Around Clach na Cùdainn: Some Musings on the Gaelic Place Names of Inverness
Author(s): Roddy Maclean
Copyright holder(s): Roddy Maclean
Clach na Cùdainn was long considered a palladium for the town and even today it sits in a prominent situation by the mercat cross outside the Town House. It means the ‘stone of the tub’, reputedly because washer women, or those collecting water, would rest their tubs on it on their journeys to and from the river. It is also known by an anglicised form established in the 19th Century – Clachnacuddin – still the name of a prominent local football team.
But not all features are as straightforward as Clach na Cùdainn. Indeed, there are a few whose location we do not know – in fact we can’t be sure they actually existed in Inverness. An example is Drochaid an Easain Duibh (‘burn of the small dark waterfall’) known to us only in the Gaelic story, Aonghas Mòr agus Na Sìthichean, based around the fairies who famously inhabitd Tomnahurich (Tom na h’Iùbhraich, ‘hill of the yew wood’) and whose presence for long coloured the culture of Inverness and most particularly the Leachkin (An Leacainn, ‘the slope’), Craig Phadrig (Creag Phàdraig, ‘Peter’s Rock’) and Craig Dunain (Creag Dhùn Eun, ‘Rock of the Hill of Birds’).
Some names are not Gaelic, and belong to an older Pictish heritage – an example being the suburb of Drakies (G. Dreigidh). Some are of a later Scots heritage, presumably associated with the introduction of lowland speech in association with the establishment of the Royal Burgh. Examples are The Haugh (G. An Talchan), Holm (G. An Tolm) – both of these being riverine lands – and The Bught (an animal enclosure). But the oldest Gaelic names predate these by a long way – for example, Kilvean (Cill Bheathain, ‘Religious Cell of St. Bean’, reputedly a close relative of St. Columba) and the associated Torvean (Tòrr Bheathain, ‘Hill of the Bean’).
Baile exists in a larger number of localities, indicating former discrete settlements of collections of buildings. The oldest on record is Ballifeary (Balnafare, 1244) which is Baile na Faire (the watch-town where watchers would keep an eye open for incursions from the west of the river). Many of these are anglicised as Bal- forms eg Balvonie (Baile a’ Mhonaidh, ‘hill steading’) although some are translated e.g. Hilton for Baile a’ Chnuic or partially translated (e.g. Craigton for Baile na Creige).
Three different horse names occur in Inverness Gaelic place names. Two are meadows/islands in the former delta of the Ness – Merkinch (Marc-Innis) and Capel Inch (Capall Innis), and another, of a later vintage, uses the generic word common in Scottish Gaelic today – each – in its possessive form, eich: Dalneigh – Dail an Eich – ‘field of the horse’. On the first OS map this was given as Dalneich and, indeed, this was the pronunciation known to older Invernessians well into the 20th Century.
The author’s researches have uncovered a considerable number of Gaelic place names which have gone out of use (despite the continued existence of the feature itself) or that related to features which have themselves disappeared. Among those in the first group are The Balloch (Am Bealach, ‘the pass’) the name given to the pass between Castle Street and View Place, and Slag nam Mèirleach (‘the robbers’ hollow’) adjacent to the Dores Road at Holm. The classic examples of the latter are the mussel scalps (eg Scalp Phàdraig Mhòir, Rònach, Scalp nan Caorach) which once existed at the delta mouth of the Ness and which were dredged to allow shipping better access to the river. Yet another example is the Allt Muineach which now runs underground through the glen between the Culcabock roundabout and the Millburn roundabout. This locality had a strong connection to witchcraft and there are records of cuirp chrèadha (clay bodies) being placed in the burn as a curse on those for whom they represented.
Some old place names hang on today by the skin of their teeth. An Loch Gorm (‘the green loch’), once an inlet of the Moray Firth near the Safeway Supermarket on Millburn Road but filled in during the 19th century, and later a district name (Lochgorm), is now retained only in the name of a furniture store in that vicinity.
Clachnahagaig (possibly Clach na h-Eagaig, ‘stone of the small cleft’), an ancient stone which even today marks the upper end of the town fishings on the Ness once granted by royal charter, was removed during the building of the Caledonian Canal. But its position is marked, and the name retained, because of its importance with regard to angling rights. The Abban, now preserved in Abban Street, was a backwater channel of the river through which normal flow had ceased. It is a word (àban) unique to the Inverness locality and thus has tremendous heritage value, but it was almost lost when the first edition of the OS gave the thoroughfare as Abbey Street. Luckily the mistake was rectified in the 1905 edition.
Slackbuie is An Slag Buidhe, ‘the yellow hollow’, and is possibly so named for the masses of buttercups which flower there in summer.
Folk etymology has been at work in Inverness, just as it has in other places. The cryptic Longman was purported to be from the body of a ‘long man’ washed ashore in the locality and there is a delightful, if apocryphal, story of young love which gives Loch na Sanais its name (supposedly ‘loch of the whisper’. In fact, local pronunciation gives away the name as Loch na Seanais (Loch na Seann-Innse, loch of the old haugh, according to Professor Watson) but the evidence of three local informants was discarded by the OS in favour of the single, but influential, opinion of lcoal worthy and Gaelic-speaking MP, Charles Fraser-Mackintosh.
In summary, Inverness has a fascinating Gaelic heritage which is borne out today in its place names. More research might yet elucidate further insight into some puzzling names such as The Longman and The Cherry, an area of the river at its mouth which once applied to a dyke at the high water mark on the firth shore. Where the Gaelic name is known for sure, it should be applied where possible in signage so that the name is preserved and so that Invernessians of today, and visitors from other parts of Scotland and the world, can better understand the meanings and origins of the names and better appreciate the vital role that the Gaelic language has played in informing the heritage of the capital city of the Gàidhealtachd.
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Around Clach na Cùdainn: Some Musings on the Gaelic Place Names of Inverness. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 7 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1408.
"Around Clach na Cùdainn: Some Musings on the Gaelic Place Names of Inverness." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. 7 December 2023. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1408.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Around Clach na Cùdainn: Some Musings on the Gaelic Place Names of Inverness," accessed 7 December 2023, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1408.
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