Gowkthorn Well

Place-name:Gowkthorn Well
Suggested Meaning:cuckoo thorn well
First element1. Scots gowk ‘fool’
2. Scots gowk ‘cuckoo’
Second elementScots thorn ‘hawthorn’
Blaeu Coila (1654):No Entry
OS Name Books (1855-57):Gowkthorn Well
Location:Ordnance Survey (1892-1960)
Other Early Forms:
No other forms
Gowkthorn Well and Duncan’s Burn (Photo Robert Guthrie)

Gowkthorn Well sits on the upper reaches of Corsencon Hill close to the source of Duncan’s Burn called for ‘A man named Duncan said to have had an encounter with the devil in the hollows of this burn’ [1]. The folklore theme on Corsencon continues as the meaning Gowkthorn is unravelled.

Map 1 | Gowkthorn Well (OS 1857) | Reproduced with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Scots word gowk has a double-meaning applying to both a ‘fool’ and a ‘cuckoo’ [2] and this is reflected to some extent in the following Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-57) entry for Gowkthorn Well –

A spring on the east side of Corson Cone, so called because a thorn bush, which once grew beside it, frightened benighted strangers

Gowk – The cuckoo – Jamieson

1st element (1): Scots gowk ‘fool’

In this context the ‘frightened benighted strangers‘ are considered as the gowks ‘fools, simpletons’. For many, April Fool’s Day is the day of ‘hunt the gowk‘ with the intent effectively of making a fool of someone, including sending them on a fool’s errand. Those that fall for any pranks are declared as a ‘huntegowk‘. While today, crazy or eccentric people are often considered to be ‘cuckoo’.

1st element (2) : Scots gowk ‘cuckoo’

The Name Book entry also makes a reference to John Jamieson’s definition Scots gowk ‘cuckoo’ in his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) .

Cuckoos appear in this country in April and depart in July. Trying to find a cuckoo (hunt-the-gowk) can be considered as a fool’s errand as the birds prove elusive to find. Little wonder therefore that gowk is referred to both the bird and the fool.

The cuckoo also brings with it folklore passed down through the generations, specific to differnet neck of the woods including –

  • On hearing the first cuckoo you were best to lay all your coins from your pocket and turn them over or face bad luck.
  • If you were standing on hard ground when hearing your first cuckoo then bad luck would prevail but if on soft ground you could look forward to a prosperous year.

2nd element : Scots thorn ‘hawthorn’

The Hawthorn tree holds a special place in Celtic Mythology as the “Queen of May”, the source of the magical may-flower which gives rise to the well used weather warning “ne’er cast a cloot, till may be oot“.

It is also known as the “Faery Tree” inhabited and protected by the faery-folk, to be feared by anyone that should damage the tree in any way [3]. Presumably it was these ‘wee folk’ that put the fear into the ‘frightened benighted strangers‘.

N.B. the Hawthorn was also known as the “Lone Tree” for they could not be cut down for fear or repercussions from the underworld [3]. See Jenny’s Thorn on Brockloch Farm [4].

Gowkthorn Well

The hawthorn and the cuckoo cross each other’s path in folklore. For instance, was Thomas the Rhymer hunting-the-gowk when he met the Faery Queen ?

Thomas the Rhymer, the thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn. Upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years.

Trees for Life [3]

Another example is found in Welsh folklore –

Should the cuckoo make its appearance before the leaves appear on the hawthorn bush, it is a sign of a dry, barren year.

Welsh Myths and Legends [5]

Furthermore in some areas of the UK, haws,the berries of the hawthorn tree are known as cuckoo-beads [6].

With such relationships it is reasonable to claim Gowkthorn as ‘The Cuckoo’s Thorn’ as opposed to ‘The Fool’s Thorn’. Perhaps just as the numerous Gowk Stones found throughout Scotland are considered to be the stones that the cuckoos return to every year, the Gowkthorm was the tree of choice for cuckoos returning to Corsencon Hill.

Regarding the Gowkthorn Well, it perhaps is a coincidence, that the only other named well in the parish, Blubber Well, sits just over one mile to the west [7]. Although both wells are now basically springs, Gowkthorn Well with its pagan connotations may be of greater antiquity – albeit there is no entry in Canmore.

If the orgin of Gowkthorn Well does rest in pagan times then May was a busy time!

In folk-tradition, the wells were only visited at special times of the year: May or at Midsummer were the most popular, two turning-points of the Celtic year when the gates of the Otherworld were open wide. At these times, too, those Otherworld denizens, the faeries or pixies, were frequently sighted at holy wells. It is not surprising then that a guardian of the Otherworld is usually found overseeing the holy wells of the British Isles.

Druidry [8]

Of course, elsewhere in Ayrshire, at Alloway Kirk, stood a celebrated well near a thorn tree immortalised by Robert Burns –

‘And near the thorn, aboon the well
Where Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel’

“Tam O’Shanter”. Robert Burns [9]

Perhaps this “thorn well” has its origins in pagan times prior to being christianised, like many other pagan sites, and dedicated as a holy well to St. Mungo.

In the parish of Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire there is Gouk Thorn, Goukthorn farm and Goukthorn hill nearby taking their names from “the large thorn on the farm that was a favourite resort of the cuckoo.” [See OS Name Book Entry]

There are Goukthorn Cottages in the parish of Mauchline, Ayrshire and the parish of Durisdeer, Dumfriesshire.


[1] New Cumnock Place-Names | Duncans’ Burn
[2] The Dictionaries of the Scots Languages | gowk
[3] Trees for Life | Mythology and folklore of the Hawthorn
[4] New Cumnock Place-Names | Jenny’s Thorn
[5] Welsh Myths and Legends | hawthorn
[6] The Druid Garden | Sacred Tree Pofile: Hawthorn
[7] New Cumnock Place-Names | Blubber Well
[8] Druidry | Sacred Waters – Holy Wells
[9] Burns Country | Tam O’Shanter
By Permission of National Library of Scotland
Map 1: Ordnance Survey (1857) | Gowkthorn Well
Map 2: Ordnance Survey (1894) | Goukthorn, Balmaclellan
Ordnance Survey Name Books
By Permission of Scotland’s Places
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) Vol. 49| Gowkthorn Well
Kirkcudbrightshire OS Name Books (1848-51) Vol.57 | Gouk Thorn, Goukthorn
Kirkcudbrightshire OS Name Books (1848-51) Vol.55 | Goukthorn Hill