The Angry Corrie 72: Nov 2007-Jan 2008

A cock and hill story

Scottish Hill Names, by Peter Drummond, drawings by John Mitchell

Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 2007, ISBN 9 7809075219 5 2, 240pp, 15

Review: Gordon Smith

Cock Law. Meikle Shag. Rodger Law. Wood Hill. Dick's Hill. Rotten Bottom. Mount Maw. Cockplay Hill.

There are some hill names that speak to the part of me that is forever ten years old: I am somewhat ashamed to admit that a perusal of the OS maps of southern Scotland can still result in explosive laughter and projectile expulsion of tea. And not just the south of Scotland: on a 2003 trip below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was sadly delighted to find that the rolling green Appalachians are almost invariably suffixed with the K-word: Bald Knob. Big Knob. Big Rough Knob. Potato Knob.

Fortunately Peter Drummond has taken a more serious attitude to the subject of hill names than my oh-Aggers-do-stop-it approach, as befits the author of an MSc dissertation on the subject. Cock Law and Cockplay Hill, for our information, probably took their names from association with the cock bird of the black grouse: nothing to do with the human willie at all!

But enough of the smutty prep school humour (see TAC48 p16): to business. Scottish Hill Names is a revised and expanded second edition of the original 1991 SMT publication (entitled Scottish Hill and Mountain Names). It broadly consists of three parts: Hill Name Generics, in effect a glossary of toponyms; a regional guide to the hill names; and a couple of thematic chapters exploring hill names with human and animal connections.

All this is prefaced by an introduction which briefly describes the linguistic history of Scotland and its influence on toponymy: the earliest P-Celtic hill names (Ochils); more recent Q-Celtic Gaelic (all those beinns); invasive Old Norse (fells and Cuillin, but more of that later); and Scots (laws). The story of the Scots language is a bit more complex than Mr Drummond has space for: he tells us that Scots hill names probably date from after the 14th century when Scots became the dominant language of the south and east; but the language (including the word law) had been in common use in these areas for centuries before this, developing through Anglian, Northumbrian and Northern Middle English. Woden Law in the Borders, named after the pre-christian deity, hints at earlier naming.

The section on Hill Name Generics must be applauded as a significant work of scholarship. From aodann and aghaidh through to uchd, Mr Drummond alphabetically explains and exemplifies every hill-signifier, Celtic or Germanic, currently found on the map of Scotland. And there are lots of them: 111 headwords with many variants.

image from source document

There follows a survey of Scotland by region, roughly mirroring the SMC district guide divisions. Thus we begin with the Islands including Skye, then over the bridge to the North-West Highlands, thence east and south. Mr Drummond departs from SMC orthodoxy by devoting a separate chapter to the Central Lowlands, detaching the Ochils from the Southern Highlands and the Pentlands from the Southern Uplands on sound geological grounds.

The most detailed etymological discussion in the district guide is on the subject of the name Cuillin. In the course three pages, Mr Drummond disposes of a number of theories regarding derivation of the name of the Skye ridge: he rejects any connection with Celtic heroes Cuchullin and Fingal; he refutes the rather uninspiring suggestion that the name comes from cuil, a corner; and likewise the more attractive and imaginative link to cuillionn, holly, which this aggiest of ridges might be considered to resemble.

Mr Drummond (rightly, I believe) prefers Old Norse to Gaelic as the origin of the name, but appears to tie himself in an unnecessary knot in his explanation. He tells us that the etymon of Cuillin is "...Norse kiolen, meaning high rocky mountain" (page 15); this claim, repeated more than once, is supported by reference to the SMC Journal for 1916, in which an anonymous Danish person claims that kjolen is Old Norse for high rocks. Scandinavian Kiolen/Kjolen peak and range names are also cited in support of this thesis. However I fear Mr Drummond, like Ophelia, has been confused by the Dane: so far as I know, there is no word of this meaning in Old Norse, nor in modern Scandinavian.

The true origin of Cuillin is surely kjlr, a ship's keel, but used figuratively in Old Icelandic to describe a mountain range. Mr Drummond perversely rejects this direct derivation, clinging to his high rocks by the fingernails. But almost certainly any association of kiol-/kjol- elements with "high rocks" is because those high rocks are found on mountains already named after ships' keels.

This derivation is supported by another obviously Norse cuil- name, Cuilags on Hoy, for which Mr Drummond surprisingly provides no explanation. There are certainly high rocks to the west of Cuilags in the form of the cliffs of St John's Head: but these would be more likely to have names derived from Old Norse bjarg or berg (eg Foreberry).

From Stromness, Cuilags and Ward Hill certainly have a similarity to two upturned boats: I would suggest that Cuilags takes its name from the glen between the two hills, and is perhaps derived from kjl-vegr, a way across a mountain ridge. This is a minor quibble, perhaps, in the context of an interesting and valuable book which I would otherwise not hesitate to recommend.

The work is rounded off with a couple of less essential chapters examining the use of animal, vegetable, mineral and human cognomina. A suggestion for the third edition: these should be replaced by a gazetteer of comedy hill names, preferably of a puerile nature. Knockenshag, anyone?

Ed. - There was almost an amusing case of misnaming in July, halfway up the Saddle (see pp12-14 for more on the day in question). Mr Drummond and his noble friend Mr Ian R Mitchell were among those heading for the summit when they encountered TAC's proofreader, who had with her a couple of other friends. The proof-reader (who requests anonymity) attempted to introduce the scholarly pair to her companions with: "This is Ian Mitchell and Pete ... er ... Pete Doh ... er ...", and just about managed to say Drummond before he became Pete Doherty. Needless to say, within the corridors of TAC Towers, Ian Mitchell is now known as Kate Moss.

TAC 72 Index