Gaelic Place Names

Place names always fascinate me. Here in Scotland, the root language of a place name, as well as its actual meaning, can tell something of the history of the village or town, or of its physical features.

On the drive between Inverness and Ullapool, I took some photos of road signs, showing the names both in English and in Gaelic.

Many English names in this area are simply Anglicized versions of the original (Gaelic) name.

This is easily seen in this photo.

Contin in English, Cunndain in Gaelic;
Garve in English, Gairbh in Gaelic;
Ullapool in English, Ulapul in Gaelic; and Gairloch in English and Geàrrloch in Gaelic.

However, other times, the names in Gaelic and in English are totally different. At times, this is because the words have been translated from one language into another. For example, you may have a river called The Black River in English, with the Gaelic - an exact translation of this - being, An Abhainn Dhubh.

In this example, the meanings are the same, but the 'look' of the names bear no relation to each other.

The photo below has the Ullapool/Ulapul example, but it also has some very interesting place names which would not come into that category.

Beauly. The English name for this town comes from the French, beau lieu, meaning 'beautiful place'. Clearly beau lieu was Anglicized and the resulting name remains. The name would have come from French monks who once lived in Beauly...

...and so to the Gaelic name.

A' Mhanachainn means a monastery or a priory, relating to the aforementioned priory which was built here in the 13th Century. The ruins of the priory are still to be seen in Beauly, and there is an eight-hundred year old elm tree standing at the entrance to the graveyard. 

In this case, the Gaelic has neither been translated nor Anglicized. But the two languages are able to open up the history of this bonny little place near to Inverness.

Around ten years ago, the Scottish Government decided to display bilingual place names in many areas of Scotland. For Gaelic speakers, or for those with an interest in the language, this (as I think I showed above) can begin many an interesting conversation about various places.

Having two languages is a gift I am glad to have been given, by virtue of where I was born and brought up. Each language is special to me, though in different ways.

Because I have English, I can go almost anywhere in the world and find someone who understands me (Central Scotland excepted: here, I find the common response to anything I say is, 'Wha?' or 'Uh?' or 'I dinna ken'.)

Gaelic is different. It may be of little international consequence, but when I am able to speak to someone in Gaelic, I feel a bond, a sharing, a connection, a something

In some conversations, I speak only English. In others, only Gaelic. My highest comfort zone is when I'm able to speak one language but chuck in words or phrases in the other language which express more fully what I'm trying to say. That's what most of 'us locals' do when we're together.

Oh, there are two groups to whom I simply cannot speak English: babies and dogs. 

It's my native mother tongue for them. Don't ask me why, but I feel so odd speaking to a baby or to a dog in English. They're too cute, I think, to have such an official language spoken to them.

Co-dhiù, 's fheàrr dhomh falbh, 's làn thìde agam a bhith na mo leabaidh. Oidhche mhath.


  1. Do your children speak Gaelic? What language do you use at home?

  2. How interesting! I would love to hear Gaelic spoken, I don't think I ever have. So, that means you need to come to the US and demonstrate for us all. Deal? ;O)

  3. Hi Mrs. M.,

    I am the son of Leslie from Virginia, USA. I am completely fascinated by your post! I have read many great books on Scottish history, and a few of the authors included quotes from Scottish heroes in Gaelic. Although some may view these quotes as rather useless, I love the way the Gaelic language sounds. Whenever I read it, the language seems to be a remnant of purer times and great men in Scottish history.

    Honestly, I didn't think too many people spoke Gaelic even in Scotland anymore. I am so glad to know that this great old language still holds its followers!

    If you ever decide to give lessons in Gaelic, you may just find an overseas student wanting to join from Virginia.


  4. I agree with Ben! We'd LOVE to learn gaelic! Thanks for showing us around your...island (is this the island you live on?) I need to get the map out! At any rate, I appreciate your photos and information!

  5. Envying you majorly--and thinking about the poor children who have to hear this "official language" from my lips, for lack of a better language to speak to them in! :-)

  6. I loved this post! :) I have always liked the sound of Gaelic in songs, (I love traditional Scottish songs)I can't fathom being able to speak two languages interchangably like that! :) I've always spoken English to my brothers and sisters and pets and I guess it has done them no harm! :) All right, so maybe it's not English....more like baby talk..You might think I'd gone off my rocker if you heard me talking to my cat: "Him was a good little pussens him was!" :D
    I'll join Ben and say that you need to come teach Gaelic in Virgina! :D (Where I, too, live! :) You'd soon have a whole class, I'm sure! ~Rachel

  7. A great post and a great example of why I like your blog so much. It gives me a wonderful peek into your culture.

  8. I have a daughter who wants to learn Gaelic. She already studies French and Italian. It's required in the opera and classical voice program that she's in. The Gaelic was her own idea. Perhaps it's hopes of joining the singing group, Celtic Woman. Go ahead dear, I'm sure thy can ignore your Spanish/Austrian mother! Celtic heritage? Well. they got a bit lost in transit. :0)

  9. Ah...I finally got out the map...and am now a bit more familiar with your geography...found your port and where these places are...and also Fingal's cave! (My daughter's favorite composition is named after that cave!) Thanks for broadening our horizons!

  10. I'm the same, I couldn't possibly speak to a baby in English, only Gaelic. I can't speak to my children in English either, unless I am telling them off for something and then find myself slipping into English!

    Maybe it's just because Gaelic is our mother tongue that we naturally speak it to babies?

  11. I may just write another post to answer the questions from you all!

    It's looking like my Gaelic classes will have to be held in VA...that's where the most demand is, it would appear ;) (Okay, so two doesn't really constitute 'demand', but one can kid herself on!)

    Keri On - that piece of music is amazing, isn't it...

  12. I just love this and how I wish I knew Gaelic. I love the signs and I have read about those places but to see you write about it just makes it real?? :) I think you would love chickens. Just like what you did when you started to home school, just read books. There are great books out there on chickens.

  13. Sounds wonderful and a very interesting post...I love a Scottish accent I went to school with a boy who was Scottish and one our teachers was Scottish as well and boy when they got talking together I loved it I would just giggle I could not understand what they were saying it must be that they were speaking gaelic... but I loved it lol!! :D ~I only speak one language but often think I should learn another ~Thanks for sharing Have a wonderful Week Love Heather

  14. Lovely and interesting post! Being able to speak two languages is a gift - one that I wish I had and could pass along to my children!

  15. wow...what a lesson i just had! :)

    so..does almost everyone have an accent there? how cool!!!!

  16. Nice to discover another Scottish blog via one from Kentucky!
    I'm not a Gaelic speaker, but my daughter sings in Gaelic along with her clarsach. I did a very similar post to your when she and my husband were on their way to the Mod in Oban 2 years ago:


  17. Add me to the list who want to speak Gaelic! I have searched high and low for someone who speaks Gaelic where I live in MD, but with no luck. I am half-Scottish (my Mom was born and raised in Edinburgh) and I really want to learn the language.


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