The Angry Corrie 45: Apr-May 2000

TAC 45 Index

Nameless Names and the Intolerable Wrestle

Ronald Turnbull

THE MAN from the Ordnance Survey drove up my drive and asked how to spell the hill behind my house. Was it Scabcleuch or Scabcleugh? I asked the shepherd, but the shepherd wasn't a very good speller and got stuck halfway.

There are those who claim to know the real names of the mountains. They tell us to climb Chomolungma, Pumlumon Fawr, Blencathra or Beinn Nibheis. A hill's real name is known only to the hill itself and to God, and is used only in mumbles to Himself by the Latter: "Mmm ... not many blood sacrifices recently on old <HECTAGRAMMATON>". Mystic, profound, but unhelpfully ineffable for ordinary conversation. So when they say we ought to call it not what we actually do call it but what they say we ought to call it, they mean what-someone-called-it-who-lived-there-before-the-people-who-live-there-now (they think). In which case its name is That Bloody Place Where We Almost Caught The Bloody Elk But It Bloody Got Away, only in Old Pictish.

One reason for a name is to be understood. Gaelic isn't very helpful. Ben More is too easily confused with Beinn Mhor or Benmore; Aonach Mr with the distinctively different Aonach Mr. (The only Aonach Mor with the acute accent is on Stob Ghabhar.) Six separate Meall nan Euns are too many for anywhere. Meanwhile, "The Big One At The Back, Sgurr Something", or "The Fifth Cluanie", are inconveniently non-specific.

But if names were just to be understood, hills might as well be called Big Hill, or K2, or NT1203 429m. Names reflect nature, names evoke. Bidean a'Choire Sheasgaich, pronounced by a master, is as satisfying as a well-hawked phlegm. Spiky, intimidating Gaelic is just right for the loose gullies of Applecross, the mossed vertical boulders of Lochaber, the interminable heather of the east. TS Eliot is one of many to find the saying of Sgurr Thearlaich a challenge as tough as its climbing: the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings is complained of in "East Coker". All the same, it would be nice if the names once penetrated meant something more interesting than "brown hump", or "greyish hump", or "greyish pile of stones".

The Gallowa' Hills are covered wi' bloomers - Mullwharchar and Neldricken, Kirriereoch and the Rig of the Jarkness - mistaken attempts to make intelligible Scots, or even unintelligible Scots, out of mangled Norse and Gaelic. Just one sits awkward: the neologistic Caerloch Dhu. That a hill should hold on to a name in 600-years-dead Gaelic is about as plausible as a name for Ben Nevis in Latin. (Yes, Nevis may be good Latin for "snowy", but all true scholars say "after the River Nevis", or "origin obscure".)

Lakeland names are great. A grassy dash over two tops, had because of a high car park, becomes a mountain day when the two tops are Dollywaggon Pike and Seat Sandal. The Norse overran the Lakes and Lakes names are a creative mangling of Pictish and Viking, together with mapmakers' mistakes ("High White Stones" was for a long time the nearest writing to the top of High Raise but went out with the new map) and sheer mischief ("Innominate Tarn" for the perfectly nominate Loaf Tarn).

For a century the Highland hills have been overrun by the speakers of Scots and of English; 99% of those who talk about Beinn Liath Mhor a'Ghiubhais Li switch back to some form of English for the rest of the sentence. Heavyweight Gaelic hill-titles could do with a leavening of frothy nicknamery from the invading Scots, English, Dutch and Rest of World walkers - especially where this improves on Dun Hump and Large Pile of Stones. "Stack Polly" - good Gaelic roots, with a spurious parrot perched on top: excellent. "Sgurr na Quiche" - perhaps less good as the association of Knoydart's finest with a cheesy flan lacks poetic resonance. My spellchecker renamed the two mighty pillars of Beinn Bhan in Applecross as "Hashish" and "Opiate" - not bad, especially when you consider the cross-language punning on A'Poite, "the pot".

Proper names are a pedantic pain, and wrong anyway. But fling some creative manglery and see if it sticks. "Aggy Ridge" - sounds good even if it doesn't mean much. Two behind Cruachan have been called (by Ivan Waller) Ben Cockle and Ben Eunuch. Could this catch on, be even more infectious than a Sheasgaich sneeze? The Independent on Sunday recently gave us the piquantly tautological "Ben Suilven". Stir it up a bit in the linguistic Poite. Let loose the Microsoft spellchecker and employ dyslexic cartographers. Promulgate error in the name of the greater truth. Does God really call all 34 of them "Carn Dearg"?

Ed. - Lots of interesting stuff here on which to dwell (or even Dwelly). Ronald's point about High White Stones recalls a problem that needed to be resolved when working on the Irish TACit Table. The "nameless" hill eventually labelled Over Fauscoum had as one of its candidate names Knockaunapeebra, rejected because it was simply the name of a neighbouring top that spread across a swathe of map due to its great length. Had Knockaunapeebra been called Seefin, or Cush, the potential for confusion would never have arisen.

Should hill names be tactfully modernised when the occasion arises? The widespread nicknaming of summits suggests that walkers and climbers are eager to lay claim to the hills in some way - and why shouldn't they, as many frequently revisit hills, coming to know them and to love them, and so have at least as much right as the next person to allocate or adapt a name. Yet still there is the assumption that names should fossilise or even revert to some patently inappropriate language. Sure, strive to retain Gaelic names in areas where the language is spoken or where its demise is only recent and (hopefully) temporary. But in much of southern and eastern Scotland the Gaelic is never going to regain - or even gain - a foothold in any mode other than that of French, or German, or Japanese: a learnt language, acquired for recreation, education or employment but not naturally part of the mainstream of local life.

A couple of years ago, during research for the Harveys Ochils map, the Alva shepherd Donald MacPherson told me that the 542m summit at NS873987, near the southern end of the Bengengie ridge, was known to him as Mid Cairn. Donald freely admits this to be a "shepherd's name", but that's fine - after all, he has a substantial investment in this rarely climbed hill since he works there and needs to have a name for it. But were the Ochils a little further north or west, and certainly were Mid Cairn a Corbett or Munro, there would be a lobby for it to be converted to Carn Mheadhoin or something.

Similarly, why has a southern Highland Corbett been saddled with the blatant incongruity of Stob Fear- tomhais? This is the Gaelicisation of "Surveyor's Peak", a name seemingly based on relatively modern Ordnance Survey work on that particular hill. Fair enough, up to a point - but this local name was almost certainly suggested in English, again perhaps by the resident shepherd, so why convert it to rather creaky Gaelic which next to no-one in the Balquhidder area now speaks as a native language? If this is indeed deemed to be the best name on offer, why not just opt for Surveyor's Peak, simple as that, such that locals and visitors all understand the derivation? Had a shepherd argued for "Vodafone Peak" because of a mast on its summit or because a more recent gang of surveyors made lots of mobile calls from its slopes, would this merit the name being given as Stob Mhodafn? Of course not, but some in a position of influence in such matters would probably argue for that nevertheless. It would however form a pleasingly neat pair with the Anglesey high point, Mynydd Bodafon.

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