What's in a Name?: Corryvreckan (feat Tom Wylde)

Learning how to pronounce scotch whisky names leads to a story of a violent whirlpool, a maiden, and a knight.

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Show Notes

Have you ever had an occasion not to order or talk about a particular whisky, simply because you were a little concerned about your ability to pronounce it? Well, the goal with this episode is to help you understand the makeup of scotch names so you can more easily pronounce them.

Then, I'll talk about a great whirlpool north of Jura and how Corryvreckan either swallowed a king, a prince, or a maiden.

This Episode Includes:

  • Dealing with phonetics in Scots Gaelic
  • Choosing the fun way to say Bowmore and Port Ellen
  • The valley of the Glens
  • The peaks of the Bens
  • Dealing with the ch sound in Gaelic
  • Laying low in the strath
  • The River Spey and its region
  • Rock of Alarm and the Little Bay
  • The breast Paps and the Sound of Islay or is that Ila?
  • The Talisker mystery
  • Ardbeg's location based expressions
  • Cailleach Bheur and the snows of winter
  • The king, a prince, and a maiden
  • The Kelpie of Corryvrecken by Charles MacKay (as read by Tom Wylde).


Have you ever had an occasion not to order or talk about a particular whisky, simply because you were a little concerned about your ability to pronounce it?

Welcome to my world, circa 2018, a year before my first trip to Ireland and Scotland. For an American, uninitiated in the world of Scots Gaelic, butchering the pronunciation of names like Bruichladdich, Auchentoshan, or Ledaig felt like a rite of passage into the whisky drinker’s hall of shame. 

Well, the difficulty starts with a set of phonetic rules that are very unfamiliar to English speakers. And for someone used to American English pronunciations, it seemed like an added challenge would be the variety of localized Scottish dialects that add another challenging layer to getting the names right.

But after my trip to Scotland, I realized that not only was I having trouble with these words, even native Scots weren’t completely clear on some of the distillery’s pronunciation. 

Take the home of the world’s oldest aging warehouse, located on the Eastern shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal. To an American, it is pronounced Bow-more. But I’ve heard more than a few islanders saying Bo-More, putting the emphasis on the M instead of the B. But then when I asked a tour guide about it, they said I should pronounce it the way I was, Bow-more.

Another example would be the place where many Islay distilleries go to get their malted barley Port Ellen. I’ve heard many of the locals call it Por-Tell-en - putting the emphasis on the T and running the words together. 

My guess is, this is just the way the words evolved on Islay over the years and you can choose to pronounce them either way you feel comfortable. I find something charming in both Por Tellen and Bo-More. And by the way, Islay is spelled ISLAY and that can very easily get you mispronouncing it as IS-lay or Eye-lay.  

But don’t worry, I won’t stick you in the whisky hall of shame for getting a name wrong. I know where you’re coming from. 

But what I can tell you is that once you learn them and the meanings behind them, they will add a whole new dimension to your whisky experience and your new found knowledge may raise a few eyebrows among your bourbon drinking friends. You see, bourbons are usually named after founders or places you can find on a map. Scotch on the other hand, embraces its Gaelic heritage and uses its language to help you get a visual representation of what the home of that scotch whisky looks like. 

Let me get you started with some examples.

I’m sure you have noticed the word “Glen” at the beginning of a whole host of scotch whiskies. It is actually derived from Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic (which actually are two separate languages built from the same core) and it means a deep and somewhat narrow valley. But not as deep as a ravine. 

The word farclas roughly translates to green grass. So Glenfarclas means Valley of the Green Grass. And if you’ve ever visited the distillery, you will know exactly what they are talking about.

Dronach means brambles. Brambles being prickly shrubs, many of which bear fruit like raspberries and blackberries. So GlenDronach means the “valley of the brambles.” 

Glenallachie means valley of the rocks and is so named because of the amount of stones left by the Picts and Celts in the area surrounding the distillery. 

Ever wonder why there is a deer on the GlenFiddich label? It means the valley of the deer, although it could also represent the valley of the River Fiddich.

All three of these great examples of the flexibility in the Gaelic ch sound. The traditional way to say it is to raise the back of your tongue and vibrate the ch sound. It is similar to the German ch in a name like Bach. But if it is as difficult for you as the Spanish rolled R is for me, it is perfectly acceptable to use the soft k sound. So you have GlenDronach or GlenFiddich or Glenallachie. But remember the ch is also silent in some names, so you’ll need to learn these on a case by case basis. 

Then there are the names that are more difficult to decipher. Glenmorangie has both pronunciation issues as well as origin issues. First, it could be valley of tranquility or it could be the valley of the big meadows. This confusion tends to happen when the Scots Gaelic origin word is too hard to pin down. As for the pronunciation, you put the emphasis on the More, so it should be GlenMORangie. I know some people who seem to think it is a valley looking to add more lasses named Angie to the population. Glen More Angie is a popular mispronunciation.

Others are also named for nearby bodies of water, like Glenturret, meaning valley of the Turret River and GlenLivet which is the valley of the River Livet. Livet is a term that has several possible meanings including slippery, smooth, or floody.

So far we’ve looked at several nicely sloped narrow valleys, but what about places where there are wider valleys? Well, now you’re talking about a strath, instead of a glen. So Strathisla is basically a very wide valley where the River Isla flows. And in this case, Isla is spelled without a Y. By the way, Strathisla is the home of Chivas Regal, and the name Chivas is a surname that means “narrowing place by the river.”

As you can see by the names, water has always been a prized element in the production of whisky production - and the most densely populated region of whisky distilleries in Scotland is named after a waterway. Speyside, which encompases the area surrounding the River Spey and is carved out of the middle of the Highland Region, is home to at least 50 distilleries.  This mass of distilleries was once served by the Strathspey Railway. And of course Strathspey means the wide valley of the River Spey.

Many people believe there is something special in the water of the River Spey and that is the reason there are so many distilleries in the area. But what you learn while doing tours is that the water of the Spey is usually only used for cooling during distillation and other purposes. The water that distilleries like Aberlour, Macallan, and Glenfarclas use for whisky comes from underground springs. And several distilleries are fed from springs that originate from the mountain Ben Rinnes.  

And so that brings us to another word you sometimes see in distillery names - Ben. In Scots Gaelic, Benn with 2 n’s means mountain, hill, or peak. 

So BenRiach means speckled mountain, Benrinnes means a peak that flows down to water, and Benromach means Romach Hill, and Ben Nevis is named after the tallest mountain in the British Isles and its name means venomous or malicious mountain. 

Other names that denote geological features include: 

Oban, which means Little Bay. The little seaside town developed out of the growth of the distillery. But because the distillery sits in front of a steep hillside that overlooks the bay, it has been boxed in and so the distillery that allowed the town to grow, is no longer able to grow its own footprint.

Craigellachie means rock of alarm, a name applied to a cliff where the village that bears the name of the whisky sits - right at the confluence of the River Spey and River Fiddich. 

And some denote the position geographically, like Caol Ila, which translates to the Sound of Islay, as it sits on the edge of Islay looking across at the Paps of Jura. By the way, Paps is an Old Norse word that means breasts - and if you’ve ever seen the Paps of Jura from the docks of either Caol Ila, Ardnahoe, or Bunnahabian, you will understand why they are called that.

Caol Ila is a tough enough one to pronounce, but even moreso when you realize it is named after Islay and the second half is pronounced differently than the place it is referring to. I’ve even seen online videos from Scotsmen who call this Coal-Islay.

Aberlour - mouth of the chattering burn

Auchentoshan - corner of the field.

Bruichladdich means brae of the shore (brae meaning a steep bank or hillside)

Laphroaig - hollow by the broad bay - and that odd spelling is likely due to it’s cross origins between Norse and Gaelic.

Bunnahabhain - river mouth or foot or the river. It just so happens the distillery’s water source is the river just north of the distillery, that empties out into the Sound of Islay.

And some denote their location in conjunction with historical events. Originally called the Strathspey Distillery, Dalwhinnie has been said to mean meeting place, while others have said it means field of champions. The distillery, at the top of the drive into eastern Highlands was a staging area for Highland raiders heading south. 

One of the more confusing names is Talisker. The distillery is located on Loch Harport in the village of Carbost on the Isle of Skye. Talisker comes from either a Gaelic term that means land of the cliff or a Norse word meaning sloping rock. But if you look around the distillery - it sits on the water’s edge of the Loch, so the name doesn’t immediately make sense. Until you realize the distillery was named after Talisker Bay which is located about 5 miles west of Carbost and which does have stunning cliffsides.

Bowmore means great sea reef or rock. Thus we draw out Bow which means reef or rock and More which means great. So when we hear Ardmore, we know that something is great, but what? Well, ard translates to height. So Ardmore is great height. And that leads us to Ardbeg. The name Ardbeg means the little height or headland - denoting the gentle slope where the distillery rests above the water. 

But Ardbeg gives us even more food for thought in the form of their individual whisky expressions. Whisky expressions that come from the names of real places. Locations with significance to the island of Islay, the region, or the distillery itself. 

And if you ever visit Ardbeg, this is made very clear by the sign on the way into the distillery that points in the direction of these landmarks and provides the distance to them. 

First there is Uigeadail, which has a high ABV and spends its life in ex-Sherry casks. The name Uigeadail comes from Loch Uigeadail, which is the water source for the distillery.

Then there is An Oa. A non age stated whisky that makes its way around, utilizing Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, ex-bourbon casks, and virgin oak casks. It is named after the Mull of Oa in Southwest Islay. A mull being a "rounded hill or summit" This little land appendage protects the coastline that is the home to Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig from Atlantic Ocean storm tides.

And then there is my personal favorite, Corryvreckan. As the package suggests, this is a turbulent whisky. The highest proof in the range at just over 57% ABV. It explodes in your mouth with a wide complex flavor range. The peat smoke is definitely there, giving bits of earthiness, a medicinal brininess, and a touch of salt. But then it goes into everything from lemon, to dark fruits to toffee, cinnamon, and bacon. It is a whisky that is not a casual sipper, but instead one that demands your attention and rewards your focus with a fireworks show of flavors.

So is it any wonder that Corryvreckan the spirit derives its name from one of the most turbulent natural wonders in the world? 

Northeast of Islay, nestled between the Isle of Jura and the Isle of Scarba lay the Gulf of Corryvreckan. This narrow strait is revered for not only for its marine life, but also its aquatic marvel of sheer force, the Corryvreckan whirlpool which stands somewhere between the second to sixth largest in the world.

The whirlpool is created by a combination of unique underwater land formations, the force of water coming into the gulf from the Atlantic Ocean, the narrow passageway which leaves little room for water to recede, and the flood waters coming in from the nearby Firth of Lorne. In fact, those waves alone can reach more than 30 feet high. To give you a sense of the power of this wonder, when it is least active, the waters are over 300 feet deep, but when the whirlpool is at its most active the waters drop to only 100 feet. And the sound is so fierce, that it is said you can hear it from up to 30 miles away.

It can be seen by boat, but it is highly recommended you rely on the experience of local guides. Or, if it makes you feel safer, you can take the opportunity to see it from above by small plane. 

And as you can imagine, in a land rich with legends and lore, this massive whirlpool has spun out its share of fantastic tales from days of yore.

One involves the Thunder Hag goddess of winter Cailleach Bheur (KAL-ick-Bear). A powerful woman who lives in both Irish and Scottish traditions One story suggests she dropped her plaid tartan into the gulf and her efforts in washing the garment stirred up such force that the water could be heard from twenty miles away as she worked. By the end of her cleaning the cloth would be pure white and would blanket the Scottish countryside. The blanketing was the explanation for the first snowfall of the year in the Scottish Highlands. She had basically used the waters of the gulf to bring on winter. Breacan translates to Speckled in Gaelic and evolved into a name for a tartan plaid.

If you read the Corryvreckan whisky box, you’ll find a variation of a Norse Legend about a Viking Prince named Breacan. In Ardbeg’s version, the prince fell in love with an Islay Princess, the daughter of the Lord of the Isles. To prove his devotion he sailed into the whirlpool with three ropes keeping him safe. But when they broke, all thought he perished. But KAL-ick-Bear has him held in her watery lair. 

An alternate version has him as a king, again trying to show his daring, tries to get as close to the whirlpool as he can, again using three ropes. The most trusted of his ropes is the one made of the hair of virgins. But apparently one of the maids whose hair was used turned out not to be a virgin after all, the ropes all broke and the king and his shipmates were dragged into the whirlpool, and to the bottom of the sea, never to be seen again. 

In 1851, a Scottish author and poet named Charles MacKay put quill to paper and wrote one of the most famous accounts of an incident at the Corryvreckan whirlpool. 

The story involves three characters and a series of events that occur near Moy Castle on the Isle of Mull.  Mull is just about 25 miles north of the Gulf of Corryvreckan. The characters include Jessie, the fairest young maiden in the village near Loch Buy. Her fiance Evan, and a handsome young knight mounted on a grey steed. And as the story rolls along, there is confusion as to whether the horse is a Kelpie or the knight is a Kelpie.

A Kelpie is a Celtic legend built around a shape-shifting spirit that is horselike, but that can adopt a humanlike form. It apparently has a preference for waterways and many Scottish lochs and rivers have their own Kelpie legends. In Robert Burns poem "Address to the Devil" he suggests that kelpies are directed by Satan. And much of the lore surrounding Kelpies tend to deal with questions of morality or are simply cautionary tales. Be aware of your situation when kelpies appear, it is likely a warning that danger is near.

The work found extra life in the years following MacKay's passing, first in a presentation that was set to music by Scottish composer Learmonth Drysdale and then in 1939 when Ruth Gipps set the poem to music for clarinet and piano.

But I present it to you today in a different format. As a dramatic reading by actor Tom Wylde. Here, for your enjoyment, is the tale of the knight and fair maiden, Charles MacKay's "The Kelpie of Corrievreckan."

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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And a big thanks to Tom Wylde for his excellent performance of Charles MacKay’s poem. What a great way to bring the story to life.

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And until then cheers and slainte mhath.