Scotland’s Gaelic Landscape: Do you know how to read a Scottish map? 21 Basic Gaelic terms
Spoken only by a small percentage of Scots today, Gaelic was once Scotland’s main language which is why it is intrinsically linked to the Scottish landscape where we see Gaelic place names that tie us to our heritage.
Have you ever looked at a map of Scotland (particularly the Scottish Highlands) and thought to yourself “what is going on with these place names?” The linguistic landscape of the country reflects a rich heritage of tongues such as Pictish, Old Norse and Gaelic which have led to famously mispronounced Scottish place names.
Gaelic’s influence on our maps is particularly strong, however, as it was at its height in Scotland around one thousand years ago meaning it imparted thousands of familiar place names with Celtic elements even in the Scottish Lowlands where Scots Leid became the preferred tongue.
With a heritage totally unique to English, it is understandable why non-Gaelic speakers are beguiled by Scottish place names which - regardless of being anglicised - feature unfamiliar letter combinations and pronunciation. However, even a basic understanding of Gaelic helps us to discover the full richness of the Scots landscape; especially as nature is at the heart of the language.
By doing so, we can unlock “so much about the past” as it tells us “about landscapes, social structures, land ownership, flora” and folklore, according to Dr Simon Taylor who is a reader in Scottish Name Studies at the University of Glasgow. Dr Taylor, who learnt Gaelic in adulthood, explains: "It’s a bit like detective work to get an idea where the name came from.
"As somebody who is very interested in language and landscape it fascinates me - they are a wonderful bridge between the two."
He remarked on how Munros (a Scottish word for ‘mountains’) feature many ‘evocative translations’ and that is where many people first encounter Gaelic and ‘spark a life-long interest’ in it. For example, Ben Nevis can be translated as the ‘venomous’ or ‘malicious’ mountain in Gaelic - fitting given recent events like the lightning strike that shattered a rock structure at its peak.
Of course, we can get by without such knowledge but doing so means forfeiting landscape literacy. Scotland’s lochs, rivers, glens and hills all feature lingual heritage terms that impart a hidden lore that remains forever inaccessible to those who are oblivious to it.
To better understand this ancient relationship between people and places, here is an essential guide for beginners to get you acquainted with Scotland’s most-used Gaelic vocabulary.