Stones with special names and stories – in and around the Highland capital – are among the treasures highlighted in a new book published by NatureScot.
As the author of the recently published ‘Place-Names of Inverness and Surrounding Area’, I admit to finding it difficult to identify the most interesting or remarkable toponyms (out of more than 570 in the book) in this part of Scotland – my own home for many years. Nevertheless, I have chosen to highlight a handful of place-names that include the Gaelic element clach ‘stone’. A bodach once famously said – ‘if only the stones could speak, what stories they would tell’. Well, sometimes they do speak to us through their names and the traditions connected to them. Mere lumps of rock they might be, but they have borne witness to the comings and goings of people over many centuries and they can remind us of who our ancestors were and, to some extent, who we are today.
The area covered in the book consists of a rectangle of country centred on Inverness, ranging from Kirkhill in the west to Ardersier in the east, and running south from the Moray Firth to beyond Abriachan and including most of Loch Duntelchaig. In terms of toponymy, the whole area, including Inverness, is dominated by Gaelic. In terms of history, one pivotal event stands out, and I encountered it repeatedly in my researches – the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.
Of course, there are many stones on the battlefield of Culloden, some of which mark clan graves – and there is the famous roadside Cumberland Stone upon which the eponymous duke is reputed to have stood while observing the mayhem and slaughter. However, it is a shoulder-height stone in Strathnairn – unmarked, untracked and now surrounded by coniferous forest – that for me (finding it on an atmospherically quiet, misty day) provided the most powerful memento of that awful battle. It is Clach an Airm, locally translated as ‘the stone of the arms’, which reputedly received its name from being visited by members of Clan Chattan in order to sharpen their swords before joining the Jacobite army at Culloden.
There are two other remarkable stones in Strathnairn, both of which have notable stories attached to them. The first is Clach Cailleach nam Muc ‘the stone of the old woman of the pigs’ near Achvaneran which is reputed to be the site of the death of a woman who was famous for travelling with her pigs and for being eaten by them (although a charitable interpretation is that she became pig-food only after dying of natural causes). It is likely that the cailleach was a native of Stratherrick who lived in the 19th century, and who would walk her pigs to market in Inverness, taking nightly shelter under the stone which sits above the local farms in a birchwood on a rocky hill.
The third Strathnairn stone in the book has a much older heritage, if oral tradition is to be believed. It is Clach na Brataich ‘the stone of the flag or banner’ and, unlike the other examples, it is not natural but has been heavily worked by human hand. Roundish and flat with a hole in the middle and appearing like an oversized and unfinished millstone, it sits near the southern end of Loch Ashie – a location which is pertinent to its name, for in oral tradition it is regarded as the anchor point for a flagpole which carried the banner of the forces of the Fianna during their bloody battle against the Scandinavian prince, Ashie. The history, of course, is highly suspect (the legendary heroes known as the Fianna roamed the Gaelic lands of Scotland and Ireland centuries before the Vikings appeared on these shores), but the oral tradition persists, and there are reports of ghostly soldiers belonging to opposing armies being seen in the vicinity of Loch Ashie even in modern times.
Beyond Strathnairn, to the north, another fascinating stone is Clach an Àbain ‘the stone of the backwater or silted-up channel’, which sits in glorious isolation in the middle of Petty Bay. Its claim to fame rests on it being moved more than 200 metres by an unseen hand on the 20th of February 1799 (its original and subsequent positions being marked on old Ordnance Survey maps). Not only that, but the occurrence had been reputedly predicted years before by the minister at Petty, the Rev. John Morrison, who had the dà-shealladh ‘second sight’. Was the translocation an act of God or was the unseen hand a sheet of ice in bitterly cold weather that picked up the stone and moved it seawards with the ebbing tide and a roaring southerly ‘hurricane’?!
To the west of the Ness, there are also stones which are famous in the history of the town of Inverness. One is Clachnahagaig, originally east of the river and removed during the building of the Caledonian Canal, which involved diverting the river eastwards. While the original stone no longer exists, its ‘replacement’ – a carved stone marker – still referred to by anglers as the ‘Clachnahagaig Stone’ – lies between the river and the Caledonian Canal close to Torvean and marks the southern extent of the town’s (public) fishings on the Ness. The salmon fishing rights of the townsfolk were confirmed by royal charter in 1591, a document in which Clachnahagaig is named. The original Gaelic is unclear – it might be Clach na h-Eagaig ‘the stone of the small notch’ but other recorded forms challenge that option.
The old village of Clachnaharry, now at the northern extremity of the Caledonian Canal, is also named for a stone, but its meaning is likewise contested. Some favour Clach na h-Aire ‘the watch stone’ – as it was a location to keep watch for incursions into Inverness from the north, but the earliest record is that of the Rev. James Fraser in the 17th century Wardlaw Manuscript who claimed it to be Clach na h-Aithrigh ‘the repentance stone’, a place for sinners’ pennance when Catholicism still held sway.
But perhaps it is fitting that the last mention of the clach names in the book is of an ancient stone in the very heart of Inverness itself. Sitting outside the Town House, once the nerve-centre of local government in the Highland Capital, is Clach na Cùdainn ‘the stone of the tub’, at one time considered to be the single most important artefact which claimed the affections, and represented the identity, of Invernessians. To some it was Inverness’s version of the palladium of Troy that kept the Greek city safe. Originally situated closer to the river, the flat, smooth stone was a location where the women of the town ‘were wont in ancient days to rest their water pails in passing to and from the river’ and was thus a focal point for socialising and exchanging news and gossip. Its name (in the original Gaelic form rather than the anglicised ‘Clachnacuddin’) is chiselled into the base in which it is protected but it seems to me that few Invernessians are aware of the stone today, and that most people who walk past the front door of the Town House are oblivious to its existence. If ‘Place-Names of Inverness and Surrounding Area’ helps to make more people aware of the stones – with names and stories that link us to our past – that pepper the landscape of the Highland capital and its environs – then the current author will consider his labours to have been worthwhile!
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.
The publication can be downloaded from NatureScot’s website and a limited number of printed copies are available via the Gaelic Books Council’s website. We are grateful to Bòrd na Gàidhlig for funding this project.
A virtual lecture of the research findings is scheduled for September and will be publicised in due course.