Recol­lect­ing what’s in a name

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - IAIN THORNBER iain.thornber@bt­in­ter­

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.

Pho­tographs: Iain Thornber

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.

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