Sunday, April 29, 2007

Skye is no more...

I just discovered today that as of this coming Thursday there will no longer be an Isle of Skye in Scotland. Skye is changing its name to Eilean a' Cheò.

Yeah, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue for non-Gaelic speakers, does it?

There's a move in the Scottish Highlands to develop Gaelic, the ancestral language of the Gaelic people of northern Scotland. Lowland Scots have their own language, called Scots, which has the same root language, the same grammar, and many of the same words as modern English. Unlike Scots, which is dying out mainly due to the cultural imperialism of the English language (as well as years of it, improperly, being thought of as a slang or pidgin version of English), Gaelic is thriving.

So, as part of this boost to the Gaelic language, the Highland Council — based in Inverness — has changed the name with the blessing of the majority of the island's residents. Skye and the neighbouring island of Rassay were already going to be combined into one political district, so they were already looking for a new name. From Thursday on, Skye will be known as Eilean a' Cheò, which is pronounced roughly as "ellan-uh-ch-yaw", and means Island of Mist.

As I noted above, the reason is to promote Gaelic. Some 40% of the islanders speak Gaelic fluently. (This is in contrast to the "Gaelic-speaking" percentages you hear quoted for Ireland, which include many folks who can speak only a few sentences.) There's also a haunting, romantic quality to "The Island of Mist".

The issue is that Skye, an anglicized name and thus disliked at a point when Scotland is actively considering independence from the rest of Great Britain, has a really good "brand identification". There are many songs with the name of Skye in it, most famous being the Skye Boat Song ("Speed bonnie boat like a bird on a wing, over the sea to Skye"). "Skye" itself is a romantic, evocative name.

Skye is easy for English speakers — and, most importantly North American English speakers — to pronounce. Eilean a' Cheò is not easy to pronounce. It looks like it should be pronounced "I lean a chee-oh". Forget the fact that English has been moving away from accented characters for years. I had to cheat to spell the island's name, by copying and pasting it from a web site.

Few Americans will learn any time soon that "Skye" is now "Eilean a' Cheò". Apparently the tourism boards will politely explain the change, but it's still going to cause confusion among those whose greenbacks are the life blood of the island. Tourism is big business in Scotland, as well as Eilean a' Cheò. The name change has angered and scared some B&B operators and tourism groups on the island. They see it as political correctness at the expense of business.

There is a slight tourism backlash in Scotland. Oh, Scots love tourists, and are a very hospitable people. Still, it grates on their nerves a little that people visit expecting everyone to be wearing kilts in colourful tartans (most tartan patterns were fabricated, figuratively, in the 19th century and in no way historically realistic). There's a feeling that their entire culture is sliding toward becoming a caricature on a shortbread tin. A retrieval of the country's Gaelic heritage, regardless of tourism, is seen as a positive step by many.

There are those who agree with that sentiment but still oppose the renaming of Skye to Eilean a' Cheò. The chosen name is apparently a nickname found in poems and songs. The true Gaelic name is An t-Eilean Sgitheanach. It means "the winged isle", in reference to the island's headlands that stick out into the North Sea. These critics see Eilean a' Cheò as a move toward fantasy romanticism.

Regardless of the opposition, the island will have its name changed before the end of the week. It remains to be see how long it will take the rest of the world to adopt the new name, or if it will always remain Skye outside of Scotland.

For the record, my maternal grandfather was born on Skye — uh, I mean Eilean a' Cheò. I visited the island in 1992. The island was beautiful, and worth the trip, and I regret only that I didn't have the chance to explore the island thoroughly. That having been said, the town of Potree didn't hold much interest once they rolled up the streets at night. Perhaps it's different today (my visit was 15 years ago).


John Kirriemuir said...


I live on Berneray, Outer Hebrides, not far from Skye I mean Mist(!). I can see it clearly from most windows of my house.

Portree: it's good and bad. Good in that there is a lively pub scene and plenty of places to eat and the like there in the evening. Bad in that every other business shop is a crass "trinkets for the tourist" concept. Even a lot of tourists, who are smart enough to know that shortbread isn't the heart of culture, are dismayed by this.

It's also got 2 supermarkets and a lot of builders merchants and DIY shops, if that counts for anything.

Allan Goodall said...

It's also got 2 supermarkets and a lot of builders merchants and DIY shops, if that counts for anything.

I don't remember all the crass trinket shops. I may be remembering wrong, but I have the impression that there wasn't that many trinket shops there.

Of course I found the souvenir shops in Scotland to be of pretty good quality. The big one I went to in Drumnadrochit sold Lilliput Lane cottages, which I collect. They were 1/3 the price I was paying in Canada. Now, if you want really tacky tourist places, you have to wander Daytona Beach, or Niagara Falls...