Location: Jura
travel by sea, gaelic language and placenames, hiding places


Sodor is, or was, a bit north of Loch Tarbert on the Island of Jura and in the middle of a wet, windswept peat bog. No Dhiurach (Jura native) has ever seen or heard of it so why did it appear on the old Jura maps until about 1650 and not at all after that? After being there for about a hundred years, it just vanished. It leads one to speculate; was Sodor perhaps the inspiration for Brigadoon, that mythical place that appears every century in Hollywood legend, populated by kilted and plaid-clad beautiful people, all talking in suspiciously American accents?

Or even the idea behind Gloccamorra, where Finian of Broadway’s ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ performed his Irish jigs, the forerunners of break-dancing? Both were, in fact, latecomers on the mythical scene, and Jura was the first to claim the idea of a mysterious, ghostly but romantic place in a remote and isolated part of Scotland and have it recognised internationally! A place that appeared and magically disappeared again.

There are many mysteries connected with Jura, but this one may have an explanation. Sodor was truly located on Jura in various ancient maps; first, it was there and then it wasn’t. It was recorded in 1540 on a ‘rutter’, an early type of sea navigation chart compiled by Alexander Lindsay, possibly a Jura man. He was commissioned by no less a person than King James V to map the coast around Scotland so that the king could sail his fleet around the top of Scotland without hitting rocks or islands. King James V wanted to rein in the headstrong MacDonalds on Islay, who were giving him grief at the time. This he successfully did, safely navigating the West coast thanks to Alexander Lindsay’s rutter. The MacDonalds were duly put in their place and never really resumed their importance.

Sodor next appears in the Mercator (real name - Gerhard Kramer) map of 1585. A famous Dutch mapmaker came up with the ‘Mercator Projection’, a cunning dodge to get over the problem; ‘worlds is round, maps are flat.’ On his map is Sodor, skulking in its peat bog just north of the loch, in about the same place as on A. Lindsay’s map.

Sodor again appears on a 1650 map by Johannes Jansson, another of the Dutch mapmakers. Still, after that appearance, it had disappeared entirely from all maps and was forgotten about – but not by everyone, not quite… What about the name? Where does Sodor come from? Alexander Lindsay called it ‘Sudore’, which in Latin means ‘sweaty’. In Gaelic, ‘sod’ means a clumsy fellow or a fat fellow, and ‘sodar’ means a trotting horse. So the answer to the name Sodor obviously does not lie there, not in its meaning. One then comes to the vital clue! The Bishops of the Isle of Man, to this day, like to call themselves ‘of Sodor and Man’. Why do they do that? Obviously not so that they could be called “of sweat and Man”! (Bishops are not renowned for doing things that make them break out into a sweat. They tend to sit on things, ‘thrones’ for instance, and get others to do the work. In those days anyway.)

Doing some backtracking to the 1200s, the King of Norway owned all the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. At the Battle of Largs, which the Scots won unusually for the home team, King Haakon of Norway got beaten up and slunk off to Kirkwall, where he bit the dust. At that time, the Bishop of Trondheim in Norway had a parish or ‘See’, which included Greenland, Iceland, and the Northern Isles (The Outer Hebrides). They were called the Nordereys. The bishop also ruled the Southern Isles, i.e. the Inner Hebrides and the Isle of Man; they were called the ‘Sudereys’. The Isle of Man, having belonged to the King of Norway, after the Battle of Largs, first became independent, then became English. The lingual gymnasts did not take long to conjure ‘Sodor’ out of ‘Sudereys’. The bishops liked the name and have doggedly clung to it to this day, but then there was a problem; where is there a place called Sodor?

No one really knew or had already forgotten, and the bishops felt a bit stripped, not having anywhere to justify their important sounding name. Various theories emerged – a popular one was that there was an island called Sodor in the Irish Sea, and while they were still arguing about it, the mapmakers were getting impatient. Until one day, I reckon one said, “Oh let’s just stick it up there” pointing at the empty map of Jura and Loch Tarbert. They all thought this was a good idea, and the bishops were pleased, so there it stuck. So that is what I think happened. They parked Sodor on Jura and hoped nobody would notice. When someone did come along a hundred years later and said to them, “you guys have got it wrong, there’s nothing there at all”, they dropped it off all the maps from then on and just forgot about it. The bishops kept quiet but kept the important sounding name. But perhaps Sodor was indeed really once there. Alexander Lindsay was certainly no fool, and, unlike most of the other mapmakers, it appears that he had actually been to Jura. He wrote that Corryvreckan* was – “a depe horlepoole quairin if schippis do enter thair is no refuge but death onlie”. So he knew what he was talking about, even if he couldn’t spell. Maybe one day, somewhere on Jura, popping out of the ghostly mists just like Brigadoon, accompanied by eerie music and a cast of reeling figures, Sodor will briefly rise again. Then, in fear and alarm, someone will probably call out the Jura Fire Brigade, and he would turn out if he wasn’t too busy being the coastguard, the harbourmaster or making whisky at the time.

Contributed by Lindsay Neil, written in April 2004

More information on visiting the area can be found here.