What connects George Harrison of the Beatles with Corstorphine? And what did the Romans do for us?
In 1974, folk-rock duo Splinter had their biggest hit Costafine Town. It reached the Top Ten in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and the Top Twenty in the UK.
To people from Edinburgh, the name Costafine Town may sound strangely familiar.
Splinter were a folk-rock duo from South Shields in north east England, made up of Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis. They existed for roughly a decade, from the early seventies to the mid eighties. It appears they did not weather the punk explosion well, and they never did manage to repeat the success of Costafine Town, a fact not helped by the BBC taking umbrage at the word “bloody” appearing in their second single and refusing to play it as a result. The song Costafine Town appears on their first album, The Place I Love.
Splinter’s sound has often been likened to Badfinger – which is not a bad comparison. But while Badfinger was Paul McCartney’s baby, Splinter was very much that of George Harrison. The duo wrote the songs while Harrison was one of the session musicians on many of the tracks including Costafine Town. They were also signed to Harrison’s Dark Horse label.
Splinter are not well remembered. None of Splinter’s music appears to be on iTunes or Spotify, but some can be found on Youtube. (There is also another band called Splinter from Weymouth. They are nothing to do with this one.)
So where did Costafine Town get its name from?
There is only one other Corstorphine of any note in the world, and that is a suburb of Dunedin in New Zealand. That’s even further away from South Shields than we are. “Corstorphine” is also an uncommon Scottish surname.
A clue can be had in that many English people drop the letter “r”, i.e. a word like “farmer” ends up being pronounced as “fahmah” without a “r” in hearing range. That gives would give us “Cawsstawfin” which is not far off “Costafine.” And “phine”, well that looks like “fine” doesn’t it?
According to Bob Purvis, one half of the band, in a report on Look North East (the local BBC news programme) back in 2008 this is exactly what his mother did:
“I thought it’s time we wrote a song about South Shields. I sat down, I had the tune, me mother came in the conversation while I was playing. And we talked about this place called ‘Corstorphine Town’. My mother had a thing where she gets her words mixed up. Quite a lot. And it should have been ‘Costafeen’ [sic], but she pronounced it ‘Costafine’. By that time I had ‘Costafine Town, it’s a fine town, I’m comin’ home.‘
No “Corstorphine Town” currently appears on the map in South Shields, but that is not surprising. Not only was the north east of England a significant target for German bombs during WWII, it was also heavily redeveloped in the decades just after the war. All that appears to remain of Corstorphine Town is a single pub called the Commercial Hotel. It is to be found in the Riverside area of South Shields. According to “John Simpson Kirkpatrick” on Youtube:
Costa Fine Town (real name Corstorphine Town) was named after business man Robbie Corstorphine, who settled in South Shields, but hailed from Corstorphine, a village west of Edinburgh.
It seems there is a bit of confusion here. Was it named after Mr Corstorphine, or someone from Corstorphine, or both? This is a riddle some local historians might want to try and solve. By coincidence there were two Scottish presenters on Look North East at the time who point out that Corstorphine is in Edinburgh where the zoo is.
A member of the “Corstorphine Memories” Facebook group suggested recently that Corstorphine is a Roman name. This was mainly because the name “Corstorphine” resembles “Corstopitum”, which is an old name for Corbridge, one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. According to a certain free encyclopaedia (and you might want to check other sources):
“The place-name appears in contemporary records as both Corstopitum and Corie Lopocarium. These forms are generally recognised as corrupt. Suggested reconstructions include Coriosopitum, Corsopitum or Corsobetum.“
The Roman presence on Tyneside is well known. Wallsend, across the river from South Shields, was the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. This effectively was the northern extreme of Romanitas for most of their time in Britain. However, various emperors did attempt to extend their power northwards, through various military expeditions, buying off local Celtic tribes, and building the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde. Cramond was one of their main ports north of Hadrian’s Wall, but it has to be said that the Roman presence in what-is-now southern Scotland was intermittent. Someone has estimated that of the four hundred years or so that the Romans spent in Britain, a mere forty were spent manning the Antonine Wall and even those were not a continuous forty.
The question is not whether the Romans visited this area, but for how long and how often. EA Elders, in an article in the Scotsman in 1969, suggests a Roman road ran from Cramond, over Drumbrae and between the Gogarloch and Corstorphine Loch heading towards Kingsknowe. I find this route a bit questionable – personally I would have thought it would have headed further west, alongside the Almond through Cammo, Lennie and Gogar, and along the west flank of the Pentland Hills to Carnwath. This would bypass some of the hills and some of the open water. However, in support of this theory, a Roman coin was once found in a garden at the east end of South Gyle Road, near where it joins Meadow Place Road. Does this mean a Roman dropped it there? Possibly. But bear in mind that Roman coins were also traded outside areas of Roman control, used to pay off troublesome tribes and some were even in circulation long after the empire had collapsed. Roman coins have turned up in places such as Ireland, Scandinavia and even Iceland which is supposed to have been uninhabited in Roman times.
Roman names are fairly uncommon in Scotland for this very reason – there are one or two. Bonchester in the borders springs to mind, for example, but they are very rare. Most of the apparently “Roman” names in England and Wales are actually Celtic in origin. Names such as Londinium (London), Eboracum (York), Isca (Exeter), Venta Silurum (Caerwent) all come from Celtic origins. Some of the names of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall including Corstopitum/Coria (Corbridge) and Segedunum also appear to be Celtic. (Some names in these islands appear to pre-date Celtic languages too – mostly those of natural features such as rivers and islands.)
Since the name of Corstorphine is first recorded in the 12th century, it is very hard to work out its ancient origins. The most likely answer is that it is Celtic and/or Norse of some kind. “Cors” in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is corrsa or carrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.
- Costafine Town single version.
- Costafine Town on the Old Grey Whistle Test
- Look North East report on Costafine Town (November 2008)
- Splinter on Wikipedia
- Roman Corstopitumon Wikipedia