Navigating the nomenclature: The validity of G. Tairbeart as evidence for pre-Norse survival in Lewis and the West of Scotland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

While the traditional vitality of the Gaelic language in the Outer Hebrides is well-attested, there are reasons to believe that it has not always played such a central role in local identity. Linguistic studies have consistently shown that Scottish Gaelic, and that of Lewis in particular, has been heavily coloured by contact with Old Norse – the language of the Vikings. Although the mechanisms behind this linguistic interference are not yet fully understood, reappraisal of the evidence points to origins in the second language acquisition of Gaelic by settled speakers of Norse. This re-ignites the debate on the early stages of Norse-native interaction, whether these were violent or peaceful, and whether they were characterised by cultural or even ethnic disjuncture as opposed to continuity. Those who argue for continuity point to the place-name record, and the far higher proportion of Gaelic than Norse names in modern maps and inventories. This is problematic from a methodological perspective; there are few sources for local place-names older than the 19th century, and possibly only a handful from the Viking Age itself. Name-typology and distribution patterns can nevertheless be used to help identify potential early survivors.
Given the undoubted Norse mastery of the seaways during this period, one particularly interesting candidate is the Gaelic place-name element tairbeart, with the original meaning of ‘portage’, which can be found at numerous locations across Scotland, including several in the Outer Hebridean archipelago. As the Norse incomers had their own words for this phenomenon, such as eið – which can also be found in Scotland – it is reasonable to ask whether the incidence of tairbeart points to continuity in native tradition, with Norse elements borrowed to cover hitherto unused semantic ground. This chapter re-examines the distribution and physical typology of the Outer Hebridean ‘tarberts’ alongside the other Scottish examples. In so doing, it attempts to shed more light on their period of productivity relative to the surviving Norse terminology; and by extension, what this might tell us about the nature of the Norse-native relationship.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Lewis Chessmen
Subtitle of host publicationNew Perspectives
EditorsDavid H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherThe National Museums of Scotland
Pages121-149
ISBN (Print)9781905267859
Publication statusPublished - 28 Oct 2014

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