What’s in an Argyll place name?

The village of Achnamara sits on the edge of Knapdale Forest at the head of Loch Sween.

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Place names are so much part of our everyday surroundings we forget that they can tell us something about local history.

These names could give a clue to former occupations or work practices, to a person closely associated with the location or simply be a perfect, short-form description of that place in physical or topographical terms.

Looking into the wide diversity of names to be found on the maps of West Dunbartonshire and Argyll, place-name enthusiasts are meeting shortly in Arrochar for the autumn conference of the Scottish Place-Name Society, being held in the Three Villages Hall on Saturday November 2.

Arrochar was an obvious choice as venue for this all-day gathering, which is also open to non-members, as two of the main subjects under discussion have links with the district.

Hundreds of place-names from Argyll, Arran, West Dunbartonshire, West Perthshire and Lochaber were recorded by Arrochar man John Dewar (1802-1872) who was paid by the Duke of Argyll to travel around west Scotland recording oral history. When written up in Gaelic this resulted in the 7,000-page Dewar manuscripts which contain numerous place-names (settlements, rocks, caves, fords and other natural features), including many not known from other sources.

The place-names of Arrochar parish itself take up another section of the conference. A group of local people were so inspired during a place-name workshop held as part of a Hidden Heritage project that they got engaged in a spin-off study of names within the parish, which stretches from the top of Loch Long across to the northern half of Loch Lomond and beyond Ardlui.  The end result is a publication entitled Gaelic Place Names of Arrochar Parish, a guide to the meaning behind the names.

But the conference will be casting farther afield for other studies, such as a look at South Kintyre place-names which get mention in a poem called Flory Loynachan, penned by Campbeltown native Dougie Macilreavie some 190 years ago. Or the intriguingly named talk on Sneaky Swans which looks at the place-names found around Scotland using different forms of the word Ealaidh.

A high point of the conference talks involves the Cobbler and its neighbours in the Arrochar Alps with a look at the names recorded by 16th century cartographer Timothy Pont of the mountain heights in this part of Scotland.  Contrast that with discussion of the name Tarbet or Tarbat, which can be found in various parts of Scotland, and is associated with a relatively flat ground of an isthmus where boats could be portaged from one stretch of water to another.

Bringing earlier place-name studies into the digital age is another theme.  Late twentieth century scholar Professor WFH Nicolaisen collected the historical forms of several thousand Scottish place-names with a view to creating a reliable single volume scholarly dictionary.

While his plans for a dictionary never came to fruition, he left behind an impressive collection of place-name forms, handwritten on paper slips. Now work is under way to digitise this resource to make it widely available, along with other useful material, on the website of the Scottish Place-Name Society (www.spns.org.uk) where details can be found for those wishing to attend the Arrochar conference next month.

PICS (2):

There are plenty of intriguing Gaelic-derived place names in Argyll. 51_a40Ardrishaig andArran01 and 51_a37Achnamara_AshfieldSchool07