Morvern Lines – 7.11.19

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What’s in a name? Not much on occasions, though sometimes it fits oddly, as when Thin is stout and Short is long with Wright always in the wrong.

While we have Gaelic equivalents for most of our personal names, the number is not as large as some people may imagine.

Taking them in alphabetical order, the first is Allan, the Gaelic of which is Allean, possibly from al, a rock. But we have here to deal with an intruder, the Normandic  Alan, popular in Scotland because of its having been so favoured in early times by the High Steward family, who gave us a long Scottish dynasty.

The next is Alpin, or Ailpein in the native language, which can probably claim a Pictish source of origin. Angus (Gaelic Aonghus) aon plus gus, meaning unique choice.  Was someone trying to embody a Greek lineage when it became affiliated with Aeneas? A personal name seldom met with in the Highlands, is Arthur, of which the native form is Artair, yet strange to say, it can lay claim to belonging to the Celtic group and to be of Bretonic origin. Charles is from German Karl. Tearlach is from Toirrdhealbhach. Coll, a name not infrequently met among the Clan Donald, and no doubt popularised through Coll Uais, an eighth century King of Ireland, contains the root col (thigh).

Dugald signifies the dark stranger or foreigner, and might have been originally applied to a Dane to distinguish him from the Scandinavians who were recognised as the Fionnghall, or fair strangers. Duncan forms a warrior name coming from donn (brown) and cath (battle). Farquhar and Fergus belong to the same class as Angus, the one being super-dear and the other super-choice. Finlay, like Duncan, belongs to the warrior band, and stands for fair hero, fionn being fair and laoch hero. Gregor has a fine Highland ring to it, but its nativity may be more Roman than Celtic, while a Greek origin can be ascribed to Hector, though its Gaelic form, Eachann, contains the root Each (a horse). Kenneth, signifying fair-one in its native form, the same root element as is found in canach (cotton grass).

Lachlan, which has practically the same pronunciation in both languages, native and adopted, in the north is for Lochlann, which is Scandinavian. Possibly first bestowed on a native of that region, it just means Fjord-land. Malcolm (Gaelic Calum) and earlier Maolcalum) is from caluman, a dove. In early Christian times maol formed a frequent prefix to Irish and Scots-Irish personal names  till succeeded by Gille (servant). It is still preserved in Malise (Maol-Iosa), the servant of Jesus. This is not to be confused with Myles (Maolmoire) , the servant of Mary, as the English form is no doubt based on the Latin Milo. Murdoch is a maritime-name derived from early Irish Murchd, indicating sea-warrior, while Neil also belongs to the hero class. It was obviously borrowed into English as Nigel.

If the Highlands were not exceptionally rich in masculine personal names of Celtic origin, relatively we are much poorer in respect of feminine ones.

Betha, or Beathag, which has been for no apparent reason associated with Sophia, contains the root beatha (life). Bethoc was the name of King Duncan’s mother. The well-known  Irish name Bridget, or Bride, is an old Celtic goddess name associated with the Muses. Whether it has any affinity with the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe, is not known, but in virtue of the saintly St Bride it has a holy significance in our lore. Devorgilla of our ancestors, and today’s Dorothy were of old Dearbhforghaill, meaning true request.

Flora, of which Gaelic is Floraidh, represents Fynvola of the past and means  fair-shouldered. Muriel is another sea name meaning sea-white, and is from muir (sea) and geal (white). Sorcha, anglicised as Clara, means bright. Una, the English form of which is Winifred, is a very old Irish name dating back earlier than the time of Conn of the Hundred Battles who flourished in the second century AD. According to Irish tradition, Conn was the first of a line of Irish kings that survived into the 11th century. He is said to have ruled a kingdom covering most of the northern half of the island.

Some interesting and unusual surnames used to be found on the Island of Jura. Airidh Mhic Ille Mhoire fell out of use and became, in English, Gilmour.  Buail’ Ille’ Anndreas became MacAndrews, although some historians make it the same as Ross. Gleann Airidh Mhic Ciurraidh produced the name MacCiurraidh (pronounced MacKewry) which does not appear anywhere else in the Highlands as far as I am aware and could be of Irish origin.  There was a family of that name living in Arran at one time who called themselves Henderson in English.

There was a family called Whyte in Jura at one time, where they were known as Clann Illebhain. They lived at Glengarisdale at a place called Achadh-Braghad before leaving there and moving further down the glen to Dail-aros, where they built their houses and byres under the shadow of Glengarisdale castle, the one-time stronghold of the Macleans in Jura.

Unfortunately the Clann Illebhain, stripped the old castle of its stones which accounts for the almost complete disappearance of this once imposing structure. It is to be regretted that a single stone was ever removed, let alone that it was totally demolished.

The same being said of the 16th century Drimnin castle occupying the level-summit of a rocky outcrop over-looking the Sound of Mull. It was demolished in 1838 by Sir Charles Gordon of Drimnin, to make way for a private Roman Catholic chapel angering John Macleod, the feisty local Church of Scotland minister, who wrote five years later in the New Statistical Account, ‘It is pardonable to express regret that so very unnecessary a work of demolition should have taken place; but it is just to add, that, in this expression of regret, the enlightened proprietor of Drimnin now fully participates’.

Unfortunately, in 1849, old Drimnin House, which succeeded the castle as a place of residence, was accidentally burned down and any documentation surrounding the history of the castle was lost.

Sadly, many fine old buildings which I believe were worth preserving have been abandoned, demolished or altered in comparatively recent times.

Iain Thornber,

iain.thornber@btinternet.com