Gullane and the East Lothian Question

Gullane sign

Followers of politics will no doubt have heard of the West Lothian Question. They may, however, be less familiar with the equally vexing East Lothian Question - how should you pronounce the name of the village which is hosting this year's Scottish Open golf championship?

Gillan, Gullan, Goolan or Gull-ane? The pronunciation of Gullane has sparked much debate over the years both in the East Lothian village and far beyond.

As far back as 1944, a former Gullane minister took the trouble to write to the Scotsman newspaper's letters page to explain how it should be pronounced.

DBM Mellis wrote: "A good many years ago now the BBC wrote to me to ask how the name ought to be pronounced.

"I told them that, though most of the old folk pronounced it Goolan, the other version Gillane had prevailed and that it would be now impossible to re-establish Goolan.

"The one thing to avoid was the tripper vulgarisation of Gullane. It had nothing to do with seagulls."

Image copyright Other
Image caption The pronunciation of Gullane attracted letters to the editor of the Scotsman as far back as 1944

The same question has also engaged no less an author than Edinburgh-based Alexander McCall Smith.

In his work The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, his narrator makes it clear where he stands in a passage entitled "Answers to the East Lothian Question".

"...Gordon had moved to a house in Gullane," he says.

"This is pronounced 'Gillan', on the basis of the Gaelic etymology of the word, a matter which divides the population of the East of Scotland into warring factions every bit as much as heresies divided the population of early Christian Europe.

"Those early heresies had led to bloodshed, and so had the issue of the correct pronunciation of Gullane (which is, as has been said above, 'Gillan')."

Fault line

But is the narrator right? Well, yes and no.

The village is divided in the nicest possible way between what one might call the Gillanites and Gullanites.

Jeremy Findlay, who chairs the local community council and is an incomer to the village, tends to call it Gillan - unless he is chairing a local public meeting when he switches to Gullan.

"Gillan and Gullan are both used in the village," he tells me.

"It is probably fair to say that those people who are local and went to the local primary school would say Gullan, and those who come in at a later stage call it Gillan.

"The issue of the name probably only irritates people who don't live in the village."

Image copyright Undiscovered Scotland
Image caption Gullane lies on the east coast of Scotland

Some argue that there is a socio-economic reason behind the different pronunciations.

McCall Smith raises that point in his East Lothian passage.

"When Matthew's father had moved to Gullane, he had discovered that the pronunciation of the town's name appeared to be determined by the side of an economic and social fault-line on which one dwelled," the narrators tells us.

"Those who lived in the large houses on the hill, great villas favoured by the Edinburgh haute-bourgeousie, would never have said anything but Gillan, while those who lived on the other side of the High Street would choke rather than use that pronunciation."

Bill Nimmo from the local history society - and a Gullan man - tends to agree with the narrator's assessment.

"The Gillan people live on the hill and the rest live at the bottom of the hill on the wrong side of the tracks," he says with a chuckle.

The BBC, it seems, also agrees. Its pronunciation unit suggests its use is distinguished by class:

Other pronunciations have entered the frame, although locals say Goolan has not been heard for a long time.

Anne McCarthy, an archivist with the local history society, suggests the tide has been turning in favour of Gillan in recent years.

She says: "I came here 42 years ago and it was then much more split between Gillan and Gullan; I suggest that today Gullan is far the commoner. Gull-ane, which I have occasionally heard, is just wrong."

So there's a Gull-ane too? Heavens above!

Little lake

Perhaps the answer lies in the history behind the name Gullane.

Wikipedia and Gullane Golf Club both opt for the notion that the name is derived from the Scottish Gaelic A' Ghualainn, meaning "ridge or shoulder".

It's a plausible idea, given the existence of Gullane Hill.

But Bill Nimmo has his doubts, arguing that Gullane is not likely to be derived from Gaelic because the east coast of Scotland has closer links to Saxon and Scandanavian history.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1841) suggests yet another explanation: "The village of Gulane . . . . Its old name was Golyn so called from an adjoining piece of water, now drained; Golyn in the British signifying a little lake."

That idea also has some plausibility, given that the No1 golf course at Gullane once featured a small loch in front of the first tee.

But it seems the answer may never be forthcoming.

As Anne McCarthy says: "There are as many theories as there are answers."

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