Meanings of Gaelic Words Commonly Seen in Hill Names

Author: Mark Jackson

Gaelic has many names for hills. Beinn (bheinnbenvenvain) is the place to start, used as a generic name for hills, particularly big ones. There are many fine distinctions.

Regarding rock; Càrn (càirnchàrnchàirnchùirn), means a heap of stones or, by extension, a stony hill; similar is creachan, whereas creag (craigchreagcreige) is the same as the English “crag”, i.e. rockface. Cruach (cruaiche) “stack” is often used for an upthrust of rock, as are tòrr and cleit.

sgùrr (sgòrsgòrr depending on region), is a jagged peak, and stob means a small top, point or peak. Also used to denote sharp peaks and pinnacles are stùc (stùchd) and its variant stacbidean (bideinbidhein), and its variant spidean; rarely biod (bioda); and binnean (binnein), an especially conical peak.

Meall (mheallmillmhill), is very common, describing a bare rounded lumpy hill. Similar is maol (maoile), meaning “bald head”, and ceann (cheancinnchinn), a head, is also used. Mullach just means summit.

A ridge is most commonly druim (droma), but can also be aonach, a high ridge, leathad (leathaid), a broad ridge, leitir (leitire), a long ridge, or gualann, a broad shoulder, or imir (iomair). The end of one may be called socach (socaich), a snout, or sròn (sròine), a nose. A barrow-shaped hill may be called sìdhean (sìdhsìtheansìtheinsìdhein), a peculiarly Scottish term meaning hill where the fairies live! An àrd (àird) is a height or promontory, often near the sea.

A high upland may be bràigh (bhràighbrae) or monadh, or if particularly mossy/boggy, mòine, or worst of all leana “meadow, swampy plain”. Frìthe means heath or moor, also hunting forest; similar is fireach, high barren ground. The name bruach means edge.

A small rounded hillock can be called cnoc (chnocchnuic), but also bàrrcnapòrd (ùird), tulach (tulaichtulaichean) or tom – or even guirean, pimple! If it has a hill fort, or looks like one, it will certainly end up as dùn. A hill, large or small, that bears a resemblance to a woman’s breast may well be named as such; màm (mhàim) or cìoch (cìche).

Other picturesque names for hills include cabar, a horn, sàil, a heel, teallach, a forge, sgiath, a wing, suidhe or cathair (cathrach), a seat, and caisteal (caisteilchaisteil), a castle, all of which allow you to imagine the shape of the hill pretty well. Hills have been likened to people; thus bodach (old man, chancellor), buachaille (shepherd) and cailleach (chailleachcaillich) (old woman) are all used.

Adding –each or –anach to an adjective gives the meaning of “that place”; thus a hill may be called coinneach, mossy place, buidheanach, yellow place, etc.

But hills aren’t usually given just one name, and nine times out of ten a qualifier is added, denoting colour, position, shape, etc.

Let’s start with colour; dubh (dhubhduibhdhuibhduibhedubha) means black, whereas white is bàn (bhànbhàin), with fionn and geal both also meaning white, pale. Dearg (dheargdeirgdheirg) is more common than ruadh (ruaidh), with both meaning red; odhar (odhair) and donn mean brown or dun. Turning the colour wheel, buidhe (bhuidhe) means yellow and òr (òir) gold; uaine is bright green, and gorm (ghorm) is blue. There’s so much sea in Scotland that it has its own colour; glas (ghlasghlais) meaning greenish-grey. Also lìath (lèith) is grey or blue-grey. Finally, breac (bhreac) meaning “speckled, spotted” and riabhach (riabhaich) “brindled, greyish-brown” best fall into this category.

For size; we have mòr (mhòrmhòirmore) to mean great, and beag (bheagbhigbeg) to mean small. Meadhoin (meadhainmheadhoinmheadhainmeadhonachmeadhanachmheadhonachmheadhanachvane – yes, really!) means “middle”, in size or position. A hill can be fada (fhada) “long” or geàrr “short”; its shape can be leathan (leathainn) “broad”, reamhar “fat”, or caol or cumhann (chumhann) both meaning “narrow”, or cam (caim) or crom, “crooked”. Cùl (cùil) means “back” whereas tarsuinn (tharsuinn) means transverse or crosswise.

If the hill’s in an exposed position it might get fuar (fhuar) “cold”, or windy – gaoth (gaoithe) means wind and gaothach windy. It might hold snow – sneachd (sneachda). Conversely, it might end up as a grianan – a sunny drying place for peat or manure.

The texture of a hill is often garbh (gharbhghairbh) “rough”, eagach “notched”, fiaclach “toothed” or creagach (chreagaich) “craggy”, or at the other end of the scale còinnich (chòinnich) “mossy, boggy”. It could also be slabby – leacach, since the word for slab is leac; or stony, càrnach (càrnaich) being stony ground; or gaineamhach (gainmheich), sandy. Or the hill could just be steep; corrach, or caise (chaise) means steepness.

Among geographical features that find their way into hill names, the most popular by far is coire (choirecoir’; plural coireancoireincoireachan), a glacial hollow, corrie or combe. All corries have a mouth – beul (beòilbheòil). A bealach (bhealaich) or màm (mhàim) is a pass or col, with eag denoting a narrow gap or notch, breabag a cleft, dìollaid a wide saddle and lairig a low travellers’ pass. Gleann (ghleannghlinnghlinneglen) means valley, with sràth (strath) a wider, fertile one.

Rock features include clach (cloichcloiche), a rock or stone, hence clachaig, rocky; a hole, hollow, or pit may be a toll (tuill) or glac (glaic) if narrow. A gorge or ravine can be called clais (claise), a geodha is more of a chasm, while its reverse – a tooth or pinnacle – is a fiacail (fiaclan). A cave will be uamha (uamh) or lag (lagan).

A river – abhainn (aibhne) or uisge, literally “water” – will be fed by streams – allt (uillt) – fed by streamlets – dorain or feadan (fheadan) – in turn issuing from springs – fuaran (fhuaranfhuarain). It may go over a waterfall – eas or steall – called easain if it’s only a small plunge – or became a marsh or bog – fèith or lòn (lòin) – before reaching a lochan (lochain), a tarn, which is of course a small loch, a lake or arm of the sea. The river could well be loud – labhar (labhair). A bay is lùib or òb, and a small pool or pit is poll (puill) or sloc (sluic). A tairbeart (tairbeirt) is a narrow crossing between two lochs. Also eilean (eilein) means island.

Or a hill may be named after an animal or plant! So it’s worth knowing each (eich), a horse, gabhar (gobharghabhargaibhre), a goat, muc (muice), a pig, torc (tuirc), a boar, and caora (caorach), a sheep. The generic word for cow is  (), but crodh (cruidh) and sprèidh (sprèidhe) are also used for cattle, with tarbh (tairbh) a bull, aighe (aigheanaighenan) a heifer and laogh (laoigh) a calf. A damh (daimhdiamh) is a stag and a boc (buicbhuic) a buck – both likely to indulge in roaring and rutting, bhuirich (bhuiridh) – whereas eilid (eilde) is used for hinds, fiadh (fèidh) for deer in general, and earb (earba) for roe deer. Then there’s madadh (mhadaidh), a dog, wolf or fox; more specifically  (concoin) means dog and sionnach (shionnach) means fox. Finally, nathair (nathrach) means snake, and beithir (bheithirbeathrach) wild beast in general. A hill could be named for any one of these, or their den – saobhaidh (saobhaidhe).

Now eun (eòin) means bird; fithich (fhithich) raven, iolaire eagle, and cabhair hawk are the species most likely to have crags named after them or their nests – nead (nid), but there’s also coileach (coilich), cock, and cearc (circe), hen.

With plants, craobh (craoibh) is the generic word for tree, but also useful are caorann (chaorainn), rowan; beith (beithebheithe), birch; feàrna (fheàrna), alder; iubhar (iubhair), yew; giubhas (giuthasgiubhaisgiuthais), fir; raineach (rainich), bracken; and fraoch (fraoich), heather. A wood or grove may be a coille (choille) or a doire (dhoire), with a smaller thicket a bad (bhaid).

A farm – baile – contains low pastures, dail, and meadows, cluain. A field or enclosure can variously be an achadh (achaidh), todhar (todhair) or goirtean (goirtein), with garadh a den or walled enclosure. A byre or cowshed is a bàthach (bàthaich), a cuidhe or fasgadh a pen, fold or enclosure. An airigh (airighe) or ruighe is a shieling – a summer shepherds’ hut. The grain is kept in a sabhal (sobhalsabhailsodhail). Then there’s taigh (tigh) house, eaglais church and drochaid (drochaide) bridge – any of which might be old, sean (seannseana). And any village has a boundary – crìoch (crìche).

A hill might also get named after a famous soldier – saighdear (saighdeir) or priest – sagairt – or just a man – duine or fear (fhir)!

Finally, prepare for the odd personal name, such as Dònuill (DhònuillDhomhnuill), Donald, the word mac (mhic) meaning “son of”, and numbers such as , two, and trì, three. The compass directions are tuath, north, ear, east, deas, south, and iar, west.