, and the facilities modified, upgraded and expanded in order to provide care for chronically ill and geriatric patients. Ironically, however although this isolated spot in the rarefied air of Glen Afton was an ideal location for a sanatorium, its remoteness proved a burden to family and friends of those visiting patients in the hospital. In 1966 the current quota of patients was transferred to Biggart Hospital, Prestwick. Staff were relocated and Glenafton Sanatorium / Hospital was closed and after a review in March the following it was decided not to re-open the hospital [15,16].

Postcards and photos of the Sanatorium

Many of the buildings were demolished and the site redeveloped as Glenafton Caravan Park in a glorious location in Glen Afton.

Glenafton Caravan Park overlooking the wooded Carcow Glen (Robert Guthrie 2008)

Afton Water Works

In 1929 Ayrshire County Council acquired the whole of the lands of Craigdarroch and secured the site for a reservoir and control of the watershed while the land not suitable for sheep would gradually be planted in co-operation with the Forestry Commission (Afton Plantations). At that time, the Afton Water Works was the biggest contribution to solving the problem of providing a supply of filtered water for the whole landward population of Ayrshire. Work began on the reservoir in 1931 which had a capacity of 638,000,000 gallons [17].

Map 7 : Afton Reservoir | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

On Wednesday 4th September 1935 the Afton Water Works was inaugurated by Sir John Gilmour, Bart., G.C.V.O., D.C.O., M.P. and In the presence of a gathering of 200 guests he entered the valve-tower at the dam-side, to turn on the water and later declared the works open [18].

To this day a walk up (or run up) Glen Afton to the dam remains as popular as ever.

Barony of Afton

The Afton Water also gave its name to the Barony of Afton which was created in 1706. The 1st Baronet of Afton was Sir William Gordon, son of Sir William Gordon of Earlston, where the family seat of Earlston Castle situated in the parish of  St. John’s Town of Dalry, Kirkcudbrightshire. Gordon of Afton was married to Mary Campbell, daughterand heiress of Sir George Campbell of Cessnock, a chief-landowner in the parish of New Cumnock.

The newly formed Barony of Afton comprised the following lands in the parish of New Cumnock – Straid, Littlemark, Auchingee, Brochloch of Blarein, Carcow, Lagloss, Polquheys, Bank, Ashmark, Laight, Nether Dalhanna, Blackcraig, Dunside, Over Polquhirter, Nether Polquhirter, Middle Parks, Nether Parks and Whitehill of Chang – many of them in Glen Afton.

Sir William’s descendant Sir Thomas Gordon of Afton sold off many of the Afton lands and acquired the lands of Stair, Ayrshire. These lands and the remaining Afton lands fell to his daughter Catherine Gordon who later married Alexander Stewart, grandson of the Earl of Galloway. General Stewart, as he became, formed the Afton Mining Company to work the minerals on the Gordon-Stewart’s Afton estate. Mrs Catherine Gordon Stewart of Afton & Stair later gained recognition as a great patron of Robert Burns, our national bard.

See New Cumnock History| Catherine Gordon Stewart [19]

Sweet Afton

Of course, it was Robert Burns that immortalised the name Afton in his well loved ‘Sweet Afton’, the opening verse of which reads [20] –

Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Robert Burns, Sweet Afton (1791)

In 1791 Burns sent Mrs. General Stewart at Stair a collection of thirteen unpublished poems – now known as the Afton Manuscript which included probably his most famous work ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ and for New Cumnockians his most loved work ‘Sweet Afton’.  It also carried the inscription [19] –

‘To Mrs. General Stewart of Afton. The first person of her sex and rank that patronised his humble lays, this manuscript collection of Poems is presented, with the sincerest emotions of grateful respect, by the Author’

To mark their Golden Jubilee in 1973 the New Cumnock Burns Club (500) selected a lovely spot high above the west bank of the Afton Water to erect ‘The Burns Cairn’ in an enclosed garden off the Afton Road. Nearby is Laight farm, once home to Burns’ friend and acquaintance John Logan of Knockshinnoch & Laight or ‘Afton’s Laird’ as he referred to him [21].

It is highly likely that Burns enthusiast settling in the USA may have influenced the place-name Afton found in the following states – California, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Similarly, the coal mining community of Glen Afton in the Waikato District, New Zealand may have been influenced by Burns or perhaps by some Ayrshire settlers. Like their New Cumnock counterparts the New Zealand coal-miners were no strangers to the hazards of working underground – 11 men were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at Glen Afton of 24th September 1939 [22].

Afton Lads and Glenafton Athletic

Afton: The name Afton was also applied to local clubs and societies (as well as a host Guest Houses further afield). There was a number of football clubs in the parish that contained the name Afton that came and went. The most notable was Afton Lads, formed in 1879, although they only competed as a senior side for two seasons before later reappearing in the Junior ranks (1893-1903). Perhaps their greatest claim to fame was one of their players, full back William Barbour Agnew, who moved to New Cumnock when he was 3 years old was later capped 3 times for Scotland while playing senior for Kilmarnock (1906-1908).

Glenafton: Lanemark F.C. (1874-1921), based at the heart of the miners in Connel Park, proved to be the most resilient senior side until their demise in after the Great War. Newly formed Junior club New Cumnock United (1920-1928) filled the gap for the great appetite for football were very successful in the local league until they were forced to fold in 1928 due to financial reasons as the coal market suffered. The team was resurrected in 1930 under the new name of Glenafton Athletic and played at Connel Park . In 1960 they moved to a new purpose built ground at Loch Park in the heart of the town of New Cumnock, close to where the Afton Water meets with the River Nith. In 1992/93 and then again 2017/18 they were crowned Scottish Junior Cup winners and League champions [23].


Johnnie Colqhoun: Glen Afton © Copyright Johnnie Colquhoun and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Suzanne Hunter (nee Guthrie), Afton Reservoir
James Hart, Glenafton Athletic 1993

[1] | Sweet Afton
[1] W.F.H. Nicolaisen |Scottish Place-names (1976)
[2] Andrew Breeze, ‘Brittonic Place-Names from South-West Scotland, Part 2’ ,Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Series III
[3] James B. Johnston |Place-names of Scotland 3rd Edition (1934)
[4] | Sweet Afton
[5] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. |water
[6] | Ca’ The Ewes To The Knowes
[7] British Newspaper Archive | The Ardrossan & Saltcoats, Friday , January 4, 1901
[8] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. |glen
[9] British Newspaper Archive| Dundee Evening Telegraph, Thursday, 27 December, 1900.
[10] British Newspaper Archive |Edinburgh Evening News, Wednesday, 8 April, 1903.
[11] British Newspaper Archive |The Kilmarnock Herald, Friday, July 6, 1906
[12] British Newspaper Archive|The Kilmarnock Herald, Friday, June 22, 1906.
[13] Newspaper clipping | The Ayr Advertiser or West Country and Galloway Journal 10th Dec 1903
[14] British Newspaper Archive |The Kilmarnock Herald, Friday, October 23, 1908.
[15] British Newspaper Archive |The Irvine Herald, Friday, March 19, 1967
[16] New Cumnock History | Glenafton Sanatorium (in progress)
[17] British Newspaper Archive |The Scotsman, Thursday, September 5, 1935
[18] British Newspaper Archive |The Kilmarnock Herald and Ayrshire Gazette, Fridaym September 6, 1936
[19] New Cumnock History| Catherine Gordon Stewart
[20] | Sweet Afton
[21] New Cumnock History | Robert Burns Club
[23] Who’s Who of Kilmarnock F.C., Bill Donnachie
[24] Glenafton Athletic | History
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Images used for educational and private purposes under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence.
Map 1: Ordnance Survey Maps – Six-inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1843-1882 (1857) |Source of Afton Water
Map 2: Ordnance Survey, 1:25,000 maps of Great Britain – 1945-1971 (1953) | Source of Afton Water
Map 3: Joan Blaeu, Atlas of Scotland, 1654, Coila Provincia, [or], The province of Kyle / auct. Timoth. Pont.| Afton R.
Map 4: Ordnance Survey, One-inch to the mile maps of Scotland, 1st Edition – 1856-1891 (1849-1859) | Glen Afton
Map 5: Andrew Armstrong, Map of Ayrshire (1775) | Glen of Afton
Map 6: Ordnance Survey, 1:25,000 maps of Great Britain – 1945-1971 (1953) |Glenafton Hospital
Map 7: Ordnance Survey, 1:25,000 maps of Great Britain – 1945-1971 (1953) |Afton Reservoir
Ordnance Survey Names Book
Scotland’s Places
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) | Afton Water
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) | Glen Afton