I have touched upon Gaelic placenames and of my outsider’s tenuous (but hopefully developing) grip upon the significance of them within Gaelic, and especially island, culture on a few occasions. I hope it is clear that I make no claims to be an ‘expert’ in any of the themes that I have explored in this blog (which is one reason why I am only too pleased to receive feedback from readers) so with that gentle reminder I wish to take another brief look at Liceasto in the Bays of Harris.
Liceasto, according to Iain Mac an Tailleir, comes from the Norse meaning “Body Harbour”, and he adds, “possibly a place from which bodies were ferried for burial”. It lies on the shore of Ob Liceasto at the head of which is Ceann a Baigh which is where the path leading through Bealach Eorabhat begins. In other words, the ancient pathway known as the ‘Coffin Road’ starts within a half-mile of a place called “Body Harbour”.
It seems plausible then that Liceasto, rather than being “possibly a place from which bodies were ferried for burial”, was the place where those bodies were landed before being carried to the burial grounds on the West Coast. Did the Vikings call it thus because the indigenous inhabitants used the bay in that manner? Or did they themselves introduce the practice? As far as I am aware the Bays, unlike the West Coast, is not renowned for Norse placenames but it is rich in the safe harbours that the West totally lacks. It would seem to me that anyone wanting to harvest the sea around Harris would have used the Bays, even if only during parts of the year, as the bases from which to launch their assault and hence it is plausible that small fishing settlements were dotted around the region. If this were not the case, why in Viking times would there have been any requirement for funeral processions to originate there? Even if it wasn’t until the arrival of the Norsemen that this ritual began, it must certainly date from at least their occupation for the name to be derived from their language.
Interestingly, there is another Ob Liceasto in the Bays but this one lies at the northernmost extremity just beyond East Loch Tarbert. It is a bay that I am familiar with for it is the one upon whose shore the settlement of Direcleit is found. I have long-puzzled over the name of this bay but having now learnt that it comes from the Norse for “Body Harbour”, just as Direcleit comes from the Norse for “Deer Cliff”, I have another conundrum to consider. Were people landing bodies here too, or was this where they embarked upon their final sea journey?
There is nowhere to bury people near Direcleit and if one were wanting to utilise the burial grounds of the West then surely it would be easier, safer and faster to take the body to Tarbert rather than making land within a couple of miles of that portage place? It appears far more likely that this Ob Liceasto was where the sea passage began and that Liceasto marked its destination. This is all highly conjectural and perhaps someone with knowledge of Viking funeral rites, especially as performed where there appears to have been a reasonable degree of cultural assimilation and settlement (with the emphasis upon the ‘settle’ component of that word) can assist here?
One final thought, although there is, as I mentioned, commonly held to be a a lack of Norse names for settlements generally in the Bays, we do have Horsacleit, “Horse Cliff”, just a mile away from Direcleit along with Miabhaig, “Narrow Bay”, and even Plocrapol, “? Farm” and many more places bearing testament to the Norse presence. Is it too fanciful to suggest that a ritual sea journey developed at this time whose past presence remains marked on the landscape in the names of these two Ob Liceastos?