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.
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.
Bliadhna mhath ùr dhuibh uile – happy new year to you all.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
There 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!).
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.
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