December 16, 2015
I do adhere to the banal/pragmatic school of placenames: “Station Road” is the road to the station; Glen Muick is where the sows were pastured and not a reference to some pagan rural Celtic deity masquerading as a wild boar or some such. When I first considered the place name Argyll, what leapt out at me was the similarity of the word to the original name for the Irish County Oriel – Airgialla/Oirghialla. Trusting the etymology offered – ie meaning “hostage givers” – I regarded this as perfectly reasonable as I rather assumed that the Dalriadans in Scotland will have had to give hostages to their overlords in Irish Dalriada, to keep them in line. The problem was that I could see no early use of the term to back it up – so although it remained my supposition it was no more than that.
The traditional approach to the explanation for the name Argyll is very adequately summed up on the Wikipedia page on the matter (accessed 8th April 2020):
"The name derives from Old Gaelic airer Goídel (border region of the Gaels). The early 13th-century author of De Situ Albanie wrote that "the name Arregathel means margin (i.e., border region) of the Scots or Irish, because all Scots and Irish are generally called Gattheli (i.e. Gaels), from their ancient warleader known as Gaithelglas." The De Situ Albanie is however of dubious authenticity.
However, the word airer naturally carries the meaning of the word 'coast' when applied to maritime regions, so the placename can also be translated as "Coast of [the] Gaels". Woolf has suggested that the name Airer Goídel replaced the name Dál Riata when the 9th-century Norse conquest split Irish Dál Riata and the islands of Alban Dál Riata off from mainland Alban Dál Riata. The mainland area, renamed Airer Goídel, would have contrasted with the offshore islands of Innse Gall, literally "islands of the foreigners." They were referred to this way because during the 9th to 12th centuries, they were ruled by Old Norse-speaking Norse–Gaels."
The first sentence here is far too definitive – especially given the later qualification. And then it is not even questioned!
Before proceeding we should note that Prof. James E Fraser’s implied proposition (“From Caledonia to Pictland” p101) that the name Atholl (‘athfoitle’) in the Annals of Ulster (dating to 739) is contemporaneous does not stand scrutiny. In the same document we also have Fortrinn (664) Fortrend (693, 725) Fortrenn (763) at times long before names in Pictland started with an “f”. So we may be confident that all these names reflect the date of compilation, editing or copying – not how the places were seen or named at the time. In any case it is absurd to suggest that a key part of a Pictish Kingdom would be called “New Ireland”. No…. Atholl was a name imposed on the area by a new man in charge – who came from Ireland at the behest of Kenneth mac Alpin.
The good news is that Dr Alex Woolf is quite correct with regard to dating – which is why the name is not to be seen before the 850s. But his starting point is to allow the etymology to go unchallenged.
In the Annals of the Four Masters under the year 835 we learn:
“Gofraidh, son of Fearghus, chief of Oirghialla, went to Alba, to strengthen the Dal Riada, at the request of Cinaeth, son of Ailpin”.
Clearly the date 835 is wrong. Kenneth was no more than 21 years old and it would appear that Aed mac Boanta was the king of Dalriada at the time and for some years thereafter. If we accept Kenneth’s dates as King as being 843-858 and that he was preceded by his father then a date 845 would be an adequate substitute for 835 (if the numbers were written in roman numerals then DCCCXXXXV (rather than DCCCXLV) requires only an accidental scribal omission of a single ‘X’ to become 835).
And so it is that I propose that, like Atholl, Argyll is a transferred name – in this case from Oriel by Prince ‘Gofriadh mac Fearghus’ when he took a regiment to support Kenneth mac Alpin’s planned conquest and subjugation of Pictland. Gofraidh’s task was to maintain control and defence of Dalriada on Kenneth’s behalf and he was rewarded with the Mormaerdom of the territory. He renamed it Argyll in honour of his own homeland.
As for the ‘traditional’ etymology…. who would give the area such a name? Not other Gaels (oh…. but the name is supposed to be Gaelic….). It is just bizarre, albeit far too usual. I still suspect that, for some of its time at least, Scottish Dalriada did indeed have to supply hostages to their Irish overlords, but this is not the basis of the name Argyll. There is such a thing as coincidence.
PS The name “Gofraidh” is clearly anachronistic – it was later used highly improperly by Irish Annalists to Gaelicise the separate Viking names Guthfrith, Guthroth and even Guthrum/Guthorm, not to mention Anglo-Saxon ones as well. Our ‘Gofraidh’ dates to long before any Viking culture could be embedded so deep into Ireland. It is likely a scribal misrendering of a variant of name such as that of a previous king of Dalriada: Gabhran (father of Aedan). [While it is normal to understand this name as “little goat”; such a name is hardly regal. Dwelly tells us, however, that apart from “goat” Gabhar can also mean “hawk”.] I am not proposing this as “the” name which has been represented – surely there must be others, some more likely to fit the bill. But Gabhran may point the direction in which we might search for the answer. Neil Macgregor offers a variant of Conchobar as another possibility – and as far as names go this is inherently more likely.
December 16, 2015
I am grateful to Fife Council Archaeologist Douglas Speirs for drawing my attention to the use of the term Argyle (in the form "Arregathel") to mean "the borderlands of the Gaels" with regard to Royal Burghs as they developed in the 1100s. [This is parallel to the vicus attached to a Roman Fort.] The author of "De Situ Albanie" (written very early 1200s) specified this name and meaning – but he applied them to the old Dalriada and I suggest that this was an error.
The "Senchus Fer N'Alban" tells us that at the time of compilation (apparently in the 900s) it was "Airgialla" which was the name of at least a part of 'Loarnd' – ie in what is now Argyll. The Senchus tells us (by implication) that "Dalriada" was still the regular name in the 900s – albeit written from an Irish perspective; What the Senchus does not say, but which we can infer from the Annals of the Four Masters is that the name "Airgialla" was brought from Ireland by Prince "Gofraid". Contrary to what I wrote in the original post above, the clear implication from the Senchus is that the name did NOT originally apply to the whole of Dalriada – but rather to the estate within Loarnd given to Gofraid. How the name came to apply to the whole of what is now Argyll is beyond the scope of this investigation, but name migration is common eg with river names, and probably someone should get on to it.
So we have a time window of c950x1200 for the name – probably Airgialla – to have become the new norm for Dalraida.
Faut de mieux, we may then 'blame' the author of "De Situ…" for the casual misrepresentation of "Airgialla" as "Arregathel" although it is possible that it had been misrepresented in this way by someone else before 1200.
It should be possible to tighten this down (not that I particularly intend to)….The leadership of the Cenel Loarn was deputed to take charge in "Fortriu" (later Moray) and, Wikipedia notwithstanding, I suspect the Cenel n'Oengusa to Angus and the Mearns. So there was indeed a gap to be filled and thus at some stage a major reorganisation in Argyll would have been necessary – and this fits the 845 revised date suggested above, following on immediately from Kenneth mac Alpin’s move of the ‘capital’ to Dunkeld and Scone in 844.
At the other end of the time window it was Malcolm mac Malcolm III who was Mormaer of Argyll in the period c1080-c1110 leaving us with little clue of what may have gone immediately before.
December 16, 2015
I have now tidies these thoughts up.
The paper can be seen at
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