Islay place names

A photo of Kilnave Chapel.

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 follows 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 understanding more names.

Place name component Meaning Place name component Meaning
a’/an of the Gart field
Abhain/Abhainn river Glas/Ghlas grey
Airigh Sheiling Gleann glen
Allt stream Goirt/Gort field, garden
Ard promontory Kil church, chapel
Balle/Balli/Bally township Kin end
Beag/Beg little Knock hill
Beinn mountain/hill Lag hollow
Breac speckled Leac rock
Buidhe yellow Maol a bald pate (hills)
Bun river Moine moor, bog
Bus (as Suffix) farm Mor(e) big, large
Caol sound, channel Mullach summit
Carn cairn Na of the
Carraig sea-rock Poll pool
Clach stone Port bay, harbour
Clad shore Ruadh red
Cnoc hill Rudh promontory
Coille forest, wood Sgeir reef
Craig/Creag crag, rock Sgorr steep, craggy hill
Cruach hill Tigh house
Doire grove Tobar well
Druim ridge Ton headland
Dubh black Torr hill
Dun fort Traigh strand
Eilean island/islet Uisge water

Pronunciation guide

The following table gives place names, their meaning and pronunciation. 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 have taken her name from Islay.

Place name Origin Meaning Pronunciation
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
Ardtalla G rock height Ard- tal -a
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
Bolsay N homestead farm Bowl -say
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)
Bunnahabhain G river mouth Boo-na- ha -ven
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
Carnduncan G Duncan’s cairn Carn- dun -can
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
Coille G forest Cule -ye
Conisby N King’s estate Con -is-pee
Cornabus N corn farm Corn -a-bus
Coullabus N Keill’s farm Cool -a-bus
Coultoon/Cultoon A cave dwelling Cool- toon
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
Glenegedal G/N glen oakdale Glen- egg -a-dale
Gruinart G green field Groo -nyart
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
Lagavulin G mill hollow Lag-a- vool -in
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.” (Margaret MacIndeor)
Loch Leathann G broad loch Loch nan ban
Loch Skerrols N loch of the scored hill seat Loch ske -rols
Lyrabus N muddy farm Lir -a-bus
Machir (bay) G grass Mach -ir
* More fully: “Sandy plains closely covered with short grass, thickly studded with herbs of fragrant odours and plants of lovely colours.” ( Margaret MacIndeor )
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
Orsay N Oran’s steading Or -say
Persabus N priest’s farm Per -sa-bus
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
Proaig G broad bay Pro -aig
Rhinns/Rinns G promontory Rins
Rhubha Bhoraraic G promontory of the bay Roo vor -ar-rick
Risabus N brushwood farm Rize -a-bus
Rubh’a’Mhail G rough promontory Roo-a- val
Saligo G seal bay Sal -ly-go
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
Tayovullin G mill house Tay-a- vool -in
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.” (Margaret MacIndeor)

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.