Leugh anns a’ Ghàidhlig / Read in Gaelic
In such a frequently showered and mountainous landscape as Scotland, burns and streams abound, and the Gaelic language has a number of generic words for moving water. Here is a brief guide for map users:
Abhainn (AV-een) is the commonest word for ‘river’, being derived from an ancient Indo-European root and cognate with P-Celtic afon (the various rivers Avon throughout Britain were named by Celtic-speakers). Examples are Abhainn a’ Chadh’ Bhuidhe ‘river of the yellow pass’ in the Fannich Forest and Abhainn a’ Chaiginn Mhòir ‘river of the large rough mountain pass’ on Mull. Uisge (OOSH-kuh), literally ‘water’, is also used of rivers particularly in central and eastern parts, e.g. Uisge Spè ‘River Spey’; the word can also stand for a smaller stream e.g. Uisge na Crìche ‘boundary stream’ in Islay and Uisge Toll a’ Mhadaidh ‘burn of the deep corrie of the wolf (or fox)’ in Fisherfield.
The default word for a burn is allt (OWLT), the original meaning of which was ‘cliff’. It has been postulated that Gaels from Ireland, when first migrating to Argyll, met steep glens containing cliffs with associated watercourses, which brought about the semantic change. The diminutive form is alltan (OWLT-an) e.g. Alltan Dearg ‘red little burn’ near Tongue. Other developments of allt are cam-allt (KOWM-owlt) ‘winding burn’ and leth-allt (LEH-owlt) ‘burn with one steep bank’, both of which occur in numerous localities.
Feadan (FET-an) can mean a stream running from a moorland loch e.g. Feadan Molach ‘shaggy stream’ (referring to the vegetation) in Lewis. Another word is sruth (STROO) as in Sruth Geal ‘white burn’ near Callander and the diminutive sruthan (STROO-hun) e.g. Sruthan nan Nathrach ‘the burn of the adders’ at Loch Ballygrant, Islay. Caochan (KOEU-chun), based on an old root word meaning ‘blind’, is a slow winding stream largely hidden by vegetation (the walker is ‘blind’ to it); an example is Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘burn of the snow’ on the Monadh Liath. Ùidh (OO-ee) is a slow-flowing stream, often connecting two lochs, and is most commonly encountered in the far north-west e.g. Ùidh Loch na Gaineimh ‘the stream of the sandy loch’ in central Sutherland.
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.
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