Arran is first mentioned in an Irish poem of around 1200 as Arand na n-aighedh n-imdha ‘Arran of the many stags’. The majority of the names of larger Scottish islands are very old, and Arran is no exception.
We cannot thus be certain of what the name meant to the coiners, but most likely it meant something like ‘ridge island’ in a pre-Gaelic, but Celtic language.
Apart from the name of Arran, the oldest set of place-names on Arran seem to be Norse or Viking in origin. The name Lochranza comes from Gaelic Loch Raonasa; Raonasa is a name of Old Norse origin: *Reynis-á, meaning ‘rowan river'; relating to the old name of the river which flows into the loch here. Apparently, old remains of rowan trees have been found here.
Likewise, the English sounding Goatfell is Old Norse in origin most likely from *Gait-fjall meaning the same thing as it does in modern English ‘goat fell’. The modern Gaelic form is however Gaoitbheinn. Brodick is from Norse *breiða-vík ‘broad bay’. In Gaelic, it was known as Breadhaig, which comes from the Norse name, and also as Tràigh a’ Chaisteil ‘the beach of the castle’, relating to Brodick Castle. It is Gaelic however that has been the predominant language of Arran from at least medieval times until the start of the twentieth century. An obsolete Gaelic word cille ‘church’ appears in names throughout Scotland as Kil- followed by a saint’s name. On Arran we have Kilpatrick or Cille Phàdraig ‘Patrick’s church’; Kildonan or Cille Donnain ‘Donnan’s church’ and Kilmory or Cille Mhoire ‘Mary’s church’. Likewise Gaelic baile ‘farm, town’ is common, and on Arran, we have Balmichael or Baile Mhìcheil ‘Michael’s farm’ and Ballymeanoch or Am Baile Meadhanach ‘the middle farm’. Balliekine however is a good example of how place-names can be deceptive, this comes from Gaelic Bàn Leacainn ‘white hill slope’. Gaelic achadh ‘field, farm’ is another common element also found on Arran: Auchencairn is Gaelic Achadh a’ Chàrna ‘the field of the cairn’; Auchencar is from Gaelic Achadh a’ Charra ‘the field of the standing stone’, such a stone stands there to this day. The original Gaelic form of Auchenhew is unclear, it may represent Achadh Iodh ‘the field of yew’ from an obsolete word for ‘yews’.
The name of Lamlash has a complex history. The settlement sits on the coast facing Holy Island. The name of the island was of old Eilean MoLaise ‘the island of MoLaise’. MoLaise seems to be the name of the saint, and on Holy Island is a place called St Molaise’s Cave. According to local tradition, St Columba came to the island to visit him. Over time, Gaelic Eilean MoLaise has turned into English Lamlash, by reduction of an unstressed ‘Eilean Mo-’. The name has also transferred from the island itself to the settlement facing it, on Arran proper. To add to this confusion, the name of the town was often referred to locally in Gaelic either as An t-Eilean ‘the island’ or An t-Eilean Àrd ‘the high island', with the bay of Lamlash being Loch an Eilein ‘the loch of the island’. Other miscellaneous Arran names of Gaelic origin are Glencloy or Gleann Mhac Lothaidh ‘the glen of the MacLoys, Shiskine or An Seasgann ‘the reed place’, Machrie or Macharaidh ‘the low lying place (i.e. machair)’ and Margnaheglish or Marg na h-Eaglais ‘the merkland of the church’. In the last few hundred years, some English names have been introduced, most of which have been translated into Gaelic by the locals. The following pairs of names all mean the same thing in English and Gaelic: Blackwaterfoot or Bun na Dubh-Abhainn; Pirnmill or Am Muilleann Iteachan and Newton or Am Baile Nuadh.
It is a tragedy that Gaelic has all but died out on Arran. What is remarkable however is that it survived for so long given its proximity to the Lowlands; in the 1970s speakers were still present on the island. This survival has meant that the Arran dialect has on occasion preserved Gaelic forms for places in Ayrshire and beyond, in areas where Gaelic has died out as a productive language centuries ago. For instance, Kilwinning was known in Arran as Cill D’Fhinnein ‘the church of your Finnan’ where Finnan was a saint as mentioned above. Likewise, Gourock was known as Goraig and Troon as An Truthail. The Scots phrase ‘doon the watter’ in relation to going into the Clyde existed in Arran as ‘sìos an Rìobhar’, where the Scots word River was borrowed into the Arran dialect specifically to mean the River Clyde. Jake King is the researcher for Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, the body responsible for providing Gaelic forms of names. www.ainmean-aite.scot