Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Deeside Tales
Note VI

THE forms which are on record at various dates are Tanner, Taner, Tawner, Tannyr, and Tanyr (MacDonald’s Names of West Aberdeenshire). The last is the earliest, dating from 1450. The common modem spelling is Tanar. It will thus be seen that, unlike many place-names whose history can be traced in documents for so long a period, this one presents practically no variations. In every reference the consonants t, n, r—the skeleton of the word—are present. Whatever the name may mean, it is clear that for four and a half centuries at least it has been sounded in the same manner as it is to-day.

About a quarter of a century ago, however, the people of the district were surprised to learn that they and their ancestors had been labouring under a delusion, and that henceforth the correct name for the river, glen, and parish was Tana. So at least Sir William Brooks, the shooting tenant and afterwards owner of the glen, informed them; and in his zeal for the new child of his fancy he decreed that it alone should enjoy the rights of legitimacy, to the total exclusion of such pretenders as Tanar, Taner, or Tanner.

Protests were of course raised on behalf of the wonted usage, but in vain. The whimsical Baronet had mounted his hobby-horse and nothing could get him off again. He carried on a constant crusade against the letter which offended him. It became an act of faith to abjure it, denounce it, and persecute it wherever found. On one occasion his enthusiasm rose to the pitch of denying that Tanar “ could be considered a word at all.”

The responsibility for this curious obsession lay, in the first instance at least, at Michie’s door. He and Brooks had, we believe, been discussing the meaning of the name on one occasion, when Michie casually dropped the unhappy suggestion that possibly the name St Anna, who it seems had some local celebrity, might be connected with Tanar. Such an etymology is of course fanciful to a degree, and Michie himself did not believe it (the derivation that he favoured was Tuath n'air, the north-lying land), but he had unwittingly suggested doubts in Brooks’s mind as to the correctness of the form Tanar which nothing could afterwards exorcise. We have heard that Michie often expressed astonishment at the conflagration which his spark had kindled.

The St Anna etymology was soon dropped as being too hopelessly impossible, but another on the same lines was looked out. The Gaelic adjective tana, meaning “thin,” “shallow,” seemed to meet the requirements of the case, and was forthwith adopted. “So long,” wrote Sir William triumphantly, “as appreciation of the poetically expressive Gaelic language shall endure, so long will stand the word Tana as descriptive of the stream called shallow in contrast to the adjacent deep and mighty Dee.” If the sceptic still enquired what was to be done with the letter r, and pointed out that it is recorded from a time when Gaelic was still spoken in the district, he had to make the best of the brilliant suggestion that it is a “Cockneyism, like Annar, Mariar! ”

The assumption which underlies this and the other etymologies of Tanar which we have seen, is that all Scottish place names, if they are not English, can be solved by the help of the Gaelic dictionary. Now there are at least two serious errors here. In the first place, topographical names sometimes preserve words which have become obsolete in modem Gaelic, and so are unintelligible to Gaelic speakers themselves. In the second place (and this is the important point for the present case), a considerable number of names of places in certain parts of Scotland are not Gaelic at all, but Pictish, which, though it was a Celtic tongue, most scholars are agreed was more nearly allied to Welsh and the Celtic languages of the Continent than to Gaelic, and sometimes contains roots that are unrepresented in the latter. The neglect of both these possibilities has led to much worthless etymologising, the usual method being to twist, modify, or mutilate the name as commonly pronounced and written till it resembles some current Gaelic vocable; in short, to falsify the data. Most books on place-names will supply instances of such etymologies, which have about the same value as the well-known derivations of Forbes from “forebirse,” Coutts from “cooch!” and similar curiosities.

To come then to the point, what is the derivation of Tanar? It is, we believe, simple enough, provided it is sought for in the proper quarter. (Etymologies like Tuath na air, “north-lying land,” and Tan-air, “scanty land,” may be at once dismissed, apart from phonetic or grammatical difficulties, by the well established rule that where glen and river have the same name it is the river name that is the older.) The root of Tanar is to be found in the Old Celtic tanar-os, which was used as a river name on the Continent also. A tributary of the Po in Cisalpine Gaul was so called in classical times, now the Tanaro in Piedmont.* The stem is ten, seen also in Latin tonare, German Donner, English thunder; and the meaning is the “noisy, loud-sounding stream ”—a description that suits the Deeside river well, especially the part near its confluence with the Dee, where there is an eas or waterfalL The name then is Celtic and Pictish, as MacDonald (P.N. of West Abd.) conjectured though he did not trace it This identification of the names of a Scottish stream and a river in far-off Northern Italy may strike the general reader as improbable; and so it might indeed be considered if this were a solitary instance, or if the historical situation that gave rise to such cases is forgotten. It must be remembered that before the Romans carried their language into the north of Italy and Gaul, Celtic, in various dialects, was spoken all over Western Europe, the British Isles included. It naturally follows that the same roots appear on both sides of the Channel in the designations of rivers, mountains and other natural features. So far from the parallel of the Scottish Tanar and the Italian Tanaros being exceptional, it would be nearer the truth to say that the majority of the old Celtic place-names of Gaul and the parts of the Continent where Celtic was formerly spoken are represented in Scotland. It is only in recent years that this line of investigation has begun to be followed up, but already it may be said with confidence that no examination of Scottish place-names can be considered satisfactory which neglects to compare the corresponding Continental forms. In order to illustrate this parallelism, and by way of showing the high degree of probability—we may say the certainty—attaching to the derivation which we have suggested for Tanar, a few similar examples may be given, and those selected from the immediate neighbourhood of our river.

Allachy is a tributary of the Tanar. The name presents no difficulty, the primary part being a/7, a rock or boulder. The same root is seen in Alis-ontia in Belgic Gaul, now the Elz, and in the famous Alesia, the scene of Caesar’s siege, a rock fortress.

Gaim, The root here is gar, rough, seen with extension in garth. Cp. the Gaulish Gar-unna, now the Garonne. The n is a river-ending common in Pictland and is etymolo-gically the same as the Gaulish -ona, seen in Calarona, now the Chalaronne; Matrona, now Marne, &c

Tarland. The spellings of this word at various dates, as given in MacDonald, are Taruelun, Taruelone, Tharualund, Tharflund. The d is unhistorical (cp. Macfarland for Mac-farlane, Lamont for Laomuinn), and is absent in the native speech. The u and / after r point unmistakeably to the source of the first syllable. It is no doubt tarbh, a bull The most probable explanation of the second is that it is the same as the old Celtic lan-on, seen in Ercolana, Vindolana, and Mediolanon* (“middle plain,”) now Milan. The primitive form of Tarland would be something like Tarvo-lanon, “ bull plain.”

Balmoral. The first part is, of course, batle, a town. The second occurs in other parts of Scotland as well, and the difficulty has been to get a derivation whose meaning will be applicable in all the cases. Gael, mbral, majestic, looks tempting, and may be the word in some of the morals. A more satisfactory explanation, however, is found in the Old Celtic ialos or iaim, seen in a multitude of place names on the Continent, and meaning “an open fair space or clearing.”Moral would be thus for an older mor-ial(on)9 “great clearing.”

Mar. According to Stokes and other scholars this is originally a tribe-name, cognate etymologically with the Marsi in Italy.

The same identity runs through the Celtic personal names. Thus Morgan, on Scottish ground peculiarly associated with Aberdeenshire, is the Gaulish Moricanios9 “sea bright”; Donald is for Dumno-valose “world-ruler,” the first part of which is also found in Dumno-rix9 the friend of our schooldays. But this line of enquiry cannot be more than indicated here.

To return to Tanar. The Old Celtic tanaros, “loud-sounding,” from which we have derived it, occurs with the same meaning in another connection, this time as a personal designation. The Celts used it as a “by-name” for the god who corresponded with them to the Roman Jupiter, m the same way as the Romans themselves used “Tonans.” It seems to occur in an inscription found on the Continent, and what is especially interesting for us, it is also extant in one found at Chester belonging to the year 154 A.D., which runs loot optimo maxima Tanaro, “To Jupiter, best and greatest, the thunderer.” (The reader need hardly be reminded that it was the practice of the legionaries to honour the gods of the country where they happened to be stationed, and that therefore Tanaros is with certainty a Celtic divinity.)

This double use of tanaros as a river- and god-name may be due to nothing more than the fact that its meaning suited both cases, but it is at least worthy of remark that many of our river names are really names of Celtic divinities as well, the river being regarded as a manifestation of the divinity. Thus Dee and Don are both names of goddesses. So is Nesa, now the Ness. Clouta, now the Clyde, was the name both of the goddess and the river. The old name of the

Ribble was Belisama, “most bright one,” from Belos, the Gaulish sun-god. One is tempted to put Tanar in the same category. But whether the Celts who named it considered it associated with one of their deities or not, the derivation is not affected.

From the above history of the word one fact emerges very strikingly—the great antiquity of this river name. At the beginning of this article we remarked that it is on record for four hundred and fifty years, but our investigation has carried it back to far remoter times. Nearly 2000 years ago the Celtic-speaking Britons were using the word, as the inscription just quoted proves, and presumably our river had its name by that time. How much older it may be, who can tell? Equally noteworthy is the absence of phonetic change during this long period of time. We can say that the Deeside tribesmen who marched south to meet Agricola and the Roman legions in battle called the Tanar by much the same sound as is heard to-day. A fact like this brings to mind Canon Taylor’s generalisation, and supplies another instance of its truth. “One class of local names,” he says, “is of special value in investigations relating to primeval history. The river names are everywhere the memorials of the earliest races. They seem to possess an almost indestructible vitality . . . Even the names of the eternal hills are less permanent than those of rivers.”

It is satisfactory to note that, though Sir W, Brooks was extremely anxious that the Ordnance Survey should lend their authority to his innovation, the proper form has been retained in the revised, as in the original, map.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus