Wild Boars of Gaelic Legend

Roddy Maclean explores the presence of the wild boar in the Gaelic landscape

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

There is a stream in the hills south of Tobermory on Mull called Allt nan Torc, accepted by the Ordnance Survey as referring to wild boars, although it isn’t clear when the animals were present at this location. Wild boar names are remarkably numerous in the Highlands, and it is tempting for the ecologist to consider this as evidence for the historical presence of the species in these locations. However, for a full interpretation of torc names (tuirc in its genitive singular form), the ecologist needs to be fully aware of our rich Gaelic storytelling heritage. Many of the references to this species in our landscape are not ecological, but folkloric.

A fine example of such a toponym is to be found near the Glenshee Ski Centre in the form of Càrn an Tuirc (pron. kaarn un TOORK) ‘the mountain of the boar’. This name is best understood when we recognise the proximity of other place-names, both current and obsolete, that record the great legendary heroes of the Fianna and their leader Fionn mac Cumhail (sometimes known in English as Finn MacCool or Fingal). A few miles away, at the upper end of Glenshee, is Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gulabin), the famed site of the death of Diarmad in the great pan-Gaelic legend of ‘Diarmad and Gràinne’.

Diarmad, one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, beloved for his looks and renowned for the irresistible ball-seirc ‘love-spot’ on his brow, died here when his foot was pierced by a bristle on the back of the dead boar which he been tasked to kill, following his ill-advised elopement with Gràinne, the wife of Fionn. The torc names in this vicinity, including Lochan an Tuirc, an ancient waterbody now almost dried-up, which stands near the site of Diarmad’s ‘tomb’ (where his body was reputedly buried) can only be understood in the light of this famous tale, passed down in oral tradition in both Scotland and Ireland, most probably since the early days of Gaelic civilisation. Oral tradition tells us that the boar’s carcase was thrown into the loch, along with a magic cup belonging to Fionn which might have saved Diarmad’s life had it not been dispatched into the water according to Fionn’s wishes.

Diarmad and Gràinne is one of the great (and complex!) legends of the Gàidhealtachd, and worthy of the telling in the modern era. As befits many traditional stories which were handed from mouth to mouth in the taigh-cèilidh (ceilidh house), it has become located in many places, with local toponyms ‘verifying’ the storyteller’s insistence that it happened in that very place! The furthest north occurrence is on Beinn Laghail (Ben Loyal) in the Mackay Country of North Sutherland where sgrìoban an tuirc ‘the boar’s scratches’ on rocks show where the beast was thrown off the mountain by Diarmad. This is a local variant; most versions of the tale have Diarmad killing the animal with his spear or sword.

The wet depression in mid-picture (in high farming country in Glenshee) was anciently recognised as Loch an Tuirc ‘the loch of the wild boar’. The reference here is entirely folkloric, as the mountain in the background is Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gulabin), the most famous site (of several) linked to the legend of the death of the Fingalian hero, Diarmad, who was killed when the bristles of the boar he had vanquished on the mountain penetrated his foot. This ancient story, handed down for centuries in oral tradition in both Scotland and Ireland, was committed to manuscript form in Highland Perthshire in the 16th Century in The Book of the Dean of Lismore. Just a few miles away is Càrn an Tuirc ‘the mountain of the wild boar’. Photo © Roddy Maclean

For this blogger and place-name enthusiast, the give-away for a tuirc name being connected to the Diarmad legend is the presence of a nearby hill which includes, as in the Glenshee example, the element gulbain/guilbinn (variously spelt), meaning ‘snouted’. There is an example in Glen Spean in Bràigh Loch Abar (Brae Lochaber), where Lochan an Tuirc ‘the small loch of the boar’ stands just to the south of Tòrr a’ Ghuilbinn ‘snouted hill’. Another example is in Ross-shire, near the village of Garve, where Beinn a’ Ghuilbein lies to the immediate north of Loch an Tuirc.

Sometimes the gulbain name is connected to a feature that carries the toponymic element muc ‘pig, sow’ rather than torc ‘boar’. In the Trossachs, Beinn Ghulbain (anglicised Ben Gullipen) lies above Loch Bheannchair (Loch Venachar), in sight of the hill known as Dùn nam Muc ‘the hill of the pigs’, and a short distance from the River Turk (at Brig o’ Turk), whose name is thought to derive from tuirc, although the reasons for that are a subject of debate. In addition, another local place-name Allt nan Sliseag recalls a part of the Diarmad legend where Fionn discovers sliseagan ‘chips of wood’ created by Diarmad who, while on the run, was making a living from manufacturing wooden bowls. Such a ‘knot’ of local names represents credible evidence for this legend being located locally.

Loch an Tuirc in the hills to the east of the village of Garve in Ross-shire is another folkloric reference to the wild boar in the Highland landscape. The pairing of this feature with the adjacent Beinn a’ Ghuilbein is a strong indication that this is another location where the great pan-Gaelic legend of ‘Diarmad and Gràinne’ was situated. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In Strathspey there is another Beinn Ghuilbin, to the north of Aviemore. A little to its north-west is the Slochd, through which the A9 road passes. The historical name for this feature, as evidenced by Roy’s 18th Century military map, was Sloc Muice ‘pig’s den or hollow’. The authorities seem to have disregarded a possible folkloric connection, preferring the narrative that, according to tradition, ‘the last of the wild boars of Caledonia was killed’ there (Ordnance Survey) or that there is a hillock shaped like a boar’s back located at the bottom of the sloc.

Another place that claims to have witnessed the demise of the last of the original wild boars is the village of Torinturk, named from a hill (and farm) called Tòrr an Tuirc, to the south-west of Tairbeart Loch Fìne (Tarbert Loch Fyne) in Argyll. However, this location is very close to places with distinct folkloric names – Dùn a’ Choin Duibh ‘the tower of the black dog’ and ‘Giant’s Grave’, of which there are many in the Gàidhealtachd. Interestingly, Leabaidh an Tuirc ‘the boar’s bed’ on Beinn Ghulbain in Glenshee, reputedly the location of the animal’s lair, is shown on the OS 6-inch map (2nd edition), where it is given an alternative name of ‘Giant’s Grave’. Needless to say, the OS name collectors were not folklorists or historians, and we cannot accept at face value the claim that a torc toponym refers to the death of the ‘last’ boar that lived.

The village of Torinturk in Argyll is named from Tòrr an Tuirc ‘the hill of the wild boar’. Local lore has it that the last wild boar in Scotland was killed here but, given the presence of other nearby toponyms that recall figures from Gaelic legend, might this be another example of a folkloric name? Photo © Roddy Maclean

A mountain at the border of Badenoch and Atholl in the Central Highlands, near the A9 road, is called An Torc ‘the boar’, known as ‘The Boar of Badenoch’ in English. In this case, it is reputedly the shape of the hill, somewhat reminiscent of a wild boar, with its bristly back, that is responsible for the name. This explains Coire an Tuirc ‘the corrie of the boar’ and Allt an Tuirc ‘the burn of the boar’ which are adjacent to the mountain and derive their names from it.

South-west of Loch Laggan is yet another site where a ‘Guilbinn’ hill name appears adjacent to a waterbody named for the wild boar – more evidence for the widespread fame of the Diarmad legend in Gaelic Scotland. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

What of places like Sròn an Tuirc ‘the spur of the wild boar’ in mid-Sutherland, Beinn an Tuirc ‘the mountain of the wild boar’ in Kintyre and the two places called Bad an Tuirc ‘the thicket of the boar’ – one in Perthshire and the other in Sutherland? There is also Tom an Tuirc ‘the hillock of the boar’ in Strathardle, Perthshire, mentioned in a historical account, and no doubt many other such names could be tracked down in estate papers and the like.

Are there tales or historical events recorded in connection with these places that would place the toponym in the realm of ecology or folklore (or both!)? More research is needed on the presence of this iconic mammal in the Scottish landscape. This would profitably include muc ‘pig’ names. For example, in Wester Ross, Gleann na Muice ‘the glen of the pig’ and Pollan na Muice ‘the small bog of the pig’ lie in a rugged and remote location in the Fisherfield Forest. Pollan na Muice is in sight of Suidheachan Fhinn ‘Fionn’s sitting place’ on the slopes of Beinn Tarsuinn. Did Fionn sit there to watch Diarmad vanquish the boar (the struggle between the two was his idea) or was his interest captured by some other legendary event? Whatever the answer might be, I hope that you agree with me that we have a wonderful and fascinating landscape!

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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