Gaelic place-names in the Small Isles
In the Small Isles, as in the rest of the Highlands and islands, place-names are particularly descriptive of the shape, colour and size of the landscape features. They also owe much to the culture and customs of the people who lived in the Small Isles throughout the ages. By naming places, those people have expressed something about their life, history and beliefs. And this is how place-names, once they are established, impart uniqueness to their locality.
The Celtic Influence
To ancient Celts, 4,000 years ago, the sound 'aub' denoted 'life-sustaining water'; it survives in 'abhainn' a river as in Abhainn Gleann Charadail, Glen Caradal’s river on Eigg, or Abhainn Sgathaig, Bog cotton river on Rum. Much later it is the language of their descendants, the colonising Gaels from Ireland, which impacts most on the island’s place names.
The Land as a Body
The Gaels’ Celtic ancestors looked at the land as the body of the goddess Earth. They interpreted its features as part of her body. Sròn, - the nose - is a sharp promontory, Druim – back &‐ is a ridge, pap or mam - breast- is a hill, Cruachan – hip – is a circular stone outcrop, maol – bald head – refers to a bare, rounded headland, Gualain – shoulder – is a rounded hillside. Bràighe – throat- is the upper part of a hill.
'Colour coded' place names
Gaelic place names frequently describe the feature's colour. Buidhe (yellow), fionn (white), gorm (blue/green), dubh (dark/black), dearg (red), Breac (speckled), are among those most commonly used: Beinn Bhuidhe (the Yellow mountain), na Cnapan Breaca (the speckled lumps), Blàr Dubh (the dark marsh), An Coire Dubh, the dark corrie, Bruach Dearg (the red steps), an Ghlasaird, the grey height.
Place names referring to nature
References to trees, plants and animals are common - e.g. Creag nan Druideag (the starling’s crag), Creag an Stearnam, ( the sterns' crag) Sgeir nan Sgarbh (Cormorant skerry), Sròn na h-iolaire (Eagle’s promontory), Poll nam partan (crab pool), Carn nan Dobhran ( otter cairn), Carn nan Gobhar (goat’s cairn), Lageorna (the barley hollow), Gleann Seilasdair, the Iris glen.
The next important influence on place-names in the Hebrides was that of Viking settlers from Norway, who contributed their sea farers’ vocabulary describing coastal features in detail: bogha (low point), sgeir (skerry), vik (bay), ness (projecting headland) as in Bogha Thangaraidh ( the point of the tangle garden), dubh Sgeir (black skerry), Lathaig (surf bay). The Vikings also introduced a system of land taxation, which endured in farm names such as Coig peighinnean (five pennies) denoting a certain size of land.
But as Viking and Gaels merged into one culture - that of the Gall-Gaidheal (foreign Gaels) - the Gaelic language too absorbed the Old Norse. Thus the name of Eigg itself - Eilean Eige is a combination of Gaelic (Eilean – island) and Old Norse (Eag: wedge or notch) referring to the shape of the Sgurr of Eigg against the sky, or Eagamol, combining Eag and maol to make the notched, rounded headland on Muck.
There is a wealth of descriptive words for mountainous features. Many of these are found on the island. Aonach is a mountain whose summit has the form of a ridge with steepish sides. Leitir means literally half-land (leth tir) and describes a slope running down to the water’s edge. Bruach is also a slope but one that shows steps or bank. Beinn is a mountain; Corr denotes a pointed feature as in Corra Bheinn – the pointed mountain, Bidein, a pinnacle as in Bidein an Tigherna. Sgurr is a sharp promontory – with An Sgurr on Eigg, “The” sharp promontory by excellence. Other mountain names show the viking influence, as in Fjall, steep hill, that can be found on Rum: Barkeval, bjarg fjall, the precipitous hill, Askival, Askr Fjall, the hill of the ash trees. Cnap, denoting a rounded hill alsos comes from the Old Norse, Krap,
Place names associated with work, people or special events.
Many place names also refer to work on land or sea: airidh is the summer shieling as in Corrairidh, the pointed shieling, Bogha an Iasgaich: Fisherman’s point, Cnoc na Cuilean, the hill of the pups, or Cro nan Laoigh, the calves fold. Work with sheep is alluded to in Fang Ruadh, the red fank, or with bringing the crops: Cnoc an t-Sabhail: the hill of the barn. People, some of them now sadly forgotten, are also commemorated as in Clach Alasdair: Alasdair’s rock, Loch Nighean Dhugaill, the Loch of Dugalds’s daughter, Sgurr a' Mhurchadh, Murdo's promontary, Carn na Pìobaire, the Piper’s cairn, Creag an t-Sagairt, the priest's rock. The strory behind to Rubh' leum an Laraich, the Point of the mare's leap on Muck, is also long forgotten.
Place names and folklore
Early Christian missionary routes may be traced through names like Cill Donnan, the site of Donnan’s church on Eigg, Gleann Mhartein on Muck celebrating St martin anor Papadil on Rum refering to a solitary priest ( papa) in one of its valley.. Uamh a’ Chrabhaidh, the cave of worship, refers to the cave used by priests in hiding after the reformation. Belief in fairies and other otherwordly creatures such as the Broonie, a hairy, shaggy being who helped with the farm animals, is attested by numerous place names - Cnoc an t- Sithean ( the fairy hill), Na Sitheanan (the fairy mounds), Lòn nan Gruagach (the pool of the watermaiden), Cnoc Oilteag (hill of the Broonie),
However, while most derivations are usually straightforward, some meanings still remain obscure, and are now lost in the mists of time. It is all the more important to understand and use the island’s original place-names. This will allow them to be passed on to future generations so that they can continue to transmit the spirit of the place.
To see the place names and translations, click on the following link.