This remark is confidently made by some who live outwith Highland Scotland and it’s been said directly to me by an otherwise intelligent and educated person, a linguist herself. The speaking of Gaelic, widespread in Scotland between the 5th and the 17th centuries, is now firmly associated only with the Highlands and Islands in many folks’ minds.
However, it’s not only throughout Scotland that people are using Gaelic words without realising it. As it has done with so many other languages, English has taken in words from Gaelic and not just the obvious ones like ceilidh, glen, whisky (uisge beatha), sporran, cairn, mod, pibroch, clan, plaid, trews (triubhas), claymore (claidheamh-mor) etc.
Gob for mouth is Gaelic for a bird’s beak / bill, and it’s also given us gobstopper and gobsmacked; shanty is from seann taigh meaning an old house / small shack; brog, anglicised as brogue, is a type of shoe; twig, in the sense of cottoning on, is from tuig which means to understand; slug comes from sluig meaning to swallow / gulp down; slew derives from sluagh meaning a multitude.
Other interesting examples are (in English): snazzy, smidgin, shindig, bothy, pet, and keen – in the sense of wailing for the dead – and the better known ones such as slogan and galore. Some scholars say that smashing, when used to praise something, derives from ‘s math sin, meaning that’s good, but this is disputed. I’ve got some of these examples from “Slogans Galore! Gaelic words in English” by George MacLennan, Argyll publishing, 2010 but also from a Glasgow Life Gaelic Learning Team booklet.
However, the main way that Gaelic has marked Scotland is in our place names with examples found in most parts of the country, though not in the south east where Gaelic wasn’t spoken to any great extent; Scots was the main language there which had developed from Northumbrian English. Names of Gaelic origin can be found throughout the rest of Scotland but so many original names were anglicised by early map-makers who had no Gaelic and no knowledge of Gaelic eg Jura, Kinlochleven, Quiraing, Lewis, Stack Polly; the letters j, k, q, v, w, y do not exist in the Gaelic alphabet and nor do x or z.
Glasgow is from the Brythonic words glas cau which means a green hollow; glas in both Gaelic and Welsh can mean green or grey. (Brythonic was an earlier Celtic language, also called P-Celtic, from which Welsh, Breton and Cornish have derived; Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic are Q-Celtic languages). The river name Clyde also derives from Brythonic and was originally clut ; strath and inbhir (mapped as inver) are also Gaelic words, meaning a wide valley and a river mouth respectively and so we get Strathclyde and Inverclyde. Kelvin is from Caol Abhainn – narrow river – and abhainn is the Gaelic form of the Celtic word which also gives us the river name Avon. Auchenshuggle means a field of rye and was originally achadh na seagal; Drumchapel comes from druim chapuill meaning mare’s ridge.
Barr which in Gaelic means the upper surface of anything, a crop, or the tip of something, signifies a crest or a height in a place name so we get Barmulloch, Barlanark, Barrhead and Barlinnie – linn is a pool. On the east coast, Dunbar is likely to be the fort on the height. Aird meaning a high place has given us Airdrie from aird and ruighe – a hillslope.
In Ayrshire, Gaelic has left its traces in Troon, from an t-Sron which is the word for nose but also for a promontory; Ballantrae is from Baile na Traigh, the village on the shore; Wemyss Bay comes from the Gaelic word for a cave, uaimh – and this same word gave rise to East and West Wemyss in Fife.
Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway, obviously written on a map by a non-Gael, is from Seann Chathair, meaning old fortress. Cathair is the Gaelic form of the earlier Brythonic word caer for a stone fort; the older word is still there in Caerlaverock and also, of course, in the Welsh Caernarvon.
I could go on and on with examples from most parts of Scotland but think I will stop there while you’re still awake. Anyone who’s interested can go online and learn so much more from sites such as “Gaelic place names of Scotland” or the Ordnance Survey’s guide to “Gaelic origins of place names”.
I read online part of quite a snooty academic article deriding popular books on the origins of Scottish place names on the grounds that no short book could possibly do the subject justice; however I’ve found the ones pictured below very interesting and useful and so I’m sure would other general readers. In particular, I like Scotland’s Place Names by David Dorward (his two sons accompanied Andrew Greig to the Loch of the Green Corrie).
Reading the Gaelic Landscape by John Murray is a fascinating book and has a useful diagram to help us learn the names for the different heights and shapes of hills, demonstrating the variety of words in Gaelic. It’s maybe not quite on the same level as Australian Aboriginal songlines but it surely would be useful for hillwalkers and interested visitors, as well as I hope to the folk living locally to give them more of a connection to their place.
In his preface, Murray explains why he wrote his book. He recounts a conversation with a woman in Assynt whose family had lived there for 150 years; although her parents were Gaelic-speakers, they had not passed it on to her and so “she had lost touch with the landscape as it had been expressed in the language of her immediate ancestors”. Among the quotes in his preface is one from M. Hough in his Out of Place: restoring identity to the regional landscape, Yale University Press (1990): “Naming is …. endemic to the perceptions and shaping of a locality, for names alone create a mental image that has special significance for local people – and names can be the means by which an outsider begins to perceive a place’s unique qualities.”
Ignorance – sometimes wilful – is widespread however. In a speech in April 2014, George Robertson said of Scotland: “… language and culture, and all these sort of things. We don’t have any of that.” When I first read these words I could scarcely credit that they could have been spoken by a man from Islay but it was filmed and it’s still on YouTube. (He’s now in the House of Lords and has 10 honorary doctorates!)
So let us lift up our eyes unto the hills – or failing that, the nearest road sign – and we might see some remnants of our ancient language and culture.
Alasdair Whyte puts it much more eloquently in his programme notes for Theatre GuLeor’s performance of MAIM when he writes about how our relationship with the land has degraded: “The people of Gleann Forsa had a symbiotic relationship with their land, just as people throughout Mull, throughout the Gaelic-speaking areas, past and present, and across the world once had. The land and its produce raised them and their children. We can see this in Gleann Forsa’s place names: once alive in the mouths of local people and now only known in their written forms on maps. Their pronunciations, their meanings and their associated lore are all but lost.”
In order to “rebuild our relationship with our land”, he urges us to “listen”, to “ask the right questions” and to “celebrate the people who once lived in the places familiar to us” along with “our rich, local culture, heritage and language”.
We must do so, however, before the water, both literal and metaphorical, closes over our heads.