Notes about Assynt place names


Thanks to Robin Noble for permission to use these personal notes - Ed

Traces of Past Peoples:

Robin Noble

March 2015


As I have for many years had a general interest in place-names, and as those of Assynt may help shed a little light on the history of that Parish, here is a record ofwhat I know or have deduced over many years on this topic. I should stress that this is only a general, and preliminary, look at the subject, based mostly on the names as they appear on recent Ordnance maps; for a genuine, in-depth study, you would need to know both how the relevant names appear in old records, and to have an understanding of the linguistic principles involved, in particular how certain consonants or vowels tend to modify over time. As I have neither of these skills, this is very much an introductory and personal approach to the place-names of Assynt; its greatest value may be that it inspires others to comment or contribute.

As is generally understood, place-names are stratified in much the same way as the rocks in the landscape, and the approach to the topic consists simply of recognising, studying, and then "lifting off" each layer of names. It is customary to begin with the youngest, the most recent of these layers.

In a Highland landscape, the most recent names will obviously tend to be Anglicised or ENGLISH: in our area these might include "Ledmore Junction", ( although it does not now appear on maps ), "Point of Stoer", "Oldany Island" and "Soyea Island", "Kylesku Ferry" ( obviously on older maps ), "Glencanisp Lodge", "Little Assynt" and a few others. It will, of course, be noticed that all these incorporate older, non-English names; apart from pieces of information, such as "Pottery", "Hotel", "Caves", "Chambered Cairn" and so on, these are the only examples of English on our maps.

It should be noted that the Ordnance Survey has been inconsistent in handling Gaelic place-names; some have long appeared in a very anglicised form, such as "Ben More Assynt", "Quinag", or "Loch Awe", even when, as in the former case, the correct Gaelic is both simple and obvious. Others, such as "Beinn Reidh" seem never to be so mistreated.

On the subject of common misconceptions, the word "Forest", which appears as "Glencanisp Forest" for instance, has never carried with it any implication that there were ever any trees in such places. As in England, a "Forest" is an area set aside for the hunting of deer; historically, agriculture was not permitted in such areas, although I doubt whether any of the many examples in Assynt are old enough for that ever to have applied.

The next "layer" of names to be looked for in our area would be in SCOTS, or those obviously connected in any way with Lowland Scotland. Here we have both "Kirkton" , "Newton", and "Brae" in Drumbeg ( although the latter is not on any map). It is tempting to conjecture that these few names came in around the time of the Clearances and the coming of Lowland shepherds. However, the surprisingly anglicised nature of the personal names carved on the rocks adjacent to the Clachtoll Peat Road, make it clear that one should be very cautious in making such assumptions. Across the water, the "Maldie Burn" belongs presumably to this small group.

Clearly, by far the majority of the names on our maps are in GAELIC, and one may presume that the Gaelic language prevailed in this area from around the time of the early Celtic Church until at least the late 1600s AD. Some of what appear as Gaelic names are, however, simply corruptions of NORSE names, and it is probably appropriate to consider them next. It is my belief that the presence of Norse place-names must indicate Norse settlement, partly because no-one has ever convincingly demonstrated any other way in which names given to landscape features when identified from the sea, could have been adopted by an uncomprehending Gaelic-speaking population. It seems likely that such settlement would occur in our area some time in the 200 or so years following the settlement by the Vikings in Orkney around 800 AD.

Some Norse names appear, on the face of it, in an English form, but most have some sort of Gaelic "veneer". The example with an apparent English form is, of course, the "Old Man of Stoer", applied, as in Skye, to the remarkable rock stack. This is most likely to be "the big one, the big man" from "stor" and "man", although some have preferred "staur", a stake.

The "vik" element, meaning a bay or harbour, (which appears in "Viking"), is present in Gaelic-dominated areas in somewhat modified forms- as "vich", "uig" or "aig" , even "nigg". In Assynt, we have "Achmelvich", with "mel" probably indicating "sand". "Glenleraig" reveals itself at once to anyone who has ever anchored there; it is "the silty or muddy harbour", as in Lerwick in Shetland. In this context, I do wonder about that large and complex loch, "Sionascaig", and there is "Galascaig" across the water close to Kylestrome; where "strom" is, of course another coastal feature, a significant current.

Island names are often NORSE, and we have three which end with "a", or "ay", which simply means island : "Soyea", "Chrona" and "Oldany".

Two inland NORSE names incorporate : "gil", a small ravine, as in "Traligill" and "Urigill". "Conival" probably includes "fjell", a mountain, while the first element in Suilven may represent "soyle", a pillar. In "Unapool", just as in Ullapool, the second element is almost certainly "bol", a contraction of the splendid word for a farm, "bolstathr".

One more significant and largely Norse name remains to be considered: "Inverkirkaig", the bay of the church, where the Norse element "kirk" is used instead of any Gaelic equivalent. This would suggest that there was some sort of recognisably religious establishment there when the Norse settlers arrived, and takes its place with other, purely GAELIC names which hint at some elusive and early religious presence in the Parish : "Badnaban" perhaps suggesting a female community, "Loch a’ Mhanaichean" on Little Assynt ground, perhaps Loch of the Monks and the old names of "Achnahiglash" or "Balnaheglise" referring to the settlement on the north side of the Traligill. It is interesting that the latter two names both contain the "na h' eaglais" element for a church, rather than the earlier element "cill", which generally refers to to a monk's cell, an early indication of the Columban Church. In this context, it is worth referring to the presence, a bit apart from the Clachtoll Peat Road, of the element "sliabh" in its genitive form "sleibhe". This word simply means a rounded hill, but is stated by Prof WF Nicolaisen, the doyen of Scottish place-name studies, to be an "early element", one which might possibly reinforce the notion of some early religious presence in Assynt.

The "Bal" in "Balnahegise" above, is the element "baile" the common word for a settlement, said to be the definitive place-name for the map of Gaelic- speaking Scotland. Here in Assynt, where by far the majority of all names are GAELIC, there could hardly be any doubt that this is a genuinely Gaelic area, but in addition to the example already given, we have " Balchladdich ", the settlement by the shore. Many of the Gaelic names of the area are straightforwardly descriptive: "Drumbeg", the little ridge, "Culkein",  "Cul-chinn", (the land at) the back of the headland, and so on - a number incorporate very common elements, such as "ach", for "achadh", a field, which appears in Achmelvich, Achnacarnin, Achmore and many "local" names . Other frequent elements include "cnoc", a rounded eminence, and, of course, "creag", a rock or rocky eminence. One which might be thought to be Gaelic in origin, but is likely to be a borrowing from Norse, is "lon", which is closely connected with water, as in a long pool or waterside meadow, grassy marsh. Loch na Loinne, the Loanan, Lyne, probably all derive from this term.

So far, I have seen no name which looks convincingly Pictish; the "pit" element, as in Pitlochry, Pitcarmick, Pittenweem, etc., seems entirely absent, while the nearest "aber" names are further south in Applecross and around Loch Ness. Another hill-name, "tulach" (tulloch/tully/tilly) is regarded by Nicolaisen as being a Gaelic element which "flourishes particularly well on Pictish soil", but again I find no trace of it here.

If you were, so far, to have "lifted off" from your map all the names already discussed, of SCOTS, NORSE and GAELIC origin, and had any left, these , being pre-Celtic in origin, would be among the oldest and most interesting names we have. In the rest of Scotland, Nicolaisen lists a number of these; many are river names, and include the "adder" element, which has often become "water", as in the "Blackwater River", one of which is not that far away from Assynt. Another has become "allan", as in Bridge of Allan, and there are other elements which now appear as Carron, Nairn, Shiel, Shin. Careful scrutiny of maps of Assynt and old records might reveal something of these elements in our place-names. A few of these certainly remain as puzzling, and, accordingly, I have left them to last.

Most of our mountain-names appear reasonably obvious, but Canisp is a glaring exception. It is, I imagine, possible that the first syllable is "cona", as in Cona Creag and Conival, and the conical shape of the mountain from many directions would appear to support this. I can find nothing to make sense of the final syllable, however. Among the names which I have long felt was intriguingly missing, is the original name for the river we now call the Inver - as "inbhir" simply means mouth of a river, clearly it is not the name of the watercourse itself. According to Malcolm Bangor-Jones, there are three possible references: to the name "Calerot", the "Water of Rewde", and the "River of Abrud". While some connection between the latter two seems feasible, no possible derivations have so far been suggested.

That leaves, most unsatisfactorily, one more more place-name unexplained: "Assynt" itself. Sadly, Nicolaisen does not attempt any explanation, and many other explanations make little sense.

Some names are surprising; why is the settlement of Stoer so far from the rock feature from which it takes its name? Why does Raffin not have that name, or Culkein Stoer ? I tend to distrust the few "circular" names: "Torr an Lochan/ain , Loch Torr an Lochan" for instance, although they may just be some local having fun teasing the original cartographer!

Where the Gaelic is particularly ungrammatical, it may be because someone is trying to bend a non- Gaelic name into a Gaelic one; sadly, the best example I have of this is from Skye, but I will use it to explain what I mean. At the time, I lived in Ord, in Sleat, and was wondering what the name "Ord" actually meant. The dictionary suggested it was a rounded hill, but there was really no particularly obviously rounded hill in Ord, which is where a narrow glen runs down to a beach. The area is limestone, and any outcrops were noticeably craggy, stony, far from rounded. I gave up, temporarily, on Ord, and pondered the high, white ridges behind, to which the modern maps give the name "Sgiath bheinn". This, as Gaelic, is fairly incomprehensible, seeming to mean "wing hill", two nouns together, one aspirated for no obvious reason. And there is nothing "wing- like" about these ridges. A map of 1824 gave a different, but clearly connected name : "skeven". Thinking that this was not Gaelic, but more likely Norse, I looked it up and found "skjerven", which means "bare, barren hills". As these are of quartzite, almost devoid of vegetation, it seemed to fit perfectly, (and I remembered, too, that an old Sgiatheanach had once told me that many of the island's place-names made sense "from the sea"), I wondered whether "Ord" could somehow be derived from its appearance from the sea, in front of the bare, barren, quartzite hills. After a great deal of searching in the Norwegian dictionary, I found "jaerde" which means "cultivable, tillable land", precisely how you would describe the green, limestone ground of Ord, in contrast to thebleak ridges behind. I have absolutely no doubt that this derivation of the two names is entirely correct: they made sense to anyone approaching from the sea, and are Norse names now masquerading as Gaelic. I wonder if there are more of these lurking unnoticed in Assynt ?