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Placenames and their meaning is a subject I am constantly being asked about through this column, which is something of an embarrassment as I am neither a Gaelic speaker nor an ‘expert’ on the subject.
I am fortunate, however, to know a little about the local history of parts of Argyll and Inverness-shire and to be wary of sitting down with Dwelly’s and other dictionaries and playing a guessing game because what you see is never that straightforward, unless it happens to relate to an obvious topographical feature or a famous personal name, and even then there is room for error.
Take for example a place between Glen Dubh and Glen Laudale in Morvern called Meall a Chaise, which, from several Gaelic dictionaries, you would be excused for thinking means, The Hillock of the Cheese and go off with the idea that the feature resembles a wedge of cheese.
Not a bit of it. It means a knoll at the head of a glen which is a far more practical and helpful if you are a shepherd, geologist, stalker or hillwalker.
Edward Dwelly did the Gaelic culture a great service when he wrote his illustrated dictionary in 1930, but I wish someone in the publishing world would take hold of it and enlarge the text which is hard to read without a powerful magnifying glass, even for someone with good eyesight.
With more and more people going to the hills and taking an interest in the landscape, we badly need a book of placenames showing them as they appear on maps along with their meaning. Fiunary, in Morvern, is beginning to be pronounced in song as Unaray, which is no doubt grammatically correct but complete nonsense as there is no such place – another example of a fine old Gaelic placename being murdered by purists.
Interpreting Gaelic placenames is a difficult subject and nigh impossible if the scholar is not a native Gaelic speaker and has no real knowledge of the local dialect or the traditions, humour, mores and customs of the countryside to which they relate. Nine times out of 10 there is a form of code involved which, without these attributes, is almost impossible to break.
The Gaelic word ‘blas’, meaning ‘taste’ or ‘flavour’ [in the mouth] says it all.
Sunart (Sweyn’s fjord) and Strontian (the nose of the fairies) – is rich in interesting placenames.
Corrantee, (the corrie of the seat) on the west slope of Meall Ian below Ben Resipole, was selected in 1725 as the home of the first miners to come to the Strontian area between the 18th and 19th centuries to work the extensive lead mines. Other names relating to the extraction of lead and silver were: Whitesmith (White perhaps the surname of the blacksmith); Fee Donald, another miner; the derivation of Middleshop is unknown; Bellsgrove, the first element is from a personal name and ‘grove’ (from groove), an early name for a worked vein. The old name for Scotstown was ‘Righe-Raoghuill – Ronald’s shieling.
Dr Cameron Gillies in his Placenames of Argyll (1906), which has been criticised by his contemporaries for its inaccuracies, is probably correct when he states that the name Scotstown was called after the miners from the Lowlands; likewise the settlement of New York which stood close to John and Kate Campbell’s hospitable Ariundle Centre.
Scotstown seems to have been divided into an upper and lower part. The crofts in the former were larger in general than those in the latter which were known as the Cos-dubh. They were more or less one-cow crofts and had, until after the Crofter Commission Act, no official grazings, until granted them in Ariundle.
The 1841 census shows 24 lead miners aged between 16 and 85 years living in Scotstown. The oldest was a woman Ann Cameron aged 87. There were 57 persons under 16 years.
The principal surnames were Camerons (48), followed by the MacPhersons (34) and MacMasters (29). The McMasters, of course, had been pushed out of nearby Ardgour at the time of the Lords of the Isles and, again, during the Disruption as they adhered to the Free Church which the Camerons of Lochiel and the MacLeans of Ardgour did not approve of.
In the combined total for Scotstown, Anaheilt, Ardnastang, with Strontian and Drimnatorran added, the Camerons and MacPhersons easily maintained their lead with close on 150 between them; the MacMasters had to yield third place to the MacMillans while the MacPhees came fifth.
I do not know if the placename experts are agreed on the origin of Ariundle. The prefix no doubt refers to the airidh (shieling), but the other part is difficult; it might not be Gaelic at all and come from Old Norse.
On some old maps, it is shown as Glen Egadale (Glen of the Oaks) and described as a five penny land. At one time it was let on the steel bow system known in England as metayer, meaning the cultivation of land for a proprietor by one who receives a proportion of the produce, as a kind of sharecropping. When a tenant was too poor to stock a farm, the landlord came to his assistance, and in return the produce was divided between them, while the tenant on leaving, or at the expiry of his lease, had to return the loan or its equivalent.
The system was quite prevalent in Mull and the adjoining mainland at the end of the 18th century but was condemned as it took from the sub-tenant two rents as well as 12 per cent to 18 per cent for the value of the stock on it. There was in the Hebrides a variation known as Leth-chois.
About the middle of the 18th century the tenant of Ariundle was a Donald Cameron. It is then described as: ‘A good farm and part of it possessed by the Mining Company for the benefit of the miners.’
In the same century, the largest tree in Sunart was recorded not far away at Achnalea, which was an oak 21 feet in girth.
Fee Donald mine, which I have already mentioned, lies at the head of Ariundle and is a tributary of the Strontian river. This is the only mine in the area where antimony was found. Antimony is a chemical element with symbol Sb and atomic number 51. A lustrous grey metalloid, it is found in
nature mainly as the sulfide mineral stibnite.
Antimony compounds have been known since ancient times and were powdered for use as medicine and cosmetics, often known by the Arabic name, kohl. The vein from four feet to nine feet wide was partly worked by open cast mainly by four levels driven westwards into the hillside.
In 1857, there is mention in the records of 14 tons of ore and 11 tons of
lead being extracted which in 10 years increased to 240 and 168 tons respectively but then fell to 25 and 18 tons. Fee Donald was abandoned in 1872 probably due to access difficulties and getting the ore to the main crushing yard and then to Loch Sunart for export.