The English form Caithness is a name of Norse origin, on record in around 1200 AD in the Orkneyinga Saga as Katanes, meaning ‘the headland of the cats’.
Confusingly, cats also appear in the Gaelic name for Sutherland: Cataibh ‘among the cats’. The cats referred to are probably the totemic name of the pre-Gaelic and pre-Norse Pictish people here, although the Norse name for the Pentland Firth strongly suggests that Picts were also once present in the area.
Gallaibh means ‘among the strangers’. Gall ‘stranger’ in this case denotes non-Gaelic speakers. The ending -aibh (also seen in Cataibh) represents an old dative plural meaning ‘among’. This name did not originally denote the borders of modern Caithness; the term was originally used to denote any area where non-Gaelic speakers were settled, including those along the east coast of Scotland.
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