The Angry Corrie 50: Jun-Jul 2001

TAC 50 Index

Joined-up geography? (OS Gaelic names policy)

During its ten years on the planet, TAC has often debated how hills and other upland features ought best be named by those who climb and study them. The policy adopted by TACit Tables has (generally) been to choose and use the Ordnance Survey name, even if this sometimes seems illogical or misplaced. But what if the OS provides alternative names on different maps? What if a name clearly includes a spelling mistake? And what of the most vexed aspect of all, bilingualism: we have a predominantly non-Gaelic-speaking mapping agency meddling with / modifying (take your pick) the language in which much of the northern and western landscape is named.

Language evolves, of course (or at least it damn well should), and over the next couple of years it will be interesting to see how the new Explorer maps tackle the trickier Highland problems. And as an overture to that, a new OS policy document needs studying, as Andrew McCloy reports:

BACK IN NOVEMBER last year the Ordnance Survey produced an interesting if little publicised document called "Gaelic names policy". Its clearly stated core aim is to achieve a consistent approach to the use of Gaelic names throughout all OS mapping products. The document begins by setting the scene: "Currently, the regular use of the Gaelic language is generally restricted to the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar). There are in addition significant numbers of Gaelic speakers in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and along the west coast. Some Gaelic names, in pure and modified form are, however, in use throughout Scotland, in particular in relation to natural topographical features, for example, mountains, rivers and lochs."

All straightforward so far, except for those Gaelic speakers in Fife who are clearly living in the wrong place. The document continues to explain the need for a consistent and effective Gaelic "names collection and maintenance policy", and observes that "the principles contained within this document are equally applicable to the treatment and use of Scandinavian names, Scots (Doric), Pictish, Cumbric and Anglian". And just to make sure there's no lurking doubt, it goes on to further clarify matters: "The use of the term 'names' within this document applies to distinctive names only, for example, Steornabhagh, not descriptive names, for example, 'cattle grid'."

Next comes some inevitable trumpet-blowing, where the OS promises to work with the minister for Gaelic to further the understanding of Gaelic names in relation to the impact on Scottish culture, and to "ensure joined-up geography by participating in Gaelic working groups". (What on earth is joined-up geography? Can you get a GCSE in it?) The OS also says it will ensure that "common usage and evidence provided by historical form are both considered when defining the spelling and/or depiction of a name."

So, what will all this mean for your average Scottish hill as depicted on future OS maps? The policy document is very clear over its depiction of the natural environment, with the following statement being printed in bold: "Normally, only one name will be shown which will be the locally and/or historically accepted form, be it in Gaelic or English." Limited exceptions will be made for major features (mountains, hills, islands, headlands and rocks) where there is an established use of the bilingual form - the examples given are Braeriach / Am Braigh Riabhach and Isle of Lewis / Eilean Leodhais. However, make sure to note that "when depicting bilingual names, [the OS will] show the English version first, except where the sequence differs on a nameplate or signboard." Crucially, who is going to decide which name to use? According to the OS the authority for guidance, as they describe it, will fall between 1) historical mapping and local usage and 2) the Gaelic Name Liaison Committee [GNLC]. Moreover, the OS promises not to convert to Gaelic any existing anglicised names on the authority of any one individual, and will co-ordinate any name-change with the local authority through the Gaelic names liaison officer.

I can't help but feel that this document looks quite grand but says very little. In a way it smacks of the OS jumping on the Gaelic bandwagon, while at the same time admitting that most bilingually named hills will stay that way, just as the majority will remain with one given name. It doesn't properly address the wider question of Gaelicisation of anglicised names, other than the OS won't listen to the advice of one person, apparently. (Any one person in particular, I wonder? Could small groups of people lobby for specific names?) And does it imply that the OS will simply nod through the decisions of the GNLC and tacitly accept a general trend towards Gaelicisation of names? The OS is careful not to state this, of course, but to some extent it's already happened on Western Isles maps where even some Nordic-based names have been Gaelicised (eg Roineval has become Roinebhal). It's tempting to speculate that the OS will happily go with the flow so long as they sell more products - especially as their flagship 1:25000 Explorer series is about to embark on its conquest of Scotland.

A little over 200 years ago the national mapping agency came into being partly because English troops got lost in the impene-trable and unmapped Scottish Highlands. Today the Southampton-based cartographers and businessmen are still wary of getting lost in that alien linguistic environment north of the border.

TAC 50 Index