Watercress of the Pure Springs

Roddy Maclean tells how wild watercress is celebrated in Gaelic culture.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

In his final paean to the mountains he had loved so much in his youth, the great Gaelic bard, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812) wrote lovingly, as he often did, of his native Highland environment. In Cead Deireannach nam Beann ‘a final farewell to the bens’, Duncan, by now 78 years old and having surrendered ‘a third of his breathing’ to age, speaks with affection of the deer, game birds and people who shared his mountain space. But, in that final poem, he names only one plant species – and it is an interesting choice. Here is the last verse:

Mo shoraidh leis na frìthean, O ’s mìorbhaileach na beannan iad,

Le biolair uaine ’s fìor-uisg’, Deoch uasal rìomhach cheanalta;

Na blàran a tha prìseil, Na fàsaichean tha lìonmhor,

O ’s ait a leig mi dhìom iad, Gu bràth mo mhìle beannachd leo’.

I bid farewell to the deer-forests, Oh! how wonderful are the mountains,

With green watercress and spring water, a noble, elegant, gentle drink;

The moors which are so precious, the pastures which are so plentiful,

Oh, joyfully I took my leave of them, forever my thousand blessings on them.

At first sight, Duncan’s choice of the biolair ‘watercress’ (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) – pronounced approximately ‘BYOO-lur’ with a short ‘OO’ – might seem a little strange. It is not a colourful or remarkably striking plant, and neither is it particularly rare. But it said something of the hills to Duncan and he mentions it again in the finest of his other nature poems. In Moladh Beinn Dòrain ‘praise of Ben Dorain’, for example, he writes of the red deer hind drinking the sweet water of the spring where grows the watercress (the variant biolaire is used by the bard to maintain the rhythm of the poem):

            Fuaran anns am bi biolaire gun dìth,

            ʼS mìlse leath’ na ʼm fìon, ʼs e gun òladh i

            A spring where the watercress grows abundantly,

            Which she considered sweeter than wine as she would drink it

Watercress. Photo © Roddy Maclean

Of course, how would Duncan know of the sweetness of the spring water without having partaken of it himself, and I suspect that it is the plant’s aquatic habitat, and its connection to water (which possesses special qualities in traditional Celtic culture) that underlies its appeal. If we can place credence in a poet’s description of the ecology, then watercress appears to have been more abundant in Duncan’s day than it is today. Here is a commentary from his classic poem Coire a’ Cheathaich ‘the misty corrie’, written of a locality he knew well (in the borderlands of Perthshire and Argyll) from his days as a forester and hunter:

Tha mala ghruamach den bhiolair uaine

Mun h-uile fuaran a th’ anns an fhonn …

there is a sombre brow of green watercress

around every spring in the land …

Duncan’s inclusion of the adjective uaine ‘green’ is the poet’s means of maintaining the complex rhyming and rhythm of his work, but the descriptor also differentiates this species from others in which biolair might appear in the name, such as the biolair-ghriagain, a variant name for the cuckooflower. Biolair(e) on its own is a generic for watercress (the commercial variety has been referred to as biolair-Fhrangach ‘French cress’) and the wild plant found in Scotland is also known as biolair-uisge ‘water-cress’ or biolair an fhuarain ‘cress of the (water) spring’.

The etymology of biolair is unclear but an early Gaelic form, given by Alexander Macbain in his Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, is biror which might refer to its watery habitat (bir anciently meaning ‘water’ or ‘well’). The plant is also known as dobhar-lus or dobhrach ‘water plant’, again based on an archaic word for ‘water’. However, John Cameron in his ‘Gaelic Names of Plants’ (1883) says that biolair refers to something that ‘causes the nose to smart’, corresponding to the nasturtium in the plant’s scientific name (its original genus was Nasturtium).

Intriguingly, in the light of this interpretation, in another of his fine nature-praise poems Òran an t-Samhraidh ‘song of the summer’, Duncan Bàn mentions mo roghainn de shnaoisean sròine e ‘it’s my choice of nose-snuff’ in the verse before the one in which he praises watercress, but he seems to be referring, not to the aquatic plant, but to the birch tree. Here is the following quatrain in which the bard praises watercress:

ʼS a’ bhiolair luideach, shlìom-chluasach,

Glas, chruinn-cheannach, chaoin, ghorm-neulach

Is i fàs glan, uchd-àrd, gilmeanach

Fo bhàrr geal, iomlan, sònraichte …

The ragged, sleek-eared watercress,

Tight-headed, tender, matt-green

She grows clean, pert, dainty

Below a white, whole, special top…

Watercress was not solely a symbol of well-watered mountainsides, carrying beauty in its abundant foliage and attractive white flowers. It was also a foraged food source of no little importance to the populace; John Cameron says that ‘among the poorer classes, water-cress formed a most important auxiliary to their ordinary food’. It is nutritionally valuable and can be encouraged to grow by modifying drainage, so that it can be found in abundance in some localities. However, it is interesting that, despite it being sometimes promoted today as a good and nutritious food when eaten raw, the old Gaels would invariably cook it well. A soup made from the plant (its use was recorded on Colonsay) was called brot biolarach ‘watercress soup’.

There might have been good reason for boiling it (and also pounding it before cooking it). If there is livestock adjacent to the watercourse where watercress grows, the plant can become contaminated with liver fluke, posing a health hazard to humans. Foragers are advised to cut the plant with scissors above the waterline, but perhaps the only truly safe raw watercress is that grown in ponds where livestock have no access.

Abundant and accessible. Harvesting the watercress here, in a West Highland setting close to sea level, is very tempting, but the author avoids it because of the proximity of livestock. Photo © Roddy Maclean

To the old Gaels, watercress was not just a food source – it was also consumed as a hot decoction as a cure for cold, flu and fevers. It was also eaten within the traveller community as a cure for the nausea induced by too much smoking of tobacco. Latterly, its use appears to have been scattered in the Gàidhealtachd. Speaking on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal in August 2000, the late Donnie MacRury of Stilligarry in South Uist said the plant was little used in Uist, but that he had learned of its usefulness from his mother who was a native of Tiree. He would add vinegar to the pot and cook the watercress only briefly in order not to destroy the Vitamin C. His interview (see Tobar an Dualchais) ranges as far back as the Romans and Ancient Greeks who used the species widely.

Another great Gaelic bard who wrote of the biolair was Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald). In his environmental praise-poem Allt an t-Siùcair ‘sugar brook’, written of a location in Ardnamurchan, he says:

Gur milis, briosg-gheal, bùrn-ghlan

meall-chùirneanach ’s binn fuaim,

bras-shruthain Allt-an-t-Siùcair

ri torman siùbhlach, luath;

gach biolair ’s luibh le ’n ùr-ròs

a’ cinntinn dlùth mu bhruaich,

’s e toirt dhaibh bhuadhan sùghmhor

dhan t-subhachas mun cuairt.

I give here the translation offered by Anne Lorne Gillies in her wonderful book ‘Songs of Gaelic Scotland’ (Birlinn 2005) – a copy of which should be in every Highland home!

Sweet, limpid, fresh-watered,

dew-spattered, sweet-sounding,

swift-streaming in the Sugar Brook

with its fast-moving, swift music;

each water-cress plant and herb with its fresh colour

growing close along its bank,

and adding their own luscious properties

to the delights of all around them.

Biolair also makes an unusual appearance as a personal name in a traditional story, collected in Gairloch, of the Gaelic heroes known as the Fianna. The central character of the tale is Mac Gille Mhaoil na Cruit ‘MacMillan the Harpist’ who comes to live with a local MacDonald man, and who is inordinately knowledgeable about the Fianna, reciting tales every night. Following his death, he is buried in poor circumstances after which the MacKenzie laird of Gairloch expresses his regret for not giving him a more noble burial, for his real (unexplained) identity was Biolair Uasal MacFhinn ‘Noble Watercress, Son of Fionn’. Is this a botanical alias for the zoological Oisean (Ossian), whose name means ‘little deer’, employing a plant of similar cultural status to the iconic deer?

Despite its relative prominence in poetry, watercress is not common in place names of the Highlands. I am familiar with one – the Lòn Biolaireach ‘marsh abounding in watercress’, south of Loch Frisa on Mull. The burn running through the area, much of it now under plantation forest, is Allt an Lòin Bhiolairich (Allt an Lòn Biolaireich OS).

An Lòn Biolaireach ‘the marsh abounding in watercress’ on Mull. The map dates from the 1920s, before plantation forestry cloaked this part of the island, altering the native ecology. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Watercress makes a notable, if occasional, appearance in traditional Gaelic songs. In the òran basaidh ‘clapping song’ Latha Siubhal Beinne Dhomh ‘a day when I travelled the mountain’ – a type of song often sung at the end of a session of tweed-waulking – a man tells of meeting a beautiful young woman who is out collecting daisies and watercress. He asks for a kiss, but she tells him to go away as he is just a shaggy old bodach and not nearly as refined as her own people!

The classic and well-known ditty Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric ‘the cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric’ tells of the old woman of the mountain – often considered a pagan spirit goddess – who protected the deer of the wild places. In the final verse, the cailleach names her favourite plant – the watercress. Here is a version collected on Skye:

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

A’ bhiolair uain, a’ bhiolair uain’,

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

Bhitheadh air bruthach nam fuar-bheann àrd.

I would like best the watercress

The watercress, the watercress,

I would like best the watercress

That would be on the slope of the cold high mountains.

However, the wording of a version from Glenmoriston makes more sense to me, in terms of the habitat in which the plant is found – and also that the (original?) cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric in Lochaber was associated with a fuaran ‘spring/well’ on the mountain, which is still named on OS maps (Fuaran Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, NN313640). In this version, collected by Alexander MacDonald, author of ‘Story and Song from Loch Ness-side’ (p.231), the final line is Bhitheadh air bruach an fhuarain àird ‘that would be on the bank of the high spring’. Exactly where the watercress grows.

Perhaps it’s worth finishing with a wee naidheachd ‘anecdote’ from John Cameron, which refers to a ‘curious old superstition respecting the power of this plant as a charm to facilitate milk-stealing’. Here is Cameron’s account, with the Gaelic orthography modernised: ‘Not long ago, an old woman was found, on a May morning, at a spring-well, cutting the tops of water-cresses with a pair of scissors, muttering strange words, and the names of certain persons who had cows, also the words ʼS leamsa leth do chuid-sa” (half thine is mine). She repeated these words as often as she cut a sprig, which personated the individual she intended to rob of his milk and cream.’

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

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Biolair Uaine an Fhìor-uisg’

Tha Ruairidh MacIlleathain ag innse dhuinn mun ghràdh aig na Gàidheil air a’ bhiolair

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Anns an dàn-mholaidh mu dheireadh aige do na beanntan air an robh e cho measail, sgrìobh am bàrd Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (1724-1812) le gràdh, mar a bu dual dha, mun àrainneachd aige. Ann an Cead Deireannach nam Beann, tha Donnchadh – a-nise aig aois 78 agus le ‘trian na h-analach’ aige air chall – a’ sgrìobhadh le gràdh mu na fèidh, eòin is daoine a bhiodh cuide ris anns a’ mhonadh na òige. Ge-tà, chan eil e ag ainmeachadh ach aon lus anns an dàn – agus tha an taghadh aige gu math inntinneach. Seo an rann mu dheireadh:

Mo shoraidh leis na frìthean, O ’s mìorbhaileach na beannan iad,

Le biolair uaine ’s fìor-uisg’, Deoch uasal rìomhach cheanalta;

Na blàran a tha prìseil, Na fàsaichean tha lìonmhor,

O ’s ait a leig mi dhìom iad, Gu bràth mo mhìle beannachd leo’.

Air a’ chiad shealladh, tha an taghadh dhen bhiolair (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) car annasach. Chan eil an lus gu sònraichte iongantach no drùidhteach, no eadhon tearc. Ach bha e a’ riochdachadh rudeigin sònraichte anns na beanntan do Dhonnchadh, agus tha am bàrd a’ dèanamh iomradh air a-rithist ann an cuid de na dàin-nàdair eile aige. Ann am Moladh Beinn Dòrain, mar eisimpleir, tha e a’ sgrìobhadh mun eilid, agus i ag òl fìor-uisge an fhuarain far a bheil a’ bhiolair a’ fàs (ged a tha e a’ cleachdadh riochd eile – biolaire – airson ruitheam an dàin a ghlèidheadh:

            Fuaran anns am bi biolaire gun dìth,

            ʼS mìlse leath’ na ʼm fìon, ʼs e gun òladh i

A’ bhiolair. Dealbh © Ruairidh MacIlleathain

Ciamar a bhiodh fios aig Donnchadh air mìlseachd uisge an fhuarain mura robh e air a ghabhail e fhèin? Tha amharas agam gur e an ceangal do dh’uisge, air an robh na Ceiltich riamh measail, a tha ag adhartachadh an lusa ann an cogais a’ bhàird. Ma ghabhas creideas a chur ann an tuairisgeul Dhonnchaidh dhen àrainneachd, bha a’ bhiolair mòran na bu chumanta ri a linn fhèin na tha e an-diugh. Seo a bheachd on dàn-nàdair air leth aige – Coire a’ Cheathaich – anns an do rinn e cunntas mu àite air an robh e fìor eòlach nuair a bha e na fhorsair agus na shealgair:

Tha mala ghruamach den bhiolair uaine

Mun h-uile fuaran a th’ anns an fhonn …

Tha am bàrd a’ cleachdadh ‘uaine’ mar dhòigh gus ruitheam agus comhardadh fillte na bàrdachd a ghleidheadh, ach tha am buadhair cuideachd a’ soilleireachadh dè an gnè air a bheil e a-mach, agus ‘biolair’ a’ nochdadh ann an ainmean lusan eile, leithid a’ bhiolair-ghriagain (flùr na cuthaig). Tha biolair(e) leis fhèin a’ seasamh airson nam biolairean (watercresses) air fad, agus bidh cuid a’ gabhail biolair-Fhrangach air an t-seòrsa a th’ air a reic gu coimeirsealta. Uaireannan, bithear a’ gabhail biolair-uisge no biolair an fhuarain air an t-seòrsa fhiadhain a dh’fhàsas ann an Alba.

Chan eil tùs an fhacail biolair soilleir ach tha Alasdair MacBheathain anns an fhaclair aige, Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, a’ toirt dhuinn biror mar sheann ainm dhi. Math dh’fhaodte gu bheil sin a’ riochdachadh na h-àrainn uisgich aice oir bha bir a’ ciallachadh ‘uisge’ no ‘tobar’ anns an t-seann aimsir. Tha a’ bhiolair cuideachd aithnichte mar dobhar-lus no dobhrach ‘lus-uisge’, a-rithist stèidhichte air facal àrsaidh airson ‘uisge’ (dobhar). Ge-tà, tha Iain Camshron anns an leabhar aige ‘Gaelic Names of Plants’ (1883) ag ràdh gu bheil biolair a’ buntainn ri rudeigin a dh’obraicheas mar shnaoisean anns an t-sròin, an aon chiall a th’ air nasturtium ann an ainm saidheansail an lusa (b’ e Nasturtium a bh’ air uaireigin aig ìre genus).

Tha e car inntinneach, ma-thà, ann an Òran an t-Samhraidh gu bheil Donnchadh ag ainmeachadh mo roghainn de shnaoisean sròine e anns an rann ron fhear sa bheil e a’ moladh na biolaire. Ge-tà, tha e coltach gu bheil an tuairisgeul a’ buntainn ris a’ chraoibh-bheithe seach a’ bhiolair. Seo an ceathramh anns a bheil e a’ dèanamh iomradh air a’ bhiolair:

ʼS a’ bhiolair luideach, shlìom-chluasach,

Glas, chruinn-cheannach, chaoin, ghorm-neulach

Is i fàs glan, uchd-àrd, gilmeanach

Fo bhàrr geal, iomlan, sònraichte …

Bha a’ bhiolair na shamhla de bheanntan le cliathaichean làn allt ach bha i cuideachd feumail don t-sluagh mar bhiadh fiadhain. Tha Iain Camshron ag innse dhuinn gun robh i cudromach gu sònraichte do dhaoine bochda. Gabhaidh an uiread a tha a’ fàs a thoirt am meud le bhith ag obair air na drèanaichean air talamh croitearachd agus tha i math mar bhiadh le tòrr bheothaman innte. Ach, ged a bhios feadhainn ga sanasachd an-diugh mar dheagh bhiadh amh, bhiodh na seann Ghàidheil mar bu trice ga bruich. Bha ‘brot biolarach’ air a chlàradh, mar eisimpleir, ann an Colbhasa.

Math dh’fhaodte gun robh fìor dheagh adhbhar airson a goil (agus a pronnadh ro làimh). Ma tha sprèidh beò ri taobh an uillt no lochain anns a bheil a’ bhiolair a’ fàs, tha teans ann gum bi an glup a’ tighinn beò ann – agus faodaidh sin slàinte dhaoine a chur ann an cunnart. Thathar a’ comhairleachadh luchd-rùrachaidh a bhith a’ gearradh an lusa le siosar os cionn an uisge ach ʼs dòcha gur e an aon bhiolair a tha gu tur sàbhailte an tè a th’ air a cinntinn ann an lòin far nach eil sprèidh faisg.

Faodaidh a’ bhiolair a bhith a’ fàs ann am pailteas agus furasta a bhuain. Ach, a dh’aindeoin sin, bidh an t-ùghdar a’ seachnadh a buain anns an àite shuas (air talamh ìosal air taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd) a chionn ʼs gum bi caoraich faisg air làimh. Dealbh © Ruairidh MacIlleathain

Do na seann Ghàidheil, cha robh a’ bhiolair cudromach a-mhàin mar bhiadh – bha i cuideachd air a cur gu feum mar leigheas airson a’ chnatain, a’ chnatain mhòir agus fiabhrasan. Bhiodh an luchd-siubhail ga h-ithe airson feabhas a thoirt air duine a bh’ air fàs sgeitheach an dèidh dha a bhith a’ smocadh cus tombaca. Anns na beagan deicheadan a dh’fhalbh, tha e coltach nach robhar ga cleachdadh anns a h-uile àite air a’ Ghàidhealtachd. A’ bruidhinn air BBC Radio nan Gàidheal anns an Lùnastal 2000, thuirt Donaidh MacRuairidh (1929-2005) à Stadhlaigearraidh ann an Uibhist a Deas nach robhar ga cleachdadh gu mòr ann an Uibhist, ach gun d’ fhuair e a chuid eòlais oirre bho a mhàthair a bhuineadh do Thiriodh. Chuireadh e fìon-geur anns a’ phoit agus bheireadh e a’ bhiolair gu goil airson ùine glè bheag gus nach biodh am Beothaman C air a sgrios. Anns an agallamh aige (faic Tobar an Dualchais), tha e a’ bruidhinn mu eachdraidh mhòr cleachdadh an lusa anns an Roinn Eòrpa, a’ dol air ais cho fada ris na Ròmanaich agus na Seann Ghreugaich.

B’ e Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair sàr-bhàrd eile a rinn iomradh air a’ bhiolair na bhàrdachd. Ann an Allt an t-Siùcair, a sgrìobh e mu àite ann an Àird nam Murchan, tha seo aige:

Gur milis, briosg-gheal, bùrn-ghlan

meall-chùirneanach ’s binn fuaim,

bras-shruthain Allt-an-t-Siùcair

ri torman siùbhlach, luath;

gach biolair ’s luibh le ’n ùr-ròs

a’ cinntinn dlùth mu bhruaich,

’s e toirt dhaibh bhuadhan sùghmhor

dhan t-subhachas mun cuairt.

Tha a’ bhiolair cuideachd a’ nochdadh gu h-annasach mar ainm pearsanta aig fear de na Fianna, ann an sgeulachd thraidiseanta a chaidh a chruinneachadh ann an sgìre Gheàrrloch. ’S e prìomh charactar an sgeòil Mac Gille Mhaoil na Cruit a tha a’ tighinn a dh’fhuireach le fear Dòmhnallach ann an Inbhir Àsdail, agus aig a bheil stòras iongantach de bheul-aithris mu na Fianna. An dèidh a bhàis, tha e air a thiodhlacadh ann an suidheachadh truagh, agus tha uachdaran Gheàrrloch, MacCoinnich, a’ gabhail aithreachas mòr nach d’ fhuair e an tiodhlacadh urramach air an robh e airidh, oir b’ e ainm ceart (nach deach a mhìneachadh) Biolair Uasal MacFhinn. An e sin ainm luibheach airson Oisean – air a bheil ainm ainmhidheach a tha a’ ciallachadh ‘fiadh beag’ – a’ cleachdadh lus air a bheil inbhe a tha rudeigin co-ionann ri inbhe an fhèidh?

Ged a tha i a’ nochdadh ann am bàrdachd, chan eil a’ bhiolair cumanta ann an ainmean-àite air a’ Ghàidhealtachd. ʼS aithne dhomh aon eisimpleir far an nochd i – an Lòn Biolaireach deas air Loch Phrìosa ann am Muile. ʼS e Allt an Lòin Bhiolairich (Allt an Lòn Biolaireich aig an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais) a ruitheas tron lòn, ach tha a’ chuid as motha dhen cheàrnaidh sin a-nise fo dhuilleach coille neo-dhùthchasach.

An Lòn Biolaireach ann am Muile. Chaidh am mapa a dhèanamh anns na 1920an, mus deach a’ cheàrnaidh seo a chòmhdachadh le coille neo-dhùthchasach, a dh’atharraich coltas na tìre. Dealbh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Tha a’ bhiolair a’ nochdadh ann an òrain Ghàidhlig corra uair. Mar eisimpleir, anns an òran bhasaidh Latha Siubhal Beinne Dhomh – fear a bhite a’ gabhail gu tric aig deireadh luadhaidh – tha fear ag innse mar a thachras e ri nighean bhòidheach a tha a-muigh a’ cruinneachadh neòineanan agus a’ buain na biolaire. Tha e ag iarraidh oirre pòg a thoirt dha, ach tha i ga dhiùltadh, ag ràdh nach eil ann ach bodach ròmach, agus gum buin ise do fheadhainn a tha nas uaisle na esan!

Tha an luinneag Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric fhathast gu math aithnichte ann an coimhearsnachd nan Gàidheal. Tha i ag aithris mu chailleach na beinne – a thathar a’ tomhas mar bhan-dia phàganach a bhiodh a’ dìon (agus a’ bleoghann) fèidh a’ mhonaidh. Anns an rann mu dheireadh, tha a’ chailleach ag ainmeachadh an lusa as fheàrr leatha – a’ bhiolair. Seo dreach dhen òran a chaidh a chruinneachadh anns an Eilean Sgitheanach:

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

A’ bhiolair uain, a’ bhiolair uain’,

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

Bhitheadh air bruthach nam fuar-bheann àrd.

Ach tha an dreach a chaidh a chruinneachadh ann an Gleann Moireasdain nas ciallaiche dhòmhsa, gu h-àraidh nuair a tha mi a’ beachdachadh air an àrainn far am fàs an lus – agus gun robh a’ chailleach (thùsail?) à Beinn a’ Bhric (no às a’ Bheinn Bhric) ann an Loch Abar co-cheangailte ri fuaran air a’ bheinn a tha fhathast air mapaichean na Suirbhidh Òrdanais (Fuaran Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, NN313640). Anns an dreach seo, a chaidh a chruinneachadh le Alasdair MacDhòmhnaill, ùghdar an leabhair ‘Story and Song from Loch Ness-side’ (d.231), ʼs e an loidhne mu dheireadh Bhitheadh air bruach an fhuarain àird. Sin dìreach far am bi a’ bhiolair a’ fàs.

Bheir mi an cunntas seo gu ceann le naidheachd bheag aig Iain Camshron a dh’innseas dhuinn mu ‘sheann saobh-chràbhadh annasach a thaobh cumhachd an lusa seo mar gheas airson mèirle bainne a thoirt gu buil’. Seo an cunntas aig a’ Chamshronach, air a thionndadh gu Gàidhlig: ‘O chionn ùine nach eil fada, bha seann bhoireannach air a lorg, air madainn Cèitein, aig fuaran, agus i a’ gearradh nan ceann far nam biolairean le siosar, a’ cantainn fhaclan neònach agus ainmean dhaoine leis an robh crodh-bainne, cuide ris na faclan “ʼS leamsa leth do chuid-sa”. Bhiodh i a’ cantainn nam faclan seo a-rithist agus a-rithist mar a gheàrr i gach bàrr-lusa, a bhiodh a’ riochdachadh pearsa an duine on ghoideadh i a bhainne agus uachdar.’

Bha am bloga seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

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The ‘Blind’ Streams of the Uplands

Roddy Maclean looks at the fascinating word ‘caochan’ in the Gaelic landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

There is a great hill that lies in wild and uninhabited country on the border of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire called An Sgarsoch. Its name probably means ‘place of sharp rocks’ (the Ordnance Survey Name Book says it is ‘covered with heath and outcropping rocks’). To its south-east lies a gathering of slightly lower summits and on the southern slopes of one of them lie three streams, each of which is named with a different generic element, and all of which run southwards into the river known as Uisge Tharbh ‘bull river’, most commonly given on maps in the anglicised form, Tarf Water. It’s as good a place as any to introduce you to the word caochan (pronounced approximately KOEUCH-un; think of French oeuf ‘egg’).

The westerly stream is Fèith nam Fuaran ‘the bog-stream of the springs’ – it originates in springs in the hill saddle to the north. The word fèith can also represent a muscle, sinew or vein in the body, and the concept is of something long and thin surrounded by other material – as in a water-channel surrounded by peat. The farthest east of the three streams is called Allt Coire an t-Saighdeir ‘the burn of the corrie of the soldier’. Allt is often considered the default word for ‘burn’ in the Gaelic landscape, but Dwelly’s dictionary gives an insight into its origins by giving its primary meaning as ‘mountain stream’ – and also ‘river with precipitous banks’. The word is thought to have been borrowed into Gaelic from Pictish, in which language it likely meant ‘cliff’ or ‘high rock’ (it is thought to be cognate with Latin altus ‘high’ from which English ultimately derives the word ‘altitude’). Such places, in a Scottish context, are often running with water.

In the middle between the fèith and the allt is a stream called Caochan nan Laogh ‘the stream of the calves’. Caochan is variously translated as ‘stream’, ‘streamlet’ or ‘rivulet’ but what distinguishes it from a peaty fèith or a rocky allt? The clue is in the origins of the word caoch which can mean ‘blind’ or ‘empty’ – for example a hazelnut with no kernel (sadly a common feature for the forager!) is known as a cnò chaoch ‘empty nut’. However, a caochan is rarely without water in our wet landscape. It is in the meaning of caoch as ‘blind’ that we realise what caochan is describing. It is a ‘blind stream’, so almost-covered with vegetation (like heather), that it can easily be missed. You might detect a slight purling noise (another meaning of caochan) but the stream might be all but silent and will rarely roar like a rocky allt in spate. Keep your eyes open if you are walking in a country where caochanan are common because some of them are potential ankle-breakers.

A caochan is a gentle stream that can be difficult to see, being largely hidden in vegetation. Occasionally it will break into a small pool as in the example above. A more generally open bog-stream in such a peaty landscape is more likely to be called a fèith (which can also refer to a broader bogland). Photo © R Maclean

As is common in the Gaelic landscape, there are other nearby place names derived from the name of the stream. An old adjacent shieling site is Ruigh Caochan nan Laogh, and the hill above is called Bràigh Coire Caochan nan Laogh ‘the upland of the corrie of Caochan nan Laogh’. The calves in question are likely to be cattle, referring to their presence at the shieling (a nearby hill is Cnapan nan Laogh ‘the wee lump of the calves’) although laogh can also refer to the young of the red deer.

There are several other caochanan running off the massif connected to An Sgarsoch. Caochan na Macranaich runs off Sròn na Macranaich ‘the hill-end or nose of the band of young men’; Caochan Riabhach Mòr and Caochan Riabhach Beag are the large and small brindled streams, referring to the appearance of the vegetation; and Caochan na Cuairte ‘the stream of the circuit’ takes a circuitous route off the eastern flanks of the mountain.

Here are some examples of caochanan in other parts of the Highlands: Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘the stream of the snow’ is in Stratherrick near Loch Ness; Caochan an Leathaid Bhàin ‘the stream of the fair slope’ is in Atholl, Perthshire; Caochan Crom nan Eag ‘the twisting stream of the notches’ is a beautifully accurate name for a stream near the River Dulnain in the Monadh Liath, and nearby is the equally tantalising Caochan na Feòraige ‘the stream of the squirrel’ (in a location with few trees today). Caochan Lùb ‘stream of tight bends’ is in the Glenfeshie Forest of Badenoch; there is an old, abandoned settlement of the same name (anglicised Cuchanlupe) just to the north in Abernethy. This was famous locally for the illegal manufacture of whisky, no doubt using the pure water of the Caochan Lùb! In Glen Orrin near Dingwall there is another abandoned settlement with a caochan name. Tyacaochan is an oddly anglicised form of Taigh a’ Chaochain ‘the house of the stream’; it lies directly adjacent to a stream known simply as An Caochan.

Caochan an Eich Bhuidhe ‘the stream of the yellow horse’ and Caochan Greusaiche ‘shoemaker’s stream’ join near the railway line south of Rannoch Station, Perthshire. On either side of them are Allt an Fhail ‘the burn of the enclosure’ and Allt Crìche ‘march or boundary burn’. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Gaelic-speaking ethnologist and map-maker, Raghnaid Sandilands, has investigated and mapped the caochanan in her home territory between Strathnairn and Srathdearn, finding 27 of them on the Ordnance Survey 6-inch map. The names and heritage associated with them are thought-provoking and of interest to both the naturalist and the historian. For example, Caochan na Poite is ‘the stream of the illicit still’, Caochan na h-Earbaige is ‘the stream of the small roe deer’ and Caochan na Mòine Guirme is ‘the stream of the verdant peatland’.

In her blog Sandilands tells us that, of her 27 caochanan, only three appear on the 1:50 000 map today, demonstrating a potential loss of knowledge and understanding among those who only use that scale of map. The 1:25 000 maps are better, and I would recommend those to readers of this blog who are interested in our caochanan and their names. But you might find it useful and informative to go back to the first edition 6-inch maps of your favourite places and map the caochanan for yourselves.

Caochan Dubh a’ Chadha ‘the dark (hidden) stream of the pass’ in the Cairngorms. In the Eastern Highlands, cadha can refer to a slope rather than its common meaning of ‘pass, route, sometimes diagonally on a slope’ in the west. But here it is adjacent to a walking route leading to and from Eag a’ Chait ‘the notch (i.e. ravine) of the wildcat’ to the south of Loch Morlich. Photo © R Maclean

Some caochanan, which are not even on the 6-inch OS maps, have been recorded by place name collectors. Among those are some gathered from local informants by Adam Watson and Elizabeth Allan, who published them in ‘The Place Names of Upper Deeside’ (Aberdeen University Press 1984) – an excellent book that was unfortunately limited to a small print-run. One rather attractive example from this publication will suffice. It is the Caochan Dùird Mòr and its neighbour, the Caochan Dùird Beag, which are in the hills of Upper Deeside, in the Forest of Mar (at NO 013857 and NO 016854). The name means ‘the streamlet of humming’. If you can’t see these ‘blind’ streams, you should at least be able to hear them!

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, History, mapping, NatureScot, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sruthan ‘caoch’ a’ Mhonaidh

Tha dualchas gu leòr co-cheangailte ri ‘caochanan’ na Gàidhealtachd, mar a tha Ruairidh MacIlleathain a’ mìneachadh.

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Tha beinn mhòr ann eadar Athall agus Màrr air a bheil An Sgarsoch mar ainm. Tha dùil gu bheil an t-ainm a’ ciallachadh ‘àite nan clachan geura’ agus tha Leabhar nan Ainmean aig an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais ag innse dhuinn gu bheil a’ bheinn còmhdaichte le fraoch agus clachan. Don earra-dheas oirre, tha grunn mhullaichean ann agus, air an taobh dheas aig fear aca, tha trì sruthan, agus iad a’ giùlain prìomh eileamaid eadar-dhealaichte sna h-ainmean aca. Tha iad uile a’ ruith chun an Uisge Tharbh no, mar a tha e air a’ chuid as motha de mhapaichean, Tarf Water. Tha an t-àite seo cho math ri gin airson ur cur an aithne an fhacail caochan.

ʼS e an sruth as fhaide siar Fèith nam Fuaran, a tha ag èirigh à fuarain ann am bealach gu tuath. Tha fèith na fheadan-uisge a th’ air a chuairteachadh le mòine, ach tha e cuideachd a’ riochdachadh ball-bodhaig caol agus fada. ʼS e Allt Coire an t-Saighdeir a th’ air an t-sruth as fhaide sear mar ainm. Gu tric, bithear ag ràdh gu bheil allt a’ seasamh airson sruth-uisge (sam bith) ann an ainmean-àite Gàidhlig, ach tha faclair Dwelly a’ toirt dhuinn nan ciallan seo – ‘mountain stream’ agus ‘river with precipitous banks’. Tha dùil gun tàinig e thugainn bho chànan nan Cruithneach agus gu robh e a’ ciallachadh ann an Cruithnis ‘bearradh’ no ‘creag àrd’ (tha am facal Beurla altitude càirdeach dha). Ann an Alba, bhiodh allt (leis an t-seann chiall) gu tric co-cheangailte ri uisge a bha a’ sruthadh.

Anns a’ mheadhan, eadar an fhèith agus an t-allt, tha Caochan nan Laogh. Ciamar a dh’aithnicheamaid caochan bho fhèith mhòinteach agus allt creagach? Uill, bidh fios aig cuid agaibh gu bheil caoch a’ ciallachadh ‘dall’ no ‘falamh’ – ʼs e cnò chaoch a chanas sinn ri cnò-challtainn anns nach eil eitean. Ge-tà, ann an dùthaich mar Alba, chan ann tric a bhios amar-uisge sam bith às aonais uisge, agus ʼs e a’ chiall eile air caoch a tha a’ buntainn ri sruthan. Tha caochan ‘dall’ anns an t-seagh ʼs gu bheil e cha mhòr còmhdaichte le lusan (leithid fraoich) agus mar sin fìor dhoirbh fhaicinn. Is mathaid gun cluinnear borbhan ach uaireannan cha dèan caochan fuaim sam bith. Cumaibh ur sùilean fosgailte ma tha sibh a’ coiseachd ann an dùthaich chaochanach oir bhiodh e furasta gu leòr adhbrann a bhriseadh ann.

ʼS e caochan sruthan car mall a tha doirbh fhaicinn oir tha e gu ìre mhòr còmhdaichte le lusan, leithid fraoich. An siud ʼs an seo, bidh glumagan a’ nochdadh ann, mar a chithear gu h-àrd. Nam biodh an sruth na b’ fhosgailte air fheadh, math dh’fhaodte gur e ‘fèith’ a bhiodh air mar ainm, seach ‘caochan’. Dealbh © R MacIlleathain

Mar a tha cumanta air a’ Ghàidhealtachd, tha àiteachan eile làimh ris an t-sruth le ainmean stèidhichte air. Tha seann àirigh (no ruigh) ann air a bheil Ruigh Caochan nan Laogh; os a chionn tha Bràigh Coire Caochan nan Laogh. Tha dùil gur e laoigh cruidh, seach laoigh fèidh, a thathar a’ ciallachadh an seo, oir tha e faisg air àirigh. Tha cnoc ann cuideachd air a bheil Cnapan nan Laogh.

Tha caochanan eile a’ sruthadh far a’ mhonaidh làimh ris an Sgarsoch. Tha Caochan na Macranaich a’ tighinn far Sròn na Macranaich. Tha mi dhen bheachd gu bheil ‘macranaich’ a’ ciallachadh ‘gràisg òigridh’ (mura h-eil fios aig leughadair air a’ chaochladh); tha an Caochan Riabhach Mòr agus an Caochan Riabhach Beag ann (le ‘riabhach’ a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air coltas nan lusan ri taobh an t-srutha); agus tha Caochan na Cuairte a’ gabhail slighe chuairteach (leth-chearcallach) far cliathaich an ear na beinne.

Seo agaibh eisimpleirean de chaochanan ann an sgìrean eile air a’ Ghàidhealtachd: tha Caochan an t-Sneachda ann an Srath Fharagaig faisg air Loch Nis; tha Caochan an Leathaid Bhàin ann an Athall, Siorrachd Pheairt; ʼs e tuairisgeul brèagha a th’ ann an ainm Caochan Crom nan Eag faisg air Uisge Tuilnein anns a’ Mhonadh Liath, agus tha Caochan na Feòraige anns an aon sgìre (ann an àite far a bheil craobhan gann an-diugh). Tha Caochan Lùb ann an Gleann Fèithisidh ann am Bàideanach; tha seann bhaile dhen aon ainm gu tuath air sin ann an Obar Neithich (agus Cuchanlupe air ann an dreach na Beurla). Bha an t-àite sin ainmeil gu h-ionadail airson obair na poite-duibhe – tha fhios gun robhar a’ cleachdadh uisge on Chaochan Lùb airson an t-uisge-beatha a dhèanamh! Ann an Gleann Oirinn siar air Inbhir Pheofharain tha seann bhaile eile le caochan san ainm. ʼS e Tyacaochan a th’ air na mapaichean agus tha fhios gur e sin Taigh a’ Chaochain anns a’ Ghàidhlig thùsail; tha e ri taobh sruthan air a bheil An Caochan mar ainm.

Tha Caochan an Eich Bhuidhe agus Caochan Greusaiche a’ tighinn còmhla faisg air an rathad-iarainn deas air Stèisean Raineach ann an Siorrachd Pheairt. Air gach taobh dhiubh, tha Allt an Fhail agus Allt Crìche. Dealbh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Tha an t-eitneòlaiche agus cairt-iùiliche Gàidhealach, Raghnaid Sandilands, air sùil gheur a thoirt air na caochanan faisg air a dachaigh anns a’ mhonadh eadar Srath Narann agus Srath Èireann, a’ lorg 27 dhiubh air a’ chiad eagran de mhapa 6-òirlich na Suirbhidh Òrdanais. Tha na h-ainmean orra, agus an dualchas co-cheangailte riutha, air leth inntinneach. Mar eisimpleir, tha na trì seo ann – Caochan na Poite (far an robhar a’ dèanamh uisge-beatha, tha fhios), Caochan na h-Earbaige agus Caochan na Mòine Guirme.

Anns a’ bhloga aice tha Sandilands ag innse dhuinn, de na 27 caochanan aice, nach eil ach trì a’ nochdadh air a’ mhapa 1:50 000 an-diugh, a’ sealltainn cho furasta ʼs a tha e dualchas a chall am measg dhaoine nach cleachd ach mapa aig an sgèile sin. Tha na mapaichean 1:25 000 nas fheàrr, agus mholainn iad do dhaoine aig a bheil ùidh ann an caochanan agus an ainmean. Ach math dh’fhaodte gun còrdadh e ribh dhol air ais do na seann mhapaichean sia-òirlich de na h-àiteachan as fheàrr leibh agus na caochanan a lorg dhuibh fhèin.

Caochan Dubh a’ Chadha anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh. Air taobh sear na Gàidhealtachd, bidh cadha uaireannan a’ ciallachadh ‘leathad’, seach bealach no slighe-choiseachd mar a tha air an taobh an iar. Ach an seo, tha e ri taobh slighe-choiseachd a tha a’ dol tro Eag a’ Chait ‘the notch of the wildcat’, deas air Loch Morlaich. Dealbh © R MacIlleathain

Bha cuid de chaochanan, nach eil eadhon air na mapaichean 6-òirlich, air an clàradh le feadhainn a chruinnich ainmean-àite. Am measg sin, tha feadhainn a fhuair Adhamh MacBhàtair agus Ealasaid NicAilein bho dhaoine ann an ceann shuas sgìre Dhè ann an Siorrachd Obar Dheathain. Dh’fhoillsich iad na h-ainmean anns an leabhar aca The Place Names of Upper Deeside (Aberdeen University Press 1984). Gu mì-fhortanach, cha robh ach mìle lethbhreac dhen leabhar phrìseil seo air a chlò-bhualadh.

Bheir mi dìreach aon eisimpleir dhuibh bhon leabhar. Tha Caochan Dùird Mòr agus a nàbaidh Caochan Dùird Beag anns a’ mhonadh ann am Frìth Mhàrr aig NO 013857 agus NO 016854. Tha an t-ainm a’ ciallachadh ‘an caochan crònanach’. Nach eil sin snog?! Agus tha e taiceil cuideachd oir, mura faic sibh na sruthan ‘caoch’ seo, tha teans ann gun cluinn sibh iad!

Bha am bloga seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

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Nature’s Bounty in a Brùchd

Piles of seaweed thrown up by winter storms can add new elements to the forager’s basket

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

If you’re not a Gaelic-speaker, you might never have heard the word brùchd. If so, I want to teach it to you, because our shorelines during the winter can provide brùchdan (the plural form) which are potential treasure troves for the forager and keen gardener. In general terms, the word (pronounced ‘BROOCHK’ with a long ‘oo’) refers to a sudden rushing forth or bursting out, and the results of that process. It can mean ‘belching’ with reference to humans. In an environmental context, it is commonly used for the piles of seaweed that are thrown up on the shore, sometimes in vast quantities, usually during the season of storms in autumn and winter.

A brùchd consisting mainly of wracks, as above, is ideal for use as a fertiliser and soil conditioner, but has little or no edible content. It is a brùchd thrown up by a major storm, and which contains sub-littoral kelp species, that it is of most interest to the forager. Photo ©R Maclean

On our coasts, and particularly in the machair-fringed areas of the Western Isles, the brùchd was, and still is, eagerly awaited by those who use seaweed to fertilise their land. With a brùchd, there is no need to cut the seaware – it arrives ready for collection and spreading. Sometimes the weed needs to be collected immediately in case the next tide removes a lot of what has just accumulated. But where a big storm and high tide throw it up to the highest part of the beach, beyond the next tide, it is known as a tiùrr-brùchd or brùchd tiùrra (tiùrr being the Gaelic for ‘tideline’). If it is allowed to rot there for a while, it turns dark and becomes a brùchd-dubh ‘black brùchd’. The brùchd was so valued by the people that there is even a place named for it – Geodha na Brùchd ‘the inlet of the brùchd’ on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis at NB369085 (in an area where nobody lives today).

Geodha na Brùchd on the east coast of Lewis near the mouth of Loch Shell (Loch Sealg). In an area devoid of population today, the place name indicates past usage of maritime resources by local people. This detail is from the OS 6-inch map, second edition. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

I want to discuss how the forager might make use of a brùchd. For a start, it is important not to allow it to reach the status of a brùchd-dubh! Indeed, the forager should go down to the beach shortly after a storm to inspect what has been deposited. Quite often, the seaweeds found there will be those readily available on a shoreline down to the low tide line, notably glasag ‘sea lettuce’, glasag chaolanach ‘gutweed’, propach ‘bladder wrack’, feamainn bhuilgeanach ‘knotted wrack’ and stamh ‘oarweed’.

As foragers, we need not concern ourselves too much with those species. The delicious sea lettuce and gutweed, for example, can be more profitably and carefully collected as living specimens at low tide. However, I would like to make mention of two ‘treasures’ – large brown algae – that can come ashore with a brùchd and which might otherwise only be available to the wader, swimmer or diver who is prepared to brave the waters below the low tide mark.

The first is mircean, also known in Gaelic as meilcean, gruaigean and muirinean. In English it is badderlocks, dabberlocks or winged kelp. Well known as an edible species, it has a long history of use in Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. The fronds are long and fine, almost feathery in texture, with a distinct cnàimh or midrib. The Gaels would traditionally chew on the fresh midrib, and it was considered a delicacy by children. Imagine that!

Mircean (badderlocks) found washed up in a brùchd. The midrib is clearly visible. The duilleach at the bottom is a particularly favoured food. At very low spring tides, the forager can reach this species, growing in its natural habitat, if they are prepared to get their feet wet. If you are accessing seaweeds such as mircean from a brùchd, do so only on material newly washed up on the last tide. Don’t collect algae that have been sitting on the beach over a series of tides – unless you are looking for fertiliser, in which case they are ideal. Photo ©R Maclean

Smoked fronds are reckoned very tasty, and the sweetness of the plant to the palate increases as the plant ages. Mircean was, and no doubt is, most loved among the Gaels for its sporophylls – short spore-bearing sprouts near the base of the plant, close to the holdfast that anchors it to rocks. These appear rather like small, leathery leaves and are known in Gaelic collectively as duilleach ‘foliage’ or individually as earball-sàile ‘saltwater tail’. Their flavour, when fried in butter, is a delicious blend of nuttiness and saltiness. To top it all, this seaweed, which has been the subject of experiments to test its suitability for being raised commercially, is high in vitamins A, B, C and K.

If mircean is a pearl within a winter brùchd, then langadal is a diamond. Langadal is a kelp whose long, unribbed, slightly crinkled fronds, called leathagan in Gaelic, grow to a prodigious size. It is a deep-water species, only normally available for harvesting by divers down to depths of 30 metres – but it is often washed up in storms. The species has several Gaelic names including ròc and mìlsean-mara ‘sea sweets’. The latter has its equivalent in English names for the species – sweet kelp, sugar kelp and sweet sea-tangle – the flavour being enhanced by the presence of mannitol, a sugar alcohol. Langadal was once sold as crisps by street vendors in Edinburgh. As with mircean, langadal gets sweeter with age. As well as being tasty as crisps, it is a good addition to a stir fry, with a lovely texture and flavour, and can be cleaned, sliced and frozen for culinary use later in the season. So, when a brùchd appears on your local beach, check it out for large fronds of langadal and just cut off what you need. But a warning – the older fronds sometimes become peppered with small sgreigeagan ‘acorn barnacles’ which are not favourable to the palate – so check them out carefully in good light. And, of course, only seaweed that has been freshly washed up with the most recent tide should grace the food hamper.

The author (centre) introducing a group of students to a large frond of langadal (sugar kelp) washed up in a summer storm onto the beach at Staffin, Isle of Skye. Photo ©R Maclean

If you gather too much langadal from a brùchd, don’t worry – they make a good fertilizer in the garden. They are also handy weather predictors when dried and left hanging, say, in a porch. They absorb moisture from the atmosphere, and a change in their appearance can indicate that rain is on the way.

Just to show that the entrepreneurial spirit and our native seaweeds make good bedfellows, a gin made in the Western Isles claims a unique flavour thanks to its being ‘infused with sugar kelp’. And off the coast of the island of Scalpay (southern Skye), a collaboration between commercial interests and academics is investigating the potential of growing this species adjacent to a salmon farm in order to make use of nutrient overspill. This research is aimed at the market for sweet kelp as food, but the species also has potential for being grown for biomass purposes, such as production of fuel alcohol.

The winter is often claimed to be a poor time for the food forager – when they rely on stocks they have built up during more productive seasons. But this is not true for those who have access to the seashore – and more about molluscs in another blog! It is certainly not true for those with an eye for what has been washed onto land in the latest brùchd. Nature’s bounty, indeed!

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

Posted in autumn, beach, beaches, biodiversity, coastal, Folklore, foraging, Gaelic, History, Marine, NatureScot, sea life, Uncategorized, winter | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mathas na Mara à Brùchdan

Faodaidh brùchdan a’ gheamhraidh air a’ chladach feamainn bhlasta a chur ri daithead an rùrachair

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Tha na Gàidheil eòlach gu leòr air an fhacal brùchd. Tha e a’ ciallachadh ‘maoim’ no ‘briseadh obann’ no ‘am fuaim a nithear le bhith a’ leigeil gasaichean às a’ bheul’ – am fear mu dheireadh ann an dòigh a dh’fhaodas a bhith mì-mhodhail. Ge-tà, chan eil mì-mhodh sam bith co-cheangailte ri brùchd air a’ chladach. Gu dearbh, bidh feadhainn a tha an sàs ann an rùrachd a’ faighinn biadh o bhrùchd feamainn a nochdas air a’ chladach an dèidh stoirm as t-fhoghar no sa gheamhradh.

Brùchd feamainn far a bheil an fheamainn bhuilgneach anns a’ mhòr-chuid, agus a tha feumail airson talamh àitich fheamnadh. ʼS iad brùchdan mòra a’ gheamhraidh, a nochdas an dèidh stoirm mhòr, as motha a tharraingeas an rùrachair, oir uaireannan bidh ceilpean ann, leithid langadal agus mircean. Dealbh ©R MacIlleathain

Air cladaichean na h-Alba, agus gu sònraichte anns na sgìrean machaireach anns na h-Eileanan an Iar, bha, agus bidh, gu leòr de dhaoine a’ feitheamh ri brùchd gus am faigh iad stuth airson fearann-àitich fheamnadh. Le brùchd, bidh an fheamainn geàrrte agus deiseil airson togail agus sgaoileadh. Uaireannan bidh daoine ga cruinneachadh anns a’ mhionaid, eagal ʼs gum bi an ath làn ga sguabadh air falbh. Ach, far am bi stoirm mhòr ga cur air an tiùrr aig ceann shuas a’ chladaich (canaidh sinn tiùrr-brùchd no brùchd tiùrra rithe), agus ma thèid a fàgail ann greis, bidh i a’ dol dubh. ʼS e brùchd-dubh a chanas sinn ri a leithid (gu h-iongantach!). Bha uiread de dh’fhèill air a’ bhrùchd san t-seann aimsir ʼs gu bheil àite ann an Leòdhas air a bheil Geodha na Brùchd (Geodha nam Brùchd? oir tha brùchd fireanta). Tha sin aig NB369085 faisg air beul Loch Sealg far nach eil sluagh a’ fuireach an-diugh.

Geodha na Brùchd air costa sear Leòdhais faisg air beul Loch Sealg. Chan eil sluagh ann an-diugh ach tha an t-ainm-àite a’ sealltainn dhuinn gun robh daoine ann uaireigin a bha a’ cur feum air toradh na mara. Tha seo bho mhapa 6-òirlich na Suirbhidh Òrdanais, dàrna eagran. Chan fhaicear an t-ainm air mapaichean an latha an-diugh.
Dealbh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Tha mi ag iarraidh fios a thoirt seachad air mar a dh’fhaodas rùrachair feum a dhèanamh de bhrùchd. Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach tha e cudromach nach tèid e cho fada ʼs gum bi e na bhrùchd-dubh! Gu dearbh, ʼs fhiach a dhol a-bhàn don chladach goirid an dèidh stoirm airson faicinn dè thàinig gu tìr. Gu math tric, bidh na feamainn dìreach mar a lorgar a’ fàs air a’ chladach aig àm àbhaisteach, leithid a’ ghlasag, a’ ghlasag chaolanach, propach, an fheamainn bhuilgeanach agus stamh.

Mar luchd-rùrachd, cha leig sinn a leas dragh a ghabhail mu na gnèithean sin. Tha e a cheart cho math glasag agus glasag chaolanach a chruinneachadh o na h-àiteachan far am bi iad a’ fàs air a’ chladach. Ach bu mhath leam iomradh a dhèanamh air dà alga dhonn a tha nan ‘neamhnaidean’ a thig gu tìr an cois brùchd. Mura b’ e sin, bhiodh againn ri snàmh no dàibheadh air an son.

Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach tha mircean, a tha aithnichte cuideachd mar meilcean, gruaigean agus muirinean. Ann am Beurla, canaidh daoine badderlocks, dabberlocks no winged kelp ris. Tha e gu math aithnichte mar ghnè a ghabhas ithe, le eachdraidh fhada de bhith air a chur gu feum ann an Alba, Èirinn, Innis Tìle agus Graonlann. Tha na frondaichean fada is mìn, cha mhòr iteach ann an coltas, le cnàimh a’ ruith suas am meadhan. Gu traidiseanta, bhiodh na Gàidheil a’ cagnadh air a’ chnàimh amh, agus bha clann gu math measail air. Smaoinichibh!

Mircean a thàinig gu tìr ann an stoirm. Chithear an cnàimh agus, aig a’ bhonn, an duilleach – air am biodh na seann Ghàidheil gu sònraichte measail mar bhiadh. Gheibhear grèim air an fheamainn seo aig àm an reothairt ma tha sibh deònach ur casan fhliuchadh. Mas ann à brùchd a gheibhear mircean airson ithe, dèanaibh cinnteach gun deach a sguabadh air a’ chladach leis an làn mu dheireadh. Chan eil math dhuibh a bhith ag ithe feamainn sam bith a th’ air a bhith marbh air a’ chladach fad greis. Gabhaidh i cleachdadh mar thodhar! Dealbh ©R MacIlleathain

Thathar a’ meas nam frondaichean smocte gu math blasta, agus thathar a’ dèanamh dheth cuideachd gum bi an lus a’ fàs nas mìlse le aois. Bhiodh na Gàidheil gu sònraichte dèidheil air duilleach a’ mhircein – duilleagan spòrach a nochdas ann am bagaidean faisg air bonn a’ frond, os cionn a’ ghreimeachain. Tha iad coltach ri duilleagan beaga leatharach, agus canaidh daoine earball-sàile ri gach tè dhiubh. Tha am blas, nuair a tha iad air am fraidhigeadh ann an ìm, na mheasgachadh air leth de bhlas chnothan agus salainn. Agus, a bharrachd air sin, tha an fheamainn seo làn bheothaman A, B, C agus K.

Mas e neamhnaid a th’ ann am mircean, mar a nochdas e ann am brùchd geamhraidh, tha langadal na dhaoimean. ʼS e ceilp mhòr a th’ ann, le frondaichean fada neo-chnàimheach air a bheil oirean liorcach. Canaidh na Gàidheil leathag ri frond na feamainn seo. Bidh langadal ri lorg aig doimhneachd suas ri 30 meatair far nach fhaigh ach dàibhear cothrom a chruinneachadh – ach a-mhàin nuair a nochdas e ann am brùchd. Tha grunn ainmean Gàidhlig air, leithid ròc (agus roc), smeartan, milearach agus mìlsean-mara. Tha an t-ainm mu dheireadh car coltach ri ainmean Beurla airson na feamainn seo – sweet kelp, sugar kelp agus sweet sea-tangle. Tha am mìlsead a’ tighinn bho alcol siùcarach ris an canar mannitol. Bha langadal uaireigin air a reic mar chriospaichean le ceannaichean-sràide ann an Dùn Èideann.

Mar a tha le mircean, bidh langadal a’ fàs nas mìlse le aois. A bharrachd air a bhith math mar chriospaichean, cuiridh e gu mòr ri stir-fry, leis na frondaichean cagainneach agus blasta. Faodar an glanadh, sliseagadh agus reothadh airson cleachdadh a-rithist tron gheamhradh. Mar sin, nuair a nochdas brùchd air an tràigh as fhaisge oirbh, thoiribh sùil airson leathagan de langadal agus geàrraibh dheth na bhios a dhìth oirbh. Ach seo rabhadh – uaireannan bidh sgreigeagan beaga bìodach gan acrachadh fhèin ann am pailteas air na frondaichean as sine, agus feumar sùil a thoirt air an son fo sholas soilleir. Agus dèanaibh cinnteach gu bheil feamainn a bhios sibh a’ cleachdadh mar biadh ùr-nodha air a’ chladach, air a sguabadh ann leis an tìde-mhara mu dheireadh.

Tha an t-ùghdar (meadhan) a’ sealltainn leathag mhòr de langadal do dh’oileanaich aige air a’ chladach ann an Stafainn san Eilean Sgitheanach. Thàinig i gu tìr air stoirm samhraidh. Dealbh ©R MacIlleathain

Ma chruinnicheas sibh cus langadail à brùchd, na gabhaibh dragh – bidh e a’ dèanamh todhar math sa ghàrradh. Tha e math cuideachd airson innse cuin a tha an t-uisge gu bhith ann, agus bhiodh iasgairean gan crochadh a-muigh airson sin. Gabhaidh na frondaichean tiormaichte deathach a-steach bhon èadhar agus chithear bhon cumadh gu bheil an t-uisge air an t-slighe.

Dìreach mar dhearbhadh gum bi daoine adhartach a’ dèanamh feum às ùr de ar feamainn dhùthchasach, thathar a’ cumail a-mach gu bheil blas air leth air sine a th’ air a dhèanamh anns na h-Eileanan an Iar, le langadal mar phàirt dhen reasabaidh. Agus far cladach Sgalpaigh ri taobh ceann a deas an Eilein Sgitheanaich, thathar a’ coimhead air mar a dh’fhàsas langadal ri taobh tuathanas-bhradan far am bi mèinnearan a bharrachd anns an uisge. Tha an rannsachadh seo ag amas air langadal a ghabhas reic mar bhiadh, ach math dh’fhaodte gum bi cothroman a bharrachd an cois na feamainn seo, agus i air a cleachdadh airson alcol connaidh a chruthachadh.

Bidh feadhainn a’ cumail a-mach gur e an geamhradh àm truagh airson rùrachd, agus daoine dìreach a’ cur gu feum na chruinnich iad tro na ràithean blàtha. Ach chan eil sin fìor ma tha cothrom agaibh dhol gu cladach (agus bheir sinn sùil air maoraich ann am blog eile!). Gu sònraichte, chan eil e fìor ma bhios cothrom agaibh feamainn a chruinneachadh a thàinig às a’ mhuir ann am brùchdan a’ gheamhraidh – mathas mòr na mara!

Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

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The Business of Scotland’s Natural Larder

Respecting, protecting, and enhancing our natural environment is critical, not just for Scotland’s future generations, businesses, and tourists, but for the wellbeing of our current population and economy. Ceri Ritchie, Head of Food and Enterprise at SAC Consulting, was one of the organisers of Foraging Fortnight, in September. In today’s guest blog, Ceri reflects back on the business-related workshops that were held to explore and advise on the sustainable use of natural produce in the food sector.

Mark Williams from Galloway Wild Foods foraging at Taynish National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Choosing the right food as consumers, the right ingredients as food businesses, or creating the right experiences at tourist destinations all have an impact on our natural environment and its larder, either directly or indirectly. Through wise choices, we can make sure these are positive impacts. This year’s Foraging Fortnight festival hosted business events with that crucial balance in mind, looking at storytelling around foraged plants, back garden edibles to supply commercial kitchens, product and menu development using foraged ingredients and visitor experiences built around foraging and our natural environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made consumers reassess what is important in their lives and will have a lasting impact on consumer behaviour. It has encouraged a greater interest in local food, culinary culture, and heritage, and in sustainability. However, many are experiencing a squeeze on household disposable income, and this has also increased interest in cost-saving meal ideas – economy gastronomy – often nostalgic recipes from previous ‘hard times’. UK consumers are buying slightly less than before due to the impact of inflation, and there has been a rise in home grown vegetables.

Planting out lettuce at Whitmuir Organic farm near Peebles. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

This ‘disruption’ is driving change and innovation in many areas including product, packaging, promotion, range development and experience creation. Some key grocery retailers already have a strong Scottish range at accessible prices, others are investing heavily in value ranges, in an effort to price-match. Retailers are also exploring eco-scoring on food products.

Since the pandemic, 85% of UK consumers have adopted at least one lifestyle change (Deloitte, April 2021) and 48% of consumers believe that sustainability has become more important (Kantar 2021). Consumers are making choices that reflect an increased engagement with ‘sustainability’ and this is reflected in a number of ways: taking advantage of refill opportunities, buying local, resurrecting family recipes, taking part in #Veganuary or #Regenuary and for tourists, realising that the great outdoors is now perhaps more appealing than a crowded city.

Beekeeping producing one of nature’s best ingredients in Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Plant-based food choices have increased in popularity, driven by beliefs that is it better for consumer health and the planet. There is also an increased interest in ‘functional wellness’ – with consumers selecting foods that make a positive contribution to wellbeing and recognising the benefits of a balanced diet.

Wild and sustainably foraged foods can add a bit of natural interest and goodness to a diet and connect the consumer with nature. Getting out into the countryside is a natural tonic; it supports wellbeing and provides opportunities for people to build their knowledge of the plants around them, many of which have traditional functional wellness characteristics.

Scotland’s dramatic landscape underpins all of our natural capital and ecosystems and, together with our heritage and culture, is a mainstay of the Scottish tourism industry. Many businesses have recognised this opportunity and have created products that are based on traditional recipes or include wild plants in their flavours. Many of these plants are often steeped in folklore and cultural storytelling which in turn can enhance a brand’s story. Some businesses have added value to their visitor experience by highlighting links to the plants and landscapes around them. 

Hospitality students from SRUC serving prepped food tastings at the Royal Highland Show, Ingliston, ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Whether event catering, a farm shop, a café or as part of an experience-based diversified rural enterprise – addressing key consumer interests, creating story and theatre around products and services, and making those all-important links to nature adds real value. This is still a largely untapped opportunity for businesses across Scotland, and often choosing the story is the most challenging aspect. Our workshops during Foraging Fortnight this year included business case-studies and group discussion exploring these themes and we also offered one-to-one advice with micro-businesses and start-ups to link these entrepreneurs with key market information and opportunities.

The pandemic narrowed our horizons, drew us outdoors and also encouraged renewed interest in growing our own food. Gardening and indeed foraging are rewarding and meditative pastimes, allowing people to get close to nature, at their own pace. Creating an edible garden at whatever scale you choose can be part of a tranquil space to escape the everyday.

For businesses, Scotland’s natural larder provides an opportunity to create an immersive food experience, foraging and cooking wild foods. What are the skills needed?  Is there an opportunity to support the delivery of new food and drink, rural or heritage skills? Could you maximise the food tourism opportunity, boost a destination’s brand equity, essentially create a destination where people travel for a taste of place, in order to get a sense of place? The bare minimum is no longer acceptable. Consumers, businesses and stakeholders in Scotland can help to ensure there is a future where everyone can continue to enjoy our natural heritage.

As part of Scotland’s Rural College, SAC Consulting provides independent, research-driven, industry-leading expertise, advice, and solutions for agricultural, food, and land-based businesses.

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Protecting Orkney’s voles

Today, we have a fascinating guest post from Ann Cockerton, who until recently was the Orkney Native Wildlife Project communications manager.

Our annual wildlife monitoring surveys concluded last month with the completion of the Orkney vole surveys. The Orkney vole is a genetically distinct sub-species of vole found only in Orkney. It is notably larger than its mainland counterpart, weighing in around a chunky 90g, and is thought to be descended from voles found in Belgium.

An Orkney vole. Copyright Orkney Native Wildlife Project

How they arrived in Orkney isn’t known, but there are plenty of theories and they possibly arrived with Neolithic travellers migrating between Europe and Orkney 3,000 BC either accidentally carried in the livestock bedding or deliberately. There is speculation that voles were brought as food, like the Romans using edible dormice on sea journeys. This is supported by analysis of Orkney vole remains from Skara Brae, which indicates they were used as a food source in Neolithic Orkney.

Professor Mark Edmonds in his book Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney suggests that voles were arriving around the same time as people gathered among the monuments of the Brodgar 5,000 years ago. Among the animal remains found at Skara Brae over the years are hundreds of bones from the Orkney vole.

During those millennia that the Orkney vole naturalised here, it became an important food source for native wildlife, especially short-eared owls and hen harriers during the breeding season. Unfortunately, the non-native stoat also has a taste for the Orkney vole and as an easy food source for stoats, the resulting reduction in vole numbers would also have a knock-on effect on our bird population.  

An Orkney vole spotted during a survey. Copyright Orkney Native Wildlife Project

The Mammal Society added the Orkney vole to their first red list of endangered animals at risk from extinction in 2020. Orkney vole’s arrival 5,000 years ago has earned it the classification as a native to Orkney.

Twice a year – in April, and again in September at the end of their breeding season – we survey Orkney voles to estimate their population size as part of the project’s research. Voles can have multiple litters and anywhere from two to 12 pups in a litter. The young are fully weaned within just three weeks. To better understand the vole population in Orkney, our surveyors record signs of voles along one kilometre transects over several sites. These vole signs are grass clippings and droppings found in tunnels across the range of Orkney habitats, including grass and moorland. These, and whether the droppings are old or fresh, give an idea as to whether voles have been in an area recently and are all recorded.

We couldn’t check on the state of Orkney wildlife without our dedicated volunteers monitoring our native wildlife. This year alone our vole detectives donated 152 hours to survey the elusive mammal for which we are hugely grateful! 

Thanks to vole volunteer Leah Hunter and the many other project volunteers! Copyright Orkney Native Wildlife Project

We are always looking for more volunteers. No previous survey experience is required – just plenty of enthusiasm for native wildlife. Contact us at: info@onwp.org.uk or fill out the volunteering form on our website www.orkneynativewildlife.org.uk.


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Beavers on the move

Beavers bring many benefits for nature, but their activities can occasionally cause problems for farmers and other landowners. When measures to minimise issues such as flooding have not been successful, beavers can sometimes be trapped and moved under licence from NatureScot, working with specialist staff from the Beaver Trust. In today’s blog we hear about the experience of one farm where beavers were successfully caught and relocated.

A close-up of one of the beavers moved from the farm ©Beaver Trust

When beavers first arrived near Gillian Spalding’s farm they were a welcome sight. With a strong ethos of farming for nature, Gillian was delighted with her new neighbours, but it wasn’t long before some beaver activity began to impact on the farm.

Beavers can create incredibly diverse and rich wetland habitats which are great for biodiversity, but this ability to significantly change the environment they live in can also cause issues, particularly near farmland. Beavers can build dams, fell trees and dig burrows and canals.

Gillian said: “Initially, I was delighted at the beavers being there as it really went with our conservation and farming for wildlife ethos. But as time went on the beaver family grew and so did the number of dams! After two years the extent of the flooding damage became too much and that is when I needed some help with mitigating the beavers.”

NatureScot’s beaver team worked with Beaver Trust specialist Roisin Campbell-Palmer to look at what measures might work on the site. As part of NatureScot’s Beaver Mitigation Scheme it was agreed that a flow device would be installed in the now large dam on the farm to help reduce water levels and tree protection works were carried out. Unfortunately further damming by the beavers meant these measures were not going to be sufficient to allow the beaver presence to be tolerated.

Gillian explained: “Roisin and her team are really efficient at their jobs and provide so much help and advice. Roisin was really sympathetic to our needs and worries about the extent of the damage and provided swift solutions. Sadly, not all mitigations were going to be viable so therefore a trapping licence was needed.”

Where it’s necessary to remove beavers, NatureScot wants to see trapping under licence used wherever possible, rather than the last resort of lethal control.  Working with the Beaver Trust, our staff can arrange trapping at no costs to the land manager where a licence has been approved. Trapping is proving to be successful, and while some patience might be required, normally takes a few weeks.

One of the beavers in the holding facility at Five Sister Zoo ©Beaver Trust

Gillian added: “Within a few weeks of the licence being approved, all the beavers were caught and relocated. The whole process was much easier than expected and I feel has been a really positive experience.”

Beavers can be moved to licenced projects in England and Scottish Government policy now supports expansion of the population in Scotland, which allows for much more potential for trapping and moving beavers here.

The family of beavers moved from Gillian’s farm were taken to holding facilities at Five Sisters Zoo where they were health screened by staff from Five Sisters Zoo, Beaver Trust and an independent specialist wildlife veterinarian for a range of pathogens of concern, before finding a new home at the Argaty Red Kite centre near Doune in February.

One of the beavers is released ©Beaver Trust

Trapping requires specialist skills and careful regard is given to safeguarding beaver welfare.

Roisin said: “Translocations can be an incredibly positive and rewarding mitigation tool.

“Beaver Trust is committed to working with both landowners experiencing challenges with beavers and those seeking to welcome them back.

“We are dedicated to animal welfare, working alongside our project partners Five Sister Zoo and specialist wildlife vets, ensuring high standards of captive care and health screening so that animals are fit for release.”

The beavers are now thriving at their new home. Tom Bowser, the owner of Argaty Red Kites, said: “It’s great to have beavers back at Argaty.

“Already we have seen amazing changes to biodiversity here with dragonflies, spiders, amphibians and mustelids flocking to the growing wetlands.

“We are so grateful to Gillian for engaging in translocation and to Beaver Trust for their amazing work to get them here.”

If you are experiencing problems with beavers on or near your land, you can find out more about NatureScot’s Beaver Mitigation scheme and how to contact the team for help and advice on our website.

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The Surly Animal of the Yellow Moon

Roddy Maclean reveals aspects of the badger’s appearance in folklore and literature, and on Scotland’s Gaelic landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

The badger or broc ‘BROCHK’ has long had a place in the folklore, and one could say affection, of the Gaels – although the latter point might be contested, given the proverbs and sayings in which it appears. Despite its living in a warren with its fellows and being an arguably social animal, it is generally reckoned to be a bit unsociable, even crabbit, hence the simile cho gnù ri broc ‘as surly as a badger’. Another simile is cho leisg ris a’ bhroc ‘as lazy as the badger’ and yet another is cho cruaidh ris a’ bhroc ‘as hard as the badger’ which is said of niggardly people. There’s not much there in the way of praise!

To compound the negative view of the species, we have the saying chan iarr am broc na shloc ach e fhèin ‘the badger prefers to have his sett to himself’ (sloc – which rhymes nicely with broc – is the commonest word for a badger’s sett or den, although broc-lann and broclach are terms which are specific to this animal). In Carmina Gadelica (Volume IV), folklorist Alexander Carmichael gives us the rather strange expression: tha e a’ cur bhroc às a ladhran ‘he is casting badgers from his feet’, which is used of a ‘man stamping his feet in anger’.

The etymology of broc is unclear but the word is very old and has cognates in all the Celtic languages. It is likely to have been borrowed into Scots and English from a Celtic language at a fairly early stage, giving brocc, brock and brok, which live on today as dialectal variants. As in Gaelic, the English word was often used disparagingly, sometimes accompanied by the adjective ‘stinking’. Other Gaelic names for the badger are also recorded. Stiallair(e) ‘striped one’ and stiall-chù ‘stripe-dog’ refer to its most obvious unique feature – the large black stripes on the head, as does the name strianach ‘stripey one’. Tùidean is another name for the species, based on tùd ‘stink, stench’ and referring to ‘any smelly animal (especially the badger)’. It appears that the poor badger is in need of a champion who can improve its public profile!

A badger ©Adobe stock image.

Despite the supposed ‘laziness’ of the badger, people recognised that the species would work hard in the autumn to ensure that the sett was prepared for the winter. In Gaelic, the impressive October full moon which can presage a period of good weather, is known as Gealach a’ Bhruic ‘the badger’s moon’ or Gealach Bhuidhe nam Broc ‘the yellow moon of the badgers’. This refers to the animal’s habit of using the light of this moon to furnish its home with large amounts of dry grass. Under moonlight, they can be seen turning and drying the grass which is referred to as am broc a’ caoineachadh a bhoitein ‘the badger turning its bundle of hay in order to dry it’. The verb caoinich/caoineachadh is also used of crofters turning their hay to expose it to the drying effect of sun and wind. This year’s gealach a’ bhruic fell on the 9th of October – did you come across any busy badgers at that time?!

An extensive old badger sett on a wooded hill near Ardersier. Some setts can have multiple entrances and cover large areas of ground. This particular example was originally a ‘fairy’ hill, as evidenced by its Gaelic name and traditions; the badgers appear to have become part of the scene in more recent times.
Photo ©Roddy Maclean

Badgers do not figure highly in Gaelic literature, but they do appear now and again. A medieval poem Gleann Measach Iasgach Linneach ‘fruitful glen with pools and fishes’, is attributed to the legendary pan-Gaelic heroine, Deirdre, although it is more likely that an anonymous bard placed the words in her mouth. The heroine speaks of her love for her glen in Scotland which fate will prevent her from ever seeing again. It is a place of cuckoos, thrushes, blackbirds, roe deer, sleek flat-nosed otters, goats, swans, salmon – and badgers:

Gleann na gcaorthann go gcnuas corcra,

go meas molta do gach ealta;

parrthas suain do na brocaibh

i n-uamhchaibh socra ’s a gcuain aca.

Glen of rowans with scarlet berries,

fruit praised by every bird flock,

a tranquil paradise to the badgers

in peaceful holts with their litters.

Deirdre appears to have been partial to badger fat, as is evidenced in another ballad attributed to her (which presumably reflects an aspect of the medieval diet of the Gaels). In Ionmhain Tír an Tír-Úd Thoir ‘beloved land in the east’, she looks back longingly to Scotland from Ireland to which she has unhappily returned with her lover Naois (whose fate is a tragic and violent death in Ireland):

Gleann Laoigh!

Do chollainn fán mboirinn chaoimh;

Iasg is sidheang is saill bhruic,

Fá hí mo chuid i nGleann Laoigh.

Glen Lui!

I would sleep below the fair rock;

Fish and venison and badger fat

That was my fare in Glen Lui.

Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) was a Moidart-born poet of stature who composed a deal of nature poetry in the years 1725-45. Arguably, his finest composition of this type is Allt an t-Siùcair ‘the sugar burn’, written of a stream adjacent to his smallholding when he was a teacher in Ardnamurchan. Here he uses the adjective brocach ‘abounding in, or connected to, badgers’:

An coire brocach, taobh-ghorm, torcach, faoilidh, blàth;

An coire lonach, naosgach, cearcach, craobhach, gràidh …

The green-sided corrie has badgers and boars and is hospitable and warm. The marshy corrie has snipes, hens, trees and benevolence…

The badger appears not infrequently in the Gaelic landscape, sometimes in its definite genitive plural form nam Broc (‘num BROCHK’), meaning ‘of the badgers’. Examples of such toponyms are Tom nam Broc ‘the knoll of the badgers’ near Loch Lomond, Tòrr nam Broc ‘the hill of the badgers’, south of Loch Sunart (and another of the same name near Loch Ness), and Cnoc nam Broc ‘the hill of the badgers’ near Kishorn in Wester Ross. Broc-bheinn near Sligachan on Skye, a place noted in island folklore, has been interpreted as ‘badger-mountain’. Alexander Forbes in his ‘Place-Names of Skye’ (1923) tells us that this feature is also referred to as Broclach Bheinn ‘badger’s-den hill’ and Na Broclaich ‘the badger’s dens’. The indefinite plural form bhroc ‘of badgers’ is found in Tuim Bhroc, probably originally Tom Bhroc ‘knoll of badgers’, just outside Callander in the Trossachs.

Tom nam Broc ‘the knoll of the badgers’ lies just north-east of Balmaha on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Broclach also appears dialectally as braclach, and is found in that guise in the landscape, such as in Beinn na Braclaich ‘the mountain of the badger’s sett’ near Dunvegan on Skye and Fèith na Braclaich ‘the bog-stream of the badger’s sett’, south of Newtonmore in Badenoch. However, braclach can also occasionally refer to a fox’s den (the more common word is saobhaidh). It is likely that some Gaelic place-names, anglicised to Brackla, Brachla, Brackloch or Brachlach, originally referred to a badger’s den, although an origin in breac ‘speckled’ cannot be ruled out for one or two of them. Brackla in Garioch (Aberdeenshire) appears to be a badger name as it is adjacent to a feature known as Broclach Hill; the settlement itself is given as Broclach on some older maps. Early forms of the name Brackland or Bracklinn (as in the famous Bracklinn Falls), just outside Callander, suggest a possible origin as broc-thulach ‘badger hill’.

Broc also appears in many toponyms in its genitive singular form a’ Bhruic (‘uh VROO-ichk’) meaning ‘of the badger’. For example, Creag a’ Bhruic ‘the rocky hill of the badger’ is in Glen Strathfarrar and Lag a’ Bhruic ‘the hollow of the badger’ lies adjacent to the road between Tomintoul and the Lecht Ski Centre. Leaba a’ Bhruic ‘the bed or lair of the badger’ is in Easter Ross and Lochan a’ Bhruic, west of Loch Awe in Argyll, was interpreted by the Ordnance Survey Name Book informants as ‘badger’s loch’. Coire Bhruic ‘badger’s corrie’ is in Glenfeshie in Badenoch.

Fèith Tòrr a’ Bhruic ‘the bog-stream of the hill of the badger’ is in the Langwell Forest of Caithness
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

A derivative of broc is brocair, originally a ‘badger-hunter’, but whose meaning came to include ‘fox-hunter’ (because the same person often did both jobs); in recent historical times, given the increase in sheep-raising in Gaelic Scotland – and the abundance of vulnerable lambs – fox-hunting has been a much more common pursuit than badger-hunting, so that the primary meaning of brocair is now a person who hunts and kills foxes. Thus, the peninsula known as Rubha a’ Bhrocaire on the coast of Coigach in Wester Ross means, according to the Ordnance Survey Name Book, ‘foxhunter’s point’.

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

The medieval poetry and translations in this blog come from the excellent publication ‘Duanaire na Sracaire/Songbook of the Pillagers’, an anthology of medieval poetry edited by Wilson McLeod and Meg Bateman (Birlinn 2007).

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