Yarngallows Knowe

Place-name:Yarngallows Knowe
Suggested Meaning:yarn? gallows hill
element1. SSE yarn ‘rope’
2. SSE yarn‘ corruption of iron’
element SSE gallows ‘gallows”
elementS. knowe ‘hillock, mound’
Blaeu Coila (1654):N/A
OS Name Books (1855-57):Yarngallows Knowe
Location:Ordnance Survey (1895)

Yarngallows Knowe

Yarngallows Knowe sits in the upper reaches of Glen Afton just short of 5 miles up the Afton Road from the villlage of New Cumnock.

Map 1: Yarngallows Knowe | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Unfortunately the entry for Yarngallows Knowe in the Ayrshire Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-57) reveals little about the intrugingly name knowe other than its location –

A Knowe at the southern end of Craigdarroch Rig

Map 2: Yarngallows Knowe (OS Map 1857) | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The gallows and Scots knowe ‘hillock’ [1] elements of the name are clearly a reference to a gallows hill where condemned criminals were hanged. There was also a Gallows Knowe at the Hall of Auchincross [2] and at Gallowhill out the Mansfield Road [3].

The gallows were typically established near a road-side such that the hanging corpses could easily be seen in order to serve as a detterent to both locals and travellers. The ‘Afton Road‘ was one of the key routes between Ayrshire and Galloway.

Gallows were reserved for condemned men while condemned women were drowned in pools or pits of water. It is worth noting that less than a mile away from Yarngallows Knowe to the north east, in a little field between Afton Road and Afton Water is the Witch Knowe and Witch Pool [4]. It may have served a dual purpose and it was here women were tried , on the Knowe, and those found guilty, drowned in the pool.

Map 3 Yarngallows Knowe (OS Map 1895) | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The element yarn in Yarngallows Knowe remains the difficult element to unravel. Thoughts immediatley turn to twisting a collection of yarns into a rope, but perhaps not to the strength serve the purpose of the hangman’s rope.

Michael Ansell in his place-name articles in New Cumnock News noted that [5] –

… Yarngallows, a place-name that is very similar to Irongallows in Carsphairn parish. The possibility that the latter contained Gaelic earran, a land portion was considered and discounted by Gilbert Markus in the Place-Names of the Galloway Glens [6] and he considers this is a Scots Standard English term involving an iron gallows. The Carsphairn example is close to a rock called Craigcrocket possibly Creag Crochadair, hangman’s rock, so this providess circumstantial support for the gallows idea. Was there a similar feature near Yarngallows in Glen Afton.

Perhaps, Witch Knowe & Witch Pool can be claimed as the similar feature near Yarngallows!

If yarn is corruption of iron could this be a reference to corpses hanging in an iron gibbet as opposed to part of, or all of the gallows being constructed of iron?

Thankfully Irongallows is not derived from the demise of some boastful Afton alchemist as was the case in late 16th century Stuttgart. Herre an alchemist and goldsmith by the name Honauer entered the service of Duke Friedrich of Wittenburg and claimed he could convert iron to gold. The delighted Duke, at great expense, arranged for iron to be transported from his armory some distance away.  However, Honauer took cold feet and scarpered only to be caught and brought back to the demented Duke who had planned an elaborate execution for the boastful alchemist. A gilded gallows made from 36 hundredweight of iron, the amount Honaeur had promised to turn to gold, was erected and Honaeur was led (not lead!) to the scaffold covered head to toe in gold tinsel and hanged! [7]


[1] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. | knowe
[2] New Cumnock Place-Names | Gallows Knowe
[3] New Cumnock Place-Names |Gallowhill
[4] New Cumnock Place-Names |Witch Knowe & Witch Pool
[5] Michael Ansell, New Cumnock Place Names, New Cumnock News , Autumn 2020, Issue 6
[6] Place-names of Kirkcudbrightshire. 2023. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. https://kcb-placenames.glasgow.ac.uk | Irongallows
[7] Science History Institute | Execution of an Alchemist

Reproduced with the Permission of National Library of Scotland
Map 1: Bartholomew’s “Half Inch to the Mile Maps” of Scotland, 1899-1905 |Yarngallows Knowe
Map 2: Ordnance Survey Maps – Six-inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1843-1882 (1857) |Yarngallows Knowe
Map 3: Ordnance Survey, One-inch to the mile maps of Scotland, 2nd Edition – 1885-1900 (1895) Yarngallows Knowe

Ordnance Survey Name Books
By Permission of Scotland’s Places
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) Vol. 49|Yarngallows Knowe