Names & Derivations

Translating place-names is a complicated task. The originals are short and, though I approach them as poems, there’s more leeway with a haiku or couplet. Place-names have special characteristics – they are plastic texts that tend to contract over time. Sometimes folk tradition creates two names for a place, as with this burn, preserved on the 1st edition one inch and six inch maps in slightly different forms:

Allt Coire Ghiubhais
   Allt Coire Giubhsachan
      Pine Corrie Burn

Names such as Coire Giubhachan, Druim na Giùthsaich (NN070888), Pinewood Ridge; Allt Giubhais (from An t-Allt Giuthais, NN197985), Pines’ Burn; and Adhbrann Allt a' Ghiuthais (NN080990), Pine Burn Ankle, are a reminder of the work Trees for Life and other planters have undertaken. Without a deer cull then the remediation of the Caledonian forest can only be enforced with the help of the massive and counter-productive infrastructure of deer fences. This struggle, to balance deer and trees in the Highlands, is not new; ‘Deer Forest Problems’, an essay published in Country Life in 1936, includes a plea for a complete revision of practices, and a recognition that, even from the stalking point of view, deer will never thrive “without the return of the woods.

“The sight of a lot of stags hard pressed against the wire fences on the lee side of plantation of young larch or Scots firs serves only to emphasise the poverty of the substitute for natural conditions in those places where some remnant of primeval forest remains.”

Càrn nan Earb, translation, Alec Finlay, drawing Hanna Tuulikki

Names are disguised when Gaelic is brought over into Scots. For instance, the Scots Badcaul is a garment wrapped around the Gaelic Am Bada Call (NH458302), originally translated as The Hazel Clump. Out of dislike for that word as a descriptor, I opted for dene.


Dene, dean, den, is a toponym that crosses the Scottish Lowlands and northern England. It’s familiar meaning is: rivulet within a sloping hollow; wooded ravine, valley, or dingle. Jesmond Dene was a place for Sunday walks when I lived in Byker. The meaning slips in Eastern and Southern England. There dene, dune, dun, is embedded in place-names, marking the imprint of Norse settlers. In these cases the Scandinavian refers to sand dunes. Meaning is local: one community experiences slopes and dips as dune, dene, another as dene, dean, ravines. In a few places the two could conceivably coincide? Confusingly, dùn, which is well known as fort, but can also refer to a look-alike fort-like hilltop, is a third possibility in regions where Gaelic once held currency. A few streets from my home in Edinburgh there are signs for the Dean Village and, nearby, Dene Walk – even the city of Enlightenment names escapes standardisation.

In my translations – versions would be the more accurate term if these were acknowledged to be poems – dene joins other English terms, such as spinney or copse. These descriptors don’t belong in the linguistic ecology of the Scottish Highlands, but they do create vivid images. Any translator of a poem is familiar with such trade offs.

For the same reason place seems to me to be too neutral for achadh. The wonderful Scots name, Shewglie, seems to be asking to be imagined as a bog, like the various waggle place-names one finds in the North-east, but it is, in fact, from Ach' an t-Seagail, more formally Achadh an t-Seagail, Rye Place, or Field of Rye (NH416297). Such names are examples of the way in which, over generations, speech steers place-names into new forms.

Dundreggan: photograph Alice Ladenburg

A name is nothing more than a sequence of sounds, and the ways that communities speak changes, inevitably, over time, as we know from claims that Shakespearean speeches were flecked with a variation of Brummy. In the Highlands languages have their eras, with Pictish, Gaelic, Norse, Scots, and English co-existing or conflicting at different times, leeching useful terms for trade, topography and courtship through the language barrier. Names are a palimpsest of these histories and provide historical evidence for the flux of border territories – the lack of Norse names confirms the Vikings never had a strong presence in Upper Deeside.

The couthy –ie ending of Shewglie, Livishie, Glenmallie, Coiltie, Cougie, Kingie, have a tell-tale fond ring of Gaelic brought over into Scots, but it takes an expert in onomastics and Gaelic to re-expand the name into its original form, travelling back through time and elucidating the yield of significance. Many names remain a puzzle, and sometimes competing interpretations offer themselves as poetic images.

Another achadh name is Coinneachan, given confusingly as The Place of the Foggy Bee by Edward Ellice in his Place-names in Glengarry and Glenquoich, but more likely to have been An Còinneachan, The Mossy Place (NN203847), or, to ditch that place.



With both achadh names I have diverged from the convention, perhaps too far for some, preferring a dialect toponym from the Scots of my childhood: bit, as in, “are you coming over to my bit tonight?”.

The ever-helpful Dwelly offers some alternatives, useful if one knows whether the terrain is a field, plain, or meadow:

“achadh: -aidh, pl -aidhean, aidhnean, & achanna, sm Field, plain, meadow. Cornfield newly cut or ready for reaping. Bha sinn a' ceangal sguab san achadh, we were binding sheaves in the field; an t-achadh a cheannaich Abraham, the field that Abraham bought.”

Bit is my attempt at local colour. An eco-poetic approach to names should stress diversity in vocabulary as well as trees and mammals. I’ve approached the translations as an opportunity to share new toponym – John Murray’s Reading the Gaelic Landscape is the ideal guide for those interested in taking this further.

Allt Coinneag, Wild Bee Burn

There are other oddities in terms of place-names. Allt Coinneag may well be Wild Bee Burn, but the name could also refer to pools, for this is a spate burn, or moss, as at Coinneachan. One of the sources I referred to gave Loch Cuileig (NH268151) as Fly Agaric Loch, which is nonsense. It just applies to flies, and its natural to assume midges, meanbh-chuileag in Gaelic – literally little flyHighland toponymy. There is a Meall Cuileige, The Lumpy Hill of the Fly, above Glen Moriston, but in the few names in which it occurs, cuileag is more often associated with water – allt, abhainn, caochan. The loch fits into that pattern.

Flies Loch
Loch Cuileig

Were midges less common? Is there any relation to ticks, whose numbers have soared due to the unsustainable numbers of sheep on the hill, bringing with them serious medical concerns.

Minnows’ Loch
Loch na Doirb

Charr Loch
Loch nam Breac Dearg

There is a more definite sense of species in these two lochs, Loch na Doirb (NH533248), south of Ballaggan, and Loch nam Breac Dearg (NH454225), west of Loch Ness. The Gaelic, Breac Dearg translates as Red Trout, but this name refers to what, in English, we call charr.


Dragon Mead

Dragons are another matter altogether. Working on a translation of Dundreggan (NH315140), home of Trees for Life, I was told that Duldreggan was the spelling in 1509. The first element may be a corrupt form of the Gaelic dail, sharing a meaning with the Brittonic dot, meadow, low fertile spot, dale. The dragon element of Dundreggan is sometimes said to derive from a personal name.

I liked the simplicity of mead for meadow from one of the historical sources, though as Peadar points out haugh would be more conventional. That shift away from the expected helps lessen the too gentle air of lowland pastoral that the word meadow tends to frame. With a Bioregion such as the Highlands it’s important to shift the register of names to reflect the harsh conditions. A friend did point out that the result, Dragon’s Mead, sounds a bit too like a Harry Potteresque drink, but doesn’t JK Rowling’s imagination draw on Highland ecology and the totemic presence of the relic Scots pines that make the wee islands on Loch Eilt so magical? And it belongs in an organization which has earned the sponsorship of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.


Another example where Peadar and I introduced a less common local term is the Scots garron, from Gaelic, gearran – seemingly corrupted to Geur-oirean in the name:

Garrons Corrie Head
Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean

Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean (NH295070), Head of the Horses Hollow, is a couple of miles north-west of Glenmallie. It would have been a place where hardy Highland ponies roamed free out on the hill. I found a host of these names in the stalking heartlands of upper Deeside.

Easg Chapall
Mares Bog

Féith Shearrach
Colts’ Vein

Lag an t-Searraich
Colt’s Dip

Féith Preas an Eich Bhlàir
Vein of the White-faced Horse’s Thicket

Cuachan Craggana Shearrach
Foals-crag Burnie

Allt Clais an Eich
Horse-hollow Burn

Coire Odhar nan Each
Dun-coloured Corrie of the Ponies

Horses Thicket

Garron, Glen Isla: photography Hannah Devereux, 2015

Garron can find their way into bogs where no Land Rover dares and, in recent years, they have become popular again, especially on stalking estates, where they add a sense of tradition.

I have a vague memory of the word from childhood, appearing in the opening scene of Bannockburn. Histories tell how Bruce rode an unarmoured garron, using its nippiness to kill De Bohun on his ponderous mighty steed.

Peadar notes that Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean could be read differently, as it superficially means The Top of the Corrie of the Sharp-edges.



Another complicating factor in translating place-names is maps themselves. Gaelic names may be ‘incorrect’ because local dialects had evolved beyond standard orthography. The problems weren’t always the fault of ‘sassenach’ mapmakers, ignorant of the native culture. Some names were transcribed incorrectly, and perhaps the odd informant deliberately gave incorrect information. John Murray notes that some Victorian mapmakers used phonetic spelling, avoiding the Gaelic conventions. There would have been some argument for this if their grasp of phonetics had been expert, as a way to maintain the patterns, patter and patina of speech.

In recent years the Ordnance Survey have made an effort to remedy past failings with respect to Gaelic. My collaborator, Peadar Morgan, helped persuade them to change a number of incorrect spellings, including some well known places, such as Gleann Einich, which now appears in line with the local Gaelic tradition as Gleann Eanaich in maps of the Cairngorms. The correct pronunciation is glown ENich, Glen of the Boggy Place, or, by my way of it, Boggybit Glen.

Peadar and his peers encourage the OS to use modern Gaelic orthography. For instance, the approved spelling for mountain ash is caorann, of the ash, a’ chaorainn, but the old OS name books record Allt a’ Chaoruinn (NH191031), Rowan Burn, which flows down to Loch Garry from Meall Leac Ulaidh. The spelling has been ‘corrected’, but care is needed when imposing standardisation. On occasion old spellings hint at local dialect, and the tongue is key in unlocking the original meaning of a place-name. An expert has to be able to tell a mistake from a meaningful local variation.

Against the plea for allowing slight variances in dialect there stands the need to firmly maintain Gaelic as a contemporary language, held to the same exacting standards as General English.

  Trees for Life, Dundreggan: photography Alice Ladenburg

In our map area another example of these variations in spelling is aobran, which contemporary Gaelic Orthographic Convention gives as adhbrann.

Pine Burn Ankle
Adhbrann Allt a' Ghiuthais

The conventional translation is The Ankle of the Fir Stream, describing a knowe on a sharp bend on the River Kingie. To me something rankles in that ‘ankle’, but it is a very rare form so let’s allow it room. A socket, or gall of bone can be imagined and Peadar notes that McBean gives “out-bulge”, which fits the knowe. The map makes you wonder if it was named from a bird’s-eye view, the pivoting of the foot is so clear to see, and yet it is the rise in elevation that shapes the bone. 


Traditionalists tend to respect Gaelic word order, but I prefer to bring names over into English, in the same way as a translator of a poem would. I’m keen to share the old style of translations in these blog posts – the idea isn’t to supplant them, but to encourage different approaches, and experiment with different imagery, to better suggest the eco-poetic aspect.

With place-names there are tiny things to worry about. Apostrophes. I struggle with them at the best of times, but by changing the old way of presenting a Gaelic name in English, I left myself with even more of a puzzle apostrophe-wise:

The Burn of the Wolf
Wolf’s Burn, Wolfsburn, Wolves’ Burn

The Hill of the Hinds
Hind’s Hill, Hinds’ Hill, Hinds Hill

With each draft the apostrophes came and went, like swifts flying in-and-out of a barn.

Fir[‘](s) & Pine[‘](s)

With Gaelic the room for confusion between singular and plural is limited, more so than in English so, as Peadar says, the issue is simply one of interpretation – and only in one direction, singular to plural, not the reverse.

There is a temptation to settle on intuitive interpretations, based on species. 

word-mntn (Creag a’ Mhadaidh, Wolfcrag)

Commonsense suggests one wolf in its lair, whose presence settled into a name – perhaps over generations of wolves who patrolled the same location. Ravens always flock in their noisy dark plurality. Many buttercups. Woods of aspen, birch and a burnside of willow. A single eagle.

Sometimes place-names are all that remain of a lost wood. Names don’t work as effective headcounts. WFH Nicolaisen argued that, with trees at least, names refer to the few more often that they do the many – a scattering of juniper, a handful of rowan, a line of hazel, standing out like a brocade woven over the mass of the ecological curtain – heather, scree, moorgrass, or fir. This is perplexing for the ecologist who hopes that a name is an indication of quantity, but, consider for a moment, how we use names for those most endearing to us, whether pets or lovers?

Seeds, Trees for Life

In the end I removed the apostrophes, following the modern style of signage – minimal text aids comprehension.

Plovers Burn
Allt na Feadaige

Surely a flock of plovers is calling by the Allt na Feadaige (NN245965), below Beinn Tee? Even if we can agree whether the name signifies plovers, plover’s, or plovers’, there are other problems, or possibilities, to consider. Peadar notes that the Gaelic feadag could be a local twist of feadan – a wonderfully poetic description for a channel or runnel in the hillside. The image is of a chanter, true to the way the breeze whistles through, which would give Allt na Feadaige as Chanter Burn.

In its uncertainties, the name of this modest and overlooked burn metamorphoses from the achingly sweet call of the plover to the plaintive urlar of the chanter.


Another name whose imagery is, seemingly, sound-based is Allt a Chrannachain (NN488886?), which I give as Churning Burn. In his studies Peadar favours crannachan, churn. Then there is cranachan, the well-known dessert of whipped cream, berries, honey, whiskey and oatmeal. The master of Gaelic place-names, WJ Watson, refers to Cruithneachan, Pictish-place, in Lochaber, by which he probably meant this location. There is a fourth possibility creaneachan, small market, and a fifth, crannachan, The Place of Tall Trees, or a sixth, crithneachan, Place of Aspen Trees – in my way of it, Aspen Bit.

What to do? The expert weighs the evidence – the letters in their recorded combinations, the location, maps, wills, deeds, and local dialect. First off, there was unlikely to have ever been a market in such a remote location, so strike that option. Next, survey the ecology, see if there are still trees – are they aspens, or would the land ever have been friendly to them?

My translation emphasizes a churning watercourse. I may be wrong; perhaps a bowl-like pool is the closer image? Or does the river churn in the churn? Sometimes a name is easier to puzzled-out by walking than reading.

Allt a’ Mheil (NH046031) seems a good pair for Allt a’ Chrannachain.

Allt a’ Mheil
Bleating Burn

More sounds for the toponymic jukebox: given as Burn of Bleating, or of the bleat, Allt a’ Mheil flows into Loch Quoich a mile east of Glenquoich Lodge. Peadar notes that, while the translation may seem straightforward, mèil is feminine, so the name produced should be Allt na Mèil. It could also be a contraction from Allt a' Mheilidh, which would give The Grinding Burn. Both name-images give a sense of the power of water, but the poetry shifts from a note of pleading to a surging force. My partner, Hanna, once rescued a lamb from a burn on Skye whose name meant wool, for the white rills like tresses.

Allt a’ Choire Bhuidhe
Yellowy Corrie Burn

the rock takes
   little steps

the water makes
   little falls

Some names are easier to translate, but for our purposes, they remain ecologically inexact.

Wooded River
River Coiltie

The conventional translation is River of the Place of Woods. The Coiltie (NH480274) derives from Abhainn Coilltidh and, if some Gaelic campaigners had their way, this name would be returned to the map. It’s no harder for me, as an English speaker, to say, once I get used to the dh sound, and there are guides for that.

Peadar gave me the correct pronunciation, ee, and corrected my original plural, Woodlands, suggesting the meaning might be closer to Wood-place, or Wooded-one, referring to the river, which Gaelic culture perceived as animate. What we still don’t know, from the name, is the tree species – something more varied than the Forestry Commission plantation that now dominates.

Alder Scar
A' Chlais Fheàrna

Fheàrna, grammatically from feàrna, is easy, alder. My original version of A' Chlais Fheàrna  (NM865765), was The Alder Groove. Chlais, from clais, is a difficult toponym to translate. The most famous example is the odd geological formation formed by a fault, in The Cairngorms, Clais Fhearnaig. Our alders and their groove are by Loch Shiel. Peadar preferred the conventional hollow, or ditch – the form is an extended depression, whether natural or man-made. I’ve also seen it given as furrow, cleft, or rift in rocky ground, with the logic that it offered a route to climb up by, like a bealach but steeper. Scar was my final choice, from skōr, Old Norse, familiar from a skerry, but also describing a hollow in the seabed.

Thorns Burn
Allt a’ Bhiora

Oakburn Stake
Stob an Uillt Daraich

Birch Face
Leitir Beithe

Allt a’ Bhiora  (NH222033) rises in Coire Àrd Acha and flows south to Loch Garry. It is given as The Burn of the Thorn Bushes, but the meaning could also be given in a vaguer form, paradoxically to be more accurate; perhaps Stream of the Spike(s), as the Gaelic, bior, applies to any sharp-pointed thing, including a pinnacle. Peadar agreed the likelihood is hawthorn, or possibly blackthorn, but we left the species open.

Like cairn (càrn), craig (creag), glen (glean) and knock (cnoc), stob is one of the Gaelic toponym that have come over into English. The oaks of Stob an Uillt Daraich (NM926657) grow – or grew, I haven’t been back to check, but this is rugged land – on a hill that climbs to a point. I preferred the alternate, stake, to keep the connection with the English usage.

Leitir Beithe (NH255214), near Cougie, is definitely birch. The toponym is leitir, pronounced LEHtchir – well known from letter- place-names, such as Letterfinlay – is typically a steep slope with no opposite slope mirroring it.

thin thoughts : birches

A more pastoral name is Strathnacro (NH463298), in the gentler stretches of Glen Urquhart, from Srath nan Cnò. It is handily placed near a farm called Hazelwood, and another we are already familiar with, my Hazeldene, Badcaul, so we have enough clues to realise what is being referred to:


Allt an Òir

Imprecision clouds the luster of Allt an Òir (NN167822), a burn rising on Crom na Lice, reaching the River Lochy opposite Moy. The literal English meaning is The Burn of (the) Gold, though, as Peadar notes, the interpretation is open – deposits of the metal, the colour of the water or vegetation on the bank. We would need to do more research to ascertain if gold(en) is ever used descriptively in Gaelic place-names.

Even a straightforward name, such as Aonach Shasuinn (NH173180), is puzzling, if one considers the historical record.

Saxons’ Ridge
Aonach Shasuinn

Sassenach will bring a wry smile to some but, again, the firm ground turns to quag, as Peadar explains: 

“The name relates to a folktale purporting to describe incidents during the fourteenth-century campaigns of Edward I of England. The large hill of Aonach Shasuinn, amidst generally hilly terrain, is said to mark the furthest point north reached by the English forces, an unlikely motivation for naming. Glen Sassunn is improbably said to have been the route into Rannoch taken by English troops before the battle locally claimed to have been fought at Bunrannoch.”

Superficially, the name now means England's steep-sided ridge, but the country-name is more likely to be a corruption of Early Gaelic Saxa, meaning associated with Saxons (whoever was meant by that). Names are tricky because they evolve with speech, and we always wish to have a meaning to explain their meaning, but, traversing the slow passage of time, our memories prove faulty. We are constantly being reminded of a time when people were more present on the hill, hunting, droving, souming, or raiding. Stone walls and the flush of green patches where cow shit once fell are the obvious traces of dwelling. Sometimes the rule was transience.

Richard Bracken, sketch for a shelter for human wolves, Trees for Life, 2016
Tent Tump
Meall a’ Phùbuill

Meall a' Phùbuill (NN030855) is The Hill of the Tent. The modern implication of pùball is a pavilion, marquee, but, as grand as the old chief’s hunting trips may have been, I would think of them more as benders. This is Albert Bil, in his essay ‘Perthshire Shieling’:

“There are no clues in the historical records when tents were abandoned in favour of bothy huts by ordinary folk, but in the first half of the 18th century landowners still used tents on hunting forays in the remote hills, away from the shieling settlements. In 1732, while on a summer hunting trip in Glentatnich, Lord George Murray wrote to his wife: 'I want a quarter of an ell of Teiken to mende a part of my tent.' A few years later another gentleman, Graham of Fintry, went to the Atholl high tops near the Aberdeenshire boundary 'with my company, tents and dogs' and'a shelty carrying a small tent'”

Pùball is also one of the Gaelic terms for butterbur, used to treat fever, spasms and pain, properties that would make a place worth naming. I will end this survey with an everyday shieling name, as a reminder that, although names can be linguistically diverse and ecologically informative, they remain rooted in the everyday fondness of see you there tonight, meet you there in the morning, we’ll walk there tomorrow.

bender framework, Morar, 1958: photograph courtesy School of Scottish Studies

Greyrock Shieling

Though it sounds like a place of wetland and rain, Boglashin offered shelter. It is from the Gaelic Both Ghlas-bheinn, The Hut (shieling) of the Grey Rock or Mountain, which the OS surveyors suggested was the old name of the crag at the foot of which the township lies. The  slopes run up to Creag na h-Iolaire, Eagle’s Crag, and the farm sits on the old road that runs south of Urquhart castle, down Loch Ness, headed for Glen Moriston and Fort William.

This project is an eco-poetic place-name mapping of Glen Moriston, Glen Garry, Lochaber, and neighbouring airts, conceived by Alec Finlay.

A map, drawn by Hanna Tuulikki, will identify over one hundred place-names that relate to flora, fauna, and evidence of human dwelling. The English translations of the names are by Alec Finlay. Original sources and historical translations are published in the blog posts.

A series of workshops, facilitated by Ken Cockburn, will be held in 2017 using the species mapping to explore rewilding and biodiversity from an eco-poetic perspective.

With thanks to Peadar Morgan for his guidance in terms of Gaelic Place-names. 

Alec and Richard Bracken are collaborating on a related project, designing and constructing a shelter for human wolves at Trees for Life, Dundreggan, as part of Project Wolf. This will be discussed in future posts.

Alice Ladenburg’s image is from her MA project Understanding the Forest (2015).

the road north
Project Wolf podcast