Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Gleann’ and ‘Srath’

The Gaelic words gleann and srath both mean ‘a valley’. These names are commonly Anglicised as glen and strath respectively. Whilst gleann usually refers to deep, narrow valleys, srath is reserved for wide and shallow valleys. Many of these valleys take their names from the rivers that run through them. Glen AffricGlen DeeGlendevonGlenluce and Glen Truim as well as StrathavenStrathclyde, StrathnaverStrathpeffer and Strathspey all contain river names as their second element.

Other names containing gleann or srath are named for their characteristic features. Glenbeg in Aberdeenshire is ‘little glen’, Glendhu in Dumfriesshire is ‘black glen’, Glen Falloch in Perthshire is ‘hidden glen’, Glengour in Argyllshire is ‘glen of the goats’, Srath an Aitinn in Aberdeenshire is ‘valley of the juniper’, Srath an loin in the Highlands is ‘valley of the marsh’, Strathmore in Angus and in Sutherland are both ‘big valley’ and Strath Rannoch in Easter Ross is ‘bracken valley’.

Some of these names convey a darker history. There is a glen on Islay which is known to the locals as Gleann a’ Mhoirt ‘glen of the murder’ or Gleann nam Marbh ‘glen of the dead’. It is believed that the name commemorates a young girl who was sent out to look for a lost cow, and came upon the thief who had stolen the animal and killed it, and this man then set upon the girl and killed her too.1 Similarly, Glencoe in Argyllshire is said to mean ‘valley of the weeping’, after the famous massacre of thirty-eight members of the Clan MacDonald by government troops which took place here in February 1692. However, in this case, the name dates back much further than the Seventeenth century, and is more probably named from the river Comhan which runs through the glen.

Not all of these names have such ancient origins. For example, Glenrothes is a modern invention, created in 1948 for this ‘new town’ which was being built in Fife, by compounding the word glen with the name of local landowners the Earls of Rothes.2 The elements glen and strath also frequently find their way into the names of Scottish whisky brands, with examples including GlenfiddichGlengrantGlenlivetGlenmorangieStrathisla and Strathmill. Whilst in some cases these brands are genuinely named from the valley in which the whisky is distilled, in others they are entirely modern inventions.

Gaelic gleann and srath were also both borrowed into Scots, in the forms glen and strath respectively. Scots place-names containing glen include The Great Glen near Inverness, The Sma’ Glen in Perthshire, Glenhead in Stirlingshire, Glens of Foudland in Aberdeenshire and The Fairy Glen in Easter Ross. Scots names containing strath include Strath of Menteith in Perthshire, Wester Strath in West Lothian and Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland.

As Scots emigrated across the globe, they took their gleann and srath names with them. There are places named Glencoe in Nova Scotia and Ontario in Canada, in Illinois and Minnesota in the USA, and one in South Africa. There are transferred examples of Glenelg and Glenorchy in Australia. There is a Strathglass in Maine in the USA, a Strathbogie in Australia, and there are instances of Strathmore in Australia, Kenya, California and Canada.

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End Notes

  1. Jacob King and Michelle Cotter, Place-names in Islay and Jura (2012) p. 20.
  2. Simon Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife (2008) Vol.2, pp. 432-33.
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