The Angry Corrie 47: Oct-Nov 2000

TAC 47 Index

From Beinn Eighe to Ben Chonzie

Graham Little, operations manager with the Ordnance Survey, was recently to be heard on Radio Scotland discussing the vexed question of Gaelic place names on maps. "Our main concern is usage," he commented. "Not what is grammatically correct but what is used on the ground." With that interesting assertion in mind, and following on from the various hill-naming pieces in TAC46, Val Hamilton now offers her own thoughts on the subject...

"WHERE did you go today?" asked John, the local campsite man in Strontian back in June. "Well, I'm not quite sure how to pronounce it," I hesitated, then gathered up the requisite phlegm and made an attempt at Sgurr Dhomhnuill with the appropriate voiced fricative at the beginning and not much else afterwards (as is common in Gaelic, where "if in doubt, leave out" is not a bad rule of tongue). John looked at me in puzzlement. "The big peak up the road," I explained. "Ach, we just call it Donald," he said.

In an emergency, my main concern would not have been to avoid upsetting local sensibilities but to make sure my audience knew exactly which hill I was talking about. I would not have bothered with throat-clearing and deep breaths but would have said "Donald" and I would have been understood. The incident reminds me of the cartoon which appeared in The Scotsman - this was in the good old days - (don't make me weep - Ed.) after an avalanche accident on Beinn a'Chlaidheimh. One bobble-hatted walker was saying to the other: "Next time, fall off something I can pronounce." In this context, I wonder how the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team refer to the snowy corrie beyond the top car park: how do they choose between the immediately recognisable Corrie Sneckda or the "I'm a member of the cognoscenti who know their Gaelic datives" Coire an trekka?

You could argue that with transparently Gaelic names it is a question of learning the principles - which may be baffling at first but which are remarkably consistent - and then mastering a few new sounds. (Morag MacNeill, though, would claim that the process is one of reclaiming. In Everyday Gaelic she says of gh: "It can't be that difficult - most babies achieve this ghh sound before proper speech.") But there are other names about which no one seems to agree. On the West Highland Line it is common to hear the guard announce Corr-oar on the journey out and Corr-our on the way back. If it derives from Coire Odhar I would have thought the former more likely, but the latter seems to be commoner. You can hear the same split over Camelon - Camel-on or Camer-lon - near Falkirk. All I know is that whichever I use, I always get corrected.

Then there is the hill that dare not speak its name - and unfortunately it is a hill I climb quite frequently. At least it is easy to spell: Ben Chonzie. Various sources including the SMC's The Munros state that it is known as Ben-y-Hone, while Munro's Tables adds Ben Honzay as another local alternative. I could understand if it was called Hon-ie (as Monzie is mon-ie) but "hone" just does not sound right when I say it. So I tend towards that "big harey hill above Comrie" or, depending on the company, a deliberately ironic, what-it-says-on-the-tin, Chonzie. (Similarly, a friend pronounces Ben Venue as if it was a location for concerts.)

Part of the problem for me is that the derivation is unclear. Hamish Brown has it as "hill of the deer cry", as does Donald Bennet in The Munros, but in The Southern Highlands Bennet has "mossy hill". This is also favoured by the maighister Peter Drummond (Scottish Hill and Mountain Names, p167), who gives Beinn na CÚinnich in the text but Beinn a'Choinnich in the footnote with the pronunciation chawnyeech. Drummond has disagreed here (TAC45, p11) with Irvine Butterfield's Beinn Chaoineidh - hill of weeping - which I would have thought would lead to an American Beinn Honey. None of these seem close to "hone".

But why can I not accept that Ben-y-Hone is how it is said? I don't quibble with the idiosyncratic Dumyat - locally always the three-syllable Dum-eye-at and not doomYat as Drummond has it. The reason must be that I am trying to get some payback for the time invested over the years at endless beginners' Gaelic classes. Because of this I cannot use ignorance as an excuse, unlike Dave Brown in Ian Mitchell's Second man on the rope, who gives ignorance as the reason that he used to pronounce Tyndrum like the GŁnter Grass novel. Many others still do, including mega-Munroist mailman Charlie Campbell (see pp4-5), heard performing a stand-up comedy dialogue on Fred MacAulay's breakfast show one recent Monday morning. As Dave Brown says, if it is not ignorance then it must be arrogance, especially if you are English.

All this said (in whatever accent), most people in Scot-land do not speak Gaelic, so there will be times when the desire to communicate will conflict with the wish to preserve a culture. Communication will win, as it should. As for Chonzie, I am moving house soon and my doorstep big hill will be Ben Lomond, which I can cope with.

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