Document 1410

The Hill-names They Are A-changing…

Author(s): Peter Drummond

Copyright holder(s): Peter Drummond


Place-names do change. When I was at school (and most of you, too), our geography lessons took in Rhodesia, Leningrad and Burma: we are now quite comfortable with Zimbabwe, St Petersburg and Myanmar, all politically-inspired changes. But in Scotland, we're not used to this degree of political instability, and for almost all place-names the most that has happened over the last 500 years has been gradual change by anglicisation, particularly of Gaelic and Norse names.

Hill-names are however different - quite a few have changed. Unlike settlements, whose people use the local place-names daily, or farmers possessing the field and stream names, mountains have no such voice: no-one lives on them permanently, and they are rarely mentioned in old documents, because they don't pay rent or owe allegiance. In most cases they were first mentioned in maps, starting with Pont 400 years ago. The growth of hill-walking over the last century, bringing in onomastic outsiders with no cultural link to the mountain areas, has also affected them.

Let's look at a few examples. English, the language, is often blamed for the gradual change (or corruption) of Gaelic names, like Ben Nevis (from beinn nimheis), but there are few wholesale changes to charge it with. Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak in the Cuillin, was named after Sheriff Alexander Nicholson who was first to climb it in 1873: local guide John MacKenzie averred that it was locally known as Sgurr Biorach (pointed), to no avail. Similarly, An Stac became the celebrated Inaccessible Pinnacle. Who remembers the old names now? To be fair, the Cuillin are of little use to anyone but climbers, so who could begrudge them this little rocky corner. More regrettable has been a change in the hills above Arrochar, where the striking rocky peak is known almost exclusively now as The Cobbler. This name refers only to the central peak (of three), and is probably a translation from the Gaelic an greasaiche crom. Timothy Pont, late 16th century, mapped it accurately as "craggie hill, Suy Arthire", and although Gaelic usage changed suidhe to beinn, it is correctly mapped as Ben Arthur, after an historical figure. It's a pity that guidebooks like the Scottish Mountaineering Club's The Corbetts often now don't mention the 'Sunday name' of this fine mountain.

Few other English substitute-names have stuck. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Suilven in the north and Beinn Tàlaidh in Mull were both widely known to travellers and sailors as Sugarloaf Mountain, from their shape, but the original Norse and Gaelic names have won through, perhaps aided by the fact that most people today buy their sugar in cuboids instead.

The good Scots word pap is probably foreign to the young today, but has been around long enough to have secured Maiden Pap hills, singular and plural, in the Helmsdale and Hawick areas; but Schiehallion was also widely-known by this name in the 18th century, and is mapped as such by Roy's military survey ("Shihalin or Maiden Pap") and so-named in the Old Statistical Account. Not any more.

English speakers could probably be blamed for Ben Chichnes or beinn nan cìochan (mountain of breasts, from its nipple-like tors) becoming Lochnagar (especially with royalty moving in below it). And they were certainly culpable for the rocky peak above the Lairig Ghru, locally Bod an Deamhain (penis of the devil), becoming Victorianified to The Devil's Point. However, the mountain that dominates Glen Coe had probably an identical name, for Pont (who spelt in line with local pronunciation) mapped it as Pittindeaun or Boddindeaun; it is now known as Bidean nam Bian (peak of hides), possibly a corruption of the old name indeed, but a Gaelic rather than English one. Possibly it rather suited Canon MacInnes who claimed it was originally bidean nam beann, peak of the mountains.

Finally, there are many Gaelic hill-names that have simply changed, from Gaelic to Gaelic, perhaps simply because the people the OS surveyors got the names from were not the descendants of the ones who advised Pont or Roy. Thus Byn Yrchory (beinn reidh-choire, level corrie) for Pont is now Beinn Alligin; Pont's Bin Kerkill is now Meallan Buidhe (though the slope is still An Cearcail); Pont's Ben Leckderg (red stone hill) is now the bizarre Fuar Tholl (cold hollow); while the Munro now called Seana Bhràigh (old height) was Beinn Eag (notch mountain) in the early 20th century, and possibly the summit in 17th century texts called Scornivar (sgurr?). Perhaps, if a mountain was large enough to have several names, it was a matter of chance which one ended up with the approval of the OS: what is now known to hill-walkers as Creag Meagaidh, was recorded by an early surveyor as Bui-Annoc (presumably Buidhe Aonach, yellow ridge), and locally called Corryarder (from coire ardair) in the 19th century.

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The Hill-names They Are A-changing…. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 25 June 2024, from

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"The Hill-names They Are A-changing…." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 25 June 2024.

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Information about Document 1410

The Hill-names They Are A-changing…


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 100+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2005
Word count 830
General description Academic article

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Scottish Placename Society
Publication year 2005
Part of larger text
Contained in Scottish Place-Name News, 19, Autumn 2005
Editor Bill Patterson
Page numbers 11-12

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 986
Forenames Peter
Surname Drummond
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired teacher
Place of birth Edinburgh
Region of birth Midlothian
Birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Coatbridge
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Teacher
Father's place of birth Edinburgh
Father's region of birth Midlothian
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Teacher
Mother's place of birth Linlithgow
Mother's region of birth W Lothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area wLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All circumstances
French Yes Yes No Yes
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No Yes No No