One of the questions that comes up when planning any trip abroad is how much you need to know about the language. Scotland, of course, is still associated (for better and worse) with the rest of the United Kingdom, and English is spoken in all corners of the country, albeit with an accent that can take some work for foreigners to understand. The understanding of Scotland’s native languages and dialects isn’t strictly necessary for a visit, the way it might be in China or even Italy. Instead, it’s a way to deepen your experience of the country, a delightful and optional spice to the perfect travelers’ meal that is Scotland.
Place names in Scotland are derived mostly from three source languages. Scots is a cousin of English, derived from Old English somewhere before the 15th century, and places with Scots or English names are mostly in the far south of the country. In the far north of Scotland, there are also several towns and castles with Norse language roots, thanks to several invasions of the Norse and Norwegians centuries ago. Gaelic has an entirely separate history, having come to Scotland neither from the north or south, but from Ireland. Gaelic place names are concentrated mostly in the central to northern parts of the country.
Gaelic was the official language of Scotland for many years before English took over. In my opinion, the best introduction to the language in general for a traveler is to look at a map and start to see the common words and syllables that pop up the most often in Scottish place names.
These are the most common Gaelic words to survive today in Scottish place names. Once you learn them, you’ll recognize them all over the country on your trip:
Ach or Auch: “Field”. The town of Auchentoshan outside of Glasgow is famous for its whisky and means “field of corners”.
Bal: “Town or Village”. Balnagowan means “Village of the blacksmiths”.
Ben: “Mountain or hill”. Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in Scotland, and in all of Britain.
Drum: “Ridge”. One of the great Scottish place names, and a good pronunciation test for Scotland visitors, is Drumnadrochit on the shores of Loch Ness. It means “Ridge of the Bridge”.
Dun: “Fort”. Dundee and Dumbarton are both Scottish cities once built around forts.
Gair: “Short”. Girvan (a slightly modernized spelling) means “Short river”.
Glen: “Long deep valley”. This one should be especially familiar to whisky drinkers, as many of the exported brands of scotch whisky include this prefix (Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, etc.)
Ken and Kin: “Head or Headland”. Kinbuck is a small village in Stirlingshire, meaning literally “Buck’s Head”.
Kil: “Churchyard”. The Scottish city of Kilmarnock is one of the few that references a specific person, meaning “Churchyard of St. Marnoch”. This is a prefix that shows up often in Irish place names as well, an artifact of the old links between Irish and Scottish languages.
Kip: “Point of a hill”. Kippen is a village in the hills north of Glasgow.
Loch: “Lake”. You probably already knew this one, thanks to the most famous loch of all, Loch Ness.
Ross: “Wooded”. The historic Scottish county of Ross-shire was named for its trees.
Here are a few place names that combine the Gaelic words listed above. Can you guess what they mean? Have a try at it, then highlight the blacked-out answer with your cursor to see if you got it right.
Balmore: “Big town”
Kenmore: “Big headland”
Kinross: “Wooded headland”
Loch Gair: “Short Lake”
Inverkip: “Hills by the river mouth”
Gaelic is a notoriously difficult language for English speakers, and no short guide is going to have you conversing in it with the locals, but I hope this at least gave you an introduction to some of the Gaelic that you’ve probably already seen on maps and in your reading about Scotland so far. Stay tuned for more posts on Gaelic and the mark it has left on modern Scotland.