Roddy Maclean looks at places on our maps named for the bellowing of stags during the rut.
Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic
There is a wonderful Gaelic word, which has a hint of the onomatopoeia about it, that tells of a fantastic, wild sound to be heard, at a certain time of year, in the Scottish hills. The word, which appears surprisingly frequently on maps of the Highlands, is bùirich (pronounced approximately ‘BOOR-ich’ with a long ‘OO’) and here are its foremost meanings according to Dwelly’s Gaelic-English dictionary: ‘roaring as a bull, bellowing; wailing; growling; loud lament; low murmur’. In nature, the word can represent the roar of wind, the sea or a waterfall, the sound of thunder or the call of the mythical characters known as ùruisgean (urisks) near the streams that are their abode.
Why should such a word appear in place-names? Is it simply a descriptor of the howling of the wind in that location? Well, perhaps occasionally, but in most cases, I would submit that bùirich in the landscape represents the sixth meaning in Dwelly’s tome: ‘bellowing of deer in the rutting season’. Is there a finer sound to be heard in a remote upland location?!
A variant of bùirich is bùireadh, with the genitive form bùiridh (‘BOOR-ee’), which means, not only the sound, but the act of rutting. Dwelly tells us that a poll-bùiridh is a ‘rutting-place of deer’ (poll refers to a place which is boggy or full of peat hags). Both words often appear in lenited form as bhùirich (‘VOOR-ich’) and bhùiridh (‘VOOR-ee’) – and they both speak to us of the wildness of the fiadh ‘the [red] deer’ and, in particular, the damh or stag.
A number of years ago, I was attending the National Mòd – Gaeldom’s largest festival of music and culture – in Dunoon. The Mòd is held in October, the name of which month in Gaelic is An Dàmhair ‘the deer rut’ so, on my way home, as I approached Glencoe, I stopped by a lochan to see (or hear) if the stags were making their presence felt. And indeed, they were – I was almost assailed by a series of loud, challenging, primeval-sounding bellows coming across the moors and water from a hill known as Meall a’ Bhùiridh ‘the rounded hill of the roaring’ (or, as the Ordnance Survey [O.S.] Name Book prefers, ‘hill of the rutting’). It was one of those occasions (and they are not infrequent in the Highlands) when the toponymy and the current reality were in perfect consonance, and I arrived home a happy man!
Another hill of the same name is to be found in Glen Etive in Argyll, and the O.S. give its meaning as ‘the rutting hill’, but there is an adjacent hill-name that adds intrigue in this case. It is Meall nan Tarbh ‘the rounded hill of the bulls’. Given that bùireadh/bùirich can also refer to the roaring of a bull, is there here some recollection of a bovine presence in this environment? Did the heroine Deirdre, reputed to have lived in Glen Etive back in the days when time and events were more than misty, hear the roaring of bulls there? In those distant times, there were many more cattle to be found in Scotland’s hills, under the watchful eye of herdsmen, than is the case today. With regard to Deirdre, I pose the question, but I cannot provide the answer.
Beinn a’ Bhùiridh ‘the mountain of the bellowing’ is also the name of another hill in Argyll, in this case above Loch Awe. And, in the north-eastern Highlands, west of the ski resort at the Lecht, are two hills named for the behaviour of stags in the rut – Druim Bhùirich ‘ridge of roaring’ and Tolm Bùirich ‘hillock of roaring’. Nearby are Allt nan Aighean ‘the burn of the hinds’ and Allt nan Cabar, which might mean ‘the burn of the antlers’. Deer form a significant part of the toponymic landscape in this area.
As might be expected, it is not only mountains that carry the element bùireadh. Corries are great places to hear the echoing of a stag’s roaring and we have Coire a’ Bhùiridh ‘the corrie of the bellowing’ near Loch Ailort in Lochaber; Allt a’ Bhùiridh ‘the burn of the bellowing’ issues from it. Close by is Meall Damh ‘rounded hill of stags’ which reinforces the connection with the animal. There is another corrie known as Coire a’ Bhùiridh in Ardgour; it is adjacent to Sàil a’ Bhùiridh ‘the mountain [literally “heel”] of the roaring’.
There is also Coire a’ Bhùirich (with the bùirich element being employed) in Glen Quoich in Lochaber, at the base of which there is a wood called Coille a’ Bhùirich. On the opposite side of the glen is Coire na Fèinne, one of a knot of place-names there that recall the legendary warriors known as the Fianna, who hunted the deer avidly and no doubt revelled in the bùirich they would hear at the time of the rut. Further east in Lochaber, south of Na Coireachan Liatha (The Grey Corries), is Meall a’ Bhùirich. There are at least four other hills known as Meall a’ Bhùirich in the North-West Highlands, between Ross-shire and Sutherland. In Assynt, there is also a pass called Bealach a’ Bhùirich.
In the Corrieyairack Forest, east of Loch Oich in the Great Glen, there is a hill known as Sròn a’ Bhùirich ‘the spur [or literally “nose”] of the roaring’. On its southern side is Leac nan Aighean ‘the slope of the hinds’. Another Sròn Bhùirich holds a commanding position in the Gaick Forest in Badenoch, a location that celebrates in its names and traditions the ancient legends of the Fianna and their chasing of the deer.
If I have given a picture of the words bùirich and bùiridh as referring solely to the roaring of stags in the rut, there is a final rider to put on that, and it is a fascinating one for anybody interested in the wildlife heritage of the Highlands. In a paper entitled ‘Sketches of the Early History of Strathardle’, delivered to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1889, Charles Fergusson writes about a folk memory of wolves in and around Strathardle (east of Pitlochry) in Perthshire. He sets the scene by saying that ‘so numerous and destructive were the wolves in Strathardle, Glenshee and Glenisla, that all tenants were bound by their leases to keep a pair of hounds for hunting the wolf and fox’.
Fergusson mentions places named for wolves in the strath and then comes to the ‘wolves of Ben Bhuirich [Ben Vuirich O.S.] [that] were reckoned the largest and most ferocious of all.’ Beinn Bhùirich, to give it its correct Gaelic name, is near Glen Fernate (Gleann Feàrnach) just to the north of Strathardle. Fergusson informs us that ‘Colonel Robertson in his “Historical Proofs of the Highlanders” says that that mountain took its name from the roaring of its wolves.’ Fergusson then quotes a poem from Atholl known as Òran nam Beann:
Chì mi Beinn a’ Ghlò nan eag,
Beinn Bheag is Airgead Bheann,
Beinn Bhùirich nam Madadh Mòr,
Is Allt Nead an Eòin ri a taobh.
I can see Beinn Ghlò of the notches
Beinn Bheag and Airgead Bheann
Ben Vuirich of the great wolves,
And Allt Nead an Eòin beside it.
There are other Gaelic words that one might expect to recall the howling of wolves – such as donnalaich, nuallanaich and ulfhartaich. But this blogger cannot rule out the possibility that bùirich in Perthshire (and perhaps elsewhere?) refers to the haunting howl of the wolf. And just to back up that possibility, the corrie to the immediate east of Ben Vuirich – three centuries after the demise of the species in Scotland – is given on maps as Coire nam Madadh ‘the corrie of the wolves’.
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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