The Place Names of a Deserted Island: Island Roan

Island Roan            Island Roan

 Of all the deserted islands lying off the coasts of Northern Scotland, few can be more attractively situated than Eilean Nan Ron. It lies around a mile off the coast of Skerray in the parish of Tongue in Sutherland, and for an island that boasts an area of less than one square mile, it bore a surprisingly large population in the last century some 80 persons although this figure dropped to about 60 by the second decade of this century.

There are few early accounts of the island. Typical of them is the New Statistical Account

(NSA 1845: 167) which offers only the most sparse description:
Eilean Nan roan is of considerable size, and has the appearance of two islands, particularly at high water. Part of it is scooped out into the form of a basin, in which the soil is very fertile, and cultivated by a few small tenants.
It seems likely, however, that human occupation goes back a number of centuries, despite popular belief that the first settlers were a few families settled there during the early nineteenth century. Blaeu's map of 1654 refers to the island as Ylen Ronn, and the presence of a circular symbol indicates some form of settlement. The neighbouring island of Ylen Isell or ye plan yle is clearly Eilean Iosal 'nearby. Although the Mercator Map of 1595 marks three islands off the north Sutherland coast, it names them Ilen Mann, Hyp iland and Shyp iland. These may well refer to Eilean Iosal, Eilean nan Ron and Eilean nan Naomh respectively (Taylor and Fortune 1968). The isles of `Flanda, Choarie, Gyld, Rone and Coline' are mentioned in a charter of Queen Mary in 1570 (OPS 1855: ii. 713).
According to several sources, including Mackay, (1962), three young couples were settled in Eilean Nan Ron by the Duke of Sutherland in 1820. Their descendants were to remain until the island was evacuated in December 1938 after a period which saw the decline of the population to twelve, of whom eight were elderly. Clearly, the emigrations of families to the mainland as well as to Australia and Canada, after the Great War, were of such an effect that it was no longer possible to maintain the island as a viable community.
Most people in the Tongue and Skerray areas of Sutherland refer to the island as 'Island Roan'. Even fluent Gaelic speakers do this occasionally. This form of name was widespread, although the actual derivation, 'seal-island', was generally understood.
The place-names of an island such as this are naturally of immense interest. Not only do they reflect the economy of an island community which was highly self- sufficient, but they reveal some of the more unusual aspects of its life, customs and traditions. The natural resources of the island and its surrounding seas were clearly exploited to the full. Fishing was the main occupation, and seems to have been profitable up till the end of the Great War, when two steam drifters were operated. However, the fertility of the soil of the island must have been a very real incentive to settlement, since it provided most of the islanders' grain, roots and vegetables. The substantial nature of the ruins of the houses is testimony to a fairly prosperous community. The place names of the island were recorded by the present writer in 1976 and again in the spring of 1977 from Mr. Donald Mackay, who was born on the island in 1911, and who lived in Tubeg, Skerray, having been among the last to leave Eilean nan Ron in 1938. Mr. Mackay's parents and grandparents were natives of the island, so that as a tradition bearer he is well qualified. As a lobster-fisherman, his knowledge of the island and the adjoining coasts was immense, and he was able to provide us with a mass of information not only on place-names, but also on the various aspects of the way of life of this island community. Since this article is concerned mainly with place-name information, however, fuller details of the agricultural practices, fishing, fowling and sealing must await future publication.
It will be seen from an examination of the list on that there, are few place names which have uncertain derivations. The Norse content is sparse, with the usual Gaelic borrowings such as sgeir, geodha and mol. The ON holmr, islet, occurs in Meall Thuilm (30), but these apart, there is surprisingly little in the way of Old Norse material. This contrasts strongly with areas such as Lewis, where we might expect a much wider variety of terms to occur in minor names. Clearly, the majority of place names are of no great antiquity. Some of the descriptive names refer to domestic animals, e.g., sheep, stirk, bull and dog. Others obviously reflect the islanders' involvement with marine wildlife. There are two seal caves, and porpoises and whales are also referred to. The occurrence of Cnoc an Loisgein, 'Toad Hillock', is a problem and must be a doubtful rendering, since the informant was clear enough in stating that it was now called Cnoc Loisgte. Losgann, however, has the alternative meaning of 'drag' or 'sledge', according to Dwelly. (1901).
A few of the names are connected with agriculture and husbandry. These include Cnoc a' Chorrain (48) and Cam Talmhainn (14), and the names referring to domestic animals already mentioned. However, the coastal names offer the most interesting material. Of these, the standard coastal terms are in the majority, such as gob and rubha, port, uamh and poll. The latter, however, is shown in two instances to describe a fishing bank. The occurrence of cladhan to describe a narrow channel between islands is noteworthy. Cladhan na h-Innis (28) is illustrated as being about a hundred feet deep and only a few yards wide, while the other two examples (55 and 56) fulfil roughly the same conditions.
The occurrence of quite small reefs and submerged rocks in a place name list of this kind is not surprising, since they tend to be important coastal features, often to be carefully avoided and therefore intensely nameworthy. These usually adopt the term bogha, 'submerged rock', or sgeir which applies to a number of rock features ranging from those which are attached to the shore to isolated rocks which are visible at most states of the tide. The presence of digeach, normally the Gaelic for 'stallion' is an unusual feature here. The fact that it appears twice in Eilean Nan Ron for very similar features may point to the use of digeach as a partial replacement for bogha along this part of the north coast of Sutherland. Although it is not a common term, we do have an example An t-Aigeach from Portskerra, to the east. The use of animal names applied to skerries and off-shore rocks is, of course, by no means uncommon. Mult, wether, tarbh, bull, and gamhainn, stirk, are all found in the western seaboard, and aigeach itself appears in the Outer Isles, usually in the form of a rock feature on a cliff.
The lack of 'incident' or 'commemorative' names is surprising in the list. Only two personal names appear—Toll Hendry (37), a geo, and Uamh Fhearchair (54) which is a seal cave on the eastern shore of Eilean Iosal. The latter may commemorate an individual who was a good seal-hunter, but this is entirely speculative. Aigeach nam Boireannach (57) refers to a boating incident involving a group of island women.
The descriptive place-names are almost all in very simple form and frequently involve but a single element. An Gluta (20), Am Mol-lochan (4), An Innis (27), Am Buaile (44) and Am Morbhan (13) are all examples of this. But this is not surprising in a small, self contained community where the total number of place-names in daily use was fairly limited, and where there was no necessity for complex names of three elements or more, as in the case of mainland communities where descriptive names must often be highly complex in order to provide accurate identification. The two element names, similarly, are often simple, using straightforward descriptive terms. Mol Mor (3), Cam Ban (16), Sgeir Leathann (26), Meal/ Glas (31), Bidean Beag and Bia'ean Mor (32 and 33) and Blar Mom (41) are typical. Mor is in fact used as a qualitative term in seven of the place names in the list.
  All this evidence points to a fairly recent granting of place names on Eilean Nan Ron. The lack of Old Norse material, and that of obsolete Gaelic terms, suggests that most of the present name coverage does in fact date from the early nineteenth century. However, with the data available, we cannot be absolutely  be certain about this, although examination of charter material may help to build a clearer picture of the history of the island. 



1* Port Muir Coinnle  Port of the Candle-lit Sea (so called because of the
                                                 brightness of the water at night.)
2 Mol na Coinnle              Candle-lit Beach
3       Mol Mor                           Big Beach
4*     Am Mol-lochan                The Beach Lochan
5*      Por na h-Uaille                (derivation not clear)
6       Port Ma Sgaiteach           Port of the Cutting (or Sharp-pebbled) Beach
7      Toll Mol-lochain               Hole of the Beach Lochan
8*    Leathaa' Ballach             Speckled Hill-Slope
9     Gob a' Bhallaich             (?) Point of the Speckled Place
10      A' Chailleach                   The Hag
11*    Cnoc na Caillich             The Hag's Hillock
12      Goban na Morbhan        Little Point of the Shingly Place
13      Am Morbhan                  (from morghan, 'gravel' or 'shingle', although “Dwelly”
gives morbhan 'murmuring')
14*    Cam Talmhuinn               Earth Cairn (normally talmhainn.)
15      Geoa'ha na amhainn    Stirk's Geo
16       Cam Ban                        White Cairn
17*     Rubh' an Losgainn      (see 40.)
18      Uamh nan Ron              Seal Cave
19      Uamh nam Peileag       Porpoise Cave
20       An Gluta                        The Gullet
21      Geodha Granna'a         Dirty Geo
22       Na Malannan    (derivation uncertain, but possibly from meal/, hill,
and may be meallain, hillocks; alternatively ma/a,
brow of a hill.)
23 Uamh na h-Oldhche   Night Cave (reputed to stretch right across the island.)
24*     Uamh an Latha  Day Cave (very bright and well-lit, containing a clay
that was 'as good as cement, still to be seen in the masonry of some of the island houses'—D. McK.).
25*     Port na h-Innse                     Island Port
26       Sgeir Leathann  Broad Skerry
27* An Innis   The Island (separated from the main island by a deep
                                                channel, (28).
28      Cladhan na h-Innis  Channel of the Island
29*    Eilean Iosal   Low Island
30*   Meal/ Thuilm                   Hill of the Islet (from ON holmr)
31*   Meal/ Glas   Grey Hill
32 Bidean Beag   Little Peak
33    Bia'ean Mar   Big Peak
34    Mol nan Caorach  Sheep Beach (this contained a natural arch, which
     collapsed towards the seaward end.)
35*   Uamh nan Ron  Seal Cave
36     Sgeir Leathann  Broad Skerry
37     ToIl Hendg   Hendry's Hole (a geo)
38     Tollan    Little Hole
39     Sgeir an Tairbh  Bull Skerray (seals lie here in the summer.)
40*   Cnoc an Loisgein  Although losgann is the usual Gaelic for ‘frog” or “toad” it
is Masculine, and the map form shown here is puzzling, since the genitive would be losgainn. The alternative meaning is losgann (fem.) 'drag' or 'sledge' according to Dwelly (1901). However Donald Mackay called the place Cnoc Loicgte 'burnt hillock'. This and 'sledge-hillock' are  possible. The nearby Rubh' an Losgainn, 17,' (?) Sledge Point', is clearly connected.)                                                      
41     Blar Mor                      Big Plain
42    Cnoc a' Ghluta                Knoll of the Gullet  
43    An Toll Dubh             The Black Hole (a sink hole inland from Uamh nan Ron.)
44    Am Buaile                       Cattle pen, fold, sheep pen?
45    Am Bail           The Village (or Village Land: arable
land between the houses and the port. The arable land seemed to have been of two soil types, one dark and peaty, to the east, and the other, to the west, a sandy loam. No horses were used. All tillage was done by hand.)
46     Baca a' Choin                   Dog's Bank
47      Fuaran Mol Coinnle        Well of the Candle-lit Beach
48      Cnoc a' Chorrain            Sickle Hill
49      Geodha Mor                     Big Geo
50     Ceann a' Chnuic Mho       Head of the Big Hillock
51     Geodha an Uisge              Watery Geo
52     Geodha na Muice             Pig Geo (probably refers to mac-mara, 'whale'.) 
53     Caol Raineach                  Bracken Sound
54    Uamh Fhearchair              Farquhar's Cave
55    An Cladhan Deas              The South Channel
56   An Cladhan Tuath              The North Channel (impassable for boats.)
57   Aigeach nam Boireannach The Women's Submerged Rock (A boat carrying five  women
grounded on this rock when the, men of the Island were away at the fishing.)
58   Aigeach Charn Talmhasnn The Submerged Rock of the Earth Cairn
59   Cam Ban Tuath  North White Cairn. (Stone from this area was quarried and
     used for building purposes.)
60    Sgeir Mhor   Big Skerry
61      Geodha Dearg  Red Geo

62     Poll na Clach Moir                 Pool of the Big Stone (a fishing mark. An Gluta, 20,
was lined up with Cnoc an Fhreiceadain, 'Watch Hill', the high hill which lies to the E of the village of Tongue on the mainland.)
63   Geodha Brat                           Meaning not known (fishing place off Talmine.)  **** Geo???
64  Poll a' Chriadhaich  The Clay Pool. (This had a clay bottom, and on a stor¬my
day it was frequently calm, when the surrounding seas were rough, and the water 'had an oily look about it' Fish caught here in winter had a fat, oily appearance.—D. McK.)

* Names, which appear on the 6" OS Map NC 66 NW

(Recorded by Ian A. Fraser from Donald Mackay, Tubeg, Skerray on PN 1976/6, 7 and PN1977/1.)


I would like to thank Mr. Donald Mackay, Tubeg, Skerray for providing most of the information in the list of place-names and also my colleague, Mr. D. A. Macdonald, for scrutinising the list.   
1901 Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary. Glasgow.
1962 The Story of Eilean nan Ron. Reprinted from 'The Northern Times'. Thurso.
1845 New Statistical Account vol xv. Edinburgh.
1851-55 Origines Parochiales Scotiae, ed. C. Innes. Vol ii. Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh.
1968 Names in Mercator's Map of Scotland, 1595. Unpublished Nts in Place Names Survey, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.

All the above is copy write © material of Mr. Iain A Fraser

Acknowledgement to Mr Iain A Fraser for the above material has being recognised by the webmaster with thanks.