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.


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.


Crotal – lichen

A recent twitter exchange has prompted me to stick my nose back into my resources on lichen. Hardly the most exciting subject for many, perhaps, but I’m quite fond of it myself. It’s another area of natural history where the Gaelic names are both interesting and illustrative. Visitors to the west coast of Scotland, or any of the Hebrides, will be familiar with stretches of yellow lichen over the shoreline; striking against the pink and grey of Lewisian Gneiss. This lichen, Xanthoria parietina, often gets referred to as ‘crotal’ (pron. craw-tahl). Crotal is actually the catch-all term for lichen in Gaelic, but I suppose the ubiquity of X. parietina has led it become known as crotal alone, rather than by it’s actual Gaelic name, rùsg-buidhe nan creag. Okay, it’s a bit of a mouthful… Give it a try: roosk boo-yih nan krek. The literal translation is ‘the yellow bark/crust of the stone’; quite fitting, really.

There’s plenty other good lichen names too:

Feusag-liath (Usnea barbata)
fee-us-ak lee-ah  literally meaning ‘grey beard’ (worth noting that liath can also refer to a light blue-grey colour)

Feusag nan creag (Ramalina siliquosa)
fee-us-ag nan krek literally meaning ‘the stone’s beard’

Feusag a’ ghobhair (Usnea sp.)
fee-us-ak a gh-oh-ur  literally meaning ‘the goat’s beard’

Crotal ruadh na mara (Caloplaca verruculifera)
craw-tahl roo-adh na mara literally meaning ‘the red lichen of the sea’

The sounds that ‘gh’ and ‘dh’ create in Gaelic have no equivalent in English, so can sometimes be a bit tricky to pronounce. For an example of how they sound, see here and here.

One last name I’ve come across but can’t find the latin name for is fuil nan sluagh (fool nan sloo-agh). Here’s the dictionary entry about it:

fuil nan sluagh

(AC) sf (lit. the blood of the hosts — fairies) Red crotal of the rocks melted by frost. In Argyllshire, the saying when one sees red crotal is, thug na daoine beaga cath an-raoir, the little men (fairies) fought a battle last night

SNH have got an interesting publication on lichens, available in English and Gaelic here.


Winter colour

I managed to steal a few days at home; North in the Highlands, my childhood home. It is a place under pressure from expanding towns, struggling to maintain it’s own identity and not get swallowed up by ever-encroaching suburbia. That said, it is part of an incredibly beautiful area quite different from so much of people think of when they hear “Highlands”; it is low rolling hills and lush, fertile farmland. It is my home.

I’m not quite sure what gorse is doing in bloom just now (I’m not sure it knows, either) but it, alongside the rosehips and the occasional elderberry and unripened bramble, provides the most fantastic contrast of colours between the frost on the ground, the snow on distant hills and icy blue sky.