Place Names of Ross and Cromarty

III The Basis of Interpretation

Attribution: extracted from Blaeu’s Atlas Novus (17th Century)

The Introduction to Prof. Watson's 'Place Names of Ross and Cromarty'


III. - The Basis of Interpretation

The study of names of places involves two processes, collection of facts and interpretation, and if the interpretation is to be sound, the facts on which it is based must be accurate and adequate. It is therefore proper at the outset to consider the nature of the facts at our disposal in dealing with the names encountered in Ross and Cromarty, names which fall, in respect of language, into four divisions-Pictish, Gaelic, Norse and English. These facts or data are, in the main, of three kinds-

(1) The names as they are now pronounced.
(2) Old written forms.
(3) Physical characteristics of the places denoted by the names.

Modern Pronunciations.

(1) At the present day both Gaelic and English are spoken over the whole of the county, with this qualification, that in the eastern part English is predominant, while Gaelic still prevails on the West Coast and in Lewis. The result is that to some extent over the whole, but especially in Easter Ross, we have a sort of double nomenclature; on the one hand the names as they are pronounced by the Gaelic-speaking native, on the other the Anglified forms used by English speakers, and by Gaelic natives, too, when speaking English. These latter are the “official” forms which appea in the Valuation Roll, the Post-Office Directory, and on the maps, and are often of considerable antiquity. The form Raddery, for instance, must have come into vogue at a period when the d of the modern G. Radharaidh was still audible as a consonant. Culbokie dates from a time when the o sound had not yet become a, as it has in modern G. Cuilbhàicidh. Strathpeffer shows in an unaspirated form the f of modern G. Strath-pheofhair. Cromarty and Drumderfit show old terminations lost in the modern G. forms Cromba’ and Druima-diar. Yet the practical value of modern English forms by themselves is small; at their best they fail to indicate the quantity or quality of vowels, and often they have undergone changes that quite disguise the original. Modern Gaelic forms of Gaelic names which have been handed down by unbroken tradition have undergone only such changes as occur regularly within the language; they are in fact, Gaelic words, conforming to the rules of Gaelic phonetics, and form as good a starting point for the philologist as any other Gaelic words. There remains the question of the value of Gaelic forms of names originally Pictish or Norse. In the case of Norse names, the answer is easy. Gaelic has been, on the whole, wonderfully consistent in its treatment of the old Norse vowels and consonants, and it possesses the great advantage of clearly indicating the quantity of the vowel in the first syllable of Norse names, which is usually the important part. In one small class of such names, indeed, it fails us badly, but it is safe to say that very slightly authority can be attached to any investiation of Norse names that fails to take careful account of the modern Gaelic forms. These forms are imitations, but they are only one degree removed from the original; the English forms are imitations of an imitation. How Pictish names have fared in Gaelic mouths is the more difficult to determine, because practically no specimens of that language have come down to us. It may, however, be remarked that there is no reason to suppose that they were treated differently from the Norse names; Gaelic may be expected to preserve the vowel quantity of accented syllables, and to be tolerably consistent in its phonetics. In both cases there was a bilingual period, which gave the Gaels ample time to become familiar with the names which they adopted from Pict and Norseman. The changes undergone subsequently have, of course, been in accordance with those of Gaelic. Examples of Pictish and Norse names as they appear in the modern forms will appear later in treating of these elemnents; in the meantime some may be given to illustrate the comparitive value of the modern Gaelic forms of Gaelic words as compared with their English equivalents
Pitnellie(s) Bail’ an ianlaith.
Tenafield Tigh na fìdhle.
Kindeace Cinn-déis.
Ardoil Eadar dha fhaodhail.
Bogbain am Bac Bàn.
Locheye Loch na h-Uidhe.
Kilcoy Cuil-challaidh.
Pookandraw Bog an t-srath.
Fowlis Fólais.
Kinrive Ceanna-ruigh.
Fain na Fèithean.
Dochcarty Do’ach Gartaidh.
Other examples will be found passim

Old Written Forms.

(2) The forms of names preserved in ancient documents have been utilised with much success by Dr Joyce in dealing with Irish names of places. In Irish writings, names have been transmitted with great care from very ancient times by scribes who were masters of the language, and from them the original forms can often be ascertained with immediate certainty. For Scotland, unfortunately, the case is different. The great bulk of our written forms date only from the period not earlier than the twelfth century, when charters came in under the sons of Margaret. Their authority, moreover, is largely discounted by the fact that they were written by scribes who knew Gaelic, and consequently spelled at random. In the case of Highland names, it is obvious that charter forms must have been more or less phonetic attempts at reproducing Gaelic pronunciations, and their value is, therefore, greatest when they can be controlled and interpreted by the modern Gaelic. This applies equally to all names not of English origin, whether they are Pictish, Norse, or Gaelic. Thus controlled, the charter forms are often helpful and suggestive; as independent authorities, they are unreliable. A few examples are given in illustration; others in abundance will be found eslewhere-

Pinellies Petnely 1512 Bail’ an iaulaith.
Pikerrie Pikeri 1529 Baile-chéiridh.
Strath of Pitcalnie Culderare 1611 Cuilt-cararaidh.
Rhives le Royis 1479 na Ruigheannan.
Ruvis 1487
Delny Dalgeny 1356 Deilguidh.
Alness Alenes 1227 Alanais.
Lemlair Lemnelar 1227 Luim na’ Làr.
Learnie Larny 1576 Leatharnaidh.
Achterflow Ochtercloy 1456 Uachdar-chlò.
Achtirflo 1560
Kilcoy Culcolly 1294 Cuil-ahallaidh.
Culcowy 1479
Sanachan Tannachtan 1548 Samhnachan.
Safnachan 1583

Perhaps the best example in Ross of a really helpful old spelling, which must take precedence of the modern Gaelic, is Inverasdale, Inveraspidill 1566, &c,; G. Inbhir-àsdal.

The oldest record forms for Ross names belong to the first half of the 13th century, and come from the Register of Moray. Written forms antecedent to that date are very few. Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, mentions two names of places which seem to be rightly located in Ross, Volsas Sinus, for which cf. Lochalsh, and High Bank, identified with Norse Ekkials-bakki, modern Oykell.1 In addition, he mentions three tribal names. already referred to. The Carnonacae, somewhere on the West Coast, are, doubtless, the men of the Cairns, or of the Rough Bounds, and we may compare the modern Carranaich, the Lochcarron men. In Easter Ross were located the Decantae, but of their name no trace appears subsequently. So, too, with the Smertae, who may have dwelt from Kincardine northwards in the valleys of the Carron, Oykell, and Shin. In the interval of over a thousand years between Ptolemy and the record forms, we find only the old forms of Applecross, Lewis and Ross itself.

Physical Characteristics.

(3) As the names of places are usually descriptive, it is often useful, sometimes necessary, to see the place itself. It is only by inspection and comparison that one learns, for instance, to differentiate between the numerous words for hill, or to distinguish between a strath, a glen and a corry. Inspection is specially useful when names are applied in a metaphorical way, from likeness to some object, e.g., Meall an Tuirc, Boar-hill, from its striking resemblance, as viewed from a certain point, to a boar. Na Rathanan, the pulleys, require to be seen to be appreciated. Places involving obsolete names such as eirbhe, faithir, seòlaid, eileag, have to be studied for confirmation of the meaning proposed. This applies specially to Pictish names such as Allan, Alness, Contin, Aradie, Orrin. But it is well to bear in mind that no amount of looking at a place can alter the phonetics of the name, and that inspirations derived from inspection must be received with caution.

In the discussions that follow, I have availed myself wherever possible of the three fold data above indicated. In particular, the modern Gaelic forms, which, in the absence of reliable old spellings, must be regarded as by far the most reliable basis of interpretation, have been ascertained with accuracy from reliable native sources. In addition, advantage has been taken largely of the analogy of names occurring elsewhere which are wholly or partly the same as the names under discussion, or which resemble them in assignable respects. This is, of course, merely the method of comparative philology applied to place-names. The field from which possible analogies may be drawn is a wide one; in practice it will be found that for Gaelic names one has to compare names occurring in Scotland and Ireland; the pre-Gaelic or Pictish element involves, in addition, an acquaintance with Welsh, Cornish, Old British, and Gaulish names; while for names of Norse origin the best auxiliaries are the names that occur in the Sagas, and especially the Landnàma-bòk.

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