Friday, October 23, 2009

Albannach and Cymry

I've had a fascinating couple of days at 'Scotland's Global Impact' Conference in Inverness. I expected to learn more about well... the words in the title, but I didn't really expect to be re-educated on the origin of well-kent words.

I always thought 'Alba' was a deep-rooted, chest-puffing term for ancient Scotland. I enjoy explaining to clients that Sassenach are Southerners and by contrast, Albannach are us - Scots, Highlanders, Celts. Not a bit of it! I learnt yesterday (from Dr James Fraser of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University) that Alba actually means Britain, the whole island. Hence, I suppose, 'perfidious Albion', a well established epithet for England, perhaps due to the white (albus) cliffs of Dover. Viewed, as this island was, by Gaels from Ireland, I suppose this all makes sense.

I did actually know that 'Welsh' (also Walsh and Wallace) means foreigners. But I didn't know that "Wales" originates from the Germanic word Wahl which referred to foreigners who had been "Romanised".

Talking of Romanisation, James Fraser also explained that Britons in the South of Scotland (south of the Antonine Wall) were proud to be thought 'Romanised'. Even after the Romans had left. Some legacy!

In the tenth century 'Alba' came to mean the nation of Picts and Gaels. And in the afternoon we, too, moved into the Middle Ages. Masses of interesting thoughts and stories, but no etymological shocks.

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