Portree – what’s in a name? #AinmeanÀite

Portree Harbour

There are two schools of thought as to the origin of the #placename #Portree. Port means the same in Gaelic as it does in English, although it is pronounced slightly differently. Some say -ree stems from Gaelic rìgh ‘king’, so called following a visit from King James V in the 16th century; others say it comes from Gaelic ruighe ‘slope’.

Here is an excerpt from Roger Hutchinson’s book, ‘A Waxing Moon – The Modern gaelic Revival’, about Sabhal Mòr Ostaig founder Sir Iain Noble’s campaign for Portree to appear in Gaelic on the road signs entering the town back in 1973:

“Inverness County Council wished to improve the road which entered Portree from the south. In order to do this, they required some of Noble’s new land. Noble agreed to give, rather than sell, the council the small amount of turf required if they would in their turn agree to erect three bilingual road signs upon it. One would signify Viewfield Road, another the nearby High School, and the third the town itself, with the Gaelic version, Port Rìgh, slightly larger than the English in Portree.

“He was informed that bilingual signs did not accord with council policy. At the full council meeting at Inverness in March 1973 to discuss the matter, two island representatives, one from North Uist and one from Barra, spoke in favour of Iain Noble’s suggestion. But the chairman of the Roads Committee was Lord Burton of Dochfour, the proprietor of 11,000 acres by Loch Ness and a large chunk of Glen Shiel, a stalwart of the Scottish landowning community… Lord burton insisted upon rejecting even a few ‘experimental’ bilingual road signs because: ‘It does become a matter of principle. If it raises itself in Viewfield Road, it might raise itself throughout the whole of Skye.’ Burton’s roads surveyor, Keith MacFarlane, dutifully agreed: ‘We would have to put them all the way back to Kyleakin. Signs are meant to be confirmatory, not to confuse people.’

Rathad Shlèite

“Thus began, with a whiff of grapeshot over a tiny scheme on the outskirts of Portree, the great Highland road signs controversy which would run for a further three decades.

“Noble refused to relent. Extraordinarily, he persuaded a cross section of the great and the good of Skye to sign a petition supporting bilingual signage on the southern approaches to Portree. The Free Presbyterian minister to Staffin, the Church of Scotland minister to Kilmuir and the Free Church minister to Sleat all joined hands with such dignitaries as the north Skye GP Dr Calum ‘Òg’ MacRae, the procurator-fiscal Donald Macmillan, the Broadford garage-owner and country councillor Angus Sutherland, the headmasters of Portree, Staffin and Dunvegan schools, a selection of local businessmen, and the two most celebrated residents of Viewfield Road itself, local businessman Ewan MacKenzie and popular champion of all things Skye Colonel Jock MacDonald. This coalition of Skye’s eminent, educated and professional Gaels wrote to Inverness County Council in April 1973:

‘to express our wholehearted support for the proposal that road signs should be in Gaelic or where appropriate bilingual throughout Skye. So far, no good reasons have been advanced for not doing this. On the contrary, we would regard it as a matter of common courtesy in a Gaelic speaking community. It is based on a principle that has already been accepted by the government in Wales and it has been adopted in most other parts of the world where there are bilingual communities. Far from causing confusion these signs would add interest for visitors… We therefore request the County Council to reconsider their decision.’

“…Following the supportive letter about Gaelic road signs, confusion reigned in Inverness County Council. Deputations from the seat of local government were dispatched to Noble’s headquarters at Eilean Iarmain in Skye. Compromises were mooted and announced – and promptly denied by both sides. The two landowners, Noble and Burton, communicated by telephone. Iain Noble told the press:

‘He said my attitude was holding up the road and that the cost to the county would rise by up to £20,000 as a result. I told him I was surprised he was prepared to consider such a price in order to prevent five words of Gaelic from appearing in public. Lord Burton seemed agitated.’

“Lord Burton was indeed agitated. The matter of the Portree signs would finally be resolved early in May 1973, just four weeks after it blew up. ‘Portree’ would be accompanied on the road signs immediately to the south of the village by ‘Port Rìgh’. ‘Viewfield Road’ would also be ‘Goirtean na Creige’. Iain Noble temporarily withdrew his request for the school to be labelled as ‘an Sgoil’, accepting in return a single bilingual sign recognising the south Skye township of Broadford as An t-Àth Leathann.’

p.115-117 ‘A Waxing Moon – The Modern Gaelic Revival’, Roger Hutchinson

Portree Road Sign
Portree Views

If you are interested in Gaelic place names, an important part of our history and cultural environment, please get in touch and tell us any other Gaelic place names you would like to find out about at:

Many thanks again to author Roger Hutchinson for giving us permission to use an excerpt from his fantastic book: ‘A Waxing Moon – The Modern Gaelic Revival’. This is a great read for anyone interested in the history of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Broadford Roadsign