Gaelic  place names are an important reminder of how widely Scotland's "second language" was spoken, a linguistic expert has said.

Dr Simon Taylor, one of Scotland's leading place-name specialists, said many people are not aware that Gaelic had strong links to areas including Galloway and Carrick, in South Ayrshire, until as late as the 17th century.

He was educated in Fife where the language was "completely invisible" in the Scottish education system despite the fact the vast majority of place names have Gaelic origins such as Markinch, from Marc Innis, which translates as horse meadow.

"The only areas in Scotland where there are no Gaelic place names are Berwickshire, Orkney, Shetland and part of Caithness," said Dr Taylor, who is a reader in Scottish Name Studies at the University of Glasgow.

The Munro mountains, with their evocative translations, are where many people have their first encounter with Gaelic and can often spark a life-long interest in the language, he says.


(Buachaille Etive Mor, which translates as the 'Great Herdsman of Etive' in Gaelic)

According to local folklore shepherds walking on Beinn Alligin (jewelled mountain) in Torridan would hear cries from the great cleft which cuts into the ridge of the summit known as Eag Dhubh na h-Eigheachd or Eag Dhubh na h-Eigheachd or 'black gash of the wailing'.

"Place names can tell us so much about the past," says Dr Taylor, who learned Gaelic as an adult.


"Not just about language, they tell us about landscapes, social structures, land ownership, flora and fauna.

"It's a bit like detective work to get an idea where the name came from and sometime even to work out what language it was.

"As somebody who is very interested in language and landscape it fascinates me - they are a wonderful bridge between the two."

Place names are the main evidence for Gaelic's dominance across Scotland up until around the 12th century, he says.

"In many places like Fife, we really wouldn't know that Gaelic was spoken here unless we look at the place-names because so many are of Gaelic origin.

"There is no record of Gaelic being spoken [here] so they are very important in that regard."

Based on medieval traditional accounts and evidence from linguistic geography, Gaelic has been commonly believed to have been brought to Scotland, in the 4th–5th centuries CE, by settlers from Ireland who founded the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata on Scotland's west coast in present-day Argyll.

The reasons for Gaelic's demise is a complex picture that varies from region to region, says the academic.


"In the Scottish Lowlands, it was Scots that pushed Gaelic out - in places like Fife quite early on - but when you get down to Galloway and Carrick you are talking about the 16th of 17th century.

"When you get to that stage we do have other records that tell us what was being spoken. 

"In the Highlands, it's a different story. It came much later, the demise of Gaelic and it was definitely English that pushed it out."

For those keen to learn more, Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba (Gaelic Place Names of Scotland), should be your first port of call, says Dr Taylor.

The national authority is responsible for the bilingual road and railway signs which have proved controversial  amid concerns over their cost and alleged road safety impact.


Figures show the only costs for the introduction of Gaelic to Scotrail railway station signs was £1,646.25 in 2010 paid to the patents office for trademark protection of several elements of the ScotRail brand.

A freedom of information (FOI) request response revealed that since 2002, just two complaints have been made about the signs to the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland, which runs the trunk road network.

"It [the signs] are very important given that Gaelic is Scotland's second language," said Dr Taylor.

"It's a signal of how important Gaelic was and still is."

The new National Gaelic Language Plan sets the goal that “all sectors will ensure that children in Scotland are provided with an opportunity to learn, and learn about, Gaelic as an [second or third language]”.

Jim Whannel,  director of Gaelic education at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, says teaching Gaelic in secondary schools is not about producing fluent Gaelic speakers but enabling more people to understand why Gaelic is important and what it means to the country.

"I'm very aware that being educated in Fife, there was absolutely no mention of Gaelic," said Dr Taylor.

"I'm going back a bit - it was the 1960s and '70s -  but it was completely invisible.

"That is changing but it does show you how invisible Gaelic was for many Scots until quite recently."

Of course, place names also tell us about all the other languages that were spoken in Scotland including Pictish, a Celtic language more closely related to Welsh which came before Gaelic and was spoken everywhere north of the Forth Clyde line.


"Scotland is actually one of the most complex countries in Northern Europe linguistically," says Dr Taylor.

"Pictish and Gaelic would have existed side by side for a time and then Gaelic came in as the dominant language.

"If you get down to southern Scotland, Lothian and Lanarkshire you've got another closely related language called Northern Brettonic.

"You've got a very diverse picture of languages coming through. You've also got old English in the south, because it was part of the Kingdown of Northumbria up until the 8th or 9th century."

He said a group of names, coined in the 18th century in Scots which allude to the inhospitable land are among his favourites.

"You get names like  Hungerimout or Hungeremout - hunger him/them out or coldwakning - wakening up cold," said the academic.

"There's one that sounds grim - Blackreckoning near Lesmahagow - but it was in fact a Gaelic name which has been changed into something Scots-speakers understood - so a Gaelic name in Scots clothing.

"Drumbrochan - a farm near Cumnock in Ayrshire - is a Gaelic name which means 'porridge ridge' and was probably a reference to the consistency of the soil." 

He added: "I like names that refer to features that are no longer there.

"Kinloch, near Collessie in Fife, means 'head of the loch' but the loch is now" long gone."