Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Eilean’ and ‘Innis’

There are two primary words in Gaelic which mean island: eilean and innisEilean is more common than innis in everyday speech in Gaelic, although both are found in place-names. Examples of names in eilean include Eilean Donan‘St Donnán’s isle’, near Kyle of Lochalsh, Eilean Tigh ‘house isle’, off the coast of Raasay, Eilean nan Ròn ‘isle of the seals’, in Sutherland, and Na h-Eileanan Siar which is the Gaelic name for the Western Isles.

Another eilean is Eilean Bàn ‘white isle’, situated directly beneath the Skye Bridge, and featuring a lighthouse designed by Thomas and David Stevenson (the father and uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson respectively). David Stevenson’s sons, David and Charles, followed their father into the family business and designed many lighthouses including the one located on Eilean Mòr ‘big isle’ in the remote Flannan Isles, off the coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The Eilean Mòr lighthouse is famous for the mysterious disappearance of its three keepers in December 1900. Investigators who went ashore found a half-eaten meal and an overturned chair inside the lighthouse, but no trace of the men themselves was ever found.

However, not all eileans are islands, as the word can also be used to refer to a river meadow (often one that is liable to flooding), as is the case with Eilean Aitinn ‘meadow of the juniper’ and Eilean Dubh ‘black meadow’, both in Aberdeenshire. A third meaning for eilean is a piece of raised ground surrounded by marsh, as in Ellon (literally eilean), also in Aberdeenshire.

The spelling of the other Gaelic term for an island, innis, is frequently Anglicised as inch in place-names, and this element is often found in combination with a saint’s name, such as Inchcolm ‘St Columba’s isle’, in Fife, Inchmarnock‘St Marnock’s isle’, off the island of Bute, and Inch Kenneth ‘St Cainnech’s isle’, off the island of Mull. In many cases, these are small islands located either in lochs or off the coast of a larger island, where there would have been a small chapel dedicated to the saint in question.

Innis is also found in secular contexts, as in Inchgall ‘isle of the strangers’, in Fife, Inchfad ‘long isle’, in Loch Lomond, and also Inchcape. This last example is the Gaelic name for the Bell Rock, famed for the lighthouse built there by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) and the second element may be Gaelic sgeap ‘a beehive’ in reference to the shape of the rock.

In parallel with eileaninnis has secondary meanings including a water meadow and a dry piece of land surrounded by marsh. Examples include Inchnadamph ‘meadow of the stags’, in Sutherland, Inchterf ‘meadow of the bull’, in Stirlingshire, and Markinch ‘meadow of the horses’, in Fife.

Innis was also borrowed into Scots at a very early stage, and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue has a record of the place-name Redinche in a document dating from 1198-99. Similarly, the Scots writer Andrew of Wyntoun described in his fifteenth-century Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland the Pictish King Brude’s gift to St Serf of ‘the inche off Lowchlevyn‘. This island in Loch Leven is still known as St Serf’s Inch, and was the location of the Augustinian Priory where Wyntoun himself was Prior.

In these early instances, the inches in question were islands, but in modern Scots, inch is much more commonly used of a river meadow, or ‘haugh’, with examples including North Inch and South Inch in Perth, Inchwood and Netherinch in Stirlingshire, and Abbotsinch and Kings Inch in Renfrewshire.

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