Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 1

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

The pronunciation of Gaelic hill names is fraught with difficulty for the non-Gael. One problem is the striking way in which some consonants are not pronounced at all. This is the Gaelic phenomenon of lenition, in which the addition of an “h” to a consonant changes and softens its pronunciation. Some lenited consonants, particularly “dh” and “gh”, have a tendency to disappear entirely when they appear towards the end of a word. More vexingly, when “bh” appears in a similar position it is sometimes pronounced (as “v”), and sometimes omitted—and the practice varies not only between words, but between dialects of Gaelic. So you can hear the second-person plural pronoun sibh pronounced “shiv”, “sheev” or “shoe”, for instance.* The “mh” pair is also sounded as a “v”, but rarely disappears; “th”, on the other hand, can either vanish or sound like “h”.

Then there are the vowels, which sometimes appear in clusters unfamiliar to English speakers, which sometimes indicate sounds not present in English, which are sometimes used to alter the quality of neighbouring consonants in unfamiliar ways, and which tend to reduce to short, simple sounds towards the end of a word—either a short neutral vowel or a short “ih” sound.

This tendency for consonants to disappear and vowels to collapse as one nears the end of a Gaelic word led one early (English-speaking) writer to remark:

[T]he terminations, where they exist, are so much curtailed, and in practice slurred over and cheated of their proper value in such a fashion, that for the common purposes of social communication they scarcely seem to exist.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 4th Edition (1875)

Monoglot English speakers, confronted with disconcerting Gaelic orthography, tend to pass through three distinct stages in their Scottish hillwalking lives. First, there’s the nervous pointing at the map phase (“We’ll climb … um … this one here”). Then there’s the treat it like it’s English phase, usually delivered in an apologetic mumble (“Have you been up, um, Sgurr Nan Keith-Ream-Han?”). Then there’s the slow acquisition of “standard” Anglicized versions of the hill names, either from walking guides or other walkers. But Hillwalkers’ Gaelic (which I’ll abbreviate “HG”) is often some distance from the original Scottish Gaelic (“SG”)—there’s a strong tendency to bend Gaelic vowel sounds towards English norms, to ignore unfamiliar Gaelic colouring of the consonants, and to either drop or overemphasize short terminal vowels—Gaelic has a lot of words that end with an unstressed schwa vowel (like a little “uh”); English, very few.

So HG is a rendering of SG in which the vowels and consonants are made to sound more like English (often influenced by the English-speaker’s interpretation of the Gaelic spelling). Have a listen below, for instance, to Sorley MacLean’s Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Aonach Eagach in an episode of The Munro Show, and then wait for a few seconds to hear Muriel Gray’s rendering of the same name in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. (Then turn the video off again, or you’ll go mad. Seriously.)

MacLean says /ɯːnəx ekəx/, starting with an unrounded vowel that doesn’t occur in English, using short neutral vowels in the second syllables of each word, and employing a soft “k” sound for the “g”; but Gray says /anax iɡax/, which is the standard HG pronunciation—simple Scottish front “a” sounds throughout, apart from an “ee” at the start of eagach where MacLean has an “ay”, followed by a hard “g” instead of his “k”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about this—it’s just what always happens to foreign words when they’re imported into another language. And any Scottish hillwalker who was ill-advised enough to claim to have traversed the “oenuch aykuch” would find themselves swiftly put right: “Do you mean the annach eegach?”

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic was essentially invented in two stages—first by Ordnance Survey surveyors, who sought out a few locals (often literate landowners and ministers) and then did their best to transcribe what they heard into their regional Name Books; then by a succession of Victorian climbers and walkers, who reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement about the “standard” names of the things they climbed.

I was prompted to write about all this when I happened on a poem in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal for 1897 (Vol.4 p.238), which I reproduce here on the assumption that it’s long out of copyright, and in any case freely available from the SMC’s own website. While being entertaining and/or puzzling in its own right, it can also tell us a lot about the difference between Hillwalkers’ Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.

The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue

Oh, a terrible tongue is the tongue of the Gael,
And the names of his mountains make Southrons turn pale;
It’s ill to pronounce them, to spell them is worse,
And they’re not very easy to hitch into verse.

A mountain’s a mountain in England, but when
The climber’s in Scotland, it may be a Beinn,
A Creag or a Meall, a Spidean, a Sgòr,
A Carn or a Monadh, a Stac, or a Torr.

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snothaidh,
And nothing will staim
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
If he’s long in the leagaidh
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
Or, job that is hardhoire,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest weighe
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blubh.
Very grand is the vuidhe
Will get from Meall Buidhe,
But more will he sithe
From Bruach na Frithe.
Then for sport that is raoghal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
And surely will straidheimh
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
And gaze from afarr
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an abhar,
But considerably leas
The ascent of Carn Eas.
Now one cannot conciol
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Are hardly as sheur
As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Nor can one mainteadhoin
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Surpasses the vaoigh
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

And besides the above there are dozens which I’m
Unable at present to put into rhyme;
Whilst most of these hills, it’s no libel to say,
Are easier climbed than pronounced, any day!


I’m grateful to Dave Hewitt for identifying “L.W.H.” as (most likely) the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. (His middle name was “Wordsworth”, which seems almost appropriate.)

Next time, I’ll go through the middle part of the poem a couplet at a time, elucidating the various hills, Gaelic names and linguistic acrobatics involved.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* This tendency to pronounce a terminal “bh” as “oo” explains why the hill with the Gaelic name Beinn Mheanbh is commonly known as Ben Venue.

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