Bearing Down on Ursid Toponyms

Wild bears have long gone from Scotland’s landscape but echoes of them remain in our place-names …

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It’s far from clear when European brown bears became extinct in Scotland, but it wasn’t yesterday, and it is therefore fascinating that there are several Scottish place-names that might recall in some way or other a human familiarity with those iconic mammals. Ecologist Dr David Hetherington, an expert on extinct species once native to these shores, says that we know ‘from a scattering of bones left behind in caves and peat bogs, from Dumfriesshire in the south to Caithness in the north, that Scotland once had brown bears. The youngest Scottish bear bone so far carbon-dated, a femur found in the bone caves near Inchnadamph in the North West Highlands, is around 2700 years old.’ A fascinating corollary to this narrative is that one of the possible ‘bear’ place-names in Scotland is very close to the Inchnadamph caves.

European brown bear and cubs in Finland, ©Danny Green Photography.

Of course, these remains recall an ursid presence in our environment that pre-dates our place-names by some distance, but we do know that bears occurred here into historic times. Caledonian bears were taken by the Romans to appear in public entertainments in the Colosseum, and the animal appears on Pictish stone carvings from around the 8th and 9th centuries AD. David Hetherington speculates that the species survived here until the 15th or 16th centuries. In Carmina Gadelica Vol II, the folklore-collector Alexander Carmichael claims that ‘the bear was common in Scotland down to 1545, probably later’ although he offers no evidence to back this up. He recorded incantations and fragments of Gaelic poetry which mention the bear.

Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the corrie of the bear’, north-west of Loch Lyon, as shown on the 1st edition 6 inch OS map, published 1867-74. Was this a place where bears once sheltered among the rocks and moraines?

The old Gaelic term for ‘bear’, also recorded in Irish, is math-ghamhainn. This is found in the saying chuireadh e an òrrais air math-ghamhainn ‘it would sicken a bear’ (i.e. it’s extremely bad). Gamhainn means a ‘stirk’ (a yearling bullock or heifer), but the first element math is a matter of disagreement among etymologists. Some authorities claim it to be derived from mad/mat ‘dog, mastiff’ which we still see in modern madadh ‘wild dog’ e.g. madadh-ruadh ‘fox’. Thus ‘dog-stirk’ – a reflection, perhaps, of the bear’s broadly bovine form combined with a doglike head-shape and dentition. Carmichael, on the other hand, considered the element to be màg ‘hand, paw’ i.e. màg-ghamhainn ‘paw-stirk’, also a name that would make descriptive sense, particularly given the bear’s inclination towards occasional bipedalism. In this contention, he was supported by Alexander Forbes, the author of ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts etc’ (1905).

The word math-ghamhainn appears in its genitive (possessive) form math-ghamhna in at least three places in the Highland landscape. The first is in Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the corrie of the bear’ adjacent to Beinn a’ Chreachain and north-west of Loch Lyon in Perthshire. No other toponyms in the vicinity give a hint as to why the bear is named here, although there are two other mammalian place-names nearby – Coire na Saobhaidhe ‘the corrie of the [fox] den’ and Sgòr nam Broc ‘the rocky projection of the badgers’, suggesting suitable local habitat for mammalian lairs. The word sid for ‘a lair, as of a bear’, recorded by Perthshire man Robert Armstrong in his 1825 Gaelic dictionary, appears – sadly – not to be present in the landscape in Perthshire or elsewhere, at least on printed maps.

Eilean Math-ghamhna ‘bear island’, Loch Fyne, Argyll. Detail from the 2nd edition 6 inch OS map, 1900.

Another math-ghamhainn example is to be found in a remote location in Morar, in the hills between Lochs Morar and Beoraid. Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the lochan of the bog of the bear’, given on the first OS 6-inch map – published in 1876 – and reinforced as a ‘bear’ name in the OS Name Book, is now labelled Lochan Tàin MhicDhùghaill ‘the lochan of the plundering of MacDugald’, recalling a tale from oral tradition of a local man who was torn asunder by a pack of greyhounds. There is an addendum to the discovery of the older name – the nearest significant peak to the east of the lochan is Sgùrr an Ursainn (817m) which has been translated (without explanation) as ‘the peak of the doorpost’. However, as ursainn is a feminine noun, Sgùrr na h-Ursainn would be expected. To the current author, the toponym looks suspiciously like Sgùrr an Ursain ‘the peak of the (male) bear’, with the masculine gender of ursan satisfying the grammar.

This is the only possible ursan toponym that the author has so far found in the Gaelic landscape. The word, while not particularly active within the modern Gaelic community, is recorded in dictionaries for ‘male bear’, as is its feminine counterpart ursag for ‘female bear’ and the generic ursa for both genders. These words are clearly cognate with the Latin for ursids – the European brown bear, Ursus arctos, derives its generic and specific namesfrom the Latin and Ancient Greek words for bear.

The third math-ghamhainn example in the landscape is the small tidal islet of Eilean Math-ghamhna ‘bear island’ at Newton Bay on the southern shore of Loch Fyne in Cowal, Argyll (often referred to today as Newton Island). The Ordnance Survey confirm the meaning but provide no explanation. It might refer to a perception of the island, or part of it, resembling a bear, but the presence of a prehistoric dun on the tiny outcrop suggests the possibility that the reference is to a human personal name – perhaps a warrior connected with the ancient fort.

Bear Craig, east of Moffat at NT192053, is named for the Bear Den, a subterranean passage reputedly once the home of bears. Detail from 2nd edn. OS 6 inch map (pub. 1900).

Certainly, ‘bear’ forenames were relatively common in the Celtic world. Math-ghamhainn and a reduced form – mathan – which is the everyday Gaelic word for bear today, were used as male given names in both Ireland and Scotland (as was Björn ‘bear’ in the realm of the Norse). It provides us with the surname Mac Mhathain ‘Mathan’s son’ – Matheson in its anglicised form. There is another familiar Gaelic name that means ‘bear’ – Art or Artair (anglicised Arthur). This is perhaps better known in a P-Celtic context, with the standard Welsh for ‘bear’ being arth. Place-names in arth/art/artair do not appear to occur in the Highland landscape.

However, there is an interesting adjunct to this bear-name on Loch Fyne-side. In the traditional tale ‘The Macleans of the White-Faced Horse’, collected by John Dewar in the 19th century, a wild beast and its offspring are killed at Stronardron at the upper end of Glendaruel, some 8km in a direct line from Eilean Math-ghamhna. The Gaelic word used for the creature is beithir, often translated as ‘serpent’ or even ‘dragon’ and usually taken as representing a mythological wild beast. However, Armstrong’s 1825 dictionary gives the primary meaning of beithir as ‘bear’ (there is a clear similarity between the two words). The storyteller recounts the tale as if it were a record of a real event which had occurred sixteen generations prior to 1863. If we take 25 years as a generation-span, that might place a family of living bears in Argyll in the mid-15th century; 30 years per generation would take us back to mid-14th century. Were bears still living in Cowal at that time? Was the island perhaps a place where a persecuted ursid made its last stand against human enemies? More research is needed!

Allt Mhathain, Assynt – an enigmatic name which appears to mean ‘bear burn’.

The element mathan appears in two locations in Assynt (north-west Sutherland). The first is Allt Mhathain (presumably for Allt a’ Mhathain ‘the burn of the bear’). This small stream meanders from Loch na Bà Brice ‘the loch of the speckled cow’ to meet Abhainn Gleann Leireag near the village of Nedd (An Nead). Intriguingly, it is not far distant from the famous Bone Caves at Creag nan Uamh ‘the crag of the caves’ in Inchnadamph, where significant discoveries were made of prehistoric bear bones. There does not appear to be a local tradition with regard to the name, and the Ordnance Survey do not proffer a suggestion in their Name Book, stating that the meaning of the toponym is ‘unknown’.

European brown bear, also known as Eurasian brown bear, in Norway, ©Kjartan Trana/Rovdata.

The second Assynt name is even more convincing. Cnoc Eilid Mhathain (altitude 470m) appears to mean ‘hill of the she-bear’ (eilid is normally reserved for the hind of the red deer but its use for other large mammals in the past is quite possible). Its location demands attention. It is a very short distance – a mere bear-ramble – from the bone caves at Creag nan Uamh. Not only that, but the mountain midway between Cnoc Eilid Mhathain and the caves is called Beinn nan Cnàimhseag (570m). This translates as ‘the mountain of the bearberries’ – a species known to be a favourite bear-food (it has the scientific name Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). The plant is relatively abundant in this part of the country; indeed, a short distance to the south-west there is Druim nan Cnàimhseag ‘the ridge of the bearberries’. This evidence – and the fact that it is the more ‘modern’ element mathan, rather than math-ghamhainn, that is found here, tempts one to suggest that Assynt might have been the place where Scottish bears made their final stand.

One other possible ‘bear’ toponym is in southern Scotland, to the east of Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway. Bear Craig (altitude 495 m) is in an area whose place-names are of Cumbric, Gaelic and Scots origin, and where the languages have interacted substantially in a landscape context. Bear Craig is likely to be Scots, although craig ‘rocky hill’ is probably a Gaelic loanword (from creag). It appears to have been a bear location, if we accept the validity of the oral tradition. The hill is above a feature named Bear Den which is described as follows in the Ordnance Survey Name Book: ‘A small subterranean passage about 20 feet long; its western entrance is about 3 feet square, its eastern entrance about 3 feet, and is about 6 feet square in the middle. It is supposed – by tradition – to have been the den of bears, when this country was infested with wild beasts.’

Two details from the 1st edition 6-inch OS map that show the proximity of three ‘bear’ locations in Assynt. Beinn nan Cnàimhseag ‘the mountain of the bearberries’ is halfway between Creag nan Uamh, where discoveries of ancient bear bones were made, and Cnoc Eilid Mhathain, probably meaning ‘hill of the she-bear’.

There is another identical Scots (or Scottish Standard English) place-name – Bear Craig – on the Isle of Bute, but in this case, the feature is a seashore rock, and it is not clear if there is truly a connection with bears. Toponymist Gilbert Márkus, in his comprehensive publication ‘The Place-Names of Bute’ (2012), admits to being unable to explain the name, but notes the following (p 305-6): ‘It may refer to the perceived similarity of the shape of the rock, or some part of it, to a bear. Another possibility is that it contains a reference to Sc bere ‘barley’ – though why a rocky coastal point such as this should be associated with barley would be a puzzle.’ Similarly, the place-name Bearsden – a town in East Dunbartonshire – remains unexplained but is unlikely to be connected to wild bears. And other ‘bear’ names in south-western Scotland, such as Bearburn and Bearmeal Knowe are most likely derived from bere, which was once commonly cultivated.

There are stellar constellations, visible in the night sky, which are often referred to, from a Latin perspective, as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (‘the greater and lesser bears’). In Gaelic, those are, respectively, An Crann-arain ‘the baker’s shovel’ and An Dreagbhod ‘the meteor constellation’. In the Gaelic view of the universe, there are no bears in the heavens. But there just might be a few clinging on to our cultural landscape on Earth.

Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the loch of the bog of the bear’ in Morar – a fascinating name (if obsolete on modern maps) which might have an echo close by in Sgùrr an Ursain(n).

N.B. If you have any additional information on Scottish ‘bear’ place-names, the author would be pleased to hear from you (

Maps: all maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

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