Horrors on the Cowgate

We’re well into August which means Edinburgh’s population has expanded to bursting point. Every spare nook and cranny turns into either a performance space or a boozer. Last year at this time I was working out of town so escaped the worst of the madness in the Old Town, but this year I have a different job with my office right in the heart of it all. This means that I not only get to experience the best of the cultural offerings on my doorstep, but sadly also see some of the worst.

Edinburgh is well known for the ‘tartan tat’ shops which pervade the Royal Mile and surrounding streets (questionable wool products! bagpipe versions of your favourite pop hits! kilt towels! tartan EVERYTHING!) and as a resident you get used to them. They bear no resemblance to the Scotland or Scottish heritage any of us know, but they clearly serve a purpose to visitors or else they wouldn’t survive (and keep multiplying). It takes something really bad, then, to jump out at you in how ill-informed and misjudged it is. But, ladies and gents, I found something. Hiding away in the Cowgate is Slangevar. A bar and restaurant according to their website, their banners state that Slangevar is “the Gaelic for cheers”. No, no it’s not, that would be Slàinte mhath. Phonetically: slahn-chuh vah.
Here I am, standing in the rain having just seen the sign. As you can see, not very impressed:

I’m willing to forgive not using proper spelling if the phonetic reading of a name or word is accurate and makes sense, but in this case it’s just plain incorrect. It’s so infuriating to see and smacks to me of nothing but laziness. Many people would claim not to know a word of Gaelic, but use the word slàinte themselves whenever they raise a glass. It’s embedded in folks knowledge, much the same way many words of Scots are too.

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From the website. Edinburgh has never been this sunny.

I applaud anyone who wants to incorporate some Gaelic into their company identity, but it’s an affront to those of us who are part of that culture when it’s taken for granted. Do your research (you can do worse than starting here) and pay someone if necessary to research it for you. You’ll do us all a favour, and not make a fool out of yourself.

Slàinte.

Foxglove: the thimble of death

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I was always warned as a child about the dangers of foxglove. Mum and dad told me not to touch the flowers, and definitely never to pick the plant, no matter how bonny. Despite the warnings, the temptation was always strong – the colour, shape and size, the sheer number of them out through the summer. Speaking to a friend recently, it was funny to hear her tales of an almost pathological desire to stick her fingers in the flower heads as a kid, despite similar repeated warnings from her parents. I’ve still never picked a foxglove stem, or touched one of the flowers, though I do still think they are one of the bonniest plants growing just now.

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I like the English name foxglove in itself, but Gaelic has some great names too. In fact, there are a few different names for this plant depending who you ask (and where they’re from), and they’re all interesting.

Foxglove,  digitalis purpurea

Cìoch nam cailleachean marbha
kee-och nam call-yech-an marv-uh
The dead women’s breast


Lus nam ban sìth
looss nam bahn shee
The fairy’s flower. Fairies were not always benevolent visitors in Gaelic tradition.


Meuran a’ bhàis

mee-uh-run a vaa-ish
The thimble of death. Meuran means thimble here but otherwise usually means a branch.

Commonly used words in Gaelic that might you might see elsewhere: cailleach (old woman; uncomplimentary); lus (plant or flower); marbh (dead).

These names say something of the mythology and folklore attached to foxglove; the dangers or potential medicinal use of the plant would have been well known. It’s not for no reason that a plant name would be so connected to death. What better way to warn children of the potential danger than to call it Cìoch nam cailleachean marbha?

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All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons except the lead image which is © Copyright Linda and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Seat of All Seats

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Seat of All Seats, the latest episode of Mountain podcast, featuring yours truly, is now live. Head on over to the site to hear the host, Chris, and myself, discuss how Gaelic can helps walkers and climbers understand the landscape. It was a fun day out and I think that comes across in the episode.

It’s a pleasure to spend time in the hills with someone so knowledgeable and so passionate about what they do. Thank you, Chris, for the opportunity.

Obviously, I’m biased, but I think Mountain is a great podcast worthy of your listening time. You can hear older episodes here.

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On Location with Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA number of months ago, I tweeted the producer of a podcast, commenting that their Gaelic hillname pronunciation needed a bit of work. Fast forward a few months, and I find myself at the top of a Munro with a microphone in my face, and said producer quizzing me on hillnames, Gaelic and lots between.

Mountain started life in November last year, created and hosted by journalist and producer Christopher Sleight. I’ve been giving Chris help in his pronunciation of Gaelic placenames and hillnames for a few different episodes of the podcast.

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Back to the hill in question. Beinn Dòbhrain is a well-known and easily accessed Munro, off the West Highland Way in Bridge of Orchy. From the road heading north, it rises to an almost perfect triangle, just asking to be climbed. For Gaelic speakers, it’s best known as the subject of Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain, a praise poem by a renowned Gaelic poet, Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir. It was written over 200 years ago, but the descriptions of the landscape and environment are as fitting as they ever were.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere can’t be many places where you can take a poem and follow the path of the poet exactly as described. We did just that a couple of weeks ago, Chris, myself and my partner Paul. The sun shone, there were no midges and the views were fantastic. I don’t know the first thing about radio or podcast production, so it was a pleasure getting an insight to how it all works. I do know now that it is deeply nerve-wracking being recorded, and it’s essential to have both moral support (thanks, Paul!) and a patient producer (thanks, Chris!).

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You can read an extract from the poem, both in Gaelic and an English translation, on the Scottish Poetry Library website here. The podcast hasn’t been published yet; I’ll post again when it’s live.

Walk Highlands have a route up and down the hill here.

A meeting in a little hollow

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It’s getting into summer proper, so that means more time in the hills and more time staring at what’s beneath my feet. Last weekend I spent a good day walking in Argyll (more on that soon), taking great pleasure in the biastagan and flùraichean that popped out to say hello.

A cloudy and drizzly start to the day soon cleared up, leaving blue skies, few clouds and just enough of a breeze. Of the flùraichean that were about, I spotted moss campion and bog cotton with almost entirely dead heads – a sign of how dry things have been the past few weeks.Moss campion is called Coirean Coinnich in Gaelic, which if you pick apart, becomes a meeting (coinnich) in a little hollow (coire, like the anglicised ‘corrie’)

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Of the biastagan spotted, my favourites was this daolag and many losgannan, in fact the place was positively losgannach – abounding in frogs. I know so little about beetles that I can’t even begin to know where to name this one – online ID guides have lost me. Can anyone help? That’s a 1:25,000 map it’s on, so a perfect scale. I’m quite taken by the colour; we all were. The less said about the poor thing scrabbling about on the plastic surface the better, though. We didn’t keep it for long.

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Daolag – beetle
Duh-luck. The -ao here is not easily replicated, as it’s just not a sound that exists in English. It’s somewhere between the sounds duh and doo.

Losgannan – frogs
loss-kan-an

Coirean Coinnich – moss campion
caw-ren conn-yeech

Biastagan – beasties
bee-us-tak-en

Flùraichean – flowers
floo-reech-en

A’ Chèitean – May

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It is a’ Chèitean – May – the beginning of Summer. It’s warm, the sun is out, it’s pouring rain and there’s hail against the window. A Scottish Summer. I missed the chance to wash my face in the dew yesterday morning – perhaps not a bad thing given my current urban setting – so the chance of eternal youth will evade me for another year. I love this time of year. Despite the utterly bonkers weather we’ve got at the moment – snow on May day?? – the promise of what is to come is tantalising. A swallow flew above me today; surely not long now ’til the cuckoo sings and the skylark soars. I doubt I’ll come across either of the latter here in Edinburgh, but they for me are the ultimate sign of Summer arriving. Long days in the hills, no matter the weather, are just around the corner.

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There have been some good days already and I like to remember back to this time in other years. There is bounty to be found in the hedgerows and hillsides and the promise of flowers still to come.

Là Buidhe Bealltainn dhuibh uile, as we Gaels say, – a very happy May day to you all, albeit a day late. You may notice the word Bealltainn there – the traditional way of referring to May Day. Edinburgh has a massive party up Calton Hill at this time of year to celebrate ‘Beltane’ as it’s called but the apparent traditions celebrated there with fire, drumming and lots of nudity doesn’t speak to me at all. I’ll stick with the morning dew of May Day instead.

Là Buidhe Bealltainn
Prounounced: laa boo-yih byal-tain. Always place your emphasis on the first syllable in the word.

Buidhe is the Gaelic word for yellow; imagine grasssy hillsides, verdant in the summer. It’s also used in sayings to express thanks and fortune.

Dreaming of the warmth

Deep in the depths of Winter it seems interminable: the grey skies that Edinburgh is so fond of aren’t going anywhere soon. There is a dampness in the air that seeps into every bone of your body. I’m fairly certain the sun hasn’t risen in about a month, and I’m not sure it will for another month yet. Late last summer we took a trip to Provence – a holiday I’d dreamed of for years – and not only saw some sun, but felt the warmth on our faces and toes. It was glorious. In these cold, dark days of January it’s a soothing thought to think back to the holiday.

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We visited villages full of beautiful craftsmanship, both old and contemporary. Markets in abundance with local produce, fruit, veg, cheese, charcuterie, all from within a stones throw of our accommodation.  Thank you forever to the man who gave us a melon for nothing and the person who helped us translate what ‘spicy’ was to old stallholder and the man who gave us the most expensive cheese I’d ever bought but also the absolute best. At every turn there were glorious colours in the landscapes, from the lushest verdant greens to deepest red ochres.

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Despite the guidebooks saying how popular the region is for British and continental visitors, we hardly herd another non-French voice. Locals assumed we too were local (surely a great compliment?), though it quickly came apparent that wasn’t the case as my rusty Higher French was all we had to see us through.

I spent so long in anticipation of this holiday that I was worried I’d made a bed for myself. How highly can you hype a holiday before you get sick of it yourself? But there was nothing to worry about. I’m off to look at my photos again and remember what it feels like to be warm in the sun.

Into a new year

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I spent Hogmanay afternoon walking through the city centre, feeling unutterably scunnered with Edinburgh. The city turns into a theme park at this time of year, with large sections barricaded off and constant disruption for anyone just trying to get from A to B. Needless to say, the festive cheer I was clinging onto from Christmas had long gone.

So I went home. The hours passed, some fireworks went off. Wine was drank, sleep was had, the calendar changed. By contrast, the following day, lots of venues across the Old Town were transformed into tasters of places beyond the city limits. Music, video, dance and participation in islands, rural communities and places elsewhere. This is precisely what I needed this New Year; to think of being anywhere else. That this was delivered so nicely to me, and the thousands others in attendence, through beautiful venues in the heart of Edinburgh is suitably ironic. I wished only to escape but ultimately the best of other places was brought to me through this frustrating but peerless city.

My favourite event of the day came from Sea Bird:Land, hosted by An Lanntair in Stornoway. Turas is Tumadh; sounds of the sea, coast, boats with a video projection and live score by Aidan O’Rourke and pals.

Some links for anyone interested:

Full info on the Scot:Lands event here.

A review by Sarah Laurenson of the Tumadh : Immersion exhibition held in 2014.

Bliadhna mhath ùr – happy new year – to one and all.

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Things I am knitting and things I have knitted

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It’s cold outside and in. My evenings are more free than they have been for a while. I have no great urge to be outside in the dark nights. This can only mean one thing: knitting.

When I’m busy working daytime and evening it’s hard to switch off for what little free time there is. In an effort to make the most of the restless energy I have at those times, I like to knit. It’s a productive act, but also one which takes me away from the computer screen. The same could be said of washing the dishes, but that’s much less fun. Here’s some things I’ve been working on for the past while.

Up-top is the pattern Grizzly by the Brown Stitch. My mum gave me some balls of lopi wool a while back (thanks, mum!) and I’ve had them waiting for a pattern to find them. And there it is! I love it already and am really enjoying knitting it. I’ve been pleased with the last few things I’ve finished, though haven’t loved the process so I’m extra-enjoying this one.

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Hermaness Worsted by Gudrun Johnston. This I knitted with New Lanark aran yarn, leftovers which I’ve had in my stash for years. A nice pattern, though I felted it every-so-slightly as I blocked it, so it’s not shown off to its best.

Picture1Take Heart by Fiona Alice. This pattern was the only thing I bought at Edinburgh Yarn Festival, after seeing a lovely version of it at the designers’ stall. It’s probably my most favourite hat I’ve ever knitted. The cables represent a major knitting achievement for me – I neither enjoy knitting cables nor am I very good at them – so those with the pompom = joy. The first attempt at a pompom for this – my first pompom since I was wee – resulted in one virtually the size of my noggin so it’s hanging up on the wall instead. The one pictured is slightly more manageable.

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After in excess of a year knitting it, I finally finished this hap. The pattern is A Hap for Harriet by Kate Davies. I really, really love the finished result of this, though I found the knitting a slog. I bought the yarn in Harris on a family holiday a few years ago. It’s lovely.

All projects ravelled here.

Low light, long days

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I find myself with a surprise free weekend. A trip north cancelled due to mother nature and father infrastructure rearing their ugly heads to make travel north of Edinburgh as difficult as possible. A day for quiet tasks, eating waffles and doing jobs which are days, weeks and in some cases months overdue. The less said about those the better.

With a new day job recently began I’m learning how to commute every day (top tip: don’t do it) and seeing as it’s now deep into Winter that is mostly in the dark. I listen to a lot of podcasts to keep me company and happily had an email read out on one I listen to recently. File this under ‘blatant self promotion’. Srsly is a great podcast on pop culture with thoughtful discussion and insights – recommended.

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The light of the day has gone already. The past few months have been exhausting with working days extending into the night all too regularly. Today is not one of those days. I’m off to make the most of the rest of my Saturday. Namely, doing very little indeed. A rare treat.

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