Township: Tiree

Map Reference:

Name Type:

Meaning: Several writers have attempted to understand the origins of the island’s name. ‘The Isle of Tiree is so called from Tire ‘a country’, and Iy ‘an isthmus’; the rocks in the narrow channel seem to favour the etymology.’ (Martin 1695, 294)
‘The etymology of Tiree is somewhat uncertain. In the [Old] Statistical Account the name is said to be derived from Tir-i ‘the land of Iona’, commonly called in the Gaelic language I, or more agreeably to the sound ee; it being supposed that Tiree was of old in the possession of the church and was used as a granary for the religious establishment which flourished in that once celebrated island. Others again are of the opinion that the name is derived from Tir-reidh (pronounced Tir- re), signifying ‘the flat or level land’.’ (New Statistical Account Tiree 1845, 195)
1. Iron Age: The kernel of the name of the island itself, written today as ScG Tiriodh or E Tiree, is pre-Norse, pre-Celtic and may well have its origins in the Pictish Iron Age. Watson’s 1926 analysis is still compelling. He reconstructed the oldest form of the name as *Heth [hi:?].
‘The ancient forms [of the name Tiree], ancient and modern, cannot be reconciled with each other, and their diversity indicates that the second part is not Gaelic, possibly not even Celtic.’ (Watson 1993, 85)
2. ad 500 – 800: The Early Gaelic-speaking settlers of Dál Riata re-semanticised *Heth as EG Tìr Iath ‘the land of Iath’, adding the EG tìr ‘land’ and with the stress on what they considered the ‘specific’ second element. This is how it was recorded in Latin and Old Irish in the old Irish texts.
‘Ethica Terra, ‘the land of Eth’, also called Ethica insula, ‘the isle of Eth’, is Tiree; the sea between Tiree and Hí [Iona] is called Ethicum pelagus. In other Latin Lives of the Saints, [Tiree] is called Heth, Heth regio [and] terra Heth.’ (Watson 1993, 85) ‘In Irish literature the name [Tiree] occurs, so far as I have noted, only twice, once in the Book of Ballymote (205 a 11), where the Cruithne [Picts] are said to have gone from Ireland to ‘Tìr-iath beyond Islay’ (i tìr iath seach Íle), and again in Rawlinson B 502 (115 a 5) where Labraid Loingsech is stated to have razed eight towers in Tiree (ort ocht turu Tìri iath). The poem in Rawlinson is very old. The fact that Adamnan’s [Latin] Eth- becomes Old Irish Iath proves that the e of Eth- is the long Early Celtic e (for ei), which is retained in the very oldest specimens of Old Irish and in some Irish names in the Latin Lives of the Saints, but which by AD 800 had been broken to ia when it was followed by a broad vowel in the next syllable. Thus ?th became iath, as C?ran (the saint’s name) became Ciaran. This, as Kuno Meyer has pointed out, is fatal to Dr Reeves’ derivation [of the island’s name] from Old Irish ith, genitive case etho, ‘corn’, attractive as it is in view of Tiree’s proverbial richness in barley’ (Watson 1993, 85). If the name had been originally coined in EG it would have been Tìr Etho.
However, the element iath < *Heth is similar enough to OI ith (genitive etho) ‘corn’ (MacBain) to have made it easy on the ear of the Gaelic-speaking Dál Riatan settlers.
The element iath could also have been understood in another way. ‘The second part of the old Gaelic Tír-iath is the same form as iath ‘a district region’’ (Watson 1993, 85).
3. Local name 800 to circa 1400: When the first Norse explorers and traders sailed to Tiree in the last decades of the eighth century they discovered an island known to its population and its monks as Tìr Iath.
‘Of the ten place names which have been borrowed into Old Norse from the indigenous people of the Hebrides, five are definitely, or most probably, transferred from Gaelic...[for example] Tir Iath.’ (Gammeltoft 2007, 485)
Just as the Dál Riatan Gaels had done, the Norse substituted elements of the name to conform more to their own language. EG Tìr was re-semanticised by the Norse as ON Týr (genitive Týs) ‘the generic name of the highest divinity, which remains in compounds’ (CV, 647).
‘Týr is the name of another of the Æsir [the collective term for the Old Norse gods]. He is the boldest and most courageous.’ (Byock 2005, 35)
The second element is from ON vist ‘abode, dwelling, domicile; food, provisions’ (CV, 711). However, as is usually the case in re-semanticised names, the final product does not quite make sense.
‘Names like Tyrvist have not only undergone phonetic development, they have also undergone lexeme substitution...With Tyrvist, however, only the final element -vist can be recognised as being ON vist, fem. ‘a dwelling’. What is evident is that the ‘meanings’ of these place-names are not very place-name-like, although they appear to contain elements such as...the relatively rare vist as generic elements. It is the very strangeness, onomastically speaking, of the specific elements that cause these names to stand out and reveal themselves as foreign place-names having gone undergone adaptation in Old Norse.’ (Gammeltoft 2007, 488) ON vist may have become a Gaelic loan word in Lewis (but not Tiree) > uiste ‘shieling hut’ (Cox 2002b, 157).
‘The correct ON form for ‘the abode of Týr’ is Týs-vist...Often only one element (normally the generic) is translated or replaced, and the specific is linguistically adapted so that it can be pronounced in the new language. Norse speakers might of course associate Týr- with the god Týr, but this is impossible to prove.’ (Berit Sandnes, pers. comm.)
The stress pattern has also changed. Germanic ON and the Celtic languages differ in their word order: ON has the specific followed by the generic, while ScG has the generic in first position. EG Tìr Iath became ON Týr Vist, now with the emphasis on the first element, which the Norse settlers considered the new ‘specific’.
The modern word for a person coming from Tiree, a Tiristeach, comes from this Norse name.
‘The modern Tiristeach, a Tiree man, must come from this Norse form [Týr Vist]’ (Watson 1993, 85)
‘Watson pointed out the strange situation in Tiree where the modern Gaelic form Tiriodh comes from the pre-Norse form, but the Gaelic for a person from Tiree, Tiristeach, comes from the Norse form Tyrvist.’ (Jennings and Kruse 2009, 83)
Tiristeach has the Norse stress pattern with emphasis on the first syllable.
As has been pointed out above, this must mean that the post-Norse Gaelic speakers of the island, who presumably coined this word, were still using the Norse name for the island.
4. Regional form, 800 – present day: while the Norse settled and dominated Týrvist a regional form of the Gaelic name derived from Tìr Iath must have continued in use, a fact that travellers from Tiree could not fail to have been aware of.
‘In Tìr-idhe, Tìr-ithe, the second part is the same sound as Idhe, Ithe, the genitive case of Ì, Iona. (Note 2: In Old Gaelic Ie; the dh or th of Idhe is not organic, but merely a phonetic device for separating the syllables).’ (Watson 1993, 85)
ScG iodh could also have been understood as ‘corn, food’ (Dwelly), c.f. ScG iodhlann ‘stackyard’. These similarities have led to the folk etymologies about the island’s name: that it is the fertile ‘land of barley’, or that it is the ‘granary of Iona’.
‘Tiry or Tir-I seems to import [signify] the country belonging to I or Iona.’ (Old Statistical Account Tiree 1792, 393)
On Mull, and in Argyll generally, the form Tir-ì-dhe [?t’i ?ri? j?] with second syllable stress, is common, while on Barra, Uist and Skye the usual form is Tiri-a [?t’i ?ri??] (Ailean Boyd, pers. comm.).
5. Local form circa 1400 – present day: very unusually, the modern Gaelic pronunciation of Tiriodh by islanders is quite different from its pronunciation by ‘regional’ Gaels. Today, local people say Tìr-eadh, with first syllable stress. This has been strongly influenced by the Norse Týr Vist. However, the second element has almost disappeared, unlike the situation in Uist where ON Ivist > Uibhist. ‘If the modern Gaelic form of the island had come via Norse it would have been *Tirbhist.’ (Jennings and Kruse 2009, 83)
Tìr-eadh is pronounced today on Tiree as [?t’i? ?j??], followed by a final intrusive consonant -dh. ‘The velar fricative [?] frequently terminates otherwise open final syllables, e.g. ... Bòstadh < ON Bólstað ‘the farm’.’ (Cox 2002b, 64; see Broderick 2013, 12)
After two re-semanticisations, the pre-Celtic *Heth has all but vanished. This local form is evidence of the persistence of the Norse language on Tiree.
The two forms can be seen in this sequence of recorded names for the island. It appears that some were transcribed from the local, and some from the regional, form:
‘In the twelfth century Reginald of Durham has Tirieth. Subsequent forms are Tiryad, 1343; Teryed, 1354; Tyriage 1390; Tyre-é, Fordun, around 1385; Tyriage, 1494; Tiereig, 1496. A learned Gaelic poet of the sixteenth century writes Tír igedh (i.e. Tír- igheadh)’. (Watson 1993, 85)
• Terrigh, 1603 Retours ARG vol. 1, 7
• Teirig, 1615 Retours ARG vol. 1, 16
• Teiri, 1631 Retours ARG vol. 1, 40
• Tyrie, 1635 Retours ARG vol. 1, 56
• Tierig, 1662 Retours ARG vol. 1, 67
• Terie, 1674 and 1695 Retours ARG vol.1, 82 and 93
6. Scots: The modern Scots form Ti-ree, with its stress on the second element, derives from the regional Gaelic form Tir-ì-dhe. Confusion with Tyrie in Aberdeenshire forced the Post Office to alter the official postal spelling from Tyree to Tiree in 1889 (MacKay 1979, 33).
Most of the inhabited islands in Orkney have Norse names in ON -øy ‘island’, showing that the Vikings did not always use the indigenous naming tradition when settling.

Other Forms: Ethica Insula, Ethica Terra - W. Reeves, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 2, 1854, p233-244.

Terrey - The map of Abraham Ortelius, 1573 Scotiae Tabula, (Marischal 2), NLS

Terrey - THe map of Gerhard Mercator, 1595 , NLS

Terrey - The map of William Hole, 1607, NLS

Terrey - The map of John Speed, 1610, NLS

Terrey - The map of Hendrik Hondius, 1636, NLS

Tyrryf - The map of Robert Gordon, Joan Blaeu – Scotia Antiqua (WD3B/2), 1654, NLS

Turryf - The map of Robert Gordon, Joan Blaeu – Scotia Regnum (WD3B/3), 1654, NLS

Tyr-ryf - The map MVLA INSVLA in the Atlas of Scotland, Atlas Novus, by Joan Blaeu, 1654. These mapswere largely based on work by Timothy Pont who mapped Scotland between 1583 and 1596. NLS, 123.

Yle Tyrrif - The map of Jan Jansson, 1659, NLS

Turrif I. - The map of Nicolas Sanson, 1665, NLS

Turryf - The map of Robert Morden, 1695, NLS

Tiree I. [the first modern spelling] - The map of John Cowley, 1734, NLS

Tireiy - The map of James Dorret, 1751, NLS

Tiree I. - The map of John and Frederic Tallis, 1851, NLS


Related Places:

Information: The meaning of Tiree has been hotly debated. Theories have included Tir-iodh land of corn, and Tir-I the land or granary of Iona. But as Professor Watson, whose analysis still stands after more than 80 years, argues below, the second element is likely to be Heeth, a name from the Iron Age or earlier - JH.

An extract from The Celtic Place Names of Scotland, by Professor W Watson, 1926, p. 85-6. Republished by Birlinn 1993:
"Ethica Terra, ‘the land of Eth’, also called Ethica insula, ‘the isle of Eth’, is Tiree; the sea between Tiree and Hi [Iona] is called Ethicum pelagus. In other Latin Lives of the Saints it is called Heth, Heth region, terra Heth. In Irish literature the name occurs, so far as I have noted, only twice, once in the Book of Ballymote (205 a 11), where the Cruithne [Picts] are said to have gone from Ireland to ‘Tir-iath beyond Islay’ (i tir iath seach Ile), and again in Rawl. B. 502, 115 a 5, where Labraid Loingsech is stated to have razed eight towers in Tiree (ort ocht turu Tiri iath). The poem in Rawl. Is very old. The fact that Adamnan’s Eth- becomes in Old Irish iath proves that the e of Eth- is the long Early Celtic e (for ei), which is retained in the very oldest specimens of Old Irish and in some Latin Lives of the Saints, but which by 800 AD had been broken to ia when it was followed by a broad vowel in the next syllable. Thus ?th became iath, as C?ran (the saint’s name) became Ciaran. This, as Kuno Meyer has pointed out, is fatal to Dr Reeves’ derivation from Old Irish ith, genitive case etho, corn, attractive as it is in view of Tiree’s proverbial richness in barley. In the twelfth century Reginald of Durham has Tirieth. Subsequent forms are Tiryad, 1343; Tereyd, 1354; Tyriage 1390; Tyree, Fordun, around 1385; Tyriage, 1494; Tiereig, 1496. A learned Gaelic poet of the sixteenth century writes Tír igedh (i.e. Tír- igheadh). In Gaelic now with the people of Tiree it is Tireadh; outside the island it is Tìr-idhe or Tìr-ithe; but one also hears Tìr-idheadh, with a distinct stress on Tir, which is very like the form used by the sixteenth century poet. I have also heard Tìr-iodh and Tìr-eadh. The Norse form was Tyrvist, but –vist can have no phonetic relation to Old Irish iath. Old Norse vist means (1) an abode, domicile; (2) food, provisions, viands. Tyr-vist seems to point to a folk etymology of Tir-ithe as from Old and Middle Irish ithe, the act of eating, translated by vist. The modern Tiristeach, a Tiree man, must come from this Norse form. In Tìr-idhe, Tìr-ithe, the second part is the same sound as Idhe, Ithe, the genitive case of Ì, Iona. The second part of the old Gaelic Tír-iath is the same form as in iath, a district region. But the ancient forms, ancient and modern, cannot be reconciled with each other, and their diversity indicates that the second part is not Gaelic, possibly not even Celtic."

This translation of the text accompanying the Blaeu atlas from the NLS website: "Then Lunga stretches about two miles in length; less than half is Bac Mor. Six miles back from this to the going down of the sun is Tiree (35), eight miles long, three wide, the richest land abounding in everything for this life of ours, in herds and crops and fishing and the marine hatching of birds. Here too is a loch of sweet water, here is an old castle, and a harbour well suited for long ships."
The Gaelic Otherworld, ed Ronald Black, p387:
Noa-terms [a name used by fishermen who avoid the real place name because of superstition] such as Eilean Tìr fo Thuinn ('the Isle of the Land under the Waves').

"It had a more ancient name, Rioghachd bar fo thuin, i.e. the kingdom whose summits are lower than the waves" - Old Statistical Account 1791 by Rev Archibald McColl, p393.

"An Eilean Tir-fo-Thuinn - Na Baird Thirisdeach, ed. Rev Hector Cameron, An Comunn Thirisdeach, 1932, p240.

Tiree also had the poetical name of Land of the barley, or Tìr an Eòrna:

"Ris an abrar Tir Iosal an Eorna" - Na Baird Thirisdeach, ed. Rev Hector Cameron, An Comunn Thirisdeach, 1932, p242.

"Tir Iosal an Eorna" - Na Baird Thirisdeach, ed. Rev Hector Cameron, An Comunn Thirisdeach, 1932, p290 and 398

"Tir an Eorna" - Na Baird Thirisdeach, ed. Rev Hector Cameron, An Comunn Thirisdeach, 1932, p388 and 395.

Local Form:

Languages : Unknown