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.
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.
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!
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.
Every so often I’ll notice a Gaelic name or word and think ‘that looks a bit…odd’. While I’ve spoken the language for as long as I’ve spoken English, I am not a linguist. I’ve not seriously studied the minutiae of Gaelic- that is for the language specialists and I am not one. I have long been fascinated, however, by the relationship between Gaelic heritage and the impact of visitors and emigrants to the Highlands and Islands on the language.
This is a long and exhaustive topic – and not one I’m going to delve into in any great depth just now. It deserves more than that. I did think, however, that I’d share one example of the beautiful – in my opinion – manner in which languages and cultures can collide, and the result illustrating a wee bit of our shared heritages.
My example today is of a rather poorly thought of bird; oft the subject of disdain and victimisation. It is the black blacked gull. Now, asides from the fact that I am actually quite fond of these birds, in all their squaking, brash, bolshy way, their name tells an interesting story. While researching some work for the day-job and discussing linguistic anomalies with a colleague, it struck me how odd looking the word farspag is. This is the Gaelic name for a black backed gull (pron. far-spak). Its quite distinct from faoileag, the term for a general gull. A little digging confirmed my expectations – farspag is Norse in origin. Through this one word you can see the impact of Scandinavian visitors to the Highlands and Islands, that a thousand years later we’re not just carrying on placenames with Scandinavian suffixes, but even the name for this scorned bird. The following are some names used in (largely) contemporary languages for a black backed gull – you can see the connections yourselves.
I like to think that we are but one small part of a much larger heritage, and I particularly like that a bird as humble as a black backed gull can help demonstrate part of that. Please feel free to share any terms you know that tie in with this – I’d love to hear them.