Bearing Down on Ursid Toponyms

Wild bears have long gone from Scotland’s landscape but echoes of them remain in our place-names …

Read in Gaelic

It’s far from clear when European brown bears became extinct in Scotland, but it wasn’t yesterday, and it is therefore fascinating that there are several Scottish place-names that might recall in some way or other a human familiarity with those iconic mammals. Ecologist Dr David Hetherington, an expert on extinct species once native to these shores, says that we know ‘from a scattering of bones left behind in caves and peat bogs, from Dumfriesshire in the south to Caithness in the north, that Scotland once had brown bears. The youngest Scottish bear bone so far carbon-dated, a femur found in the bone caves near Inchnadamph in the North West Highlands, is around 2700 years old.’ A fascinating corollary to this narrative is that one of the possible ‘bear’ place-names in Scotland is very close to the Inchnadamph caves.

European brown bear and cubs in Finland, ©Danny Green Photography.

Of course, these remains recall an ursid presence in our environment that pre-dates our place-names by some distance, but we do know that bears occurred here into historic times. Caledonian bears were taken by the Romans to appear in public entertainments in the Colosseum, and the animal appears on Pictish stone carvings from around the 8th and 9th centuries AD. David Hetherington speculates that the species survived here until the 15th or 16th centuries. In Carmina Gadelica Vol II, the folklore-collector Alexander Carmichael claims that ‘the bear was common in Scotland down to 1545, probably later’ although he offers no evidence to back this up. He recorded incantations and fragments of Gaelic poetry which mention the bear.

Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the corrie of the bear’, north-west of Loch Lyon, as shown on the 1st edition 6 inch OS map, published 1867-74. Was this a place where bears once sheltered among the rocks and moraines?

The old Gaelic term for ‘bear’, also recorded in Irish, is math-ghamhainn. This is found in the saying chuireadh e an òrrais air math-ghamhainn ‘it would sicken a bear’ (i.e. it’s extremely bad). Gamhainn means a ‘stirk’ (a yearling bullock or heifer), but the first element math is a matter of disagreement among etymologists. Some authorities claim it to be derived from mad/mat ‘dog, mastiff’ which we still see in modern madadh ‘wild dog’ e.g. madadh-ruadh ‘fox’. Thus ‘dog-stirk’ – a reflection, perhaps, of the bear’s broadly bovine form combined with a doglike head-shape and dentition. Carmichael, on the other hand, considered the element to be màg ‘hand, paw’ i.e. màg-ghamhainn ‘paw-stirk’, also a name that would make descriptive sense, particularly given the bear’s inclination towards occasional bipedalism. In this contention, he was supported by Alexander Forbes, the author of ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts etc’ (1905).

The word math-ghamhainn appears in its genitive (possessive) form math-ghamhna in at least three places in the Highland landscape. The first is in Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the corrie of the bear’ adjacent to Beinn a’ Chreachain and north-west of Loch Lyon in Perthshire. No other toponyms in the vicinity give a hint as to why the bear is named here, although there are two other mammalian place-names nearby – Coire na Saobhaidhe ‘the corrie of the [fox] den’ and Sgòr nam Broc ‘the rocky projection of the badgers’, suggesting suitable local habitat for mammalian lairs. The word sid for ‘a lair, as of a bear’, recorded by Perthshire man Robert Armstrong in his 1825 Gaelic dictionary, appears – sadly – not to be present in the landscape in Perthshire or elsewhere, at least on printed maps.

Eilean Math-ghamhna ‘bear island’, Loch Fyne, Argyll. Detail from the 2nd edition 6 inch OS map, 1900.

Another math-ghamhainn example is to be found in a remote location in Morar, in the hills between Lochs Morar and Beoraid. Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the lochan of the bog of the bear’, given on the first OS 6-inch map – published in 1876 – and reinforced as a ‘bear’ name in the OS Name Book, is now labelled Lochan Tàin MhicDhùghaill ‘the lochan of the plundering of MacDugald’, recalling a tale from oral tradition of a local man who was torn asunder by a pack of greyhounds. There is an addendum to the discovery of the older name – the nearest significant peak to the east of the lochan is Sgùrr an Ursainn (817m) which has been translated (without explanation) as ‘the peak of the doorpost’. However, as ursainn is a feminine noun, Sgùrr na h-Ursainn would be expected. To the current author, the toponym looks suspiciously like Sgùrr an Ursain ‘the peak of the (male) bear’, with the masculine gender of ursan satisfying the grammar.

This is the only possible ursan toponym that the author has so far found in the Gaelic landscape. The word, while not particularly active within the modern Gaelic community, is recorded in dictionaries for ‘male bear’, as is its feminine counterpart ursag for ‘female bear’ and the generic ursa for both genders. These words are clearly cognate with the Latin for ursids – the European brown bear, Ursus arctos, derives its generic and specific namesfrom the Latin and Ancient Greek words for bear.

The third math-ghamhainn example in the landscape is the small tidal islet of Eilean Math-ghamhna ‘bear island’ at Newton Bay on the southern shore of Loch Fyne in Cowal, Argyll (often referred to today as Newton Island). The Ordnance Survey confirm the meaning but provide no explanation. It might refer to a perception of the island, or part of it, resembling a bear, but the presence of a prehistoric dun on the tiny outcrop suggests the possibility that the reference is to a human personal name – perhaps a warrior connected with the ancient fort.

Bear Craig, east of Moffat at NT192053, is named for the Bear Den, a subterranean passage reputedly once the home of bears. Detail from 2nd edn. OS 6 inch map (pub. 1900).

Certainly, ‘bear’ forenames were relatively common in the Celtic world. Math-ghamhainn and a reduced form – mathan – which is the everyday Gaelic word for bear today, were used as male given names in both Ireland and Scotland (as was Björn ‘bear’ in the realm of the Norse). It provides us with the surname Mac Mhathain ‘Mathan’s son’ – Matheson in its anglicised form. There is another familiar Gaelic name that means ‘bear’ – Art or Artair (anglicised Arthur). This is perhaps better known in a P-Celtic context, with the standard Welsh for ‘bear’ being arth. Place-names in arth/art/artair do not appear to occur in the Highland landscape.

However, there is an interesting adjunct to this bear-name on Loch Fyne-side. In the traditional tale ‘The Macleans of the White-Faced Horse’, collected by John Dewar in the 19th century, a wild beast and its offspring are killed at Stronardron at the upper end of Glendaruel, some 8km in a direct line from Eilean Math-ghamhna. The Gaelic word used for the creature is beithir, often translated as ‘serpent’ or even ‘dragon’ and usually taken as representing a mythological wild beast. However, Armstrong’s 1825 dictionary gives the primary meaning of beithir as ‘bear’ (there is a clear similarity between the two words). The storyteller recounts the tale as if it were a record of a real event which had occurred sixteen generations prior to 1863. If we take 25 years as a generation-span, that might place a family of living bears in Argyll in the mid-15th century; 30 years per generation would take us back to mid-14th century. Were bears still living in Cowal at that time? Was the island perhaps a place where a persecuted ursid made its last stand against human enemies? More research is needed!

Allt Mhathain, Assynt – an enigmatic name which appears to mean ‘bear burn’.

The element mathan appears in two locations in Assynt (north-west Sutherland). The first is Allt Mhathain (presumably for Allt a’ Mhathain ‘the burn of the bear’). This small stream meanders from Loch na Bà Brice ‘the loch of the speckled cow’ to meet Abhainn Gleann Leireag near the village of Nedd (An Nead). Intriguingly, it is not far distant from the famous Bone Caves at Creag nan Uamh ‘the crag of the caves’ in Inchnadamph, where significant discoveries were made of prehistoric bear bones. There does not appear to be a local tradition with regard to the name, and the Ordnance Survey do not proffer a suggestion in their Name Book, stating that the meaning of the toponym is ‘unknown’.

European brown bear, also known as Eurasian brown bear, in Norway, ©Kjartan Trana/Rovdata.

The second Assynt name is even more convincing. Cnoc Eilid Mhathain (altitude 470m) appears to mean ‘hill of the she-bear’ (eilid is normally reserved for the hind of the red deer but its use for other large mammals in the past is quite possible). Its location demands attention. It is a very short distance – a mere bear-ramble – from the bone caves at Creag nan Uamh. Not only that, but the mountain midway between Cnoc Eilid Mhathain and the caves is called Beinn nan Cnàimhseag (570m). This translates as ‘the mountain of the bearberries’ – a species known to be a favourite bear-food (it has the scientific name Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). The plant is relatively abundant in this part of the country; indeed, a short distance to the south-west there is Druim nan Cnàimhseag ‘the ridge of the bearberries’. This evidence – and the fact that it is the more ‘modern’ element mathan, rather than math-ghamhainn, that is found here, tempts one to suggest that Assynt might have been the place where Scottish bears made their final stand.

One other possible ‘bear’ toponym is in southern Scotland, to the east of Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway. Bear Craig (altitude 495 m) is in an area whose place-names are of Cumbric, Gaelic and Scots origin, and where the languages have interacted substantially in a landscape context. Bear Craig is likely to be Scots, although craig ‘rocky hill’ is probably a Gaelic loanword (from creag). It appears to have been a bear location, if we accept the validity of the oral tradition. The hill is above a feature named Bear Den which is described as follows in the Ordnance Survey Name Book: ‘A small subterranean passage about 20 feet long; its western entrance is about 3 feet square, its eastern entrance about 3 feet, and is about 6 feet square in the middle. It is supposed – by tradition – to have been the den of bears, when this country was infested with wild beasts.’

Two details from the 1st edition 6-inch OS map that show the proximity of three ‘bear’ locations in Assynt. Beinn nan Cnàimhseag ‘the mountain of the bearberries’ is halfway between Creag nan Uamh, where discoveries of ancient bear bones were made, and Cnoc Eilid Mhathain, probably meaning ‘hill of the she-bear’.

There is another identical Scots (or Scottish Standard English) place-name – Bear Craig – on the Isle of Bute, but in this case, the feature is a seashore rock, and it is not clear if there is truly a connection with bears. Toponymist Gilbert Márkus, in his comprehensive publication ‘The Place-Names of Bute’ (2012), admits to being unable to explain the name, but notes the following (p 305-6): ‘It may refer to the perceived similarity of the shape of the rock, or some part of it, to a bear. Another possibility is that it contains a reference to Sc bere ‘barley’ – though why a rocky coastal point such as this should be associated with barley would be a puzzle.’ Similarly, the place-name Bearsden – a town in East Dunbartonshire – remains unexplained but is unlikely to be connected to wild bears. And other ‘bear’ names in south-western Scotland, such as Bearburn and Bearmeal Knowe are most likely derived from bere, which was once commonly cultivated.

There are stellar constellations, visible in the night sky, which are often referred to, from a Latin perspective, as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (‘the greater and lesser bears’). In Gaelic, those are, respectively, An Crann-arain ‘the baker’s shovel’ and An Dreagbhod ‘the meteor constellation’. In the Gaelic view of the universe, there are no bears in the heavens. But there just might be a few clinging on to our cultural landscape on Earth.

Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna ‘the loch of the bog of the bear’ in Morar – a fascinating name (if obsolete on modern maps) which might have an echo close by in Sgùrr an Ursain(n).

N.B. If you have any additional information on Scottish ‘bear’ place-names, the author would be pleased to hear from you (rmac@uags.scot).

Maps: all maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

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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Mac-talla a’ Mhathain air Tìr

ʼS fhada on a dh’fhalbh na mathain fhiadhaich mu dheireadh, ach tha na creutairean seo a’ nochdadh – an siud ʼs an seo – nar n-ainmean-àite fhathast

Read in English

Chan eil e soilleir cuin a bhàsaich am mathan donn Eòrpach mu dheireadh ann an Alba, ach cha b’ ann an-dè a bha e, agus tha e mar sin gu math inntinneach gu bheil ainmean-àite againn a tha a’ cuimhneachadh an ainmhidh sin. Tha an t-eag-eòlaiche, an t-Oll. Daibhidh Hetherington, a tha mion-eòlach air na seann ghnèithean a chaidh à bith ann an Alba, ag innse dhuinn gu bheil fios againn ‘bho ghrunn chnàmhan a chaidh fhàgail ann an uamhan is boglaichean, eadar Siorrachd Dhùn Phris anns a’ cheann a deas agus Gallaibh anns a’ cheann a tuath gun robh mathain donna uaireigin beò ann an Alba. Tha a’ chnàimh-mhathain as òige à Alba air an deach a h-aois a thomhas le carbon-14 – cnàimh choise a chaidh a lorg ann an uamhan faisg air Innis nan Damh ann an Iar-thuath na Gàidhealtachd – timcheall air 2700 bliadhna a dh’aois.’ Agus tha aon de na h-ainmean-àite a dh’fhaodadh a bhith co-cheangailte ri mathain anns an dearbh nàbachd far an robh a leithid de chreutair dearbhte beò anns an ùine a dh’fhalbh.

Mathan donn Eòrpach agus àl anns an Fhionnlainn, ©Danny Green Photography.

Ged a tha na cnàmhan a’ riochdachadh bheathaichean a bha beò fada mus deach ar n-ainmean-àite a chruthachadh, tha fios againn gun robh mathain beò ri linn ar n-eachdraidh sgrìobhte. Bha mathain Albannach air an toirt don Ròimh leis na Ròmanaich, agus tha a leithid a’ nochdadh air clachan Cruithneach snaighte bhon 8mh no 9mh linn AC. Tha Daibhidh Hetherington dhen bheachd gur dòcha gun robh feadhainn againn chun an 15mh no 16mh linn. Ann an Carmina Gadelica II, tha Alasdair MacIlle Mhìcheil a’ dèanamh dheth gun robh am mathan ‘cumanta ann an Alba gu 1545, ʼs dòcha nas fhaide’, ged nach eil e a’ toirt fianais sam bith dhuinn mar dhearbhadh air. Chlàir e orthachan agus criomagan de bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig anns a bheil iomradh air mathain.

Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ri taobh Beinn a’ Chreachain air a’ chrìch eadar Siorrachd Pheairt agus Earra-Ghàidheal. An robh mathain a’ dol am falach am measg nan clachan anns na morainean a chaidh a chruthachadh ann an Linn na Deighe?

ʼS e math-ghamhainn an seann fhacal Gàidhlig airson mathain agus tha e a’ nochdadh anns an abairt mu rudeigin sgreataidh: chuireadh e an òrrais air math-ghamhainn. Chan eil na h-eòlaichean freumh-fhaclachd uile air an aon ràmh a thaobh tùs na ciad eileamaid math. Tha cuid dhen bheachd gu bheil e a’ riochdachadh mad/mat mar a nochdas e ann am madadh agus bheil math-ghamhainn a’ ciallachadh ‘beathach mar ghamhainn aig a bheil ceann (agus fiaclan) mar cheann coin’. Tha feadhainn eile a’ dèanamh dheth gur ann bho màg ‘làmh, spòg’ a tha e, is gu bheil an t-ainm slàn a-mach air ‘beathach coltach ri gamhainn aig a bheil làmhan (seach ladhran)’. Dh’fhaodadh smuain seach smuain dhiubh sin a bhith ceart.

Tha am facal math-ghamhainn a’ nochdadh ann an co-dhiù trì ainmean-àite air a’ Ghàidhealtachd. Tha e ann an Coire a’ Mhath-ghamhna ri taobh Beinn a’ Chreachain agus don iar-thuath air Loch Lìomhann ann an Siorrachd Pheairt. Chan eil e follaiseach bho ainmean eile carson a bhiodh am mathan an sin, ged a tha Coire na Saobhaidhe agus Sgòr nam Broc làimh ris a’ choire, a’ sealltainn dhuinn gun robh mamailean gu leòr beò san nàbachd. ʼS dòcha, am measg an sprùillich chlachaich a bhuineas do Linn na Deighe, agus a tha pailt anns na beanntan sin, gun robh còsan ann far am biodh mathain is creutairean eile a’ dol am falach. Tha am facal sid airson ‘saobhaidh, mar a bhiodh aig mathan’ aig an fhaclairiche Pheairteach, Raibeart Armstrong, anns an fhaclair Ghàidhlig aige a chaidh fhoillseachadh ann an 1825. Ach cha do lorg an t-ùghdar am facal air tìr ann an Siorrachd Pheairt no àite sam bith eile, co-dhiù air mapaichean proifeiseanta.

Eilean Math-ghamhna, Loch Fìne, Earra-Ghàidheal. Chan eil e soilleir mar a dh’èirich an t-ainm ach tha beul-aithris a’ stèidheachadh mathain anns an sgìre sin timcheall meadhan a’ chòigeimh linn deug.

Tha eisimpleir eile anns a’ mhonadh eadar Loch Mòrar agus Loch Beòraid ann am Mòrar. Tha Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna air a’ chiad mhapa 6-òirlich aig an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais, agus tha e air a dhearbhadh mar ainm mathanach ann an Leabhar nan Ainmean. A-nise, ʼs e Lochan Tàin MhicDhùghaill a thathar a’ gabhail air, stèidhichte air beul-aithris mu ‘Chù Glas Mheòbail’. Chan e sin a-mhàin, ach gu sear air an lochan tha Sgùrr an Ursainn (817m) a chaidh eadar-theangachadh, gun mhìneachadh, mar ‘the peak of the doorpost’. Ach tha ursainn boireanta agus, mar sin, ʼs e Sgùrr na h-Ursainn ris am biodh dùil. Don ùghdhar seo, tha an t-ainm-àite uabhasach coltach ri Sgùrr an Ursain, le ursan a’ ciallachadh mathan fireann, agus am facal fhèin fireanta.

ʼS e seo an t-aon ainm-àite le ursan a lorg an t-ùghdar thuige seo. Ged nach bi daoine a’ cleachdadh an fhacail gu bitheanta an-diugh, tha e anns na faclairean, mar a tha ursag ‘mathan boireann’ agus ursa ‘mathan’. Tha na faclan seo càirdeach don Laidinn airson mathan – gu dearbh ʼs e Ursus arctos a chanas luchd-saidheans ris a’ mhathan donn Eòrpach, agus an t-ainm a’ tighinn bhon Laidinn agus Seann Ghreugais airson mathan.

ʼS e an treas eisimpleir anns a bheil math-ghamhainn ann an ainm-àite – eilean beag air cladach a deas Loch Fìne ann an Comhghall air a bheil Eilean Math-ghamhna. Tha an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais ag aontachadh gu bheil an t-ainm co-cheangailte ri mathain, ach chan eil iad a’ mìneachadh carson. ʼS dòcha gu bheil e a’ dèanamh iomradh air cumadh an eilein no air duine a bha uaireigin a’ fuireach anns an dùn air an eilean.

Tha beul-aithris a’ dèanamh ceangal eadar an dà ainm-àite seo agus mathain. A rèir nan seann daoine, bha mathain uaireigin a’ dèanamh an dachaigh anns a’ chòs ris an canar ‘Bear Den’.

Tha fios againn gun robh Math-ghamhainn agus foirm nas giorra – Mathan – air an cur gu feum mar chiad ainmean aig fir anns an t-seann Ghàidhealtachd, an dà chuid ann an Alba is Èirinn (tha an t-ainm Lochlannach Björn cuideachd a’ ciallachadh ‘mathan’). Tha an cinneadh Mac Mhathain, a tha cumanta gu leòr fhathast, a’ tighinn às a sin. Bidh gu leòr eòlach air ainm baistidh eile a tha a’ ciallachadh ‘mathan’ – Art no Artair. Tha na Cuimrich nas eòlaiche buileach air oir ʼs e arth am facal àbhaisteach aca airson mathan. Chan eil sgeul air ainmean-àite le arth/art/artair air a’ Ghàidhealtachd an-diugh, ge-tà.

Tha iar-theacsa ann don ainm-àite mhathanach taobh Loch Fìne. Anns an sgeulachd thraidiseanta ‘Clann Illeathain an Eich Bhlàir’, a chaidh a chruinneachadh le Iain Mac an Deòir anns an 19mh linn, tha ‘beithir’ agus a cuain air am marbhadh aig Sròn Àrdairean aig ceann shuas Ghleann Dà Ruadhail, mu 8km ann an loidhne dhìreach à Eilean Math-ghamhna. Chan urrainn dhuinn a bhith cinnteach dè bhathar a’ ciallachadh le ‘beithir’ – gu tric ʼs e creutair fiadhaich à beul-aithris a th’ ann – dreagan, uile-bheist no mòr-nathair. Ach ann am faclair Amstrong (1825) tha ‘mathan’ ann mar phrìomh chiall an fhacail. Dh’aithris an sgeulaiche an cunntas mar gur e fìor thachartas a bh’ ann, a ghabh àite 16 ginealaich ro 1863. Ma ghabhas sinn ri 25 bliadhna mar fhad ginealaich, bhiodh sin a’ ciallachadh gun robh teaghlach de mhathain beò ann an Comhghall ann am meadhan a’ chòigeimh linn deug – no meadhan a’ cheathraimh linn deug ma bhios ginealach ùr ann gach 30 bliadhna. An e an t-eilean àite far an do sheas mathain an aghaidh a naimhdean daonna? Tha tuilleadh rannsachaidh a dhìth!

Allt Mhathain ann an Asainte – ainm-àite a tha na dhubh-cheist.

Tha an eileamaid mathan a’ nochdadh ann an dà àite ann an Asainte. ʼS e a’ chiad dhiubh Allt Mhathain (a’ riochdachadh Allt a’ Mhathain, tha fhios). Tha an t-allt beag seo a’ lùbadh bho Loch na Bà Brice gu ruige Abhainn Gleann Leireag faisg air baile ris an canar An Nead. Gu h-iongantach, chan eil e cho uabhasach fada bho Uamhan nan Cnàmh ann an Innis nan Damh, far an do lorgadh fìor sheann chnàmhan mathain. Chan eil e a’ coimhead coltach gun d’ fhuair an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais beachd air ciall an ainm bho mhuinntir an àite. Ma tha e dha-rìribh ceangailte ri mathain, feumaidh gun robh sin air a dhol à cuimhne an t-sluaigh ro mheadhan an naoidheamh linn deug.

Math donn Eòrpach (no mathan donn Àis-Eòrpach) ann an Nirribhidh, ©Kjartan Trana/Rovdata.

Tha an dàrna ainm-àite Asainteach nas iongantaiche buileach. Tha dùil gu bheil Cnoc Eilid Mhathain (àirde 470m) a’ ciallachadh ‘cnoc aig mathan boireann’. Tha e gu math faisg air Creag nan Uamh (Innis nan Damh), far an do lorgadh na cnàmhan mathain. Chan e sin a-mhàin, ach eadar Cnoc Eilid Mhathain agus Creag nan Uamh tha Beinn nan Cnàimhseag. Tha cnàimhseagan am measg nan dearcan as fheàrr le mathain; gu dearbh, ʼs e ‘bearberries’ a thathar a’ gabhail orra ann am Beurla. Tha Druim nan Cnàimhseag faisg air an àite cuideachd. A’ gabhail sin a-steach, agus gur e mathan seach an seann fhacal math-ghamhainn a th’ anns na h-ainmean an sin, dh’fhaodamaid a ràdh gur dòcha gur e Asainte an t-àite mu dheireadh far an robh mathain beò ann an Alba.

Tha ainm-àite eile co-cheangailte ri mathain ann an ceann a deas na h-Alba ann an Siorrachd Dhùn Phris is Gall-Ghàidhealaibh, sear air baile Mhofaid. ʼS e sin Bear Craig (àirde 495m) – creag a chaidh ainmeachadh, a rèir choltais, ann an Albais. Tha am mullach os cionn còs air a bheil Bear Den (a thug ainm don bheinn, feumaidh) agus a nochdas air na seann mhapaichean. Tha an OS a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air an t-sid mar seo: ‘Còs beag fon talamh a tha mu 20 troigh ann am fad; tha fhosgladh aig a’ cheann an iar ceàrnach, leis na taobhan mu 3 troighean ann am fad, agus tha e mu 6 troighean air 6 troighean anns a’ mheadhan. Tha beul-aithris ag innse dhuinn gum b’ e seo saobhaidh aig mathain nuair a bha an dùthaich làn chreutairean fiadhaich.’

Anns an dà earrainn seo dhen chiad mhapa 6-òirlich aig an OS, chithear cho faisg ʼs a tha trì àiteachan a tha co-cheangailte ri mathain – Creag nan Uamh far an do lorgadh seann chnàmhan, Beinn nan Cnàimhseag (dearcan a chòrdas gu mòr ri mathain) agus Cnoc Eilid Mhathain a tha a’ bruidhinn air a shon fhèin.

Tha ainm-àite co-ionann – Bear Craig – ann an Eilean Bhòid ach ʼs e a th’ ann ach carraig air a’ chladach agus chan eil e soilleir a bheil buntanas sam bith aige ri mathain. Anns an leabhar aige ‘The Place-Names of Bute’ (2012), tha an t-eòlaiche Gilbert Márkus ag aideachadh nach urrainn dha an t-ainm a mhìneachadh, ged a tha e sgrìobhadh seo (d.305-6): ‘ʼS dòcha gu bheil e a’ dèanamh iomradh air cumadh na carraige, no pàirt air choreigin dhith, a tha coltach ri mathan. ʼS dòcha gu bheil e a’ toirt iomradh air bere ‘eòrna’ – ged nach eil e soilleir carson a bhiodh gob creagach cladaich mar seo co-cheangailte ri eòrna.’ Mar an ceudna, tha an t-ainm Bearsden – baile ann an Siorrachd Dhùn Breatann an Ear – às aonais mìneachadh, ged nach eil e coltach gu bheil e co-cheangailte ri mathain fhiadhaich. Agus tha e gu math coltach gu bheil ainmean ‘bear’ eile ann an ceann an iar-dheas na h-Alba, leithid Bearburn agus Bearmeal Knowe, ag èirigh à bere (facal Albais) a bhathar a’ fàs gu mòr aig aon àm.

Tha dà reul-bhad, a ghabhas faicinn gu furasta air an oidhche, a tha ainmichte mar Ursa Major agus Ursa Minor (‘mathan mòr’ agus ‘mathan beag’). Ann an Gàidhlig, canaidh sinn An Crann-arain (inneal anns am bite a’ cur aran don àmhainn) agus An Dreagbhod ‘reul-bhad nan dreagan’ riutha. Ann an sealladh nan Gàidheal air a’ chruinne-chè, chan eil mathan sam bith anns an iarmailt. Ach ma dh’fhaodte gu bheil fear no dhà a’ dèanamh sid dhaibh fhèin fhathast air mapaichean na h-Alba.

Lochan Fèith a’ Mhath-ghamhna ann am Mòrar – mar a nochd e air a’ chiad mhapa 6-òirlich aig an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais. Tha an t-eilean anns an loch co-cheangailte ann am beul-aithris ri coin fhiadhaich ghlasa, seach mathain, ach ʼs iongantach mura h-eil an t-ainm mathanach gu math sean.

N.B. Ma tha fiosrachadh sam bith agaibh air ainmean-àite a bharrachd anns a bheil mathain air an ainmeachadh, bu toigh leis an ùghdar cluinntinn bhuaibh (rmac@uags.scot).

Mapaichean: tha na mapaichean uile a’ nochdadh le cead Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

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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Otter spotting in Tiree

Today’s guest blog is from the Tiree Ranger, Hayley Douglas. Hayley works for Tiree Community Development Trust and took up the ranger post in November 2019 after working at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as a ranger and project officer from 2010. At the park, she tracked otters and other mammals using camera traps, as well as lesser black-backed gulls using the latest satellite tagging techniques. She’s gone back to basics for her otter tracking on Tiree and loves sharing her skills.

Cheese Rock on Tiree – a spectacular view and a special place to spot otters. © Hayley Douglas

“There he is!” I yelped.  I was taking my first group of visitors out to look for otters here on Tiree. We had just arrived at the viewing spot as a sleek male with a fish popped onto Cheese Rock 15 metres in front of us. The extended family group of three generations were over the moon and everyone sat down quickly but quietly to enjoy our time with him. (I actually sat down so fast that I broke my camera so never got any otter pics myself).

I couldn’t believe my luck, as taking folk to see wildlife usually results in nothing being seen. I call it the KitKat panda effect – if you were around in the 90s then you know what I mean. But the lockdown had allowed me to spend time familiarising myself with Tiree in preparation for the visitor season starting. 

Previous visitor activities provided by the Ranger Service had focused on guided walks, and I was keen to offer a completely different programme of events to locals and visitors.  I had tracked otters on the mainland and followed a number with camera traps, but I’d only ever seen them in the flesh at that site once.

However, my explorations around Tiree showed that the situation here was completely different; in fact, it’s highly unusually if I come away from a walk without seeing some signs of an otter.  So, the plan started to hatch that I could start working on a survey of the island’s otters, as well as taking folk to see them.

On the search – otter footprints and other signs of their presence are common in Tiree.

Otters are on many visitors’ wish list, but no one had previously offered the opportunity to track and see them. But where was the best place – one which wasn’t too hard to access but quiet enough that our potential watching activities wouldn’t be disturbed by other visitors, in and out of the water? It was my crofter landlord that solved that problem.

He had an area that I had become familiar with during the lambing period that ticked all the boxes – but were there otters?  I headed out to explore. It wasn’t long before I found paw prints, spraints and runs through the grass. I wandered around the bay to find the best sites to watch from and eventually settled on the one in front of Cheese Rock. Here, when the tide drops, the rock becomes more exposed and a shallow channel appears between it and the shore. It was here that I saw the otter swimming as I watched from above. He once or twice looked in my direction, but didn’t seem too fussed. How would he behave if more folk were about though?

Well a few months later, I found out with that first walk. The otter wasn’t bothered at all and I spent most of the summer, when the tides were suitable, taking folk up to the site.  It’s fair to say that, after the third time we saw the otter, my time had been well spent reccing the area.  It had been a bleak year with the pandemic and seeing folks’ reactions to finally connecting with an otter more than made up for it.

We didn’t always see him but the hit rate was over 70 % and the majority of visitors who didn’t spot one went on to see one elsewhere on the island using the tracking skills I had taught them.  The last visit before restrictions came back in was a trip out with a solo visitor, and just as we were preparing to leave two otters appeared and gave us an hour of their time. 

I’ve kept an eye on the site over the winter and still see the otter there, an experience that still hasn’t lost its magic with me. Today is a wet and windy day here on Tiree with the mainland being in lockdown and no idea when visitors will be allowed back. When they are though, the otter walks will be back on, as connecting with nature is something we definitely all need.

Posted in biodiversity, mammals, Marine, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating International Day of Girls & Women in Science

Today is International Day of Women & Girls in Science – a day declared by the UN to bring attention to the fact that less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. Biases and gender stereotypes are still steering many girls away from careers in science. We have many female scientists at NatureScot though, from graduate placements to unit heads. We asked them to tell you what inspires them and what they love about their jobs – and why you might want to consider a career in science yourself!

Jen is one of our area officers covering Caithness. To the right is an example of some of the seaducks she’s been surveying recently, eider ducks.

Jen Graham, Area officer in the Northern Isles & North Highland

I spent lots of my time as a child being dragged up munros, and I thought I’d never want to do work outside! But as time progressed, I grew fascinated by nature’s systems and the true variety of life both on a small scale and more globally. Ultimately, it was spending time in Scotland’s wild spaces which led me to pursue a career in environmental science.

I’ve recently finished working on a project investigating monitoring methods for Inshore Wintering Waterfowl – birds like eider, Slavonian grebe and long tailed ducks. This project allowed me to get out and talk to volunteers and survey waterfowl in the Moray Firth Special Protection Area. I developed a passion for ornithology through this work and enjoyed learning about seaduck ecology and behaviour, and being able to go out with volunteers and count the birds was an amazing opportunity.

I feel truly lucky to get to do work like this! You’re always learning and getting to experience nature first-hand, from counting flowers to encountering bats and hen harriers. It’s just so fascinating. In this role, you are always meeting people who are experts and people who know the environments they work in so well.

A short poem by Adrienne Rich reminds me that it is ordinary people who do good and important work to protect and look after our environment and it’s the day-to-day perseverance that matters.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

With no extraordinary power,
Reconstitute the world.

Fairlie began working for NatureScot as a graduate placement.

Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird, Geographic Systems Officer

I’ve been passionate about (and somewhat terrified by) the climate crisis since I first learned about it in school. After doing a degree in history, I decided I wanted to combine my interest in social science with my concern for the environment and pursue a career in conservation. I spent a summer up in the Flow Country doing practical conservation on the beautiful bog there, and then managed to do a masters in ecology before being lucky enough to join NatureScot as a graduate placement.

I spent the placement modelling likely changes to drought risk in Scotland due to climate change, the results of which are now being used to inform conservation strategies and target mitigation work to areas most at risk. It’s really rewarding to contribute actively to climate change resilience in Scotland, and to help fill a gap in our knowledge (unsurprisingly, not many people think about drought risk in Scotland!). I’m now part of NatureScot’s GIS team, which helps colleagues use geographic data to achieve NatureScot’s conservation goals. As part of that, it’s really interesting to see all the exciting projects going on throughout the organisation. With the severity of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, I’m glad to be working in a sector that’s trying to do something about it.

For more on Fairlie’s work on drought risk, see our recent news release.

Alison has worked in a number of different roles in NatureScot. To the right is an example of the type of sustainability projects she’s worked on.

Alison Shand, Supporting Good Development Administrator

I had the good fortune of growing up on the banks of Loch Lomond, spending a lot of time outdoors and developing a love of nature. Despite this, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. As my friends set out to pursue their chosen careers, I made a last-minute decision to study zoology. I’d enjoyed biology at high school and I liked animals. It was through studying subjects like ecology and evolutionary biology that I really came to love science, as it helped me understand the natural world around me, how it works and how it came to be. I became particularly interested in urban nature, and how some species have adapted to live alongside humans.

I went on to study sustainability and environmental studies for my Masters. This led to me working for NatureScot in a graduate placement with our Supporting Good Development team, researching Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) ponds and the benefits they can provide to people and nature. From there, I’ve taken on roles in NatureScot’s Executive Office and then Communications, and now I’m again working in planning and development. I really enjoy being able to make use of what I learned at university, and to be part of NatureScot’s efforts to make Scotland’s future more sustainable.

I’ve never approached my career with much of a plan – I’m very much a generalist and have taken up different opportunities as they’ve arisen. From assisting with research on crypsis in moths, to visiting SuDS ponds all over Scotland, to organising Sharing Good Practice events, I’ve gained a lot of different experiences and been part of some really interesting work. Studying science has given me the tools, qualifications and inspiration I’ve needed to develop my career. Some people know exactly what they want to do when they leave school, but for those who don’t, like me at 17, I’d definitely recommend pursuing science – it opens up so many possibilities!

Katie helping to tag a common skate in Loch Sunart, part of the Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area.

Katie Gilham, Head of Marine Ecosystems

Some of us are born with a dash of saltwater in our blood! I always wanted to work with the sea, so after studying Oceanography and Marine Biology at university, I gained experience through volunteer work. This included surveying coral reefs in Belize and Honduras, and soon led to a job with NatureScot in Shetland, working on developing a management scheme for the Papa Stour Special Area of Conservation –  23 years ago now! From there, I became an area officer in Shetland for a few years, before moving to the mainland to join the Marine Ecosystems team.

I’m now part of a team working on selecting and managing Marine Protected Areas and Priority Marine Features. We also monitor, survey and advise on marine birds and habitats, and make marine data more accessible. Part of my role is to agree our priorities each year, review research project proposals developed by the team and help  secure the funding to ensure that projects can go ahead when necessary. This involves a lot of work with people from other organisations, as the majority of our research is delivered through partnerships with Marine Scotland, or through organisations that are part of the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology in Scotland (MASTS).

A big project over the last couple of years has been contributing to the Healthy and Biologically Diverse Seas section of Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020. This is a statutory assessment to provide the evidence to underpin marine planning. As part of the steering group, I helped identify topics to be covered on marine habitats and species, and oversee completion of work with Marine Scotland colleagues on content relating to, for example, basking sharks, waterbirds and Priority Marine Features. In the coming weeks, SMA2020 will be used to inform a review of Scotland’s National Marine Plan.

Posted in conservation, Ecology, graduate placement, International Year of Girls and Women in Science, Marine, science, STEM | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mapping the Birds of South East Scotland – A Celebration of Citizen Science in Action

This week’s blog is written by Mike Thornton, a NatureScot operations officer in the Lothians, and a keen volunteer citizen scientist. Mike has worked on a range of citizen science projects, including the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-13, a Scottish Ornithologist Club project charting changes in the distribution of birds in the Lothian and Borders.   

A redshank, one of the waders whose range has shrunk in South-east Scotland, according to records compiled by over 800 volunteers. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The UK has a strong tradition in amateur natural history, going back to the 18th century, when the English parson naturalist, Gilbert White, compiled detailed observations of wildlife in his Hampshire parish for nearly four decades. We now have a well-established network of amateur naturalists in the UK, collecting data in citizen science projects, charting changes in the locations and numbers of animals and plants across the UK, and providing a strong evidence base to inform conservation policy and management.

Citizen science has been particularly successful in mapping Britain and Ireland’s birdlife, with three national Bird Atlas projects revealing how the distribution and abundance of birds in these countries has changed since the late 1960s. These national projects have inspired many regional bird atlases, including the recently published Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, which updates a similar atlas survey completed between 1988 and 1994. More than 800 volunteers helped map just over 160 breeding bird species in the Lothian and Borders bird recording areas, a wonderful example of volunteers contributing to conservation efforts.

Buzzard territories have expanded in South-east Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project has shown some remarkable changes in the region’s birdlife, with just over half of the breeding species showing range contractions, and a third range increases. Perhaps the most significant change revealed was the loss of breeding waders, such as redshank, snipe, lapwing and curlew, particularly from the uplands and hill fringe areas, as a result intensified grassland management, and an increased number of their nest predators, such as crows and foxes.  Conversely, consistent with national trends, the buzzard has shown a significant range expansion. Buzzards were only found in the uplands in the late 1980s, but now occupy most of the region, a response most likely associated with reduced persecution and an improved food supply.

The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 provides the most up-to-date information on the distribution and abundance of the region’s birdlife, and allows organisations like NatureScot to better understand how environmental pressures, such as land use and climate change, are affecting our biodiversity. This knowledge can be used to develop conservation policies, as well as to target management to help mitigate some of these pressures on our biodiversity in our rapidly-changing world. If it were not for the great army of citizen scientists, like those who participated in the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, we would not be in such a strong position to take well informed conservation action, and we have a lot to thank them for.

This exhaustive study is based on nearly
half-a-million items of data collected by over 800 observers.

More information about The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 and where you can purchase a copy can be found here. If you want more information on getting involved in bird recording with the Scottish Ornithologists Club, see SOC’s Get Involved web page and The British Trust for Ornithology web page.

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Land at the heart of nature-based-solutions

Transforming how we use land is an  essential  part  of our  response  to  the  climate  emergency. Great  progress  could  be  made  rapidly  in  agriculture,  forestry  and  other  land  uses  by  using  existing  technologies. But we will need to go further to support a transition  in  the  rural economy  at  the  rate  and  scale  required.

Our post today comes from NatureScot Chief Executive, Francesca Osowska, who this morning spoke at the latest Climate Emergency Summit, hosted by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. The summits allow people from across the sectors to come together to offer solutions to the climate emergency. The focus of today’s summit was land…

Commercial and native woodland, Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill/2020VISION

The Society’s Climate  Summits  have been  invaluable  in  bringing  many  leading  people  together  to  work  on solutions  to  the  climate  emergency. We  know  that  society  is  going  to  be  transformed  by  the  impacts  of climate  change.  If  we  are  to  avoid  ‘dangerous’  climate  change,  we have  to  address  the  triple  challenge:  to  reduce  emissions;  adapt  to  our  future  climate;  and,  restore  nature.  A  nature-rich  future  is  the only  response  to  the  climate  emergency  which  addresses  all  three challenges  and  achieves  much  needed  resilience  against  future  societal shocks.

Covid-19  has  hammered  home  our  lack  of  resilience.  This  pandemic originated  from  an  unhealthy  relationship  between  the  human  world and  the  natural  world.  It  has  led  to  disease  jumping  and  mutating  from  species  to  species.  This  same  unhealthy  relationship  is  degrading nature  across  the  planet  and  driving  climate  change.  Therefore,  it follows  that  ensuring  society  is  more  resilient  against  future  pandemics must  involve  tackling  the  climate  and  nature  crises.

Winfarm and blanket bog, Sutherland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

I  am  sure  it’s  clear  to  all  of  us  here  that land is  an  essential  part  of our  response  to  the  climate  emergency.  Looking  at  the  land  use  sector  as  a  whole,  nature-based  solutions  are  one  of  our  primary  tools  to  absorb  some  of  the  carbon  in  the  atmosphere,  whether  that is  through  restoring  our  extensive  peatlands  and  managing  our  uplands  more  sustainably,  planting  more  woodland  –  as  well  as allowing  more  native  woodland  to  regenerate,  while  supporting transformative  change  to  low  carbon  agriculture. 

There  has  been  a  stronger  focus  on  agriculture,  forestry  and  other land  uses  in  recent  years.  But  significant  challenges  remain  –  for forestry,  in  terms  of  the  time  it  takes  for  new  woodlands  to  mature into  carbon  sinks;  for  agriculture  in  how  we  manage  our  soils  and livestock,  to  a  more  comprehensive  review  of  our  food  system,  what we  eat  and  how  it  is  produced  and  distributed. 

And  we  know  that  over  70%  of  our  peatlands  are  degraded  and  are  a source  of  emissions.  The  ambition  to  escalate  significant  action  on peatland  restoration  will  be  a  challenge  to  scale  up  quickly.

Great  progress  could  be  made  rapidly  in  agriculture,  forestry  and  other  land  uses  by  using  existing  technologies.  But policies,  practices, consumer  and  producer  behaviours  will  all  need  to  change  to  support a  transition  in  the  rural  economy  at  the  rate  and  scale  required.

Organic pigs foraging for food in a woodland at Whitmuir Organic farm near Peebles. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

We  have  many  good  examples  of  best  practice,  where  land  managers are  taking  action  to  protect  and  restore  nature,  reducing  emissions and  using  land  to  sequester  and  store  carbon.  There  is  a  real opportunity  to  build  on  these  great  examples  to  make  sure  that  land managers  can  be  the  champions  of  climate  change,  and  not  only  the victims  of  it.

But,  I  hope  today  we can  look  at  how  we  can  restore  nature  at  the same  time  as  responding  to  the  climate  emergency.  Would  it  be  a hollow  victory  if  we  slash  our  emissions  yet  in  doing  so  fail  to  restore ecological  abundance?

We  know  that  many  of  the  actions  that  we  take  for  the  climate  can have  positive  benefits  for  biodiversity  too  –  but  this  is  not  a  given.  Careful  choices  must  be  made  to  ensure  that  we  restore  habitats.  This is  not  just  about  peatlands  and  the  right  tree  in  the  right  place.  It  is also  thinking  about  improving  connectivity  between  our  increasingly fragmented  habitats,  effectively  providing  an  escape  route  for important  animals  and  plants  from  the  impacts  of  climate  change.

Heather blooming in a springtime public garden – a great source of pollen for our early pollinators. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Finally,  we  know  that  climate  change  is  one  of  the  biggest  issues  we face. 

Encouraging  ecological  diversity  has  to  be  the  solution  to  the  twin  and chronic  crises  of  nature  losses  and  climate  heating.  If  our  natural  world  can  become  more  resilient,  then  it  follows  resilience  will  grow across  our  economy  and  society,  protecting  us  from  acute  emergencies such  as  the  recent  pandemic.  Changes  to  land  use  to  increase  the space  for  nature  with  more  networks  of  nature-rich  areas  will undoubtedly  support  resilient  natural  systems  and  community well-being.

Francesca Osowska (29.01.21)

Francesca planting snowdrops opposite the Meadows in Edinburgh to benefit bees and butterflies as part of Buglife’s B-Lines project, a recipient of the Biodiversity Challenge Fund.
Posted in Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, biodiversity, climate change, Farming, Land management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beavers on the move – Part Two

This is the second of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out pre-release health checks for English beaver projects.
© Roisin Campbell-Palmer

In today’s blog, I’ll cover the management measures used in areas where beavers are causing issues – for example, causing waterlogging or flooding of farmers’ best fields. But following on from my last blog, the focus here is on the work we’re doing to move beavers from areas where they are causing problems to areas where their presence is much sought after to improve nature and the environment.

Under NatureScot’s Beaver Mitigation Scheme, a range of measures, ranging from tree protection to installing flow devices to regulate water levels, are now being trialled across over 50 sites on Tayside. However, on sites where there are serious issues that currently can’t be solved through mitigation and NatureScot are satisfied that certain criteria are met, licences can be issued that permit beavers to be controlled. This can obviously be controversial and is considered a last resort measure, and I have been working with NatureScot and land managers in conflict areas to instead trap and move beavers where possible.

A beaver trap set on a drainage channel where there are serious conflicts with farming.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

As interest in this species’ influence on ecosystems and support for beaver restoration across Britain rises, there are growing opportunities for translocation. Translocation in itself is a recognised mitigation tool, practised widely in conservation. It has been critical to both ease beaver-human conflict and restore beaver species across their native range following historic levels of persecution for the fur trade.

Beaver translocation follows strict licensing and animal welfare protocols, from a NatureScot trap and removal licence, to health screening to legal release licence requirements in the country where beavers are being relocated.

Any translocation involves the use of recognised best welfare live traps, designed by beaver management experts in Bavaria. These traps have been used in Scotland as part of recognised beaver projects for over 10 years now. Any trapping programme aims to remove established pairs or family units as far as possible, respecting and avoiding the breeding season. All individuals are then transported in specially designed beaver crates to quarantine holding facilities at Five Sisters Zoo, where they undergo veterinary screening and body condition checks to ensure they are fit for release and present no health risks to people, livestock or other wildlife associated with any release site. Samples are also collected for genetic analysis to identify current diversity levels and give us more information to help restore beavers across Britain.

A beaver held in specially designed quarantine holding facilities before moving to its new home. ©Roisin Campbell Palmer.
A beaver family in the holding facilities which enable the family group to be kept together. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

So far, beavers from Scotland have been successfully translocated to several licenced projects throughout Britain – including the River Otter Beaver Project in Devon, National Trust enclosed projects at Honicote, and several Wildlife Trust projects in Cheshire and Cumbria. As well, we have moved beavers where private landowners have been seeking to alleviate flooding and restore wetlands, including at Wild KenHill, Spainshall and Knepp Estate. With the exception of the River Otter Project, all the projects in England are within fenced enclosures and are accompanied by long-term scientific monitoring studies to document how beaver activities could have measurable benefits to the environment.

One such project is the Forest of Dean Beaver Project which saw two beavers relocated from conflict areas in Tayside and introduced to each other on site to form a new pair. These animals were selected as they matched each other in weight, body condition and were both non-breeding sub-adults. Both individuals were removed from separate agricultural ditches in which they were living and where repeated damming and collapsed burrows were ongoing issues. Following removal, NatureScot trialled exclusion fencing at one of these locations to prevent new animals from recolonising the ditch system.

A beaver in a trap at the capture site. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

The two animals quickly took to their new environment, which consists of six hectares of enclosed woodland with the Greathough Brook running through the centre. The beavers have since constructed a series of dams to create ponds to store water, improve water quality and slow the rate of water flow, hopefully reducing the flash flooding downstream which affects the village of Lydbrook.

The mixed woodland, managed by Forestry England, will benefit from beaver activity. Their foraging will encourage woodland plant diversity, and make river and shorelines more complex and diverse, providing more microhabitats for other species. Their foraging also increases the amount of dead wood, and opens up the canopy – this, in turn, increases plant and animal biodiversity by providing more foraging, shelter and breeding opportunities for a range of invertebrate, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Another interesting aspect of this project is to investigate if beaver foraging and opening up of this mature riparian woodland has a positive habitat creation effect for water vole colonisation, another endangered native mammal.

To date, this pair have created several burrows along the brook and have begun to construct dams. They are fairly elusive but a volunteer team lead by Forestry England rangers closely monitors their activities and looks forward to their future breeding.

The new dams attract a range of species using them as foraging opportunities. Dipper image. ©Kate Woolen, Forestry England.

You can read more about this project here.

Currently, we are actively undertaking beaver translocations between September and April. We work closely with those landowners experiencing impacts which currently can’t be solved through mitigation. At present, any successfully captured and screened beavers are being translocated to restoration projects in England, though moving beavers to locations within or on the edge of the existing beaver range in Scotland is now being considered.

Whether we see beavers restored to all our rivers and lochs, will depend on political and societal decisions on if we are willing to accept the changes to our river habitats that beavers will bring – which through positive engagement and mitigation, could offer exciting biodiversity benefits.

Read Part 1 of Roisin’s blog here.

If you’re interested in learning more about beavers, Roisin suggests the below web pages:

Posted in Beaver reintroduction projects, beavers, biodiversity, NatureScot | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Beavers on the move – Part One

This is the first of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out a beaver health check with the staff and veterinary team at Five Sister Zoo. This kit was part of a family group moved from Tayside to Broadridge Farm Beaver Project, Devon. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

In this first blog, I’ll cover the history of beavers in Europe, from their near extinction to reintroduction, as well how they benefit nature and wildlife. In my next blog, I’ll cover the reasons for and how we are moving beavers from areas where they are causing serious issues for farmers and others to other areas.

The return of the Eurasian beaver has certainly captured the hearts and minds of people across Europe, seeing as this species is one of the most reintroduced and translocated mammals. A highly effective trade in its thick luxurious fur saw global population estimates at one point reaches lows of just over 1000 scattered individuals, facing the verge of complete extinction.

As early as the 1920s, the Scandinavian countries implemented serious attempts to restore this species, seeing beavers moved from Norway to Sweden, followed by multiple releases in Finland and Russia, initially to re-establish beavers as a fur resource. Since then, Eurasian beavers have been restored, both officially, unofficially and through natural colonisation to most of its former range, recovering across Europe, Russia and into Mongolia.

Over 200 release events in more than 20 countries have been known to have occurred, making the Eurasian beaver one of the most commonly re-introduced animals in the world. The emphasis has dramatically shifted from viewing beavers as a productive hunting resource to more ecologically-founded arguments for them to be recognised as the key missing element in wetland restoration.

Beaver on the move as part of The National Trust Holnicote reintroduction project.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

There is no doubt beavers are one of the few species that can have a significant impact on the habitats they occupy. Where they build dams, ponds can be created, giving refuge to many species from aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, birds and other mammals. Next to humans and elephants, beavers are fairly unique in being able to take down mature trees, although their diet extends from grasses, aquatic and bankside vegetation to a wide range of woody material.

Native plant species have a long evolutionary history co-existing with beavers – for example, willow is highly tolerant to flooding and coppicing and therefore reacts vigorously to beaver feeding by producing multiple shoots. Aspen will also respond to main truck felling by producing multiple suckers. As well, their burrowing activities, including canal and burrow construction, results in an increased complexity of the bank, offering numerous habitats and refuge opportunities to species such as fish and amphibians.

Beaver-modified habitat in Tayside – increased water levels enhances loch margins, while canal creation allows beavers to access foods without leaving the water, all creating better habitat for animals such as amphibians. Mixed beaver foraging, including tree felling, encourages diverse vegetation. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

However, beavers’ abilities to change woodland, wetland or agricultural areas are not always welcomed. In Scotland, we have no living memory of co-existing alongside beavers, and our modern landscapes have rapidly developed in their absence.

Therefore, when a 20kg plus animal that readily fells trees, dams drainage systems and is capable of punching burrows into flood banks arrives in urban or agricultural areas, for example, their presence and impacts can be costly and controversial, unless a system of mitigation and education is implemented.

We have to balance this by keeping in mind that this species, living in human-dominated landscapes, creates dynamic and beneficial changes in habitat restoration and species biodiversity. With the right management and resources, co-existence is possible, though this requires a change in mind-set and tolerance in how we view our landscapes.

Dubh loch in Knapdale where beavers increased the loch size by damming, creating new wetlands and new habitats in the form of standing dead wood. © Lorne Gill, NatureScot.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of how beavers were reintroduced to Scotland and much more, see the Beavers in Scotland report on the NatureScot website.

Watch out for Part 2 of Roisin’s blog on Friday!

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Frozen lochs – what lies beneath?

In recent weeks as we experienced wintery conditions, many people will have noticed their local ponds and lochs froze over for a period. In today’s blog our freshwater advisory officer Ewan Lawrie takes a closer look at what’s happening below the surface.   

A frozen Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms ©Catriona Webster/NatureScot

In the recent cold snap many of our lochs and ponds have frozen over, with a thin layer of ice forming on the surface. Beautiful to look at, but have you ever wondered why lochs freeze from the top down? For most substances, the cooler they get the denser they get with less space between the molecules. Warmer, less dense substances tend to float; without this property hot air ballooning would be much less popular!

Ice starting to thicken at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Simon Ritchie/NatureScot

A quirk of water is that it is at its densest at around 40 C. Below this temperature the hydrogen bonds are not able to pack the molecules as tightly. So, as lochs cool in winter denser water drops to the bottom of the loch. This in itself is important ecologically as it creates mixing throughout the whole of the loch. But, as the temperature drops below 40 C it becomes less dense, floating on the surface and eventually forming ice.

Frozen Loch Kinord at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

The ice and snow provide a layer of insulation on the top of the loch and because they are on the surface are more strongly affected by the heat of the sun and melt more quickly. Ten years ago Loch Leven froze in the harbour to a depth of 9 inches, but only relatively shallow lochs freeze completely. If lochs froze from the bottom it would have an important effect on the ecology with only specialised plants and animals being able to survive.

Ice forming at Muir Of Dinnet at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

Historically there has been a sport and culture in Scotland based around the ice. In the 19th Century there were special trains and platforms for curlers and many now sadly neglected shallow curling ponds across the country. However even if ice looks thick, it can still be thin in areas and venturing out on it can be very risky for you or your pet. If in any doubt stay safe, stay off the ice and just enjoy the view!

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Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean / Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

Airson ainmean-àite le ‘dubh’ a thuigsinn, ʼs dòcha gum feumar coimhead air slighe na grèine / To interpret place-names with the descriptor ‘dubh’ you may need to look at the path of the sun …

Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean

Is e seo àm math dhen bhliadhna airson sùil gheur a thoirt air ainmean-àite anns a bheil dubh oir gu tric bidh an tuairisgeul stèidhichte air dubhar a th’ air adhbharachadh le cnuic is beanntan, agus a’ ghrian a’ gabhail slighe ìosal anns an iarmailt. Cha bhi dubh a’ nochdadh ann an co-cheangal ris an fhacal srath oir tha a leithid ro fhosgailte do sholas an latha. Air an làimh eile, tha iomadh eisimpleir de ghlinn air a bheil gleann dubh, oir gu tric bidh beanntan àrda air gach taobh de ghleann. Tha eisimpleir fìor mhath ann am Bràghad Albann, far a bheil An Gleann Dubh a’ coinneachadh ri Gleann Dochard air a cheann a tuath – àird às nach tig solas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Air gach àird eile, tha beanntan drùidhteach a’ cuairteachadh a’ ghlinne, ga fhàgail ann an dubhar no dorchadas.

An Gleann Dubh faisg air a’ Chaolas Chumhang. Tha e air a chuairteachadh le leathadan casa. / The Gleann Dubh near Kylesku. It is virtually surrounded by steep hills. ©Jim BartonCreative Commons.

Tha dubh gu tric co-cheangailte ri cliathaichean beinne. ʼS e eisimpleir mhath An Leitir Dhubh (tha grunnan dhiubh ann) a tha mar as trice a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àird a tuath agus a gheibh glè bheag de sholas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Tha eisimpleirean ann cuideachd de leathaidean dubha a fhuair an ainmean air an aon adhbhar.

Fionn Loch agus Dubh Loch, tuath air Loch Maruibhe, taobh an iar Rois. Tha an diofar eatarra stèidhichte air dubhar nam beann ri làimh, seach diofar sam bith ann an dath an uisge fhèin.
Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ in Wester Ross provide a classic example of the pairing of contrasting toponyms in the Gaelic landscape. The names here are a reflection of the proximity of shade-throwing hills. Note that the pronunciation of the first name is ‘FYOON loch’, not ‘FEE-un loch’; the latter, while attractive, is unlikely as it would represent Fìon Loch ‘wine loch’!
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha iomadh eisimpleir ann de choireachan air a bheil An Coire Dubh agus tha iad mar as trice le creagan no beanntan gu deas orra. Ge-tà, chan eil e buileach cho soilleir carson as e dubh a th’ air cuid de chnuic no beanntan. ʼS dòcha gu bheilear a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air dath creige, lusan no mòine a cheart cho math ri solas na grèine, agus ʼs e a bhiodh math nan dèanadh cuideigin sgrùdadh mionaideach air ainmean-àite mar Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh agus Stob Dubh (mar a nochdas iad gun alt air mapaichean an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais).Tha ciall an ainm A’ Chreag Dhubh follaiseach gu leòr mas ann air bearradh a tha e a-mach, ach faodaidh beanntan air a bheil a leithid de dh’ainm a bhith gun bhearradh, ach le leathad rudeigin creagach nach eil air an taobh a deas. Corra uair, chaidh ainm mar seo a thionndadh gu Creag Dhu (ainm club sreap stèidhichte ann an Glaschu) no Craig Dhu, agus tha eisimpleir dheth sin ann an Siorrachd Àir a Deas ann an seann Ghàidhealtachd Charraig is Ghall-Ghàidhealaibh.

Tha am buadhair dubh ri fhaicinn gu tric an cois a’ chladaich cuideachd. Tha na ficheadan de ghoban no àirdean air a bheil An Rubha Dubh. ʼS iongantach mura h-eil iad ainmichte airson a bhith creagach no fraochach, gun a bhith feurach, crotalach no feamainneach – oir bhiodh na trì mu dheireadh a’ tarraing a’ bhuadhair bàn no buidhe don ainm. ʼS iomadh eilean air a bheil An t-Eilean Dubh cuideachd, agus air adhbharan ceudna.

Ach ʼs dòcha gu bheil aon ainm-àite anns a bheil dubh a’ seasamh a-mach bhon chòrr, co-dhiù a rèir cho fillte is cho tarraingeach ʼs a tha e. Ann an ceàrnaidh iomallach dhen Mhonadh Liath, don earra-dheas air Loch Nis, tha Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine. Tha an t-ainm fillte ga dhiofarachadh bhon t-Sìthean Dubh a tha pìos beag gu tuath air, agus tha sin air eadar-dhealachadh air a dhath bhon t-Sìthean Odhar agusbhon t-Sìthean Liath a tha le chèile faisg air làimh. Tha na sìthichean – mar a tha na dathan – mar phàirt mhòr de dh’ainmean-tìre na Gàidhealtachd!

Dubh-lochain ann an Teàrmann Nàdair Fors na h-Àirde ann an Dùthaich nam Boglaichean. Tha an t-uisge dubh dorch air sàillibh stuthan a thig às a’ mhòine. / Dubh-lochans at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve living up to their name in winter. The water in this peaty landscape is stained dark with tannins. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

This is a great time of year for analysing toponyms (place-names) that contain the adjective dubh [pronounced ‘DOO’] in Scotland’s Gaelic landscape. This is because the word often means ‘dark’ in landscape terms, rather than its primary meaning of ‘black’, and the low sun path in winter can often reveal places that remain in shadow for much of the time and which have therefore attracted the descriptor. There are virtually no examples of the use of dubh with the generic srath ‘wide valley, strath’ whereas gleann dubh, ‘dark glen’ is a relatively common toponym – gleann representing a steeper-sided ‘glen’, often located directly under high hills. A classic example is the Gleann Dubh south-west of Killin (Stirlingshire). It opens into Glen Dochart in the north – a direction from which the sun never shines in the winter months – but is surrounded at all other compass points by a ring of great hills which leave it in shade for long periods.

An Loch Dubh ann an ceann a tuath Chataibh, le Meallan a’ Chuail air a chùlaibh. Tha beanntan ga chuairteachadh air gach taobh ach an taobh tuath. / Loch Dubh with Meallan a’ Chuail behind it, north-west Sutherland. The loch is north-facing, with high hills shading it from the track of the sun. ©Andrew SpenceleyCreative Commons.

Shaded hillsides often carry the descriptor dubh, a good example being leitir ‘above-water slope’ which is a feminine noun and therefore causes the adjective to lenite, giving us Leitir Dhubh [pron. ‘lay-tchir GHOO’]. These are generally north-facing slopes which see little direct sunshine in winter and can often experience considerable shade even in the brighter months. There are also examples of north-facing slopes called Leathad Dubh ‘dark slope’ – leathad being a masculine noun.

The effect of shade can also be seen in the pairing of contrasting descriptors with fionn, bàn or occasionally geal ‘fair, light, white’ being employed as a comparison with an adjacent place-name qualified by dubh. In Wester Ross the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ are connected and therefore share the same water. The contrast is not in the water quality but in the amount of shade, with the Fionn Loch being in relatively open country, whereas the Dubh Loch is tucked under the great steep hills of A’ Mhaighdeann and Creag an Dubh Loch. The reversal of the normal word order, with the specific preceding the generic is not uncommon with some colour descriptors, and is also in evidence at the northern end of Loch Lomond where the Geal Loch ‘white loch’ and Dubh Lochan ‘small dark loch’ are differentiated by the former being open to the south, with the latter being surrounded by hills on the east, south and west.

An Dubh Loch ann an Leitir Iù, Taobh Siar Rois. Nas fhaide a-mach tha am Fionn Loch a th’ ann an dùthaich fhosgailte gun bhearraidhean àrda mu a thimcheall. /
The Dubh Loch in Letterewe, Wester Ross (foreground), with high shading cliffs on its southern side. Beyond it, named in contrast, is the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ which is in open country and receives more direct sunlight. (C)Roddy Maclean

However, with many water bodies, it is necessary to examine both the topography and water quality to be sure of the reason for dubh being employed, as many examples occur in peaty Highland areas where the water is darkened by tannins and, in the case of many dubh-lochans, are formed entirely within a peat-clad landscape. Many environmentalists use the term dubh-lochan in English for these water bodies which are characteristic of Scotland’s famous Flow Country (Dùthaich nam Boglaichean), now being forwarded for possible World Heritage nomination. As well as dozens of water bodies called Loch(an) Dubh or Dubh-loch(an), there are many burns called Allt Dubh or its diminutive Alltan Dubh and even some rivers called Abhainn D(h)ubh. The upper part of the River Forth in Stirlingshire is known in Gaelic as the Abhainn Dubh. Other water generics are also found linked to dubh. A fine double example is to be found east of Strathnairn near Inverness, where the Caochan Dubh ‘dark, hidden streamlet’ carries tannin-stained waters off the peatlands of Càrn na h-Easgainn into the Uisge Dubh ‘dark stream’ (literally ‘dark water’).

Tha an Gleann Dubh faisg air Cill Fhinn a’ faighinn ainm on dubhar sa bheil e fad mhìosan a’ gheamhraidh, agus e air a chuairteachadh air trì taobhan le beanntan àrda.
Gleann Dubh near Killin is named for its being in the shade of high hills to the east, south and west, which block direct sunshine during the darkest winter months.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

There are many examples of corries called Coire Dubh and, like glens and slopes, these tend to be north-facing and often shaded. However, hills with dubh are not so readily interpreted. The darkness here might be a reference to rock type, vegetation or peat cover as much as sunlight, and it would be good to see a rigorous analysis made of common hill or mountain toponyms such as Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh and Stob Dubh. Rocky crags called Creag Dhubh [pron. krake GHOO] often have an obviously shaded side, but the name can also apply to a hill which is accessible on all sides, but whose rockiest side does not face south. These names have occasionally been anglicised to Creag Dhu – the name of a famous Glasgow-based climbing club – or even Craig Dhu, an example of which is to be found in South Ayrshire, in the old Gàidhealtachd of Carrick and Galloway.

The descriptor dubh is also extremely common in coastal areas. There are, for example, dozens of points or promontories known as Rubha Dubh. These are likely to be rocky or heathery, and not grassy or overly clad with lichens or seaweed (which might attract the descriptor bàn ‘fair’ or buidhe ‘yellow’). Many islands off the west coast are called Eilean Dubh, probably for similar reasons.

But perhaps one dubh toponym stands out from the others in terms of its complexity and attractiveness. In the depths of the Monadh Liath, south-east of Loch Ness, lies Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine ‘the dark fairy hill of the white stone’. The reason for the name’s complexity is that it has to be differentiated from another Sìthean Dubh just a short distance to the north, which in turn is distinguished from a nearby Sìthean Odhar ‘dun-coloured fairy hill’ and Sìthean Liath ‘grey fairy hill’. The Little People – like colours – are a big part of our landscape!

The Author

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

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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