Roddy Maclean looks at the fascinating word ‘caochan’ in the Gaelic landscape
There is a great hill that lies in wild and uninhabited country on the border of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire called An Sgarsoch. Its name probably means ‘place of sharp rocks’ (the Ordnance Survey Name Book says it is ‘covered with heath and outcropping rocks’). To its south-east lies a gathering of slightly lower summits and on the southern slopes of one of them lie three streams, each of which is named with a different generic element, and all of which run southwards into the river known as Uisge Tharbh ‘bull river’, most commonly given on maps in the anglicised form, Tarf Water. It’s as good a place as any to introduce you to the word caochan (pronounced approximately KOEUCH-un; think of French oeuf ‘egg’).
The westerly stream is Fèith nam Fuaran ‘the bog-stream of the springs’ – it originates in springs in the hill saddle to the north. The word fèith can also represent a muscle, sinew or vein in the body, and the concept is of something long and thin surrounded by other material – as in a water-channel surrounded by peat. The farthest east of the three streams is called Allt Coire an t-Saighdeir ‘the burn of the corrie of the soldier’. Allt is often considered the default word for ‘burn’ in the Gaelic landscape, but Dwelly’s dictionary gives an insight into its origins by giving its primary meaning as ‘mountain stream’ – and also ‘river with precipitous banks’. The word is thought to have been borrowed into Gaelic from Pictish, in which language it likely meant ‘cliff’ or ‘high rock’ (it is thought to be cognate with Latin altus ‘high’ from which English ultimately derives the word ‘altitude’). Such places, in a Scottish context, are often running with water.
In the middle between the fèith and the allt is a stream called Caochan nan Laogh ‘the stream of the calves’. Caochan is variously translated as ‘stream’, ‘streamlet’ or ‘rivulet’ but what distinguishes it from a peaty fèith or a rocky allt? The clue is in the origins of the word caoch which can mean ‘blind’ or ‘empty’ – for example a hazelnut with no kernel (sadly a common feature for the forager!) is known as a cnò chaoch ‘empty nut’. However, a caochan is rarely without water in our wet landscape. It is in the meaning of caoch as ‘blind’ that we realise what caochan is describing. It is a ‘blind stream’, so almost-covered with vegetation (like heather), that it can easily be missed. You might detect a slight purling noise (another meaning of caochan) but the stream might be all but silent and will rarely roar like a rocky allt in spate. Keep your eyes open if you are walking in a country where caochanan are common because some of them are potential ankle-breakers.
As is common in the Gaelic landscape, there are other nearby place names derived from the name of the stream. An old adjacent shieling site is Ruigh Caochan nan Laogh, and the hill above is called Bràigh Coire Caochan nan Laogh ‘the upland of the corrie of Caochan nan Laogh’. The calves in question are likely to be cattle, referring to their presence at the shieling (a nearby hill is Cnapan nan Laogh ‘the wee lump of the calves’) although laogh can also refer to the young of the red deer.
There are several other caochanan running off the massif connected to An Sgarsoch. Caochan na Macranaich runs off Sròn na Macranaich ‘the hill-end or nose of the band of young men’; Caochan Riabhach Mòr and Caochan Riabhach Beag are the large and small brindled streams, referring to the appearance of the vegetation; and Caochan na Cuairte ‘the stream of the circuit’ takes a circuitous route off the eastern flanks of the mountain.
Here are some examples of caochanan in other parts of the Highlands: Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘the stream of the snow’ is in Stratherrick near Loch Ness; Caochan an Leathaid Bhàin ‘the stream of the fair slope’ is in Atholl, Perthshire; Caochan Crom nan Eag ‘the twisting stream of the notches’ is a beautifully accurate name for a stream near the River Dulnain in the Monadh Liath, and nearby is the equally tantalising Caochan na Feòraige ‘the stream of the squirrel’ (in a location with few trees today). Caochan Lùb ‘stream of tight bends’ is in the Glenfeshie Forest of Badenoch; there is an old, abandoned settlement of the same name (anglicised Cuchanlupe) just to the north in Abernethy. This was famous locally for the illegal manufacture of whisky, no doubt using the pure water of the Caochan Lùb! In Glen Orrin near Dingwall there is another abandoned settlement with a caochan name. Tyacaochan is an oddly anglicised form of Taigh a’ Chaochain ‘the house of the stream’; it lies directly adjacent to a stream known simply as An Caochan.
Gaelic-speaking ethnologist and map-maker, Raghnaid Sandilands, has investigated and mapped the caochanan in her home territory between Strathnairn and Srathdearn, finding 27 of them on the Ordnance Survey 6-inch map. The names and heritage associated with them are thought-provoking and of interest to both the naturalist and the historian. For example, Caochan na Poite is ‘the stream of the illicit still’, Caochan na h-Earbaige is ‘the stream of the small roe deer’ and Caochan na Mòine Guirme is ‘the stream of the verdant peatland’.
In her blog Sandilands tells us that, of her 27 caochanan, only three appear on the 1:50 000 map today, demonstrating a potential loss of knowledge and understanding among those who only use that scale of map. The 1:25 000 maps are better, and I would recommend those to readers of this blog who are interested in our caochanan and their names. But you might find it useful and informative to go back to the first edition 6-inch maps of your favourite places and map the caochanan for yourselves.
Some caochanan, which are not even on the 6-inch OS maps, have been recorded by place name collectors. Among those are some gathered from local informants by Adam Watson and Elizabeth Allan, who published them in ‘The Place Names of Upper Deeside’ (Aberdeen University Press 1984) – an excellent book that was unfortunately limited to a small print-run. One rather attractive example from this publication will suffice. It is the Caochan Dùird Mòr and its neighbour, the Caochan Dùird Beag, which are in the hills of Upper Deeside, in the Forest of Mar (at NO 013857 and NO 016854). The name means ‘the streamlet of humming’. If you can’t see these ‘blind’ streams, you should at least be able to hear them!
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.