Irish mountain names and their international links
by Paul Tempan
If you have ever been climbing in the Highlands of Scotland, I am sure you have been struck by the similarity of the place-names to those in Ireland. Near Tyndrum, north of Loch Lomond, you can find Beinn Chaorach, a twin of Binn Chaorach (Beenkeragh) in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks; Binn Ghulbain (Benbulbin) in Co. Sligo has a number of namesakes in the Highlands which share the connection with the legend of Diarmaid and Grainne; and only the slope of an accent distinguishes Cruach Mhòr near Inveraray in Argyll from Cruach Mhór, its counterpart in the Reeks.
It is only to be expected that many of the elements frequently occurring in the mountain names of Ireland are also common to large parts of Scotland and the Isle of Man, since varieties of Gaelic (sometimes called q-Celtic) were once widely spoken here. More surprising, perhaps, are the strong connections that can be traced between Irish names and those in Brittonic (or p-Celtic) areas of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Celtic names have even survived in other parts of England and France, reminding us how extensive this language zone once was. The following article highlights some of these pan-Celtic connections and will help hill-walkers to spot others.
Barr – ‘top, summit’
This word is the first element in the names Baurtregaum (Barr Trí gCom, ‘top of three cooms’), Barraboy (Barr Buí, ‘yellow top’) and Barrerneen (Barr Uirnín, ‘top of Uirnín townland’). The Irish name of Brandon Peak, situated south of the summit of Mount Brandon, is Barr an Ghéaráin (‘top of the fang’). War Hill near Djouce in Wicklow is a disguised form of Cnoc an Bhairr.
Related Scottish names include Bàrr nan Eun (Barnean, ‘summit of the birds’), a farm in Wigtownshire and Meall a’ Bhàrr (‘lump of the summit’), a Munro top in Perthshire. The town of Dunbar is ‘fort of the hill-top’.
The Berwyn Mountains are near Llangollen in North Wales. Berwyn is interpreted as ‘white summit’. The second element is a form of the adjective gwyn, which ultimately has the same origin as Ir. fionn.
Beann/binn – ‘peak, point, cliff’
Binn occurs in Benbaun (Binn Bhán), Beenoskee (Binn os Gaoith) and Binevenagh (Binn Fhoibhne). Beann is of the same origin and appears in the names of several hills on the Iveragh Peninsula, including Beann, a neighbour of Mullaghanattin, as well as Beann Dubh, Beann Bhán and Beann Dearg, all on the W. edge of the Reeks.
Its equivalent in Scottish Gaelic is, of course, beinn, which appears in so many Scottish mountain names, such as Beinn Nibheis (Ben Nevis) and Beinn Macduibh (Ben Macdui). As well as these familiar examples, there are names in which beinn appears as the second element, e.g. Ladhar Bheinn and Luinne Bheinn, two peaks in the North-West Highlands. It probably also occurs in Suilven, Foinaven (both in Sutherland) and Blaven (Skye’s only Munro outside the Cuillin).
The Manx equivalent appears in Bing Vradda, a coastal hilltop near Port Erin, and Beinn-y-Phott, a neighbour of Snaefell.
The Brittonic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton) also have cognate words, e.g. Welsh ban (plural bannau), the best known example being Bannau Brycheiniog (the Brecon Beacons). More often, however, it is the ‘mutated’ form fan that we encounter in place-names (the result of a grammatical change similar to the changes affecting certain initial consonants in Irish), e.g. Pen-y-Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons, or Tryfan, one of the craggiest mountains in Snowdonia. Tryfan means ‘conspicuous or extreme peak,’ a name which is well deserved given its steepness. There is no easy way up Tryfan and it is one of the few Welsh mountains that requires even experienced climbers to use their hands.
Travelling a little further afield, there are related names of Gaulish origin in France, e.g. Banne (departement of Ardèche), Bannes (Lot), and Banat (Ariege). All of these are names of towns or villages, although they are probably derived from hill-names.
Around 150 A.D. the Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus recorded the name of Lake Garda in Northern Italy as bennakon limnin. This probably derives from a Celtic word *bennakom meaning 'pointed' (lake), like Ir. beannach, a name which may refer to the surrounding mountains.
Carn – ‘cairn, heap, mound’
The English word 'cairn', so familiar to hill-walkers, is a loan-word from Celtic. Corran, a 407m peak in the Nagles Mountains, Co. Cork, and Carran, a 600m mountain near Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, are both derived from carn, the Irish form of this word. Like many Irish hills bearing this name, both of these are topped by substantial cairns, possibly burial mounds of some antiquity. Carn is particularly common amongst the northern hills, e.g. Carntogher (‘cairn of the causeway’) in the Sperrins, Carncormick (‘Cormac’s cairn’) in N. Antrim and Carnavaddy (‘cairn of the dog’) in the Cooley Mountains, Co. Louth.
Càrn is a very common element in Scottish mountain names, occurring in the names of some of the highest peaks in the Highlands, such as Cairn Toul (Càrn an t-Sabhail, ‘cairn of the barn’, 1293m), Cairn Gorm (Càrn Gorm, ‘blue cairn’, 1245m), Càrn Mòr Dearg (‘big red cairn’, 1223m) and Càrn Eige (‘cairn of the notch’, 1183m). Needless to say, at such an altitude these names are inspired by the mountain’s resemblance to a huge cairn rather than by the presence of an actual burial cairn on the summit.
On the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales, Carn Fadryn is a hill with a fort on its summit and Carn Guwch has an ancient cairn. Many Welsh names contain the mutated form garn. In Snowdonia there are two major peaks named Y Garn (‘the cairn’): one is a neighbour of the Glyders; the other is at the N.E. end of the Nantlle Ridge. The derivative carnedd has a similar meaning. Carnedd Ddafydd (1044m) and Carnedd Llywelyn (1062m) commemorate two Welsh princes.
In England, Blencarn, near Cross Fell, is one of a number of villages in the Northern Pennines whose names show a typically Celtic structure. It means ‘valley-head of the cairn’. Prior to the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent in the 5th century, much of Northern England and Southern Scotland was occupied by British population groups who spoke Cumbric, a language related to Welsh.
Carn also occurs in Cornwall, though it seems to have the sense of 'tor', 'hill' or 'headland' in most Cornish names. Carn Brea is a hill near Camborne and Redruth, covered with ancient sites such as hut circles and ramparts. Some of these remains date back to Neolithic times. However, the name seems to mean 'heap of stones on a hill', referring to a natural rock tor on the summit rather than any man-made cairn.
Cnoc - ‘hill’
This is the most common element in Irish hill and mountain names. In Munster, in contrast to the other provinces, cnoc is not just applied to low hills but also to some of the highest mountains, such as Cnoc an Chuillinn (‘hill of the rolling slope’, 958m), Knocknadobar (Cnoc na dTobar, ‘hill of the springs’, 690m) and Knockowen (Cnoc Eoghain, 658m). The diminutive cnocán occurs in Cnocán an Phiopaire, (Knockaunapheebra, ‘hillock of the piper’), one of the highest peaks in the Comeragh Mountains (726m).
In Scotland cnoc is restricted to lower hills, such as Cnoc Braonach (‘hill of drizzle’) in the shadow of Suilven, and Cnoc a’ Chrochaire (‘hill of the hangman’) on the Hebridean island of Coll.
Cronk is the Manx equivalent. Cronk-ny-Mona means ‘hill of the turbary’. Cronk-ny-Merriu, meaning ‘hill of the dead’, is the site of an Iron Age promontory fort.
The equivalent word in Welsh is cnwch, but it is not particularly common in place-names. A rare example is the village of Cnwclas (Knucklas, ‘green hill’) in Powys.
The Breton equivalent is krec'h, which is used to denote a burial mound or tumulus as well as a natural hill. Créac'h is the site of a famous lighthouse at Ouessant off the tip of Finisterre. The element also occurs in the names of several tumuli around the Gulf of Morbihan. The colossal tumulus er Grah is at Locmariaquer, while a smaller mound known as le Grah-Niol is at Arzon.
The root from which cnoc is derived is not only found in the Celtic languages. The original sense seems to be 'bump' or 'protuberance'. This is illustrated by the English word 'neck', which originally meant the nape of the neck. 'Knuckle' also contains this root with a suffix, but to find examples in Germanic place-names one has to look a little further afield. In the Austrian Alps there is a region called Nockgebirge where many of the summits have names ending in nock, such as Mirnock, Hoher Nock, Rosennock and Wöllaner Nock. The word nock is defined in German dictionaries as a hill with a round or flattened summit, a description which would equally suit many of the Irish peaks named cnoc. It may have entered the German language from the continental Celtic language which was spoken in Central Europe on the continent In the Faroe Islands one can find hill names in knúkur, which have the look of loans from Celtic but are better explained as parallel developments from a common Indo-European root. One of the peaks overlooking the village of Leirvík is called Knókur, while the highest peak on the island of Mykines (560m) is named Knúkur.
Cruach - ‘stack, rick, pile’
Given the original meaning of this word, it is not surprising that most of the mountains with names in cruach show a symmetrical triangular profile, rather like a haystack. This is very evident in the case of na Cruacha Dubha (MacGillycuddy’s Reeks) or, to give them their full and rather poetic title, Cruacha Dubha Mhic Giolla Mochuda. Seen from the N., many of the peaks in the group rise to elegant points. This includes Cruach Mhór and its lower neighbour Cruach Bheag. The same can be said of Cruach Phádraig (Croagh Patrick) and Cruach Mhárthain (Croaghmarhin, near Ballyferriter, Co. Kerry).
Cruach is not particularly common in Scottish place-names, but it features in a whole cluster of hills in Argyll, including Cruach nan Capull (‘stack of the horses’), Cruach nan Caorach (‘stack of the sheep’) and Cruach Mhòr (‘big stack’), a twin of the Kerry Cruach Mhór.
The Welsh equivalent is crug meaning ‘knoll’ or ‘mound’, as in Crug Hywel. (‘Hywel’s mound’), a cairn on Table Mountain in the Black Mountains. This site gave its name to the nearby village of Crickhowell. A few miles to the N.E. is a mountain named Crug Mawr, yet another namesake of Cruach Mhór.
Variants of this same element are found in English village names, e.g. as a simplex in Creech (Dorset and Somerset), Crich (Derbyshire), Crook (Devon and Dorset) and Crutch (Worcestershire); or as the first element in Crookbarrow (Worcestershire) and Crooksbury (Surrey).
The Breton cognate of cruach is krug. The diminutive form is krugell, which appears in the name of the village Cruguel (département of Morbihan).
Creag/Creig/Screag/Screig - ‘crag’
Creag denotes a rocky outcrop and appears in Cragnamurragh, one of the highest tops in Slieve Bernagh, Co. Clare. The variant creig is found in Ulster hill-names such as Craigatinnel in Co. Antrim, Craignamaddy in Inishowen and Craiggore in Co. Derry.
Screig Mhór and Screig Bheag are two craggy tops at the W. end of the Reeks. Scragg is a rocky spur of Baurtregaum in the Slieve Mish. Screig/screag is a further variant of creig/creag. The addition of an initial s- is the same phenomenon which occurs in the names Steach Maoilin (Stamullen) and Stigh Lorgan (Stillorgan), where an s- is prefixed to the word teach/tigh.
A number of Scotland’s Munros have names in creag, including Creag Leacach (‘slabby crag’) near Lochnagar and Creag Mhòr in the Mamlorn Hills. The latter is essentially the same name as Kerry’s Screig Mhór.
In Snowdonia, Craig Llugwy is between Carnedd Ddafydd and Carnedd Llywelyn and Craig Wen dominates the approach to Snowdon from Beddgelert.
It is, of course, from the Celtic languages that the word crag has entered the English language. It ‘crops up’ in names of Lake District outcrops, such as Raven Crag (numerous examples) and Helm Crag (near Grasmere).
Sliabh - ‘mountain’
Sliabh can mean a single mountain, as in Sliabh gCuillinn (Slieve Gullion); a range of mountains, as in Sliabh Gamh (Slieve Gamph or the Ox Mountains); or an area of bog or moorland, as in Sliabh an Droichid (Slievadrehid, a townland near Cloghane, Co. Kerry).
Sliabh does occur in Scotland but, barring the odd exception, such as Sliabh Ghaoil (‘darling mountain’ or ‘mountain of love’, 562m) in Kintyre, it is applied mainly to tracts of moorland, sometimes quite low. The densest clusters of these names are on the island of Jura and on the Rhinns of Galloway. In the latter area it is frequently anglicised as slew, e.g. Slewcarn and Slewnain. None of the Munros have names in sliabh.
By contrast, many of Man’s highest peaks have names in slieau, the Manx equivalent of sliabh, e.g. Slieau Lhean (‘broad mountain’), Slieau Dhoo (‘black mountain’) and Slieau Freoghane (‘bilberry mountain’).
Sliabh does not seem to have a clear equivalent in the Brittonic languages.
Although the Welsh llwyfan (‘platform’, loft’, ‘stage’) may be related,
it is not productive in place-names.
One element for which I haven’t found any Celtic twins is corrán, as in Corrán Tuathail (Carrauntoohil). Any takers?
Paul Tempan would welcome feedback on this article.
Many thanks to Joseph Kelleher and Len Tempan for permission to use their photographs. Thanks also to Peter Drummond for information on the Scottish names and to Dr. John Sheehan for bringing my attention to the knokkur names in the Faroes.
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