Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Inbhir’

The Gaelic word inbhir means ‘a confluence of waters’ or ‘the mouth of a watercourse’. It is therefore most commonly found in conjunction with the name of a river or stream, with examples including Inverary ‘mouth of the river Aray‘ in Argyll, Inverurie ‘mouth of the river Urie‘ near Aberdeen, Inverkeithing ‘mouth of the Keithing burn’ in Fife, Inveresk ‘mouth of the river Esk‘ near Edinburgh and Inverewe ‘mouth of the river Ewe‘ in the North-West Highlands.

In many cases, these river names are of Gaelic origin and are amongst some of the oldest surviving place-names in Scotland, but a few belong to an even earlier naming stratum. For example, Inverness in the Highlands is ‘the mouth of the river Ness‘, and the historical records of this river name point to an ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic root form *ned- ‘to wet, flood’. Similarly, Inverugie near Peterhead contains a river-name which appears to pre-date the Gaelic language, although its precise origins remain obscure.

Conversely, other inbhir names are of a much more recent origin. Inverclyde was coined in the twentieth century by adding inver– to the name of the river Clyde, to refer to a new administrative district in the vicinity of the Clyde estuary to the south and west of Glasgow. Similarly, the name Invergordon was created in the eighteenth century by local landowner Sir William Gordon by adding inver– to his own surname. The older name for this town in the Black Isle was Inverbreakie ‘mouth of the Breckie burn’.

It is perhaps worth noting that the qualifying element in inbhir names is not always the name of a river or stream. Sometimes a descriptive or locational element is used instead. For example, Inverbeg near Loch Lomond means ‘the small river mouth’, Inverhope in Sutherland is ‘the river mouth at the bay’, Inverkip in Renfrewshire is ‘the river mouth at the stump’ and Invernauld in Sutherland means simply ‘the mouth of the streams’. The word inbhir is also occasionally found as the qualifying element in place-names, with examples including Eilan an Inbhire ‘island of the river mouth’ on the island of Raasay, and Meall Inbhir ‘mountain of the river mouth’ and Tom an Inbhire ‘knoll of the burn mouth’, both in Argyllshire.

Inbhir was also borrowed into the Scots language in the form inver. It is attested from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards, but is rarely used outside of the North-East in modern times. The Scots form is occasionally evidenced in minor place-names in Aberdeenshire, with examples including The Inver of Bynack and The Inver of Geldie, which both refer to a confluence of two streams.

The Pictish cognate of inbhir is aber, which is found in Scottish names such as AberdeenAberchirderAberdourAberfeldy and Aberfoyle. The same element is present in the related Welsh language, where it can be recognised in names including AberystwythAbergavenny and Aberdare. It has been suggested that some of the Gaelic inbhir names may originally have contained Pictish aber as their initial element, being altered at the time when Gaelic replaced the Pictish language in the eastern part of the country. However, there is little substantiating evidence for this claim, and Jacob King has recently shown that in the case of the name Inverbervie in Aberdeenshire, the much-quoted Haberberui form (dating from 1290) may well be an erroneous scribal interpretation of an illegible script, rather than a genuine aber form of the name.

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