The Kingdom of Scotland is really a patchwork of territories: of counties and regions, of Earldoms and Lordships, of Clan lands and great provinces. Each in its own way reflects the diversity of our small country; from the old Scandinavian world of the Northern Isles, to the Gaelic communities of the Hebrides and all the way to the smoky industrial cities of the Central Belt. All these dissolute parts come together like the threads of tartan to weave a land where we are all Scots. These provinces however in their ancient names reflect a more fractured past, taking us all the way back to the birth of the kingdom, and a study of these names is a fascinating glimpse into the world of our forefathers.
Some of the names draw upon the violent struggle that it takes to make a nation. The March in the south, was defended for centuries by the Border Reivers, warriors loyal only to their own kin, and the great Marcher Lords. The word ‘March’ comes from the old English word Mearc meaning a ‘boundary sign’ (the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia has its roots in the same word), and these lords guarded the border between Scotland and England. Boundary lords were often awarded greater authority due to their responsibility, and in Scotland such titles evolved into the rank of ‘Marquess’.
The north was also a boundary land, this time with the Vikings. At the height of their power Norse territory included all of the Northern Isles, the Hebridean Islands and the mainland stretching almost to Inverness. Here was the borderland: and to the Norse it was called Suðrland, the ‘Southern Lands’ (from their point of view), which naturally evolved into English as Sutherland. Many place names across Sutherland, Caithness and the Orkney and Shetland Islands still reflect their settlement and long-standing influence. Yet, for all that – in Gaelic the name for Sutherland, Cataibh, reflects an ancient culture long pre-dating the Vikings. Cataibh means the ‘Land of the Cat People’ and the word is to be found in other places too – Caithness being Cat Nis or Cape of the Cat People (Caithness is the nose-like peninsular province of the far north), and even the old name for Shetland was Innse Cat – Island of the Cat People. Who these Cat People were may never be known, but it is likely they were an Iron Age people who revered the Wildcat and used it as a totem symbol of strength.
Shetland takes its modern English name from the shape of land – the Norse for Shetland was Hjaltland, meaning the hilt (shape) of a sword. This evolved into old Scots as Ȝetland. The ‘ȝ’ was an old Scottish letter sounded a bit like a ‘y’. It looked more like an old ‘z’ however, and so the islands became Zetland, and ultimately Shetland. There were many other districts that would also take their names from the way they looked, or how they were situated.
The once powerful semi-kingdomof Moray (centred today on Inverness and Elgin) comes from Moireibh, meaning ‘Sea Settlement’. This probably was a name given to it by Gaelic arrivals and may refer to the importance of the old Pictish capital of Burghead right on the sea. This wasn’t the only land to draw its name from its coastal position. In the west is the wild province of Argyll, seat of the mighty Campbell clan, and once heart of the old sea-kingdom of Dalriada (assumed into Pictland in 853). It is a world of islands, fjords and peninsula. The name derives from Gaelic – Earra Ghaidheal, the ‘Coastline of the Gael’, which is particularly fitting geographically.
East of Argyll is a tough knot of mountain and valley, which would have in times past cut it off from Pictland. We don’t know what the Picts called this area, but in Gaelic it is Bràghad Albainn, which has been anglicised into Breadalbane, and means ‘Heights or Slopes of Scotland’. Further south was the Lennox, an important medieval province straddling both Highland and Lowland to the north of Glasgow. It takes its name from the Gaelic Leamhnachd meaning, ‘Land of Elm Trees’. Elms are broadleaved trees, which perhaps due to the geography of area grew well. The name of the district is retained in Vale of Leven (and Loch Lomond used to be ‘Loch Leven’). Badenoch, in the central Highlands is also a name that reflects a particular geographic characteristic – from the Gaelic Bàidenach, meaning ‘flooded land’. There is no doubt that even today the area is pretty boggy, but in the past there were many lochs now long vanished, and late snowmelt causes the myriad of streams leading to the Spey to flood the landscape.
Some places however take us even further back, to a time when Scotland was an assortment of tribes and petty kingdoms – the world the Romans encountered. Tribes that were friendly to Rome however had a lot to gain, both in terms of their economy (the Romans had to be fed) and for security against their enemies. The tribes on the Fife peninsular were probably one such people. Their geography probably helped them to form a larger tribal unit as well, and almost cut off from the rest of the country, their ‘individuality’ may well be retained in folk culture. As a province, earldom and county the name has always been kept, indeed it is endearingly called the ‘Kingdom of Fife’. To the Romans it was Fib, and in Gaelic is Fiobh. Of all Scotland’s place names this is probably the one that was actually used by its own people over 2000 years ago.
The inference from this is that names change, often repeatedly, over the centuries before sticking. They stick as writing evolves or because the folk tradition becomes ingrained. Some of the provinces of Scotland are derived from personal names, an etymology that can only have its roots in some pretty potent figures, a hero-worship culture and strong oral folk heritage. The lands of Angus (Aonghas) and Gowrie (Gobharaidh), take us back to a time when Gaelic warlords from the west were gifted lands in the east by Pictish kings seeking the assistance of their ‘skills’. Alternatively, it may have come about with the Gaelic-ising of the Pictish court after the Scottish union in the 9th century. The Earldom of Mar (Marr) may also have a personal root, but one that remains solidly Pictish; and the district of Kyle (Coila) in Ayrshire may have a link to the semi-legendary British king, Coel Hen (Old King Cole).
My own home province is Atholl (Athall), which comes from the old Gaelic Ath Fodhla. Traditionally, it was thought that Atholl meant ‘New Ireland’, and may show this same cultural shift; but a re-examination of the etymology may suggest that it means: ‘Passage to the North’. This is a far more apt description as Atholl acts like a funnel driving all routes north from the Lowlands through the mountains towards Moray.
All these places show us not only a world as seen by our ancestors, but to the politics of the day – he who names the land stakes a claim to owning it.Scotlandis a country hard fought to make and keep, and in this patchwork all her peoples; be they Viking, Gael, Briton or Anglo-Saxon wove their thread: not only by fighting, but in the very names they gave, and the legacy that leaves behind.