Gaelic was once the language of the majority of Scotland but the Western Isles are now the only remaining strongholds for the language. Gaelic is the first language of many Harris inhabitants and is an integral part of the area’s heritage and identity. However, at one time children were discouraged from speaking Gaelic in Harris Schools and were forced to write in English. More recently attitudes have changed and Gaelic is now taught in all schools with some schools offering Gaelic medium classes in which the pupils are completely immersed in the language. Currently around 60-70% of the North Harris population speak Gaelic.
Knowledge of just a small amount of Gaelic can give a great insight into the history of the Harris landscape through the meanings of place names. For example a quick glance at an Ordnance Survey map of the area will reveal several crags by the name of ‘Creag na h-Iolaire’ meaning crag of the eagle. Uamh or Uamha are also common components of names meaning cave. However many place names also stem from the Norse language of Viking settlers. For example Langabhat meaning ‘long water’ (loch) and Tarbert meaning crossing point, isthmus or portage.
The Ordnance Survey and Scottish Natural Heritage have produced two very good guides to Gaelic place names which can be downloaded as PDF files.