In which I examine a theory that sees 'earn' place-names as indicators of early Gaelic settlement on the Moray Firth
Next question, was there then an early incursion of Irish-identifying people up the Great Glen to this inner Moray estuary? I suspect the answer is quite nuanced. The Great Glen has always been a major route from the west to the east, and it perhaps isn’t the divider of east/west Dalriatans/Picts that tends to be regarded today. At the dawn of history we see pretty clear evidence that the Caledones held both ends (and the middle 😊 ) of the Great Glen. And that is also attested by the use of the boar symbol from Inverness down to Dunadd. Yes I know people try to say the boar was stamped there by invading Picts in the 8th/9th centuries, but it fits better within its mythological context as the boar that rakes the great ditches across the land, bringing into the world all sorts of creatures good and bad. And we now have a growing body of early CI symbols that can be dated to prior to the sudden breakdown c. 200 AD, including the dating of Culduthel beside the Knocknagael boar stone. And let’s not forget that Pictland too, or groups that identified as Pictish, held territory in the west, it goes both ways, over many many centuries. OK, I think what I’m trying to say here is that there probably has always been steady movement up and down the Great Glen, people came and went, traded and married, and no doubt self-identified according to prevailing winds, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to find names that look ‘Irish’ at both ends. But in the end, I’d say the naming likely dates from the 3rd-6th centuries?
Then there is the matter of time. These river names seem to be different to those mentioned by the classical writers, but then, so many of these ancient names didn’t survive. Still, we have an enormous period of time to play with here, the best part of a millennium before we get good records attesting to most of them. So the question is *when* did this re-naming occur? It seems unlikely to have come with Irish-based missionaries, because this appears to be a concentrated, almost systematic, re-naming of the land (if done by the Irish), and why would new missionaries cover the land with pagan deity names rather than founding-saint dedications? We could say that Eriu was just the name of Ireland, but words have deep meanings, they never stand on their own, and with all the other pagan deities too there is no doubt the early Christians would have been completely aware of the pagan implications of these names. On the other hand, as you seem to imply in your blog, were these names a sort of political statement from Dalriatan groups in the much later centuries? That’s possible, but seems unlikely to me at that period because while they may have been originally based in Dalriata (not precisely Ireland as such), they were trying to claim Pictish legitimacy. (And are there any Dalriatan examples where they named their land for Eriu? ..) So it’s more likely that these names, if done by incoming Irish, were done under pagan auspices, and were much earlier than the 6th-8th century missionaries or later Dalriatan groups.
Several issues go round in my head. The first is that this area is covered with these ‘Irish’ names, not just the ones Watson noted, Boand, Eriu, Banba, Fal, Elga, but also Ness and Bride for example. And then there are the male names too, for example, Nectan, Toran, Brennan, Brand, although Nectan and Toran could be female too. It’s the Lega concentration of these legendary names in this region Pictland that is peculiar, although they are scattered elsewhere too of course. So what does this mean?
Firstly, I’d have to ask whether these really are ‘Irish’ as such? Just because the Irish managed to retain their stories and words better than other Celtic regions, doesn’t for a minute mean that these names were only Irish, or that the deities themselves were just Irish. It could be that they are just ‘Celtic’, including then Pictish, and that the seemingly Irish forms are what is notable here. Loads of deity names are each recorded all through the Celtic lands, pointing to a mature and complex over-arching world view. But even so, it still leaves us with the question of why the sheer concentration in this region.
Another strand of thinking you might like to include in your research is the word Feàrna meaning Alder. The River Nairn (called locally the River Nern) used to be called the Water of Nairn which in Gaelic would be Uisge an Fheàrna. To this day the river system of the area is banked by masses of Alder. This usage of Gaelic would also explain the name of Auldearn as Allt Fheàrna. I sense that it might strengthen your arguments above considerably, because, logically, there must have been Gaelic speakers thereabouts to describe the landscape in such a manner.
An excellent post, really fascinating! I'm sure you've gone over this, but Clancy suggests a Cenél
Comgaill settlement post-Nechtansmere down around Manaw in his article "Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei" - obviously farther south than you're looking at here, but perhaps a useful comparison for thinking about place-names and Gaelic-speaking settlement?
Lots to unpack here……
1) There is still a place called Invererne. See https://www.invererne.co.uk/house It was there in Watson’s day so not sure why he thought the place name was lost
2) Maybe worth noting that all your Earn place names (apart from Auldearn which always seems to be the oddity) are in the watershed of the River Findhorn so could therefore be considered to be a part of a Strath Earn (or even Herenn!)
3) I believe Watson took his lead on the Findhorn valley being New Ireland from W F Skene. Skene posited that Cenel Loarn migrated up the Great Glen to get away from Viking raids whilst Cenel nGabrain migrated across Druim Alban into the other Strath Earn. Not sure that there was ever any evidence of this apart from the Earn/Erin names so that then becomes a circular proposition.
4) I’ve always believed that one of the reasons that MacBethad was accepted as king of Alba was that it was acknowledged that it was the North’s turn to provide a king. That fits the cycle set out by Neil McGuigan and, perhaps, even reinforces his argument
Not really related to this post but have you also considered that Sueno’s Stone could commemorate Máel Coluim mac Domnaill‘s slaying of Cellach (whoever he may have been). Right sort of date.