Reading the Map of Scotland

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally posted in April 2012]

Picts_Scots_Britons_Angles_mapSeveral recent posts examined toponyms and what we can learn from them. Reading place names on a map can also reveal who used to inhabit the land in earlier times. Take, for example, the map of Scotland. The toponyms here shed light on its earlier inhabitants: Picts, Scots, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings. For instance, the earliest known inhabitants of Scotland — the Picts — who settled mostly in the eastern part of the country, left behind place names beginning in Pit-, such as Pitlochry in Pertshire and Pittenweem in the Kingdom of Fife. These towns started as Pictish farms. These ancient inhabitants also left behind place names starting in Aber-, which refer to the confluence of two rivers or a river mouth, such as Aberdeen and Aberfeldy.

The Picts were later joined by the Scots, a Celtic tribe that gave Scotland its name but which originated in what is today Northern Ireland. The Scots, who settled mainly in the west, changed “Aber” to “Inver”, producing such place names as Inverness, Inverkeithing, and Invergarry. The Scotts also created place names begining in Kin-, which means ‘high point’, such as Kinross, Kintail, and Kinlochewe. One of the common town names in Scotland is Kincardine, which bears witness to a peaceful coexistence of Picts and Scots: here the Goidelic* Celtic kin- combines with the Pictish -karden, meaning ‘thicket’.

Northern Scotland, like northern England, bears the footprints of the Vikings. The Vikining imprint helps explain some otherwise perplexing place names. For example, the northernmost part of Scotland is called Southerland, or ‘southern land’, which seems odd indeed from a strictly British perspective. From the Scandinavian point of view, however, this was indeed “the land of the south”, located in the southern part of the Vikings’ domain. The last group to come to Scotland were the Angles – whose name gave rise to “England.”  The Angles settled in what is now southeastern Scotland as well as in what is now northeastern England, where they bequeathed town names ending in -burg or -burgh, such as Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Jedburgh, and others. Thus, place names tell us who were the people that founded this or that settlement.

Other landscape features in Scotland — mountains, valleys, rivers — typically have Celtic names. For example, many mountain names contain ben-, meaning ‘mountain’. For example, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain not only of Scotland but of the United Kingdom as a whole. Names of cliffs or particularly steep slopes usually contain “craig”: for example, the hill upon which the Wallace Monument in Stirling stands is called Abby Craig, and the hill near the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh is called Salisburry Craig. Lesser hills are often called “brae”, as in Scara Brae on the Orkney Islands, site of the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in the British Isles.

As with mountains, valleys too are divided into categories. The toponym most commonly encountered is “glen”, as in Glen Shiel, Great Glen, and Glencoe. Another Celtic word for ‘valley’ found in Scottish toponyms is strath-, as in Strathspey and Strathclayde. The main difference between a “strath-” and a “glen-” is that the former is wide and flat (and often features a wide river), whereas the latter is narrow and deep.  [a glacial valley would generally be u-shaped, hence “Strath” rather than “Glen.”

Terms for rivers and streams are often incorporated into toponyms. Thus, a Celtic term for stream is “burn”, as in Bannockburn near Stirling, a place where one of the most important battles of the Anglo-Scottish wars took place. The estuary of a river is called “firth”, as in Firth of Forth in the Kingdom of Fife. A narrowing of the river is called “kyle”, as in Kyle of Lochalsh.

Perhaps the best known Scottish toponym component, widely associated with landscape of Scotland, is “loch”. “Loch”is often translated into other languages as ‘lake’, though this is not always correct, as a loch can be either a fresh-water lake or a fjord-like narrow sea gulf. The biggest Lochs in Scotland are Loch Lomond and Loch Ness: the former is the largest in area and the latter the largest in volume.

There are several different types of mountains in Scotland, whose toponyms are based not on their shape but on their height. All of them are named after mountaineers and scholars who created the first lists of each type of mountain. For instance, “munro” refers to mountains higher than 914 meters, “corbett” to mountains  762-914 meters high, “donald” to mountains less than 609 meters, and “graham” to mountains 607-761 meters high with a cliff of 150 meters or more.

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