The main source of information about place names in Lewis and Harris is Donald Maciver FEIS, latterly (1934) headmaster of Bayble School. His volume Place Names of Lewis and Harris is invaluable both as a list of minor, nearly-lost names and an exploration of some theories surrounding their origins, although he differs in many instances from other sources. He writes in his introduction:
From these names we learn much of the unwritten history of Lewis during the Norse and Swedish occupation. As invaders they were daring mariners who lived along the coast of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In their skiffs or open boats they sailed and rowed across all our Northern Seas. As they were expert in war, courageous and great in numbers, they prevailed against the people they found occupying the Western Islands of Britain, as well as much of Ireland. This was between the 8th and 9th century. They found Lewis seabound, rugge rock like their homeland. They killed or drove out the inhabitants, burnt their dwellings and the forests of trees that, here and there, covered much of theisland at the tiem. This was about the end of the 9th century, a period comparatively late in Celtic history. The natives then called the island ‘Leuthas’, the name it enjoys locally to the present day. In imitation of this name, the orse adopted ‘Ljothus’ after a one powerful, rich and strongly-fortified ciety Liodhus, in the South of Sweden. This town is now called Liodose. No doubt at this late period the pre-Norse natives of Lewis spoke the Irish Gaelic which was the language of Dalriada and of the Inner Hebrides.
We know that the West of Lewis had, until two centuries ago, much more intercourse with Londonderry, belfast and Dublin, than with the mainland of Scotland in respect of trade. When we read the history of the early church in Ireland, we are reminded of our numerous Saints in lewis, their chapels and monastic cells. In fact the Western Isles were halting and hospitable quarters for the Irish en rout to the mainland of Scotland in the same was as at a later date, Orkney and Shetland were found by Norse and Swedes to be fit places for launching their piratical expeditions upon Leuthas. Thus Lewis, on the outskirts of Alba, became a dependancy of Norway, governed by a long succession of feudal kings, until the dominancy of that country was shattered at Largs in 1263.
It would appear that at one period, Lewis place names were uniformly Norse; that they began gradually to give way to Gaelic inflection and modern Gaelic names. Our Lewis Gaelic contains a large proportion of Scandinavian words, there being no fewer than 500 words common to Gaelic and old Norse.
The place names around Lewis – both on the coast and inland – are overwhelmingly Norse in origin, and Donald J Macleod (Enaclete and Bridge of Don) has compiled some useful lists and interpretations (see the links below).
The Name Book compiled from local information by the engineers undertaking the first Ordnance Survey mapping of Lewis in the 1850s. Available to consult at Stornoway Library.
Donald Maciver FEIS, Placenames of Lewis and Harris
William Watson, The Celtic Placenames of Scotland (1926)
William Watson, Scottish Placename Papers (2002)
James B. Johnston, Place-names of Scotland (1892)
WFH Nicolaisen, Scottish Place Names (1986)
Recent Notes About Placenames
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