Reading the Map of Scotland
For instance, the earliest known inhabitants of Scotland – the Picts – who settled mostly in the eastern part of the country, left behind place names beginning in Pit-, such as Pitlochry in Pertshire, Pittenweem in the Kingdom of Fife, and Pitmedden in Aberdeenshire. The root pit- is thought to mean ‘portion, share, farm’ in Pictish, so these towns must have started as Pictish farms. Other place-name elements believed to have Pictish origins include “aber” as in Aberdeen and Aberfeldy, meaning ‘a confluence of two rivers or a river mouth’; “pert” as in Perth and Larbert, meaning ‘hedge’; “carden” as in Pluscarden and Kincardine, meaning ‘thicket’; and “pevr” as in Strathpeffer, Peffery, meaning ‘shining’. These roots are said to have cognates in other Celtic languages, most notably Welsh. For example, “aber” appears in such Welsh place names as Aberystwith. This hypothesized connection between Pictish and Welsh means that Pictish belonged to the P-Celtic (or Brythonic) branch of the family (which also includes Cornish and Breton). But alternatives theories on the classification of Pictish abound. One such theory places Pictish within the Q-Celtic (or Goidelic) branch, which includes Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. Another possibility is that Pictish was a Germanic tongue originating in Scandinavia. Moreover, studies of ogham inscriptions found in Pictish areas and cultural practices thought to be practiced by Picts, such as matriliny, suggest that Picts predate the arrival of Indo-Europeans to the British Isles.
The second group to settle in Scotland were the Scots, a Celtic tribe that gave the country its modern name but which originated in what is today Northern Ireland. The Scots, who settled mainly in the west, changed “Aber” to “Inver”, producing such place names as Inverness, Inverkeithing, and Invergarry. The Scots also created place names begining in Kin-, which means ‘high point’, such as Kinross, Kintail, and Kinlochewe. One of the common town names in Scotland is Kincardine, which bears witness to a peaceful coexistence of Picts and Scots: here the Goidelic Celtic kin- combines with the abovementioned Pictish -carden, meaning ‘thicket’.
Two other groups inhabiting southern Scotland were Britons, close relatives of the Welsh, who spoke a P-Celtic language, and Angles, a Germanic-speaking group whose name gave rise to “England”. The Angles settled in what is now southeastern Scotland, where they bequeathed town names ending in -burg or -burgh, such as Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Jedburgh, and others. They also settled further south, in what is now northeastern and eastern England, as far south as East Anglia.
Northern and western Scotland, like northern England, bears the footprints of the Vikings, another Germanic-speaking group hailing from Scandinavia. The first Viking incursion into Scotland – an attack on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides – occurred in 794 CE. The Viking imprint helps explain some otherwise perplexing place names. For example, the northernmost part of Scotland is called Southerland, or ‘southern land’, which seems odd indeed from a strictly British perspective. From the Scandinavian point of view, however, this was indeed “the land of the south”, located in the southern part of the Vikings’ domain. Thus, place names tell us who were the people that founded this or that settlement or area.
Other landscape features in Scotland – mountains, valleys, rivers – typically have Celtic names. For example, many mountain names contain ben-, meaning ‘mountain’. For example, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain not only of Scotland but of the United Kingdom as a whole. Names of cliffs or particularly steep slopes usually contain “craig” or “crag”: for example, the hill upon which the Wallace Monument in Stirling stands is called Abbey Craig, and the hill near the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh is called Salisbury Crags. Lesser hills are often called “brae”, as in Scara Brae on the Orkney Islands, site of the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in the British Isles.
As with mountains, valleys too are divided into categories. The toponym most commonly encountered is “glen”, as in Glen Shiel, Great Glen, and Glencoe. Another Celtic word for ‘valley’ found in Scottish toponyms is strath-, as in Strathspey and Strathclyde. The main difference between a “strath” and a “glen” is that the former is wide and shallow (and often features a wide river), as opposed to a “glen” which is typically long, deep, and often glacially U-shaped.
Terms for rivers and streams are often incorporated into toponyms. Thus, a Celtic term for stream is “burn”, as in Bannockburn near Stirling, a place where one of the most important battles of the Anglo-Scottish wars took place. The estuary of a river is called “firth”, as in Firth of Forth in the Kingdom of Fife. A narrowing of the river is called “kyle”, as in Kyle of Lochalsh. Perhaps the best known Scottish toponym component, widely associated with landscape of Scotland, is “loch”. It is often translated into other languages as ‘lake’, though this is not always correct, as a loch can be either a fresh-water lake or a fjord-like narrow sea gulf. The biggest Lochs in Scotland are Loch Lomond and Loch Ness: the former is the largest in area and the latter the largest in volume.
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