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.

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!

Skye holidays: Neist Point

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Visiting Skye, taking the opportunity to see places from land we’ve only seen by boat before. Neist Point is dramatic and impressive. We took advantage of some puffin-spotting (some, not many), seeing guillemots nesting, fulmars calling around us and the occasional gannet diving into the sea.

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The wind hardly blew a breath. As we hung over the edge of the cliffs to see the birds, the waves crashed in the caves beneath us. A glorious sound.

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Holidays on Skye: Loch Coruisk

Fifteen years of visiting Skye and last week I went to Loch Coruisk for the first time. Accessible only by boat from Elgol or a long, long trek from Sligachan on the other side of Skye, it’s something of a feat to get there at all. Add three toddlers, a dog and some adults into the equation and the logistics go out the window. We made it, though, and it was worth every ounce of effort.

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We went with Misty Isle Boat Trips – a local company operating tours daily from Elgol. Going in an uncovered boat was great – 360 degree views there and back. We saw a basking shark, gannets, common seals. Apparently minke whales had been seen the day before. It was busy but the atmosphere was great. What a beautiful bit of the world this is! It’s humbling to be in a landscape where people are rendered so insignificant by the sheer scale of their surroundings.

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Note to self: don’t run out of camera batteryhalfway through the trip. Thank you to my sister who kindly loaned me hers instead.