Gaelic Place Names: ‘Gille’

The Gaelic word gille (pronounced geel-yuh) meaning ‘boy, lad’ is ultimately from Old Irish gilla. It occurs in place-names such as Altgillie Burn ‘burn of the boy’ in Angus, Allt Gille Ghagaich ‘burn of the stuttering boy’ on the Isle of Arran and Loch a’ Ghille Reamhra ‘loch of the fat boy’ on the Isle of Rum, but otherwise can be rather an elusive toponymic element to identify with any degree of certainty.

One difficulty is that some of the names which appear to contain gille turn out on closer inspection to have arisen from the corruption of another element. For example, Gilchrist in Urray Parish, Ross-shire has the appearance of a gillename, but the historical form Kylchristan from 1569 reveals that the original element was Gaelic cille ‘church’ and the name means instead ‘Christ’s Kirk’.1 Similarly, gille is also easily confused with Gaelic gil ‘ravine, watercourse’, found in place-names such as Gil Dubh on Lewis and Inbhir Ghil on Rum. A further complication here is that gil was originally a loan-word from Old Norse gil ‘cleft, gully’, and further place-names containing this Norse element also add to the confusion, including Scaftigill on Arran and Auckingill in Caithness.

Additionally, the plural form of Gaelic gil is gilean, which is remarkably similar to gillean, the plural form of gille, and the two elements are often muddled. For example, the modern form of Sgùrr Nan Gillean, a famous mountain in the Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye, appears to indicate an etymology of ‘peak of the lads’, which nineteenth-century scientist and mountaineer Prof. J.D. Forbes claimed was derived ‘from the untimely fate met by some who attempted to climb it’.2 However, there is little evidence to substantiate this folk etymology, and the name is perhaps more likely to be a corruption of Sgùrr Nan Gilean ‘peak of the (steep) watercourses’.

Another problem with identifying genuine gille names is that the word developed a secondary meaning of ‘servant, devotee’, which was commonly used as an initial element in Gaelic personal names in combination with the name of a saint. For example, Gillephadruig means ‘servant of St Patrick’ and Gillebríghde means ‘servant of St Brigid’ (as exemplified by the name of the thirteenth-century poet and crusader Gillebríghde Albanach). These names were often bestowed upon a child born on a particular saint’s day, with many of them surviving as modern surnames, including GilpatrickGilmartinGilandersGilfillan and Gilmour (from Mary). Some of these personal names and surnames were subsequently used in the formation of place-names, such as the Gilmerton names found in Perthshire, Fife and Midlothian, Gillanderson (earlier Gilanderston) in Fife and Gilcomstoun in Aberdeenshire. Names formed in this manner, where gille has effectively become a lexically-redundant segment within the qualifying element of a Scots place-name, must be regarded as semantically separate from Gaelic toponymic formations such as Loch nan Gillean ‘loch of the boys’ on Islay or Carn a’ Ghille Chearr ‘hill of the wronged boy’ near Granton-on-Spey, where gille functions in its original sense of ‘boy, lad’.

Gille in the secondary sense of ‘servant’ was also borrowed into the Scots (and English) language as gillie or ghillie, originally in the sense of a male servant, particularly an attendant on a highland chief, before developing the modern meaning ‘gamekeeper, assistant to a sportsman’. It is possible that Scots place-names such as Gillie’s Burn in North Lanarkshire and Gillie Burn in Perthshire contain this Scots word rather than a Gaelic personal name or surname.

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End Notes

  1. W.J. Watson, Place Names of Ross and Cromarty (Inverness Northern Counties, 1904) p. 108.
  2. J.D. Forbes is cited in Scottish Hill Names: Their Origin and Meaning by Peter Drummond (Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 2007) p.88.
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