The Gaelic language is one of the Celtic languages descended from Old Irish and brought to Scotland in the 4th century. Scottish Gaelic developed as an independent language after the 12th century and, according to the 2011 census, around 58,000 people still speak it (1.1% of the Scottish population).
Scottish Gaelic has a rich oral and written tradition, known as beul-aithris, and was the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years. The language suffered particularly as Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and during the Highland Clearances. Gaelic is not the only language which left its mark upon the land; there are also Pictish, Norse and English influences throughout the area.
Most people nowadays associate Gaelic with the Highlands, but at one time it could be heard from Berwickshire to Caithness and from Cape Wrath to the Rhinns of Galloway.
Place-names give us a better understanding of culture, environment, history and wildlife of the area. In Scotland, many names derive from the Scottish Gaelic and help us to interpret our landscape and some also give an indication of colours, animals, events and people.
For example, the name ‘Cairngorms’ was first used by non-Gaelic speaking visitors around 200 years ago to refer collectively to the range of mountains that lie between Strathspey and Deeside. Some local people still call these mountains by their original Gaelic name – Am Monadh Ruaidh or ‘The Russet-coloured Mountain Range’. These mountains form the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, which has been given the Gaelic name 'Pàirc Nàiseanta a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh'.
The Gaelic became the primary language of the Cairngorms area and consequently the majority of place-names within the park are Gaelic in origin. Throughout Scotland there was a decline in the use of the language over the centuries and the same is true within our National Park, but thanks to the former wide impact of Gaelic (with the later addition of some Scots), there are many places still associated with these languages.
Glens and lochs usually take their names from the rivers and streams that flow through them or from them, but there are some exceptions such as Glen Geusachan or Gleann Giùthsachain (GYOOsachen) – Glen of the Little Pine Wood; Glen Einich or Gleann Eanaich (ENeech) – Glen of the Boggy Place and Glenmore or An Gleann Mòr (MOAR) – The Big Glen.
Often the original Gaelic name was wrongly recorded which resulted in anglicised English names which live to this day – but at least they are still alive. A famous example is Loch Avon and the River Avon, both pronounced A'an, which were incorrectly recorded by the first map-makers in the area, and another is Bridge of Brown which actually derives from Drochaid Bhruthainn (Drochitch VROON) meaning ‘Bridge of Boiling Water’. This place is called Brig o’ Broon in Scots which has become anglicised to Bridge of Brown.
If you'd like to find out more, the Ordnance Survey has published a 'Guide to Gaelic origins of place names in Britain' which can be downloaded as an e-book.