Monday 6 February 2012

Highland Place-Names in the Carmichael Watson Collection

For this issue, we would like to welcome as guest blogger Dr Jake King of Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, who as part of his work has been busy researching place-name evidence in the Carmichael Watson Collection.

The aim of Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba is to find the correct authoritative Gaelic forms of place-names.  As a researcher, part of my work is finding out what Gaelic forms were recorded by past scholars. Over the last few years I have been editing the unpublished notebooks of the Rev. Charles M. Robertson (MS selection at the National Library of Scotland) and to a lesser extent the notebooks of Prof. William J. Watson in the Carmichael Watson Collection. Throughout Robertson’s notes he made reference to his ‘cuttings books’, and I had previously been unable to discover the whereabouts of these, presuming them lost. After recent correspondence with Dòmhnall Uilleam however, we have discovered this collection, which also includes those of Watson and Alexander Macbain (the foremost place-name scholar of the generation prior to Watson). These people were the best Gaelic scholars of their day, and these newspaper cuttings contain many fascinating bits of information ranging from snippets to whole article series.  Here are some highlights:

I found the snippet pictured here loose, undated and unreferenced between two pages of Robertson’s place-names press cuttings book. The context puts it at some time in 1918. It is the published minutes of the executive Council of An Comunn Gaidhealach:

The meeting also agreed to proceed with the publication of a school map of Scotland for the Highland schools showing the place names in Gaelic. The Rev. Charles M. Robertson, Kilmachomaig U. F. Church Islay, is to provide the ‘copy’ for the publishers, and an application for a grant is to be made to the Carnegie Trust.

If anyone knows of any such Gaelic map was ever printed please get in touch!

About a century ago, William J. Watson set up a Mòd entry for papers on place-names,  hoping that this would encourage place-name research. The Gaelic writer Henry Whyte (1852–1913), a native of Easdale, entered this competition under his pen-name ‘Fionn’. His first paper on the place-names of Muckairn from the Oban Times in 1907 is known to Gaelic scholars and toponymists, but this collection contains a hitherto unknown sequel, on his native parish of Kilbrandon and Kilchattan. The value of the discovery of a survey of an entire Highland parish by a reliable native Gaelic speaker cannot be overestimated.

One of the problems I have had in editing the notebooks of Robertson is how to date them. They are not internally dated, and although some references give a terminus ante quem, I was not previously able to narrow the date ranges with much accuracy. CW538 and 539 has changed all that. These are two boxes of old newspapers stored in old envelopes. The content of the newspapers are in themselves interesting, but the addresses and date stamps on the recycled envelopes inadvertently give a fairly detailed account of Robertson’s residences over his life and as such help me to gain some context about the notebooks. By way of example, I can now surmise that the Sutherland notebooks were gathered while he lived in Kinbrace from 1899–1900, or that his Skye Gaelic article and place-names notebooks were researched while he was minister at Ardvasar in Sleat 1904–5.


  1. Cuimhnich na h-earrannan le MacDhonnchaidh sna Transactions cuideachd, ach tha fhios gu bheil fhios agad air an sin marthà!

  2. Taing airson sin, Iain – agus sgrìobh an gaisgeach seo gu leòr dhan 'Celtic Review' cuideachd mu na dual-chainntean Gàidhlig!

  3. Fìor dheagh artaigil Jake!


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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]