‘What, old monkey-face!’ said my husband with unnecessary lack of gallantry. He was referring to the 18th Duchess of Alba, who held 40 titles of nobility and died in 2014. She was a bit out of his league, but it is true that her bone structure came to give her face a simian air.
As usual my husband had got it all wrong. Alex Salmond did not name his new party after the Spanish dukedom of Alba that gave the world the Dutch-clobbering 3rd Duke in the 16th century. That duke’s followers were called Albistas, which might come in handy as a label for the Salmond group.
The new party’s name is that of Scotland in Irish and Gaelic. The BBC has had a Gaelic television channel called Alba since 2008. It would be lovely if Scottish nationalists spoke Gaelic, as founders of modern Israel revived Hebrew. Most can’t be bothered.
Alba derives from the same Indo-European root as Albion. Pliny and Ptolemy used Albion as a name for Britain. No doubt it signifies ‘white’, like albino or album (with white pages). Some said it came from the white cliffs on the south coast, but that might be stretching it. Perhaps Albion, like albio- in Gaulish and elbid in Old Welsh meant ‘world’, it being the white or light region, unlike the dark underworld.
The same root produced Alban, the British protomartyr whose name was taken by Verulamium, St Albans. Albany in Piccadilly bears the name of the duchy of Albany, invented in the 14th century, and given retrospectively by Shakespeare to a duke in Lear’s ancient Britain. The title of the last Duke of Albany (also Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) was extinguished by the Titles Deprivation Act 1917. He later joined the Nazi party. Still, his grandson is King of Sweden.
In the 17th century there was a vogue for calling Scotland Albania. The modern Albania is called Shqipëria by its inhabitants, a name perhaps connected with eagles.
This Balkan Albania might have nothing to do with whiteness, but share the same origin as Alps. In antiquity there was another kingdom called Albania in the Caucasus, in a region now called Aghwank, which would not make such a good name for a party.
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