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Outer Isles
Chapter XIII. The Norsemen in the Hebrides


NEXT to the memory of Prince Charlie the occupation of the Vikings is perhaps the most prominent historical fact with which one meets in the outer Hebrides, and before going further north, it may, perhaps, be well to familiarize ourselves with some of the more prominent facts of their relation with the Outer Isles, and to indicate the direction in which we may hope to find direct traces of their influence upon the language and archaeology of the district.

About 787 we first hear of Norse rovers on the English coasts. They seem to have had a special liking for the monasteries so often established on islands, probably not only as most likely to possess wealth, but also as easily accessible to men whose natural element seems to have been the water. Thus in 793 they attacked Lindisfarne, in 795 Lambey Isle (the nucleus of their later kingdom of Dublin, 852 to 1014) and in 802 Iona.

The first record of their settlement in the Hebrides dates it as about 870, but it was possibly, as a matter of fact, earlier. Its history is familiar to us all. It was “in the days,” says the Saga, “when King Harold Hairfair came to the rule of Norway. Because of that unpeace, many noblemen fled from their lands out of Norway, some East-over-the-Keel, some West-over-the-Sea. Some there were withal who in winter kept themselves in the South Isles or the Orkneys, but in summer harried in Norway and wrought much scath in the kingdom of Harald the king. . . . Then the king took such rede that he caused to be dight an army for West-over-the-sea, and said that Ketil Flatneb should be captain of that host.” In the Heimskringla1 we are told that “Harald Hairfair sailed south to the Orkneys and cleared them utterly of Vikings . . . thereafter he fared right away to the South lies and harried there, and slew many Vikings who were captains of bands there.” The chronology of the Saga stories is, according to some, antedated, but the story itself is believed to be substantially trustworthy, and we may take it that about 888 the Isles were added to the Crown of Norway.

Ketil’s daughter married Olave of Dublin, which seems to have formed a link between the kingdom of Dublin and the South Isles. After Ketil’s time “his son Bicim came West-over-the-sea, but would not abide there, for he saw they had another troth, and nowise manly it seemed to him that they had cast off the faith that their kin had held, and he had no heart to dwell therein, and would not take up his abode there.” However, he remained two winters in the South Isles before “he dight him to fare to Iceland.” There was a good deal of gentlemanly feeling among these Norsemen; something, one fancies, of the qualities which linger still in the Highlands and Islands. One would even now wonder if any there should do what was “nowise manly.”

According to the Sagas, the race of Ketil became extinct about 900. There are intervals during which the story of the Isles is obscure, but there seems no doubt that they remained under Scandinavian influence for 470 years at least. Now and then we get a glimpse at their history. First we find them incorporated with the kingdom of Dublin, next as part of that kingdom of Sodor and Man the title of which still survives as that of an English bishopric. Towards the end of the tenth century they came under the rule of the Earls of Orkney and Caithness—Sigurd and his son, the powerful Thorfinn, said in the Sagas to be possessed of nine earldoms in Scotland, whose history is sometimes confused with that of his contemporary, Macbeth. Again they were ruled over by the kings of Man, but were reconquered by Norway in the person of Magnus Barefoot, still a hero of Hebridean romance, the Manus of the Fingalian stories. His conquests are enumerated by the Skald, Biom Krephende :

In Lewis Isle, with fearful blaze,
The house-destroying fire plays;
To hills and rocks the people fly,
Fearing all shelter but the sky.
In Uist the king deep crimson made
The lightning of his glancing blade;
The peasant lost his land and life
Who dared to bide the Norseman’s strife.
The hungry battle-birds were filled
In Skye with blood of foeman killed,
And wolves on Tyree’s lonely shore
Dyed red their hairy jaws in gore.
The men of Mull were tired of flight,
The Scottish foeman would not fight,
And many an island girl’s wail
Was heard as through the isles we sail.

In 1093 he placed his son Sigurd on the Island throne, but there was not peace for long. Another revolution brought the Islands again under a branch of the Manx dynasty, and they fell upon evil days. One Olave the Red, who contrived to keep his rule over them for forty years, was the grandfather of the princess who married Somerled of Argyll, through whom, in 1156, the Islands passed to the lords (Macdonald) of the mainland.

The Norse period of Scottish history ended finally about a century later. King Hakon made a brave effort to recover possession, but was routed in the battle of Largs in 1261, partly in storm, partly in fight. His son Magnus formally surrendered the Hebrides to Scotland at the treaty of Perth for 4,000 marks, and 100 marks yearly as feu duty. A tradition survives1 that when King Magnus came home from his Viking cruise to the Western countries he and many of his people brought with them a great deal of the habits and fashion of clothing of those western parts. They went about in the streets with bare legs and had short kirtles and overcloaks, and therefore his men called him Magnus Barefoot or Bareleg—a story which would date back the use of the fillibeg and plaid at least to 1099.

What remains to us of these 470 years of influence in islands where life moves very slowly, where people cling to the traditions of their fathers, where so little is there of complexity, mental or physical, that one may yet study, as perhaps in few other places in Europe, something of the childhood of the world, where, so far are they removed from modern progress, that to cast off the faith that their kin have held is yet accounted “in nowise manly”.

In topographical nomenclature the evidence of Norse occupation is abundant, and, thanks to recent philological inquiry, obvious and conclusive. In certain remains of grave-goods the archaeological testimony is also clear and especially interesting; but one looks almost in vain in two special directions in which, in most countries, is found indisputably written the history of race. The Norse period has left us nothing in the way of architecture, and nothing, certain, of physiognomy.

In wandering, as we have done, through many pleasant summers from island to island, I have pleased myself by fancying that I could distinguish certain definite racial types—the intelligent countenance and often Spanish features of the Tyree men, most active-brained, clear-headed of islanders; the dark-skinned, lighter-limbed fishermen of Barra; the bigger, slower, duller-witted, perhaps because worse-fed, native of South Uist; the almost Jewish-looking, well-featured men of Harris, with dark eyes and coarse hair; the big, fair Skye man, most suspicious of the stranger, because he best knows his possibilities, living as he does in the show island of the west coast. Dark Piet, fair Scandinavian, canny, freckled, light-eyed Dalriad Scot—but such divisions are probably wholly arbitrary, and one is right only by accident or chance coincidence. [So apparently distinct however are the types, that I have picked out a Mull child in a school of seventy Tyree children, a Skye man by accident in Barra, a sailor of remote Irish parentage in Eriskay, a Lewis lad in North Uist, and so on without difficulty.] It seems likely that but a small proportion of those who came to the Hebrides settled there permanently. The Islands were a refuge, a starting-point, a place to winter in, and it seems likely that a large proportion of the present population are the descendants of fugitives or adventurers from the mainland, and only remotely of Scandinavian descent. [Tyree and Coll are delightful places to winter in; there is little frost, and the snow does not remain. The Long Island, however, is a less attractive winter resort. Like Tyree, treeless, it is, as further from the mainland, even more shelterless, and consists of low barren rocks intersected with lakes, and is the sport of howling winds and a treacherous sea.] That they are of different temperament from the race we now call Scots seems obvious, however, if one may take mental characteristics as any criterion. [A writer on Cornish folklore seems to consider that the race distinction is fully sustained in Cornwall: “ The red-haired Danes [i.e. Scandinavians] have continued a source]

Architectural Remains.

The fact of the entire absence of any architectural remains of a powerful race which occupied a small district for nearly 500 years seems at first sight surprising, the more so, perhaps, that the buildings of a still earlier race are well preserved and abundant. The brochs, dunes, barps, Picts’ houses, tullochs, etc., remaining, were, in fact, so admirably contrived for purposes of defence, and so easily adaptable for domestic use, that for such an unsettled population as the Norse invaders they were probably sufficient for most purposes. Captain Thomas conjectures,1 that “while the common people adopted the dwellings of the expelled Scots, their chiefs—those who could command the labour of others—raised houses, like their ships, of wood. The ancient Norsemen were certainly neither masons nor bricklayers, though they may have been good carpenters.”

The conjecture would be more tenable if Captain Thomas would tell us where the wood came from. There is a legend that there were once some trees on Tyree, but even tradition refuses so improbable an assertion as to Uist. South Uist, by the way, has of terror and a name of reproach to the present day. On the 1st of this month a Long Rock quarrel was the subject of a magisterial inquiry at the Penzance Town Hall, when it was proved that the defendant, Jeffery, had called one of the complainants, Lawrence, who had rubrick hair, ‘a red-haired Dane.’ In Sennen Cove, St. Just, and the western parishes generally, there has existed, time out of mind, a great antipathy to certain red-haired families, who were said to be descendants of the Danes, and whose ancestors were supposed, centuries before, to have landed in Whitsand Bay, and set fire to and pillaged the villages. Indeed, this dislike to the Rufusheaded people was carried so far that few families would allow any member to marry them, so that the unfortunate race had the less chance of seeing their children lose the objectionable tinge of hair.” —Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, 1870, p. 148. possessed a tree within the memory of man, now reduced to the likeness of a telegraph pole.

By whomsoever or for what purpose they were used, there is, according to the best authorities, no doubt as to the adaptation to some later use of these primitive dwellings. It would be superfluous to insist upon the evidence for their antiquity, which is acknowledged freely among archaeologists. Captain Thomas counts about 2,000 of them in Orkney—he includes, I imagine, the older “Piets’ houses,” or chambered mounds, as well as the brochs, or round towers, with their treasure of querns and combs and the like, proclaiming their later date.

One never hears the term “Picts’ houses” in the Hebrides. Indeed, in the Hebrides, tradition is silent about the Picts, but numerous specimens of the buildings are to be found, a specially fine example remaining near Husinish in South Uist, though in his enumeration, Dr. Anderson, I observe, in his Rhind Lecture, omits Uist and Barra altogether. He assigns sixty-nine to the Hebrides, twenty-eight being found in Lewis, ten in Harris, thirty in Skye, and one in Raasay. I feel sure the list might be largely increased. He appears to group together all the primitive dwellings known as duns, tullochs, Picts’ houses, brochs, without regard to any differences locally associated with this term or that, and would therefore probably include the numerous stone duns, if duns they be, so common upon the islets in the inland lakes of Uist. At Kilpheder is one covering nearly half an acre. As the word “brog” is of Norse origin, one may conclude that the brochs were familiar objects at the time of the Norse occupation, as the term forms a part of many place-names, as Dalibrog in South Uist, Borgh in Barra, Castral Bhuirg (Gaelic Cciittteal, a castle) in Benbecula.

The history of the broch divides itself naturally into three chapters. That of their original use as places of shelter and defence for man and beast in times of Viking and other ravages; their secondary use, when they were turned to domestic purposes by certain additions and alterations, possibly by the Vikings themselves; and their third period, as places of sepulture, which may be almost within the memory of man. They are not found in remote glens or in mountain fastnesses, but, as a rule, on arable land, which confirms the view that they were not military forts, but shelter for the tillers of the soil. That they are absolutely Celtic in their origin, though in their secondary use adapted by the Norsemen, no one seriously doubts. “ They belong,” says Anderson, “to a school of architecture truly unique and of absolute individuality. Even the relics they contain constitute a group of objects differing widely from those which characterize the Scandinavian occupancy of the northwest of Scotland. No group of objects, in its general facies comparable to the group which is characteristic of the brochs, exists on the continent of Europe or anywhere out of Scotland.” And yet, so all-pervading is the Norse influence, that even relics so unique as these have a Norse name and Norse associations.

All wanderers in the north know them well, both in their undisturbed condition as round grassy knolls, locally venerated as “ burying-places,” or as having been opened and explored, when they are collectively described as “forts.” Their use as burying-places is undoubted, but comparatively modern, and possibly was an adaptation, springing from an unformulated sense of reverence for the sacredness of the past and the unknown. I have never found any one who had a first-hand tradition of the memory of this use, which probably ceased after the existence of consecrated churchyards, but antiquarians seem to be agreed that the human remains found have been placed there after the buildings had become mere grassy mounds.

These grassy mounds, or tullochs, are usually from ten to fifteen feet high, and about one hundred and twenty yards in circumference. When opened, they disclose a circular wall of immense thickness, often from ten to twenty feet, having but one opening, a tunnelled doorway, narrowing towards the inside, the inner court being further protected by a guard chamber. The enclosed space is a well-like court, from twenty to thirty feet in diameter, and having often two or three chambers tunnelled in the wall. There are no fireplaces nor chimneys. There are galleries, more or less elaborate in structure, at the height of about twelve feet from the ground, also in the thickness of the wall. The total height, in the very good example at Dun Carloway in Lewis, is said to have been at one time forty feet; but the finest example extant is said to be at Mousa in Shetland, to which Dr. Anderson gives a height of forty-five feet. [I am informed by the Saga-Master of the Viking Club, however, that there is no appearance of this fort having ever been covered by earth.] It would be difficult to imagine buildings better adapted for defence against such attacks as the science of that age made possible. It seems certain that in their original state they were never used for permanent residence, though the remains show that the arts of peace were cultivated there as well as the arts of war, and include apparatus for handloom weaving, similar to that still in use. However, their original purpose seems to have been to provide refuge against the incursions of enemies, probably on some principle of co-operation, for in 1703, Martin, describing the remains in Skye, writes, “ All these forts stand upon eminences, and are so disposed that there is not one of them which is not in view of some other.”

Literary Remains.

To ask whether there are any remains of a Scandinavian element in Gaelic literature is not quite so absurd as it sounds to those who believe Gaelic literature to be non-existent. As a matter of fact, possibly one of the earliest recorded stanzas in Icelandic literature comes from the Hebrides. In the appendix to Olaf Tryggvasson’s Saga (eight chapters of doubtful origin, but certainly not later than between 1387 and 1395) we find the statement (chap. i.):

There was a Christian man belonging to the Hebrides, along with Heriulf, who composed the lay called the Hafgerding Song, in which is this stave :—

“May He whose hand protects so well
The simple monk in lonely cell,
And o’er the world upholds the sky,
His own blue hall still stand me by.’ ”

While speaking of literature, one’s mind naturally turns to the question of folklore. It would be an interesting point to ascertain how much the folklore of the Hebrides has in common with that of Ireland and Scandinavia respectively—that is to say, to what degree it may be considered Celtic, and to what degree Norse. Probably the truth would be found to lie largely between the two. The stories of the Fingalians are, doubtless, to a great extent, of Norse origin.

Grave-Goods.

A specially interesting group of Norse remains in the Hebrides are certain grave-goods found in many of the Islands, and undoubtedly Scandinavian in origin, their distribution being conterminous with the range of territory conquered by the Norse. Among the most interesting and frequent are those known as “tortoise brooches,” always associated with burial by cremation or otherwise, and generally found in pairs. Dr. Anderson has fully described those to be seen in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, but I have, I believe, seen others, the property of private persons. Two were found in Islay in 1788, one pair in Tyree in 1872. These, presented to the Museum by Dr. Norman Macleod, were found in a grave along with a peculiarly shaped and massive bronze pin. There are undoubtedly other Norse graves in Tyree, but the supremely valuable archaeological remains on that island have, since the death of the late parish minister, the Rev. J. G. Campbell, been grossly neglected. Moreover, I found that in Tyree, as elsewhere, the private owners of valuable antiquities were not anxious to air their treasures, on account of a tradition that anything once submitted to the inspection of authorities was somewhat difficult to recover. I regret that this tradition should have any basis, as much valuable matter goes unrecorded in consequence. Another brooch was found in Barra, another in the island of Sanday, north of Uist. The fellow to it is in the British Museum. These six from the Hebrides are included in the fourteen pairs which Dr. Anderson describes as found in all Scotland, a good proportion of the whole. Three belong to the Orkneys, one to Shetland, two to Caithness, and two to Sutherland. Brooches of the same type are said to be frequently found in Norway, and still more often in Sweden. Dr. Anderson calculates that there are about a thousand extant in Scandinavia. The type seems to be exceptionally characteristic of the period to which it belongs.

The story of the Tyree brooch has an interesting detail worth quoting. Dr. Anderson, in examining this and comparing it with one of similar appearance from Haukadal in Sweden, found that in both a minute morsel of fabric had caught between the pin and the hook. He writes: “So far as I can judge of its appearance under the microscope, it seems to be linen cloth, with a partial admixture of another fibre, which I take to be hemp, and I can detect no material difference between the cloth in the specimen from Norway and that from the island of Tyree on our own western coast. These, then, are actual specimens of the linen manufacture of the Viking age.”

Similar brooches are found in other districts visited by the Norsemen, and never elsewhere. Livonia, Normandy, Iceland (associated with Cufic coins of the tenth century), in Ireland (associated with the characteristic swords of the Viking time), and in England, in Yorkshire and Lancashire. They are found in the graves of bodies burnt and unburnt, of men and women—with shield-bosses, swords and armour on the one hand ; with combs, needles and spindle-whorls on the other.

The swords and other fragments of armour found among the grave-goods of men are also characteristic, and of extreme evidential value. The Norseman, convinced that to be slain in battle or wounded by arms would be a passport to the halls of Odin, was careful to take with him his sword and spear, his axe and shield, and his smithy tools to shurpen them. Such remains are found in Islay, Mull, Barra, Sanday, and even in St. Kilda. Dr. Anderson records the Viking graves in Eigg, but, so far as I know, has ignored, or is not cognizant of, what are locally believed to be Norse graves, numerous in the island of Fuday in the sound of Barra, but I believe that no one, except to a certain extent Captain Thomas and Mr. Alexander Carmichael, has taken any trouble whatever to explore this, by no means the least interesting, district of the Hebrides. Those graves are quite unlike any of purely Celtic origin. They are let into the sand, are about six feet long, and the sides are built up with stones like the kilns used for the burning of kelp. They are covered with large flat stones. The Islanders call them “graves of the Lochlannaich,” or Lochlin men, which is their name for the Norsemen, or sometimes the “fiantaichean,” which, however, is now a generic name for a big, muscular fellow.

Martin relates, "There was lately discovered a grave in the west end of the island of Ensay, in the Sound of Harris, in which were found a pair of scales made of brass, and a little hammer.” This was possibly one of the “Thor’s hammers” which are used as amulets in Iceland.

The name “Thor’s hammer,” or “Norseman’s hammer,” by the way, is given by the islanders to relics of very different proportions. The “Standing stones,” or upright pillars, to be found on most of the Islands (there are six in Uist and Barra alone), and which are probably commemorative, unless their origin is earlier and their signification religious, are said by the people to have been used by the giant Fiantaichean for knocking limpets off the rocks. To judge by the remains found near primitive habitations, limpets must

at one time have formed an important article of diet, but my learned friend, the Rev. Allan Macdonald, ingeniously conjectures that these denote Gaelic rather than Norse occupation, as the abler seamen would have been independent of such humble landlubbers’ food.

Personal Adornments.

Dr. Anderson speaks of the hoards of silver ornaments, such as have been found in certain of the Islands, as “one of the most characteristic features of the remains of the Viking period, whether in Scandinavia or in Britain.”  He believes them to be the hidden plunder of Viking rovers, silver, of course, being characteristic of the Iron Age to which they belong. Morris, in his preface to Howard the Halt, tells us that “there was carrying of wares backward and forward, and it was a kind of custom for young men of the great families to follow their fortunes and make a reputation by blended huckstering and sea-roving about the shores of the Baltic and the British seas.” Interesting evidence of this is found in the fact that not only have hoards of silver ornaments been found in the Islands, notably a collection of armlets in Skye (1850), but brooches of true Celtic design have been found in considerable number in Scandinavia.

Perhaps the most curious example of this blending of Gaelic with Norse ornamentation is that on a stone found at Eoligarry in Barra, on one side of which is the ordinary elaborate Celtic chain ornamentation, and on the other an inscription in Runic characters. This stone, and, unless I am much mistaken, not a few others, is ignored by Dr. Anderson in his dictum that “only three rune carvings on stones have been found in all Scotland,” and these he locates in Dumfriesshire, Morayshire, and Holy Island, Arran. In the Museums of Edinburgh and Glasgow one may see specimens of personal adornments said to have been found in the Islands, but never on the mainland. They are made of hammered metal, wrought together in interlaced patterns, the ends of the metal wire being soldered together.

Topographical Remains.

Doubtless our most valuable source of local evidence as to Norse occupation of these Islands is that of topography. Names which have long attached to any given district are like fossils dug out of the earth— evidence of an active life which once existed there. Unfortunately there is no work of any antiquity which deals with the topography of the Highlands with any sort of authority. We are dependent mainly upon charters which contain names of places, and on retours (or what in England would be known as visitations) connected with succession to property, and often containing lists of place-names with their spelling as adopted at different periods. In these we find traces not only of Norse and Gaelic, but of some original language unknown, as well as of so-called Anglo-Saxon.

It is a commonplace to say that the topographical distribution of a language is not necessarily conterminous with the spoken language. In Galloway, for example, the spoken language is Scotch and the topography Gaelic, while in the Hebrides the spoken language is Gaelic, and the topography largely Scandinavian. Gregory is of opinion that the Scandinavian element in the Hebrides is Norse, not Danish. The names of those chiefs mentioned in King Hacon’s Saga are Norse.

In the Shetlands and the Faroes the Norsemen wore probably the first colonists, but in other islands topography, as well as history, gives abundant evidence of earlier inhabitants. The Scandinavian occupation of St. Kilda has been called in question, but if place-names are any criterion, one would guess it to have been frequent, if not continuous.

The Norse element in the topography of the Hebrides is almost exclusive of any other, though this has been only realized comparatively of late years. Probably we owe very much to the academical labours of Professor Mackinnon, and to the valuable researches of Macbain. Mr. Allan Macdonald tells me that only ten years ago he would have been, and often was, ridiculed for asserting a Scandinavian origin for words which no one now questions, and a published correspondence remains between Captain Thomas and so accomplished a scholar as Professor Munch, in which the former deprecates the Professor’s assertion as to many Scandinavian derivations apparent only to the Gaelic scholar. The Gaelic substitution of one consonant for another, the absence of H as an initial and yet the frequency of aspirated words, is certainly perplexing. So, too, are the combinations, till one masters the fact that in place-names the generic word comes last in Norse and first in Gaelic—compare Dalmore (Gaelic) and Helmsdaze (Norse).

The more entire realization of the extent of the Norse influence in place-names has, I think, somewhat altered the views of antiquarians as to the extent to which the Celtic population was extirpated. Professor Munch says the population was never wholly absorbed by the Norse settlers as in Orkney and perhaps in Shetland, and Dasent speaks of the original inhabitants as “not expelled, but kept in bondage.” The more recent view, however, is, I think, that they were practically swept away, so much so that on the mainland the Islands came to be called “The Isles of the Galls,” or “strangers,” i.e. the Norsemen.

To attempt any general discussion of the influence of the Norse occupation upon the language of the Hebrides would be a task far beyond my powers. We can hardly hope to have the subject exhaustively treated until it shall have been studied, on the spot, by an able philologist, familiar with the Gaelic and the Scandinavian tongues alike. This is the more important that for philological purposes the Ordnance maps are very misleading. Moreover the subject demands a thorough apprehension of the relation between written Gaelic and its pronunciation, of the mysteries of aspirates in the absence of the one letter commonly aspirated. The classics on this subject are still, I imagine, the essays by Captain Thomas in the Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, from which most later ones that have fallen into my hands are largely borrowed. Mr. Alexander Macbain has given us an interesting paper on The Norse Element in Highland Place-Names,x and the Rev. Neil Mackay has dealt with The Influence of the Norse Invasion generally. All that I venture to attempt is to indicate the direction of Norse influence on the topography of the Outer Islands in particular.

To a certain extent, he who runs may read; my own notebooks are full of memoranda as to the derivation of names of persons and places, and in comparing my own bits of local gossip and local interpretation and my own uninstructed guesses with those of more serious students, I have been interested to find that the inferences are so obvious that I have been generally correct. This fact alone I take as evidence of the extent of Norse influence, for my philological knowledge, such as it is, is more likely to be correct as to Scandinavian than as to Gaelic derivation.

If ever there were a Pictish place-nomenclature it has long ago been superseded by the Norse, for, so far as I can gather from local information, almost all the Gaelic names that do exist are of modern origin, in some cases so recent that within living memory an older name of Scandinavian origin has existed, as in the case of Ben More in Uist, formerly called Keitval, the one name being as obviously Gaelic as the other is obviously foreign.

The Gaelic names are seldom applied to the more important places or geographical features. Nearly every large hill, or sea-loch, or promontory, and the chief bays and islands, have Norse names.

There are a large number of words special to Hebridean Gaelic, not known on the mainland, which it would be well worth while to inquire into, could any competent Scandinavian scholar be found to undertake the task before it is too late and the words forgotten.

The very names of the Islands are alone suggestive. Dean Munro enumerates 209, from which I select a few for examination as to their possible Norse origin.




Norso geira, i.e. a slice of land. Most probably it is the Norse geira, as its plural form is gehrachan, and not gearraidhean, which is the common plural for the Gaelic word gearradh.

I am indebted to Mr. Allan Macdonald (as well as for much else) for some notes on the topography of Eriskay, the sea-worn islet he himself inhabits. The place-names here are of special interest, because so remote, so (superficially) unattractive is this island, that there can have been but little in its history to initiate change, or occasion those admixtures which perplex the historian and the philologist. In illustration of the misleading nature of Ordnance map nomenclature, he points out that in this one little island we have Loch Duval given for Duvat, Loch Crakuvaig for Leosavag, Hainish for Rainish, and Haisinish for Eenshnish.

The chief geographical features are as follows:— Hills—Ben Sgriothan, hill of the landslip (skrid, to slip); Ben Stack, of obvious meaning; Ben Eenshnish, from “innse,” top of the head, a neighbouring peak being called Sgumban, which has the same meaning in Gaelic. Two smaller hills are called Cnoca Breck and Haily Breck. “Cnoca,” though looking like Gaelic, does not undergo the grammatical changes of the Gaelic word, and “breck” equally does not appear to be the Gaelic “breac” (speckled), as it does not decline. “Haily” is very common as a prefix in the district. In South Uist there are Haily-Bost and Haily-Stul. “Stul” is very frequent in Uist. It would be interesting if some scholar would tell us whether the word is an obsolete Scandinavian form, as the dictionaries refer one to the word “ soeter," which, as equivalent to mountain pasture, we find in other districts in the termination “setter” and “shader.” In South Uist it is found only in the form “stul.” Boisdale, for xample, is pronounced in Gaelic “Buhiistul,” and may possibly mean the mountain pasture of the “boi” or “bend” (compare the Gaelic name for a place on the shore of Boisdale, called “Lub-bliudhustail,” that is, the bend of Boisdale). The fact of finding this particular form of the word in South Uist may conceivably indicate the district of Scandinavia whence came the settlers who established the topography of the island.

Among the bays of Eriskay we find “Na Haun,” that is, the haven; and again, another called “Crackavick,” which may mean “crowbay,” from “krage,” a crow, and “vik.” The name is repeated in South Uist, and it is said that the former name of Kirkwall was “ Craco-viaca,” apparently the same word.

We have among Points, Roshnish (horse point, from “ros” and “ness”), and Rhainish (cleft point, rivn, riven), which marks out a rent running right over a hill, beginning at this spot. Another Point is Rudha-na-Hiislaig; Uslaig is Gaelic for an old hag, but is probably identical with Usling, which is Danish for a wretch (or Aslakr, a personal name).

There are two long rocks jutting out into the sea, on different sides of the island, both at high water separated from the land. They are called “cleit,” possibly from “cloeft,” cloven. The word is now common in Gaelic for such rocks, or for cormorants’ roosts, which such rocks are. The word as so used must be distinguished from three other “clets,” also found in place-names. We have, for example, in Uist, the names “Smerclet,” “Ormiclet,” “Lianiclet,” and in all these cases the derivation is, as the situation of the places makes obvious, “klit,” that is, a dun, or low sand-hill. “Smerclet” is “butter down,” from “smoer,” butter. (We have among Gaelic place-names in the same district, “butter-liole,” “cheese-rock,” and “beef-skerry.”) “Ormiclet” is “Orm’s klit.” The derivation of “Lianiclet” is less obvious, but we have the same prefix in “ J^ianicui ” (cui, pen or fold) and “Lianimull” (holm, or small islet). It is not to be confused with another word of similar sound, “liana,” a wet meadow.

The word “clet” is also applied to a piece of land, possibly from “klat” (a bit of ground). We have in Benbecula a “chleit mhor,” which means the great lot, and we have it as a termination in “Heclet,” as high lot, “Lamaclet,” as lamb lot, and “Calliclet,” possibly, cold lot.

“Klet” is found in its third meaning as signifying “rock” or “cliff,” from “klettr,” in the name “Cleitea-clian,” rugged inland rocks, north of Loch Boisdale.

The prefix “kil” is of very common occurrence, and its meaning and derivation are obvious where the word is associated with ecclesiastical remains, as in “Kilbarra” and “Kilpheder,” i.e. the Churches of St. Barra and St. Peter, but it seems probable that in certain connections the prefix may be the Norse word “kil,” a creek or inlet, as in  Kilerivagh,” which would mean “mud creek bay.”

Another argument for the importance of the study of topography on the spot, is the differentiation between Gaelic and Norse words having the same sound, and only to be distinguished by the geographical situation of the places indicated. There is, for example, in Eriskay, a hillock called “ Carn-a-chliabhain,” literally, the cairn of the little creel, a name which has no obvious meaning, which would, however, be readily found, if we suppose the derivation to be from the Norse, a “cleft” or “cleaving,” which would make it, “ the cairn of the rent or gully.”

There are three common Norse prefixes of like spelling but different pronunciation. lid (as in “father” or “«r”), ha (as in “matter” or “a/i”), ha (as in “call” or  or”). Hei and hoe are also found, and it is often difficult to differentiate among them. Lange for “long” is found in such words as Langisgeir, long scar, and Langanish, long ness. There is a long sea-rock in the Sound of Eriskay called Am Bruga, and another at Kilbride called Na Brugannan, which is the plural of the other. They have the peculiarity of being cut up by little channels, through which a boat can pass at all times save low water. Can this be derived from a Norse word, meaning broken? At Kilbride in Uist there is a loch called Loch-a-Bhruga, frequently broken into by the sea, and separated from it by only a bank of shingle. Another loch of the same kind is called Loch Briste, which is Gaelic for Broken Loch.

The syllable mal (pebbles or shingle) occurs in several place-names, such as Mol-an-diidain, Mol-a-tuath, Mol-a-deas, and is not to be confused with mul, a small islet, which, like lum and um9 is a modification of holm (compare Sodhulum, sheep isle); Teistea-mul or Heiste-a-mul, horse isle; Lam-a-lum; Gierum, perhaps geir, auk isle; Airnemul, eagle isle, and a great number of others.

Lamruig, a landing jetty, is common here, a word possibly of Danish origin.

A loch called Drollavat may be  "troll” or “goblin” loch, and Sieuravat may be Sigurd’s loch or vatn. The name Dalibrog is probably the borg or dun of the meadow. Some of the natives call it Dun-beag, the little castle. At the time that it was a fortified place it must have been surrounded by water. The mound on which it was built remains, and is the site of a house still occupied.

The word for a ford, an extremely familiar geographical detail in these islands, is faothail (pronounced fiih-ill), and may be related to the Norse veile, a ford. The name of the island of Benbecula, which lies between two fords, is pronounced in Gaelic, Binavula, and the termination again suggests the Norse veile, the meaning of the name being, perhaps, “between fords.”

In reply to a question as to proper names which may have been legacies of the Norsemen, Mr. Allan Macdonald points out that, oddly enough, the families making use of such names in South Uist are seldom natives of the island, but hail from Skye, Lewis or Harris. We find Somerled, Uistein, Ronald, Ivaer, Tor-mod, and as a feminine name, Raonailt (that is Ragenhilda). It is said that there was a woman’s name Gill, which seems to have died out about sixty years ago.

Among surnames we have Lamont, (law-man), Mc-Askill, i.e. As Ketill son (the kettle of the gods), Me-Aulay, i.e. Olaf son. There was a poet of North Uist called Me Codrum, probably the Norse Guttormr. McLeod is from Ljotr, Earl of Orkney; McSwain is the Norse Sice inn ; McCorquorquodale is Thorketel. The name Dougal, i.e. dubh gall (black stranger) was the term applied to the Danes, in contradistinction from fionn gall (fair stranger), given to the Norwegians.

These conjectures as to derivation are in no sense dogmatic, but are offered tentatively, in the hope of provoking criticism and discussion, and should they lead to competent treatment of Gaelic and Norse nomenclature, by a Scandinavian scholar, they will have served the purpose for which they are intended.


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