Peatlands – the jewels in Scotland’s crown

In today’s blog, Sue Walker, Peatland ACTION Communications Officer, explains the vital role of Scotland’s peatlands and how the Peatland ACTION partnership, led by Nature Scot, is working with landowners and communities to help deliver peatland restoration projects.

Photo of sphagnum mosses
Sphagnum mosses, the beautiful building blocks for bogs. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Over a fifth of Scotland is covered with the soft brown hues of our peatlands, streaked with the yellows, greens and pinks of the mosses that make this landscape so distinctive. Since the last Ice Age nearly 10,000 years ago they have grown and spread, soaking up our frequent Northern rainfall to create this multi-coloured blanket.

Those same peatlands have shaped the lives of the people who lived in many parts of Scotland too. They fuelled their fires, gave grazing for their beasts, and the plants and animals for their food and medicine.

Yet over time, the pressures on those peatlands have increased – large-scale forestry was planted, land was drained for farming, and hills overgrazed by sheep. Peatlands are still being stripped for horticulture, and pressure from the large deer population is leading to significant damage from trampling in some areas. Now over 75% of our precious peatlands are degraded, losing water – their lifeblood, drying out and eroding.

Peatlands play a vital role in locking up carbon to help tackle climate change; they are home to many plants and animals that can live nowhere else; they help alleviate flooding; they help make our source water cleaner and clearer.

Photo of Cul Mor from Loch Veyatie
Cul Mor from Loch Veyatie ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot/2020VISION

Thankfully, there are ways we can reverse the damage. There is a commitment from the Scottish Government to restore 250,000 hectares of the country’s peatlands by 2030, investing £250 million to make it happen. Peatland ACTION, a partnership of organisations led by NatureScot, is leading the work to achieve this target. They are working with landowners and communities across Scotland to block those ditches, remove that forestry, re-cover the eroded peat and help the sphagnum mosses to regenerate and spread again.

The Assynt Foundation is working with Peatland ACTION to restore almost 150ha of degraded peatland on Cul Mor, one of the iconic mountains in Inverpolly, loved by hillwalkers, photographers and wildlife watchers. The mountain sits on the Drumrunie Estate, now in community ownership thanks to the Assynt Foundation.

Photo of a excavator working to reprofile peat hags
Reprofiling peat hags to stop them eroding – a highly skilled job. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project will involve blocking over 2000 gullies to stop water pouring out of the bogs, helping to keep it wet and give mosses the right conditions to grow again. There are huge areas of bare peat, often surrounded by mini-cliffs of peat called ‘hags’ that quickly erode and make things worse. By ‘reprofiling’ these hags so that they are less steep, and re-covering the bare peat with sphagnum mosses, they can effectively stitch the blanket together again.

It’s challenging work, often in extreme weather conditions, that needs highly trained operators to get right. But the effects are dramatic, and over just a few years will make a big difference not only to the look of the land but to the plants and animals that can live there. Ensuring that deer numbers are kept low enough after the work is done will also be an important part of the healing process. The Assynt Foundation are hoping that more birds such as curlew, dunlin and golden plover will come to breed here, encouraged by the increase in insects and other invertebrates wetter conditions bring.

Photo of a dunlin
The Assynt Foundation is hoping more birds like this stunning dunlin will return to breed. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Explaining why they want to take on the project Lewis MacAskill, chair of the Assynt Foundation said: “One of the founding cornerstone objectives of the Assynt Foundation is to manage community land and associated assets for the benefit of the community as an important part of the protection and sustainable development of Scotland’s natural environment. The Cul Mor restoration project will therefore provide a significant contribution towards the Foundation’s work in a sustainable way.

“This is one of the largest peatland restoration projects in north west Scotland to date. NatureScot have been very helpful and supportive throughout the whole Peatland ACTION application process. This is the first of what we hope will be many.”

Photo of cotton grass and blanket bog by Loch Cansip
Cottongrass in flower, a sign of a peatland on the road to recovery. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot/2020VISION

This is just one of hundreds of projects that have been delivered through Peatland ACTION funding, so far setting over 35,000 ha of degraded peatland in Scotland on the road to recovery. Landowners have got on board from small community groups to some of the largest estates in the country. What they have in common is the understanding that peatland restoration benefits everyone.

Peatland ACTION is keen to hear from landowners who would like to get involved. Email us at

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Spirit of the Highlands blog.

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Happy World Seagrass Day from Scotland!

Today’s blog celebrates World Seagrass Day with a look at some of Scotland’s work and recent achievements in the global fight to restore and protect this crucial habitat. Dr Richard J Lilley, Co-founder of Project Seagrass, tells us more…

When it comes to novel seagrass research, I’m really happy to report that in Scotland it if feels like the whole nation is beginning to meaningfully engage with the UN Ocean Decade’s mission statement – The Science We Need For The Ocean We Want.

From the outset NatureScot has been at the heart of this effort, supporting the launch in 2020 of a conservation genetics study for eelgrass (Zostera marina) that was conducted primarily in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and ourselves at Project Seagrass.

Then in early 2021, at the very start of the UN Decade On Ecosystem Restoration, in Scotland we celebrated the efforts of the UKs first community-led seagrass restoration project in Loch Craignish, Argyll. Since then, the Seawilding programme has gone from strength to strength, spreading the #GenerationRestoration message far and wide at home, both at home and abroad.

In 2022 we witnessed public-private partnerships around seagrass conservation blossom, with the launch of Restoration Forth, a major marine restoration programme working with communities to restore seagrass habitats and native oyster populations in the Firth of Forth. This three-year programme has been made possible by funding from Aviva, the ScottishPower Foundation, the Moondance Foundation and NatureScot’s very own Nature Restoration Fund. In 2023 we can look forward to significant new programmes of seagrass research all the way from the Solway Firth in the south, to Orkney in the north, and what is more we have every reason to feel positive about the bigger picture. In Scotland we now have the first draft of an ambitious new strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and reverse it with large-scale restoration by 2045. I also feel there is a clear mindset shift towards both mobilising the citizen and mobilising the private sector to support nature recovery. In 2023 we need to continue to encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships for seagrass, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships to make the biggest impact we possibly can.

Sustainable Development Goal 17 is Partnerships for the Goals, which recognises that the Global Goals can only be met if we work together. To build a better world, we need to be supportive, empathetic, inventive, passionate, and above all, cooperative.

So, from all of us in Scotland – we wish you a Happy World Seagrass Day!

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Wild Boars of Gaelic Legend

Roddy Maclean explores the presence of the wild boar in the Gaelic landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

There is a stream in the hills south of Tobermory on Mull called Allt nan Torc, accepted by the Ordnance Survey as referring to wild boars, although it isn’t clear when the animals were present at this location. Wild boar names are remarkably numerous in the Highlands, and it is tempting for the ecologist to consider this as evidence for the historical presence of the species in these locations. However, for a full interpretation of torc names (tuirc in its genitive singular form), the ecologist needs to be fully aware of our rich Gaelic storytelling heritage. Many of the references to this species in our landscape are not ecological, but folkloric.

A fine example of such a toponym is to be found near the Glenshee Ski Centre in the form of Càrn an Tuirc (pron. kaarn un TOORK) ‘the mountain of the boar’. This name is best understood when we recognise the proximity of other place-names, both current and obsolete, that record the great legendary heroes of the Fianna and their leader Fionn mac Cumhail (sometimes known in English as Finn MacCool or Fingal). A few miles away, at the upper end of Glenshee, is Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gulabin), the famed site of the death of Diarmad in the great pan-Gaelic legend of ‘Diarmad and Gràinne’.

Diarmad, one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, beloved for his looks and renowned for the irresistible ball-seirc ‘love-spot’ on his brow, died here when his foot was pierced by a bristle on the back of the dead boar which he been tasked to kill, following his ill-advised elopement with Gràinne, the wife of Fionn. The torc names in this vicinity, including Lochan an Tuirc, an ancient waterbody now almost dried-up, which stands near the site of Diarmad’s ‘tomb’ (where his body was reputedly buried) can only be understood in the light of this famous tale, passed down in oral tradition in both Scotland and Ireland, most probably since the early days of Gaelic civilisation. Oral tradition tells us that the boar’s carcase was thrown into the loch, along with a magic cup belonging to Fionn which might have saved Diarmad’s life had it not been dispatched into the water according to Fionn’s wishes.

Diarmad and Gràinne is one of the great (and complex!) legends of the Gàidhealtachd, and worthy of the telling in the modern era. As befits many traditional stories which were handed from mouth to mouth in the taigh-cèilidh (ceilidh house), it has become located in many places, with local toponyms ‘verifying’ the storyteller’s insistence that it happened in that very place! The furthest north occurrence is on Beinn Laghail (Ben Loyal) in the Mackay Country of North Sutherland where sgrìoban an tuirc ‘the boar’s scratches’ on rocks show where the beast was thrown off the mountain by Diarmad. This is a local variant; most versions of the tale have Diarmad killing the animal with his spear or sword.

The wet depression in mid-picture (in high farming country in Glenshee) was anciently recognised as Loch an Tuirc ‘the loch of the wild boar’. The reference here is entirely folkloric, as the mountain in the background is Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gulabin), the most famous site (of several) linked to the legend of the death of the Fingalian hero, Diarmad, who was killed when the bristles of the boar he had vanquished on the mountain penetrated his foot. This ancient story, handed down for centuries in oral tradition in both Scotland and Ireland, was committed to manuscript form in Highland Perthshire in the 16th Century in The Book of the Dean of Lismore. Just a few miles away is Càrn an Tuirc ‘the mountain of the wild boar’. Photo © Roddy Maclean

For this blogger and place-name enthusiast, the give-away for a tuirc name being connected to the Diarmad legend is the presence of a nearby hill which includes, as in the Glenshee example, the element gulbain/guilbinn (variously spelt), meaning ‘snouted’. There is an example in Glen Spean in Bràigh Loch Abar (Brae Lochaber), where Lochan an Tuirc ‘the small loch of the boar’ stands just to the south of Tòrr a’ Ghuilbinn ‘snouted hill’. Another example is in Ross-shire, near the village of Garve, where Beinn a’ Ghuilbein lies to the immediate north of Loch an Tuirc.

Sometimes the gulbain name is connected to a feature that carries the toponymic element muc ‘pig, sow’ rather than torc ‘boar’. In the Trossachs, Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gullipen) lies above Loch Bheannchair (Loch Venachar), in sight of the hill known as Dùn nam Muc ‘the hill of the pigs’, and a short distance from the River Turk (at Brig o’ Turk), whose name is thought to derive from tuirc, although the reasons for that are a subject of debate. In addition, another local place-name Allt nan Sliseag recalls a part of the Diarmad legend where Fionn discovers sliseagan ‘chips of wood’ created by Diarmad who, while on the run, was making a living from manufacturing wooden bowls. Such a ‘knot’ of local names represents credible evidence for this legend being located locally.

Loch an Tuirc in the hills to the east of the village of Garve in Ross-shire is another folkloric reference to the wild boar in the Highland landscape. The pairing of this feature with the adjacent Beinn a’ Ghuilbein is a strong indication that this is another location where the great pan-Gaelic legend of ‘Diarmad and Gràinne’ was situated. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In Strathspey there is another Beinn Ghuilbin, to the north of Aviemore. A little to its north-west is the Slochd, through which the A9 road passes. The historical name for this feature, as evidenced by Roy’s 18th Century military map, was Sloc Muice ‘pig’s den or hollow’. The authorities seem to have disregarded a possible folkloric connection, preferring the narrative that, according to tradition, ‘the last of the wild boars of Caledonia was killed’ there (Ordnance Survey) or that there is a hillock shaped like a boar’s back located at the bottom of the sloc.

Another place that claims to have witnessed the demise of the last of the original wild boars is the village of Torinturk, named from a hill (and farm) called Tòrr an Tuirc, to the south-west of Tairbeart Loch Fìne (Tarbert Loch Fyne) in Argyll. However, this location is very close to places with distinct folkloric names – Dùn a’ Choin Duibh ‘the tower of the black dog’ and ‘Giant’s Grave’, of which there are many in the Gàidhealtachd. Interestingly, Leabaidh an Tuirc ‘the boar’s bed’ on Beinn Ghulbain in Glenshee, reputedly the location of the animal’s lair, is shown on the OS 6-inch map (2nd edition), where it is given an alternative name of ‘Giant’s Grave’. Needless to say, the OS name collectors were not folklorists or historians, and we cannot accept at face value the claim that a torc toponym refers to the death of the ‘last’ boar that lived.

The village of Torinturk in Argyll is named from Tòrr an Tuirc ‘the hill of the wild boar’. Local lore has it that the last wild boar in Scotland was killed here but, given the presence of other nearby toponyms that recall figures from Gaelic legend, might this be another example of a folkloric name? Photo © Roddy Maclean

A mountain at the border of Badenoch and Atholl in the Central Highlands, near the A9 road, is called An Torc ‘the boar’, known as ‘The Boar of Badenoch’ in English. In this case, it is reputedly the shape of the hill, somewhat reminiscent of a wild boar, with its bristly back, that is responsible for the name. This explains Coire an Tuirc ‘the corrie of the boar’ and Allt an Tuirc ‘the burn of the boar’ which are adjacent to the mountain and derive their names from it.

South-west of Loch Laggan is yet another site where a ‘Guilbinn’ hill name appears adjacent to a waterbody named for the wild boar – more evidence for the widespread fame of the Diarmad legend in Gaelic Scotland. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

What of places like Sròn an Tuirc ‘the spur of the wild boar’ in mid-Sutherland, Beinn an Tuirc ‘the mountain of the wild boar’ in Kintyre and the two places called Bad an Tuirc ‘the thicket of the boar’ – one in Perthshire and the other in Sutherland? There is also Tom an Tuirc ‘the hillock of the boar’ in Strathardle, Perthshire, mentioned in a historical account, and no doubt many other such names could be tracked down in estate papers and the like.

Are there tales or historical events recorded in connection with these places that would place the toponym in the realm of ecology or folklore (or both!)? More research is needed on the presence of this iconic mammal in the Scottish landscape. This would profitably include muc ‘pig’ names. For example, in Wester Ross, Gleann na Muice ‘the glen of the pig’ and Pollan na Muice ‘the small bog of the pig’ lie in a rugged and remote location in the Fisherfield Forest. Pollan na Muice is in sight of Suidheachan Fhinn ‘Fionn’s sitting place’ on the slopes of Beinn Tarsuinn. Did Fionn sit there to watch Diarmad vanquish the boar (the struggle between the two was his idea) or was his interest captured by some other legendary event? Whatever the answer might be, I hope that you agree with me that we have a wonderful and fascinating landscape!

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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Tuirc nan Sgeulachdan air Aghaidh na Tìre

Tha Ruairidh MacIlleathain a’ toirt sùil air an fhacal ‘torc’ ann an ainmean-àite air a’ Ghàidhealtachd

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Tha sruth anns a’ mhonadh deas air Tobar Mhoire ann am Muile air a bheil Allt nan Torc, agus tha an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais dhen bheachd gu bheil e ag ainmeachadh an tuirc (muc-fhiadhaich), ged nach eil e soilleir cuin a bha na beathaichean sin beò ann am Muile. Tha ainmean thorc gu h-iongantach pailt air a’ Ghàidhealtachd, agus bidh eag-eòlaichean math dh’fhaodte car buailteach a bhith a’ togail beachd gur e fianais a th’ annta airson an torc a bhith beò anns an àite sin o shean. Ge-tà, mus tig iad gu co-dhùnadh de a leithid, bu chòir do dh’eag-eòlaichean a bhith mothachail gu bheil dualchas làidir againn de bheul-aithris. Gu tric bidh ainmean-àite le ‘torc’ annta co-cheangailte ri seann sgeulachd, seach eag-eòlas.

Tha eisimpleir mhath ann an Càrn an Tuirc ri taobh Ionad-sgithidh Ghleann Sìth. Tha tòrr ainmean-àite anns an sgìre sin (feadhainn dhiubh a th’ air a dhol à bith, agus feadhainn a tha fhathast air mapaichean) a tha ag ainmeachadh nam Fianna (no na Fèinne mas fheàrr leibh). Agus, beagan mhìltean air falbh, tha Beinn Ghulbain (Ben Gulabin OS) far an d’ fhuair Diarmad bàs. B’ esan fear de na gaisgich a bu trèine de na Fianna – air an robh ball-seirc air a bhathais a thug air boireannaich trom-ghaol a ghabhail air – agus chaill e a bheatha nuair a sheas e air calg air druim tuirc, an dèidh dha an torc a mharbhadh. Am measg nan ainmean-àite le ‘torc’ annta an sin, tha Lochan an Tuirc, a tha a-nise gu ìre mhòr na bhoglach seach na lochan, agus a tha suidhichte faisg air ‘tuama’ Dhiarmaid far a bheil an gaisgeach fhèin air a thiodhlacadh, a rèir beul-aithris. Cha ghabh na h-ainmean-tìre anns an nàbachd seo a thuigsinn mura h-eil eòlas agad air a’ mhòr-sgeul ainmeil àrsaidh ‘Diarmad agus Gràinne’, a th’ air innse fhathast an dà chuid ann an Alba agus Èirinn. A rèir beul-aithris, bha closach an tuirc air a shadail don loch, mar a bha cupa draoidheil Fhinn gus nach dèante leigheas air Diarmad, oir bha Fionn a’ miannachadh gum faigheadh am fear eile bàs.

ʼS e Diarmad agus Gràinne fear de na seann fhionn-sgeulan iongantach, ainmeil (agus iom-fhillte!) a bhuineas don Ghàidhealtachd. Mar a thachair le iomadh sgeulachd a bh’ air a h-aithris anns an taigh-chèilidh, chaidh a suidheachadh ann an iomadh àite, agus ainmean-àite ionadail a’ ‘dearbhadh’ beachd an neach-aithris gun do thachair e anns an dearbh àite sin! ʼS e Beinn Laghail ann an Dùthaich MhicAoidh am fear as fhaide tuath dhiubh, far an lorgar ‘sgrìoban an tuirc’ air na creagan, a chaidh adhbharachadh leis a’ bheathach nuair a thilg Diarmad far na beinne e. ʼS e dreach ionadail a tha seo air an sgeul; tha a’ mhòr-chuid de na sgeulaichean ag innse dhuinn gun do mharbh Diarmad an torc le a chlaidheamh no le a shleagh.

Ann am meadhan an deilbh (aig ceann shuas Ghleann Sìth),  tha lagan fliuch far an robh Loch an Tuirc o shean. Tha an t-ainm co-cheangailte ri sgeulachd ainmeil ‘Diarmad agus Gràinne’ a tha gu mòr stèidhichte an seo (am measg grunn àiteachan eile). A rèir an sgeòil, chaidh an gaisgeach Diarmad, fear de na Fianna, a mharbhadh le frioghan tuirc-nimhe, air a’ bheinn aig cùl an deilbh, Beinn Ghulbain. Bha am fionn-sgeul seo beò ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal, ann an Alba agus Èirinn, fad nan linntean mòra, agus chaidh a sgrìobhadh mar làmh-sgrìobhainn ann an Leabhar Deathan Lios Mòr ann an Gàidhealtachd Siorrachd Pheairt anns an 16mh linn. Beagan mhìltean air falbh tha Càrn an Tuirc, agus faisg air làimh tha ‘Tuama Dhiarmaid’. Dealbh © R MacIlleathain

Nuair a chì am blogair seo ainm-àite le torc ann, agus beinn faisg air làimh a ghiùlaineas am facal gulbain (no rudeigin coltach), tha e a’ tuigsinn sa mhionaid gur e sin àite far an deach am fionn-sgeul seo a shuidheachadh. Tha gulbain a’ ciallachadh ‘socach’. Tha eisimpleir ann an Gleann Spiothain ann am Bràigh Loch Abar, far a bheil Lochan an Tuirc agus, gu tuath air, Tòrr a’ Ghuilbinn. Tha eisimpleir eile ann an Siorrachd Rois, faisg air baile Ghairbh far a bheil Beinn a’ Ghuilbein agus Loch an Tuirc làimh ri chèile anns a’ mhonadh.

Uaireannan, bidh an eileamaid gulbain/guilbinn ceangailte ri feart-tìre a tha ainmichte le muc seach torc. Anns na Tròisichean, tha Beinn Ghulbain (Ben Gullipen OS) os cionn Loch Bheannchair, ann an sealladh Dùn nam Muc agus air taobh thall an locha bho Abhainn an Tuirc, ged nach eil e soilleir carson a tha torc co-cheangailte ri ainm na h-aibhne. A bharrachd air sin, tha Allt nan Sliseag faisg air làimh, air leathad Both a’ Chaisteil. Tha an t-ainm sin a-mach air mar a lorg Fionn Diarmad, air dha ruith air falbh le Gràinne, ùr-bhean Fhinn. Dh’aithnich Fionn obair-làimhe Dhiarmaid anns na sliseagan anns an allt  oir bha Diarmad a’ dèanamh bith-beò le bhith a’ dèanamh bhobhlaichean fiodha aig ceann shuas an uillt. Tha an cruinneachadh sin de dh’ainmean-àite timcheall Loch Bheannchair a’ dearbhadh dhòmhsa gun robhar ag innse ‘Diarmad agus Gràinne’ ann an sgìre Chalasraid o shean.

Tha Loch an Tuirc, sear air baile Ghairbh ann an Siorrachd Rois, a’ cuimhneachadh mòr-sgeul ‘Diarmaid agus Gràinne’. Tha sin dearbhte oir tha Beinn a’ Ghuilbein faisg air an loch. Nuair a chithear dà ainm mar seo làimh ri chèile, tha e na chomharra air a’ mhòr-sgeul ainmeil seo. Beagan deas air seo tha Lochan na Fèinne, a tha ag ainmeachadh nan gaisgeach dham buineadh Diarmad. Dealbh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Ann an Srath Spè, tha Beinn Ghuilbin eile ann, tuath air an Aghaidh Mhòir. Don iar-thuath air a’ bheinn, tha ‘An Sloc’ trom bi rathad an A9 a’ dol. Gu h-eachdraidheil, mar a chithear air mapa-airm Roy on 18mh linn, ʼs e Sloc Muice a bh’ air an àite sin. Chan eil na h-ùghdarrasan air gabhail ris gum faodadh gu bheil an t-ainm ceangailte ri sgeulachd agus tha iad dhen bheachd gu bheil e a’ comharrachadh ‘am fear mu dheireadh de thuirc na h-Alba a chaidh a mharbhadh’ an sin (Suirbhidh Òrdanais) no gu bheil toman aig bonn an t-sluic air a bheil cumadh a tha car coltach ri druim tuirc.

ʼS e Torinturk, baile beag faisg air Tairbeart Loch Fìne ann an Earra-Ghàidheal, àite eile far a bheilear a’ cumail a-mach gun d’ fhuaireadh ainm (à Tòrr an Tuirc) a chionn ʼs gun robh an torc mu dheireadh air a mharbhadh ann. Ge-tà, tha e gu math faisg air àiteachan aig a bheil ceanglaichean do bheul-aithris, leithid Dùn a’ Choin Duibh agus Uaigh an Fhamhair (no ‘Giant’s Grave’). Air ais air Beinn Ghulbain ann an Gleann Sìth tha Leabaidh an Tuirc, far an robh a’ bhiast a’ fuireach, a rèir beul-aithris; tha an t-ainm a’ nochdadh air an dàrna eagran de mhapaichean sia-òirlich aig an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais, agus ʼs e an t-ainm eile a thug na cairt-iùilichean dha – ‘Giant’s Grave’. Bidh fios agaibh nach robh eòlas air beul-aithris no eachdraidh aig an fheadhainn a chruinnich na h-ainmean, agus nach urrainn gabhail ris a’ bheachd gu bheil ainm-àite le torc stèidhichte air bàs an fhir mu dheireadh dhiubh, co-dhiù às aonais tuilleadh fianais.

Tha ainm baile Torinturk ann an Earra-Ghàidheal a’ tighinn bho ‘Tòrr an Tuirc’. A rèir beul-aithris ionadail, chaidh ‘an torc mu dheireadh ann an Alba’ a mharbhadh an seo. Ge-tà, leis na th’ ann de dh’ainmean-àite co-cheangailte ri caractaran à beul-aithris anns an sgìre seo, am faodar a bhith cinnteach nach e seo dìreach eisimpleir eile?
Dealbh © R MacIlleathain

Tha beinn air a’ chrìch eadar Bàideanach agus Athall ann am meadhan na Gàidhealtachd, faisg air rathad mòr an A9, ainmichte mar An Torc no, ann am Beurla, ‘The Boar of Badenoch’. Thathar ag ràdh gur e cumadh na beinne, a tha rudeigin coltach ri torc le frioghain air a dhruim, as coireach ris an ainm. Tha seo a’ mìneachadh Coire an Tuirc agus Allt an Tuirc a tha ri taobh na beinne agus a tha a’ faighinn an ainmean bhuaipe.

Deas air Loch Lagain tha àite eile far a bheil ainm-beinne anns a bheil ‘Gulbainn/Guilbinn’ làimh ri loch(an) a tha ainmichte airson torc – fianais a bharrachd mu cho ainmeil agus farsaing ʼs a bha am fionn-sgeul ‘Diarmad agus Gràinne’ ann an Alba nan Gàidheal. Dealbh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Dè mu dheidhinn àiteachan mar Sròn an Tuirc ann an Dìthreabh Chat, Beinn an Tuirc ann an Cinn Tìre agus an dà àite air a bheil Bad an Tuirc – fear ann an Siorrachd Pheairt agus am fear eile ann an Cataibh? Tha Tom an Tuirc cuideachd ann an Srath Àrdail ann an Siorrachd Pheairt, a rèir cunntas eachdraidheil, agus, tha mi cinnteach, bidh gu leòr eisimpleirean eile ann am pàipearan oighreachd is a leithid.

A bheil sgeulachdan no tachartasan eachraidh co-cheangailte ris na h-àiteachan seo a chuireadh an t-ainm-àite am measg ‘ainmean sgeòil’ no ainmean ‘eag-eòlach’ (no an dà chuid!)? Tha feum air tuilleadh rannsachaidh air a’ bheathach shuaicheanta seo air tìr na h-Alba. Agus bu chòir do dh’ainmean ann am muc a bhith am measg sin. Mar eisimpleir, ann an Innis an Iasgaich ann an Ros an Iar, tha Gleann na Muice agus Pollan na Muice. Tha Pollan na Muice ann an sealladh Suidheachan Fhinn air cliathaich na Beinne Tarsainn. An do shuidh Fionn an sin airson sùil a chumail air Diarmaid, agus e a’ strì an aghaidh an tuirc, no an robh e a’ gabhail ùidh ann an gnothach air choreigin eile? Ge bith dè fuasgladh na ceist, tha mi an dòchas gun aontaich sibh rium gu bheil dùthaich iongantach, àlainn againn ann an Gàidhealtachd nan Sgeul!

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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South on the right hand

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

The key points of the compass in Gaelic recall the ancient practice of facing the rising sun in the east. East is an ear, originally meaning ‘in front’ and west is an iar, which meant ‘behind’. Both terms are found in place names – for example, the Western Isles are often referred to as Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Gaelic.

The term for ‘south’ is deas, which also means ‘right’. The word is related distantly to the Latin dexter and therefore to the English ‘dextrous’, and has similar associations with correctness. It derives from the naturalness of sunwise motion (the sun moves from east to west through the south of the sky in the northern hemisphere).

Sunrise in Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Sunwise, or clockwise, motion (called deiseil in Gaelic) is still seen in Gaelic culture as being more favourable than the opposite, which is known as tuathal. This comes from tuath, the Gaelic for north, which originally meant ‘left’. Tuathal has suggestions of unnaturalness or awkwardness, as in partan-tuathal (‘awkward crab’), the Gaelic for the hermit crab.

Hermit crab © Graham Saunders/Marine Scotland

Deas and tuath are relatively common in the landscape – for instance, Uibhist a Tuath (North Uist) and Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). But in many areas of the Gàidhealtachd, you travel suas gu deas (‘up south’) and sìos gu tuath (‘down north’), which is the opposite of what you would say in modern English.

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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An àird a deas air an làimh dheis

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Bidh feadhainn a tha ag ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig gu tric a’ gabhail iongnadh gu bheil an aon fhacal againn airson south agus right. Ach tha e furasta gu leòr a thuigsinn nuair a chithear gu bheilear a’ tomhas nan àirdean bhon t-sealladh aig duine a tha a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh an àite far an èirich a’ ghrian aig a’ cho-fhad-thràth. Feumar cuimhneachadh gun robh ar sinnsirean uaireigin ag adhradh don ghrèin anns an dòigh sin. Chithear an aon seòrsa dualchais anns a’ ghnìomhair Bheurla orientate – a tha a’ ciallachadh bho thus ‘a bhith a’ cur d’ aghaidh a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àirde an ear’– no oriens ann an Laidinn (às am faighear am facal orient cuideachd).

Tha ‘an ear’ a’ ciallachadh ‘air beulaibh’ agus tha ‘an iar’ a’ ciallachadh ‘air cùlaibh’. Mar sin, a thaobh àirdean na combaist, tha iad a’ seasamh airson east agus west. Tha ‘an iar’ air a shuidheachadh air cùlaibh duine a tha a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àirde an ear; ’s ann bhuaithe sin a tha sinn a’ faighinn abairtean mar ‘tha mi air an obair a dhèanamh’. Bho shean, ’s e ‘tha mi iar an obair a dhèanamh’ a chanadh daoine – a’ ciallachadh ‘tha mi an dèidh an obair a dhèanamh’.

Èirigh na grèine ann an Siorrachd Pheairt ©Lorne Gill/NàdarAlba

Nuair a sheasas neach, a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àirde an ear, ma thogas e a làmh dheas, bidh i a’ comharrachadh na h-àirde a deas. ’S e sin as coireach gu bheil ‘deas’ a’ seasamh airson south a bharrachd air right. Bidh a làmh eile air an taobh tuath; bha ‘tuath’ bho thùs a’ ciallachadh left a bharrachd air north.

Leis gun do dh’èirich na Gàidheil mar shluagh anns an leth-chruinne mu thuath, bha e nàdarrach gum biodh iad a’ coimhead air slighe na grèine san adhar bhon àird an ear don àird an iar tron àird a deas, mar ghluasad nàdarrach (tha a’ ghrian a’ dol gu tuath anns an leth-chruinne mu dheas). ’S e sin as coireach gu bheil sinn a’ tomhas gluasad ‘deiseil’ (leis a’ ghrèin, leis a’ chloc) mar rud fàbharach, agus ‘tuathal’ mar ‘mì-fhortanach’ no ‘mì-nàdarrach’ a bharrachd air ‘an aghaidh spògan a’ chloca’. ’S e ‘partan-tuathal’ a tha sinn a’ gabhail air a hermit crab air sgàth ’s gu bheil e air a thomhas mar chreutair rudeigin mì-nàdarrach.

Partan-tuathal © Graham Saunders/Marine Scotland

Is iongantach mura h-eil a’ mhì-nàdarrachd aig ‘tuathal’ co-cheangailte ris an droch chliù a bha aig clì-làmhachd ann am mòran chultaran Eòrpach, agus an deagh chliù a bha aig deas-làmhachd. Tha am facal Beurla sinister a’ tighinn bhon Laidinn airson ‘clì’ – no ‘ceàrr’, mar a chanar cuideachd ann an Gàidhlig. Agus ann am mòran choimhearsnachdan Gàidhealach, thathar ag ràdh ‘suas gu deas’ agus ‘sìos gu tuath’ – calg-dhìreach an aghaidh dòigh àbhaisteach na Beurla anns a bheilear ag ràdh up north agus down south.

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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Water on the move

Leugh anns a’ Ghàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

In such a frequently showered and mountainous landscape as Scotland, burns and streams abound, and the Gaelic language has a number of generic words for moving water. Here is a brief guide for map users:

Abhainn (AV-een) is the commonest word for ‘river’, being derived from an ancient Indo-European root and cognate with P-Celtic afon (the various rivers Avon throughout Britain were named by Celtic-speakers). Examples are Abhainn a’ Chadh’ Bhuidhe ‘river of the yellow pass’ in the Fannich Forest and Abhainn a’ Chaiginn Mhòir ‘river of the large rough mountain pass’ on Mull. Uisge (OOSH-kuh), literally ‘water’, is also used of rivers particularly in central and eastern parts, e.g. Uisge Spè ‘River Spey’; the word can also stand for a smaller stream e.g. Uisge na Crìche ‘boundary stream’ in Islay and Uisge Toll a’ Mhadaidh ‘burn of the deep corrie of the wolf (or fox)’ in Fisherfield.

Uisge an t-Suidhe (Uiskentuie), ‘water of the seat’ and Loch an Dàil (Loch Indaal), ‘loch of the delay’ in Islay ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The default word for a burn is allt (OWLT), the original meaning of which was ‘cliff’. It has been postulated that Gaels from Ireland, when first migrating to Argyll, met steep glens containing cliffs with associated watercourses, which brought about the semantic change. The diminutive form is alltan (OWLT-an) e.g. Alltan Dearg ‘red little burn’ near Tongue.  Other developments of allt are cam-allt (KOWM-owlt) ‘winding burn’ and leth-allt (LEH-owlt) ‘burn with one steep bank’, both of which occur in numerous localities.

Sruthan na h-Ulaidhe, ‘burn of the treasure’ in Balnahard, Colonsay. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Feadan (FET-an) can mean a stream running from a moorland loch e.g. Feadan Molach ‘shaggy stream’ (referring to the vegetation) in Lewis. Another word is sruth (STROO) as in Sruth Geal ‘white burn’ near Callander and the diminutive sruthan (STROO-hun) e.g. Sruthan nan Nathrach ‘the burn of the adders’ at Loch Ballygrant, Islay. Caochan (KOEU-chun), based on an old root word meaning ‘blind’, is a slow winding stream largely hidden by vegetation (the walker is ‘blind’ to it); an example is Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘burn of the snow’ on the Monadh Liath. Ùidh (OO-ee) is a slow-flowing stream, often connecting two lochs, and is most commonly encountered in the far north-west e.g. Ùidh Loch na Gaineimh ‘the stream of the sandy loch’ in central Sutherland.

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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Uisge a’ sìor-ghluasad

Leugh ann am Beurla / Read in English

Ann an dùthaich a tha cho sìor-uisgeach ri Alba, tha uillt is aibhnichean pailt agus chan eil e na iongnadh gu bheil uiread de dh’fhaclan againn airson a leithid.

’S e abhainn as pailte a th’ againn airson sruth mòr. Thàinig am facal à seann fhreumh Ind-Eòrpach agus tha e dlùth-chàirdeach do avon ann am P-Ceiltis (leithid na Cuimris). ’S iomadh sruth air a bheil ‘Avon’ mar ainm air feadh Bhreatainn air sàillibh dìleab nan Ceilteach. Tha eisimpleirean air a’ Ghàidhealtachd ann an Abhainn a’ Chadh’ Bhuidhe ann am Fanaich agus Abhainn a’ Chaiginn Mhòir ann am Muile. Ann am meadhan is taobh sear na dùthcha tha uisge nas cumanta na abhainn m.e. Uisge Spè, ged a tha uisge cuideachd a’ seasamh airson sruth beag m.e. Uisge na Crìche faisg air Port-adhair Ìle agus Uisge Toll a’ Mhadaidh ann an Achadh an Iasgair (Ros an Iar).

Uisge an t-Suidhe agus Loch an Dàil ann an Ìle ©Lorne Gill/NàdarAlba

Bha allt bho thùs a’ ciallachadh ‘creag’ no ‘bearradh’. Tha beachd ann, nuair a thàinig na Gàidheil à Èirinn gu ruige Earra-Ghàidheal an toiseach, gum faca iad glinn chasa le bearraidhean, agus uisge an-còmhnaidh ceangailte riutha; ’s e sin a thug an t-atharrachadh air ciall an fhacail. Tha alltain ann cuideachd, mar eisimpleir An t-Alltan Dearg ann an Dùthaich MhicAoidh. Tha leasachaidhean eile ann de dh’allt cuideachd, mar eisimpleir cam-allt (allt lùbach) agus leth-allt (fear le bruach àrd air aon taobh).

Sruthan na h-Ulaidhe ann am Baile na h-Àirde, Colbhasa ©Lorne Gill/NàdarAlba

Tha feadan a’ ciallachadh sruth beag a ruitheas à loch monaidh m.e. Am Feadan Molach ann am meadhan Leòdhais. Tha sruth ann cuideachd, m.e. An Sruth Geal faisg air Calasraid, agus sruthan m.e. Sruthan nan Nathrach ann an Ìle. Tha caochan a’ ciallachadh sruth mall, gu math tric lùbach, agus falaichte fo fhraoch is lusan eile. Tha am facal stèidhichte air seann fhreumh a bha a’ ciallachadh ‘dall’ – bidh luchd-coiseachd ‘dall’ do a leithid agus tha e furasta cas a bhriseadh le bhith a’ gabhail ceum gun fhiosta a-steach a chaochan. Tha eisimpleir ann an Caochan an t-Sneachda anns a’ Mhonadh Liath. Tha ùidh a’ ciallachadh sruth mall a bhios gu tric a’ ceangal dà loch ri chèile. Tha am facal a’ tighinn bho fhreumh Lochlannach agus ’s ann san iar-thuath as cumanta a nochdas e air mapaichean, m.e. Ùidh Loch na Gaineimh ann an Dìthreabh Chat.

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 story behind the discovery of world’s first flapper skate nursery

On the blog today, one of our marine experts, Jane Dodd, explores the fascinating story of how the first report of an egg nursery for flapper skate was discovered and researched, leading to special protections for this critically endangered species and their habitat in the Inner Sound of Skye.

Flapper skate take over 10 years to reach sexual maturity and produce low numbers of offspring and therefore the population will be slow to recover from any impacts. The eggs are large (width 10-14 cm, length 13-23 cm excluding horns) and have a tough outer coat which protects the embryo during development. They lay their eggs on a seabed of boulder and cobble with relatively shallow waters is favoured; eggs remain on the seabed developing for over a year before hatching. The eggs can be sensitive to activities and disturbance while they are on the seabed – for example by abrasion from ropes or chains (such as scouring by mooring chains) or by towed fishing gear being smothered by silt, and incidental capture in fishing gear.

In October 2019, NatureScot received a report from commercial scallop divers operating in the Inner Sound of Skye that flapper skate eggs were “widely spread”. Subsequent reports, photos and video from recreational divers confirmed the reports and in March 2020, NatureScot visited a dive site which had become known as “Red Rocks” to collect tissue samples from the egg cases for genetic testing. We hope this work will provide more detail on flapper skate reproduction. If it shows that several egg cases collected from the area were laid by the same female, we will know if females return to the same site on multiple occasions to lay eggs.

As a result of the reports of egg cases from scallop and recreational divers, NatureScot’s visit to the site, and some historic records of flapper skate eggs in the area spotted in drop camera surveys looking for other priority marine features, the Red Rocks and Longay urgent MPA was designated in March 2021, with the site receiving permanent designation on 9 February 2023. The protection of the Red Rocks and Longay MPA has great potential to contribute to the restoration of the critically endangered flapper skate by ensuring that the vulnerable eggs within the site can develop to successful hatching. 

1 DDV survey location (latitude 57.322537, longitude -5.898492) where 8 flapper skate egg cases were observed in images recorded on 19/07/2018, 2 DDV survey location (latitude 57.312872, longitude -5.872370) where 4 egg cases were observed in images recorded on 20/03/2019, 3 Location (latitude 57.323533, longitude -5.921833) from where “widely spread” flapper skate egg cases were reported by scallop divers on 28/10/2019, 4 Shot line location (latitude 57.33325, longitude -5.927183) for dive site known as “Red Rocks” where flapper skate egg cases were collected on 04/03/2020 and flapper skate egg cases were collected and photogrammetry dive was carried out on 05/03/2020.

During the summer of 2021, NatureScot staff visited the Inner Sound of Skye several more times carrying out drop camera (where a camera is lowered to the seabed from a boat and allowed to drift in the current) and remote-operated vehicle (ROV, a mini-submarine with an on-board camera) surveys for skate eggs.

Over a thousand eggs were observed in total within the urgent MPA boundary and to the north, which resulted in the boundary of the MPA being extended to include these records.

The survey showed that Red Rocks and Longay met the criteria to be described as a flapper skate egg nursery, the first to be identified for the species in the world. The criteria were proposed by Dr Gerry Hoff who over a number of years has described egg nurseries for Alaskan skate, Aleutian Skate and Bering Skate in the eastern Bering Sea leading to their designation as habitat areas of particular concern, the first formal recognition of a skate nursery in the world. The criteria require that egg cases are at high density and in contact with the seabed, that the site is used over multiple years and that juveniles of the species associate with habitat which is different to that of the egg nursery.

The surveys targeted cobble and boulder habitat, but often the drop camera or ROV encountered other habitats such as sand maerl. Flapper skate eggs were only observed on boulder and cobble habitat in the Red Rocks and Longay site. The cobbles and boulders are very “clean”, with no kelp or silt which suggests it is quite tide swept. The eggs fitted nicely in the gaps between the boulders and we think the female flapper skate might be choosing this habitat to lay their eggs so that they are not moved away from the perfect conditions (temperature and water movement) for egg development by tides or currents.

The highest densities of eggs were observed at the edge of a deeper channel on the tops of geological features on the seabed known a belt moraines. These are piles of boulders and cobbles left behind by glaciers and we think the eggs might be densest on the tops of these to take advantage of increased water movement here, since water needs to be flushed through the egg cases for successful embryo development. Skate egg cases open (via the horns) at a certain point in their development and the embryo actively beats its tail to encourage water exchange, but increased water movement at the top of the belt moraines would help this process. Even in these areas, the distribution of eggs is clumped, with some areas containing no eggs and some containing very high densities even though the habitat is the same. This has also lead us to wonder if the females choose to lay their eggs where others are present for safety in numbers.

We learned in September 2020 that flapper skate eggs take 18 months to hatch after an egg we had collected from the Sound of Jura in April 2019 finally hatched in the aquarium at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Eighteen months is a long time to remain on the seabed, leaving the eggs vulnerable, particularly to anthropogenic activities which may disturb the sea bed.

The flapper skate egg nursery at Red Rocks and Longay is close to much deeper (100m+) water, a channel between Longay and the Crowlin Islands. Adult skate are known to spend a high proportion of their time in deep water, particularly in the summer months, however we don’t know for sure/have any evidence to date to indicate if adults are using the adjacent deep water, or if they are coming from further afield to lay eggs.

Large numbers of empty flapper skate egg cases wash ashore on the Orkney Isles (Orkney Skate Trust, Shark Trust, Great Egg Case Hunt) every year and egg cases have been reported from the seabed in Orkney, Shetland and Loch Melfort, Argyll, but not in the same numbers as at Red Rocks. It is possible that in these other areas the ‘perfect’ habitat for flapper egg case development doesn’t exist and therefore the drivers for female flapper skate to lay all their eggs in the same place are not as strong and eggs are laid at lower densities in ‘sub optimal’ habitats.

It is possible that other egg nurseries on the scale of Red Rocks do exist, but we were very lucky to receive a report and help to locate this one. Significant survey effort was required to describe it and define the boundary of the MPA. The description of the habitat will help us to look for flapper skate egg nurseries elsewhere in Scotland by searching for similar habitat and conditions, but we are likely to continue to rely on citizen science going forward. Commercial divers, recreational divers and interested community groups with access to drop cameras and ROVs are likely to be instrumental in identifying flapper skate egg nurseries in the future. We are also likely to have missed eggs at Red Rocks as there are still unexplored areas: the conditions are similar around the Crowlin Islands, where we looked for eggs but didn’t find any during our surveys, but they could be there.

Identifying the first flapper skate egg nursery in Scotland provides us with a fabulous opportunity to learn more about the reproduction of the species. Analysis of the genetic samples collected will hopefully provide some insight into the egg laying behaviour of the females, helping us to work out if they return to the site to lay eggs on multiple occasions and therefore how many females are using the site.

There are many other gaps in our knowledge about flapper skate. We know very little about their juvenile life stage: we think eggs, juveniles and adults occupy different habitats and that juveniles prefer mud habitats. Flapper skate are no longer targeted by commercial fisheries, and it is illegal to land those caught as bycatch in Scotland; they should be returned unharmed as soon as possible. Loch Sunart in the Sound of Jura MPA and Red Rocks and Longay MPA are both designated for the protection of flapper skate, with a focus on adult skate in Loch Sunart and a focus on skate eggs in Red Rocks and Longay. To help this amazing species recover, each of the life stages needs protection; therefore, our priority going forward should be to identify juvenile nurseries.

For more on the discovery of the skate egg nursery, see the full scientific paper.

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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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