Scottish Place Names and Their Meanings
A first-time visitor to Scotland can sometimes be a little intimidated by the names of towns and places on the map. Scottish place names are a combination of English, Scots and Gaelic languages, with other influences thrown in as well, so we’ve put together this guide to help visitors to Scotland with the basics.
Ben : A ben is a mountain, and can be pretty much literally translated as “Mount”. Scotland is the most mountainous part of the UK, and the highest mountain in Britain can be found here, at Ben Nevis.
Firth : A firth is a fjord or inlet, the most famous examples in Scotland being The Firth of Forth and the Moray Firth near Inverness.
Inch : In the Scots language, the word “inch” is used very much as in English, as a unit of measurement, but in Scotland, when you see “Inch” on a map, it means an island, as handed down from the Gaelic word innes. An example is Inchkeith, a small island in Fife.
Kyle : A kyle is usually defined as a strait or narrows. For example, Kyle of Lochalsh can be translated as “strait of the foaming lake”.
Loch : This is probably the one geographical term that most visitors to Scotland have heard before they arrive, mostly due to the famous Loch Ness. A loch is more than just a lake, though. In fact, the true definition of loch is a narrow inlet of the sea, which is almost, but not entirely, landlocked.
The Hill Lists : There are five major lists of the hills and mountains in Scotland, which classify them by their height and other criteria. These lists are named after their original compilers, and include the Munros, Corbetts, Donalds, Grahams, and Murdos. Hills aren’t usually named this way, but they are often referred to by their membership in the lists. For example, there are 283 Munros, defined as mountains over 3,000 feet tall.
Prefixes used in place names
Aber- : A remnant of the ancient Brythonic language, the prefix “Aber-” means “the confluence (meeting) of”, usually referring to the river that drains the area. For example, Aberdeen is named for the point that the River Don and River Dee meet and join the ocean. Roughly, Aber + Dee + Don = Aberdeen.
Ach- (or Auch-) : From the Gaelic word achadh, meaning “field”. Ach- is generally a prefix used in the lowlands, whereas Auch- is the highland variety.
Dun- (or Dum-) : This is from the Gaelic for “fort”, and is used in several historically fortified cities like Dundee and Dumbarton.
Drum- : There are several towns in the highlands that begin with this prefix, meaning “ridge” in Gaelic, including Drumnadrochit (“Ridge of the Bridge”)
Inver- : Many Scottish towns begin with this prefix, which comes from the Gaelic inbhir, meaning the mouth of a river. A name beginning in “Inver-” often ends with the name of the river. For example, Inverness lies at the mouth of the River Ness.
Kirk- : As you travel farther north in Scotland, the Norse influence increases and eventually in some places can become a more prominent part of place names than Gaelic. Kirk is the Norse word for church. An example is the largest town on the Orkney Islands, Kirkwall.
For more information on Scottish place names and their origins, check out the official site of the Scottish Place Name Society.