The West Highlands of Scotland is a region steeped in history and rich in culture. Its charming towns and lesser-trodden villages bear the marks of its past, and their names offer clues to the area’s fascinating history. From the ancient Gaelic roots of Inveraray and Portree to the Norse influence on Mallaig, the names of these places tell a story of the people and events that have shaped our favourite part of Scotland.
In this blog, we hope to give everyone a little extra insight into the stories behind a few of our favourite Highland visitor stops – the origins of town and village names in the West Highlands.
Arguably one of the most popular towns in Scotland for travellers (especially those looking to explore the north), Fort William is located at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles. It’s gone by multiple names over the centuries, originally Inverlochy, a name that lives on in the ruin of Inverlochy Castle situated just outside the town centre. The first recorded site here was a 17th-century fort, built by Oliver Cromwell’s forces during the English Civil War. The fort was later destroyed, and the town that grew up around it was named after William of Orange, who commissioned a new fort here in the 1690s.
To add to its list of names, the settlement that grew around it was called Maryburgh, named after William’s wife Mary II of England. This area was later renamed Gordonsburgh, and then Duncansburgh before being renamed Fort William, this time after Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. In addition, Fort William also goes by its Gaelic name, An Gearasdan, which translates to ‘the garrison’. .
Inveraray is a pleasing town on the shores of Loch Fyne, most famous for its castle and historic jail. Its name comes from the Gaelic “Inbhir Aora”, which means “mouth of the river Aray”. The town was founded in the 18th century by the Duke of Argyll, who built Inveraray Castle as his family’s seat. Originally nothing more than a smaller castle and a spattering of cottages, in 1744, the third Duke of Argyll set to work on his goal to expand and elevate the town, demolishing the existing castle and building a new one. The project took 40 years, seeing a complete re-design of the castle, transforming it into a grand Georgian mansion house that attracted many famous guests, including Queen Victoria in 1847.
Campbeltown is a coastal town on the Kintyre Peninsula, popular with whisky lovers (it has 3 distilleries) and known across Scotland for its fishing industries. Originally known as Kinlochkilkerran, its name is derived from the Gaelic “Cam Beul Taigh”, which means “curved bay with a house”. The town grew up around the 17th century Campbeltown distillery and was once one of the busiest ports in Scotland.
Visitors to Loch Melfort Hotel will most likely be familiar with the nearby town of Oban, a picturesque coastal community known as the “Gateway to the Isles”. Its name is derived from the Scottish Gaelic An t-Òban, meaning ‘The Little Bay’. Now known as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’, historic finds suggest that Oban’s foodie reputation long pre-dates tourism marker point, as piles of discarded sea shells have been found in late Bronze Age cave dwellings here.
The town’s sheltered harbour has been used as a port since ancient times, and in the 18th century, it became an important centre for trade and fishing. Oban Distillery deserves a special nod when discussing the origins of its name; established in 1794, it was built before the town began to spring up around the harbour, and is one of the oldest still active in Scotland.
Portree is the largest town on the Isle of Skye (the largest island in the Inner Hebrides), and is popular with travellers as a base for exploring the rest of the island. Its name comes from the Gaelic “Port Righ”, which means “king’s port”. The town was founded in the early 19th century and became an important centre for trade and transportation. However, it’s certainly worth noting that there is evidence that there was a settlement at Portree since the early Bronze Age (2500 BC). In addition, stone tools dating back as far as the latter part of the Stone Age (4000 BC) have also been uncovered in the area.
Fort Augustus is a village located at the southern end of Loch Ness. Its name is derived from the fort built here in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite uprising, which was named after King George II’s younger son, Prince William Augustus. The fort was later decommissioned, and the village that grew up around it became a popular tourist destination.
Founded in 1840, Mallaig is a small fishing town on the west coast of Scotland, known for its connections to the Isle of Skye and the Western Isles. In recent years, it’s also found fame for being the last stop on the famous Jacobite Train line (the ‘Harry Potter’ train). It is speculated that the name comes from the Norse “Mel Vik”, which means “shingly bay”.
Eager to learn more about the history of the Scottish Highlands? You might like our blog post:A journey through Argyll’s architectural history