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Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing, over the sea to Eilean a' Cheņ


THE Isle of Skye has been celebrated in music from Sir Harold Boulton's famous 19th-century boat song to the Proclaimers' 'Letter From America'.

But Skye is no more, following Highland Council's controversial decision to abolish the anglicised "slave" name and replace it with the island's Gaelic nickname Eilean a' Cheņ.

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The move will be widely welcomed on Skye, where 40% of the 9,000 residents are Gaelic speakers. But getting rid of one of the most romantic, simple and euphonious place names in the world has already caused outrage in some quarters.

The new name - pronounced along the lines of "ellan-uh-ch-yaw" and meaning Island of Mist - will be officially adopted on Thursday.

The differences will be noticed immediately. When Friday's local council election results are read out, the winning candidates will be described for the first time as councillors for Eilean a' Cheņ.

From then on, all council documents will also use the Gaelic name. Tourists making calls about travelling or staying on Skye will encounter officials instructed to use only the new Gaelic version. The change will not affect road signs, which already feature both languages.

Gaelic campaigners have welcomed the move as long-awaited recognition of the island's culture and heritage. But the switch has angered local tourism businesses, which fear the change will damage their takings.

The name change follows a similar move in which the Western Isles switched to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, to reflect the fact that most of the population still speaks Gaelic.

But Highland councillors approved the change even though the island is predominantly English-speaking and has been known as Skye across the globe for centuries.

One supporter, Skye councillor Iain MacDonald, said: "It's partially about strengthening the Gaelic identity of the area. It's a good thing when the uniqueness of the Gaelic culture gets a little more recognition. And it certainly puts us on the map as an area with a distinctive culture and heritage."

"We could have called it Skye and Raasay, but that doesn't really say anything."

He added: "I don't think this is at all over the top, or politically correct. People I meet support the change, even if they don't speak Gaelic and have to ask what it means."

The council insists, however, that English-speaking visitors will not find an impenetrable language barrier. A council source said: "We're not going to be silly about this. If someone wrote and asked about holidays in Skye, we would not act as if we had never heard of the place, and we would not purposely refuse to use the name with them. But Eilean a' Cheņ is what we officially call it."

But the move has alarmed bed-and-breakfast owners in the island's crucial £90m tourist industry, which attracts 250,000 visitors a year.

Anne Healey, who runs Orasay Bed and Breakfast in Uig, said: "I wouldn't have thought it would be a good idea. If it's a totally different name then people won't recognise it. I know Gaelic is an important part of Skye and I appreciate that, but the name has always been Isle of Skye and it's silly to change it."

"Tourism is a lifeline for the island - it's what keeps it going - and these political decisions should reflect that."

Ian Stratton, who runs Glenview Inn in Culnacnoc, Staffin, agreed. "I would like to see what their reasoning is," he said. "If the official name of Skye is to be wiped off the map, that would have a devastating effect on the tourist industry. An awful lot of people come here just because of the name and tourism is what keeps this island going."

Some Gaelic scholars support the move but accuse the council of choosing the wrong name. Most Gaels know Skye as "An t-Eilean Sgitheanach," meaning "the winged isle," reflecting a series of headlands which jut out into the sea like wings. The name chosen by the council, "Eilean a' Cheņ" is a romantic nickname used in poems and songs.

Skye-born Gaelic poet and leading activist Aonghas Dubh MacNeacail said: "I agree with them choosing a Gaelic name because the island has a Gaelic heritage and it's important to recognise that at an official level. But I think it's daft to choose a nickname which is not the Gaelic name which most Gaels use. Eilean Sgiathanach has been around for centuries."

However, the change is being backed by an unlikely source in writer and historian Michael Fry, who has been publicly sceptical of attempts to use public money to boost the language.

He said: "I think it's a good idea to have historical romantic names used in local government. The problem that local councils have had is that they have been too dull in the past and they should do what they can do defend the language and make people aware of a valuable part of our heritage, which is sadly disappearing."

The Inverness-based Highland Council brought in the change as part of the shake-up of local government caused by the introduction of a new voting system for Scottish local authorities. The five wards on Skye and neighbouring Raasay were combined into a single "super-ward" electing four councillors under a new proportional system and the new Gaelic name.

A spokeswoman said: "This move was made on the recommendation of councillors representing Skye and Lochalsh."



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An interesting note, Rab. Too bad they can't just abolish "The Skye Boat Song", which is just more romanticized Jacobite hoo-ra. And it's a waltz, no less - not exactly a traditional Scottish form!
The Corries, by the way, sing a song on the same subject called "The Isle of Skye" that's from Hogg's "Jacobite Relics. I'm sure other people do it as well - that's just the version I have.

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