2.6 Place Names and Intangible Heritage

In an area which saw different cultures with different languages, place-name studies are an important source of information. However, they are by and large a source of evidence for the political winners, rather than the absorbed, and their interpretation can be difficult and sometimes controversial. It is also important to understand that there are very few Highland written sources before the 13th century, and in many places, it is several centuries later. By this time, any Pictish words had been long replaced. Detailed place-name studies in the Highlands include: Ross and Cromarty (Watson 1904; 1926), parts of Inverness-shire (Taylor 2019, Maclean 2021), parts of Caithness (Waugh 1985), parts of Sutherland (Waugh 2000), and a number of local studies have also been published. The Scottish Place-Name Society website has a detailed bibliography.

Gaelic Sources

Gaelic was the primary language of the region’s inhabitants until very recently. A wealth of material, written and from oral tradition, survives though relatively little is translated.

The worrying decline of Gaelic highlighted in a recent report (Ó Giollagáin et al 2020) has implications for both the preservation, use and future of this oral tradition and language. The evidence resource in the Gaelic tradition is under threat, as is the ability for researchers to understand written and recorded primary Gaelic sources as local knowledge and language is lost. There are wider questions on how Scottish archaeology can help and address this issue.

Increasing the presence of content in and relating to Gaelic is an ambition of the wider ScARF project – with a particular focus on elements relating to Gaelic culture and history. This framework endeavours to use Gaelic wherever possible and appropriate in the projects and written research frameworks.  This includes using Gaelic place names first where Stories can be lost if not conveyed in their first and foremost language. The use of Gaelic is most important where the Gaelic names describe the landscape and its archaeology. 


The intangible heritage of memories is important to link to physical evidence. In the Highlands a variety of oral history projects have been done. Some have been published, either on paper or on-line (eg on the Am baile website), but many have not. The Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website provides a useful searchable repository. Some recordings have been transcribed, but a number still survive only on recording media, which may or may not be upgraded to new formats as technologies change. There is no list of resources, this would be a useful first step, together with information about where copies are held. Ideally copies should be preserved in the Highland Archive service, with good keywords to allow searching.

Leave a Reply