British mountains - place names




Many of the best British landscape locations are in remote areas that have, or had, their own language, and the original names are still used for many of hills, rivers and other natural features. This makes maps of the area much harder to digest and remember. So I decided to do some research on place names in the English Lake District, Scotland and Wales, and it's all become much clearer.

Lake District

Ennerdale Water

The Lake District has a unique vocabulary for describing its landscape, much of which is derived from Old Norse. I remember taking some shots of rushing water on a Lake District trip, and I recorded the location in my notebook using the name on my map, Hause Gill. Unfortunately this is a generic term meaning "stream at the pass" and there are several other Hause Gill's in Lakeland. By remembering the definitions below I get a better sense of where I am and what to expect.

word meaning origin
fell hill old norse 'fjall'
gill, ghyll small valley or stream old norse
beck stream old norse 'bekkr'
moss bog; eg Great Moss at the source of the river Esk old english
keld spring; eg the village of Threlkeld old norse
force waterfall; eg Aira Force old norse 'fors'. Related to the Icelandic foss, eg Dettifoss
hause mountain pass; eg Esk Hause origin unknown
garth enclosure; eg the village of Gatesgarth old norse
mere lake; eg Windermere old english
knott rocky hilltop cumbric
tarn small lake; eg  Grisedale Tarn old norse 'tjorn'
how hill; eg Gummer's How by lake Windermere old norse 'haugr' meaning mound
pike peak; eg Langdale Pikes old norse 'pic'



Loch Shiel

Scots Gaelic is spoken by only 1% of people in Scotland, although I have heard it spoken by shopkeepers on the west coast ( probably joking about english tourists like me ). Everyone knows English. But to make sense of the names of the Scottish munros, you first have to know the local words for mountain. As you might expect in such a hilly country, there are many.

word meaning origin
ben mountain; eg Ben Nevis gaelic 'beinn'. The original is still used as well eg Beinn Eighe
aonach ridge, upland; eg Aonach Beag meaning 'small ridge' gaelic
sgurr peak; eg Sgurr na Lapaich gaelic 'sgorr'
cairn, carn heap of stones, or rocky hill; eg Cairn Toul gaelic 'carn'
druim ridge, back; eg Druim Shionnach gaelic
creag cliff; eg Creag Mhor meaning 'big rock' gaelic
stuc cliff; eg Stuc a Chroin meaning 'danger cliff' gaelic
meall mountain, pile; eg Meall Ghaordaidh gaelic
stob mountain, stake; eg Stob Ghabar meaning 'Goat's Peak' gaelic
bidean pinnacle; eg Bidean nam Bian gaelic
sron nose, promontory; eg Sron a Choire Ghairbh meaning 'nose of the rough corrie' gaelic
mam rounded hill; eg Mam Sodhail meaning 'hill of the barns' gaelic
mullach summit; eg Mullach nan Coirean meaning 'summit of the corries' gaelic
binnein apex; eg Binnein Beag meaning 'small peak' gaelic

Here are some words used for other features of the landscape.

word meaning origin
loch lake gaelic
lochan small lake gaelic
eilean island; eg Eilean Donan gaelic
glen valley gaelic 'gleann'
corrie, coire a bowl-shaped depression gaelic 'coir'
bealach pass gaelic
kyle strait; eg Kyle of Lochalsh gaelic 'caol'
allt stream gaelic
inver river mouth; eg Inverness gaelic 'inbhir'
strath valley; eg Strathclyde gaelic 'srath'
abhainn river gaelic
linn waterfall scots
mull tip of a peninsular; eg Mull of Kintyre gaelic 'maol' meaning 'bare' or 'edgeless'

Even knowing this, a map of Scottish mountains can seem bewildering. It's better to know a few other words that are used frequently.

word meaning origin
beag little; eg Aonach Beag meaning 'small ridge' gaelic
mor big; eg Aonach Mor meaning 'big ridge' gaelic
glas green; eg Meall Glas meaning 'green hill' gaelic
fionn, ban white; eg Fionn Bheinn gaelic
dubh black; eg Beinn Dubhchraig meaning 'mountain of the black rock' gaelic



Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia

There has been a determined effort by the Welsh to re-establish their language, which many thought was heading for oblivion, and which had become the butt of jokes. English ( and later British ) rule in Wales led to Welsh being marginalised, for example from 1535 we required all court proceedings in Wales be held in English. Only in 1993 would new laws give Welsh and English equal status in Wales. You will see all the road signs are in both English and Welsh now.

word meaning origin
llyn lake welsh
nant brook, small valley welsh
cwm valley welsh
coed forest welsh
ystrad valley welsh
rhyd ford welsh
afon river welsh
moel bare hill; eg Moel Hebog meaning 'bare hill of the hawk' welsh
sgwd waterfall; eg Sgwd Henrhyd welsh for photography