Every so often I’ll notice a Gaelic name or word and think ‘that looks a bit…odd’. While I’ve spoken the language for as long as I’ve spoken English, I am not a linguist. I’ve not seriously studied the minutiae of Gaelic- that is for the language specialists and I am not one. I have long been fascinated, however, by the relationship between Gaelic heritage and the impact of visitors and emigrants to the Highlands and Islands on the language.
This is a long and exhaustive topic – and not one I’m going to delve into in any great depth just now. It deserves more than that. I did think, however, that I’d share one example of the beautiful – in my opinion – manner in which languages and cultures can collide, and the result illustrating a wee bit of our shared heritages.
My example today is of a rather poorly thought of bird; oft the subject of disdain and victimisation. It is the black blacked gull. Now, asides from the fact that I am actually quite fond of these birds, in all their squaking, brash, bolshy way, their name tells an interesting story. While researching some work for the day-job and discussing linguistic anomalies with a colleague, it struck me how odd looking the word farspag is. This is the Gaelic name for a black backed gull (pron. far-spak). Its quite distinct from faoileag, the term for a general gull. A little digging confirmed my expectations – farspag is Norse in origin. Through this one word you can see the impact of Scandinavian visitors to the Highlands and Islands, that a thousand years later we’re not just carrying on placenames with Scandinavian suffixes, but even the name for this scorned bird. The following are some names used in (largely) contemporary languages for a black backed gull – you can see the connections yourselves.
I like to think that we are but one small part of a much larger heritage, and I particularly like that a bird as humble as a black backed gull can help demonstrate part of that. Please feel free to share any terms you know that tie in with this – I’d love to hear them.
Since arriving on Islay there have been a few places I’ve been desperate to get to. Being as I am sans vehicle, and with the buses not servicing much beyond Loch Indaal or Port Ellen, I’ve had to be patient. Happily, the milder weather is bringing with it both seasonal bird visitors to the island as well as large flocks of tourists and holidaymakers. Even more happily, some of these holidaymakers are here to see me. As a result I’ve had the chance to get out to corners of the island so far unknown to me, beyond pictures and notes of historical interest in books.
One of my top places to visit, which seems to be high on a number of ‘must-see’ lists, was Saligo Bay. No wonder people like it, it is wild, remote and bears the full brunt of the Atlantic on its shores. I visited on a day of exceptionally strong winds and saw waves bigger than I’ve ever seen before, with spindrift as high as the waves themselves. Beautiful light, stunning rocks, lambs cavorting around behind me in the dunes. It was spectacular.
What’s in the name? I’m not sure. Some indicate a Gaelic origin, others state simply ‘unknown’. For the military historian there’s plenty of interest in the area with significant remnants of wartime communication stations, now well embedded in the sand and providing shelter for newborn lambs. It’s a really spectacular wee corner of the island.
A lamb very adept to listening.
Sheep can’t tell whether I’m friend or foe. Or maybe just mistakenly think I have some food on me. I’m looking forward to visiting them again when their bellies have reduced in size. Can’t be long now. Come on lambs, I’m waiting!
I took a wee trip down to what is perhaps this islands most picturesque village, Portnahaven. A light snow fell all day, but there was no wind. It’s nice to spend a few hours just mooching about on the shoreline, watching the birds, the seals, the excitable local dogs and seeing what’s washed up in the tangle. I was lucky this time – a good number of egg cases (predominantly from skates, but also a single spotted dog shark case). Mermaids’ Purses; a rare treat to take home. Though the sun didn’t shine, there was plenty of colour to be found in the wings of this starling and in the paint peeling off a boat on shore. Beauty in the simple things on a cold wintery day.