gaelic mountains names

Tue, Nov 20, 2007

I was reading a blog post by the hill-meister himself, Cameron McNeish, about gaelic mountain names and how some have been anglicised over the years and it got me thinking. Cameron regards anglicisation as the putting into English of Gaelic names. For example, he cites The Devil’s Point in the Cairngorms as an example and gives a garbled version of what it should be. “Pod an diomhain”, from what I can make out would mean “pod of the deep”, something to do with whales perhaps? The real name is Bod an Diabhail, “the devil’s penis” and the victorians anglicised it to the devil’s point.

There are Bods all over the place in the highlands, mostly Bod an Fhithich (the raven’s penis), such as the one on the way up to An Diollaid (the saddle, of Forcan ridge fame) but it seems the victorians only got round to sanitising one of them. No doubt as it overlooked their sporting estates and could be offputting for the lady of the manor at dinner time. “I say Montague, what is the name of that shapely mountain yonder?”, “why my dear, that is the devil’s cock”… swoon.

Cameron reckons the Inn Pinn should be called Sgurr Dearg too but I read recently that it used to be called An Stac, an entirely appropriate name considering what it is, a stack of rock. An Stac now refers to the general rockiness of that area on the map but I would say An Stac is the sunday name of the Inn Pinn.

There are colloquial anglicisations too, that don’t make it onto the maps although some make it into print. Ever heard of “Cheesecake”?, or Bidean a’choire Sheasgaich to give it its sunday name. Or how about “The Shepherd” (overheard in the Kingie), although calling the Buachaille, the shepherd might land you in hospital, depending on who’s drinking at the bar at the time and just about everyone calls Ben Nevis, The Ben.

These are examples of “corruptions” of “proper” names, whether through affronts to the senses or fond familiarity. However, what about the (mis?)appropriation of gaelic names? As far as I know it has only happened on Skye, in the Cuillin. Enter Sgurr Alasdair, which was named in honour of Sherriff Alexander Nicolson who first nipped up to the summit via the great stone shoot. Next, Sgurr Mhic Coinnich, or Mackenzie’s peak, named after the local guide who accompanied Norman Collie, in who’s honour Sgurr Thormaid was named. What were the “real”, gaelic, names of these mountains before these interlopers showed up? Great men all, but their exploits have covered up any original gaelic names of these mountains.

I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts. In 1892, a young Aleister Crowley was staying at the Sligachan hotel and was taken up pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean by Sir Joseph Lister. This was before Crowley had reached the pinnacle of his infamy and climbing prowess on the Beachy Head chalk cliffs. Had he arrived at the Slig later in his career, would Sgurr nan Gillean now be called Sgurr Alasdair instead? Or Sgurr a’bheist mhoir? (peak of the great beast). As it stands, it’s generally assumed to mean “peak of the young lads”, although Sorley Maclean considered it meant peak of the gullies, which sounds a bit more credible.

And the other thought? Well, Sir Hugh T Munro never climbed the Inn Pinn but what if he had? Would it now be called Bod Uisdean? (Hugh’s trouser snake). “Avert your eyes Daphne, for we are approaching Sir Hugh’s Point”.

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