As part of the Gaelic in the Landscape project, we commissioned Dr Peter McNiven to undertake a place-name study of the area around Callander. The final report can be viewed here and below Peter discusses some notable highlights from his findings.
Researching place-names is a bit like being an archaeologist with words. Instead of digging we search documents of many different types – including medieval royal and ecclesiastical records, poetry by Walter Scott, and old maps. By looking at early spellings of place-names we are looking for clues as to what they mean, especially when Gaelic place-names have been anglicised and difficult to interpret. For example, in the hills above Callander there is a place called Thomasgreen. It looks for all the world like a green meadow that belonged to someone called Thomas. However, when it first comes on record in 1765 as Tomnascriden, we can tell it is something completely different, and is in fact a Gaelic name, Tom an Sgrìodain meaning ‘hillock of the scree or stony ravine’. Once we “crack the code” of each place-name in an area, we can use them to tell us about how people lived in and viewed their landscape in the past.
Place-names are one of our most important resources for understanding the historic landscape, especially in rural areas, and they help us to track change and continuity in language, land use, politics, nature, industry, religion and much more besides. Most of all, they can tell us about people. Who lived here? What language did they speak? How did they use, work, and understand this landscape?
During my studies of Menteith and its surroundings it has become abundantly clear that the area, including Callander, is a predominantly Gaelic landscape. Scots, Scots Standard English, and especially British, place-names are comparatively rare. The legacy of Gaelic in the Callander area goes back hundreds of years and despite a general decline in speakers from around the 15th century, it has remained here until the present day. In the late 18th century, there was still a considerable amount of monolingual Gaelic speakers in the area, especially towards the Trossachs and the upland areas beyond the Pass of Leny. For example in 1775, 84 people lived at Bochastle and 35 of them only spoke Gaelic.
By looking at place-names we can discover much about how people interacted with this landscape. Agricultural heritage is a relatively prominent feature of the Callander landscape, with areas of arable farming concentrated to the north-east, east, and south-east of the town (Balgibbon, Balmeanoch, Balvalachlan, Auchenlaich, and Auchleshie). There is a surprising dearth of pastoral place-names in upland areas however, with a notable exception being Creag na h-Olla ‘crag of the wool’). Shieling place-names are common though, including the intriguing Arivurichardich, or in modern Scots Gaelic orthography, Àirigh Mhòr a’ Cheàrdaich ‘big shieling of the smithy’, which is located on high ground approximately 6km north of Callander. Indeed, there is a partially forgotten industrial history on the slopes of Ben Ledi as seen with Creag nan Sgliat ‘crag of the slates’ and Coire na Meine ‘corrie of the mine’, both found on the mountain’s eastern slopes.
Many place-names are linked with stories or legends, and the area around Callander is no different. Traces of Fenian tradition can be detected at Allt nan Sliseag and Ben Gullipen, both place-names which feature in tales of the death of the famous hero Diarmad. Some names in Callander contain the element cailleach ‘old woman, hag’, with two notable examples near the foot of Ben Ledi and along the Keltie Water just north of Bracklinn Falls (Linn Lag na Caillich ‘pool of the hollow of the Cailleach’ and Eas na Caillich ‘waterfall of the Cailleach’). These place-names may simply indicate places where a notable older woman once lived or worked, but they could relate to the legendary personification of winter, Cailleach Bheur, or indeed the Cailleach who often appears in stories related to Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Callander’s links to St Kessog are common knowledge and some place-names provide a deeper understanding of the area’s religious landscape. Gartenjore is a curious place-name lost to modern maps, last appearing in records from 1775 and located just north of Loch Venachar (NN586066). The name in modern Gaelic is Gart an Deòraidh ‘enclosed field or settlement of the relic keeper’ and we know from a document dating to 1577 that this ‘relic keeper’ performed a special religious function before the Reformation in 1560: ringing a bell in advance of funeral parties. The tribulations of the church may even be detectable in place-names, with some related to Catholic practice (Achadh an Easbuig ‘field of the bishop’; Maol an t-Sagairt ‘bald hill of the priest’), while others may relate to preaching in the Protestant Kirk either at the time of the Reformation in 1560 or during the Disruption of 1843 (Tom an Fhacail ‘hillock of the word’).
Some names related to the weather seem particularly apt, even in the present day. On the slopes of Ben Gullipen, the settlement of Greenock (now Braes of Greenock) comes from the Gaelic grianag ‘sunny knoll’ and lies on a favourable, south-facing slope. The northern slopes of Ben Ledi feature Coire na Fuaire ‘corrie of the cold’, which must have been a particularly chilly spot when first named. Hillwalkers will probably agree it remains well-named to this day!
This provides just a snapshot of the wealth of detail that can be uncovered through place-name research. I would invite you to explore the full report for yourself and see what catches your eye. I hope this research will help you to gain a deeper appreciation of the historic landscape around us in Callander.