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!

Is it enough just to fool someone?

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I approached a stranger a few days ago. My intentions were good – to compliment them on their achievements and express my interest in their work. Neither I nor the other party had met before, though I was aware of their work from afar.

What happened next really took me aback and has been playing on my mind since. I introduced myself, stated the organisations name this individual represented and was immediately critiqued for not using the Gaelic version of the name instead. Our conversation was happening in English and I had been informed by them almost immediately that they spoke next to no Gaelic. Or, rather, enough Gaelic to ‘fool a bus load of tourists’ (a deeply troubling attitude in itself).

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The conversation continued; I questioned why the English name was used at all if the Gaelic name was truly preferred (an honest query as much as me playing devil’s advocate). In doing so I was further critiqued for my incorrect pronunciation of the placename (in Gaelic) and for not having the appropriate regional accent. Again, I was taken aback. Immediately after our interaction I started questioning myself – who has the right to make such comments? Does anyone? Was this person actually entirely valid in questioning my useage despite me saying I was a Gaelic speaker? Should I be more militant in my usage? If I am, am I happy to inevitably alienate people as a result? Am I prepared to explain to people – all the time­ – what it is that I’m saying or what that word is that I’ve just used means?

Why am I even questioning myself over this? Objectively, I know the answers. I ought to be more persistant (though I think I am relatively anyway). I ought not to worry about alienating people. Normalisation of the language is key. I should be prepared to – and not tire of – telling people about the language I use, in whatever capacity.

But the honest truth is, it’s exhausting. I live and work in Edinburgh. Of the 500,000 people living here, there is a healthy and active Gaelic community, but that community is not part of my daily life. Day to day I am surrounded largely by people who do not speak the language and who would regularly require the explanations that are so tiring. Fundamentally, I live in an English world – the predominant language of Edinburgh is English and it requires active effort, thought and consideration every minute of the day not to just ‘go for the easy option’ and solely use English. It is exhausting.

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I say normalisation is key – and it is. The day I started writing this post Alex Salmond used the word bùrach during a speech in Westminster. Perhaps that could be used as an example of normalisation happening right this minute – that a non-speaker from central Scotland use a Gaelic word in London to a national audience. I’ve been chastising myself for not using Gaelic during that conversation the other day, but also being annoyed at myself for not having a better response to ‘why didn’t you use the Gaelic?’.

In my flummoxed state, I took to twitter to ask these same questions. I received a number of responses from both non-Gaelic speakers and speakers alike, all of which said what I know deep-down already: of course this person was wrong to criticise me; there is already too much linguistic judgement among speakers. We should be celebrating and encouraging each other to use what we can, when we can, and create an atmosphere of positivity that enables speakers of all abilities to feel like they have a place with the language. There is a good Gaelic phrase that not everyone agrees with, but one that I strongly believe in: Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste; better broken Gaelic, than Gaelic in a coffin. I wonder if the person I spoke to thinks the same.

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Inspired by Islay

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Over the past wee while, I’ve been working with Kate Davies and her team on their latest venture: Inspired by Islay. A quick scroll through old posts on this blog will show lots of content from Islay; I lived and worked there for a year in 2012-2013. My job involved Gaelic cultural-heritage with particular projects I initiated being about the connection between the landscape and language. It is on this topic that Kate asked me to contribute an essay to the book being produced as part of the project (sidenote: the book has gone to the printers!).

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Kate’s work has long impressed me, and I’m chuffed that she has come to me to contribute small bits of work to other projects over the years, where she has wanted to use Gaelic. Gaelic aside, as a knitter  and general culture/history-enthusiast I’m always impressed by the thought and consideration that goes into all she (and the wider KDD team) does and produces. Other folk contributing to Inspired by Islay include really astonishing artists, craftspeopleavian experts and photographers, so it is an honour to be included alongside them.

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Anyway, the photos here are some snaps from my archive of pictures from Islay. My time on the island wasn’t always a song and a dance so it’s been really lovely revisiting parts of the island I fell for, and exploring further the rich Gàidhealach culture I am part of.

For all of Kate’s blog posts to date on the project see here.
In other news, I started a facebook page for my work. Like, share, comment, etc.

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Oidhche Challain + the old New Year

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Bliadhna mhath ùr! Happy new year! No, you’re not going mad, for it is the 12th of January and the new year; the old new year, that is. In Gaelic tradition, the New Year begins now, with candles lit in each window the night before to welcome in the new year. It’s not a tradition much observed any more, but I make a quiet note of it to myself each year. Oidhche Challain – Hogmanay – would see ceilidhs and first footing undertaken, tales told and songs sung. Different areas would have their own particular traditions to see out the old year; this article mentions some Uist specialities.

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As my dad always reminds me, it is from this point onwards in the year that each day lengthens by a cockerel’s step:’ceum coileach air an latha’. It’s a good thought to bear in mind when the weather is unforgiving and the darkness rarely lifts.

The photos in this post are (top – bottom) from Blair Atholl, the East Neuk, North Uist and Islay. Each one reminds me of how beautiful a change in light can make a scene, whether Winter or Summer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Bliadhna mhath ùr dhuibh uile – happy new year to you all.

 

More local yarns

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In the twelve months since searching for the elusive perfect yarn to suit the tastes, needs and desires of my friend Claire (see my last post), as well as my own knitterly preferences, an abundance of producers have opened their doors selling yarns from the Highlands and Islands. This is fantastic news. The Highlands historically have suffered from an ageing population, poor infrastructure and resources unable to support small or start-up businesses and a brain-drain from population movement to the south and further beyond where there are greater job opportunities. So whenever a new business starts up that I’m able to support, in whatever capacity, I try my best to do so. In this case it’s local yarns, and as a result, local farmers, crofters, spinners, dyers and salespeople (and of course, the various people otherwise employed as a result of the process).

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A few years back, when I lived in Uist, I attended a course on wool processing – we graded fleece by hand, learning the individual qualities, and what is/is not desirable depending on intended use. We spun by hand (or at least others did, I sat watching with envy unable to master even the basics) and had a thorough introduction to the heritage mill machinery they use. Since then, Uist Wool has launched their yarns to the world, as well as having built a new wool store and employed dedicated staff to take the whole enterprise forward. It is a wonderful organisation for so many reasons, and I would thoroughly recommend a look at their site and gorgeous Gaelic yarn names. They are going to be at EYF this year and I forsee not being able to resist buying it all. I’m particularly excited by the Geòla 5-ply yarn and would love to make a geansaidh (gansey) out of it – a long-term knitting goal of mine.

Closer to (my) home, Black Isle Yarns started very recently, having just launched their online store in December 2016. I grew up in the Black Isle, so to see this name pop up in my twitter and instagram feeds was really exciting – for an area so fertile and full of active farms there hasn’t been much in the way of local yarns. I’ve heard word of the Black Isle Brewery also producing jerseys from local sheep yarn but haven’t yet visited to find out more.

I can’t wait to get my paws on some of these yarns to knit with. The closest I have at the moment is the yarn pictured in the first photo at the top of the post – yarn I received from an old colleague in Uist who was also part of the mill’s training programme. She gave me it as a leaving present and I treasure it. It is a bouncy, squisky DK cheviot with which I’m making a simple jersey at the moment. I think it’ll be lovely. Here’s to people making yarns from and of their surroundings.

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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.

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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.