Hill Names and the John Smith Question

by Peter Drummond Apr/2011
This article has been read 2,630 times

Hills have names in much the same way that people have names: to distinguish between them. If everyone was called Alex Smith, we would have to find ways to tell them apart, especially as Alex is one of these modern names that can be either gender. If we called them instead John or Joan Smith we have at least begun to differentiate the sexes, and if we then spoke of Big and Little John Smith, or Blonde and Brunette Joan Smith, we would get a further degree of clarification.

Of course what we call the 'family name' or 'surname' is the one that reaches back to our ancestors, and most people know that a Smith is probably descended from someone who shod horses, as a Black probably had an ancestor with dark hair or perhaps swarthy skin. Both are family names given in order to differentiate people. But many surnames are more obscure: how many Brits know for instance that their current PM, David Cameron, has a surname which tells a Gaelic speaker that his ancestor had a crooked nose ('cam srn')? And exactly what kind of ancestor was a Miliband or a Clegg? Given names or first names are generally just as obscure. Most of us know that Peter (and its European cousins Pedro, Pierre, Pyotr, etc) is supposed to signify a rock, from the Bible, but what do John, Joan or David mean?

How many Brits know their current PM's surname tells Gaelic speakers his ancestor had a crooked nose ('cam srn')?
When we turn to hills, most of them also have a surname and a given name and, similarly, their meanings are sometimes transparent, but more often obscure. Black Mountain near Hay-on-Wye is nice and simple for English speakers, following as it does our standard pattern of first (or given) name preceding the family name. It is in words we easily understand the meaning of, too - the family name 'mountain' being an English word (though rarely used in actual names of mountains!), derived from Old French. You might ask, why black? 'Black' hills are often so-called from the dark heather on their slopes, or it could refer to the rock type.

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+Pont's map of 1590 showing The Cobbler as Suy Arthire, 58 kb
Pont's map of 1590 showing The Cobbler as Suy Arthire
UKC Articles, Jan 2011
© Pete Drummond

Unlike humans, hills don't move around, and so a name like 'big hill', given by the locals in one part, never needs to meet its namesakes in other glens and be confused with them.

Most hill names, however, are harder to understand. Take Harter Fell in the Lakes. Fell is a word from Old Norse (ON) - 'fjall' meaning 'mountain' - which has passed into English in the north-west, where the Norse settled. Harter is from ON, too - 'hjartar' meaning 'stag' - which has passed into English as 'hart', but in this example retains the ON 'ar' ending, showing that ON was the spoken language when the hill was named. Hart Fell, over the Scottish border near Moffat, means exactly the same, but the name is in a more regular English form, since the ON suffix has gone.

But what about Scafell, which seems to contain the 'fell' word, but wrapped into a single name with something else? In the study of all place names, hills included, we must always look for the oldest form, as it will be closest to the original meaning. The oldest written record of Scafell that we have is 'Skallfeild' in 1578, which Diana Whaley ('A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names') analyses as ON 'skalli' + 'fjall' - 'bald head fell', in the sense of bare or stony.

There's only one Lady Gaga, and only one Ben Nevis, but for most hills, and most of us, we have to share the world with our namesakes.

So far, so simple - but what about nearby Blencathra, also known as Saddleback? Two languages are involved here, neither of them ON, and the second one in English describing its shape as a concave ridge - is not a translation of the first. Blencathra is from a dead language we call Brittonic (akin to Welsh), and the components are 'blaen' meaning 'top', and 'cadeir' meaning 'seat'. So, unlike Harter Fell or Scafell, in which most of us can understand at least the surname part because 'fjall' has crossed into English as 'fell', all of Blencathra's meaning is hidden from most of us, apart from Welsh speakers who may recognise the elements that compose it. +Blencathra, 118 kb
Blencathra
© Obi Wan, May 2008
But even a fluent Welsh speaker might be misled by the name of the fine Moel Hebog in Snowdonia, which appears to be literally 'bare mountain of the hawk'. In fact the oldest form of the name is 'Morleehedauc' recorded in 1269, which Hywel Owen ('Dictionary of the Place-Names of Wales') analyses as 'moel ehedog', the latter word being rare and meaning 'flying; able to fly', a poetic name for a peak. The very rarity of the word 'ehedog' meant that the commoner and not dissimilar 'hebog' meaning 'hawk, began to replace it in the early 19th century.

Before we move north to Scotland, a point about languages' name order. In Germanic languages German, Norse, English, Scots the normal order is given name followed by family name, or in place name jargon 'specific' then 'generic', where generic tells you what kind of object (or hill) it is, and specific tells you what distinctive features it has. In Romantic and Celtic languages (French, Italian, etc, and Welsh, Gaelic), the order is usually reversed, with generic first, specific second. Thus the Swiss German peak the Weisshorn and the French Mont Blanc both mean the same, except the first is 'white peak' and the second is 'peak white'. The Welsh example just considered has 'moel', a common generic meaning 'bare hill', first. Its Scottish Gaelic cousins 'maol' (also meaning 'bare hill') and the very common 'meall' ('lumpy hill'), also come before the specific in hill names, for example: Maol Donn, 'brown hill', and Meall Dubh, 'black hill'.

Common Gaelic hill name elements

  • beinn, ben = large mountain
  • sgrr = rocky mountain
  • meall = lump, shapeless hill
  • crn = rounded hill (in East)
  • stob = pointed peak (in West)
  • dubh = black, dark
  • dearg = red
  • buidhe = yellow
  • gorm = blue
  • liath = grey

Lochnagar, a mountain made famous by Byron's poem, has a name that even a non-Gaelic speaker will realise is a bit of a curiosity, being named after a loch or lake. It had a previous, real mountain name, as Beinn Cochan, 'mountain of breasts or nipples', referring to the mammary-like granite tors on the summit. Queen Victoria's purchase of Balmoral estate below set a royal seal on using the 'loch' alternative name, rather than the earthy original, in the 19th century...
Most hills in the Scottish Highlands have Gaelic names, and for the tiny numbers who can speak the language, their names are often quite transparent. Gaelic is unique within Britain, and perhaps in Europe, for the sheer number of words it possesses for hills of differing shapes and sizes. Three among them are the well-known 'beinn' (often 'Ben') meaning usually a large bulky mountain; 'sgrr' indicating a rocky peak (the Cuillin is full of them); and 'crn', suggesting a round-topped hill, as in Cairngorm - but there are, I calculate, over 70 more terms, or generics, for 'hill' in Gaelic. (Chapter 1 of my 'Scottish Hill Names' covers them, and the many Scots terms.) But there are some famous mountains apparently not covered by these terms...

Lochnagar, a mountain made famous by Byron's poem, has a name that even a non-Gaelic speaker will realise is a bit of a curiosity, being named after a loch or lake: it comes from 'loch na gire' - 'the lake of noise' (from the burn clattering out of it). But it had a previous, real mountain name, as Beinn Cochan, ''mountain of breasts or nipples', referring to the mammary-like granite tors on the summit. Although the loch's name had begun to replace the summit's name in the 18th century, Queen Victoria's purchase of Balmoral estate below would set a royal seal on using the 'loch' name, rather than the earthy original, in the 19th century.

+Approaching The Cobbler, 141 kb
Approaching The Cobbler
UKC Articles, Jan 2011
© Pete Drummond
Or take the well-known Cobbler in Argyll. Sounds like an English name, because it is a translation of Gaelic's 'An Greusaiche Crom', literally 'the crooked cobbler', from the shape of its central summit like one bending over his last. But although the entire mountain is nowadays called The Cobbler, it is only the central peak that should be so-named: the mountain as a whole, with its three peaks, is properly Ben Arthur. However the earliest map we have showing it, Timothy Pont's of the 1590s, has a little sketch of its dramatic skyline trio, and the name 'Suy Arthire', a phonetic representation of 'suidhe Artair', literally 'Arthur's Seat'. We do not know if it is named after the legendary King Arthur, as Edinburgh's famous hill apparently was, or a Gaelic prince of that name, but he was certainly no mere cobbler!

But to return finally to the 'John Smith question'. Even with a huge range of family names and given names, we all know two or more people of the same name, and most of us have Googled to find our namesakes. That's not a problem unless they share our space our street, or work, or whatever. If they do share that space, we often create nicknames or identifying characteristics to add to the name, such as Old JS, or JS from accounts, or JS from number 15.

Most hill names also occur more than once. There is another Harter Fell in the Lakes, about 30 km away from the one we named earlier but Scotland is where real duplication occurs. There are, for instance, around 60 peaks each with the names Beinn Bhreac ('speckled mountain') or Crn Mr ('big hill'), and very few mountains have a unique name. Unlike humans, hills don't move around, and so names like 'big hill', given by the locals in one part, never need to meet their namesakes in other glens, and be confused with them. There's only one Lady Gaga, and only one Ben Nevis: but for most hills, and most of us, we have to share the world with our namesakes.


+Pete Drummond, 70 kb

About Peter Drummond

Peter Drummond has been climbing hills for nearly 50 years. He has done all the Munros and Corbetts, as well as the Donalds, and has climbed abroad in many parts of Europe, as well as Australia, USA and north Africa.

Pete is the author of Scottish Hill Names and the book details are as follows:

Scottish Hill Names, 2007, Scottish Mountaineering Trust, Glasgow
ISBN 9780907521952
RRP £15

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