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Gaelic language and place names

Background

Scottish Gaelic today is strongly associated with the Scottish Highlands, especially the Western Isles, and it is easy to forget that it was once the main language of Scotland. About a thousand years ago, when Gaelic was at its height, it could be heard from Berwickshire to Caithness and from Cape Wrath to the Rhinns of Galloway. It has left its mark above all else, in place names, even in areas including much of lowland Scotland, where it has been little spoken since the middle ages. It has left us with thousands of familiar place names containing scores of Gaelic elements, such as Auch- from achadh, Auchter- from uachdar, Bal- from baile, Dun- from dùn, Inver- from inbhir, Kin- from ceann, and Kil- usually from cill or coille.

On the Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland you will find two types of names: those written using English spelling and those using Gaelic spelling (orthography). This does not reflect the extent of place names derived from Gaelic, which are to be found throughout most of Scotland, but rather it reflects the areas in which Gaelic was, or had recently been, spoken at the time of the creation of the Ordnance Survey maps in the 19th century. The accompanying glossary is concerned only with those names written in Gaelic orthography. The initial form given in the glossary is the main form of that word in the Gaelic-Gaelic dictionary Brìgh nam Facal by Richard A V Cox (Gairm Publications, Glasgow 1991).

Structure of place names

Place names are made up of elements, words taken mostly from everyday language used to describe a special feature of a place. Place names arise from the interaction of language and environment.

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun (Comar NH3331, Corran NS2193). These are often preceded by the Scottish Standard English definite article ‘the’, Gaelic an, am, a’, plural na (An Dùnan NM8629, Am Fasgadh NN0169, A’ Charraig NR8467, Na Croitean NM3721). Most place names, however, are made up of more than one element, with a linguistic relationship between the elements. For example, the generic can be qualified by:

  • An adjective, such as mòr ‘big’ in Beinn Mhòr NH9928 or dearg ‘red’ in Eas Dearg NN6109. Sometimes more than one adjective can qualify the generic element, as in Eilean Glas Mòr NF9069. Such names are also often preceded by the definite article, as in An Ùidh Dhubh NH7395. Note that the definite article is more common in such place names than would appear from Ordnance Survey maps, which frequently do not record it as part of the name.
  • Another common noun in the genitive case, such as sgadan ‘herring’ in Geodha Sgadain NG1087, often with the definite article, such as Gleann a’ Chapaill NR7367 (‘glen of the horse’), or Loch na h-Oidhche NG8865 (‘loch of the night’).
  • A proper noun, either a personal name, such as Fearchar (Farquhar) in Allt Fhearchair NM5326 or Mairead (Margaret) in Clach Mairead NB1841; OR an existing place name, such as Ìle (Islay) in Caol Ìle or Àirigh nan Eun in Allt Àirigh nan Eun NR8666. Many personal names are those of saints, such as Cill(e) Brìde NR8362, NR3846 (‘church of (St) Brigit’ (Kilbride)).

The element qualifying a generic element is called a qualifying or specific element. An element can be generic or specific, depending on how it is used in a name. For example, in Eilean Dubh NC2409 eilean is the generic, dubh is the specific element; whereas in Loch an Eilein NR7980 loch is the generic, an t-eilean (‘the island’) is the specific element.

In Gaelic an adjective usually follows its noun, as in French, for example, Creag Bhàn, Beinn Fhada, except for sean(n) (‘old’), which regularly comes before its noun. Other adjectives, especially colour adjectives, can sometimes come after, sometimes before their noun, for example, Coire Glas NO2587 but Glas-Choire NS1598.

Spelling and pronunciation

Gaelic spelling is more regular than English spelling, which means that it reflects more accurately the actual sounds of the language. It should be stressed, however, that the sound system of Gaelic is different from Standard English (Received Pronunciation), Scottish Standard English, Scots, or any of the Scottish or English dialects, except for the so-called West Highland accent, which has been heavily influenced by Gaelic. There are, however, more similarities with Scottish Standard English than with Standard English (Received Pronunciation), so most of the examples below are taken from Scottish Standard English. Modern Gaelic spelling recommendations are embodied in the Gaelic Orthographic Conventions that can be found by searching on www.sqa.org.uk.

Gaelic uses an alphabet of 18 letters, namely a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u. A major feature of the Gaelic spelling system is the concept of broad and slender vowels, which are also referred to as back and front vowels. The broad or back vowels are a, o, u, the slender or front vowels are e, i. The pronunciation of most consonants is different depending on whether they are beside a broad vowel or a slender vowel. For this reason a consonant or group of consonants in the middle of a word must have either a broad vowel on either side or a slender vowel on either side.

All vowels can be long or short, with length being indicated by a grave accent ( ` ). Formerly acute accents ( ´ ) were used on e and o to indicate not only length (quantity) but also quality, with è pronounced like a long French è (as in Scottish English cortege), and é pronounced like a long French é (as in Scottish English bay); while ò was pronounced like Scottish English awe, and ó like Scottish English owe. However, the acute accent ( ´ ) has been abandoned in modern spelling recommendations, so that the grave accent ( ` ) now indicates length only.

These modern spelling recommendations also explain why forms formerly written with u in unstressed syllables such as calltuinn, camus, tarsuinn, are now written with a, calltainn, camas, tarsainn.

What follows is only a rough approximation of sounds. Remember that the English words given as equivalents are to be pronounced more like Scottish Standard English than Standard English (received pronunciation), unless otherwise stated.

Vowels

Single vowels:

  • a: like a in ‘hat’, often like u in ‘but’; before nn it is like ow in ‘cow’
  • à: like a in ‘half’
  • e: short closed e like a in ‘rate’ and short open e like e in ‘fetch’
  • è: long closed e like ay in ‘bay’ (formerly é) and long open e like e in ‘cortege’ (formerly è)
  • i: like ee as in ‘keep’
  • ì: like ee in ‘keep’ but longer
  • o: short closed o like oa in ‘boat’, and short open o like o in ‘lot’
  • ò: long closed o like ‘owe’ (formerly ó), and long open o like ‘awe’ (formerly ò)
  • u: like oo in ‘book’
  • ù: like oo in ‘book’, but longer

Vowel groups

Most groups of two or three vowels are pronounced much as would be expected, that is as separate sounds rapidly following one another. However, often one of the vowels is there simply to indicate whether a consonant is broad or slender, for example, in fearann the a following the e indicates that the r is broad, so that ea is pronounced simply as e (as in ‘get’). However, note the following:

  • ao: a long sound with no equivalent in English. Try saying Gaelic ù (like oo in ‘book’, but longer) without rounding your lips.
  • eu: like ia in ‘Maria’ or like ay in ‘bay’.

Consonants

This is not a complete or exact description of how each consonant or group of consonants are pronounced. However, those that are most unfamiliar to someone used to the English spelling system are given below, with their approximate English value:

  • bh: like v at the beginning of words, otherwise like w, or silent (that is not heard at all); for example dubh is pronounced approximately as ‘doo’.
  • c: like c in ‘cat’ or c in ‘cue’; when it occurs between two vowels or as the last letter of a word it is preceded by the sound ch in ‘loch’
  • ch: like ch in ‘loch’.
  • cn: like cr.
  • d slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): like j in ‘jam’.
  • dh broad (that is in contact with one of the broad vowels a, o, u): the same sound as Gaelic broad gh, almost like French r in ‘rire’. When it is not at the beginning of a word it is often pronounced only very lightly or not at all.
  • onounced only very lightly or not at all.
    • dh slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): the same sound as Gaelic slender gh, like y in ‘yet’. When it is not at the beginning of a word it is often pronounced only very lightly or not at all.
  • fh: silent, that is not pronounced at all.
  • gh broad (that is in contact with one of the broad vowels a, o, u): the same sound as Gaelic broad dh, almost like French r in ‘rire’. When it is not at the beginning of a word it is often pronounced only very lightly or not at all.
  • gh slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): the same sound as Gaelic slender dh, like y in ‘yet’. When it is not at the beginning of a word it is often pronounced only very lightly or not at all.
  • l broad (that is in contact with one of the broad vowels a, o, u): like a hollow or dark l, as in ‘full’, with the blade (as opposed to the tip) of the tongue touching the teeth.
  • l slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): like lli in ‘million’ when it is at the beginning of a word; otherwise like ll in ‘silly’.
  • mh: like v at the beginning of words, otherwise like w, or silent (that is not heard at all). It also makes the vowel before it sound very nasal.
  • ph: like f.
  • r slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): can be pronounced like r in Scottish English ‘tree’, but in several dialects it is pronounced like th in ‘the’.
  • rd and rt: in many Gaelic dialects this is pronounced with a light sh as in ‘she’ between the two consonants.
  • s slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): like sh in ‘she’.
  • t slender (that is in contact with one of the slender vowels e, i): like ch in ‘church’.
  • th: like h in ‘he’ at the beginning of words, otherwise silent.
    Some grammar

Some grammar

The following is not a full description of Gaelic grammar. However, in order to use the Elements Index it is important to know a little about these things. A full description can be found in any book for Gaelic learners, sources for which are given in the further information section.
Certain regular changes take place in Gaelic in nouns, adjectives and the definite article, depending on such grammatical features as gender (masculine or feminine), number (singular or plural), and case (nominative, genitive, dative). All Gaelic nouns are either masculine or feminine, and it will become clear that it is important to know what gender a noun belongs to. Some nouns, however, are used in masculine and feminine forms depending on local usage. They are marked nmf in the glossary. The genitive case indicates possession, as indicated in English by 'of the'.

Definite article

‘The’ is the only form of the definite article in English. However, as with most other European languages, Gaelic has several forms, depending on number, gender and case, as well as on the initial letter or letters of the following noun.

Singular

  • a’: for example, before a feminine noun in the nominative case beginning with b(h), c(h), g(h), m(h), p(h), as in A’ Bheinn NM8403, A’ Chruach NM9021, A’ Phàirc Loisgte NN4856; or before a masculine noun in the genitive case beginning with b(h), c(h), g(h), m(h), p(h), as in Sròn a’ Bhàird NR7662, ‘nose of the poet’, containing the genitive of am bàrd ‘the poet’, Allt a’ Choire Dhuibh NN2564, ‘burn of the black corrie’, containing the genitive of an coire dubh ‘the black corrie’. This form of the definite article always causes lenition (see below).
  • am: before a masculine noun in the nominative case beginning with b, f, m, p, as in Am Fasgadh NN0169, Am Meall NR7665.
  • an: for example, before a masculine noun in the nominative case beginning with any consonant except b, f, m, p, as in An Cnap NS0146, or before a feminine noun in the nominative case beginning with a vowel or f(h), as in An Àird NG5335, An Fhang NR6552.
  • an t-: for example, before a masculine noun in the nominative beginning with a vowel, as in An t-Inbhir NN4048; before a masculine noun in the genitive beginning with s + vowel, l, n, or r, as in Cnoc an t-Sagairt NR8368, ‘hill of the priest’, containing the genitive of an sagart ‘the priest’, Meall an t-Sluic NN5152, containing the genitive of an sloc ‘the hollow’; or before a feminine noun in the nominative beginning with s + vowel, l, n, or r, as in An t-Sàil Bheag NG8761, An t Sròn NL9342. Note that in all cases following an t- the initial s is silent, that is it is not pronounced.
  • na: before a feminine noun in the genitive beginning with a consonant, as in Loch na Bèiste NR7654, Port na Cille NR6444.
  • na h-: before a feminine noun in the genitive beginning with a vowel, as in Gob na h-Àirde Mòire NB0117, containing the genitive of An Àird Mhòr ‘the big headland’.

The forms of the definite article with singular nouns can be summarised in this table:

SingularInitial letter of following noun
b, m, pc, gd, l, n, r, tfsvowel
masculinenomamananamanan t
gena'a'ananan t-an
femininenoma'a'ananan t-an
gennananananana h-

Plural

  • na: before masculine and feminine nouns in the nominative beginning with a consonant, as in Na Cnuic Liatha NC1810, plural of an cnoc liath ‘the grey hill’ (cnoc is masculine), Na Croitean NM3721, plural of a’ chroit ‘the croft’ (croit is feminine).
  • na h-: before masculine and feminine nouns in the nominative beginning with a vowel, as in Na h-Easan NC4300, plural of an t-eas ‘the waterfall’ (eas is masculine) or Na h-Ìnnsean NC2522, plural of an innis (innis is feminine).
  • nam: before masculine and feminine nouns in the genitive beginning with b, f, m, p, as in Toll nam Broc NR8082, Creag nam Fitheach NR7876.
  • nan: before masculine and feminine nouns in the genitive beginning with any letter except b, f, m, p, as in Druim nan Toll NN7094.

The forms of the definite article with plural nouns can be summarised in this table:

PluralInitial letter of following noun
b, f, m, pother consonantsvowel
Masculine or femininenomnanana h-
gennamnannan

Lenition

Gaelic is a Celtic language and, as in other Celtic languages such as Irish and Welsh, the consonants at the beginning of words can change according to gender, number and case. In Gaelic this is called lenition, meaning literally ‘softening’, and it is usually signalled by putting the letter h after the lenited or softened consonant.

The initial consonants that are affected by lenition by the addition of an h are b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, t. The consonants l, n, r can also be affected by lenition, but this is not expressed in the spelling.

These are some of the main circumstances in which lenition occurs:

  • in a feminine singular noun following the definite article, as in A’ Bheinn NM8403, An Fhang NR6552;
  • in an adjective following a feminine singular noun, as in Creag Bhreac NM8400 or Beinn Mhòr NH9928;
  • in the genitive of a masculine singular noun following the definite article a’, as in Eilean a’ Bhuic NB5452 (genitive of boc);
  • in the adjective qualifying a masculine genitive singular noun, as in Rubha a’ Phuirt Mhòir NR2457 (genitive of port mòr);
  • in the genitive singular of masculine personal names, as in Geodha Chaluim MhicMhuirich NA0701 (‘the ravine of Calum MacVurich or Malcolm Currie’) or Sgùrr Thormaid NG4422 (‘Tormad’s or Norman’s peak’); and
  • in a noun following an adjective, regardless of the noun’s gender, as in Glas-Choire NS1598.

Genitive and plural forms of nouns

It will be clear from many of the place names given as examples in the glossary that when a noun is used in the genitive plural (that is following the plural definite article nan or nam ‘of the’) its form is often the same as the nominative singular. This is especially true of nouns of one syllable, for example, Eilean nan Lìon NF9270, Eilean nan Ràmh NF7619, although it can also occur in two-syllable words, for example, Tobar nan Nighean NG2757.

Further information and references

Our Gaelic names policy describes the use and depiction of Gaelic names on our maps and data products.

Information on various Gaelic-language clubs, classes and courses around Scotland and beyond can be found on the website of Clì Gàidhlig, the membership organisation for Gaelic learners and non-native speakers.

Details of books on Scottish place names can be found on the website of the Scottish Place-Name Society/Comann Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba.

Brìgh nam Facal – Cox, Richard A V (1991), Gairm Publications, Glasgow

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