The Leaping Dolphins

A number of species of leumadairean – dolphins – can be seen in Scottish waters.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

There is a rocky point of land to the south of the village of Clachtoll in Assynt (North West Sutherland) which is aptly named. Rubha Leumair (properly Rubha an Leumaire ‘the point of the dolphin’) is a promontory from which dolphins can still be spied today. Most sightings of these beautiful and intelligent marine mammals take place from boats but there is a handful of Scottish locations where they can be seen from the land. Another notable site is Gob na Cananaich (Chanonry Point) on the Moray Firth where the droll observation is made that the dolphins gather on the incoming tide as they are guaranteed a good view of an iconic species in its natural habitat – human beings gathered on land, many of them bearing binoculars!

A place named for dolphins – Rubha Leumair (modern spelling) – properly Rubha an Leumaire ‘the promontory of the dolphin’ in Assynt.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The generic Gaelic name for dolphins is leumaire, or more commonly leumadair, based on the word leum ‘jump, leap’; it is literally ‘the leaping one’, referring to its spectacular habit of propelling itself out of the water. This differentiates it from the smaller porpoise (peileag or puthag in Gaelic) whose back breaks the water surface as it takes in and exhales air but which doesn’t leap in the same manner. As leumadair might in theory also be used for another leaping animal such as a grasshopper, a dolphin can be referred to as a leumadair-mara (literally ‘marine leaper’) to avoid confusion. The word deilf is also recorded for ‘dolphin’ in Scottish dictionaries but is generally regarded as Irish.

Bottlenose dolphins people-watching at Chanonry Point. ©Ben James/NatureScot

Compared to some marine mammals, the leumadair cumanta, common dolphin – which averages some 2.5 metres in length – is not a massive animal. Dwelly’s dictionary records an old Gaelic name for the species – bèist-ghorm – literally ‘dark blue beast’, but the colour attribution is not particularly accurate as it is more generally recognised by a dark back and yellowish flank. For this author, his summer is complete when he has been quietly sailing off the west coast and has his boat suddenly, and without warning, surrounded by dozens of common dolphins which are preying on shoals of fish. The only sound they make is the plumanaich1 of their maritime cavorting as they pursue their prey. Sometimes this species gathers in schools of hundreds, appearing to encircle shoals of fish. It is surely one of the great natural experiences to be had off the Scottish coast.

A species of somewhat similar appearance, but largely restricted to deeper water and a more oceanic environs is the leumadair cliathaich-bhàin or Atlantic white-sided dolphin. The leumadair bàn-ghobach or white-beaked dolphin also appears in our waters, although it is widely distributed and ventures as far north as the Arctic.

Common dolphin breaching in the Minch. ©Sue Scott

In addition to the common dolphin, perhaps the species best-known to Scots is the bottlenose dolphin, of which there is a famous colony, numbering up to two hundred individuals, on the east coast, based around the Moray Firth but ranging as far south as the Firth of Forth; these are the animals which reveal themselves at Chanonry Point. In Gaelic, the specific name for this dolphin is rather unique – it is a muc-bhiorach which literally means ‘sharp (snouted) pig’ but is based on the fact that muc-mhara ‘sea-pig’ – now used generically for ‘whale’ – was probably the old generic for dolphins and porpoises in Scotland as it still is in Ireland. We have a simile in Gaelic – cho reamhar ri muc-bhiorach ‘as fat as a bottlenose dolphin’ – and, certainly, this species is large, heavy-bellied and with a robust look about it – although that doesn’t stop it leaping clean out of the sea at times!

Risso’s dolphin, sometimes known as a grampus, is another species which is seen in Scottish waters, although it has a near-global distribution. It is unlike any other dolphin, bearing a blunt head, lacking a beak and becoming lighter in colour as it gets older, varying from light grey to virtually white. The colouring gives us its Gaelic name cana, based on an archaic root can ‘white’ (which we see in canach ‘bog cotton’). It is also referred to as leumadair-Risso after the English name. It is a large dolphin, up to 4 metres in length, and is found in deep waters off the Western Isles where it hunts octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Encounters with giant squid may be responsible for some of the many scars in evidence on the bodies of older individuals.

A juvenile pod of Risso’s dolphin off the coast of Lewis. ©Nicola Hodgins, Whale & Dolphin Conservation.

Orc is an archaic Gaelic word meaning ‘whale’, with a derivative uircean still used today for ‘piglet’ – the etymological connection between pigs and whales being of long duration. Indeed, this is seen in reference to Orkney where the ancient Latin Orcades (Insi Orc in old Gaelic) has been variously interpreted as ‘islands of pigs’ or ‘islands of whales’ (the author favours the latter). The northern part of the Minch stretching over to Cape Wrath, and perhaps as far east as Orkney, was known in Gaelic as Cuan nan Orc ‘the ocean of the whales’.

Non Gaelic-speakers will recognise the same root in an alternative English name for the killer whale – orca (the species is Orcinus orca to the scientist). This magnificent marine predator is strictly not a whale, but a dolphin – the largest of all, reaching a whopping 9 metres in length. Orcas are to be seen regularly in oceanic settings from St Kilda to Shetland, including Orkney and Caithness (they can often be seen off the Isle of Stroma near John O’ Groats, predating the large colonies of seals there).

Orca hunting seals off the Shetland coastline. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

In Gaelic, the orca is most commonly known as the madadh-cuain ‘ocean-wolf’ – a suitable name, given its propensity to hunt in packs (when its strength is sometimes in evidence as it tosses fully grown seals into the air). Interestingly the indigenous Yupik people who straddle the territories of Siberia and Alaska traditionally considered that the wolves of winter transmogrified to become killer whales in summer. Another Gaelic name for the species, recorded in Point in Lewis, is muc-bhreac ‘piebald whale’, a reference to its distinctive black-and-white coloration. It is one of the great predators of the sea and if you are lucky enough to see one, cherish the memory!

  1. The noise of something plunging into water.

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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