Which Gaelic word for ‘red’ is more appropriate when naming the robin?
What sort of ‘red’ colours the breast of one of our favourite birds – the European robin (Erithacus rubecula)? Perhaps the question is redundant in English as ‘red’ in this language covers a multitude of shades from russet to scarlet and crimson. Gaelic has a slightly more nuanced approach, however, with two common ‘red’ adjectives in daily use – dearg (‘JER-ek’) for scarlet through crimson towards purple, and ruadh (‘ROO-ugh’) for the browner reds of rust and russet but taking in such shades as the pink of granitic rock – as in the Monadh Ruadh (the Gaelic for ‘The Cairngorms’). At first sight, dearg would seem to have won the argument for the bird species, as the modern dictionaries will tell you that the standard Gaelic term for the robin is brù-dhearg (‘broo YER-ek’), literally ‘red breast’; dialectally it also appears as brù-dearg.
However, that is not the full picture. If one were to take the colour of a robin’s breast in isolation from the bird it describes, many Gaelic speakers might see it as ruadh – it is arguably right on the border between the two colour descriptors. And, indeed, Dwelly’s dictionary gives alternative names for the species – ruadhag, ruadhan (both meaning ‘small red one’) and rob-ruadh, the last very close to the name of a famous ‘red-haired’ Highlander of old – whose name is anglicised Rob Roy.
An old bit of verse picks the dearg option, allowing for a rhyme with fearg ‘anger’ and highlighting how the robin’s behaviour in winter might foretell a storm in the Central Highlands.
A Rabairt leis a’ broilleach dhearg,
Cha tàinig thus’ an-diugh le fearg,
Ach dh’innseadh gu bheil doinnean
Le fuil nan Toiseach air an t-sneachd.
Robert with the red breast, you did not come today in anger,
but to tell us of a storm, with the blood of Mackintoshes on the snow.
Even in summer, the bird was said to be able to foretell the weather. In his 1905 publication ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts etc’, Alexander Forbes tells us that, if a robin were heard singing cheerfully on a summer evening, that it was ‘a sure sign of fine weather; it may be quite unsettled looking and even raining when heard [but] it is sure to clear up in the night and be fine next day. On the other hand, when it is going to be wet weather, robin will be found in a hedge or bush chirping in a melancholy way, or possibly not chirping at all, but looking miserable, and that even though the weather is not yet wet or perhaps threatening.’
Robins are territorial and not without some boldness despite their diminutive proportions, and this is reflected in a Gaelic rhyme that mimics their song:
Big, big, bigean,
Cò chreach mo neadan?
Mas e duine beag e,
Cuiridh mi le creag e,
Mas e duine mòr e,
Bogaidh mi san lòn e,
Mas e duine beag gun chiall, gun nàir’ e,
Gun gleidheadh Dia dha mhàthair fhèin e.
cheep, cheep, little bird, who destroyed my nest?
if he is a wee man, I’ll push him over the cliff.
if he is a big man, I’ll plunge him into the pond.
if he is a wee senseless, shameless man,
may God preserve him to his mother.
In another version, the final two lines are perhaps more reminiscent of the actual trilling of an enthusiastic robin:
Mas e duine beag bìodach, bìodach, gun chiall, gun nàir’ e,
Gun gleidheadh Dia mhath dha athair is dha mhàthair fhèin e.
The patron saint of Glasgow, St Mungo, is said to have restored the life of a robin killed accidentally by one of his disciples, which is the reason that the bird appears (on top of a hazel tree) in the city’s coat of arms. Traditionally, the Gaels considered the bird sacred and considered it a peacadh mòr ‘heinous sin’ to kill one. Its healing influence was even said to extend to the bark of a rose bush in which the robin nested, a decoction of which was used as a cure for some ailments.
In his classic poem of environmental praise – Coire Cheathaich – the 18th century bard, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, calls the bird a brù-dhearg:
An druid ’s am brù-dhearg le mòran ùinich,
Ri ceileir sunndach bu shiùbhlach rann.
the starling and robin with much bustle, sing happily and fluently.
However, his contemporary, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) – who was widely read in several languages – makes it clear that the English name for the species was understood in the Gàidhealtachd; in at least two poems he refers to it as both ‘Robin’ and ‘Richard’. In Òran an t-Samhraidh ‘the song of summer’ he first compares the species to the wren:
Bidh an dreadhan gu balcant’,
Foirmeil, talcorra, bagant’,
Sìor chur fàilt’ air a’ mhadainn,
Le ribheid mhaisicht’ bhuig, bhinn,
Agus Robin dha bheusadh
Air a’ ghèig os a chinn.
the wren will be muscular, lively, dogged, plump,
always welcoming the morning, with a beautiful sweet, small reed
and a robin joining him with base notes on the branch above.
Then he makes a more general comment about the robin’s song:
Gur glan gall-fheadan Richard,
A’ seinn nan cuisleannan grinn,
Am bàrr nam bilichean blàthmhor,
’S an dos nan lom-dharag àrda …
how grand is Richard’s flageolet, playing the neat flutes,
on top of the flowery leaves, and in the thicket of the bare high oaks…
In another of his nature poems, Allt an t-Siùcair ‘the sugar brook’, the bard writes:
Bha Richard ’s Robin brù-dhearg ri seinn ’s fear dhiubh na bheus …
Richard and Robin redbreast were singing, one of them in bass …
It is perhaps, then, not a surprise that the word roban (observing the Gaelic spelling rule) is included as a Gaelic name for the species in old dictionaries. The common term in Perthshire was roban-roid which appears to be mean ‘bog-myrtle robin’ although this seems slightly unlikely from a habitat perspective. Perthshire native Robert Armstrong’s 1825 dictionary, however, gives ‘road, path, track’ for rod, whose genitive (possessive) form is roid.
Interestingly, when Gaelic made its way to Nova Scotia – where it is still spoken – the language was adapted to label the native birds of North America which are substantially different from those in Europe. There, the American Robin, which has a red breast, is a larger bird more reminiscent in size and appearance to the European thrush, and belonging to the same genus, Turdus. Thus, the Gaelic name for this species is smeòrach, which in Scotland is used for the song thrush.
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.