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What I now know about Gaelic place names

Written by Fiona

February 23 2015

Do you know your Beinn from your Bidean, or the difference between Sgorr and Sgurr. And could you identify a Torr, Tom or Tulach? The chances are you have seen all of these words on maps and in the names of places, hills and mountains across Scotland.

Even if you do know the meanings and derivations of most of the words, including others such as Aonach, Bealach, Maol, Meall and Poll, do you know how to pronounce them?

At last week’s Fort William Mountain Festival event, Understanding our Mountains through the Gaelic (that’s Gaelic with a hard “a”) Language, we learned all this – and a lot more.

Led by Hebrides-born Cailean Maclean, whose first language is Gaelic, the workshop at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, West Highland College UHI, in Fort William, took participants through a brief history of the development of the ancient Scots language.

Cailean explained some of the basics of the Gaelic language and offered an overview of some meanings and pronunciations of place, hill and mountain names, especially those connected to the surrounding Lochaber area.

Here are 23 things I learned about Gaelic and mountains

  1. Scots Gaelic is a Q Celtic (Goidelic) language, like Irish and Manx Gaelic, and in contrast to Welsh, Cornish and Breton Gaelic, which are P (Brythonic) Celtic languages.
  2. Gaelic has only 18 letters in its alphabet.
  3. All letters refer to tree names.
  4. H is included in the alphabet but no place names start with the letter H
  5. Mh and bh together is pronounced v, as in Creag Mhor.
  6. Gaelic uses “grave” accents and once included “acute” accents but no longer.
  7. Gaelic is a gender-sensitive language, like French, and has male and female words.
  8. Not all hill and place names in Scotland are of Gaelic origin, because there were other influences on the development of language including the Picts and Norse.
  9. Gaelic hill and place names are mainly in the west and north of Scotland.
  10. Many Gaelic place names have been anglicised over time.
  11. Some Gaelic place names have been influenced by Norse language.
  12. Some place names are hybrids of Gaelic and Norse languages.
  13. The south-west of Scotland tends to have Brythonic place names, such as Glasgow, Clyde, and Lanark.
  14. Maps are a great source of Gaelic place name history.
  15. Some modern maps have started to delete Gaelic place names, which Cailean rightly points out as a great loss.
  16. Gaelic is a language that has many rules.
  17. Gaelic also breaks many language rules and “if you want to learn it you should have around seven years spare!” according to Cailean.
  18. Among all the place names that we learned to pronounce the one that Cailean would most like us to remember is Aonach. It is pronounced with a cross between an oon and an urn sound at the start of the word and the sound somehow comes through the nose rather than the mouth. Listen to how it is pronounced on a website of Gaelic Places Names.
  19. Even the walking websites, such as Munro Magic and Walk Highlands, can’t be relied on for exactly the right pronunciations. Many are right but some are not quite right, such as Aonach Eagach.
  20. Aonoch means a hill of “steep height”
  21. Another mountain name that is frequently said incorrectly is Coire an t-Sneachda. We learned that “sn” together is pronounced tr. So the place name has a harsh “tr” in the middle of it. WalkHighlands is close to the correct pronunciation.
  22. I love how Buachaille is pronounced. Buachaille Etive Mor is a famous Glencoe mountain and means “big herdsmen of Etive”. Here is pronounced on WalkHighlands.
  23. I still don’t know for sure how the Munro Ben Chonzie is pronounced (see below).

I had been keen to attend the workshop simply because I struggle to properly pronounce many Munro names. I found myself fascinated by the history of the Gaelic language and the development of place names in Scotland.

I suddenly had an urge to learn the Gaelic language, although in reality I do not have the time. I would, however, be interested in learning more and the West Highland College UHI offers a range of Gaelic courses, including evening sessions and distance learning.

This year, the college also plans to run courses that combine hill walks in the area with lessons in Gaelic. Keep an eye on Sabhal Mor Ostaig for details.

Another reason for attending the workshop was to learn the proper way to say Ben Chonzie. This is a Munro in Perthshire. Some people say “Honzie” and others say “bennee hone”. I have also heard “benneconie”. I am writing these phonetically but do listen at WalkHighlands for two of the versions.

I was mystified. Cailean wasn’t sure because Chonzie is not a Gaelic word, although it seems that the mountain name has come from Gaelic origins. He has promised to investigate for me.

Find out more about Cailean Maclean at Skye Media (as well as being a Gaelic place names expert he also appears to be a superb photographer).

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