‘Eas’ in the Gaelic landscape marks a named waterfall
There must be thousands of waterfalls cascading off mountains in the Scottish Highlands, most of which are marked on our maps with the simple English label ‘waterfall’. But there is a considerable number that have their local significance recognised with a Gaelic name – usually carrying the element eas, the most common word for a waterfall or cascade. The word is pronounced ‘ESS’ and I have often thought of it as onomatopoeic – although perhaps not after a heavy rainfall when many waterfalls begin to thunder, rather than hiss.
It will be no surprise to most of us who have experienced a waterfall in full spate on a dark and overcast day that a common descriptor found with eas is bàn ‘fair, white’. In the Inverinate Forest, for example, the Eas Bàn ‘fair waterfall’ tumbles into Allt Bàn an Lì-Ruighe, a stream whose complex name is likely to mean ‘the fair burn of the slope next to the ground that floods’.
Geal is another word used for ‘white’, representing the type of brightness we see in snow. Its inflected form ghil is seen in Eas an t-Srutha Ghil ‘the waterfall of the white stream’ which is above Loch nan Caorach ‘the loch of the sheep’ in Assynt. Close to it is an even more impressive feature – the highest waterfall in Britain, with a longest drop of 200 metres – known as Eas a’ Chuail Àlainn, a lovely name generally interpreted as ‘the waterfall of the beautiful tresses’.
Eas a’ Chaorainn in Knoydart is ‘the waterfall of the rowan’ and Eas an Taghain, north-east of Ullapool, is ‘the waterfall of the pine marten’, naming an animal which appears only rarely in toponyms. On the River Cannich, near the village of the same name, is Eas an Fhithich ‘the waterfall of the raven’. Eas a’ Bhradain ‘the waterfall of the salmon’ is a much-photographed feature that lies adjacent to the A87 road at the head of Loch Ainort, Skye.
Eas, however, does not simply signify a waterfall. It can also refer to a rapid stream that falls steeply, usually contained within high banks, as in Eas nam Broighleag ‘the rapid stream of the berries’ near Kilfinan in Argyll (probably named from nearby Cruach nam Broighleag ‘the hill of the berries’). Eas nan Seileachan ‘the rapid stream of the small willows’ is in Glen Feochan, Argyll, and there is another Eas Bàn ‘fair rapid stream’ at Attadale in Wester Ross.
The default for ‘burn, stream’ in Scottish Gaelic is allt. Burns with notable waterfalls often carry both elements in their names. An example is Allt Eas na Gaibhre, named from Eas na Gaibhre ‘the waterfall of the goat’ near Craig in Wester Ross. Allt Eas nam Muc ‘the burn of the waterfall of the pigs’ is near Kylerhea on Skye; almost opposite it, on the mainland close to Glenelg, is the descriptively named Allt Eas Mòr Chùl an Dùin ‘the burn of the big waterfall behind the broch (fort)’, referring to the ruined ancient monument known as Castle Chalamine (presumably Caisteal a’ Chalmain ‘the fortified tower of the dove’).
Wikipedia tells us that the three highest waterfalls in Britain are to be found in the Scottish Highlands, based on the height of their greatest single drop. Third on the list are the Falls of Glomach near Loch Duich, generally given their English name on maps, although Glomach derives from the substantial burn in which the feature is located – Allt na Glòmaich (Allt a’ Ghlomaich OS) ‘the burn of the chasm’. It is well-named, and spectacular, both in its remote setting and its raw power.
The second highest waterfall in the country contains a different generic element – steall. It is worth noting that this is not pronounced like English ‘steal’; it is approximately ‘styowl’ with ow as in English ‘cow’. A steall can differ from an eas in having a degree of horizontal, as well as vertical, force – it can also stand for liquid spouting from a pipe or even a ‘splash’ of milk, as taken in a cup of tea. A derivative, stealladair, is the Gaelic for ‘syringe’. The most famous steall in Scotland is the 120-metre high Steall Bàn ‘fair waterfall’ in Glen Nevis near Fort William, sometimes tautologically referred to as Steall Falls. Like our other highest waterfalls, it is in a remote and spectacular mountain environment.
Another word for waterfall is also to be found occasionally in Gaelic place-names, although it originates in Old Norse. This is fors (Old Norse foss), found in the abandoned settlement of Achafors (Achadh Forsa ‘waterfall field’), close to the shores of Loch Aline in Morvern. In Sutherland it occurs in the adjacent, and compared, settlements of Forsinard (Fors na h-Àirde) and Forsinain (Fors an Fhàin), respectively the waterfall of the high, and of the low, ground. The famously tautological Eas Fors ‘waterfall waterfall’ is to be found in the west of Mull nearly opposite the island of Ulva.
Perhaps the last word should go to a mountain stream that lies adjacent to a knot of wildlife-related toponyms to the east of Loch Awe in Argyll. Within a short distance of each other are Beinn Bhalgairean ‘mountain of foxes’, Coire Làir ‘mare’s corrie’, Meall nan Gabhar ‘the rounded hill of the goats’ and Coire nan Each ‘the corrie of the horses’. To their immediate south is Eas a’ Mhadaidh – ‘the dog’s cataract’, according to the OS. Madadh is an indeterminate generic that, without a specific, can refer to the fox or wolf. As balgair has been used for ‘fox’ in the same vicinity, my betting is that Eas a’ Mhadaidh means ‘the cataract of the wolf’. If that name doesn’t make your imagination run like a waterfall, what will?!
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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