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.
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
It is a’ Chèitean – May – the beginning of Summer. It’s warm, the sun is out, it’s pouring rain and there’s hail against the window. A Scottish Summer. I missed the chance to wash my face in the dew yesterday morning – perhaps not a bad thing given my current urban setting – so the chance of eternal youth will evade me for another year. I love this time of year. Despite the utterly bonkers weather we’ve got at the moment – snow on May day?? – the promise of what is to come is tantalising. A swallow flew above me today; surely not long now ’til the cuckoo sings and the skylark soars. I doubt I’ll come across either of the latter here in Edinburgh, but they for me are the ultimate sign of Summer arriving. Long days in the hills, no matter the weather, are just around the corner.
There have been some good days already and I like to remember back to this time in other years. There is bounty to be found in the hedgerows and hillsides and the promise of flowers still to come.
Là Buidhe Bealltainn dhuibh uile, as we Gaels say, – a very happy May day to you all, albeit a day late. You may notice the word Bealltainn there – the traditional way of referring to May Day. Edinburgh has a massive party up Calton Hill at this time of year to celebrate ‘Beltane’ as it’s called but the apparent traditions celebrated there with fire, drumming and lots of nudity doesn’t speak to me at all. I’ll stick with the morning dew of May Day instead.
Là Buidhe Bealltainn
Prounounced: laa boo-yih byal-tain. Always place your emphasis on the first syllable in the word.
Buidhe is the Gaelic word for yellow; imagine grasssy hillsides, verdant in the summer. It’s also used in sayings to express thanks and fortune.
More plants. This time Titum Arum in the Botanics. Potentially a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this ‘corpse flower’ – 13 years in the making. One of the more bizarre sights I’ve spent time queuing to see, but absolutely worth it. Thankfully the smell had dissipated and the wait wasn’t as long as we’d feared. Well done to all the Botanics staff working round the clock while the spectacle lasts.
I was quite taken by a good number of other plants and flowers on the way in as well.
An attempt to join in with the 30 days wild challenge set by the Wildlife Trusts. I try and observe what is going on around me as it is but I felt it couldn’t hurt being a bit more active in engaging with nature. My daily commute on Uist saw short-eared owls most days, almost certainly various birds of prey and often many types of ducks and waders, just from the car window. Once even a snowy owl. Being out for even a short walk it was impossible not to notice the abundance of flora and fungi all around. Living in the city you have to look harder for the wildness around you. Edinburgh, as far as cities are concerned, it still at the mercy of the weather and nature, but it doesn’t compare to leaving the office for a lunchtime walk on the machair. Still, you have to take what you’ve got and this seemed like a fitting opportunity to engage with the summer as it emerges. You can follow some of my tweets from earlier in the month, though I stopped over the last week or so. It’s easy to get derailed, but I’ve still been trying me best to look out around me.
Photos all taken on my phone, so excuse the differing quality.