The Surly Animal of the Yellow Moon

Roddy Maclean reveals aspects of the badger’s appearance in folklore and literature, and on Scotland’s Gaelic landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

The badger or broc ‘BROCHK’ has long had a place in the folklore, and one could say affection, of the Gaels – although the latter point might be contested, given the proverbs and sayings in which it appears. Despite its living in a warren with its fellows and being an arguably social animal, it is generally reckoned to be a bit unsociable, even crabbit, hence the simile cho gnù ri broc ‘as surly as a badger’. Another simile is cho leisg ris a’ bhroc ‘as lazy as the badger’ and yet another is cho cruaidh ris a’ bhroc ‘as hard as the badger’ which is said of niggardly people. There’s not much there in the way of praise!

To compound the negative view of the species, we have the saying chan iarr am broc na shloc ach e fhèin ‘the badger prefers to have his sett to himself’ (sloc – which rhymes nicely with broc – is the commonest word for a badger’s sett or den, although broc-lann and broclach are terms which are specific to this animal). In Carmina Gadelica (Volume IV), folklorist Alexander Carmichael gives us the rather strange expression: tha e a’ cur bhroc às a ladhran ‘he is casting badgers from his feet’, which is used of a ‘man stamping his feet in anger’.

The etymology of broc is unclear but the word is very old and has cognates in all the Celtic languages. It is likely to have been borrowed into Scots and English from a Celtic language at a fairly early stage, giving brocc, brock and brok, which live on today as dialectal variants. As in Gaelic, the English word was often used disparagingly, sometimes accompanied by the adjective ‘stinking’. Other Gaelic names for the badger are also recorded. Stiallair(e) ‘striped one’ and stiall-chù ‘stripe-dog’ refer to its most obvious unique feature – the large black stripes on the head, as does the name strianach ‘stripey one’. Tùidean is another name for the species, based on tùd ‘stink, stench’ and referring to ‘any smelly animal (especially the badger)’. It appears that the poor badger is in need of a champion who can improve its public profile!

A badger ©Adobe stock image.

Despite the supposed ‘laziness’ of the badger, people recognised that the species would work hard in the autumn to ensure that the sett was prepared for the winter. In Gaelic, the impressive October full moon which can presage a period of good weather, is known as Gealach a’ Bhruic ‘the badger’s moon’ or Gealach Bhuidhe nam Broc ‘the yellow moon of the badgers’. This refers to the animal’s habit of using the light of this moon to furnish its home with large amounts of dry grass. Under moonlight, they can be seen turning and drying the grass which is referred to as am broc a’ caoineachadh a bhoitein ‘the badger turning its bundle of hay in order to dry it’. The verb caoinich/caoineachadh is also used of crofters turning their hay to expose it to the drying effect of sun and wind. This year’s gealach a’ bhruic fell on the 9th of October – did you come across any busy badgers at that time?!

An extensive old badger sett on a wooded hill near Ardersier. Some setts can have multiple entrances and cover large areas of ground. This particular example was originally a ‘fairy’ hill, as evidenced by its Gaelic name and traditions; the badgers appear to have become part of the scene in more recent times.
Photo ©Roddy Maclean

Badgers do not figure highly in Gaelic literature, but they do appear now and again. A medieval poem Gleann Measach Iasgach Linneach ‘fruitful glen with pools and fishes’, is attributed to the legendary pan-Gaelic heroine, Deirdre, although it is more likely that an anonymous bard placed the words in her mouth. The heroine speaks of her love for her glen in Scotland which fate will prevent her from ever seeing again. It is a place of cuckoos, thrushes, blackbirds, roe deer, sleek flat-nosed otters, goats, swans, salmon – and badgers:

Gleann na gcaorthann go gcnuas corcra,

go meas molta do gach ealta;

parrthas suain do na brocaibh

i n-uamhchaibh socra ’s a gcuain aca.

Glen of rowans with scarlet berries,

fruit praised by every bird flock,

a tranquil paradise to the badgers

in peaceful holts with their litters.

Deirdre appears to have been partial to badger fat, as is evidenced in another ballad attributed to her (which presumably reflects an aspect of the medieval diet of the Gaels). In Ionmhain Tír an Tír-Úd Thoir ‘beloved land in the east’, she looks back longingly to Scotland from Ireland to which she has unhappily returned with her lover Naois (whose fate is a tragic and violent death in Ireland):

Gleann Laoigh!

Do chollainn fán mboirinn chaoimh;

Iasg is sidheang is saill bhruic,

Fá hí mo chuid i nGleann Laoigh.

Glen Lui!

I would sleep below the fair rock;

Fish and venison and badger fat

That was my fare in Glen Lui.

Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) was a Moidart-born poet of stature who composed a deal of nature poetry in the years 1725-45. Arguably, his finest composition of this type is Allt an t-Siùcair ‘the sugar burn’, written of a stream adjacent to his smallholding when he was a teacher in Ardnamurchan. Here he uses the adjective brocach ‘abounding in, or connected to, badgers’:

An coire brocach, taobh-ghorm, torcach, faoilidh, blàth;

An coire lonach, naosgach, cearcach, craobhach, gràidh …

The green-sided corrie has badgers and boars and is hospitable and warm. The marshy corrie has snipes, hens, trees and benevolence…

The badger appears not infrequently in the Gaelic landscape, sometimes in its definite genitive plural form nam Broc (‘num BROCHK’), meaning ‘of the badgers’. Examples of such toponyms are Tom nam Broc ‘the knoll of the badgers’ near Loch Lomond, Tòrr nam Broc ‘the hill of the badgers’, south of Loch Sunart (and another of the same name near Loch Ness), and Cnoc nam Broc ‘the hill of the badgers’ near Kishorn in Wester Ross. Broc-bheinn near Sligachan on Skye, a place noted in island folklore, has been interpreted as ‘badger-mountain’. Alexander Forbes in his ‘Place-Names of Skye’ (1923) tells us that this feature is also referred to as Broclach Bheinn ‘badger’s-den hill’ and Na Broclaich ‘the badger’s dens’. The indefinite plural form bhroc ‘of badgers’ is found in Tuim Bhroc, probably originally Tom Bhroc ‘knoll of badgers’, just outside Callander in the Trossachs.

Tom nam Broc ‘the knoll of the badgers’ lies just north-east of Balmaha on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Broclach also appears dialectally as braclach, and is found in that guise in the landscape, such as in Beinn na Braclaich ‘the mountain of the badger’s sett’ near Dunvegan on Skye and Fèith na Braclaich ‘the bog-stream of the badger’s sett’, south of Newtonmore in Badenoch. However, braclach can also occasionally refer to a fox’s den (the more common word is saobhaidh). It is likely that some Gaelic place-names, anglicised to Brackla, Brachla, Brackloch or Brachlach, originally referred to a badger’s den, although an origin in breac ‘speckled’ cannot be ruled out for one or two of them. Brackla in Garioch (Aberdeenshire) appears to be a badger name as it is adjacent to a feature known as Broclach Hill; the settlement itself is given as Broclach on some older maps. Early forms of the name Brackland or Bracklinn (as in the famous Bracklinn Falls), just outside Callander, suggest a possible origin as broc-thulach ‘badger hill’.

Broc also appears in many toponyms in its genitive singular form a’ Bhruic (‘uh VROO-ichk’) meaning ‘of the badger’. For example, Creag a’ Bhruic ‘the rocky hill of the badger’ is in Glen Strathfarrar and Lag a’ Bhruic ‘the hollow of the badger’ lies adjacent to the road between Tomintoul and the Lecht Ski Centre. Leaba a’ Bhruic ‘the bed or lair of the badger’ is in Easter Ross and Lochan a’ Bhruic, west of Loch Awe in Argyll, was interpreted by the Ordnance Survey Name Book informants as ‘badger’s loch’. Coire Bhruic ‘badger’s corrie’ is in Glenfeshie in Badenoch.

Fèith Tòrr a’ Bhruic ‘the bog-stream of the hill of the badger’ is in the Langwell Forest of Caithness
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

A derivative of broc is brocair, originally a ‘badger-hunter’, but whose meaning came to include ‘fox-hunter’ (because the same person often did both jobs); in recent historical times, given the increase in sheep-raising in Gaelic Scotland – and the abundance of vulnerable lambs – fox-hunting has been a much more common pursuit than badger-hunting, so that the primary meaning of brocair is now a person who hunts and kills foxes. Thus, the peninsula known as Rubha a’ Bhrocaire on the coast of Coigach in Wester Ross means, according to the Ordnance Survey Name Book, ‘foxhunter’s point’.

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 medieval poetry and translations in this blog come from the excellent publication ‘Duanaire na Sracaire/Songbook of the Pillagers’, an anthology of medieval poetry edited by Wilson McLeod and Meg Bateman (Birlinn 2007).

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