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What’s in a name?

DO you know what ‘Am Monadh Ruadh’ translates as? Yes, indeed, it means the red rounded hills, the name that the area we now know as the Cairngorms was historically called.

And yet, Cairn Gorm means something different. The literal translation of Cairn Gorm is ‘blue pile of stones’, so why does the Cairngorms National Park Authority have Am Monadh Ruadh and Cairngorms on their letterheads and notice boards?

Before we look at that it’s perhaps a good idea to look at the use of Gaelic names, especially in the context of our hills and mountains and highland place names, and perhaps realise that the changing, or bastardisation, of the Gaelic is not a new phenomenon.

It’s interesting, in this particular case, that even the name Cairn Gorm is not the original name of the hill. According to the excellent book, Scottish Hill and Mountain Names, by Peter Drummond, the mountain’s name comes from the Gaelic Carn Gorm, which means blue mountain, so named because like many hills seen from a distance it appears blue because the atmosphere has filtered out the red wavelengths from the spectrum.

The Cairngorms
According to Drummond, the change from Carn to Cairn, “a process that affected many a carn in the north-east, began early in writing, for MacFarlane’s 1670 manuscripts speak of ‘Kairne Gorum’.” That subtle addition of one letter has changed the meaning of the name from ‘rocky hill’ – carn, to ‘a pile of stones’ – cairn, so even Cairn Gorm, is not historically accurate.

So where does Am Monadh Ruadh come from? Again, according to Drummond: “In Gaelic the range is known as Am Monadh Ruadh, the red mountain-land, from the pink colour of the granite that composes them. It (the range) became known universally in English as the Cairngorms in the last century, taking the name from this one rounded swell of a mountain that is prominent in the view from Speyside.”

I must confess I rather like the old name – the sound of it rolls beautifully from the tongue (try aam moana roo-yaa) and evokes an impression of something more benevolent than the ‘blue hills’, but perhaps I’m just being fanciful. Perhaps the person who put such a translation onto the National Park publicity material was being a bit fanciful too…

And while we’re on the subject of the Cairngorms, I can’t for the life of me understand why the funicular train company insists on adding the word ‘mountain’ to Cairn Gorm. The hill’s called Cairn Gorm, not CairnGorm Mountain! That’s as bad as calling Strathspey the Spey Valley, terms so beloved of marketing agencies and tourist boards.

At this point I should point out that I’m not a native Gaelic speaker. I try to speak the language, but anyone who has watched any of my television programmes will realise that my mangling of Gaelic with a Glasgow accent does not sound very convincing, but I do try and in terms of learning to pronounce mountain names then this Walkhighlands website has set a standard for others to follow.

My two grand-daughters both attend a Gaelic-medium school, and they try to keep me right, and I passionately believe that our Gaelic language, and indeed our place-names, should be preserved.

It’s a fascinating language that is currently spoken by about 60,000 people in Scotland. And what fascinates me about the language is that its 18 letters are each named after a tree or shrub, a throwback perhaps to an earlier Celtic time when every tree or plant was believed to have a spiritual purpose.

And I love the notion that Gaelic was the language used in the garden of Eden! It begins, according to tradition, with that of the Gaels and the descent from Adam. Jacob and his tribe emigrated to Thrace and eventually to Egypt , where they met a princess called Scota. Over many generations, the community moved to Carthage and eventually to Galicia in Spain, until they were dislodged after long and fierce campaigns with the Romans. They moved to Ireland, and through marriage became the high kings.

There is little doubt that the Gaelic language is an old and honourable one, and to me it’s the language of the hills. But even here, amid the beinns and the sgurrs and the monadhs it’s under threat. A few years ago the Ordnance Survey decided to add the words The Angels Peak to Sgor an Lochan Uaine, as though it was a translation of the Gaelic. It is not. The peak of the green lochan has nothing to do with angels. That English name was given to the hill by a Victorian gentleman, a Mr Copland, as a genteel spiritual counterweight to the nearby Devil’s Point. So how did the Devil’s Point get its English name?

Apparently Queen Victoria’s man, John Brown, was to blame for that. When asked to tell her the name of a nearby hill John Brown apparently answered Bod an Deamhan (try pot-in-john). Queen Victoria then asked Brown what it meant and in an attempt to ward off any embarrassment he answered; “The Devil’s Point.” The literal translation is, of course, the penis of the devil. I’m sure Billy Connolly, in his role as John Brown, would have thought up a funnier response!

I’ve always been fascinated by the Gaelic and Norse heritage of our place names simply because they are so descriptive and can tell us a lot about our culture and sense of place. Here and there, though, we hear of some of the old names being anglicized, for convenience sake. It’s a trend I hope doesn’t continue.

An Diollaid in Glen Shiel is one of the finest mountains in one of Scotland’s most Munro-rich areas and its most disappointing feature is the way people have treated its name. The anglicisation of An Diollaid (try an dee-alat ) to the dull and unimaginative sobriquet of The Saddle is one of those thankfully rare occurrences when the native Gaelic name has been lost by common usage to its English translation.

The so-called Saddle describes the low-slung ridge between the two main peaks of An Diollaid, and it’s long eastern ridge, the Forcan Ridge, is a narrow, airy and exhilarating scramble, one of the finest ridges in the western highlands. Climbed in combination with the neighbouring Munro, Sgurr na Sgine and its Top, Faochag, this outing is by far the finest in the Glen Shiel area.

The Saddle

The Saddle

Despite the discepancy between Cairn Gorm and Am Monadh Ruadh, the Cairngorms National Park obviously realises that our traditional place-names are important, for a number of years ago they produced a leaflet for visitors giving residents and visitors a guide to the pronunciation and meaning of a selection of place-names in the Cairngorms National Park including some of the towns and villages, rivers, burns, forests, woods and hills. The list of names, and what they mean, was complied by Alison Diack and James Grant from Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore. They did an excellent job.

“I think that residents and visitors will find the information contained within the leaflet very interesting and it really captures the imagination”, said co-author Alison Diack.

“Lochnagar is likely to mean the Little Loch of the Noisy Sound and the River Livet – or Lìomhaid to use the Gaelic – translates as the shining or flooded one. Furthermore, you have translations like that for Loch Vaa, which in Gaelic is Loch a’ Bhàtha, which means the loch of the drowning or Loch Mallachie which means the loch of the curse!”

The names of towns and villages, topographic features, rivers, forests and so on give us some insight into the rich culture and heritage of the National Park. And I believe it’s vitally important we protect and preserve such culture and heritage. If we forget those things, we forget who we are and where we came from, all those things that make Scotland different from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.