In Gaelic tradition, the red-throated diver not only predicts rain but actually ‘calls it in’.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog about birds whose behaviour – according to Gaelic tradition – might be used to predict rain or bad weather. The learga-ruadh [pron. ler-ek-uh ROO-ugh] ‘red-throated diver’ (ruadh means ‘red-brown’) is understood to take the situation a step further. Its mournful song is said to be the bird ag èigheachd air an uisge ‘calling in the rain’. This has given the species one of its several alternative names – the learga-uisge [pron. ler-ek-uh OOSH-kuh] ‘water diver’. At first sight, the appellation seems anomalous, for are not all divers denizens of water bodies, great and small? The answer lies in the fact that we also use uisge to mean ‘rain’. It is the ‘rain-diver’ and, because of its physical resemblance to a goose, it is commonly referred to in English as a ‘rain-goose’. Others know it as a ‘loon’.
When its song is heard among the lonely lochans of the Isle of Lewis, it is said that it is an learg a’ lorg a’ bhùirn ‘the diver looking for rain’. The Western Isles are one of their strongholds in these islands, boasting a number of lochs and lochans named for the species, such as Loch na Learga ‘the loch of the diver’ on Scarp, Taransay and mainland Harris. While there is no specific confirming that these names refer to the red-throated diver rather than its close relative the learga-dhubh ‘black-throated diver’, the Ordnance Survey confirm that they do indeed reference the ‘rain-goose’. Another example is Loch nan Learg near Cairinish on North Uist. Other lochs and lochans named for the species are to be found on Skye (for example Loch nan Learg near Portree) and on the West Highland mainland.
If you are looking for learga place-names in the landscape, note that the bird is also called a learg, but that an identical word can mean a ‘hill slope’; a better known form of the latter is leargaidh, the basis for the place-name ‘Largs’ in Ayrshire. The element learg with reference to the bird probably refers to the sea (lear being an archaic Gaelic word for ‘sea’) as in learg-mhadadh ‘dogfish’ – and this is not unreasonable as the bird gathers in groups in coastal areas during the winter months, when it loses its distinctive red throat and looks substantially like other species of diver, if a little smaller. The connection with inland and upland lochs and lochans (always small and never far distant from the coast) is because that is where the species breeds and where it is to be heard ‘wailing’ for the rain. The tradition in Shetland is that if the rain-goose flees inland, there will be good weather, but if she goes to the sea, bad weather is in prospect. Perhaps there is a degree of seasonality in that observation.
Other Gaelic names for the red-throated diver include learga-chaol ‘slender diver’, learga-dhearg ‘red diver’ and gob-ghèadh or bior-ghèadh ‘(sharp) billed goose’ – it has a distinctively sharp bill, slightly upturned at the end. It is also known as the eun-ruadh ‘red (russet) bird’ in the Strathnairn area, south of Loch Ness, where there is Lochan an Eòin Ruadha ‘the lochan of the red-throated diver(s)’, a somewhat remote water body close to Loch Duntelchaig where the species is still to be seen, paddling on the waters and diving for fish. There is potential confusion in the nomenclature here with the use of eun-ruadh in the north-eastern Highlands for the red grouse (more commonly cearc-fhraoich in Gaelic). In addition, the Ordnance Survey version of the loch’s name is ungrammatical; it should be Loch nan Eun Ruadha or dialectally Loch nan Eòin Ruadha. I discuss this toponym in more detail in my book on Place Names of Inverness and Surrounding Area, published by NatureScot in 2021.
If you go looking for this special bird, particularly during the summer breeding season, be careful not to disturb its nests which are built on the ground near the loch shore or on small islands. Scotland is an important refuge for the species, boasting around a third of the European breeding population. It’s best to view the red-throated diver at a distance through binoculars. Sit quietly and listen. Brief, short exclamations might indicate good weather (a parallel tradition) but the bird’s most arresting song is the long drawn-out plaintive call that puts a shiver down the listener’s spine and calls on the heavens to send down rain. Hearing that song beside a remote lochan in the hills is an unforgettable experience.
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.