Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Gall’

The Gaelic place-name gall means ‘stranger, foreigner’, and occurs in Scottish place-names including Achingall ‘field of the strangers’ (East Lothian), Rubha nan Gall ‘point of the strangers’ (Mull), Cnoc nan Gall ‘hill of the strangers’ (Colonsay), Allt nan Gall ‘stream of the strangers’ (Sutherland), Inchgall ‘isle of the strangers’ (Fife), Barr nan Gall ‘summit of the strangers’ (Argyllshire) and Camusnagaul ‘bay of the strangers’ (Wester Ross).

In many cases, the strangers or foreigners in question were the Vikings who settled the northern and western seaboard of Scotland from the late eighth century. For example, the old Gaelic name for the Hebrides was Innse Gall ‘islands of the foreigners’, and the Gaelic name for Caithness was Gallaibh ‘among the foreigners’. This contrasts with the Gaelic name for (eastern) Sutherland Cataibh ‘among the Cats’, revealing that whatever the Gaels relationship with the Pictish ‘cat’ tribe who inhabited the area, they did not consider them to be gall. The Vikings themselves referred to the Picts in northern Scotland by the same term, as the name Caithness is from Old Norse katanes ‘headland of the Cat people’.

The handful of gall names in Fife are also likely to refer to Viking settlers. However, in the case of Cairngall in Aberdeenshire and Balnagall in Easter Ross, it seems likely that gall had a more general meaning of ‘non-Gael’, and may have referred Lowland Scots speakers rather than Vikings. Gall also has a secondary meaning of ‘rock, stone’, particularly in reference to a distinctive standing-stone. In some cases, it can be difficult to establish whether names in gall refer to strangers or to a specific stone, although in examples such as Leac nan Gall in Argyll (containing leac ‘slab, flat stone’) and Craigengall in West Lothian (containing creag ‘rock’), the interpretation of ‘stranger’ or ‘non-Gael’ is to be preferred, as they would otherwise be ‘stone-of-the-stone’ tautological formations.

The Viking gall are well-documented in historical sources including the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters, where they are often subdivided into two groups, with the Norwegians designated as the fionn gall ‘fair strangers’ and the Danes as the dubh gall ‘dark strangers’. Fionn gall is the original of the Gaelic personal name Fingal, and similarly dubh gall has evolved into the modern personal name and surname Dougal. Another surname derived from gall is Galbraith, which is Gaelic gall Breathnach ‘foreign Briton’.

In addition to the dubh gall and the fionn gall, Gaelic-speakers recognised a distinct ethnic group they referred to as the Gall-Gaidheal or ‘foreigner Gaels’. There has been much debate about the precise ethnicity of the Gall-Gaidheal, with various theories including that they were Gaelic-speakers from Ireland, English overlords in a Gaelic-speaking region of Scotland, Norman immigrants, Irish Protestants or Strathclyde Britons. However, the predominant view is that the name referred to a group of a mixed Gaelic-Viking group, who originated either in Ireland or the Western Seaboard of Scotland, and who eventually settled in the Galloway area. Indeed the modern Gaelic name for Galloway is Gall-Ghaidhealaibh ‘among the foreign Gaels’.

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