Etymology of Skye

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A view of green hills with steep cliffs under grey clouds. A road wends its way through the landscape.
Looking south from the Quiraing, Skye.

The etymology of Skye attempts to understand the derivation of the name of the island of Skye in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Skye's history includes the influence of Gaelic, Norse and English speaking peoples and the relationships between their names for the island are not straightforward.

The Gaelic name for the "Isle of Skye" is An t-Eilean Sgitheanach (or Sgiathanach, a more recent and less common spelling). The meaning of this name is not clear.[1] Various etymologies have been proposed, such as the "winged isle" or "the notched isle"[2] but no definitive solution has been found to date and the placename may be from a substratum language and simply opaque.[3]

For example, writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote: "This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis".[4]

This was by no means the first written reference. Roman sources refer to the Scitis (see the Ravenna Cosmography)[5] and Scetis can be found on a map by Ptolemy.[6] A possible derivation from *skitis, an early Celtic word for "winged", which may describe the island's peninsulas that radiate out from a mountainous centre, has also been suggested.[7]

A map of the island chain of the Hebrides that lie to the west of the mainland of Scotland.
Skye is the northernmost of the Inner Hebrides, coloured red on this map of western Scotland.

In the Norse sagas Skye is called Skíð, for example in the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar saga[8] and a skaldic poem in the Heimskringla from c. 1230 which contains a line that translates as "the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed".[9] According to other authors, it was referred to in Norse as skuy (misty isle),[7] *skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud).[10] It is not certain whether the Gaelic poetic name for the island, Eilean a' Cheò "isle of the mist" precedes or postdates the Norse name. Some legends also associate the isle with the mythic figure of Queen Scáthach.[11]

The problems with the proposed Gaelic etymologies can be summed up as follows. Firstly, the Gaelic word for "winged" is sgiathach and sgiathanach is not attested in Gaelic except in the place name and the ethnonym Sgiathanach "person from Skye". Secondly, the recorded pronunciations all point towards a clear [a] preceding the -ach ending: [s̪kʲiəhanəx], [s̪kʲiə.anəx], or [s̪kʲiaːnəx].[12] This means the form Sgiathanach is very unlikely to be based on the Gaelic plural of "wing" (sgiathan), which contains a schwa in the last syllable ([s̪kʲiəhən]) and would represent a highly unusual adjectival form based on a plural noun. Thirdly, the diminutive/nominaliser ending -an would result in [s̪kʲiəhan], with a clear [a] in the last syllable. This form sciathán or sgiathan is indeed attested in the modern Gaelic languages. The Old Irish attested form is scíath (cognate with modern Welsh ysgwydd "shoulder") with a reconstructed Celtic form *skeito-, which suggests the Irish form sgiathán is an innovation and an unlikely root for Sgiathanach.[13] Finally, deriving the name from Scáthach involves two main problems: there would be a case of unexplained palatalisation of [s̪k] to [s̪kʲ] and an unexplained extra element -an-.

The roots of the Roman and Greek forms, Scit- and Scet- (meaning unknown), could be the root of Sgitheanach as they would regularly develop into Old Gaelic [s̪gʲiθ-] and be an entirely logical source for the attested Norse Skíð. It would also lead to modern Sgitheanach via a regular suffigation of -an and -ach to form an ethnonym and adjective. This would also explain the use of an apparent root form in An Cuan Sgith(e) the Little Minch (the strait separating the Outer Hebrides from the Inner Hebrides) and the older Irish form of Scíth rather than the modern An tOileán Sgiathanach, for example: Do ṡiuḃal sé Scíṫ agus an dá Uiḃeast agus Beinn a’ Ṁaola... "He travelled Skye and the two Uists and Benbecula...".[14] In this case the interpretation of the name as "winged" may simply be a case of folk-etymology.[15]

In April 2007 it was reported in the media that the island's official name had been changed by the Highland Council to Eilean a' Cheò. However, the Council clarified that this name referred only to one of its 22 wards in the then impending election, and that there were no plans to change signage or discontinue the English name.[10][16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Skye: A historical perspective". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 1 June 2008. 
  2. ^ Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Placenames. (pdf) Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 23 March 2007.
  3. ^ Oftedal, M. (1956) The Gaelic of Leurbost. Oslo. Norsk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskap.
  4. ^ Munro, D. (1818) Description of the Western Isles of Scotland called Hybrides, by Mr. Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles, who travelled through most of them in the year 1549. Miscellanea Scotica, 2. Quoted in Murray (1966) p. 146. English translation from Lowland Scots: This isle is called Ellan Skiannach in Gaelic, that is to say in English, "The Winged Isle", by reason of its many wings and points that come from it, through dividing of the land by the aforesaid lochs.
  5. ^ "Group 34: islands in the Irish Sea and the Western Isles 1" kmatthews.org.uk. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  6. ^ Strang, Alistair (1997) Explaining Ptolemy's Roman Britain. Britannia. 28 pp. 1-30.
  7. ^ a b Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. pp. 173–79. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7. 
  8. ^ "Haakon Haakonsøns Saga" Norwegian translation by P. A. Munch. saganet.is. Retrieved 3 June 2008.
  9. ^ "Magnus Barefoot's Saga". English translation: en.wikisource.org. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  10. ^ a b Murray (1966) The Hebrides. p. 146.
  11. ^ MacLeod, Fiona "The Laughter of Scathach the Queen" (pdf) horrormasters.com. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  12. ^ Borgstrøm, C. (1941) The Dialects of Skye and Ross-shire. Oslo. Norwegian University Press.
  13. ^ MacBain, A. (1911) An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language Stirling. Eneas MacKay. 1982 edition by Gairm ISBN 0-901771-68-6.
  14. ^ Ó Caḋlaiġ, C. An Ḟiannuiḋeaċt Oifig an tSoláṫair 1937
  15. ^ For discussions of phonological development see Borgstrøm (1941), Oftedal, Magne (1956) The Gaelic of Leurbost. Oslo. Norsk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskap and McCone, Kim (ed) (1994) Stair na Gaeilge: In Ómós do Phádraig Ó Fiannachta. Coláiste Phàdraig, Maigh Nuad. ISBN 0-901519-90-1.
  16. ^ Tinning, William (1 May 2007). "Council says Isle of Skye will keep English name". The Herald. Retrieved 2007-09-29.