Of the sea, on the wall

My partner and I bought our first home together earlier this year. After years of living in rented accommodation where even moving furniture is problematic, far less painting walls or heaven forbid actually removing furniture, we’re happily living in something of a white box, with everything being entirely of our choosing.

Shortly after moving in, I took delivery of an antique bureau given to me as a present by my parents for my 21st birthday. It’s installed in a corner of the spare room, and hanging above it the only thing we have up on the walls: an old printers tray.

It’s not yet filled – I don’t think it will be for some years – but each filled space represents a walk, visit or holiday somewhere special. I think it’s quite nice to look at – of course I do, I’ve chosen everything that’s in it – bit more importantly it’s a collection representing places, landscapes and the people I experienced them with.

I enjoy staring up at it as I work at my bureau, trying to piece together where everything has come from and considering future additions.

Some of my favourite pieces:

Conan mara – sea urchin
conan mar-ah

Faochag – Periwinkles, wilks
Fuh-chag. 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. The -ch is always pronounced as in ‘loch’.

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-Snaidhm ròpa – rope knots
sh-na-im raw-pa

Sporan-feannaig – Mermaid’s purse, an egg case
sporr-an fyen-ak

Faoiteag – Groatie buckies or cowrie shells
Fuh-tch-ak (It is very good luck to find these!)

Names for bivalves, molluscs and the like vary hugely from region to region. All the Gaelic names listed above are fairly ‘standard’ but don’t be surprised if on speaking to someone you find they have almost an entirely different vocabulary for talking about the same thing. It doesn’t make life easy for the Gaelic learner but it does make life more interesting.

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Forestry, lochs but no otters on Skye

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I’m fortunate enough to visit Skye on a fairly regular basis. Having family there means that in exchange for a spot of baby- and animal-sitting I’ve got free accommodation in one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations. So far, so smug. But in realist, family comes first and so it is that most visits to the island don’t involve much sightseeing outwith our own wee area. Even so, there are still places nearby which have eluded us on multiple visits. One of these was,  the Forestry Commission Scotland visitor hide at Kylerhea, famed for expansive views, otters and being right next to the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland.

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The surroundings are impressive, we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife. Even so, within the side there was a wealth of interpretation and information about what we *could* have been looking at. The slight sting of disappointment aside, I was taken aback by just now how good the interpretation panels were. The south of Skye, Sleat specifically, is home to a really strong community which has been at the heart of the Gaelic language and cultural renaissance over the past 40 years. Even so, it’s possible to go to many, many places across Skye and not see a word of it.

I think my cynicism was out in full force when we went to Kylerhea as I was so taken aback by the bilingual interpretation that I just stood going “look! look how good this is! Look! Are you looking?” rather than just letting my partner enjoy the views and read as he wished.

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The interpretation uses Gaelic in a way that isn’t just accurate but really meaningful to the language and the inherent connection it has to the landscape. This isn’t just a translation of one piece of text to another but has Gaelic at its heart; it is the place itself that it speaks of. It helps the visitor understand what it is about Gaelic that is important to the surroundings. It’s all very well and good providing the English translation of a Gaelic place-name, but why should anyone care about the name in its original language? Here, such questions were answered, explaining the value of understanding even a little of the language. It’s precisely the kind of thing I’m forever wittering on about to anyone who’ll listen so it’s incredibly edifying to see a national organisation doing the same. I think my favourite aspect of it is that there is no song or dance made about it – it is simply the interpretation that works best for the subject matter, location and the wider landscape. That in itself seems too often a forgotten consideration at so many sites.

Top marks to the Forestry for taking this approach – it’s one that many other places would do well to follow.

– Apologies for the dodgy quality of photos in this post; they were taken on my mobile phone in a fit of excitement with little consideration given to their public usage.

Yarns on Iona

I’m staring out the window of the study at the moment, watching the rain pool on the shed roof and the garden birds trying to figure out what this deluge is after weeks upon weeks of dry weather. I don’t mind the rain at all, but it does always put me in mind of whatever particularly nice recent weather we’ve had. Such was the case the week before last, when I spent an afternoon walking in Erraid and Iona whilst on holiday in Mull.

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I’ve been to Iona plenty of times before but had never before been to Erraid, a small tidal island most famous for being featured in Kidnapped. The walk was a great opportunity to stretch our legs, take in views we hadn’t seen before and get thoroughly burnt by the sun – the forecast was for a dreich day and we were shamefully caught out.

The afternoon was spent in Iona, which for me was a thinly-veiled excuse to spend some birthday money on Iona Wool. I’d seen their products at Edinburgh Yarn Festival in March and decided there and then and a garment in their yarn was in my future. I enjoy being able to support small enterprises, even more so when the staff are as friendly and helpful as they were to me. Not realising that there were cones available of my preferred yarns, I marched up to the till arms full of balls of yarn but the shop assistant stopped me and instead helped me find cones as “they are better value”. Much searching for the cones ensued, resulting in one very happy customer and some lovely conversations with another staff member. I admire any small business which is willing to forgo some profit for themselves in order to please a customer; I suppose it simply comes down to good customer service

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I’m going to be making The Oa hoody from the Inspired by Islay book with my yarns. The colours remind me of a lovely day, admiring beautiful blue seas and Ross of Mull granite stone topped with my favourite lichens grey and yellow lichens. The rain is still pouring outside so maybe this is just the perfect time to cast on.

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Àrainneachd, Cànan is Dualchas

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For a few years now Staffin in the north of Skye has been host to a residential course called Àrainneachd, Cànan is Dualchas, meaning the Scottish Gaelic language, nature and the environment. I’ve been eyeing it up for a while now – the title alone screams “come to me” (all that’s missing is ‘yarn’). What is interesting about this course is that it is for folk who have Gaelic already. There are lots of resources available on the landscape and language for folk who aren’t fluent or native speakers (like those I’ve mentioned before) and of course these can be used by fluent speakers as well. But the benefit of having a course for fluent speakers is the depth in which the subject can be explored, without the additional time needed for context and explanation. The course is led by acknowledged Gaelic expert, Ruairidh MacLean, with classes held in the Columba 1400 centre in Staffin. Time spent in the landscape is a vital part of the course, and a focus on particular themes giving participants the chance to see and experience first-hand how the language and landscape intertwine.

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The Central Belt is home to increasing numbers of Gaelic speakers, but with urban and suburban surroundings being so different to the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas, I think courses like this one are increasingly important. Our language is so connected to the landscape that any opportunity to explore those connections should we welcomed with open arms. For me, time spent out in the landscape identifying plants, animals and landmarks is the best way to spend a day, or five. Unfortunately I can’t make the course this year but I’ll be saving up for next year.

Full details of the course are available on their website:  https://acisd.wordpress.com/

With thanks to Sìne of Urras na Taobh Sear and Ruairidh for their patience and helpfulness in answering my many emails about the course; gach beannachd dhuibh!

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Ainmean-Àite / Place-names

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Almost every corner of Scotland has got some evidence of Gaelic in its place-names. Sometimes this is really obvious, other times it’s somewhat more obscure. The Gàidhealtachd – the traditionally Gaelic-speaking part of Scotland – is, as you would expect, rich in Gaelic place-names . These often carry stories and speak of the history of the place, though sometimes their meaning or origin has been lost. Understanding, researching and dissecting them is an ongoing artform and a point of interest for both lay audiences and academics for a long, long time.

For a number of years now an organisation called Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba (AÀA; Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland) have been researching these, and working with Scottish Natural Heritage to produce bilingual booklets disseminating place-names of particular locales. Their latest release is Gaelic in the Landscape: Place-names of Colonsay and Oronsay. Previous editions have focused on Islay and Jura, the North-West Highlands, Strath (Isle of Skye), the Rough Bounds of Lochaber and Gaelic + Norse in the landscape. Each of these publications is beautifully illustrated and – crucially – free to download. I’m really looking forward to delving into the Colonsay and Oronsay booklet, not least to remind me of lovely trips there a few years back.

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As well as being really interesting to both researchers and the general audience alike, publications such as these, and the work of AÀA, are crucial to increasing awareness of Gaelic. They are accessible, informed and easy to digest, and provide an important route to understanding how our surroundings and language have shaped each other.

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Some Colonsay and Oronsay names which have jumped out at me:

Sruthan na h-Ulaidhe – the stream of the treasure

Uragaig – bay with rock-strewn beach (Norse in origin)

Uinneag Eircheil – Hercules’ window

You can find all the booklets on the SNH website here. The AÀA database is ever-increasing in entries and worth spending a few minutes exploring. Siuthadabh – enjoy!