Afton Water

Place-name:Afton Water
Suggested Meaning: W. afon ‘water-course ‘
 W. afon ‘water course’
Element: SSE Water ‘WATER
 SS G. abh ‘water course’ + G. don ‘brown
Blaeu Coila (1654):Afton R.
OS Names (1855-1857):Afton Water
Location:OS Map Six-inch Scotland 1888-1960
Other Early Forms
Achtoun flu. (Blaeu Atlas, Nithia 1654)


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.

Afton Water, New Cumnock (Robert Guthrie)

Immortalised by Robert Burns as ‘Sweet Afton’, the Afton Water flows gently down the picturesque Glen Afton and on through the heartof the village of New Cumnock before joining with the River Nith.

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

The name afton simply means ‘water-course, river’ and derives from one of the common Celtic forms as summarised by W.F.H Nicolaisen [1].

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

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

The element water when applied to a water-course, as in Afton Water, is in Scotland indicative of a water-course that is smaller than a river but grander than a burn or ‘pol-‘.  However, the element is little used locally and the river is simply known as ‘the Afton’ and Glen Afton is simply ‘up Afton’.

Afton Water (Armstrong 1775) | Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Rev. James Johnston [2] suggests Afton Water, New Cumnock is probably Gaelic abh donn ‘brown stream‘, far removed from Burns ‘crystal stream’ but perhaps relective of the stream in spate.


[1] W.F.H. Nicolaisen |Scottish Place-names (1976)
[2] James B. Johnston |Place-names of Scotland 3rd Edition (1934)
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Map 1 | Armstrong’s Map of Ayrshire | Afton Water
Ordnance Survey Names Book
Scotland’s Places
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) | Afton Water