Gaelic and understanding Scotland’s landscape

Calum Maclean is a presenter, writer and film-maker, currently to be seen on SpeakGaelic on BBC ALBA.

I grew up speaking Gaelic, first in the Isle of Skye and then Inverness. As a family, we spent many holidays walking in the hills and exploring Scotland. Maybe not that much has changed for me as an adult! I still remember a family trip walking the Làirig Dhrù, camping by a burn, getting eaten by midgies and drenched in a downpour on the last day. Great memories, which are still strong today. I think it was these opportunities that really instilled an interest and love of the outdoors in me, and very often it was through the medium of Gaelic. I have been very fortunate that my father, Ruairidh has passed on much of his knowledge and interest to me, which along with other opportunities and keeping a curious mind has encouraged me to keep learning.

An understanding of Gaelic can open up a whole world in the outdoors in Scotland that otherwise you might just miss. The more I explore the outdoors, the more I want to share insights and information with others, so that we can appreciate & understand more about where we are. Sometimes it’s the simple things such as descriptive words used for mountains, but I’m also keen for people to understand that places often had a deeper meaning or connection for people, especially in times when we didn’t travel so widely, lived much better with the land in many ways, and didn’t have lists of hills to ‘complete’.

Everyone enjoys the hills & outdoors in their own way, in a way that makes sense to them. You can still take on mega-adventures and understand more about Gaelic. I think we all have a responsibility to acknowledge and respect Gaelic as a part of our hills too.

What’s in the names?

Maps have recorded a large number of names, but many more have been lost. Very often names were passed on orally and in common usage. Beyond the larger maps, there have been a number of projects to collect and document many of the local place names in recent years. Callander, Applecross, Eriskay and Loch Torridon are all great examples of where the names of even small bays, rocks and minor streams and tales around them have now been recorded. These can then also open you up to understanding the even-wider mix of languages that make up Scotland’s cultural landscape.

Calum and An Teallach

Many of the names we have given the mountains reflect their appearance, whether that’s in shape, colour, size or proximity to another landscape feature. Even the type of hill being named is often reflected in name. Before you even look at any contours, you’d know that a Sgùrr (peak or pointed hill) should look very different to a Meall (round hill or lump).

Beinn Dearg Mhòr – ‘great red mountain’

Geal Chàrn – ‘white cairn’

Sgòrr an Lochain Uaine – ‘peak of the small green loch’. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Angel’s Peak’ – we should never forget the original name.

Names connect us also to how land was seen, and used. In many quiet glens we can see the remnants of settlements or shielings, the lost culture of taking the animals up to higher ground for summer grazings.

Beinn Ìme – ‘butter mountain’

Meall nan Caorach – ‘rounded hill of the sheep’ (sheep plural)

Meall a’ Bhuachaille – ‘rounded hill of the shepherd/herdsman’

In so many places where our wildlife and nature has become depleted, we can see clues of what we once had. Places where forests once grew, where predators roamed and where we might one day see wildlife restored. Names can give clues to areas that were at one point suitable habitats, and though they might not be today, this too could change in time.

With an increasing awareness of the desperate state of our biodiversity, it’s time too for us to realise that alongside this, human decisions have wiped out so much of our culture and language. I personally think that restoring these, has to go hand in hand as we restore plants, animals and natural processes within our landscapes.

On Beinn Liath Mhor

Just southeast of Meall Glas is Saobhaidh Madaidh-Allaidh – literally ‘wolf’s den’

Doire Darach (Derrydaroch) – grove of oaks

Allt a’ Chait – ‘the burn of the wildcat’. Wildcats are among the animals that appear in quite a number of place names, spread widely across the country. This is in contrast to the grouse, which appear in very few names but who widely outnumber the wildcat in terms of population numbers today.

Some other names can tell us a story. Some stories from long ago, and some which are still relevant today, but might soon be something from the past..!

Beinn Ghulbain – (Ben Gulabin), possibly ‘mountain of the snout’.

One of many places that relate to stories about the Fianna, the band of mythical warriors, led by Fionn MacCumhaill. Beinn Ghulbain is said where Fionn’s nephew Diarmaid met his demise. After Diarmaid eloped with Fionn’s wife Gràinne, Fionn sent him to kill an immotral boar, though expected him to fail. After killing the boar, Fionn then told Diarmaid to pace across its back, so that its length could be measured. Sixteen it measured from snout to tail. However, pacing back, he went against the grain of the boar’s bristles and his foot became impaled with the poison from the magical beast. Filled with guilt, Fionn rushed to Tobar nam Fiann – ‘well of the Fianna’ and collected water to heal Diarmaid. On the way back, his rage and jealousy changed his mind, twice. He finally returned with the water however it was too late, and Diarmaid was dead. This story is claimed in several locations.

Coire Cruach Sneachda – ‘corrie of the snow mound’. On the north side of Càrn Mairg, this north-facing corrie is one the last places in the area to hold snow into summer and was this year still hanging on to a small lump in early June.

Beinn Fhionnlaigh – ‘Finlay’s mountain’. Named after Fionnladh Dubh – ‘Black Finlay’. A forester and gamekeeper in Gleann Afraig – Glen Affric – around the end of the 16th Century who worked for the MacKenzies of Gairloch. A skilled bowsman, he is reputed to have killed several MacDonalds – their enemies – before meeting his own grisly demise at the hands of a doctor, himself a MacDonald.

Gaelic can tell us where we are. So too can contours, or geology. Each element adds meaning and depth to the land on which we stand.

Talisker Bay

Does it matter how you say it?

I have to admit it has irked me in the past to hear names being pronounced ‘incorrectly’. But then I realise I’m in the position of understanding the rules Gaelic uses, having a background and interest in the names. Many people simply don’t have that understanding, especially if they’ve never had much experience with Gaelic. Through my work and even social media posts, I’m often trying to share good information that helps people.

Then the dialect question can come in too! A Niseach (from Ness in the north of Lewis) will pronounce things quite differently to an Ìleach (someone from Islay). Same with a Scouser and Londoner. An example where this can be heard clearly is in An Gleann Mòr – Glenmore. I’ve heard locals – who don’t have Gaelic – pronounce Badaguish as ‘BAD-OO-ISH’. Where has that G gone? Well this pronunciation probably closely reflects the old dialect when everyone in the area would’ve had Gaelic. Badaguish is the anglicised: Bad A’ Ghiuthais (‘thicket of the pines’) which in the local dialect, when spoken quickly and fluently would sound similar to the above phonetics. When I teach Gaelic names I generally try and use a system or teach rules that’ll help people when they come across similar names or letter combinations in other places.

What does annoy many Gaels still, is hearing someone who claims a level of expertise then fail badly at mountain or bothy pronunciation, without a hint of uncertainty. Passing on incorrect information without having considered if is correct. Hearing this happen makes me question the quality of other information they might pass on, as they’ve clearly not even bothered to do some basic research. They could often just go and click on the audio files on WalkHighlands! These names are spoken by Ailig ‘Bhaltos’ MacDonald from Skye. Like many Gaels with nicknames, he’s often just referred to as ‘Ailig Bhaltos’ – Bhaltos being the village he hails from, in northeast Skye. There are also many other resources available online and in print.

Calum at Loch Coire an Lochain

Using Gaelic

As much as Gaelic links us to our past, it’s still alive and in use today. I use it on a daily basis. We can raise the number of speakers, and we can strengthen its usage. The language can be romanticised at times, sometimes in well-meaning coverage but remember, you can use Gaelic to tell someone to take the bin out, or even talk about an epic (or even sketchy!) day in the hills.

I know hill-walkers whose first experience of, or interaction with Gaelic has been from reading maps and looking at hill names. Some of those have even continued on to learn and speak the language. 

If learning Gaelic is something that has also crossed your mind, a good starting point would be SpeakGaelic, an initiative I’ve been heavily involved in since its launch in 2021. SpeakGaelic is a free-to-use online course for learning the language that comprises of a tv series on BBC ALBA, in-person classes, podcasts, and social media content to back up your learning. It’s a great place to start if you’re interested in having a greater understanding and appreciation of the rich landscape around us. 

Language, like any skill, is something that improves the more we use it. In the same way that I wasn’t born with the ability to tie my boots, or being able to abseil, I didn’t emerge into the world speaking Gaelic. We must use it, and encourage others to do so. The language itself, and many of the communities in which it is still used regularly are at a critical point, and I think we can all do a bit to help it grow again. 

Gaelic has plenty of good proverbs, and here’s one that relates to any challenge, whether in the hills or life:

Nì clachan beaga tric càrn mòr uaireigin – small stones often will make a large cairn someday.

SpeakGaelic: https://speakgaelic.scot/

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.