Firth of Lorn

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General view of the inner Firth and other nearby waterways.

The Firth of Lorn or Lorne refers to the waters off the coast of Lorn or Lorne in Argyllshire. It is known in Gaelic as An Linne Latharnach.

In 2005 much of the eastern side became a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The reefs and skerries of the small islands on that side are deemed habitats of interest.[1]

Geography of the firth

Ordnance Survey map of the northern Firth of Lorn and surrounding area
Ordnance Survey map of the southern Firth of Lorn and surrounding area

Much of Lorn borders Loch Linnhe, a fiord to the north that, for whatever reason, escaped being included in the firth. Moreover, the firth extends far to the south of Lorn. To some writers, the name was to be extended south to Colonsay, but to others only as far south as the Garvellachs. The official maps of the British Empire did not resolve the exact borders of the firth. Admiralty chart 2724, mapping the coast from the North Channel, places the label, “Firth of Lorn,” on only the narrowest part of the firth, leaving the reader to guess how far south it applied, and the concomitant Ordnance Survey map follows the same convention. The waters between the open Atlantic to the north of the North Channel and the named inner firth are an undefined and unnamed lagoon.

Prior to the establishment of the SAC of 2005, Scottish Natural Heritage was one organisation of a consortium funding the Broadscale Mapping Project, 1996-1998, conducted by the SeaMap Research Group. It conducted surveys by a variety of methods, mainly electronic, mapping the presence of benthic communities in a number of areas, including the Firth of Lorn. The report of this survey, which was instrumental in getting the SAC designated, defines the firth as follows.[2] The “Inner Firth of Lorn” is the waters directly south of the peninsula between Loch Buie and Loch Spelve on Mull and east of the peninsulas between Loch Spelve and Duart Bay. The waters around the islands on the east side of the firth are included, being in the current SAC, even though they may have their own names. The “Outer Firth of Lorn” is the waters south of the Ross of Mull as far as the west coast of the Isle of Jura. There is no indication that the Sound of Jura is to be considered in the firth, even though its northern portion was in the study area.

The inner firth's north-east end forms a junction with several other arms of the sea, namely Loch Linnhe, the Lynn of Lorne, Loch Etive, and the Sound of Mull. Loch Spelve and Loch Don on the Isle of Mull and Loch Feochan on the mainland are inlets of the Firth of Lorn. On the southeast side, there are also several channels and sounds in the Slate Islands. The Ordnance Gazetteer of 1882 cites a length of 17 miles from the intersection of Loch Linnhe and the Sound of Mull, with widths of from five miles to 15 miles, inclusive of the islands on the east side, such as Kerrera and the Slate Islands.[3] The west side is an ample deep-water channel leading ultimately inland to the Caledonian Canal.

Language and legend

Although the English word firth, the Gaelic equivalent linne (as in Linne Foirthe, Firth of Forth), and all the major firth names, have been in use since proto-historic times in Scotland, the combination "Firth of Lorn" was not innovated until the late 19th century. Lorn is presumed in modern Gaelic dictionaries to be a syncope of its Gaelic form Latharna, as is the parallel Larne, of County Antrim.[4] Whether the –th- originated as a phoneme or as a non-phonetic grapheme, and to what degree Latharna was ever pronounced as such, or whether the syncope took place entirely in English, are matters of regional and historical Scottish Gaelic orthography. Moreover, the etymology of Latharna remains uncertain.[5] Certainly, Lorn or Lorne, earlier Loarn, has been attested for at least several centuries in Latin (Lorna) and English.

For example, the 11th Scottish Parliament of James VI in 1587 called for a roster of clans pending legislation that affected them as landlords. Present were the "Stewartes of Lorne, or of Appin" from the “Hielandes and Isles.”.[6] At that time Lorn, like the rest of the highlands, was speaking mainly Gaelic. A Stuart ownership of Appin and Lorne is entirely consistent with the Dál Riata theory;[7] moreover, there is easy access through the valleys of the east to Perth, ancient capital of Scotland. The firth of Lorn was a major conduit to the west of Scotland, yet there was no language concept of it as a separate body of water. It remained the Atlantic, or at most the coast of Lorne.

Some historical considerations

There was an exception to this early Scottish refusal to demarcate the firth as a separate body: the island of Lismore (not to be confused with the various Irish Lismores), blocks the entry to Loch Linnhe in such a way as to create a shelter from weather in the Firth of Lorn. In 1816 the commissioners appointed by the British government to complete the Caledonian Canal reported that ships of 300-400 tons were running into Linnhè Loch to shelter from the weather in the firth.[8] The loch was recognized far earlier, but not under that name. Some crown-sponsored sailing directions by a pilot, Alexandre Lindsay, who navigated for James V on his voyage around Scotland in 1535,[9] have survived in French from 1583. The book suggests legs for transit of the vessels of the time down the west coast of Scotland, being careful to avoid dangerous waters, which it also lists. From Ardnamurchan one sails WSW to Lismore, necessarily in that direction through the Sound of Mull.

Lismore is stated to be located in the mouth of Loch Abir, which is evidence that Loch Linnhe was then called Loch Abir. The name, however, had already transferred itself to the district, Loquahabir, or Lochaber.[10] Lorn is not mentioned among the other fourteen “prouinces” of Scotland, but “Argadia,” or Argyll, is, suggesting that Lorn was part of Argyll. The Coast of Lorne is mentioned in connection with the tides. The islands along the coast of Lorn are listed. The next leg of the circumnavigation doubles back on itself to the harbor of Loch Spelve on Mull, from there to Colonsay, from there to Islay, and from there to Kintyre.[11] This preference for the west of the firth is perhaps clarified by Lindsay’s description of the passage between Jura and Scarba as “the most dangerous waters of Europe.”[12]

The same definition of Lochaber used by Lindsay can also be found in the ‘’Britannia’’ of the Elizabethan choreographer, William Camden. He said:[13]

”Logh-Aber. a Lake that insinuates it self so far into the Land out of the Western Sea, that it would meet the Lake of Ness, did not the hills, which lie between, separate them....”

Geology of the firth

The long narrow basin forming the firth is part of the Great Glen Fault, which runs through its namesake, the Great Glen, and Loch Linnhe before joining with the Firth of Lorn, whence it runs further south-west across Ireland.


Tidal conditions in and around the Firth of Lorn cause a number of phenomena, such as the Falls of Lora at the outlet of Loch Etive, and whirlpools and standing waves in the Gulf of Corryvreckan between Scarba and Jura.

In popular culture

The Firth of Lorne featured as the location for the boat chase near the end of the second James Bond film From Russia with Love, released in 1963. Also the islands of Easdale, Seil and Cuan sound all feature in Florence + the machines video, Queen of peace and long and lost.[14]

See also

Major contributary waters to the firth

Islands in or adjacent to the firth


  1. Scottish Natural Heritage (30 March 2006). "Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation: Advice under Regulation 33(2) of The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended)". Scottish Natural Heritage. 
  2. Davies, Jon (1999). "Broad scale remote survey and mapping of the sublittoral habitats and their associated biota in the Firth of Lorn. Scottish Natural Heritage Research, Survey and Monitoring Report 157" (pdf). Perth: SNH, Publications Section. p. 4. 
  3. Groome, F.H. (1882). Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland: a survey of Scottish topography, staistical, biographical and historical. 5. Edinburgh: T.C. Jack. p. 558. 
  4. For example, such an implication is to be found in {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=encyclopaedia }}. An explicit statement of the syncope can be found in Joyce, Patrick Weston (1871). The origin and history of Irish names of places (3rd ed.). Dublin: McGlashan & Gill. pp. 119–120. "To one of his sons, Lathair [Laher], he gave a territory in Ulster, which was called from him Latharna [Laharna: Book of Rights], a name which exists to this day, shortened to Lame." 
  5. Different theories exist. In one, Lorne and Larne are remnants of the kingdom of Dál Riata, a post-classical state populated by the earliest known Scots extending over both the counties of Antrim and Argyll. Its dissolution left Scots in Britain, to find union with the British Picts, and others to remain Irish. The proto-Celtic form of Latharna is uncertain.
  6. James (1597). The laws and actes of parliament maid by King James the first and his successours. Edinburgh: Waldegraue. p. 109. 
  7. The descent of the royals of Scotland is a tortuous path of many branches, to which much legend is attached, but according to the gist of history and linguistic classification there can be no doubt that Lorne was colonized by Irish speakers, a language that originated in Ireland.
  8. Commissioners for making and maintaining the Caledonian Canal (1816). "13th Report". Philosophical magazine; a journal of theoretical, experimental and applied physics (London: Taylor & Francis) 48: 43. 
  9. Crawford, A. C. L.; Lindsay, R.; Lindsay, C.; Lindsay, J. S.; Lindsay, J.; Lindsay, H.; Barnard, A. L. (1858). Lives of the Lindsays: Or, A memoir of the houses of Crawford and Balcarres. London: J. Murray. p. 219. 
  10. Nicolay et al. 1583, p. 1
  11. Nicolay et al. 1583, p. 12
  12. Nicolay et al. 1583, p. 14
  13. {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=encyclopaedia }} This quote is from the 3rd edition and translation by Gibson, but the passage is the same but for minor differences as in the 1st edition of 1586.
  14. "From Russia with Love (1963)" Retrieved 11 September 2010.


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