The Angry Corrie 46: Jul-Aug 2000

TAC 46 Index

The game of the name

Ronald Turnbull's piece about the naming of hills (TAC45, p11) drew a considerable response, as anticipated. Sometimes it seems that the nuances and niceties of language are up there with politics, religion and the relative merits of PCs and Macs in the pantheon of subjects one should not discuss in polite society. TAC is of course healthily impolite, so here - and overleaf - are four follow-up offerings:


I THOUGHT that I was an old curmudgeon until I read Ronald Turnbull's article, in which he appears to complain that Scotland's Gaelic hill-names are unpronounceable, unspecific to one unique hill and have meanings which are dull. What a load of keech (Scots word, also cach, both from the Gaelic cac). Allow me to expand. Hills were named not by God but by the local peoples, mainly centuries ago. Their world was a small world, and the folk on say, Mull, perhaps didn't know that their Ben More (big mountain) was a cousin to the Ben Mores (in all spellings) in Perthshire or Assynt or Uist. And probably wouldn't have cared, because on their island world Ben More (beinn mhor) was the biggest, relative to the other hills. Similarly, its Beinn Bhuidhe and Sgurr Dearg are its yellow and red hills, the colour - usually a gentle pastel shade - being relative to its neighbours. The fact that there are 32 other Beinn Bhuidhes elsewhere, and a couple of other Sgurr Deargs, is proof not of lack of Gaelic imagination but of the aptness of the colour name.

Buidhe usually tells us that it is a hill with pale grasses in contrast to brown heather, and thus contains useful information for walkers - or do you prefer heather tangles clutching at your boots, or green bog sucking them in? Incidentally Ronald is wrong with some of his stats - there are not 34 Carn Deargs as he says but at least 46 (plus 11 others with Beag, Mor, or other additives): 57 varieties, in total. And to be pedantic - easy for me - there are seven, not six Meall nan Euns, hill of the birds, delightful name. A recurring name is no sign of lack of individual-ity - I'm sure there are many Ronald Turnbulls, and that they are not all curmudgeons. (Incidentally, how many Ian Mitchells feature prominently in the Scottish outdoors? For starters there is the howff-loving, Campbell-feuding, occasionally bearded bloke included here on p13, the RSPB-hating, enemy-of-the-corncrake geezer on Islay, and another bothy man, maintenance officer for Glengarrisdale. There's even a story by an Ian Mitchell in the recent Canongate Prize for New Writing. - Ed.)

Of course there is no harm in hills developing new names over time - it happens to settlement names too, and indeed to our own first names - I am variously known as Peter, Pete, The Dominie, and (at work) Sir. The Cobbler - translation of an old Gaelic nickname for the top rocks - has largely supplanted Ben Arthur, which in turn replaced Suidhe Arthair (literally Arthur's Seat). Lochnagar was once Beinn na Ciochan (breasts moun- tain). East Cairn Hill was Harper Rig. But these layers of names convey something of how the landscape was perceived, or of historical association. There's nothing wrong with 20th-century rock climbs bearing the perceptions of their first ascenders and namers (eg Hourglass Buttress) - someone struggled up those lines and gave them a meaning. But who has the right to rename a hill? Certainly not nomadic baggers en route to the next tick.

Ronald tells us he finds Gaelic unpronounceable. I do hope he's not one of these chaps whose way to deal with unpronounceable European languages is to talk loudly in English to the natives. Nor like the author of a recent article in the Outdoors section of The Scotsman [will the Ed cut this?] (will he hell - Ed.) who referred to the very lovely Carn an Fhreiceadain near Aviemore as Freaky Dane. In Gaelic it's spoken as reeky dan, since f followed by h is silent. And anyway, since it means cairn of the watcher, the Gaelic meaning might draw walkers' attention to the deer-watcher's bothy just metres from the summit. For heaven's sake, in Gaelic it is easier to learn a few simple pronunciation rules, than in English with its all-over-the-place ou sounds and much else.

Finally, the editor makes some fair points in his postscript to the article - the spurious nature of an SMC Gaelic name for Balquhidder's surveyors' peak, for instance. And he asks why walkers shouldn't have the right to nicknames for favourite hills. No problem, because nicknames by their nature sit alongside Sunday names, as The Ben does with Ben Nevis. But that is different from casting aside a good Gaelic name (whether in pure or Scotticised form) for something devised by some trendy Munro-hoppers who can't be bothered attempting a word in what they regard as an Untersprache. Qomolungma, aka Sagarmatha, aka Lhochamalung and its various translations (eg goddess mother of the earth, of the sky, etc) is now preferred, correctly, to Everest (double glazing mountain?) - that ghastly name being a sycophantic tribute to the English Surveyor-General of India who wasn't even the first to chart it. Mountain names are the book of revelation, not the Sinai tablets of stone, but should be shown a little respect. As should all curmudgeons.

Peter Drummond


THE DEFINING moment of just how important names are to me happened back in 1996, not in some remote Highland glen as you might expect, but in Canada. Out there the white man changed the old Indian names for mountains, lakes etc and replaced them with the names of famous people - so you get the likes of Mount Edith, Mount Louis, Lake Louise and so on. Now, I'm sure most people do not even give this a thought, but it bothered me and, what's more, I didn't like it. I've never felt this anywhere else before or since, but these names did nothing for me. Edith and Louis conjured up pictures of aged relatives and, for this visitor at least, the "lake of little fishes" - a translation of the native name - stirred the imagination in a way that the sterile "Lake Louise" can only dream of. I enjoy many aspects of the outdoors but I have to admit it surprised me to find that the name of something could matter.

Back home, I looked at our own hill names in a different light and began to appreciate what I'd previously taken for granted. Thank heavens we never did anything similar. But hang on a moment - what if we had? Would we have ended up with Ben Fred and Loch Ethel? (Or Sgurr Alasdair... - Ed.) Or what about Thatcher Fell and Posh Spice Tarn? Yuck - and yuck again! And if the idea took off in a big way, could we really contemplate the Cuillin becoming the Wolrige- Gordon Range? It's enough to make you promise never to complain about Beinn Liath Mhor a'Ghiubhais Li ever again.

Our hill names have evolved over time and will, no doubt, continue to do so. Gaelic names have become anglicised as English has taken over as the dominant language - giving us, for example, Ben Lomond in place of Beinn Laomainn. However, having more than one name for a mountain is nothing new: the Tibetans and Nepalese each have their own name for Everest while to an Italian Mont Blanc is Monte Bianco. (And you complain about Gaelic names being dull in translation: Mont Blanc = Monte Bianco = Weisshorn = Geal Charn = white hill.)

All of which leaves us with a dilemma. Which is the correct name? That one's easy - all of them. But which do you use? It all depends on where you are, who you are talking to, which language you are speaking or even personal preference. What about names in less-used languages? In my experience I have found that the local people use Gaelic names quite happily regardless of whether or not they speak Gaelic. Anglicised versions will become more common but perhaps we should let that happen over time rather than force the issue. However, even when a name has fallen out of use it is still worth keeping a record of it for those of us who are interested in such things.

In the meantime, your best way round a pronunciation problem is a suitable nickname. Or maybe you need no more excuse than a bit of fun. After all, we give our friends nicknames, so why not hills and places too? Chrysanthemum and Cheesecake have now become fairly widespread for Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Bidein a'Choire Sheasgaich. One of our own inventions, though I'm sure it's not original, is Faggie for Am Faochagach - while we much prefer the friendlier Fort Bill to Fort William. A friend of ours, Steve, refers to Braeriach as Brer Rabbit, although in my head I always use the Gaelic name simply because I love the sound. However, my favourite must be credited to another friend Andy who uses the phrase "Stop the Ice Cream Van" for Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

Helen McLaren


GREAT TO see the review of Harry Griffin's book, The Coniston Tigers (TAC45, p20) and also that it has been so enjoyed. Sadly, it took years to find a publisher who would take it on, which is astonishing when you consider who Harry was and is and what he told. Of course it didn't fit in with the desire for the sensational. No big-screen presentation. It won't be serialised on TV.

We see the same tendencies in magazine writing with slovenly, unlovely work not just accepted but welcomed. We are more and more led by loud-voiced commercialism. I've been spending much time on the Fife Coastal Path lately and two items illustrate some of this. On the perfectly easy western end (a cycle- way, too) I met a solitary woman striding along, head to foot in gaudy designer clothes, an expensive rucksack, boots and yeti gaiters, tap-tapping with her two super poles. She met an old biddy in her eighties who had her dogs out for a walk and was still in her slippers and peeny.

A few days later I bought an outdoor magazine which described a walk from Largo to Elie, one of a vast batch of the ill-written, churned-out directives that swamp magazines. Wonder of wonders it made no reference whatsoever to the astonishing chain walk, Scotland's via ferrata. I reckon it been written from the map, not personal exploration.

Which leads me to the matter of hill names. Many years ago Wainwright did a series of books with drawings of the Scottish Munros. In one of these he suggested English names should replace the difficult Gaelic ones, just as the Ponds had easy names like Glaramara, Blencathra and Great End. I wrote to him on this and pointed out that two of the English names he quoted were no more English than Schiehallion or Braeriach. Did he plan to popularise nicknames for them?

I'm one - of many - who cringe when we hear hills given oh-so-clever nicknames. (I've more difficulty with the spelling of crysanthe- mum [sic] than with Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.) Who are we, Sassenachs, to march in to a centuries-old tradition with our vibram-shod sensitivities? This is symptomatic of the insidious big-brother Englishness which gets the birse of any Scot. It's the lazy, wanting-everything-instant-and-easy syndrome. Whatever the position of Gaelic as a language, it has left its names on our hills. To change them is the sort of sacrilege of, say, destroy-ing Stonehenge because it belongs to a culture long gone. We don't need to become Peter Drummonds, but for pity's sake let us not dumb down the hills

Hamish Brown


WHAT'S WRONG with Stob Bhodaf˛n? Seems a perfectly good name to me. But then I don't fit into the miscon- ceptions of Gaelic speakers presented. "Sure, strive to retain Gaelic names in areas where the language is spoken or where its demise is only recent and (hopefully) temporary." That's nice. But I don't live where the language is currently dying - oops, sorry - living as a "community language". Nor do I want to.

Don't think that the "revival" is taking place in those remote glens and crofting communities where it would be twee to think that the peasants might keep the language alive without it really impinging on your life. Sorry, but the revival reality is that it's where the numbers are, and the numbers are in the cities, in the towns and in the rural areas with a reasonable population base. It's where there are Scots - or others - wanting to learn and use Gaelic, or to give their children the bilingualism they missed out on and to send their children to Gaelic-medium school units in East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Forfar or wherever. It's not just for the bumpy bits.

Get the point? We're here. We're amongst you. We look like you. Can you trust even your closest friends...? Forget this drawing-lines-on-the-map lark. Doesna work now - and, as Ronald Turnbull points out, it's been a two-way osmosis for some time. (OK, that's probably scientifically impossible, but it sounds good.)

I don't want to get drawn into backward-looking arguments of whose linguistic culture was here first (and if I was, I'd win, so there - ya boo), as all Gaelic speakers, learner or native, also have English, and Gaelic is part of the national heritage of all Scots.

Which brings me to the basic fallacy in the argument both Turnbull and the editor have put forward: that a feature of the landscape, be it town, hill or bay, can only have one name. What a moronically monolingual viewpoint! (Sorry chaps, just a soundbite.) You may not be acquainted with the bilingual (or even trilingual) nature of Alba/ Scotland/Ecosse etc, but surely you've encountered multilingualism elsewhere?

We have two traditions of names, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. True, this is mostly apparent in the names of the towns and districts of the land, but it also applies to the prominent geographical features. Are you telling me that the English-language coining Ben Nevis doesn't exist as a name alongside the Beinn Neibhis I know it as? No, I thought not. But I suppose you'll say I'm wrong, because I'm now outvoted in the local linguistic stakes there. How's about Lewis then: is that not also a name for Le˛dhas?

I have to plead guilty too, though. I get really upset with the Shepherd's Hill on signs to Meall a'Bhuachaille, and other - to my sensibilities - abominations in Rothiemurchus. I also, like any other Gaelic freak, automatically translate transparent English names such as Green Hill. So, how do we square the circle? We could have a complete duplicate nomenclature, with entirely separate Gaelic and English maps. Hmm. Confusing, costly and crap. OK then, how about all names from a Gaelic (and for good Celtic measure, Cumbric and Pictish) origin in Gaelic, all from English or Scots in Scots or English, and those from Norse in Icelandic. Get off it chum, did you say? Pity, you can count...

Right then, here's the deal. We can keep the two names for those features that have been prominent enough to earn the attention of non-Gaelic English speakers; we can equally translate those names that are just too easy not to; and the rest we leave in Gaelic or Scots or English. (There are no Norse, or Cumbric or Pictish names that haven't been filtered through at least one of these languages.) And we can argue about the ones on the linguistic borderline. Is it a deal?

Peadar Morgan
- Stiuiriche/Director of Comann an Luchd Ionnsachaidh,"the membership charity for learners and supporters of Scots Gaelic"

TAC 46 Index