Visitors to Islay, looking at the road signs or at the Ordnance Survey map, are confronted with some bewildering place names. However, this often arouses an interest to learn not only what the names mean, but also how to pronounce them more or less correctly. The Museum of Islay Life has produced a guide with place names and what is following is an extract from that guide. The majority of Islay place names derive from Gaelic, while the more readable names are either Norse in origin or have been anglicised from one or other language. The origin is indicated in the second column of the second table by the following key: G=Gaelic name, N=Norse name, G/N=derived from elements of both languages, A=ancient.
The meanings of the names given in this guide have been gleaned from publications in the Museum library as well as from local tradition. Where there is no single agreed meaning for a name, which happens quite often, alternatives are given. Differences in pronunciation can be found even among neighbours, let alone between people living at opposite ends of the island! The guide therefor relied almost entirely on the accent of just one person, who was brought up in Bowmore, but lived for many years on the Rinns of Islay. The intention of this guide is to convey, in the most straightforward way the writers of this guide have been able to devise, the nearest possible rendering of each word by using very simple phonetics. For some of the more difficult names an anglicised version in italics has been added.
Some common components of place names. The number of place names in the guide is limited and doesn't cover all the place names on Islay. Many more can be translated if some of the commoner components can be recognised. The following list is not exhaustive, but should help in de understanding of more names.
|place name component||meaning||place name component||meaning|
|Buidhe||yellow||Maol||a bald pate (hills)|
|Bus (as Suffix)||farm||Mor(e)||big, large|
|Craig/Creag||crag, rock||Sgorr||steep, craggy hill|
Guide to pronunciation. In the following table place names, their meaning and pronunciation and given. Stress is indicated by underlining the appropriate syllable, as in Bow-more. Hyphens are used to separate the different syllables making up each name, as in Ba-lee-vick-ar, but they do not denote any kind of gap or stop in the voice.
Islay (A) is pronounced Eye-la. Ideas differ about the derivation of the name Islay. Various possibilities have been put forward, including "island divided in two" and "the law island", while it also has been suggested that the name derives from a Pictish princess called Ile, who lived around 650-700 AD. Otherwise the name seems to have emerged around that time with no obvious reason for it.
According to Domhnall Maceacharna, the earliest known reference to the island comes in Adamnan's biography of the Irish saint, Columba, written in about 720 AD. St Columba visited Islay on his way north, prior to setting up the famous monastery on the island of Iona, off the south-west tip of Mull. Adamnan wrote it is 'Ilea', describing it as an inhabited island, "Ilea insula habitabat", and also as 'green, grassy Islay', a phrase which is still used in the Gaelic, "Ile Ghorm an Fheoir".
In a text in 740, it is spelt 'Ili', while by 1095 it had become Yle. From then on, it is commonly Ila, Yla and Ilay. The present spelling was not widely adopted until about 1800. It is as if more modern writers were unhappy with Yla or Ilay and added an 's' to make it look more like the word 'island'. It should be noted that Islay is the anglicised spelling; in Gaelic the island is still spelt Ile.
Peggy Earl's favourite theory, however, concerned a Danish Princess called Iula, or Yula, who left Denmark with an apron full of stones of different sizes. As she proceeded on her journey some of the stones fell out, one becoming Ireland, another Rathlin and a third Texa. The remainder of the stones fell out and became the string of islands from Ardbeg to Kildalton. She perished in the soft sands off that coast and was taken to Seonais Hill above Loch Cnoc and buried there. What was described in the Statistical Account of 1794 as the grave of "a daughter of one of the Kings of Denmark" is marked by two small standing stones about 10 m apart, though there is, sadly, no good evidence to support this tradition. Islay is said to have got its name from this lady, or perhaps she may havve taken her name from Islay.
|Abhainn Mhuilinn||G||Mill River||A-vin a vool-in|
|Allt a'Chromain||G||stream of the bend, or kite stream||Alt a-chro-man|
|Allt na Criche||G||boundary stream||Alt na creesh|
|Alt an Daimh||G||stream of the cattle||Alt an dive|
|An Sithean||G||fairy hill||An sheen|
|Aoradh||G||place of sun worship||Uar-rug|
|Ard Imersay||G/N||promontory of the emmer goose||Ard im-er-say|
|Ardbeg||G||little height or promontory||Ard-beg|
|Ardilistry||G||promontory of the cave residence or height||Ard-ill-iss-tree|
|Ardmore||G||great height or promontory||Ard-more|
|Ardnahoe||N||height of the howe/mound cairn/burial ground||Ard-na-hoe|
|Ardnave||G/A||height of the cave, or high holy place||Ard-nave|
|Ballachlaven||G||town of the buzzard||Bal-lu-chla-veen|
|Ballinaby||G||town of the abbot||Ba-lin-a-bee|
|Ballivicar||G||town of the vicar||Ba-lee-vick-ar|
|Ballygrant||G||grain town, or store township||Ba-lee-grant|
|Beinn Bheigeir||G||mountain of the vicar||Bane vic-ar|
|Beinn Bhreac||G||speckled mountain||Bane vrechk (ch as in Bach)|
|Beinn Cham||G||crooked mountain||Bane cham (ch as in Bach)|
|Beinn Churlaich||G||gravelly mountain||Bane chur-leech|
|Beinn Dubh||G||black mountain||Bane doo|
|Beinn Roineach||G||bracken mountain||Bane roi-nich (ch as in Bach)|
|Beinn Tart a'Mhill||G||mountain of drought||Bane tart a-vil|
|* A local saying, translated from a Gaelic proverb, states: "As long as there is a cap (=mist) on Beinn Tart a'Mhill,
there will be no thirst at Bolsay or Kelsay"
|Biod nan Sgarbh||G||cormorant point||Bee-od-nan-sgar-iv|
|Bowmore||G||great see reef or sea rock||Bow-more|
|Braigo||N||head of the gully, or possible broad inlet||Bry-go|
|* Although the house is actually two miles from the broad inlet, when seen from a distance
it appears to be much closer to the gully.
|Bridgend||mouth of the ford||Bridge-end|
|Bruichladdich||G||brae of the shore||Broo-ch-lad-ee (ch as in Bach)|
|Calumkill||G||St Columba's church||Cal-um-kil|
|Caol Ila||G||sound of Islay||Col ee-la|
|Carnain||G||a light for mariners||Car-nan|
|Carrabus||N||copse of brushwood farm||Car-a-bus|
|Carraigh Fhada||G||the long sea rock||Car-rick fa-ta|
|Claggain (bay)||G||skull bay or arable land||Cla-gain|
|Cnoc Donn Mhor||G||big brown hill||Crochk don more|
|Cragabus||N||a stake town, or crown's town||Crag-a-bus|
|Craigens||G||the rocks or crags||Craig-ens|
|Daill||G||focal point place||Day-ill|
|Dubh Loch||G||black loch||Doo-log (ch as in Bach)|
|Duich||G||black meadow||Doo-eech (ch as in Bach)|
|Dun Chroisprig||G||fort on the hill||Doon chross-brick|
|Dun Guaidhre||N/G||Godred's fort||Doon gu-ar-ee|
|Dunyvaig||G||fort of the holy harbour||Dun-ee-veg|
|Eallabus||N||Ali's or Oli's homestead||Yall-a-bus|
|Esknish||A||water meadow, or fenland||Esk-neesh|
|Finlaggan||G||white hollow, or named after St Finlaggan||Fin-lag-an|
|Gleann Mor||G||great glen||Glen more|
|Glen Machrie||G||the coastal plain||Glen mach-ree|
|Keills/Kiells||G||St Columba's church||Kee-ills|
|Kilchiaran||G||St Ciaran's church, Ciaran of Saighair||Kil-a-chee-ran|
|Kilchoman||G||St Comman's church||Kil-a-cho-man|
|Kildalton||G||church of the fosterling||Kil-doll-tan|
|Kilennan||G||St Finnen's church||Kil-en-an|
|Killinallan||G||church of the green ford||Kil-in-al-ing|
|Kilmeny||G||church of, possibly, mother of Columba||Kil-men-ee|
|Kilnaughton||?||dedicated to St Naughlan||Kil-naw-ton|
|Kilnave||G||head or end of the bridge||Kil-nave|
|Kintra||G||end of strand||Kin-traw|
|Laggan||G||calf goddess, or hollow of the lochs||Lag-gan|
|Laphroaig||?N||possibly Lag Froig from Gaelic froig, a cave||La-froi-aig|
|* Thus, the hollow where the cave is. The name may also be connected to the ancient
territorial division of Freag.
|Loch Airigh||G||loch of the sheiling||Loch ar-ree|
|Loch an t-Sailein||G||arm of the sea||Loch an tarl-an|
|Loch Corr||G||frothy loch, or not crooked, or loch of the excess|
|Loch Dhomhnuill||G||Donald's Loch||Loch doll|
|Loch Drolsay||G||Loch of the trolls||Loch drol-see|
|Loch Fada||G||long loch||Loch fa-da|
|Loch Gorm||G||blue loch or green loch||Loch gorr-om|
|Loch Indaal||G||loch na dala = loch of the divisions, loch of delay||Loch in-dawl|
|* "In olden days, the ships sailed into Loch Indaal for shelter from the storm, or in a flat calm
to wait for the wind, or just for stores. They may sometimes have been delayed there for days or weeks."
|Loch Leathann||G||broad loch||Loch nan ban|
|Loch Skerrols||N||loch of the scored hill seat||Loch ske-rols|
|* more fully: "Sandy plains closely covered with short grass, thickly studded with herbs of
fragrant odours and plants of lovely colours."
|Mulreesh||G||exposed hill slope||Mool-reesh|
|Nave (island)||N||holy island, or consecrated island||as spelt|
|Octofad||G||long eighth farm, or locally knows as long brae||Oct-o-fad|
|* The octave was an ancient land measure, being one eighth of a davoch,
which was equal to 20 pennylands.
|Octomore||G||big eighth farm, or locally known as big brae||Oct-o-more|
|Octovulin||G||mill, eighth farm, or mill brae||Oct-o-vool-in|
|Port Askaig||G/N||port/harbour, or ash tree harbour||Port Ass-kaig|
|Port Charlotte||named after Frederick Campbell's mother||Port Shar-lot|
|Port Ellen||short for Ellinor, Frederick Campbell's wife|
|Port Wemyss||river mouth||Port Weems|
|Portnahaven||G||bay, or harbour of the river||Port-na-hav-van|
|Rhubha Bhoraraic||G||promontory of the bay||Roo vor-ar-rick|
|Sanaigmore||G||great sand harbour||San-ig-more|
|Scarrabus||N||rocky ridge farm||Sca-ra-bus|
|Tallant||N||high land or rocky ridge||Tal-ant|
|Uiskentuie||G||water of the resting place||Oosh-ken-too-ee|
* "In olden days, the road at Uiskentuie was the only road leading to the Kilchoman and Kilnave graveyards. Funerals often came long distances and, as there were no hearses, just a horse and cart to carry the coffin, this place was considered the half-way stage and the mourners rested there. A large basket had been filled with scones, oatcakes, butter, cheese and a bottle or bottles of whisky, so the mourners sat there and refreshed themselves with food and drink, and the horse was given fodder and water from the burn. Later they proceeded to their final destination."
This text is an extraction from a publication, published in 2002, of the Museum of Islay Life and was originally compiled by the late Katie Ferguson and Margot Perrons, 1988.