Land at Edinburgh Airport and you’ll be greeted by large signs welcoming you in Scots-Gaelic (the Scottish variant is pronounced gah-lik, gɑːlɪk) but the truth is that less than 1% of the population can speak the language, and that number is heading towards zero. Sales of malt whisky, on the other hand, are rising, despite almost no one understanding the names. We Scots do enjoy a drink, and we do enjoy drinking whisky, but very, very few people can comprehend the names of what they’re drinking.
So what’s in a name?
A couple of basic points: each whisky owes its distinctiveness to, amongst other ingredients, the local water supply, and for this reason distilleries were not only built close to a water supply, many were named after it, hence the large number of whiskies with either glen, which comes from the Gaelic gleann meaning a river valley, or loch (lake) forming part of the name. The second part of whisky names is more specific:
Glenlivet = Glen of the Smooth Place:
liobh (meaning slippery or smooth), ait (meaning place)
Glenfarclas = Glen of the green grass
Glendronach = Glen of the blackberries
Glen Burgie = Glen of the fort:
in this case borg is the old norse word for fort.
Then there are those whiskies with names which appear to be in plain English (for example, Springbank), yet others where the name is simply a misappropriation over time. The Glenkinchie distillery, for example, sits a few miles to the east of Edinburgh, in a part of the country where Gaelic has never been the predominant language. The “kinchie” part is a corruption of the English surname Quincey, the name of the family who owned the surrounding land. Thus the whisky is actually pronounced Glen-kinsee.
Hiding from the tax-man
After the union of the Scottish and English parliaments, tax was levied on whisky. There were some revisions to this over the subsequent century but the overall effect was to drive a lot of the smaller producers ‘underground’ with their production, and even to make the stills mobile. Consequently many whiskies abandoned the local town’s name. For example, Talisker, meaning sloping rock or cliff, can be found outside the village of Carbost, whereas Highland Park is in Kirkwall, Orkney.
Muddying the waters
Take Glenmorangie, the largest-selling malt whisky in Scotland, as a case in point. This malt was first distilled a couple of hundred years ago on the Morangie Farm and nowadays markets itself with the slogan “The Glen of Tranquility”, using the etymological claim that the origin is Gleann mor na sith, whereas most other Gaelic sources believe the name translates as “River Valley of the Big Water Meadows” from the Gaelic Gleann mór innse. In a similarly contentious vein is Glenfiddich, the largest-selling malt whisky in the world: the distillers use “Glen of the Deer” as a marketing tool whereas a more genuine etymology might be Gleann Fidach, with Fidach likely being a Pictish province named after someone called Fid.
And just for a colleague with a similar surname, the Dalmore whisky takes its name from “the Big Field”. Not such a romantic vision now, is it?
Either way, whatever’s in the name, it’s what’s in the bottle that counts.
Am Andrew Eile
[the other Andrew]
If you found this interesting then you might want to take a look at this list of “Top Ten Unreleased Gaelic Whisky Names”.
P.S. if I ever catch you writing “Scotch whiskey” then you’re out of the circle of trust.