Fairy Mountains of the Gàidhealtachd

The word sìth for ‘fairy mountain’ is less frequent than its diminutive form sìthean, but it is to be found in the names of some significant and beautiful hills.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

Many readers will be aware that the Gaelic word sìthean is often interpreted as ‘fairy knoll’ (and more of those in a future blog) but perhaps non-Gaelic speakers will be less aware that the word is a diminutive, formed by adding a terminal -an to the word sìth in the same way that a lochan is a small loch. So, if a sìthean is a fairy knoll, is a sìth a fairy mountain? Well, yes, actually …

At least, that is the consensus regarding the most famous example – the iconic mountain in Perthshire called Schiehallion in English – an anglicisation of Sìth Chailleann [pron. shee CHAL-yun with CH as in ‘loch’], interpreted by place name expert Professor W.J. Watson as ‘fairy hill of the Caledonians’. With regard to both elements, Sìth Chailleann is a pretty special place name. Cailleann is a direct descendant of an earlier Caledon from which the tribal name Caledones arose, hence Latin Caledonia. It is also found in Dùn Chailleann ‘fort of the Caledonians’ and the nearby Rath Chailleann ‘(ancient) fort of the Caledonians’, anglicised Dunkeld and Rohallion respectively.

© R Maclean.
Schiehallion, viewed from the northern shore of Loch Rannoch, Perthshire, has the classic shape of a sìth. At an altitude of 1083 metres, the mountain, beloved of hillwalkers, is a Munro and lies close to the geographical centre of Scotland. It is also situated in country famous for its folklore, particularly for tales of sìthichean ‘fairies’ and other creatures which are often characterised as products of the Gaelic cultural imagination.

Watson’s contemporary, Alexander Macbain, also made the fairy connection (the creatures are called sìthichean in modern Gaelic), but he pointed out that the word sìth (spelt sìdh in his day) also represents a hill that is conical in shape. And anybody who has viewed Schiehallion end-on across Loch Rannoch is left in no doubt about that. It is hardly surprising that this bold, symmetrical mountain, with a clear summit ridge and somewhat isolated from its neighbours, was chosen for a unique experiment in 1774, funded by the Royal Society, in which the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, set out to determine the mean density of the mountain, and thus of the Earth. No interference by fairies was reported by the scientists, as far as I am aware, but just so that there is no doubt over their historical presence, there is a traditional tale of three old men in Breadalbane who went to visit the fairies of Schiehallion. Two of them showed too little respect to the little people and ended up being severely punished.

So, are there other examples of the non-diminutive sìth in the Gaelic landscape? Yes, although none are as physically impressive as Schiehallion. Much further north, in Strathdearn, are the adjacent and compared hills of Sìth Mòr and Sìth Beag, the former reaching an altitude of 650m. The settlement of Coignashie, one of the famous còigean ‘fifths’ of Strathdearn, is named for these hills. Other local derivatives, Fèith an t-Sìthe ‘the bogstream of the fairy hill’ and Glac an t-Sìthe ‘the hollow of the fairy hill’ prove the masculine gender of sìth, making it likely that Coignashie represents a very old Còig nan Sìth ‘the fifth of the fairy hills’, demonstrating an archaic genitive plural inflexion.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Sìth Mòr ‘large fairy hill’ and Sìth Beag ‘small fairy hill’ adjacent to the Findhorn River in Strathdearn. The settlement of Coignashie – one of the famous five ‘coigs’ of Strathdearn – takes its name from these hills.

West of Inverbeg on Loch Lomond lies another hill known as Sìth Mòr, although it is hardly bigger than a sìthean, but most of Scotland’s remaining sìth place names appear on the map in an anglicised form. On the south side of Loch Tay, and likely readily seen from high on Schiehallion, is a long hill-ridge at around 660m altitude, known as Shee of Ardtalnaig (Sìth Àird Talanaig). Viewed end-on, from the north, it possesses the classic conical mountain shape of a sìth and was known to local Gaelic-speakers as simply An Sìth.

In the other likely sìth examples, the word is combined with another Gaelic generic. Ben Hee (873m), a large multi-summited mountain in mid-Sutherland, is interpreted as Beinn Shìthe ‘fairy hill mountain’. The ‘sh’ letter combination is silent or pronounced like an ‘h’ in front of a vowel, giving us the anglicised form Hee. Near its summit, the maps encourage us in this interpretation by naming a part of the mountain Sìthean Liath nam Peithirean ‘the light-grey fairy hill of the foresters or gamekeepers’. Another example is the 516-metre-high Ben Shee in the Ochil Hills near Stirling, anglicised from Beinn Sìthe ‘fairy mountain’, the ‘S’ in this cased being unlenited. This hill also has the classic shape of an isolated sìth.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Ben Shee in the Ochil Hills, central Scotland. This is interpreted as ‘fairy mountain’ by Angus Watson in his volume ‘The Ochils: Placenames, History and Tradition’ (Perth and Kinross District Libraries, 1995).

Far to the north-east, Cairnshee Wood is to be found on an isolated and somewhat conical hill, south-east of Banchory in Aberdeenshire. Earlier maps show the hill as Cairnshee or – in the case of Roy’s military map of the 1750s – as Karnshee. This strongly suggests a Gaelic original of Càrn Sìthe ‘fairy hill’ with the generic càrn taking the place of beinn, an unsurprising situation in the Gaelic toponymy of north-eastern Scotland.

© R Maclean. Ben Tee, Glengarry, viewed from the north. In shape it has all the hallmarks of a sìth.

Finally, Ben Tee, to the south of Loch Garry in Glengarry (south-west of Loch Ness) has been the source of debate, with some early cartographers giving it as Ben Tigh ‘house mountain’. But Edward C. Ellice in ‘Place Names of Glengarry and Glenquoich’ (first published 1898) prefers the ‘fairy’ explanation, and he is supported by the local Gaelic scholar, Father Henry Cyril Dieckhoff who gives Beinn an t-Sìth in his ‘Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic’ (Gairm 1992). Dieckhoff collected material from Gaelic-speakers native to the locality, and his conclusion should be given considerable weight. Ellice tells us the summit was long known as ‘Glengarry’s Bowling Green’, and it is given this strange appellation on Roy’s map. Ellice goes on to write, ‘There is scarcely a square yard of green of any sort, and the steep and rocky sides would not conduce much to a game of bowls, but by some it is supposed that the fairies who haunt the Ben were wont to join in the game, hoisting the balls over the rough rocks, and racing down the hillside after those that had gone astray.’ It doesn’t sound much like the sport of lawn bowls as this author knows it! Perhaps there was a touch of irony in the Bowling Green reference…?

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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