Alba: Part 1

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

Alex Salmond announces the Alba Party

Today I am announcing the public launch of a new political force—the Alba Party.

Alex Salmond, 28 March 2021

As we trundle towards an impending Scottish Parliamentary election, we seem to have acquired a new political party. From the name, Alba, one could be forgiven for assuming that the new party was created by people who feel that the Scottish National Party is in some way deficient in its Scottish-National-ness.

Alba is the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland. At time of writing, there seems to be some confusion in the party ranks as to whether to pronounce the name in the Gaelic fashion (ˈalapə) or the Scots (ˈalba), but the BBC is firmly on the side of the Gaelic.

When I first looked into the origin of this name, quarter of a century ago, the narrative I encountered was that it had originated with Latin alba, “white”—a reference to the White Cliffs of Dover, which would be familiar to Romans crossing the English Channel to the island of Britain. The story for Alba then required a rather convoluted series of events in which speakers of Old Irish adopted the Roman name for the island of Britain, then repurposed it to apply to Scotland, and then transmitted the name into Scottish Gaelic.

So I’m interested to find that the story now places the origin of the name Alba firmly within the Celtic language family—tracing Old Irish Albu, “Scotland” back to a (reconstructed) Proto-Celtic word albiyu, and then to the (even more reconstructed) Proto-Indo-European root albho-, meaning “white”. In this narrative, it is Proto-Indo-European that gives rise to both Latin alba and Gaelic Alba, by separate strands of linguistic evolution, and the similarity between the two words should not be interpreted as a direct connection.

It’s probable that the name Albion, which initially designated the island of Britain, but is now generally reserved as a poetic name for England, is also of Celtic origin. It appeared in Latin as insula Albionum (“Albion island”), a name apparently derived from various Greek sailing directions that are now lost, and which may in turn have derived the name Albion from the name used by the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the island. French inherited the name from Latin, and English borrowed it from French. Albion is largely remembered now in the phrase “perfidious Albion”, directly translated from the French phrase la perfide Albion, which was popular at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. But Lord Byron deployed it to great effect in his paean to the Scottish mountain Lochnagar:

Years have roll’d on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
⁠Years must elapse, ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
⁠Yet still are you dearer than Albion’s plain:
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
⁠To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar:
Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic,
⁠The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but if Alba and Albion actually have nothing to do with the White Cliffs of Dover, what’s the connection with “white”? Indirect, is the answer. It seems that when Proto-Indo-European albho-, “white”, became Proto-Celtic albiyu, it assumed a more metaphorical meaning, something like “bright place” or “high place”, perhaps as a contrast with a mythical dark underworld. The ancient Britons that Greek sailors would have encountered when they first ventured north would have spoken Brittonic languages, derived from Proto-Celtic. So if the Britons did indeed call their homeland something that the Greeks rendered as Albion, the name perhaps had connotations with happy, sunlit spaces.

In Ireland, the inhabitants were speaking another set of Celtic languages, called Goidelic, which had diverged somewhat from Brittonic. In Scotland, the native Picts spoke a language that was probably more closely related to Brittonic. So the Irish may have adopted their name for Scotland, Albu, from the Picts’ own name for their homeland. Or perhaps the Irish just looked across the North Channel at Scotland and used their own word for “high place”.

Interestingly, Proto-Indo-European albho- seems to have undergone a similar evolution during the development of the Germanic languages. Old High German alba meant “high pasture”. The Romans adopted the word to give the name Alpes to the mountain range in which these high pastures occur. In English, that became Alps. And later, by back-formation, we came up with the singular alp to designate those same high pastures that gave the mountains their Latin name.

But back in Scotland, the Old Irish name Albu developed into Alba in the Scottish Gaelic spoken by the Irish-descended inhabitants of the Kingdom of Dál Riata on the west coast of Scotland. And they eventually ended up running the whole of northern Scotland when King Kenneth I of Dál Riata became King of the Picts, too, in the year 843. The language of the Picts was lost after this Gaelic take-over, and Alba became the name of the new combined kingdom.

English chroniclers writing in Latin, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, referred to the consolidated Kingdom of Alba as Albania,* which mutated in English to Albany. Although there are now places called Albany all over the world, the name isn’t much used in Scotland, except for the intermittently created title Duke of Albany, occasionally bestowed on younger sons of Scottish (and then British) monarchs. In Scotland, we pronounce it with a short front “a” (ˈalbəni), in contrast to the capital of of New York State, which takes a long, rounded vowel (ˈɔːlbəni).

So that’s the convoluted story that ends with Alba being considered an epitome of Scottishness today. Next time, I’ll write about some of the English words that Proto-Indo-European albho- gave rise to.

* The country in southeastern Europe, called Albania in English but Shqipëri by its citizens, gets its name from an ancient tribe called the Albanoi by the Greeks. To what extent this name was related to whiteness, or to mountainous terrain, or to neither, seems to be a matter for debate.

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