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Gaelic place names

This guide is designed to help you understand more about the role of the language in the origins of place names in Britain, of which there are many familiar examples, many of them using anglicised versions of the original Gaelic. It comprises:

They are available for download together as an eBook:

Guide to Gaelic origins of place names in Britain

Our Gaelic names policy sets out how we show Gaelic names and bilingual English / Gaelic names on our products.

We also publish guides to how place names have been influenced by the Welsh, Scots and Scandinavian languages.

How widely Gaelic names occur across Scotland

To assist in understanding of the occurrence of Gaelic in place names, we have created a map that shows the approximate occurrence of names in Gaelic orthography in Scotland on Ordnance Survey maps.

Gaelic orthography extent map (2.8 Mb)

To interpret the map correctly, it is important to understand what is meant by Gaelic orthography, and how the map has been compiled.

Gaelic orthography is the set of spelling conventions used in Gaelic. It is sometimes difficult for the casual observer to determine whether a name is in Gaelic orthography but some key indicators are:

  • Gaelic has an alphabet of 18 letters (click on a letter to discover the origins - a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u) and therefore the presence of other letters (j, k, q, v, w, x, y, z) indicates a name that is not in Gaelic orthography.
  • certain sequences of letters that occur in Scots or Scottish English do not occur in Gaelic orthography such as ie or ou.
  • accents on vowels (now only grave \, but formerly both grave \ and acute /), which are used as length markers, are found only in Gaelic orthography.

The methodology for drawing this map has been to search by 10 km square for certain common widespread elements which typify Gaelic orthography. The elements used were:

  • achadh (field) and its related forms achaidh, achaidhean;
  • baile (farm, hamlet) and its related form bhaile;
  • beinn (hill) and its related form bheinn;
  • dubh (black) and its related forms dhubh, dhuibh, duibhe, dubha;

Combinations of these elements with Scots or Scottish English elements have been ignored, such as Tomdubh Burn or Lagdubh Hill.

The resulting boundary was then modified to reflect notable geographic features such as the Beauly Firth, Cromarty Firth and Firth of Clyde.

Further refinement of this information could be carried out by looking at the distribution of additional common elements in Gaelic orthography, such as

  • a’, na (forms of the definite article);
  • clach (stone) and its related forms chlach, cloiche;
  • cnoc (hillock) and its related forms chnuic, chnoic, cnuic, cnoic;
  • fuaran (spring, green spot) and its related forms fuarain, fhuarain.

When using this map, you should bear in mind:

  • the boundary is approximate and indicative, and only based on the presence of certain Gaelic language elements;
  • the areas along the boundary contain far fewer names in Gaelic orthography than do those further north and west;
  • the map only depicts the recording of names within Ordnance Survey Explorer maps at the end of the 20th century;
  • Gaelic has influenced many names elsewhere in Scotland, but in those areas the recorded names are no longer in Gaelic orthography.

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