A language is a dialect with an army of cartographers to defend it’.
after Max Weinreich

Misnames and elided names
don’t begin and end with English-speaking map surveyors. In recent years, the Ordnance Survey has entered into a fruitful collaborated with Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba (Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland project) to revise their maps. The welcome addition of Gaelic on public signs chimes with a renewed popular interest and, in time, the language may receive the official status Her Majesty’s government currently denies it.

Names are an expression of the history of a community.
Maps mirror society: its no surprise that the blue-line grid is scarred.

In The Highlands the
topographical richness of names is associated with harsh, demanding ways of life and, however much we honour crofting communities now, we cannot undo the past.

In each era that the name of a ferm-toun like Bovaglie was spoken of, or written, the name will have sounded differently but, even if it is tinted with the
past for today’s map-reader, it was always the expression of a complete reality – whether the first stone had just been being laid, the auctioneer’s hammer was falling on the last door handle and pitcher, or the name is being pronounced by a walker seeing the peeling wallpaper and rusty bedsprings for the first time.

Gaelic is an essential ingredient of the bioregion of the Dee, but no language is a magical spring, a
MaighdeanMhonaidh, of finer thoughts and purer emotions. A language learnt now is not capable of hardwiring us to our putative Gaelic, Pictish, or even Neolithic ancestors. Words, however correctly they are pronounced, are incapable of pinpointing the ultimate significance of a patch of earth.

All languages are
receptive to landscape to precisely the extent a community requires, in the same way that every tool that we need has a name.
Allt Bhruthainn

Burn of Brown

The Roaring Burn

An Dail

Upper Dell

The River Meadow

Cnoc Reamhar

The Roar Hill

The Squat Hill

Ceann an t-Socaidh


The Head-of-the-Nose

An Sreap

Ripe Hill

The Climb Hill

Tore Hill

The Hill Hill

Mag Lodan

Maggie Glutton

The Bit of the Pool

Meall Fhad

Mally Watt

The Long Hill

Magh an Fhucadair


The Fuller’s Field
Place-names are spoken, accented; their pronunciation flows on in the to-ing and fro-ing between tongues and temporal meanings. We value the formation of names as meaningful: a study in rivers and wellsprings. But a watershed also features bog pools and one-eyed burns, and many names bear the wear-and-tear of one language being absorbed into another. WFH Nicolaisen presses home the practical realities: no name is ‘sacrosanct’, nor are names ‘static’, what matters is how we use them in the give-and-take of passing generations.

In the North-east Gaelic, Scots, and English sounded together for centuries and,
scrolling through the names, there is plentiful evidence how generative the region was. Its betwixt and between status was studied by the folklorist Hamish Henderson, who undertook folk-song collecting tours up the Dee and doon the Don in the 1950s and 1960s. Hamish idealized the outcast traveling folk, or tinkler-gypsies, who preserved the richness of ancient tales and songs; and he praised the ability of singers like Jeannie Robertson to sing in ‘a flexible formulaic language’, blending Scots and English in what Gavin Greig described as a strange ‘bilingualism in one language’. These characteristics also influenced place-names.
A language or dialect embodies a different net of sounds. Place-names roll around on speakers’ tongues over generations, and some are reformed. Unlike the orthodoxy of maps and signposts there is no authority to not regulate the reformation of names; it is a folk process, one that is poetic and generative, as in the examples above.

William Alexander thinks the transition from Gaelic to Scots was largely complete by the 16th century and, until the mid 19th century, ‘the processes at work altering the Gaelic names were mostly natural … their sounds became what the lips of the people unconsciously made them’. There were a few hybrid place-names that combine Scots terms, such as bog, burn, and moss, with Gaelic endings but, mostly, the new names bore no sense-relation to their predecessors, only a congruity of sounds. For instance, the common Gaelic auchter, which means upper, was often transformed into the English water – a change that will have coincidentally made sense in some settings, given the number of burns in the region. It is this process of misnaming – technically referred to as analogical reformations – I want to discuss in this post.  
These newly coined place-names are not ‘corruptions’ – Nicolaisen insists on that – but it’s hard not to think of them as by-blows. They are a reminder that not all place-names are pragmatic descriptions of a community’s surroundings – black hills, stony fields, and rough burns. They embrace creativity, whether in the purposeful mytho-poeticising of a landscape or the unconscious translation of a name. The former process gives us toponymic praise poems and ballad-scapes, such as the celebrations of the ritual hunts of the Fian, while the latter produces vernacular folk-tales, as I will show.

This process is ancient and not specific to Gaelic and Scots or English. There is evidence that it occurred in the transition from Pictish to Gaelic, for instance, Nicolaisen says the Applecross began as Apercrossan, the confluence of the cross.

The blending of accents defines a curious and surprisingly large family of place-names that were left behind after, or as, Scots abraded Gaelic. The languages jostled together, and Gaelic
phonemes were brought over into Scots in a process of unconscious translation, that is, translation without faithfulness to meaning. For instance, a Scots-minded listener would hear the name Creag Ghiubhais, which sounded like – and was liable to be written down – Craig Yews, and this ran the risk that the pines might change species, at least in terms of place-name.

Experts tell us that the rules at play in the translations from Gaelic names to Scots or English names always involve s
peakers seeking meaningful analogies, even though the names that result frequently fail to preserve the original Gaelic meaning. The resulting incongruities have a poetic quality all their own, and they are capable of metamorphosis, transforming iron into flowers.  
Growing up near the wee town of Biggar we had a local rhyme that only works when it is said aloud.

London is big.
Dublin is Dublin –
but Biggar is Biggar!
It is time to review some examples.

Burn of Mohamed
This burn, which flows into the Allt Darrarie, near Loch Muick, is possibly from the local name MacThomaid.

Burn of Brown, from the Gaelic Allt Bhruthainn, has little to do with colour; it describes the burn of raging all wrong. Nicolaisen gives the Pictish brutona, boiling, as the likely source.

Upper Dell has the sound of An Dail, the haugh, or riverside meadow, which may be flowery but shouldn’t be upper.

Heard as roar, Cnoc Reamhar means the squat hill.

The nonsensical Anglicization Ripe Hill – locally known as The Ripe – is from the Gaelic sreap, steep, which makes this walk the fruit of a hard climb.
            Ripe Hill

            the fruit
of the walk


The corrie by The Ripe is called A’ Choire Shreap, which I translate as the needs-must corrie, improvising on the two possibilities that Adam Watson gives: the corrie you have to climb, or the corrie of contention. The commonsense of sreap, steep, is ‘translated’ into the poetic image of the hill being ripe with exhaustion. It is now used for mountain bike trials.

A similar sound-alike name is Vinegar Hill, from the sound of A’ Mhìn-choiseachd, the easy walk, by Loch an Dùin in Badenoch.

Hill of Fare is, Diack says, from fàir, used in Braemar as ‘a ridge on the horizon’.

Stumbling upon the exceptions to the common-sense habits of toponyms, some place-names are beautiful, some are meaningful, and some are meaningful nonsense, such as Tore Hill, the hill hill.


From Cladh Bhòcaidh, which Adam gives as Mound of the spectre.

Mount Keen

This peak, which stands alone, is commonly thought to be Monadh Caoin, the beautiful hill, however, Diack and MacGillivray suggest Choinneamh, the hill of meetings, like the famous gathering cairn, Carnaquheen, or possibly, chuing, the hill of difficulties.

I’ve included a more extensive list at the end of this post.
Between two place-names that speech has compounded, and the two linguistic communities, there is the moment they met. I find it hard to imagine this as a temporal event. A Gaelic name was said, and heard, and said again, until it slipped by degrees into another name, whether in Scots or English. Can this event be imagined as an overheard conversation, in which the ear of the coming language always wins out? Is it a process of erosion that stretches over more than one generation.

‘Whatever words or names are borrowed’,
explains Berit Sandnes, ‘sounds and sound combinations that are unacceptable in the recipient language have to be replaced …’. Sandnes means that communities can’t help recognizing elements from their own language in existing indigenous names; they riff on them and refine them, until a new name emerges – one that is phonetically acceptable to their ears because it sounds like a ‘real’ name. In Nicolaisen’s phrase, the name needs to sound as if it means something, so as to ‘restore meaning to the meaningless’ – though Vinegar Hill is a stretch.
Perhaps because they are based on misunderstanding, these misnames are amusing and poetic by turns. As a consequence of the need for meaning they sometimes gather a new folk-etymology, giving a reason for their existence. Ian Murray tells about an old bothy up The Baddoch, originally named Ceann an t-Socaidh, the head or end of the snout – referring to one of the downslopes of An Socach, the big neb – known locally as The Laddie’s Shieling, for the boy who cared for the cattle in the summer. Local gamekeepers rendered the Gaelic as Kentucky, cinn having first been anglicized to kin. This soundalike can stand as an emblem of centuries of emigration, internationalizing the Highlander’s identity, after all, the same keepers may have had family in Appalachia. 
Margaret Bennett describes an identical phenomenon in macacronic songs, where lines of Gaelic were rendered into nonsense Scots: ‘a’ chailin dhuinn bhon dh’fhàg thu mi’, (brown haired maiden when you left me), becomes wi’ my hallin toons come chraga me. The singer was determined to perform a meaning, and so they appropriated one, much as John Redwood created his own version of the Welsh National Anthem.

If we could preserve both versions of Kentucky’s name there would be more gain than loss, but this is not how place-names work. Communities are of one mind and over time they tend to settle for a single name. It really doesn’t matter whether these are utilitarian ‘black’ or ‘white hill’, or ‘high field’, kind of names, or idiosyncratic name-fusions: they serve equally well for, like the names of alternative rock bands or little poetry magazines, every name is defined by its associations.
Some misnames are translations made to sound as if they refer to an historical individual – again, because the naming process always has to come up with a back-story.

There is the hawk that hovers watchfully over John Winter, as he tramps Jock’s Road, from the sound of the Gaelic seabhaig, pronounced jowk.

Maggie Glutton was supposedly named for Meg the Glutton, but a much more likely derivation is from the Gaelic,Mag Lodan, the bit of the pool. Mally Watt – Molly on the OS – is another invented figure, from the Gaelic Meall Fhad, the long hill. Best of all,

Maggieknocketer is a Scots pronunciation bending itself around the Gaelic, Magh an Fhucadair, the field of the fuller. Robert Smith, who had a holiday cottage at Maggieknockter, unearthed the ‘true’ tale.

It was the name that attracted me. Maggieknockater turned out to be a tiny hamlet near Craigellachie. It was the sort of place you could pass through without noticing it was there … The link with Boharm is intriguing, for in the kirk session records of the parish of Boharm in 1677 the name Marg McKnuketer appears. But there is nothing to show that she was the Maggie who gave her name to the hamlet on the road to Craigellachie.

Correspondence about the name started up in Scottish Notes and Queries in 1924. One writer thought that Maggie Knockater was probably a corruption of the name Mac-in ucater. He recalled seeing it in the Privy Council Register and said that the name meant ‘son of the fuller (cloth worker)’ … The most intriguing explanation came from a retired schoolmaster, who said he had seen the seventeenth-centruy session records of Boharm and had found several referenced to a Maggie Macknockater. This Maggie appeared from time to time before the session for offences such as ‘unseemly conduct, bawling on the Lord’s day and so on’ … The schoolmaster concluded that she had lived in or about the place that bore her name. This was at the junction of the roads leading to Glenrinnes and Glenlivet and would probably have been a resting place for drovers with their cattle and for smugglers passing from the glens with their whisky in casks slung over their ponies.

‘If this supposition is correct,’ wrote the schoolmaster, ‘these worthies would speak of one of the houses (which presumably Maggie occupied as a shebeen) as Maggie Knockater’s. Sheebeens of this kind were common all over the north at the beginning of the century, generally situated near commons and at cross-roads, and near cattle market stances, and they were often familiarly known by the names of the good ladies who kept them.’
It is uncanny how folk-culture invents these historical personages – or ‘characters’ – to explain names, without any awareness it is doing so. The names become a kind of improvised performance which settles into folk history. By breaking the convention that a translation should be a competent account of meaning, and maintaining their fidelity to sound, they set up a human drama. Nicolaisen summarizes the process: a past event ‘is verbally re-enacted to give credence to the present name; the landscape is revealed as having historical structure as well as current existence. Life and landscape begin to approximate one another; names, in this sense are plausible texts to be interrogated through story.

To damn these fabulations as ‘fakelore’ is to forget that they are emblematic of our forgetting. They are a direct consequence of the gulf that opens between generations and tongues. Those who listen but do not hear are always with us – until no one in the community can recall that the fuller worked here, the hawk flew there, or, this is an easy walk, but that one is steep.
Revealing the original meaning of the name undoes the character and their story, or, to be more accurate, it leaves us with the paradox of two names, two meanings, two narratives, and two realities, representing two language communities, both requiring their own meaning. This fulfills the maternal instinct of naming.

The misnaming process is similar to the ways in which particular hilltops were associated with the heroic Fian, or drumlins were believed to be ancient grave barrows, or fairy mounds. I will return to this in a future post on the ‘Fianscape’.

Mona Gowan

Daisy Hill

The Smith’s Hill

Baudy Meg

The Hares’ Hill

When the paternal toponymic and maternal phonic aspects combine then, as these example show, some place-names undergo a sonorous mimesis. The idyllic sounding Monagowan and her sleazy companion Baudy Meg are shy and gallus friends of Maggieknockater. Baudy Meg’s name turns out to be pastoral, for ‘she’ is actually the hill of hares, from the Gaelic badan mag. The metamorphosis from woman to beast is a familiar folkloric event.

Gowan is recognizably a daisy in Scots, but the name was born in the sound of ghobhainn, on the hill originally known for its blacksmith, proving a place-name changes form in the forge.

Wildflowers remain on Mona Gowan, but the smith has gone. The anvil and the flowers become a woman in name alone. Then her story was woven, and
the name becomes a device that leaves the hill and wanders into the theatre of folk narrative, demanding for itself a tale to justify its existence. In these playful ways we allow the hill to make a new impression on us, through the sound of our own voice and our desire to have meaning.

Mona Gowan

the woman’s tale’s born
   glints of a thousand daisies

   in the anvil’s sparks
in the guise of a name

In the transition from one language to another a cast of spectres is created. As the local example shows, the ghostly smith’s workshop is a ruin, and it seems significant that a skilled and prestigious male caste who held influence in the community, associated with the magical art of metallurgy, procreative forces, and the travelling folk, has been replaced by a women of ill repute.
The ancient blacksmith found a modern echo in the cult of The Horseman’s Word, established in the North-east in the early 19th century, which smiths belonged to, along with ploughboys, as masters of the arts of horsemanship and folk wisdom.

The horseman’s mysterious initiation rites are sketched by
John R. Allan, who says it is hard to understand the brotherhood without an awareness of the ‘atmosphere of the stable’: for his initiation a young man would enter the barn carrying a loaf, candle and whisky, and kneel at the altar, which was a sack of corn. Blindfolded they were spun around and then made to answer a series of riddles. Teasing and shaming sexual indignities, and the offer of the hand of the Devil to shake, in the form of a stick covered with animal hair followed this. Finally they were given the magical word itself, which, Allan says, was ‘both in one’, declaring a harmony between the plougboy and his horse. There could be no better motto for the project of namefulness and place-awareness than both-in-one, but cults wither away, and the meanings of names are similarly vulnerable to socio-economic forces and alien forgetfulness.

The next name weaves together the both-in-one of ecology and the both-in-one of misnaming.


The Green-patch Knoll

The Fields of the Crooked Pools

The Switching Runrigs
At Invercauld the gamekeepers call the ruined ferm-toun of Auchnagymlin by the name Glebelands, a common designation for a farm belonging to a church. The old Scots name was The Howe of the Gweemlin. Glebelands isn’t historically accurate but, for the keepers, it makes sense of the sound, and so they apply the living language as they know it. Their knowledge is as sensitive to socio-economic change as the ploughboy cult and, with the loss of family keeper traditions that went back centuries, with economic migration and incoming workers, names get lost, reformed, or ‘translated’.

Even where place-
names are distorted as they cross languages, as long as a name remains in use then it can’t be wrong, even if it is ‘incorrect’. The head-keeper told me of an old keeper who referred to a spot up Wester Sleach by the name Corporal Randy, another adaptation from Gaelic, Coire Poll Randaidh – rather than a scene from Carry on Up The Gairn.
Auchnagymlin was overthrown by gravel in The Muckle Spate (1829) and no longer appears on the OS map. Is it the dominance of property owning that insists on erasing place-names when a dwelling is no longer occupied? It’s a bad idea. The original name is composed from the familiar Gaelic achadh, field, and Peter Drummond saysthe second part could be gilmean, small green knoll or patch of grass, which is apt as a description because the alluvial ground between the forks of the streams, even now 200 years after abandonment, is a striking green amongst the surrounding browns and yellows.’ Peadar Morgan adds a caution that gilmean has only be recorded on Mull previously. Adam Watson suggests the Galic iomlan, which means perfect or complete(d), and may refer to the well-built cattle pens. The Scots howe supports the wee knoll theory, but another possibility is cam-linne, crooked pool, which is true to the course the burn follows. Yet another possibility, preferred by Alexander, is an agricultural meaning, Ach nan comb-iomlaidean, the field of the inter-changing runrigs.

survey of misnames in the wider region

The obsolete name Cairndoor, in Glen Gairn, does sound as if it once meant something, but it is from the Gaelic dobhar – more something to paddle in than a thing you open.

There seems to be cryptic reasoning at play
at tiobhair, a well, when it becomes dipper, at Dipperden.

The Sleepie Hillock is slippy, not fatigued.

Edinglassie is not a wee tumbler from Edinburgh, but some pasture beneath a hill-face.

It’s a bogle or goblin, not a glissando, that was haunting The Buglehole.

Don’t throw your grandmother into the Burn of Granny, its bed is full of gràinne, gravel.

Tyrebagger, from Tir-bogaire, is the land of the boggy place, not suitable for boy racers.

Much as Womblehill sounds like it should be near Wimbledon, it is the wood of millhill, close to Kintore.

You can climb Braestairie, but not by rungs, for it was Bràigh Staire, the stepping-stone brae that saw you safe through a bog.

Craigwatch is not a lookout but an old make-do bridge, the crag of the stick.

The Comers is a confluence, a pleasurable coming together of streams, from the Gaelic, comar.

The Core, by Huntly, is a corrie.

There’s nothing to be frightened about in Scare Wood, unless you fall from the scar, sgor, sharp rock.

Awnfool is from Athan Fuile, the bloody ford, from a fight, which was perhaps foolish.

Fettrnear is from the far Pictish word fothar, a forest.

Badenyacker has a kind of sense, because it is the messanger’s thicket, from Bad an Teachdaire.

Badyground is another thicket, and it is advisable not to plant corn here, as the meaning is wee and ugly, from Badan-grannd.

Clashnearby was close to rhyming slang, for earba, the roe deer.

Pantieland was nothing to get excited about, unless you wanted to pen your cattle.

Nor was Risquehouse, from the Scots reisk, which lacks wetness, for it is a piece of land with a covering of hard dry grass.

If Cleanbrae was clean it was because the water washed it, for it comes from cluain, a riverside meadow.

Foggyton is mossy, like a Fog House, not misty.

King Edward’s writ only runs as far as the Gaelic Cinn-fothair, the end of the slope.

The Roman has stood out in the cold for a long time, for Alexander supposes that his hoary hill is named from reoth, for frost, and mon, monadh, mount.

Let’s you and I meet at night, by The Dualties, where the Burn of Raemurrack and Burn of Cairnie come together; we will be trysting by the black burnie, Dubh Alltan.

The clever man knows not to step on Brain Loan, Bràigh an Lòin, the brae of the bog.

Finnylost is found to have the meaning the marsh of the kneading trough.

It’s hard to say what Naked Hill in Glen Muick could possibly derive from, though Peadar Morgan guesses it may be a stripped back translation of the Gaelic for hill and lom, bare, bleak – perhaps the goosbumped hill?

Hare’s are confusing; rather than loping they refer to boundaries, such as Harlaw, the boundary hill.

Paradise takes me back, for it was a common name in the 18th century for any old planted enclosure.

You might think that Paradise would be near Wineford, but the only thing crossing there are wagons, from the Scots wyne.

There is no confusion in the naming of the Cottage of England: when Charles II visited the nearby castle of
Pitcaple he was reminded of home.
William Alexander: The Place-Names of Aberdeenshire
John R. Allan: North-east Lowlands of Scotland
Margaret Bennett: in Emily Lyle, the persistent scholar
James Coutts: Dictionary of Deeside
Brian Friel: Translations
Robin Gerard: ‘Father Macdhui’, Deeside Field, No. 5, 1930
Peter Drummond: email to AF
Julia Kristeva: Desire in Language
James Macdonald: Place-names of West Aberdeenshire

John Milne: Celtic Place-names in Aberdeenshire
John Murray: Reading the Gaelic Landscape/
Leughadh Aghaidh Na Tire
W.F.H. Nicolaisen: In the Beginning was the Name
Berit Sandnes: ‘Describing Language Contact in Place-names’, in Language Contact in the
Placenames of Britain and Ireland

Robert Smith: The Road to Maggieknockater
Robert Smith: The Royal Glens
Robert Smith: 25 Walks: Deeside
Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside
Adam Watson & Ian Murray: Place-Name Discoveries
on Upper Deeside

Kentucky aside, I don’t have photographs of the locations discussed in this post available at this time. I have illustrated it with a selection of views and details.

Scots Pine: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Heather moor, Allt Connie, Glen Ey
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
River Dee
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Pipers, Braemar Gathering, 2015:
Hannah Devereux, 2015
Creag Ghiuthais from Glen Girnock: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Mist, Glen Gairn
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Creag nam Ban
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Woodland, Deeside
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Pine, Glen Gairn:
Hannah Devereux, 2015
Lochnagar, from Glen Girnock
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Kentucky: Ian Murray, 2003

Lochnagar from Glen Feardar:
Hannah Devereux, 2015
Beehives, Inver:
Hannah Devereux, 2015
Wildflowers, Glen Feardar
Woodland, Creag nam Ban
: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Norman Christie
, Grand Master, The Horseman’s Word, 1926
Auchnagymlin: James Dyas Davidson, 2015
Auchnagymlin: James Dyas Davidson, 2015
Road, Deeside: Hannah Devereux, 2015
: Hannah Devereux, 2015

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.