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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons except the lead image which is © Copyright Linda and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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’)
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.
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
Coirean Coinnich – moss campion
Biastagan – beasties
Flùraichean – flowers
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.
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.