Places and their names can be evocative. They mean different things to different people. However, place-names can also be a window through which we can glimpse Scotland’s past. They contain a great deal of information about such topics as people, the landscape, how that landscape was used, belief, and of course language. For place-names are words and once we can understand what a place-name means we can begin to use it to tell us about the past.
The languages of the places along the Cateran Trail belong to three main languages: Pictish, Gaelic, and Scots. Pictish was spoken in this area until about 900 AD. From then until the 19th century in the Highland parts, but only to about 1400 to 1500 in the Lowland parts, Gaelic was spoken. From about 1400 Scots became the main place-naming language of the Lowlands, but had also made significant inroads into parts of the Highlands by then, especially if the Church was involved. The Cateran Trail area was a border zone between Gaelic and Scots, and in the 1790s the minister for Kirkmichael parish wrote ‘the prevailing language in the parish is the Gaelic. A dialect of the ancient Scotch, also, is understood, and currently spoken. These two, by a barbarous intermixture, mutually corrupt each other’.
Place-names have the potential to tell us a great deal about how people in the past used and viewed the landscape. They can tell us about past land use, especially in terms of agriculture, hunting, authority and justice, archaeology, and myths and legends. They can inform us of important aspects of past religious and social organisation that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. The whole area was also described in terms of colour, pattern, texture, form, size and position, and through metaphor using the anatomy of the whole human body. They are also useful for information on ecology and past animal distribution.
Place-names were useful aids to telling stories. There are a number of places in Glenshee that recount the legends of Finn mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool), including Finegand (Feith nan Ceann ‘bog of the heads’), Creag nam Brataichean ‘crag of the banners’, and Lamh Dhearg ‘Red Hand’. A small stone circle sits near the Spittal of Glenshee, known as the Grave of Diarmid and a short distance from Ben Gulabin, where according to one Feinian ballad, Laoidh Dhiarmaid (The Lay of Diarmaid), tells how Diarmaid, a colleague of Finn, dies on Ben Gulabin at the head of Glenshee, killed by a boar.
Donald Cargill’s Leap, which lies in a narrow gorge on the River Ericht just upstream from Blairgowrie is said to be the spot where this famous covenanter leapt to safety when being pursued by the dragoons of Claverhouse in the late 17th century.
Place-names helped people make sense of the landscape and develop a sense of place and identity. They helped mark the way through the landscape and show which areas were for hunting, arable and pastoral agriculture, and which areas had important ecological resources that helped to sustain everyday life. We can use place-names to see our modern environment through the eyes of the people who gave it the names which we still use today and as a sort of indispensable geographical shorthand that helps us find our way around.
The Cateran Trail itself is a relatively new place name, created by outdoor and walking enthusiasts around fifteen years ago. Steeped in history and folklore there are many place names that reveal its past back through thousands of years and we’d like your suggestions as which ones should be included in the story we hope to tell through this project.
You can go here on the site to make your suggestion, tell us a little about why you think it should be included and load up a photograph of the place you want to propose.
Peter McNiven, Place Name Researcher