Stories in an Island Landscape

Over 3,300 place names have been recorded on Tiree. Generally speaking, there are five historical ‘layers’.

The oldest layer is likely to have come from the Iron Age people living on the island before AD 500. There are a few names which do not seem obviously Gaelic or Norse – names such as Cadruim (in Balemartine), or *Taelk (an old name for the Iron Age fort in Balephetrish) – that may belong to this period.

The next oldest group comes from the Gaelic used by the Dál Riata, the earliest Gaelic settlers from Ireland, who arrived on Tiree around AD 500. Cnoc na h-Anaid ‘hillock of the church’, in Milton) and place names using the word cill – ‘church’, like Cill Moluag (Kilmoluaig), possibly date from this time.

When the Vikings came to Tiree after 800 they settled much, if not all, of the island. Around 250 Norse place names survive on Tiree: Barabol, Grianal and Dìubadal. The Viking name for the island was Týrvist, from which the modern Gaelic name for an islander, Tiristeach, is derived. My book, Longships on the Sand, contains much more detail.

Sometime between 1300 and 1400, Gaelic again became the dominant language on Tiree. Most names on Tiree come from this period. Cnoc an Lìn, Cnoc a’ Mhurain and Cnoc nan Eisg remind us today of hillocks where flax, marram grass and fish were dried. Tobar an Dèididh ‘the well of toothache’ is where water reputed to be a cure for toothache could be collected. Pàirc nan Each ‘the field of the horse’ was where horses were grazed and A’ Chroit Dhubh was the black, or peaty, croft.

Gradually, in the middle of the nineteenth century English crept in. Milton ‘mill town’, in Caolas, and The Green in Kilmoluaig were probably the first two. Sometimes English was combined with Gaelic, as in Port na Mistress in Caolas. It has now started to replace older names, as at Happy Valley (Lag na Clèite, Hynish), The Maze (Tràigh Thorosdail, Hough) and The Camp (part of Crossapol).

Dr John Holliday

[map of Tiree]

Caolas Salum Ruaig Brock Milton soay Kirkapol Vaul Gott Scarinish Heanish Baugh The_Reef Kenovay Balephetrish Cornaigbeg Balevullin Cornaigmore Kilmoluaig Hough Moss Heylipol Crossapol Balinoe Balmartine Mannal Hynish West Hynish Balephuil Kenavara Barrapol Middleton Sandaig Greenhill Kilkenneth