Published 8th July 2021, 18:28

    A FEW weeks ago I was standing at the summit of Gairich looking down on Loch Cuaich. A few years earlier, I had been looking down on Loch Quoich.

    At least I had according to most books, including the Scottish Mountaineering Club guide, The Munros. Now the updated edition has settled firmly on the more traditional name in its route descriptions and maps.

    The loch has been marked as Cuaich on Ordnance Survey maps for many years so the blurring of lines is nothing new. Language is constantly evolving so it's no surprise to find anomalies everywhere. The SMC decision, while welcome, highlights the pitfalls of trying to address such a massive adjustment.

    So while we have now settled on Loch Cuaich – it means bowl or quaich, from the Gaelic cuach – we still have Glen Quoich running north from the loch. Signage for the Glen Quoich Dam is unlikely to be changed any time soon either. 

    There is another Glen Quoich, in the Cairngorms, with walks starting from Allanquoich. But there is no 'q' in the Gaelic alphabet. That consists of just 18 letters so there is no place for j, k, v, w, x, y, z either. These missing letters are often compensated for by the combined use of the likes of bh (v), dh (y), gh (y), mh (v). I can only imagine the Gaelic version of Countdown had a much shorter running time.

    At least Meall Chuaich, that lone Munro near Dalwhinnie, seems to be ahead of the game, with never a q – or a queue for that matter: it's definitely not one of the honeypot hills – in sight.

    The Cuaich/Quoich situation is just the tip of the iceberg. If we were to get serious about reverting to traditional naming conventions then Ben Nevis should be Beinn Nibheis, Ben Lui (Beinn Laoigh), Ben Vane (Beinn Mheadhoin) and so on. The attendant glens, rivers and settlements would also have to be realigned eg Beinn Achaladair and Achallader Farm. Booming business for the map producers, a lot of extra work and expense for so many others.

    The SMC book has picked up on a couple: for example, A' Chralaig has been altered to A' Chraileag and the Corbett Ben Aden is now referred to as Beinn an Aodainn. Meanwhile, Beinn Fhada still has the more anglicised Ben Attow alongside in brackets – the pronunciation is 'atta' – while the chance to change The Saddle to An Diollaid has to be regarded as a missed opportunity. After all, there is a Sgurr na Diollaid.

    The book has also added accents, an important aspect of Gaelic as the accent can be the difference in pronunciation between similarly spelled words. Only vowels can have accents, never consonants. A vowel with an accent normally has a longer, drawn-out version of the sound you expect, so Sgùrr is sounded 'Skoor' rather than 'Skurr' and Mòr is More.

    There is no doubt Gaelic names present a more romantic description of our mountains elevating ordinary epithets – red hill, blue hill, white hill, big hill, little hill – to the poetic. What else could you expect for an alphabet where each letter was traditionally named after a tree or shrub? There are few examples of superior versions in the other direction, although one that has always appealed is that of Stob Coire Easain which is 'peak of the corrie of the little waterfall'.

    I'm not a Gaelic speaker, but a long mountain life has brought greater and greater appreciation of the beauty of the language as well as an understanding of meaning and pronunciation. Being able to recognise words on a page is a long way off from being conversational though.

    The practicalities of a complete revival remain an ideal. Such a seismic shift of renaming would also mean the reprinting of virtually every outdoors book ever written to bring them up to date. The inclusion of a glossary with pronunciations will have to do for the moment.

    Fair play to visitors who make the effort to try and pronounce our mountain names when so many who live and play here struggle with the nuances of the language. After a few valiant, strangled attempts however, it's no surprise to hear Mullach Fraoch-choire being reduced to MFC, or Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich to Cheesecake.

    Or, as I was once asked in a hard accent by a very polite gentlemen: “Is that Serge Dub up there?” He meant Sgurr Dubh (pronounced Skoor Doo). Of course.