This thread was originally written and published in September 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
This is Oxcars in the Firth of Forth. I was interested to see that the old name for it was Ocksters – the Scots word for armpit!
A few years previously it’s down as Ockstairs on the original sketches for John Adair’s map of the Forth, but then in a 1703 imprint it has been “corrected” to Oxscares.
If you are wondering where this variation comes from then wonder no more. The root of the word is “Ox Scaris“, as in Ox Skerries, as in Ox Rocks. Ocksters etc. are simply older phonetic variations. The oldest variation is recorded in 1621 as Oixtaris in the Register of the Privy Council on the subject of the need for a beacon on these rocks, which are submerged at high tides.
It’s likely this animal theme lent its name to the neighbouring rock of Cow & Calves, which was traditionally “Muckriestone” as it lies off the north of Inchmickery. Interestingly it was as recently as 1960 when the name changed from Mickerystone to Cow & Calves on Admiralty coastal charts.
Working our way down the Forth from it’s outer reaches, we can explore the toponymy of the islands; the meanings of their place names.
The Isle of May at the eastern extreme is likely old norse, Má ey or “gull island”. Stands to obvious reason. The Gaelic Magh, an open field, is less likely.
The Bass rock of course is off East Lothian. The origin of its name has been lost to history, John Milne suggests “death”, from the Gaelic “bàs“, as it was long a place of banishment and execution, but that’s just conjecture and some of Milne’s use of Gaelic is often a little bit convenient.
But we do know that the Bass gives the scientific species name to the Northern Gannet – Morus bassanus – for which it is long kenned as its largest colony. Described as far back as the 16th century as Anser bassanus later in the 18th by Linnaeus as Sula bassana.
Moving west, the next island is Craigleith. Milne suggests the Gaelic “Creag Liath” – the grey rock. (In Gaelic, Liath – is the colour of a blue sky but when used in reference to the landscape it refers to something being greyish. This is a feature of the Gaelic language when dealing with placenames; the colour use is subjective and descriptive, not literal). However The stains of guano on the dark volcanic rocks do look a bit that way if you squint. Although in Gaelic liath does not have the soft “th” ending of Leith, notice that the earliest mapped spelling is “Lieth” with the I before the E.
Next up is The Lamb, Milne goes for the easy Gaelic “Làmh” for an arm or handle, one assumes for the shape. Or there might be a Norse origin, or it’s simply named after the animal (see also Oxcars, Cows & Calve). It is after all flanked by the North and South Dog rocks .
The Lamb was bought by Uri Geller (yes, that Uri Geller) in 2009 so he could dowse for Egyptian treasure on it. Yes, I’m being serious, he described that it’s an analogue for the layout of the Egyptian pyramids and holds the buried treasure of Princess Scota. He recently told the BBC that he has spent a single night on his island and didn’t enjoy it one bit and was declaring the island a micronation, the Republic of Lamb.
Milne gives a fanciful Gaelic derivation for Fidra, but it’s now believed to be Old Norse, from Fiðrey or Feather Island as a result of all the seabirds; Eider feathers would have been gathered here in yore for use in bedding. Robert Louis Stevenson based his plan for Treasure Island on Fidra (amongst other islands).
Next along is Eyebroughy, Ibris in Adair’s chart. The Old Norse Ey for island seems an obvious start for the word, but I cannot find a reference giving an explanation for the second part.
Inch Keith looms large in the centre of the Forth. Its etymology gets a whole chapter on its Wikipedia page, but the logical explanation may be Innse Coit, a hybrid of old Gaelic (Island) and Welsh (wooded) for a wooded island. The oldest recorded form is Ked in the 13th century, but as the “Place Names of Fife” points out, its an unlikely candidate to be known for being wooded, so once again we probably just don’t know. It was used to quarantine victims of syphilis from Leith and Edinburgh in the 15th century, of that we do know
The Grandgore (syphilis) Act of 1497, saw Inchkeith made a place of “Compulsory Retirement” for sufferers. They were obliged to board a ship at Leith and to remain on their island “till God provide for their health“.
Interestingly, Georgian mapmaker extraordinaire – William Roy – left Inchkeith off his “great map” of both the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland (the Forth is the eastern boundary of his geographical division), but there’s a square that looks like a repair where it *should* be…
Just to the south of Oxcars – which we covered earlier – is Inchmickery and Mickrystone, now Cow & Calves. Mickery may be from the Gaelic Innis nam Bhiocaire, “Island of Vicars”, as like most of the Forth’s islands it was a religious retreat at one time.
Inchmickery was fortified during both World Wars, and it’s not without good reason that there’s a legend that its outline was deliberately made to look like an anchored battleship. If you know your Royal Navy, it’s a pretty good likeness to HMSs Nelson and Rodney.
The logic is that any U-boat commander who made it into the Forth would pop up his periscope, be taken in by the cunningly disguised island and would have fired his torpedoes and disappeared before realising he’d wasted them on a rock
Inchcolm is probably the best known of the Forth Islands and is named for Saint Columba (Colum Cille in Gaelic) who reputedly visited it in the 6th century. The modern name is from the Gaelic Innis Choluim or Columba’s Island. The old joke goes “how many inches are there in the Forth?” and you’re meant to count the islands. In “The Scottish Play”, Shakespeare refers to it as Saint Colmes ynch.
Just off Inchcolm lies Inchgnome, but the jury of the best minds in Scottish placenames is still out on where that one might come from. Probably from some obscure Gaelic saint.
Cramond Island is obviously just off of the village of Cramond. It’s from Caer Amond, Caer being old British for a fortification (referring to Roman fort on the site), and Amond or Almond is the river of that name; like the rivers Esk and Avon (and others), it simply means “river”
Another tautological place name like “River Almond” is the island of Carcraig off of Inch Colm. The Car element is an Scots word for “rock” from the Old English Carr, and the Craig bit is the Scots word for “rock” from the Gaelic Creag.
Inchgarvie, that convenient supporting rock for the Forth Bridge, is likely from the Gaelic Innse Garbh, or “rough island”, on account of its rugged appearance (and its legendary giant rats).
Upstream of the Forth Bridge there are fewer islands. The Beamer Rock’s name is quite literal, and refers to an early beacon that was there from time immemorial to guard ships from it. The older form was Bimar or Bymerskyrr, the –skyrr from the Scots Skerry for a low islet or sea rock. Beamer Rock suffered the indignity of having the very beacon it was named for demolished (the base was blown up with explosives) in 2011 to make way for a tower of the Queensferry Crossing.
And moving much further up the river, an island that many folk may be less familiar with is “Preston Island”, which was only an island for about 150 years. Named after Robert Preston, an industrialist who had it built out on the mudflats off the Craigmore Rocks (“big rock rocks”) at the turn of the 19th century.
Preston was something of the visionary, and his artificial island was a coal mine, with shafts tapping good coal at an easily reach depth, and surrounded by water where ships could take it away. Much of the coal was also used to heat the pans to make salt. A self contained community in the sea extracting fossil fuels, it has been likened to an oil rig.
A firedamp (methane) explosion less than a decade after it was sunk put an end to mining, but it remained a useful place to produce salt. It was later swallowed up by the land reclamation in Torry Bay from the ash from Kincardine and later Longannet power stations.
There are of course countless other islets in the Forth, but I hope this whistle stop tour has been of some interest.
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