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Query on Schiehallion cave name and nearby Loch Lyon
August 21, 2014
11:58 pm
Forum Posts: 3
Member Since:
February 13, 2013

Dear List Subscribers:

In Perthshire, near Schiehallion, is a cave called Uamh Tom a'Mhor Fir. I find this rendered as Cave of the Hillock of the Great Man, which given the description of the place would appear to be correct.

However, I am troubled by the Mhor Fir component. We do have place-names in Highland Scotland featuring "great man", but this take the more usual form Fir Mhor. For example, Eas an Fhir Mhoir. There is a legend that this cave is the entrance to the fairy kingdom, and the great man or giant is supposedly one of these supernatural beings. On nearby Rannoch Moor we find a supernatural entity called An Duine Mor, 'The Great Man', who saves people lost of the moorland.

I had wondered if Mhor Fir/Fhir might be an error for 'Mayor', but it so we would still have the same problem: it should be Fir Moer, not the other way around.

HOWEVER… I do note that in some other place-names the usual order is reversed. For example, Moredun Top on Moncreiffe Hill is 'Great Fort', which one would expect to be Dunmore (and, indeed, there are several Dunmores). According to Ranko Matasovic (with whom I've have some correspondence regarding the truly ancient names), the earlier British form of such names or places would yield Moredun rather than Dunmore. So perhaps the formation Mhor Fir in the Schiehallion name preserves an earlier form of Gaelic?

I suppose Mhor Fir could (?) be a corruption of Gaelic mormaer:


Hamp (Eric P.): Scottish Gaelic morair.
In ScoGS 14/2 (1986), pp. 138–141.
ad K. H. Jackson, The Gaelic notes in the Book of Deer, 1972, pp. 102-109. Further to the phonetic and lexico-syntactic aspects of the derivation of ScG morair from Pictish *mōr+maer.

However, if so, how to get from Mormaer to Mhor Fir?

I do find this:

The Rev Robert MacDonald published his Statistical Account for Scotland in 1845. In it he wrote of a “remarkable cave … called Tom-a-mhorair [which is believed to be] full of chambers or separate apartments, and that, as soon as a person advances a few yards, he comes to a door, which, the moment he enters, closes, as it opened, of its own accord, and prevents his returning.”

Similarly in "Rambles in Breadalbane" (1891), the author, Ferguson remarks: "It is said that there are a long series of mysterious caves, extending from one side of the mountain to the other." And also there is this quote from "A Highland Parish or the History of Fortingall" (1928) by Alexander Stewart:"Of all the caves in the Parish, the most remarkable is that at Tom a Mhorair, on the south side of Glenmore, near the west shoulder of Schiehallion.

If these are the earliest references to the cave, and mhorair is correct, then we could have mor(m)aer = mhorair. Alas, I do not have access to sources which would give all the early attestations for this cave name.

So, is this name properly mormaer? Or mor fir? Was mor fir merely a substitute for the former?

I much appreciate any help you can offer.

Thank you, best wishes, and respectfully,

Daniel Hunt

P.S. What is the best recent guess for a derivation of the Lyon name in Loch Lyon? I am thinking this must be *lim- 'marsh', from the root *lei- 'to pour, flow', as discussed in Rivet and Smith under their entry for Lemana. But I keep finding fanciful derivations, doubtless inspired by neopagans, to this name being derived from the dog name Lugh. Probably because Lyon in France in from Lugdunum!

July 5, 2017
3:11 pm
Forum Posts: 8
Member Since:
December 16, 2015

Hello Daniel,

I realise it is a long time since you first posted, so things may have moved on, but I would offer these observations:

1. I have noticed a difference between Pictish and Gaelic forms – while the Gaels seemed insistent on the noun coming first, it seems to me that at the very least the Picts were a good deal less fussy (and think of mormaer both from this point of view but also because as I understand it the "maer" part is from Latin).
2. With Schiehallion you are dealing with a pre-eminently Pictish place however thick the overlayering of the Gael.
3. For Pictish think a dialect of Old Welsh/Brythonnic. And a lot of overlap – for example some OLD river name forms (ie BCE) are the same as later Pictish ones (think Lochie etc.).
3. I have been quite bothered about the "fairy" element supposed for places like this, but if I understand it correctly the Banshees of Ireland were associated with burial mounds – and so I think that "fairies" may be a misrepresentation for "ghosts" etc.
4. Noting your reference to a cave I wonder whether we are looking at "royal" tombs here? A maze of underground passages is not wholly dissimilar from the structure of the Irish burial mounds and, indeed parallel structures elsewhere in Scotland.

So all in all I have been very unhappy with the idea of Schiehallion as the "fairy hill of the Caledonians" (and in any case, can Schiehallion be dismissed as a "hill"?) – but if it really means "the hill in/round which rest the SOULS of the Caledonians" then we could indeed be in business. [This is not a complete proposition because I have not thought through how this might apply in Glenshee and then there is Allt na Sithean which falls ultimately into Loch Ness. I suspect a reference to wolves.] Within such a context it would be easy to envisage a particular place reserved for the "big men".

Anyway I hope this helps.

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