A Gaelic View of ‘Wild’

The Gaelic equivalent of the English word ‘rewilding’ is ‘ath-fhiadhachadh’. Roddy Maclean argues that the word, and the concept, sit comfortably within a Gaelic world-view.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

I have been working for the last couple of years with a conservation charity – Trees for Life – who own a ten-thousand acre estate at Dundreggan in Glenmoriston and who are currently developing the world’s first Rewilding Centre there. The centre will explain and celebrate rewilding, and will explain how Glenmoriston – and the broader Highlands – will benefit from the development. It will also celebrate the Gaelic language and heritage and, in particular, the strong links between the language and our native environment. In their support for Gaelic, Trees for Life are making a powerful statement about the role and status of the language and its heritage in relation to conservation, and I hope their advocacy will influence others.

Following consultation with the local community, it was the conservation charity itself that made the decision to incorporate Gaelic into the exhibition in the Rewilding Centre. There was no dragging, kicking, screaming or special pleading from Bòrd na Gàidhlig (although the Bòrd has provided financial support). What is pivotal to their approach is that Gaelic will not be an afterthought, provided as a translation of English text created from an anglophone perspective, but is being creatively interwoven into the exhibition from the start. In particular, the Gaelic understanding, and celebration of nature, land and heritage will be exhibited in both languages, both as written interpretation and as audio.

Scots Pines in Glen Affric, where rewilding began in the 1960s.
Photo © Grant Willoughby 

In the late summer of 1993, I was privileged to make a short Gaelic radio programme for the BBC, in which I interviewed the late Finlay MacRae, a forest conservation pioneer in Glen Affric. We spent a hot sunny day together in the regenerating woods around Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhain, and Finlay told me all about the rewards and challenges of working in such a beautiful place. A native of the Isle of Skye, Finlay was a great piper and aficionado of shinty, but his greatest fame rests in his work as a District Officer in the Forestry Commission, where he started the process of saving and regenerating the wonderful native pine forests of Affric. To Finlay, walking in the Caledonian forest among mature trees was a ‘spiritual’ experience. And for me, to be in the company of a native Gael who celebrated the magnificence of our forests through his work, advocacy and music was inspirational.

This original conservation work, dating back to the early 1960s, was promoted by arms of government, but Trees for Life, a charity founded by Alan Watson Featherstone, took up the cudgels on behalf of the forest, and began to plant vast numbers of trees, protected from grazing by deer fencing. Most of their work was in Glen Affric and nearby Glen Cannich, Glen Urquhart and Glenmoriston, all now the centre of a vision known as Afraig Mhòr/Affric Highlands, which will in the future see a large, conjoined area of native forest across much of these glens and beyond.

Carbon-accredited trees planted at Allt Ruadh, Dundreggan, Glenmoriston.
Photo © Stephen Couling

In the early days, people would talk about ‘conservation’ and ‘regeneration’ of native woodland but, by 1990, a new term – ‘rewilding’ – had appeared in print, coined (if we accept Wikipedia’s say-so) by members of Earth First!, a radical environmental advocacy group in the United States. The term has been refined and developed since then, and it is fair to say that it means subtly different things to different people. It is most broadly about creating an environment where natural ecosystems and natural processes are protected and promoted and where biodiversity is encouraged.

Planting trees is only part of a much bigger picture and, indeed, the removal of plantation forest and the blocking of drains in the Flow Country, so as to re-establish the integrity of that globally significant bogland, can be viewed as an example of rewilding. Neither in the case of Glenmoriston is it simply about trees. As the forest ecosystems are protected, particularly from overgrazing, so we see a considerable increase in biodiversity, including shrubs, herbs, epiphytes, fungi and both vertebrate and invertebrate animals of all sorts. Nature reasserts itself. To the human, the experience of being in such a forest is powerful and sometimes overwhelming. Humans can be rewilded too!

A visualisation of Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, currently being constructed.
© Threesixty Architecture

Some in the Highlands have questioned whether a rewilding process fits comfortably within a Gaelic world-view and whether returning parts of our country to a natural state is somehow a denial of the work of previous generations in developing the rural economy that supported a population. I would submit that it fits comfortably with the Gaelic love of nature and that it can be linked positively to a thriving local economy. It can also be put forward as a celebration of our cultural heritage, as at Dundreggan – if we assert our place as the keepers of a unique language and culture and work closely with the conservation movement. It’s going to happen anyway, and it is better that the Gaels are part of it.

In terms of the terminology we use, some have questioned the use of the ‘new’ word ath-fhiadhachadh (ah EE-ugh-uch-ugh’) for ‘rewilding’ but I would submit that it as natural as the English word. Fiadh (FEE-ugh’) refers to both ‘deer’ and the ‘wild’ – the deer being the archetypal wild beast in a Scottish context. Another animal of the ‘wild’ is the hare or geàrr-fhiadh (literally ‘short deer’ or ‘short wild one’), usually shortened to geàrr. Both the deer and the hare, rather uniquely among terrestrial mammals, are known to shape-change from animal to human form in Gaelic tradition. We are ourselves of the wild!

A fiadh-bheinn is a wild mountain and fiadh-bheatha is the Gaelic for ‘wildlife’ but fiadh is also well known adjectivally as fiadhaich ‘wild, savage’; like the English word ‘wild’ it can refer both to things and places where civilisation does not dominate and to animals and people whose demeanour is combative or angry. Cat-fiadhaich is the Gaelic for ‘wildcat’ and the species qualifies on both grounds! Fiadhain is another similar word, often used for ‘wild’ or non-cultivated plants. Ubhal-fiadhain is a ‘crab apple’.

The old Gaels would say of land that had previously been developed for agriculture, but that had become wild once more, gun robh e air a dhol am fiadh ‘that it had gone to the wild’, and while fiadhachadh is in the dictionaries meaning ‘deer hunting’, it is no great semantic step for us to also use it to mean ‘making wild’. With the addition of the prefix ath (‘re-’) we have ath-fhiadhachadh ‘rewilding’. As I said to somebody the other day, ann an ath-fhiadhachadh, tha ath-ùrachadh ‘in rewilding, there is renewal’. It’s a natural enough use of language.

The linking of Gaelic to the notion of environmental renewal has particular resonance in Trees for Life’s estate at Dundreggan where the Gaelic heritage is incredibly strong. Virtually all of Glenmoriston’s place names are Gaelic and the glen abounds with hundreds of Gaelic songs, poetry and stories – the last of both historical figures and of supernatural creatures like sìthichean (‘fairies’), cailleachan (‘hags’) and the infamous làir bhàn ‘white mare’ of Coire Dhò. Some of these examples of local culture will find their way into the interpretation at the Rewilding Centre. The poems in particular are pertinent to Trees for Life’s core message, for they demonstrate the historical love of Gaels for their native environment, a recognition of which can help to inform our commitment to the values of rewilding today.

A detail from the book ‘Còinneach ʼus Coille’ (‘moss and forest’) by Alexander MacDonald of Glenmoriston. In the poem ‘Gleannamoireasdain’, he extols the abundant virtues of nature in his native glen, including the vegetation. MacDonald was a prolific writer and collector. He and others have left us a magnificent legacy of hundreds of Gaelic songs which were composed or sung in Glenmoriston.

In his parting comments to me back in 1993, Finlay MacRae compared the situation of Gaelic to the Caledonian forest. ‘Nach e an aon rud a th’ ann? Aren’t they the same?’ he said. Once dominant, both had shrunk to a historical low and many people now lived their lives, even in the Highlands, without hearing Gaelic or seeing a native pine wood. But neither had become extinct and human intervention could return both to a situation of prominence once more, where both language and forest would inspire us, inform our daily lives and make us happy.

For me as a human, ath-fhiadhachadh ‘rewilding’, means that – a process that provides inspiration and happiness for the people of Scotland and the wider world. We can talk about mitigating against climate change, about sequestering carbon within biomass, about combatting species extinction and loss of biodiversity – and all of those are important aspects of rewilding. But, ultimately to experience a greater love and respect for our language and our environment, where Gaelic is at the heart of a holistic conservation ethic in the Scottish Highlands, is something I have dreamed of for a very long time. In Àrainn Ath-fhiadhachaidh Dhul Dreagain ‘The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre’, due to be completed in 2023, I hope that we shall do justice to that vision.

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.

The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre received £714,000 in funding from the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund, which itself is funded through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) with an almost £9 million investment in the Highlands and Islands. The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund invests in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to: provide more and better quality opportunities for visitors to enjoy natural and cultural heritage assets; encourage people to visit some of the more remote and rural areas; and create and sustain jobs, businesses and services in local communities. The purpose of the fund is to promote and develop the outstanding natural and cultural heritage of the Highlands and Islands in a way that conserves and protects them.

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