It’s fitting that even English speakers use a Gaelic word for a habitat that is such an icon of the Gàidhealtachd.
In the dark depths of winter, perhaps it’s appropriate to remind ourselves of the light and colour of the machair in June. It’s only a few months until we once more have the opportunity to smell the sea spray and delight in the wildflowers that stud this iconic Scottish habitat. Our language has given the word to English, with machair defined in one dictionary as ‘(in Scotland, especially the Western Isles) low-lying arable or grazing land formed near the coast by the deposition of sand and shell fragments by the wind.’
In Gaelic, the picture is rather broader. Machair is thought to derive from the elements magh ‘plain’ and tìr ‘land’ and it refers not only to the maritime habitat of western coasts, as in English, but to any plain or extensive level area of arable land. Machair Aonghais is the lowland country of Angus stretching from around Kirriemuir (Ceathramh Moire ‘Mary’s quarterland’) and Strathmore (An Srath Mòr ‘the big strath’) to the coast. The word is even used to refer to the Central Belt of Scotland which is Am Machair Gallta ‘the Lowland plain’. It also occurs in Irish Gaelic, with place names like Magherafelt (Machaire Fíolta) and Maghera (Machaire Ratha), and on the Isle of Man, where there are names like Magher ny Traie ‘the field of the beach’ and Magher y Chreg Vane ‘the field of the white rock’.
However, it is in Scotland that the word is best-known, and where it made the transition from Gaelic into English, as employed by naturalists and scientists, in the 20th century, with specific reference to the coastal machair of places like the Western Isles. While Uist and Barra perhaps show the finest development of the habitat, there are also significant amounts in Lewis and Harris and many other islands which possess coastlines with a face to the open ocean. The mixture of shell-grit with the native sand is crucial to these habitats, providing a mix of nutrients, along with reduced acidity, that ensures conditions, and flora, that is substantially different from the talamh dubh ‘black land’ dominated by peat elsewhere in these coastal areas.
The coastal machair is also a managed habitat, with crofters and farmers heavily involved – planting crops in rotation, fertilising with seaweed and ensuring the sustainability of its productivity. The diversity of its plant life is a direct consequence of active human management. Naturally enough, it is a habitat that is much-loved by the Gaels.
Traditional crofting practices are one of the crucial ingredients for machair.
While the word is in daily use throughout the Western Isles in both languages, it is surprisingly rare on maps of the islands. Examples, however, are Machair Leathann ‘broad machair’ and Machair Robach ‘scruffy machair’ on the north coast of North Uist. and Loch a’ Mhachaire ‘the loch of the machair’ on the island of Killegray in the Sound of Harris. And there is the settlement of Ardivachar (Àird a’ Mhachair ‘the promontory of the machair’) on South Uist. Here the word machair is given its usual masculine gender, but nearby there is, at least according to the Ordnance Survey, Rubha Àird na Machrach ‘the point of the promontory of the machair’, where the word is treated as feminine. This appears erroneous, as the form Àird a’ Mhachair is well-established. The word is also given feminine status, which it undoubtedly bears dialectally, in Kintyre, where there is Cruach na Machrach ‘the hill of the machair’, although the amount of ‘machair’ in its vicinity is decidedly small.
The word machair is also to be found on the map in other parts of the country where Gaelic was once the dominant language, sometimes today in an anglicised or modified form. There are a number of machair names in Galloway, such as Machermore (Machair Mòr ‘big plain’) and Macherbrake (Machair Breac ‘variegated field). There is also an area of Wigtownshire called The Machars, which describes the general lie of the land. Likewise in the old Gàidhealtachd of south-western Scotland, we have, in southern Ayrshire, Macherquhat (Machair Chat?) and Pinmacher, probably ‘the pennyland of the plain’. Not far distant, on the west coast of the isle of Arran, is Machrie (with a lot of derivative place names like Machrie Water and Machrie Bridge) and where a golf course has been created on the coastal machair – and wasn’t it on machair or (in Scots) ‘links’ that golf started?
Islay also boasts a Machrie, adjacent to a beach known as Tràigh Mhachir (Tràigh a’ Mhachaire ‘the beach of the machair’). On the same island, near the airport, another strand is also called Tràigh a’ Mhachaire; it is backed by Muran a’ Mhachaire ‘the marram grass habitat of the machair’ and overlooked by the Machrie Hotel.
Flat machair lands on Kintyre also provided a suitable location for the construction of an airport. Campbeltown Airport is on machair known as Machair Shanais, anglicised Machrihanish. Kintyre boasts some other machair names, including Machrimore and Machriebeg (‘large’ and ‘small’). And on the isle of Colonsay, adjacent to some lovely coastal machair, of which the local rabbits are inordinately fond, there is Machrins (Na Machairean).
Those of you with an interest in television might recognise the word in the context of Gaelic TV. The first Gaelic ‘soap’ ever to appear on television in Scotland, filmed largely on the Isle of Lewis, was called ‘Machair’. Perhaps the last word on ‘machair’ should also be from the Western Isles, from an anonymous songster who wrote Uibhist mo Ghràidh, a loving and much-sung tribute to Uist from an exile. Among the memories of island life which maintain the writer’s wellbeing in Glasgow of the paved streets are those of the machraichean (the plural form of machair):
Ged ʼs fhada bhon dhʼfhàg mi eilean mo ghràidh,
ʼS a thàinig mi a Ghlaschu ʼs a rinn mi ann tàmh,
Tha machraichean Uibhist nam chuimhne a ghnàth,
Aʼ cumail mo chridhe gach latha rium.
Though it’s long since I left the island I love, and came to Glasgow and made a home, The machairs of Uist are continually in my memory, Keeping my spirits up every day.
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.