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Place names

People name places. In so doing they express something about their life, culture, history and superstitions. Once established, place names endure and impart identity to a locality.

Derivations of place names
Place names are mostly derived from words and word roots taken from everyday language. In the Highlands most place names are particularly descriptive of the shape, colour and size of landscape features. But some owe more to the folklore, culture and customs of the local inhabitants than to the landscape.

Naming through the ages
To Bronze Age villagers 4,000 years ago the sound ‘aub’ denoted 'life-sustaining water’; it survives in abhainn or Avon (river). Picts enjoyed hunting boar, as found in the Pictish name Air-cardden or Urquhart (at the thicket). Colonising Scots from Ireland brought Gaelic names, such as Achadh na seileach or Achnashellach (willow field). Names like Sild-vik or Shieldaig (herring bay) identify areas of Norse settlement. Beau-lieu or Beauly (beautiful place) owes its name to medieval Norman French. Jemimaville and Fort Augustus show the 18th century English influence.

Gaelic place names frequently describe the feature’s colour. Uaine (green), fionn (white), gorm (blue/green), glas (grey/blue) and dearg (red) are among those most commonly used – for example. Loch an Uaine, Fionn Bheinn, Cairngorm, Ghlas Bheinn, Beinn Dearg,. Breac (speckled), as in Beinn a Bhreac or Ben Bhrackie, is especially descriptive of a heathery hillside resembling speckled trout.

The working environment too finds expression in place names. Baile na gobhainn or Balnagowan means ‘the blacksmith's village’. Achadh-na-Caraidh or Achnacarry (field of the fish-trap) points to the presence of a fishing community; Cnoc na Caorach (sheep’s knoll) to sheep farming.

References to trees, plants and animals, perhaps now extinct, are common, such as Gleann Fhiodhaig (valley with wild-fig shrubs), Creag na h-Iolaire (eagle rock), Allt Ghiubhais (burn of the pine wood), Coire laogh (deer calf’s hollow).

Christian missionary routes may be traced through names like Clachàn Ma-Ruibhe, site of Maolrubha's church at Loch Carron. Even the fairies can’t keep away, with Sithean Mor and Sithean Beag, two ‘fairy hills’ in Gairloch.

While derivations are usually straightforward, some are lost in the mists of time. The Torridon peaks of Slioch, Beinn Eighe and Baosbheinn have all been subject to varying interpretations. But does that not add to the mystery?

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