Birds in the garden


Sparrows, sparrows everywhere. Once a wren and a few times a robin. More starlings than I can count and enough wood pigeon to bend the feeder out of shape.

Having a garden is a joy – even more so than I had anticipated moving into a ‘proper’ house. It is north facing and as such this time of year it is largely just soggy grass but none the less the birds are there and happily going about their business. No thanks for the humans and their food supplies, but none are needed.

In our previous residence, a flat up in skies, we saw birds living in the tops of the trees immediately outside the living room and kitchen windows. It in itself was a pleasure but having no means to support them meant weeks could go by without seeing a single flutter and the nest in the tree alarmingly quiet of young. Not so now with feeder and dishes of various treats and temptations out for the birds. So far none of the blue tits, chaffinches or wagtails I’ve seen elsewhere around here, but there is hope for that yet in 2018.

Sparrow photo © Jose B. Ruiz /

– bird

Eòin – birds

Gealbhonn – sparrow
gyall-uh-vun.   Gaelic has an abundance of words where vowel sounds between consonants are pronounced but not written (svarabhakti vowels, for those wondering). That uh between the l and bh in Gealbhonn is such an example.

Druid – starling
Dreathan donn – wren
dreh-han down

Have a listen to this love song from Tobar an Dualchais wherein a woman falls asleep on Ben Cruachan, dreams of a sparrow (and a cuckoo) and her old flame. It’s called Dh’Èirich Mise, Rinn Mi Gluasad and was recorded in 1952. I’m quite fond of it.

Thanks to Arkive and respective photographers for use of photos.

Wren photo © Jim Zipp /

Forestry, lochs but no otters on Skye


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.


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.


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.

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.