Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Rathad’

The Gaelic word rathad (pronounced RAH-ut) means ‘road, route, way’, and is derived from Old Irish rót. It occurs as the initial element in names such as Rathad na h-airigh ‘road of the shieling’ (Isle of Skye), Rathad an Tùir ‘road of the tower’ (Isle of Tiree) and An Rathad Geal ‘the white road’ (Upper Deeside) and also as a qualifying element in names including Loch an Rathaid ‘loch by the road’ (Isle of Scalpay), Bealach an Rathaid ‘pass of the road’ (Inverness-shire) and Tigh-an-rathaid ‘house by the road’ (Argyll).

In some cases, the ‘roads’ in question are ancient routes across the difficult Highland terrain. The Rathad nan Cuimeinach or ‘Comyn’s Road’ was a medieval route through the mountains, linking Atholl in Perthshire with Badenoch in the Highlands. The Rathad an Righ ‘king’s road’ in Speyside may date back as far as the time of Alexander II (1214-1249). The Rathad nam Meirleach ‘road of the thieves’ was a famous route used by cattle rustlers from the Lochaber clans who made their way through the Cairngorm mountains to the rich pickings of Speyside and Moray. Using the rathad was not without its hazards, however, and in one famous raid in 1645, members of the Cameron clan stole cattle from the Clan Grant in Moyness, Morayshire, only to be pursued and slaughtered by the Grants at the battle of the Braes of Strathdearn. In contrast, Rathad nan Dròbhar ‘road of the drovers’ on Islay refers to an old route for the legitimate transportation of cattle on the island. Transportation of a different sort is reflected in the name Rathad Mor nan Corp ‘high road of the bodies’. This was a ‘coffin road’ in Lochaber, which was the route taken to transport the dead from the remoter parts of the district to the burial grounds of Gairlochy.

Other instances of rathad are relatively modern, and many are simply street names. For example, Rathad Ùr on the isle of Lewis is ‘new road’ and Rathad A Braighe (also on Lewis) is ‘brae road’. Rathad na Muilne on the Isle of Raasay is ‘mill road’, A’ Seann-rathad in Gairloch is ‘the old road’, and Rathad an Fheoir on the Isle of Skye is ‘road of the hay’. In the town of Stornoway on Lewis, Rathad an Domhnallaich is ‘MacDonald Road’, Rathad a Charraigh Chuimhe is ‘memorial road’, in reference to the nearby war memorial, is ‘island road’ and Rathad Chnoc Nan Gobhar is ‘goathill road’.

Other Gaelic words for types of road include sràid ‘street’, with examples including Sràid na h-Eaglise ‘church street’, Sràid na ha-Alba ‘Scotland Street’ and Sràid Sheumas ‘James Street’. Barraid ‘terrace’ is found in Barraid na Mara‘Seaview Terrace’ and Barraid Rois ‘Ross Terrace’ whilst slighe ‘drive’ is reflected in Slighe Churchill ‘Churchill Drive’ and Slighe Stiubhairt ‘Stewart Drive’, all of which are located in Stornoway.

In some parts of the Highlands and Islands, these forms reflect the original names which had been coined by the native Gaelic speakers, but with the increasing demand for bilingual English and Gaelic signage on road and railway signs, in some cases these names are simply translations of existing Scots or English names. For example, the name Dumbarton Road in Glasgow has been translated into Gaelic as Rathad Dhùn Breatann, and Queen Street (also in Glasgow) is Sràid na Banrighinn (literally ‘street of the female king’). For some names it is even necessary to synthesize new Gaelic words to ‘translate’ existing names, such as pairèad, which was coined to represent ‘parade’ in names such as Alexandra Parade in Glasgow. This demonstrates that as well as being a historic language, Gaelic is also a modern one, growing and evolving in response to the demands of the 21st century.

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