Recollecting what’s in a name
There are three topics guaranteed to provoke an argument in any pub in the world – wealth, politics and religion – but if the location is in the Highlands, where Gaelic is still spoken, you can add a fourth: place names.
Trying to decipher place names armed with only a Gaelic dictionary often produces misleading results and pitfalls for the unwary especially when they are a combination of Old Norse, Gaelic and Brythonic. A sound knowledge of the dialect, wit and oral traditions of the locality is essential.
Usually there is a double meaning, almost a code. These were known to only a few native speakers who, having almost gone from the Highlands without explaining them to us, there is little we can do other than speculating over their origin. Here are some of the more popular place names with translations which are believed to be reasonably accurate, although I have no doubt some readers may disagree.
John o’ Groats [Caithness]: Named after John de Groot, one of three Dutch brothers who were encouraged to come to Sutherland by King James IV in the 1490s. They did well and became well known factors and landowners.
Jura [Argyll and Bute]: Often said to be Doiread’s Island – a personal name but more likely to be from two Old Norse words, Djur, meaning deer, so deer island which, given the quality and quantity of these animals, would not be out of place.
Kingairloch [Morvern Peninsula]: Head of the short loch. Fiunary [Morvern]: The fair shieling. Roybridge [Lochaber]: The bridge over the red river. Galloway [Dumfriesshire]: Place of the strangers. Galmisdale (Eigg): Galmi’s Glen. Drumochter [Grampian]: The ridge of the upper part. Dumbarton [Strathclyde]: The fort of the Britains. Dumfries [Dumfriesshire]: Mound of the copse. Duich [Highland]: Black bay, although possibly of St Duthac, an 11th-century bishop.
Cawdor [Nairnshire]: Hard water. Corpach [Lochaber and Jura]: Place of the corpses. Craigellachie [Moray]: Hill of the rocks. Glenhurich [Sunart]: Glen of the yew trees. Oban [Argyll and Bute]: Little bay. Onich [Lochaber]: Moor. Mamore [Lochaber]: Rounded hill. Moy [Inverness]: A plain. Maree [Ross-shire]: After St Maelrubha, founder of a monastery at Applecross.
Lochearn [Perthshire]: Earn as an old name for water. Finlaggan [Islay]: Little white hollow.
Lothian [Borders]: Named after Leudonus, a Roman who may have been its founder. Lismore [Argyll and Bute]: The great garden or walled enclosure. Kylesku [Sutherland]: The thin narrows. Kingussie [Badenoch and Strathspey]: Head of the fir trees.
Evanton [Easter Ross]: Named after a local landowners, Evan Fraser of Balconie who established a village there at the beginning of the 19th century. Blairgowrie [Perthshire]: Gabran’s (personal name) level crossing. Boat of Garten [Badenoch and Strathspey]: Ferry crossing by the tilled ground. Ben Attow [Highlands]: The long hill ridge. Ben Nevis [Lochaber]: The mountain of snow and mist. Ballachulish [Lochaber]: The village by the narrows. Balmoral [Aberdeesnhire]: Settlement in the big clearing. Banchory [Aberdeenshire]: Mountainous place. Banff [Aberdeenshire]: Place where land was left fallow for a year, alternatively a rare Gaelic word for Ireland. Bannockburn [Stirlingshire]: The fair little stream. Bealach nam Bo [Wester Ross]: The pass of the cow. Drumbuie [Morvern]: The yellow ridge. Giffnock [East Renfrewshire]: The little ridge. Glais Bheinn [Ardgour]: The grey mountain. Ardgour: The high land of the goats. Camusnagaul [Ardgour]: The bay of the strangers. Campbeltown [Argyll and Bute]: Formerly Kilkeeran, named after the surname of the Earls of Argyll.
Bruichladdich [Islay]: Edge of the shore. Bettyhill [Sutherland]: A settlement named after Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland. Belnahua [Argyll and Bute]: Mouth of the cave (island). Aultbea [Wester Ross]: Burn of the birch trees. Aviemore [Inverness-shire]: Big pass. Auchtermuchty [Kingdom of Fife]: The field of the upper pig house.
Portree [Isle of Skye]: The harbour of the slope. Prestonpans [East Lothian]: The priest’s farmstead. Rosneath [Argyll and Bute]: Neath’s (personal name) headland. Knoydart [Inverness-shire]: Cnut’s (personal name) fjord. Sauchiehall [Glasgow]: Snout, projecting ground. Strontian [Sunart]: The nose of the fairies lending its name to the element Strontium. Scarba [Argyll and Bute]: Cormorant island. Shieldaig [Wester Ross]: Sheltered bay. Strathcarron [Wester Ross]: Broad valley of the River Carron. Strathpeffer [Ross and Cromarty]: Wide valley of the bright water. Strone [Morvern]: Nose (promontory).
Largs [North Ayrshire]: Hillside. Leith [Edinburgh]: Grey. Leverburgh [Isle of Harris]: Named after Viscount Leverhulme after he bought Lewis and Harris in 1918. Lewis: Marsh, or low island.
Macduff [Aberdeenshire]: A town named after James Duff, Earl of Fife, in 1783 commemorating his father. Maol Buidhe [Islay]: Bare yellow knoll of hillside. Muckle Flugga [Shetland Islands]: Large cliffs. Mull [Argyll and Bute]: Headland. Kintyre [Argyll and Bute]: Headland. Inverness: Mouth of the River Ness, from Nesta, meaning roaring or rushing water: Steall an Easg [Kingairloch]: Place of the little spouting waterfalls. Now gone due to a hydro electric scheme. Arduaine [Argyll and Bute]: The green height. Gourock (Strathclyde]: The pimple. Kinuachdrachd [Jura]: The head or upper field.
Glenquoich [Inverness-shire]: The glen of the cup, meaning a round corrie.
Laggan [Islay]: A hollow. Inverlochy [Lochaber]: Confluence of the River Lochy. Torlundy [Lochaber]: Hill of the marshy place. Ben Hiant [Ardnamurchan]: Holy mountain. Beinn Mheadhoin [Glenhurich and Kingairloch]: The middle hill. Garbh Bheinn [Ardgour]: The rough mountain. Ben Resipole [Sunart]: The hill of the homestead.
Morvern: The sea gap. Ladhar Bheinn [Knoydart]; The forked mountain. Glenuig [Moidart]: The glen of the bay. Glasgow: The place of the blue green hollows. Glen Affric (Inverness-shire]: The ford of the boar. Tarbert [Argyll and Bute]: portage or crossing point. Newtonmore: [Inverness-shire] new town on the moor. Loch Lomond: Loch of the beacon, referring, of course, to the mountain above.
Luss: Herbs. Glengarrisdale [Jura]: Glen of the walled enclosure. Machrihanish [Kintyre]: The high plain. Saddell [Kintyre]: Priest’s dale. Carnoch [Glen Tarbert, Glencoe and other sites in the Highlands]: The place of the cairn. There is an important Bronze Age burial cairn here.
Rahoy [Morvern]: The north fort, named after a vitrified fort not far from Rahoy House.
Laudale [Morvern]: Laud’s (personal name) glen. Scalpay [Outer Hebrides]: Boat-shaped island. Port Ellen [Islay]: Named by the Gaelic scholar W F Campbell after his wife, Lady Eleanor Campbell in 1821.
Portobello [suburb of Edinburgh]: Derived from Spanish meaning a fine harbour. Larachbeag [Morvern]: Place of the small ruins. Achnacarry [Lochaber]: The field of the fish-trap. Sron a’ Chleirich [Tayside]: The point of the cleric or, the parson’s nose. Slochd [Inverness-shire]: The deep hollow.
Right: Galmisdale, Eigg, means Galmi’s Glen; top: Lismore means the great garden or walled enclosure; and Glengarrisdale, Jura, means glen of the walled enclosure.