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Whisky, It Tastes Even Better When You Know Where It's From.

The A-Z of Whisky Place-Names Jake King

Have you ever wondered about the place-names that appear on Scotch whisky bottles? What language the names come from, what they mean or if they are even real places? The A-Z of Whisky Place-Names discusses each place-name that is concerned in some way with Scotch whisky, either as the name of the whisky itself, or as the name of the distillery. For each of these names the author provides an informative discussion of the origin, history and development of the name from a linguistic and historical perspective.

The text on a bottle of Knockando claims that this name means in Gaelic ‘the black little hill’, presumably as if *An Cnocan Dubh, although often glossed ungrammatically as ‘Cnoc-an-Dubh’. This would be a reasonable assumption if one were looking at the name in text only. In fact, the real Gaelic form is quite different, being Cnoc Cheannachd ‘the hill of buying’. The early spelling also supports this. Presumably the hill was the site of a market of some sort, but this has been lost to history.

The name Edradour is from an older Gaelic name Eadar Dà Dhobhair meaning broadly ‘between the two waters’ In modern Gaelic, the name is Eadra Dhobhair. The two rivers are now called Kinnaird Burn and The Black Spout or Edradour Burn, but in Gaelic they were known as Allt Dobhar Shuas ‘upper burn of Dobhar’ and Allt Dobhar Shìos ‘lower burn of Dobhar’ respectively. This is an excellent place for a distillery. At the foot of the Black Spout is a pool in the river called Poll Dobhair ‘the pool of Dobhar’. Dobhar is an old word for ‘water’ which is no longer in use in modern Gaelic but here is really used as the name for the watercourse. Dobhar in modern Gaelic means ‘otter’, in the sense of a creature that lives in water, although this is not the meaning here as has been claimed. This is paralleled by the English word otter which is related to the word water.

Auchentoshan is said to be from Achadh an t-Oisein ‘the field of the corner’ or even ‘the corner of the field’. This, however, is not very good Gaelic; the form would be *Achadh an Oisein. A place nearby Auchentoshan is Ocean Field which looks to be a part translation of the name, whereby Gaelic achadh is translated as ‘field’, and the -oshen part adopted and reanalysed as English ocean. Ocean Field was well-known as a site containing Roman artefacts. Whilst the name Auchentoshan is certainly Gaelic and the first word is achadh ‘field’, the identity of the second element -toshan is unclear.

Glenfiddich comes from the Gaelic form Gleann Fithich or Fidhich. Gaelic-speaking locals latterly understood this to be either fitheach ‘raven’ or fiadhach ‘rough’. Fiadh ‘deer’ too is commonly understood nowadays, and a deer even appears on the whisky bottle with the explanation: “The Valley of the Deer”. Most likely, however, it is related to the Gaelic word fiodh ‘wood, timber’ , thus perhaps meaning ‘the wooded glen’, or perhaps ‘the glen of the Fithich’ where Fithich means ‘the wooded river’.

Bunnabhain is also a Gaelic name: Bun na h-Abhainn ‘the foot of the water’. Bun in Gaelic means the foot or base of something, whilst abhainn means ‘river’. The river in question is called Abhainn Araig ‘the river of Araig’. This name Araig is of Norse origin, perhaps from Árvík ‘river bay’, which is similar in meaning to Bun na h-Abhainn. Since whisky needs flowing water for the distillation process, it is no surprise many of the place-names contain water words. This is a small selection of place-names discussed in The A-Z of Whisky Place-Names published by Whittles Publishing (£16.99) 978-184995-503-4.

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