Kings and Queens in the Gaelic Landscape

Roddy Maclean looks at Gaelic ‘royal’ names in Scotland’s landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

Kings and queens have been with us for a long time in most parts of Europe, so it is hardly surprising that they have found their way into the terminology connected to nature and landscape. The same, of course, is true in English, where we have queen bees and monarch butterflies, as well as places such as Queensferry and Queen’s View at Loch Tummel. Incidentally, the last named has been the subject of a myth – that it was named for Queen Victoria who delighted in the view when she visited the site in 1866. Forestry and Land Scotland, who run the visitor centre there, insist that it was named for Isabella, the first wife of Robert the Bruce and, certainly, the name appears on the first Ordnance Survey 6-inch map which was surveyed in 1861-2. We should beware of royal myths in our landscape!

Royal references also occur in the Gaelic landscape, although they appear to be considerably less frequent than are found where the English language has been toponymically active. The Gaelic for ‘king’ is rìgh (pronounced ‘REE’) but the similarity to the important landscape term ruigh(e) ‘slope, flat ground at the base of a hill, shieling’ might have invoked some Gaelic myth-making (and the Ordnance Survey routinely, but unhelpfully, avoid accenting the ‘i’ in rìgh). The classic case is the ‘capital’ of the Isle of Skye – Portree – which is said to derive from Port Rìgh ‘king’s harbour’, the nomenclature being based on a visit by King James V in 1540. However, this blogger has heard natives of the island pronounce the name ‘Port Ruighe(adh)’ ‘harbour of [the] slope’ and many people feel that the modern name, officially Port Rìgh, is a ‘royalist reinterpretation’!

Set against that are two other places in Scotland called Port Rìgh where the king is identified. One is no longer on maps, as it is the ancient name for Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway; it has been connected to the Irish king Lugaid mac Con who was banished from Ireland, but in around 250AD gathered a fleet, along with the Scots and Britons, at Port Rìgh. The other is at Carradale in Kintyre, and is still present on maps. It is said to be where Robert the Bruce landed in Kintyre after his journey from Bute.

Nearly opposite the latter, on the Isle of Arran, is Uamh an Rìgh, given as King’s Cave on maps and connected locally with the Bruce; two nearby hills are Tòrr Rìgh Mòr and Tòrr Rìgh Beag. However, the cave was anciently Uamh Fhinn ‘Fionn’s cave’, named for the pan-Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhail; the Bruce connection appears to be relatively modern.

Port Rìgh ‘king’s harbour’ on Kilbrannan Sound at Carradale (Kintyre) reputedly commemorates the landing there of Robert the Bruce. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Between Dingwall and Strathpeffer, there is Coille an Rìgh ‘the king’s wood’ but the doyen of Scottish place-name scholars, William J. Watson, tells us this is ‘really Coille Ruighe “wood of the slope”.’ Another similar example is a collection of ‘ree’ names near Corran Ferry, south of Fort William. Gleann Righ and Abhainn Righ appear to represent ‘king’s glen’ and ‘king’s river’, along with the anglicised Inchree ‘king’s pasture land’. However, despite the royal connection (perhaps back to Robert the Bruce himself) being promoted by Lochaber bard and Gaelic activist, Mary Mackellar, in the 19th century, the earliest forms of this name – Inisruy – suggest Innis Ruighe ‘pasture of the slope’, pronounced locally as Innis Righe. True royal names in the Gaelic landscape are perhaps a little more elusive than at first sight!

One name that surely references a king rather than a slope, however, is Allt Mhic an Rìgh ‘the burn of the son of the king’ in the wild country south-east of Dalwhinnie in Badenoch. The king here is unnamed, but this blogger suspects the toponym might date back to the time of Alexander Stewart, son of King Robert II, who became infamous in English as ‘The Wolf of Badenoch’, but whose Gaelic moniker was Alasdair Mòr Mac an Rìgh ‘big Alexander, son of the king’. He would have known this country well, and the burn lies close to an old route between the northern and southern Highlands.

Allt Mhic an Rìgh ‘the burn of the king’s son’ in the Gaick Forest, Badenoch. The oddly named Vinegar Hill (in the midst of a pure Gaelic landscape) is a corruption of the Gaelic A’ Mhin-choiseachd ‘the easy walking’.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

However, there are other toponyms where the identity of the king who is referenced must remain elusive in the absence of further research. Examples are Beinn an Rìgh ‘the king’s mountain’ in Trotternish, Skye, and two maritime promontories called Rubha an Rìgh ‘the point of the king’ – one on the coast of Knapdale and the other on Calve Island near Tobermory on Mull.

There are several hills known as Càrn an Rìgh (interpreted today as ‘the king’s hill’, whether or not that is their true origin). One is north-east of Killicrankie in Highland Perthshire and has been notionally linked to kings as diverse as Malcolm Canmore and James VI, both of whom hunted deer in the area, but centuries apart. An early map reference to Càrn an Rìgh west of Loch Eriboll in northern Sutherland suggests that the second element might actually be frìth ‘deer forest’ (treated as a masculine noun rather than its usual feminine). A few miles away, near Sandwood Bay, is yet another Càrn an Rìgh, where the royal reference remains unexplained.

Further to the east, in Strathnaver, folklore explains Clach an Rìgh ‘the king’s stone’, which is actually the remains of an ancient stone circle that commemorates a battle. It is near Dalharrold ‘field of Harald’ and close to two river pools on the Naver known as Poll Harraild Mòr and Poll Harraild Beag, the large and small pools of Harald, reputedly named for Harald Maddadson, the 12th century Norse Earl of Orkney and Mormaer of Caithness who led a Norse army to defeat here against a Scottish force in the late 1190s. The nearby Blàr na Fola ‘the field or plain of the blood’ also recalls the event. Another reference to a ‘Scandinavian’ King Harald is the rocky hill Creag Rìgh Tharailt near Kincraig in Badenoch. Local tradition says that he died on this hill during a battle.

The Ordnance Survey Name Book links Eilean an Rìgh ‘the king’s island’ on Loch Laggan to the Scottish monarch ‘King Fergus’; the ruins on the island are said to have been his hunting lodge, and he is reputed to have kennelled his dogs on the nearby Eilean nan Con ‘the island of the dogs’. Further south in Argyll, the royal personages named in Eilean Rìgh in Loch Craignish and the tiny Eilean an Rìgh off the coast of Ulva remain unidentified.

The Gaelic for ‘queen’ is banrigh, but the word is much less in evidence in the landscape than its masculine equivalent. The best-known example is Sròn na Banrigh ‘the queen’s hill [literally ‘nose’]’ at the head of Glenfeshie in Badenoch (the Gaelic scholar and Glenfeshie native, Alexander Macbain, tells it was locally pronounced ‘Sròn na Bàruinn’). Macbain takes up the tale: ‘the tradition … has it that the wicked Queen Mary set fire to the old Badenoch forest. She felt offended at her husband’s pride in the great forest – he had asked once on his home return how his forests were before he asked about her. So she came north, took her station on the top of [Sròn na Banrigh] and there gave orders to set the woods on fire.’ Historians pick many holes in this unlikely tale, including the identification of the eponymous queen as Mary Queen of Scots.

Sròn na Banrigh at the head of Glenfeshie in Badenoch. Oral tradition claims this as the site of a royally-ordered destruction by fire of one of the finest pieces of Caledonian pine forest in the kingdom. The tale is likely to be apocryphal, although tales abound of the burning of Highland forests. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

If the given or regnal name of the king or queen in a place-name is largely missing from the Gaelic landscape, there is one place in the Gàidhealtachd that carries an English name that is unequivocal. It is Victoria Falls near Slattadale on the shores of Loch Maree, named for Queen Victoria following her visit there in 1877. The queen herself is said to have been rather unimpressed by the stature of the falls and one suspects that she might have been comparing them to the magnificent waterfall of the same name on the Zambezi River in Africa!

And while the castle at Both Mhoireil (Balmoral) is in the midst of a Gaelic landscape, the royal additions, in the shape of cairns commemorating various persons, are all named in English. If the late queen is to be commemorated there with a memorial, might this particular citizen suggest it be in the form of a Highland cairn and known as Càrn Ealasaid?

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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