Lost in Translation, a Story of Eccentric Aristocrats, Gladiators and Bears

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

I was chatting with my mother the other day about the origins of the name of the town where she lives ‘Bearsden’. Bearsden is an affluent town, North West of Glasgow. It is a mixture of grand Victorian villas, mid-century bungalows and suburban semi detached houses. It sits on the site of a Roman fort and bathhouse on Antonine’s Wall, the Empires northern most frontier. As a child I heard intriguing tales to account for the name about eccentric aristocrats, gladiators and bear caves. My mothers memory is starting to fail her and she could only remember that it had something to do with bears in the area so at the age of 58, I decided once and for all, to find out the truth about the bears of ‘Bearsden’ and took to the internet.

One popular story was about a local bear cave during the middle ages from which bears terrorised the resident, carrying off and devouring their livestock and children until they banded together to kill the bears, filling in the cave so that it could never again be a home for bears. This is possible because my internet search informed me that bears lived in Scotland until they were hunted to extinction about 1,000 years ago.

Being a Roman enthusiast, the story that I liked best was that there was an amphitheatre at the Roman fort, although no evidence of one has been found. The story goes, the soldiers would capture bears and Gladiators would fight with them to the death in the circus ring or ‘The Bears Den’. As I mentioned above there were Romans in the town so could there also have been an amphitheatre and is it feasible the tale has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years?

Another of my childhood tales was off an eccentric aristocrat who kept two Grizzly Bears in the garden of his mansion house that he named The Bears Den. The old maps of the area certainly show a building named 'Bearsden'. It would appear that the town of Bearsden derived its name from Bearsden Railway Station, opened in 1863. The rail track followed the course of a narrow valley with the station positioned in the middle of the valley and the station was named after that house that stood near by ‘Bearsden’. It was looking like the eccentric bear owning aristocrat was the possible culprit. According to the old maps, Bearsden house sat within barley fields probably growing barley for the whiskey and beer industry in the eighteens and nineteenth century.

I wanted to find out more about this barley farm and its eccentric owner so I Googled ‘Barley Farm, Scotland’ and the search results started to make all the folk tales and my previous theories unravel. Apparently the old Scots word for barley is ‘bear’ the plural being ‘bears’. This is where the word ‘beer’ is derived. Beer meaning a fermented drink made form barley. But did the word ‘den’ also have an old Scots meaning? Suddenly it struck me that in Fife, where I now live, the locals call a narrow valley, a ‘den’. This was confirmed when I checked the Dictionary of Old Scots Words.

So the folklore about the origins of the name ‘Bearsden’ were all myths and the name has nothing at all to do with bears, eccentric aristocrats or Roman gladiators but rather it is the description in old Scots of barley fields or ‘Bears’ in a narrow valley or ‘Den’, hence the name Bearsden. It just goes to show how we can be deceived when we take words literally and mix them up with romantic notions!

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