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Emsdorf - origin of the placename

The following article appeared in the Tay Valley Family Historian, Journal of the Tay Valley Family History Society, No. 59, May 2001, and is reproduced here with their permission.

"   Emsdorf - New Light on an Old Puzzle by William Owen

Walk or drive through Lundin Links in the parish of Largo and the eye is caught by a street nameplate "Emsdorf Street". Questions begin to form in the back of the mind - where did that name come from? It sounds German in origin. Ask the locals and you get a furrowed brow - "Ships from here used to trade with Germany" or "A group of German weavers came over here to settle many years ago" - but nobody is absolutely certain. It seems the origin is lost in the mists of time.

The Old Statistical Account of Largo, written in the 1790s mentions trade with Norway, but not with the Germany or the Low Countries. Despite mentioning other locations in the parish like Drummochie this source fails to mention Emsdorf. Similarly, there is no mention either in the New Statistical Account of the 1840s (which mentions trade with Holland "being altogether at an end"), Leighton's Fife Illustrated (1840) or Barbieri's Descriptive & Historical Gazetteer of Fife & Kinross (1857). And yet, Emsdorf is indeed a German placename - in fact there are 2 of them! Why should a little piece of Largo carry the same name?

Examination of the Register of the Great Seal and the Register of the Privy Seal gave no references at all, back as far as the 16th century. So the name wasn't an old one. The Index to Placenames in the Fife Sasines was then consulted. The index for the period from 1872, when Lundin Links was expanding, has numerous references to Emsdorf and even Emsdorf High Street. There is no placenames index for 1831-1871, so the index for 1781-1820 was next examined. Here, and in the Sasine Abridgements, we find references to Emsderf, Emsdorf, the village of Emsdorf, Elmsdorf and Elmsderf. The earliest reference (1802.6334) records the sale of 2 roods 28 falls 18 ells in the village of Emsdorf to James Crawford, feuar there, by Sir William Erskine of Lundin in November 1802.

Examining the other abridgements shows various property transactions, all dating back to charters granted about 1802-1806 by Sir William Erskine. The original 1802 sasine (RS 32.54.17) describes the land as being in the Barony of Lundin and names several Emsdorf residents - David Duncan manufacturer, John White manufacturer and John Arthur residenter. Yet significantly, the 1799 sasine, whereby all this land came to Sir William Erskine of Torry (RS 3.611.1) makes no mention of the village of Emsdorf at all.

It is at times like this that some light relief is called for, so I spent some time surfing the internet. I casually entered 'Emsdorf' in my favourite search engine and 2 pages caught my attention. The first (1) was a war games site for the Battle of Emsdorf, 16 July 1760, part of the Seven Years War, which listed the regiments on both sides. The second (2) was a page about the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777 which gave a biography of one of its personalities - Sir William Erskine.

What these sites told me was that William Erskine, as a Lt. Col. in the 15th Light Dragoons, was able to present George III with 16 colours captured by his regiment at the Battle of Emsdorf. For this, he was knighted. He subsequently had a distinguished military career in North America in the 1770s. Research in the Army Lists, Burke's Peerage and the Dictionary of National Biography confirmed almost all of this (at the time of the Battle, William Erskine appears to have been a Major, but gained promotion to Lt. Col. in 1762). Sir William Erskine of Torry (for this is he) died in 1795 and was succeeded by his son William, who followed his father in the same regiment (15th Light Dragoons) but wasn't as successful a soldier as his father. It was William (the son) who feued off the lands, called them Emsdorf and started to create a village where there had been none previously. This was at the time when planned villages were appearing all over Scotland and Sir William presumably took the opportunity to try to commemorate his father's famous victory.

And so, although the planned village and the family name don't live on, the name of a small battle fought in Germany 240 years ago is still commemorated in a Scottish town which has long forgotten its significance. In some ways it is better to be Emsdorf, since Monmouth and Long Island (with which Sir William was also connected) don't have quite the same ring about them.

Refs:

  1. http://members.xoom.com/_XOOM/wargaming/emsdorf.htm - site no longer available. A search for "wargaming" and "Emsdorf" will bring up a selection of similar sites.
  2. http://www.libertynet.org/iha/march/bio/erskine.htm - URL since changed to http://www.ushistory.org/march/bio/erskine.htm
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