The Gaels traditionally viewed some bird behaviours as predictors of future events…
Birds are active creatures whose lives intertwine regularly with our own. Some of our avian friends even make their homes in and around our own dwellings. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that traditional societies, with their strong links to environment and nature, often linked the behaviour they saw in certain familiar bird species to events that were happening in their own lives … or that were about to happen. We have our own expressions of such relationships in Gaelic Scotland.
An example is the attractive, long-tailed black-and-white bird known as Breac an t-Sìl ‘pied wagtail’, which draws attention to itself with its bobbing tail. In Gairloch, the following is said: Nuair a chì thu breac an t-sìl, chì thu ’n t-uisg’ ‘when you see the pied wagtail, you’ll see the rain’. Of course, in a well-watered place like Wester Ross, perhaps that’s more than likely to be true! Incidentally, the name of the species breac an t-sìl means ‘the pied one of the seed’. Seeds only form a small amount of its diet and it has been suggested that the name should be breac an tìl, referring to the ‘tìl’ sound it makes.
A close relative of the pied wagtail is the grey wagtail, a species that is connected in Gaelic tradition with the same prediction of bad weather, but also with a completely different, and rather sinister, omen. It is known as Breacan Baintighearna ‘the little variegated one of the Lady’ (meaning the laird’s wife). Breac is a broad descriptor that can stand for ‘speckled’, ‘variegated’ or ‘pied’, and which is also used as a noun. If the grey wagtail were to be seen near the doors of houses or among the hens, it was a forecast of bad weather. However, in the evil days of the Highland Clearances, if this species were seen between a person and their house, it was a prediction of imminent eviction. This was known in Gaelic as Call na Làraich ‘the loss of the house site’.
Another species whose behaviour would tell of bad weather is the Brù-gheal or wheatear. If your day’s first viewing of it is a bird perched on a stone, a storm is not far off. A similar tradition, but with even greater consequences, attaches itself to the Clacharan ‘stonechat’. While it is propitious to see one on the wing, this bird standing on a bare rock was a harbinger of doom, summarised in the saying: Chunnaic mi clacharan air clach lom, ʼs dhʼaithnich mi nach dʼ rachadh a’ bhliadhna leam ‘I saw a stonechat on a bare rock, and I knew that the year would not go well with me’.
A similar presaging of a bad year attaches itself to the Cuthag ‘cuckoo’. If you hear the cuckoo’s first song in Spring, but you have an empty stomach, a bad year will ensue. In olden times, people would keep a biscuit under their pillow in Spring so that they could nibble on something before rising – just in case they heard a cuckoo! In Easter Ross, it was considered unlucky to hear the first cuthag if it cuckooed less than five times.
There are many Gaelic traditions connected to the cuckoo. If the bird called from a house-top or chimney, it was considered to be a prediction of the death of one of its inhabitants within the year. If it could still be heard in An t-Iuchar ‘July’ (some of the birds having not yet left Scotland), the following harvest would be afflicted with bad weather. And if the cuthag was to be seen singing from a craobh-sgithich ‘hawthorn tree’ it would be a good day for a transaction – selling a cow or buying corn.
People would also be worried if they saw a Liath-chearc ‘grey hen’ – meaning the hen of the black grouse – in the evening, as it was considered to be a bird of ill omen. The ‘cò-deug, cò-deug’ whistle of the Feadag ‘golden plover’, if heard at night, was also said to portend death or some other evil. However, it is thought that those involved in (illegal) whisky-distilling in remote places inhabited by plovers promoted this belief in order to discourage visitors!
Various beliefs also attach themselves to the Fitheach ‘raven’. There is a saying: Fitheach dubh air an taigh, fios gu nighean an dathadair ‘a black raven on the roof, notice to the dyer’s daughter. This was a death omen, as the dyer’s daughter would have had responsibility for dyeing dresses black. Ravens with white in their plumage are considered a particular harbinger of calamity – luckily, they are rare! The Welsh polymath, Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) recorded a Gaelic tradition in Scotland that if the raven cries in the morning before the Feannag ‘hoodie crow’, it will be a fine day; if it is the hoodie that cries first, bad weather will ensue.
A particular ‘sad’ call of the Comhachag ‘barn owl’ was seen as presaging wet weather. The saying concerning this has been preserved: Tha a’ chomhachag ri bròn, thig tuiltean oirnn ‘the owl is mourning, the floods are coming.’ And the loud, clear singing of a lon-dubh ‘blackbird’ is supposed to foretell rain.
The Brù-dearg ‘robin’, on the other hand, was listened to carefully, as its call was seen to presage good or bad weather. When it sits in a hedge or bush, giving a subdued chirp, this is viewed as a sure sign of poor conditions to come, whereas when it sings ‘cheerfully’ on summer evenings, even if it is overcast, a good day is certain to follow. And if the Uiseag ‘skylark’ sings on a wet day, the rain will soon dissipate and be followed by dry weather.
Another good omen is seeing a Calman ‘pigeon/dove’ first thing in the morning, and the same is true of the raptor, Clamhan nan Cearc (or Clamhan-luch) ‘hen harrier’. In the days of the shieling, when the cattle were being driven from the village to the high country, it was fortuitous to see a Naosg ‘snipe’ rise in front of the beasts. From this came the observation ʼs ann romhad a dh’èirich an naosg ‘it’s in front of you that the snipe rose’ – meaning the person is lucky. However – and very strangely – it was considered bad luck to hear the turghanaich or meigeadaich ‘drumming, bleating’ of a snipe on a Monday while sitting hunched!
While many of the omens connected to birds are negative, it might be worth finishing on a positive one. If there’s a Smeòrach ‘song thrush’ around, keep your door open. If the bird enters your house voluntarily, you will be blessed with good luck!
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.