The Tusk of the Milking Maids

A deep-water fish appears – rather strangely and inexplicably –  in an old Gaelic milking song

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

It is fair to say that the deep-water marine fish known in English as tusk or cusk – traille in Gaelic – does not often appear in Gaelic song or literature, but it is, perhaps rather inexplicably, mentioned in a milking song recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the first edition of Carmina Gadelica, his unique collection of Gaelic songs, prayers and other heritage. The fish shares its place with some of the great saints of the Gaels.

Tusk, or cusk (Brosme brosme), is a bottom dweller that prefers stony bottoms on the continental shelf and slope at depths between 100 and 1000 meters.. Photo: MAREANO / Institute of Marine Research

There is a saying in Gaelic – ʼs ann às a ceann a bhleoghnar bò ‘it’s from her head that a cow is milked’. This refers, not to some remarkable anatomical feature in Highland cattle, but to the ‘fact’ that a happy cow produces more milk. And cows are happy when they are sung to! Carmichael explains the situation thus: ‘The cows become accustomed to these lilts and will not give their milk without them, nor, occasionally, without their favourite airs being sung to them. This fondness of Highland cows for music induces owners of large herds to secure milkmaids possessed of good voices …’

“A Scotch Milkmaid” – A Scottish Shale Museum postcard, (C)Scottish Shale Museum.

Carmichael goes on to elucidate the inspirational consonance between the work of the milking maids and the environment of the West Highlands, at least in his experience. Perhaps this explains why the oceanic tusk finds its way into a song about an essentially land-based activity: ‘It is interesting and animating to see three or four comely girls among a fold of sixty, eighty, or a hundred picturesque Highland cows on meadow or mountain slope. The moaning and heaving of the sea afar, the swish of the wave on the shore, the caroling of the lark in the sky, the unbroken song of the mavis on the rock … the lowing of the kine … the response of the calves within the fold, the singing of the milkmaids in unison with the movement of their hands, and of the soft sound of the snowy milk falling into the pail, the gilding of hill and dale, the glowing of the distant ocean beyond, as the sun sinks into the sea of golden glory, constitute a scene which the observer would not, if he could, forget.’ One wonders if the milking maids themselves appreciated the glory of their work!

Here, then, is the milking song recorded by Carmichael on pp 258-9 of Volume 1, with a fairly literal (and unpoetic) translation given below:

Thig, a Bhriannain, on chuan,
Thig, a Thorrainn, buadh nam fear,
Thig, a Mhìcheil mhìl’ a-nuas
’S dìlinn dhòmhsa bò mo ghean.

Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil,
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.
M’ aghan gràdhach, bò gach àirigh,
Sgàth an Àrd Rìgh gabh ri d’ laogh.

Thig, a Chaluim chaoimh, on chrò,
Thig, a Bhrìde mhòr nam buar,
Thig, a Mhoire mhìn, on neòil,
’S dilinn dhòmhsa bò mo luaidh.
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.

Thig am fèaran on a’ choill,’
Thig an traill’ à druim nan stuagh,
Thig an sionn’, chan ann am foill,
A chur aoibh air bò nam buadh.
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.

* * * *

Come, Brendan, from the ocean,
Come, Ternan, most potent of men,
Come, valiant Michael, down
Forever make my best cow mine.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer,
Ho my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.
My beloved wee heifer, cow of every shieling,
For the sake of the High King accept your calf.

Come, beloved Calum of the fold,
Come, great Bride of the cattle herds,
Come, gentle Mary from the clouds,
Forever make my best cow mine.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.

The woodpigeon will come from the wood,
The tusk will come from the open sea,
The fox will come but not deceitfully,
To welcome the virtuous cow.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.
Adult tusk live in relatively deep water, while the juveniles prefer shallow water. Photo: MAREANO / Institute of Marine Research

One can never be sure with Carmichael’s work that he has not ‘tidied up’ the originals he heard, but even so, the result is an interesting blend of appreciation of some of the joys of nature and an invocation of the protection and assistance of the greatest of the Christian saints associated with Gaelic civilisation – all sung to a lilting melody and for the purpose of increasing the yield of life-sustaining cow’s milk. But why the milkmaid chose the tusk over other more familiar species of marine fish, such as cod, herring or saithe, remains, at least to this blogger, a mystery!

* * * *

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.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dingwall Bay Spartina control

Over the past few years, RSPB, with funding from NatureScot, has been successfully controlling the invasive Spartina cord-grass from the Dingwall Bay area, helping to improve the condition of the sensitive coastal habitats, and in turn improve opportunities for the wintering waterbirds of the Cromarty Firth.

Redshank, (C)RSPB Images (Andy Hay).

First thought to have been introduced to Dingwall Bay in 1932, Spartina anglica is an invasive species found in coastal habitats and is classified as a ‘high risk’ species on the UK TAG Alien Species Group list. Its presence has contributed to the unfavourable condition of the Cromarty Firth Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated for its wintering birds and coastal habitats, and its spread is thought to have had a detrimental impact on the ability of the intertidal areas to support the bird interests of the Cromarty Firth Special Protection Area (SPA). The Cromarty Firth is internationally important for wintering waterbirds, with an average of 30,000 birds present over the winter months.

Large and small scale maps of the treatment area.

Spartina causes problems for the coastal features of Dingwall Bay, saltmarshes and mudflats, in two ways; it occupies ecological space that would otherwise be available to native saltmarsh and mudflat plants, and the tall nature of the grass means that wintering waterbirds are unable to use the areas occupied by the Spartina for roosting or feeding. Waterbirds cannot stand on it and it also reduces visibility, meaning that birds cannot be vigilant for predators.

Spartina can be controlled through spraying with herbicide, which takes place in July or August while the plant is actively growing but before seed heads are formed. Ideally, the herbicide is applied three separate times during this period and then over a number of consecutive years in order to fully kill the plant.

Mature Spartina stand (L) and Spartina amongst sea plantain (R) – (C)David Tompkins RSPB

NatureScot has been funding RSPB to carry out control of Spartina at two problem locations in Dingwall Bay, with support from Network Rail and under licence by SEPA, for five years. RSPB already carries out control of Spartina at their own reserves at Udale Bay and Nigg Bay in the Cromarty Firth, but the existence of another Spartina seed source at Dingwall Bay will always present a potential threat to the good work being carried out elsewhere should it not also be controlled.

During 2019, RSPB was successful in being awarded funding from the EU LIFE programme for the ‘100% for Nature’ project, which includes various actions to achieve favourable condition across a range of sites. One of these actions is to continue to the Spartina spraying programme at Dingwall Bay, in addition to continued control at RSPB Nigg and Udale Bay reserves, all within the wider Cromarty Firth SPA for the term of the project. As part of this, RSPB have employed a project officer based with the Central Highland Reserves team, who will lead on this work for the next few years.

Spartina seedling (L) and seedhead (R), (C)David Tompkins RSPB.

The project officer started their post in March 2020 and progress has already been made in producing a leaflet and poster to highlight the threat of Spartina. Although spraying in 2020 was delayed and restricted by Covid-19, the site team have successfully sprayed all of the treatment areas three times this summer. The aim is to annually treat approximately 100ha of habitat with Spartina until 2024, or sooner if eradication is achieved earlier. Repeat interventions will be carried out to keep any treated areas under control, and ensure that they stay Spartina free.

Posted in invasive non-native species, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Endangered Species Day – freshwater pearl mussels

Each year Endangered Species Day shines a light on some of our most threatened species. Here Orla Hilton from NatureScot’s South Highland team takes a look at the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel and what can be done to help this struggling species.

Freshwater pearl mussels ©Sue Scott/NatureScot

The freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera L. is a long-lived mollusc (some live for over a century) that is under great pressure from river pollution and modification as well as illegal exploitation from pearl fishers. Scotland holds a significant global population of the species and hence our important role in conserving our populations.

Freshwater pearl mussels are also vulnerable to changing climate and drought.  This can be alleviated by riparian (riverside) planting. Initiatives such as the Pearls in Peril project have carried out extensive riparian planting and other management. In one population in the Hebrides this led to a pearl mussel population resuming breeding again for the first time in decades. As well as providing valuable shade from the sun, trees create more diverse water courses with more varied habitats for mussels and their host salmonids.

Woodland near Dunkeld. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Currently fine sediment in rivers has been highlighted as a key pressure on pearl mussels. It can affect their filter feeding and smother the spaces in the gravel where young pearl mussels tend to live.  Together with the Scottish Government, we are using a technique called ‘sediment fingerprinting’ to identify the sources of fine sediment in key catchments, allowing us to tackle any problematic areas.  In upland areas some of this sediment can come from degrading peat bogs so one way of safeguarding our pearl mussel is to restore our peat bogs by blocking dams, reprofiling exposed peat hags and scrub removal.

It is also important when any forestry works are going ahead to ensure proper measures are in place to prevent any sediment from machinery or felling works from smothering pearl mussels in the adjacent burns. This can be achieved by increasing the buffer between streams and plantation trees and by damming any pre-existing ditches. There are several examples where this kind of work has helped improve conditions – particularly a successful scheme in Sutherland by Forestry & Land Scotland.

Blocked ditches and newly planted riparian trees along a pearl mussel watercourse in Sutherland (trees funded by the Biodiversity Challenge Fund). ©Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust 2020.

In some rivers the cause of decline is much more mysterious. An unexplained and catastrophic decline in pearl mussels has been observed in two burns in Sutherland over the last two decades. Despite a lot of research the reason for the decline remains a frustrating mystery.  But just recently it has been suggested that a pathogen may be behind this mass mortality.  Unlike our battle with a very well-known pathogen (ahem, COVID-19, looking at you) the source of our mussels’ plight is yet unconfirmed. Marine Scotland Science have begun a study to test for possible pathogens, to try and better understand and address this worrying situation.

Until recently the ideal known habitat for this invertebrate has always been shallow fast flowing, well-oxygenated rivers. In exciting developments a recent study has found a significant population (containing juveniles!) dwelling in an Irish lough. In the future we hope to look into our own lochs in Scotland to have a clearer idea of the populations we have!

Could there be Freshwater Pearl Mussels in Loch Ness? ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

This is encouraging news for such an iconic species. Alongside our efforts to protect and improve the current known river populations the opportunities to loch-ate (!) more populations offers tantalising hope for future safeguarding of this key species.

Posted in fresh water pearl mussel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Improving the Flow for our visitors

Our NatureScot student placement scheme provides great opportunities for recent graduates to get invaluable work experience that puts their new skills into practice.

Fraser Wilson studied Countryside Management at Scotland’s Rural College and is now working with our NNR team, assisting reserve managers in looking after Caerlaverock, Cairnsmore and Kirkconnell Flow nature reserves. “I now spend my working life doing something that I love and that I am very passionate about”, says Fraser, “allowing me the opportunity to constantly learn new valuable skills every day, across a wide range of topics….

One job that the reserve team and I have been doing recently is some path work improvements at Kirkconnel Flow NR. We recently took delivery of 15 ton-bags of wood chippings, which seeing first thing in the morning knowing it all had to be emptied….by hand, was quite a daunting site!

Thankfully we have what we call an “Iron Horse”. A very handy piece of machinery which is basically a tracked platform with a small engine which can help lift heavy loads across wet and uneven terrain. Perfect for Kirkconnel Flow as it is typically quite a wet site thanks to the ongoing peatland works onsite.

The plan, which seemed to work the best, was to manhandle each bag separately onto the back of the iron horse, ratchet it down and then take it further into the site where we planned to spread it over previously identified problem areas of the path.

We had to be careful with how we utilised the material as there was nowhere near enough to do all parts of the paths, instead we focused on some of the worst areas, which were footfall hotspots, mostly around the main areas of the path loop and entrance to the bog itself. The longest piece of muddy path was around 60 metres and took six bags alone!

Before, and after.

Two days later and the worst of the paths were greatly improved. We deliberately filled in the centre of some of the longer parts of the path and left the edges bare, partly due to lack of material but mostly because we hoped that by making the centre of the paths more appealing to walk on then the edges will be less likely to be trampled on by visitors, hopefully helping them regenerate, in turn preventing the paths from increasingly wearing away wider and wider.

It was a very long and slow process to get each bag out to the intended area, one by one. The iron horse is far from quick but without it we would likely have had to wheelbarrow individual loads out across the reserve, something which would have literally added days onto the job time and would have been so much more labour intensive.

What was particularly nice about doing this job is that with the better weather coming in, the reserve has been getting busy and we were stopped by a few members of the public who wanted to say that the paths were looking great and that they have really seen a lot of improvements to the reserve, as a whole, over the course of the year. It’s lovely to get nice feedback like this and it really motivates you to get other tough jobs like this done.

Visit the NatureScot website for further information on our placement schemes.

Before and after.
Posted in graduate placement, Land management, National Nature Reserves, The Flow Country, Uncategorized, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Calltainn – Craobh ar n-Annsachd

Tha àite sònraichte aig a’ chraoibh-challtainn ann an saoghal traidiseanta nan Gàidheal.

Read in English

Tha an calltainn (Corylus avellana) na craoibh shònraichte do na Gàidheil mar a tha e do shlòigh air feadh na Roinn Eòrpa agus taobh an iar Àisia. ʼS e a th’ ann ach tè de na craobhan dùthchasach a tha a’ comharrachadh ‘Coilltean Calltainn an Taobh an Iar’ air a bheil mòran a’ gabhail ‘Coill’-uisge Cheilteach’ an-diugh – agus tha daoine air gràdh a ghabhail orra agus air an cur gu feum fad linntean. ʼS e coille dhen t-seòrsa sin àite fìor àlainn far a bheil na craobhan air an còmhdachadh le meanbh-lusan, crotail agus fungasan. Agus anns an Dàmhair gheibhear cnothan innte!

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Tha a’ chraobh-challtainn air ainmeachadh ann an rann beag mu chraobhan dùthchasach agus na h-àrainnean as fheàrr leotha:

Seileach nan allt is calltainn nan creag,
Feàrna an lòin is beithe nan eas,
Uinnseann an dubhair is darach na grèine,
Leamhan a’ bhruthaich is iubhar an lèana.

Tha an calltainn a’ nochdadh ann an ainmean-àite ann an grunn cheàrnaidhean, leithid Camas a’ Challtainn air cladach a deas Loch Seile agus Àirigh a’ Challtainn ann an Gleann Stratha. Ach bidh fios acasan a tha measail air ‘aibidil chraobhach’ nan Gàidheal gun robh an litir ‘C’ o shean air a riochdachadh le seann ainm a’ challtainn – coll no call. Gheibhear lorg air an riochd sin ann an àiteachan mar Bad Call, ainm a nochdas co-dhiù trì tursan ann an iar-thuath na Gàidhealtachd (ged a dh’fheumar a ràdh nach e a th’ air cùl nan ainmean Coll ann an Eilean Cholla no sgìre tuath air Steòrnabhagh ann an Leòdhas.

Camas a’ Challtainn [leis an t-seann litreachadh] air cladach Loch Seile. Tha a’ choille aig ceann a deas a’ chamais.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha riochd teàrnaichte de callcallaidh – ri lorg ann an Cùil Challaidh anns an Eilean Dubh (air a lughdachadh gu Kilcoy ann am Beurla), agus rinn an t-eòlaiche ainmeil, Uilleam MacBhàtair, iomradh air Bealach Collaidh siar air Beinn Uais (ged nach eil e air na mapaichean). Far a bheil Albais air atharrachadh a thoirt air seann ainm Gàidhlig, bidh coll a’ nochdadh mar cow, leithid ann an Duncow faisg air Dùn Phris (à Dùn Collaidh ‘daingneach a’ challtainn’). 

Air a’ Ghalltachd, tha eisimpleirean gu leòr ann de dh’ainmean-àite le Cowie agus Cowden, agus feadhainn dhiubh air tighinn bho thùs Gàidhlig a bha ag ainmeachadh chraobhan-calltainn. Dhearbh MacBhàtair seo ann an Cowden faisg air Cuimrigh ann an Siorrachd Pheairt, a nochd mar Coldon ann an seann làmh-sgrìobhainnean. Bha daoine anns an sgìre aig an robh Gàidhlig fhathast ga ainmeachadh mar A’ Challtainn, a’ ciallachadh ‘coille-challtainn’. Tha Cowdenknowes faisg air Mealros, a chaidh a dhèanamh ainmeil anns an òran thraidiseanta ‘Broom of the Cowdenknowes’, a’ toirt dhuinn fianais mu sgaoileadh na Gàidhlig do Chrìochan na h-Alba agus mun chraoibh-challtainn anns an àrainneachd. Agus tha sgoilearan air tùs Gàidhlig a thoirt dhuinn airson Cowcaddens ann an Glaschu, le seann riochd Kowcaldenis a’ sealltainn gur dòcha gun do thòisich e mar Coille Challtainn.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Tha an samhladh againn cho fallain ris a’ chnò agus tha dùil gur ann air a’ chnò-challtainn a tha e a-mach. Gu dearbh, nach bi sinn uaireannan ag ràdh ‘coille-chnò nuair a tha sinn a’ ciallachadh ‘coille-challtainn’? Tha fianais airceòlach ag innse dhuinn gun robh mac an duine ag ithe chnothan-calltainn ann an Alba cho fada air ais ri Linn Meadhanach na Cloiche, agus tha iad air a bhith mar bhiadh do fheòragan, luchan is cuid de dh’eòin bho linn Oisein agus roimhe.

Tha àite sònraichte aig a’ chnò-challtainn ann an beul-aithris Ghàidhlig, an dà chuid ann an Alba is Èirinn, le seòrsa àraidh dhith aithnichte mar ‘cnò an eòlais’. ʼS ann le bhith ag ithe feòil aig bradain a bh’ air cuid de na cnothan seo ithe, a fhuair Fionn mac Cumhail a chuid eòlais shònraichte. Ann an fionn-sgeul ainmeil bhon Eilean Sgitheanach, tha a’ bhanrigh ghaisgeil Sgàthach agus a h-oileanach Cù Chulainn a’ sabaid ri chèile gu garg, gun an dàrna duine làmh-an-uachdair fhaighinn air an duine eile. Mu dheireadh, tha iad le chèile a’ gabhail diathad de chnothan-calltainn ròsta agus bhuapa tha iad a’ faighinn na tuigse gu feum iad a’ chòmhrag a thoirt gu crìch le aonta agus sìth! Eadhon nas fhaisg air na làithean againn fhèin, bhiodh na Gàidheil a’ creidsinn gum biodh an dà-shealladh aig clann a rugadh as t-fhoghar agus a gheibheadh sùgh bainneach chnothan-calltainn mar a’ chiad bhiadh aca.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Cha robh na cnothan ainmeil a-mhàin mar bhiadh no a thaobh eòlas. Bha cnò dhùbailte – ris an canar cnò chòmhlach – mar sheun an aghaidh buidseachd agus bhiodh daoine a’ cur dà chnò còmhla ann an teine, agus gach tè a’ riochdachadh ball de chàraid a bh’ ann an càirdeas gaolach. Nam biodh na cnothan a’ losgadh gu sìtheil is sàmhach, bhiodh pòsadh fada, sona ann. Ge-tà, nam biodh a’ leum air falbh o chèile agus a’ briseadh, cha mhaireadh am pòsadh fada!

Agus chan e a-mhàin na cnothan air an robh fèill aig na Gàidheil. Tha slatan-calltainn dìreach – ach so-lùbach nuair a tha iad òg – agus bhite gan cleachdadh airson clèibh a dhèanamh airson iasgach agus bathar a ghiùlan, agus airson cearcallan baraille. Bha iad feumail cuideachd airson bachallan aig cìobairean, bataichean-coiseachd, làmhan acfhainneach agus frèamaichean nan teantaichean aig an luchd-siubhail. Bhiodh cìobairean a’ cur shlatan-calltainn gu feum cuideachd airson coin-chaorach a thrèanadh – agus tha abairt ann mu chù nach eil cho comasach ʼs a bu mhiann – tha e feumach air buille a’ challtainn

Mar a bha fìor ann an ceàrnaidhean eile de na h-eileanan seo, bhiodh na Gàidheil a’ dèanamh chraobhan-calltainn nam preasarlach, gnothach ris an canar ‘coppicing’ ann am Beurla. Tha craobhan-calltainn gu nàdarrach ioma-stocach agus faodaidh na gasan a bhith air an gearradh air siostam cuairteachaidh gun a bhith a’ dèanamh cron air a’ chraoibh no air a’ choille. Bha siostam mar seo feumail far an robh daoine a’ dèanamh gual-fiodha mar ghnìomhachas. Ann an cuid de dh’àiteachan, ʼs dòcha gu bheil am facal ‘gual’ ann an ainm-àite a’ dèanamh iomradh air gnìomhachas guail-fhiodha stèidhichte air craobhan-calltainn. Ma dh’fhaodte gur e eisimpleir dhiubh Rubha Guail ann an Slèite san Eilean Sgitheanach às an robh muinntir Leitir Fura a’ cur a-mach gual-fiodha. Tha craobhan-calltainn gu leòr fhathast a’ fàs anns an sgìre sin.

Agus seo agaibh tòimhseachan dhen t-seòrsa a bhiodh na seann Gàidheil a’ cur air cach a chèile anns an taigh-chèilidh. Càite am faighte casan eòin air làr coille-chnò? ʼS e am fuasgladh – air stoc ùr-gheàrrte aig craobh-challtainn. Canar casan-eunain ris na gasan ùra a bhios a’ fàs gu bhith nan slatan-calltainn tro thìde.


Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beloved Hazel

Gaelic tradition affords the craobh-challtainn – the hazel tree – a special place in people’s affections.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

The hazel tree (Corylus avellana) is a special plant to the Gaels, as it is to many of the peoples of Europe and western Asia. It is one of the characteristic trees of the ‘Atlantic Hazelwoods’ that have been increasingly recognised as ‘Celtic Rainforest’ in recent years, and it has a long history of being used and loved by the people of Scotland. Nobody who has walked in an ancient Atlantic Hazelwood, where the trees are adorned magnificently with epiphytic mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi, can fail to have been moved by the experience. And the hazelnut remains one of our favourite foraged foods.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The modern Gaelic name for the species is calltainn – mentioned in a short Gaelic rhyme about native trees and their favoured locations:

Seileach nan allt is calltainn nan creag,
Feàrna an lòin is beithe nan eas,
Uinnseann an dubhair is darach na grèine,
Leamhan a’ bhruthaich is iubhar an lèana.

The willow of the streams and the hazel of the rocks, the alder of the damp meadow and the birch of the waterfalls, the ash of the shade and the oak of the sun, the lime of the hill and the yew of the plain.

In the form calltainn, the hazel is found named in several locations on the landscape e.g. Camas a’ Challtainn ‘the bay of the hazel’ on Loch Shiel and Àirigh a’ Challtainn ‘the shieling of the hazel’ in Glen Strae. However, students of the ‘arboreal alphabet’ of the Gaels will know that the letter ‘C’ in ancient times was represented by an older name for the hazel – coll or call. This is also present in old place-names such as Badcall i.e. Bad Call ‘hazel copse’, found in at least three locations in the North West Highlands (although the species does not give us the name for the island of Coll or the village of Coll in Lewis). 

Camas a’ Challtainn ‘the bay of the hazel’ [with the old spelling ‘calltuinn’] on Loch Shiel, Lochaber. The wood is at the southern end of the bay.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

An inflected (adjectival) form of callcallaidh – is found in Cùil Challaidh ‘hazel nook’ on the Black Isle (reduced to Kilcoy in English), and a similar form is found in Bealach Collaidh ‘hazel pass’, reported by the great toponymist, W J Watson, as being ‘to the west of [Ben] Wyvis’ (although it is not on the maps). Where the Scots language has modified an earlier Gaelic name, we see coll becoming ‘cow’ as in Duncow near Dumfries (from Dùn Collaidh ‘hazel fort’). In Lowland Scotland there are numerous examples of Cowie and Cowden names, many of which are likely to have originated in a Gaelic reference to hazels. Watson was able to prove this in the case of Cowden near Comrie in Perthshire, which was Coldon in old documents and which Gaelic speakers in his day still referred to as A’ Challtainn ‘the hazel wood’. Cowdenknowes near Melrose, made famous in the traditional song ‘Broom of the Cowdenknowes’, provides evidence for the historical spread of Gaelic into the Scottish Borders, as well as for the presence of the hazel in the environment. And Cowcaddens in Glasgow, with an early form Kowcaldenis, has been derived by scholars from Coille Challtainn ‘hazel wood’.


There is a Gaelic simile cho fallain ris a’ chnò ‘as healthy as the nut’which almost certainly refers to the hazelnut. Indeed, an alternative name for a hazel wood is coille-chnò ‘nut wood’. Archaeological evidence informs us that hazelnuts were consumed by humans in Scotland as far back as the Mesolithic, and they have long provided a food source for squirrels, mice and some birds.

Hazelnuts also have a special place in Gaelic folklore in both Scotland and Ireland, with a particular form being known as cnò an eòlais ‘the nut of knowledge’. It was by eating the flesh of a salmon that had itself consumed some of these special nuts, that Fionn mac Cumhail, the great legendary leader of the Fianna, achieved his superior knowledge. In one of the great legends of Skye, the warrior queen Sgàthach and her student Cù Chulainn fought some stupendous battles with neither coming out on top – until each of them, by taking a meal of roasted hazelnuts, acquired the wisdom to discontinue the conflict! The belief did not die with these ancient legendary figures – it was also said in more recent times that children born in autumn who were given the milky fluid from unripe hazelnuts as their first meal would develop prophetic powers.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The nuts were not just nutritious or connected to superior knowledge. A double nut, called a cnò chòmhlach, was used as a charm against witchcraft, and two hazelnuts were sometimes placed in a fire, each representing the member of a couple whose romantic suitability for the other was being tested. If the nuts burned quietly alongside one another, a happy marriage would ensue, but if they burst apart, the relationship would not endure.

It was not just the nuts that were valued by the Gaels. Hazel rods, being straight, yet flexible at a certain stage of their development, were prized for the construction of clèibh ‘creels’ for fishing and agricultural work, and for barrel hoops, as well as for shepherd’s crooks, walking sticks, tool handles and the frames for the bow tents of the travelling people. Their use for shepherds’ crooks which would be employed in the training of sheepdogs has given us the expression with regard to dogs that are in need of further instruction – tha e feumach air buille a’ challtainn ‘it needs the chastening of the hazel’. 

As in other parts of the British Isles, hazel trees were often managed in the Gàidhealtachd by turning them into a preasarlach, a process known in English as ‘coppicing’. This takes advantage of the natural inclination of the species to be multistemmed, and allows stems to be harvested, on a rotating basis, every few years. One of the reasons for such practice was to provide a sustainable supply of wood for the manufacture of gual-fiodha ‘charcoal’ – an important fuel in industrial processes. In some cases, place-names with gual ‘coal’ may refer to a charcoal industry based on the management of hazel woods. A possible example is Rubha Guail ‘coal point’ in Sleat, Skye, from which charcoal was likely exported by the people of the now-abandoned village of Leitir Fura (where hazel trees still grow).

And here’s a puzzle of the sort that the old Gaels would often pose in the taigh-cèilidh. Where would you find birds’ feet on the floor of a hazel wood? The answer is on a newly-cut stump of a hazel tree. The young shoots, which will develop in time into slatan-calltainn ‘hazel rods’, are known as casan-eunain ‘little bird’s feet’.

* * * * *

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.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mapping the way forward for Scotland’s pollinators

Our blog today looks at one of the many projects NatureScot is working on to improve the future for our vital pollinating insects. Cameron, one of this year’s NatureScot graduate placements who is mapping Scotland’s pollinator-friendly habitats, tells us more .

A honeybee collecting nectar from a polyanthus in a herbaceous border. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

It’s no secret that pollinators have been experiencing significant hardships, with habitat loss and fragmentation among the most substantial drivers of decline. The contributions made by pollinators to the health of our countryside, agriculture and personal wellbeing are similarly well known. To keep and increase these benefits, especially in the light of climate change, will require a coordinated and dedicated effort at all levels of society.

Thankfully, these past few years have highlighted the enormous depth of compassion for Scotland’s pollinators. Citizen science programmes have been successfully enlisting the public to record pollinator sightings, and community-led initiatives to increase wildflower coverage in local communities have been remarkably successful. Simple actions, such as planting nectar-rich plants in a window box or garden, can have a disproportionately large positive impact on pollinator populations.

That’s because our pollinators live in an archipelago, moving between small fragments of viable habitat searching for food. The further apart these fragments are, the tougher it becomes to make that journey, and eventually it may become impossible. This has the potential to leave certain clusters of pollinators stranded in an area unable to support a stable population due to lack of food and/or nesting space.

If we know where the gaps are, then we are better equipped to start filling them in. My graduate placement is looking to create a map of all the pollinator-friendly habitat in Scotland, with the aim to help decrease habitat fragmentation. The hope is that individuals, businesses, local authorities, and more will be able to use this map (dubbed ‘PollMap’) to prioritise areas most in need of improvement. The overall aim of this effort is to facilitate the joining-up of habitat patches, providing an additional tool to support projects such as the Buglife B-Lines.

Flying hoverfly and a peacock butterfly feeding on a knapweed flower head. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

PollMap will be based on the Habitat Map of Scotland and satellite data, and will attempt to score every type of habitat across the country according to its theoretical ecological benefit to pollinators, as well as the capacity to provide pollination as an ecosystem service in the context of natural capital. The final output will be an interactive map available for anyone to view and, hopefully, consider consulting when planning habitat improvement for pollinators.

Find out more about our work to help Scotland’s pollinators.

Posted in bees, biodiversity, Insects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How do adders hibernate?

Our blog today is written by Bethia, one of this year’s NatureScot student placements who will be spending a year based across the Stirling NNRs: Flanders Moss, Blawhorn Moss and Loch Lomond. Growing up on the doorstep of the Abernethy Forest NNR, she has always held a love for nature, following this passion to university where she graduated with a degree in zoology. Throughout this placement, Bethia hopes to increase her employability within the sector, with a focus on gaining practical conservation skills, developing an understanding of how nature reserves operate, and furthering her general knowledge of Scottish ecology and conservation.

We saw the first of our adders appearing on the Flanders Moss in March. But how do these cold-blooded creatures survive winter in the first place? Unlike hibernating mammals, reptiles can’t regulate their own body temperature – so how do they not freezing during, well, freezing temperatures?

The answer is mostly physics, with a pinch of mystery! Adders are a relatively understudied species given their abundance – they have the largest global distribution, as well as the most northerly range, of any snake species – they have even been found within the Arctic Circle! Yet due to their secretive nature and sensitivity to disturbance, they are rather difficult to research.

What we do know is that adders like to hibernate in sheltered spaces known as ‘hibernaculum’- such as within fallen trees or abandoned burrows – and that they will often share these spaces with each other, sometimes dozens at a time! After all, a small space filled with lots of bodies is much easier to keep warm and insulated. Snow, surprisingly, acts as a pretty good insulator, and many hibernating animals are known to take advantage of this. Not bad for semi-frozen water! However, semi-frozen is the key. Hibernaculums must remain frost-free, without being accessible to predators or at risk from flooding. This is likely why adders usually hibernate underground, rather than within above-ground structures.

By early spring – or, as we have already seen, late winter! – temperatures will start to rise and the first adders will begin to emerge. They need to bathe in direct sunlight to warm up enough to first be able to mate, and in later months hunt for food. To provide the best chance of rapid warming, most hibernacula sites will also be south facing – providing the best access to sun throughout the day.

Sound specific? Well, it kind of is! And it’s likely why we find that individual adders will often return to the same hibernation sites each year. If they’ve found the perfect spot to survive the winter, why risk trying somewhere new? This is also why we must take great care to not disturb or destroy known and potential hibernaculum sites – adder numbers are on the decline, and just one incident could cause a significant hit to local populations if several snakes are sheltering together.

A group of male adders
Photo taken by Ray Hamilton of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) free adder photo library.

So, when you’re out and about at this time of year and find yourself out on a mild, sunny day (yes – even in Scotland!), if you are lucky enough to spot an adder, keep an appropriate distance and enjoy the experience without scaring our scaly friends.

Adders rarely bite humans. They are shy animals whose first line of defence is to simply get away. However, if they are disturbed suddenly, or trodden on, they can bite. Being Britain’s only native venomous snake arguably earns them a degree of notoriety. Although adder bites can be painful and have unpleasant side effects, they are rarely life-threatening. Nevertheless all snake bites require prompt medical attention.

Posted in biodiversity, Flanders Moss NNR, Reptiles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Gulls: a balancing act

It may not seem like it when gulls are swooping down trying to steal your chips, but the number of many species of gulls has plummeted. In fact, herring gulls and kittiwakes are on the red list of conservation concern in the UK, with many other species of gull on the amber list.

Herring gull chicks, Isle of May National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

So why does it seem as if there are more gulls than ever? It’s likely because their food sources have dried up in some areas and – opportunistic and clever birds that they are – they have found our cities and towns to be full of food along with great nesting spots on roofs.

They are a regular source of complaint in many towns and cities because of noise, their tendency to get into rubbish containers, as well as aggressive behaviour during nesting and while rearing chicks (from about April to August).

Due to the large numbers of nesting gulls in urban areas, they can come into conflict with people and cause public health or safety issues. These issues range from gull aggression to significant noise disturbance. Problems with gulls can also be experienced in agricultural settings – for example, great black-backed gulls may cause serious damage to livestock, primarily lambs.

Lesser black-backed gull and chick, Isle of May National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

All breeding birds are protected by law, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do when problems arise. Gulls in towns generally use roofs for nesting and tend to return year after year. Where gulls are causing or anticipated to cause an issue, it is important to be proactive by acting quickly to minimise the risk posed and to reduce the likelihood of it becoming a long-term problem. 

We recommend that people look for ways to prevent gulls from nesting in certain places to avoid problems in future years. This can be achieved by a variety of methods, such as preventing gull access to a location by proofing (e.g., bird spikes or netting), deterring gulls using scaring techniques, and removing food waste which can attract gulls.

You can find more information about gull management in NatureScot’s gull management guidance. All gull species in Scotland are protected by law, making it an offence to destroy nests which are in use or being built, take or destroy eggs, or take or kill adults and chicks. If you need to use these methods of gull management as a last resort, you will require a licence to do so.

A kittiwake on its nest. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Since 1 April 2020, all gull species have been removed from NatureScot’s General Licences due to conservation concerns. People must now apply for a gull licence for specific locations experiencing issues with gulls, with the NatureScot Licensing team assessing applications. Find gull licensing information on public health or safety on our bird public health and safety licensing web page; find information about preventing serious damage to livestock or food for livestock on our bird serious damage licensing web page

We strongly advise that, for locations where you believe problems with gulls will occur this year and licensed action is likely to be necessary, you apply for a licence as soon as possible.

But if they’re not causing a problem, take some time to appreciate these wonderful, often underappreciated, birds. They’re amazingly agile fliers which mate for life, with male and female bird splitting all caring duties. They’re also clever, dropping mussels onto rocks or roads to break them open, and stamping their feet to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms into coming to the surface!

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, gulls | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Robin ‘Redbreast’ – but which ‘red’?

Which Gaelic word for ‘red’ is more appropriate when naming the robin?

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

What sort of ‘red’ colours the breast of one of our favourite birds – the European robin (Erithacus rubecula)? Perhaps the question is redundant in English as ‘red’ in this language covers a multitude of shades from russet to scarlet and crimson. Gaelic has a slightly more nuanced approach, however, with two common ‘red’ adjectives in daily use – dearg (‘JER-ek’) for scarlet through crimson towards purple, and ruadh (‘ROO-ugh’) for the browner reds of rust and russet but taking in such shades as the pink of granitic rock – as in the Monadh Ruadh (the Gaelic for ‘The Cairngorms’). At first sight, dearg would seem to have won the argument for the bird species, as the modern dictionaries will tell you that the standard Gaelic term for the robin is brù-dhearg (‘broo YER-ek’), literally ‘red breast’; dialectally it also appears as brù-dearg


However, that is not the full picture. If one were to take the colour of a robin’s breast in isolation from the bird it describes, many Gaelic speakers might see it as ruadh – it is arguably right on the border between the two colour descriptors. And, indeed, Dwelly’s dictionary gives alternative names for the species – ruadhag, ruadhan (both meaning ‘small red one’) and rob-ruadh, the last very close to the name of a famous ‘red-haired’ Highlander of old – whose name is anglicised Rob Roy.

An old bit of verse picks the dearg option, allowing for a rhyme with fearg ‘anger’ and highlighting how the robin’s behaviour in winter might foretell a storm in the Central Highlands. 

A Rabairt leis a’ broilleach dhearg, 

Cha tàinig thus’ an-diugh le fearg, 

Ach dh’innseadh gu bheil doinnean 

Le fuil nan Toiseach air an t-sneachd. 

Robert with the red breast, you did not come today in anger, 
but to tell us of a storm, with the blood of Mackintoshes on the snow.

Even in summer, the bird was said to be able to foretell the weather. In his 1905 publication ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts etc’, Alexander Forbes tells us that, if a robin were heard singing cheerfully on a summer evening, that it was ‘a sure sign of fine weather; it may be quite unsettled looking and even raining when heard [but] it is sure to clear up in the night and be fine next day. On the other hand, when it is going to be wet weather, robin will be found in a hedge or bush chirping in a melancholy way, or possibly not chirping at all, but looking miserable, and that even though the weather is not yet wet or perhaps threatening.’

©Fergus Gill

Robins are territorial and not without some boldness despite their diminutive proportions, and this is reflected in a Gaelic rhyme that mimics their song:

Big, big, bigean,

Cò chreach mo neadan?

Mas e duine beag e,

Cuiridh mi le creag e,

Mas e duine mòr e,

Bogaidh mi san lòn e,

Mas e duine beag gun chiall, gun nàir’ e,

Gun gleidheadh Dia dha mhàthair fhèin e.

cheep, cheep, little bird, who destroyed my nest? 

if he is a wee man, I’ll push him over the cliff. 

if he is a big man, I’ll plunge him into the pond. 

if he is a wee senseless, shameless man, 

may God preserve him to his mother.

In another version, the final two lines are perhaps more reminiscent of the actual trilling of an enthusiastic robin:

Mas e duine beag bìodach, bìodach, gun chiall, gun nàir’ e,

Gun gleidheadh Dia mhath dha athair is dha mhàthair fhèin e.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The patron saint of Glasgow, St Mungo, is said to have restored the life of a robin killed accidentally by one of his disciples, which is the reason that the bird appears (on top of a hazel tree) in the city’s coat of arms. Traditionally, the Gaels considered the bird sacred and considered it a peacadh mòr ‘heinous sin’ to kill one. Its healing influence was even said to extend to the bark of a rose bush in which the robin nested, a decoction of which was used as a cure for some ailments.

In his classic poem of environmental praise – Coire Cheathaich – the 18th century bard, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, calls the bird a brù-dhearg:

An druid ’s am brù-dhearg le mòran ùinich,

Ri ceileir sunndach bu shiùbhlach rann.

the starling and robin with much bustle, sing happily and fluently.

However, his contemporary, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) – who was widely read in several languages – makes it clear that the English name for the species was understood in the Gàidhealtachd; in at least two poems he refers to it as both ‘Robin’ and ‘Richard’. In Òran an t-Samhraidh ‘the song of summer’ he first compares the species to the wren:

Bidh an dreadhan gu balcant’,

Foirmeil, talcorra, bagant’,

Sìor chur fàilt’ air a’ mhadainn,

Le ribheid mhaisicht’ bhuig, bhinn,

Agus Robin dha bheusadh

Air a’ ghèig os a chinn.

the wren will be muscular, lively, dogged, plump,

always welcoming the morning, with a beautiful sweet, small reed

and a robin joining him with base notes on the branch above.

Then he makes a more general comment about the robin’s song:

Gur glan gall-fheadan Richard,

A’ seinn nan cuisleannan grinn,

Am bàrr nam bilichean blàthmhor,

’S an dos nan lom-dharag àrda …

how grand is Richard’s flageolet, playing the neat flutes,

on top of the flowery leaves, and in the thicket of the bare high oaks… 

In another of his nature poems, Allt an t-Siùcair ‘the sugar brook’, the bard writes:

Bha Richard ’s Robin brù-dhearg ri seinn ’s fear dhiubh na bheus …

Richard and Robin redbreast were singing, one of them in bass …


It is perhaps, then, not a surprise that the word roban (observing the Gaelic spelling rule) is included as a Gaelic name for the species in old dictionaries. The common term in Perthshire was roban-roid which appears to be mean ‘bog-myrtle robin’ although this seems slightly unlikely from a habitat perspective. Perthshire native Robert Armstrong’s 1825 dictionary, however, gives ‘road, path, track’ for rod, whose genitive (possessive) form is roid.

Interestingly, when Gaelic made its way to Nova Scotia – where it is still spoken – the language was adapted to label the native birds of North America which are substantially different from those in Europe. There, the American Robin, which has a red breast, is a larger bird more reminiscent in size and appearance to the European thrush, and belonging to the same genus, Turdus. Thus, the Gaelic name for this species is smeòrach, which in Scotland is used for the song thrush.

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.

Posted in Birds, Gaelic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment