South on the right hand

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

The key points of the compass in Gaelic recall the ancient practice of facing the rising sun in the east. East is an ear, originally meaning ‘in front’ and west is an iar, which meant ‘behind’. Both terms are found in place names – for example, the Western Isles are often referred to as Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Gaelic.

The term for ‘south’ is deas, which also means ‘right’. The word is related distantly to the Latin dexter and therefore to the English ‘dextrous’, and has similar associations with correctness. It derives from the naturalness of sunwise motion (the sun moves from east to west through the south of the sky in the northern hemisphere).

Sunrise in Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Sunwise, or clockwise, motion (called deiseil in Gaelic) is still seen in Gaelic culture as being more favourable than the opposite, which is known as tuathal. This comes from tuath, the Gaelic for north, which originally meant ‘left’. Tuathal has suggestions of unnaturalness or awkwardness, as in partan-tuathal (‘awkward crab’), the Gaelic for the hermit crab.

Hermit crab © Graham Saunders/Marine Scotland

Deas and tuath are relatively common in the landscape – for instance, Uibhist a Tuath (North Uist) and Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). But in many areas of the Gàidhealtachd, you travel suas gu deas (‘up south’) and sìos gu tuath (‘down north’), which is the opposite of what you would say in modern English.

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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