Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean / Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

Airson ainmean-àite le ‘dubh’ a thuigsinn, ʼs dòcha gum feumar coimhead air slighe na grèine / To interpret place-names with the descriptor ‘dubh’ you may need to look at the path of the sun …

Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean

Is e seo àm math dhen bhliadhna airson sùil gheur a thoirt air ainmean-àite anns a bheil dubh oir gu tric bidh an tuairisgeul stèidhichte air dubhar a th’ air adhbharachadh le cnuic is beanntan, agus a’ ghrian a’ gabhail slighe ìosal anns an iarmailt. Cha bhi dubh a’ nochdadh ann an co-cheangal ris an fhacal srath oir tha a leithid ro fhosgailte do sholas an latha. Air an làimh eile, tha iomadh eisimpleir de ghlinn air a bheil gleann dubh, oir gu tric bidh beanntan àrda air gach taobh de ghleann. Tha eisimpleir fìor mhath ann am Bràghad Albann, far a bheil An Gleann Dubh a’ coinneachadh ri Gleann Dochard air a cheann a tuath – àird às nach tig solas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Air gach àird eile, tha beanntan drùidhteach a’ cuairteachadh a’ ghlinne, ga fhàgail ann an dubhar no dorchadas.

An Gleann Dubh faisg air a’ Chaolas Chumhang. Tha e air a chuairteachadh le leathadan casa. / The Gleann Dubh near Kylesku. It is virtually surrounded by steep hills. ©Jim BartonCreative Commons.

Tha dubh gu tric co-cheangailte ri cliathaichean beinne. ʼS e eisimpleir mhath An Leitir Dhubh (tha grunnan dhiubh ann) a tha mar as trice a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àird a tuath agus a gheibh glè bheag de sholas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Tha eisimpleirean ann cuideachd de leathaidean dubha a fhuair an ainmean air an aon adhbhar.

Fionn Loch agus Dubh Loch, tuath air Loch Maruibhe, taobh an iar Rois. Tha an diofar eatarra stèidhichte air dubhar nam beann ri làimh, seach diofar sam bith ann an dath an uisge fhèin.
Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ in Wester Ross provide a classic example of the pairing of contrasting toponyms in the Gaelic landscape. The names here are a reflection of the proximity of shade-throwing hills. Note that the pronunciation of the first name is ‘FYOON loch’, not ‘FEE-un loch’; the latter, while attractive, is unlikely as it would represent Fìon Loch ‘wine loch’!
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha iomadh eisimpleir ann de choireachan air a bheil An Coire Dubh agus tha iad mar as trice le creagan no beanntan gu deas orra. Ge-tà, chan eil e buileach cho soilleir carson as e dubh a th’ air cuid de chnuic no beanntan. ʼS dòcha gu bheilear a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air dath creige, lusan no mòine a cheart cho math ri solas na grèine, agus ʼs e a bhiodh math nan dèanadh cuideigin sgrùdadh mionaideach air ainmean-àite mar Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh agus Stob Dubh (mar a nochdas iad gun alt air mapaichean an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais).Tha ciall an ainm A’ Chreag Dhubh follaiseach gu leòr mas ann air bearradh a tha e a-mach, ach faodaidh beanntan air a bheil a leithid de dh’ainm a bhith gun bhearradh, ach le leathad rudeigin creagach nach eil air an taobh a deas. Corra uair, chaidh ainm mar seo a thionndadh gu Creag Dhu (ainm club sreap stèidhichte ann an Glaschu) no Craig Dhu, agus tha eisimpleir dheth sin ann an Siorrachd Àir a Deas ann an seann Ghàidhealtachd Charraig is Ghall-Ghàidhealaibh.

Tha am buadhair dubh ri fhaicinn gu tric an cois a’ chladaich cuideachd. Tha na ficheadan de ghoban no àirdean air a bheil An Rubha Dubh. ʼS iongantach mura h-eil iad ainmichte airson a bhith creagach no fraochach, gun a bhith feurach, crotalach no feamainneach – oir bhiodh na trì mu dheireadh a’ tarraing a’ bhuadhair bàn no buidhe don ainm. ʼS iomadh eilean air a bheil An t-Eilean Dubh cuideachd, agus air adhbharan ceudna.

Ach ʼs dòcha gu bheil aon ainm-àite anns a bheil dubh a’ seasamh a-mach bhon chòrr, co-dhiù a rèir cho fillte is cho tarraingeach ʼs a tha e. Ann an ceàrnaidh iomallach dhen Mhonadh Liath, don earra-dheas air Loch Nis, tha Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine. Tha an t-ainm fillte ga dhiofarachadh bhon t-Sìthean Dubh a tha pìos beag gu tuath air, agus tha sin air eadar-dhealachadh air a dhath bhon t-Sìthean Odhar agusbhon t-Sìthean Liath a tha le chèile faisg air làimh. Tha na sìthichean – mar a tha na dathan – mar phàirt mhòr de dh’ainmean-tìre na Gàidhealtachd!

Dubh-lochain ann an Teàrmann Nàdair Fors na h-Àirde ann an Dùthaich nam Boglaichean. Tha an t-uisge dubh dorch air sàillibh stuthan a thig às a’ mhòine. / Dubh-lochans at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve living up to their name in winter. The water in this peaty landscape is stained dark with tannins. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

This is a great time of year for analysing toponyms (place-names) that contain the adjective dubh [pronounced ‘DOO’] in Scotland’s Gaelic landscape. This is because the word often means ‘dark’ in landscape terms, rather than its primary meaning of ‘black’, and the low sun path in winter can often reveal places that remain in shadow for much of the time and which have therefore attracted the descriptor. There are virtually no examples of the use of dubh with the generic srath ‘wide valley, strath’ whereas gleann dubh, ‘dark glen’ is a relatively common toponym – gleann representing a steeper-sided ‘glen’, often located directly under high hills. A classic example is the Gleann Dubh south-west of Killin (Stirlingshire). It opens into Glen Dochart in the north – a direction from which the sun never shines in the winter months – but is surrounded at all other compass points by a ring of great hills which leave it in shade for long periods.

An Loch Dubh ann an ceann a tuath Chataibh, le Meallan a’ Chuail air a chùlaibh. Tha beanntan ga chuairteachadh air gach taobh ach an taobh tuath. / Loch Dubh with Meallan a’ Chuail behind it, north-west Sutherland. The loch is north-facing, with high hills shading it from the track of the sun. ©Andrew SpenceleyCreative Commons.

Shaded hillsides often carry the descriptor dubh, a good example being leitir ‘above-water slope’ which is a feminine noun and therefore causes the adjective to lenite, giving us Leitir Dhubh [pron. ‘lay-tchir GHOO’]. These are generally north-facing slopes which see little direct sunshine in winter and can often experience considerable shade even in the brighter months. There are also examples of north-facing slopes called Leathad Dubh ‘dark slope’ – leathad being a masculine noun.

The effect of shade can also be seen in the pairing of contrasting descriptors with fionn, bàn or occasionally geal ‘fair, light, white’ being employed as a comparison with an adjacent place-name qualified by dubh. In Wester Ross the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ are connected and therefore share the same water. The contrast is not in the water quality but in the amount of shade, with the Fionn Loch being in relatively open country, whereas the Dubh Loch is tucked under the great steep hills of A’ Mhaighdeann and Creag an Dubh Loch. The reversal of the normal word order, with the specific preceding the generic is not uncommon with some colour descriptors, and is also in evidence at the northern end of Loch Lomond where the Geal Loch ‘white loch’ and Dubh Lochan ‘small dark loch’ are differentiated by the former being open to the south, with the latter being surrounded by hills on the east, south and west.

An Dubh Loch ann an Leitir Iù, Taobh Siar Rois. Nas fhaide a-mach tha am Fionn Loch a th’ ann an dùthaich fhosgailte gun bhearraidhean àrda mu a thimcheall. /
The Dubh Loch in Letterewe, Wester Ross (foreground), with high shading cliffs on its southern side. Beyond it, named in contrast, is the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ which is in open country and receives more direct sunlight. (C)Roddy Maclean

However, with many water bodies, it is necessary to examine both the topography and water quality to be sure of the reason for dubh being employed, as many examples occur in peaty Highland areas where the water is darkened by tannins and, in the case of many dubh-lochans, are formed entirely within a peat-clad landscape. Many environmentalists use the term dubh-lochan in English for these water bodies which are characteristic of Scotland’s famous Flow Country (Dùthaich nam Boglaichean), now being forwarded for possible World Heritage nomination. As well as dozens of water bodies called Loch(an) Dubh or Dubh-loch(an), there are many burns called Allt Dubh or its diminutive Alltan Dubh and even some rivers called Abhainn D(h)ubh. The upper part of the River Forth in Stirlingshire is known in Gaelic as the Abhainn Dubh. Other water generics are also found linked to dubh. A fine double example is to be found east of Strathnairn near Inverness, where the Caochan Dubh ‘dark, hidden streamlet’ carries tannin-stained waters off the peatlands of Càrn na h-Easgainn into the Uisge Dubh ‘dark stream’ (literally ‘dark water’).

Tha an Gleann Dubh faisg air Cill Fhinn a’ faighinn ainm on dubhar sa bheil e fad mhìosan a’ gheamhraidh, agus e air a chuairteachadh air trì taobhan le beanntan àrda.
Gleann Dubh near Killin is named for its being in the shade of high hills to the east, south and west, which block direct sunshine during the darkest winter months.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

There are many examples of corries called Coire Dubh and, like glens and slopes, these tend to be north-facing and often shaded. However, hills with dubh are not so readily interpreted. The darkness here might be a reference to rock type, vegetation or peat cover as much as sunlight, and it would be good to see a rigorous analysis made of common hill or mountain toponyms such as Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh and Stob Dubh. Rocky crags called Creag Dhubh [pron. krake GHOO] often have an obviously shaded side, but the name can also apply to a hill which is accessible on all sides, but whose rockiest side does not face south. These names have occasionally been anglicised to Creag Dhu – the name of a famous Glasgow-based climbing club – or even Craig Dhu, an example of which is to be found in South Ayrshire, in the old Gàidhealtachd of Carrick and Galloway.

The descriptor dubh is also extremely common in coastal areas. There are, for example, dozens of points or promontories known as Rubha Dubh. These are likely to be rocky or heathery, and not grassy or overly clad with lichens or seaweed (which might attract the descriptor bàn ‘fair’ or buidhe ‘yellow’). Many islands off the west coast are called Eilean Dubh, probably for similar reasons.

But perhaps one dubh toponym stands out from the others in terms of its complexity and attractiveness. In the depths of the Monadh Liath, south-east of Loch Ness, lies Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine ‘the dark fairy hill of the white stone’. The reason for the name’s complexity is that it has to be differentiated from another Sìthean Dubh just a short distance to the north, which in turn is distinguished from a nearby Sìthean Odhar ‘dun-coloured fairy hill’ and Sìthean Liath ‘grey fairy hill’. The Little People – like colours – are a big part of our landscape!

The Author

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

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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YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Freshwater and Wetlands Advice Manager Iain Sime

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been featuring NatureScot staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. In our final blog of the series, we join Freshwater and Wetlands Advice Manager Iain Sime on the slopes of Dark Lochnagar to learn more about our important work on water monitoring.

Lochnagar ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

NatureScot helps support the important long-term monitoring project, the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network.  For more than 30 years it has provided a unique and extremely valuable long-term record of the water chemistry and biology of upland lochs and streams across the UK. The network was originally established to monitor the chemical and ecological impact of acid deposition (‘acid rain’) in areas of the UK that are sensitive to acidification.  It has evolved since to also examine a far wider range of pressures facing upland waters including nitrogen deposition, climate change and land use change.

Upland stream ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

I recently used my NatureScot volunteering day to help collect chemical and biological samples from a site within the network, Lochnagar, in the eastern Cairngorms.  This sampling usually takes place during the summer, but with Covid restrictions the fieldwork was delayed this year. I joined Ewan and James Shilland, who have both worked on the network for many years.  At the moment Ewan is doing his PhD at Queen Mary University of London, University College London and the Natural History Musuem London, funded by NERC and NatureScot.  He is studying how the aquatic plant communities have responded to changes in water chemistry over time, and is evaluating whether environmental DNA (eDNA) offers a further tool to help understand these changes over long timescales. 

Descending to Lochnagar ©Ewan Shilland

Lochnagar sits in a corrie, high on the mountain of the same name, at an altitude of 788m. Work conducted by scientists at University College London and the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at what is now Marine Scotland in Pitlochry, demonstrated that the loch had become heavily acidified by acid rain over a period of 150 years or more. On the day we visited, we were collecting water chemistry and plankton samples, filtering water for eDNA analysis and downloading data from loggers that are permanently located around the loch.  Various sensors and samplers are also positioned within the loch in order to monitor water temperature across a range of depths, and capture recent sediment. 

The findings from over three decades of monitoring at Lochnagar and the other sites within the network show some startling results. Perhaps most strikingly, they show that the sulphate concentration in the water has fallen dramatically. This has been linked directly to large regional scale reductions in the emissions of sulphur from power stations and other industrial sources over the last four decades, and the consequent reduction in sulphur deposition across the UK land surface. 

This is despite Lochnagar being a long way from most air pollution sources.  The reduction in sulphate has been accompanied by a welcome increase in pH and large drop in the concentration of labile aluminium, which is highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, as the water becomes less acidified.  These trends are even more marked in more southerly lochs, such as in the Merrick Kells SSSI in Galloway, the Lake District and North Wales.

Declining excess (non-marine) sulphate concentrations and increasing pH in Lochnagar between 1988 and 2019 ©UKCEH

Despite the high winds giving rise to an estimated wind chill of -11oC, loch level data was successfully downloaded from the outflow of Lochnagar and the opposite side of the loch, just below the imposing cliffs that lead to the summit.  To collect samples for eDNA analysis, a lot of water was filtered through some bespoke filter apparatus.  Although genetic research such as this is relatively new, and seeing rapid advances in understanding and technologies, some more basic technologies are also required.  So, in the cold conditions, when fingers don’t work so well and the filter can clog up with the peaty water, using a DIY plunger from Screwfix really helps speed up the process!

James Shilland filtering water samples for later eDNA analysis at Lochnagar ©Iain Sime

Long-term datasets such as the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network can also reveal important surprises.  In common with all the other sites on the network, concentrations of Dissolved Organic Carbon (that causes a brown staining of some upland waters) has been increasing progressively over the last 30 years.  The data from the network helped establish this is due to a natural response of catchment soils; as they recover from acidification.  This is not such good news for water companies that use upland catchments for public water supply, as it can increase their treatment costs – although this has also helped increase their interest in restoring peatlands to keep the water, and the carbon, in the soils. 

Such patterns of change often only become apparent over long timescales, and with the help of research and measurements of consistently high quality.  But helping collect the samples also provided a welcome day out in the mountains, where we also got to see some of the other local land-based residents including peregrine, a sea eagle, ptarmigan and mountain hares.  Not bad for an extremely windy but very welcome day in the hills. 

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Cairt-làir – lus beag le cliù mòr / Tormentil – little plant with a big reputation

Ged a tha e beag, tha dualchas iongantach aig a’ chairt-làir, gu h-àraidh am measg nan Gàidheal / Tormentil might be small and little celebrated today, but it played a substantial role in the social history of northern Scotland …

Cairt-làir – lus beag le cliù mòr

Chan eil ann an cairt-làir (Potentilla erecta) ach lus beag air an tèid neach-coiseachd a’ mhonaidh seachad gun aire a thoirt air, ach gum bi flùraichean brèagha buidhe ga shanasachd eadar tràth san earrach agus deireadh an fhoghair. Bha na seann Ghàidheil gu math measail air an lus, ge-tà, oir tha e cianail feumail – agus air a shàillibh sin, tha co-dhiù seachd ainmean deug air a shon clàraichte ann an Gàidhlig.

©Laurie Campbell/NatureScot

ʼS e cairt-làir a chanadh iasgairean nan Eilean Siar ris an lus, a chionn ʼs gun robhar ga chleachdadh airson cartadh lìn agus leathair (agus gum bi e a’ fàs gu h-ìosal air an talamh no ‘làr’). Bha cairt bho thùs a’ ciallachadh rùsg (craoibhe); bhiodh na seann daoine ag ràdh ‘cairt dharaich’ ri ‘rùsg daraich’. Ach dh’atharraich e gu bhith a’ ciallachadh a’ phròiseis airson seicheannan agus lìn a dhìon cuideachd – a chionn ʼs gur ann le cairt a bhathar ga dhèanamh. Ge-tà, nuair a dh’fhalbh craobhan-daraich thairis air mòran dhen Ghàidhealtachd, bhathar a’ coimhead airson stuth ùr a dhèanadh cartadh. Agus tha na freumhaichean (rìosoman) aig an lus seo làn stuthan-cartaidh.

Bhiodh na rìosoman air an goil ann am prais mhòr agus bhite a’ bogadh an leathair agus nan lìon anns an lionn nuair a bha e fionnar. Ach, an coimeas ri rùsg daraich, bha e a’ toirt ùine mhòr airson stuth gu leòr fhaighinn. Bhathar a’ tomhas gun toireadh e fad-latha do dh’aon duine freumhaichean gu leòr dhen chairt-làir fhaighinn airson aon bhogadh. Ann an eileanan a bha gann de chraobhan, leithid Colla is Tiriodh, chaidh casg a chur air cruinneachadh an luis a chionn ʼs gun robh e a’ dol à bith.

©NatureScot

Tha ainmean stèidhichte air braonan cumanta airson an luis seo cuideachd. Tha braonan a’ ciallachadh rudeigin car cruinn coltach ri boinneag uisge no boinneag deòir (braon-gruaidh) agus tha e a’ riochdachadh lusan aig a bheil freumhaichean a th’ air at, leithid cnò-thalmhainn, a bharrachd air cairt-làir. Mar sin, am measg nan ainmean eile air cairt-làir, tha Braonan a’ Choin (agus Braonan nan Con), Braonan a’ Mhadaidh-ruaidh, Braonan-bachlaig agus Braonan Fraoich. Tha an t-ainm mu dheireadh a’ cur nar cuimhne gu bheil an lus a’ fàs air monadh is mòintich far a bheil an talamh searbh, agus far am bi fraoch a’ fàs. Bha Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir a’ gabhail barra bhraonan air an lus mar a chithear e os cionn na talmhainn.

ʼS ann fon ainm braonan mar as trice a chithear e air mapaichean na Gàidhealtachd. Thathar a’ smaoineachadh gu bheil ainmean-àite leithid Cnoc nam Braonan (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach), Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain (Loch Aillse) agus Leacann nam Braonan (ri taobh Ionad-beinne Ghleanna Comhann) a’ taisbeanadh àiteachan far am bite a’ cruinneachadh freumhaichean chairt-làir.

Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain, Ràtagan, Loch Aillse. Tha dùil gu bheil e ainmichte airson ‘Braonan a’ Choin’ a chionn ʼs gum bite ga chruinneachadh an seo.
Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain ‘the peak of the tormentil’, Ratagan, Lochalsh. This is presumably a place where the plant was collected for tanning of animal skins and fishing nets.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Chruinnich Alasdair MacIlleMhìcheil, ùghdar Charmina Gadelica, naidheachd mu dhuine aig Bruairnis ann am Barraigh a bha a-muigh sa mhonadh a’ cruinneachadh cairt-làir nuair a chuala e bean-shìthe a’ gabhail òrain fhad ʼs a bha i a’ bleith le clach-bhrà. Sgrìobh e gun robh an lus feumail airson barrachd na cartadh – gu h-àraidh mar leigheas airson na buinnich agus eadhon airson na buinnich mhòir. Bha cairt-làir air a chur gu feum gu mòr anns an dòigh seo air feadh na Gàidhealtachd, agus tha aithris mu fhear Iain Friseal ri taobh Loch Laide ann an Obar Itheachan (taobh Loch Nis) a bha a’ dèanamh tì leis agus ga òl. Mar bu trice, bha na freumhaichean air an goil ann am bainne, agus an sùgh air òl. Bha feadhainn eadhon a’ toirt sùgh mar seo do laoigh a bha a’ fulang leis a’ bhuinnich.

Bha cairt-làir feumail ann an dòighean eile a bharrachd. Bhiodh feadhainn ga chagnadh mar leigheas airson an dèididh agus – ann an Uibhist a Deas co-dhiù – airson a’ phiocais-bheòil. Bha e feumail mar fhuar-lite air còrnaichean agus gheibhte dath ruadh bhuaithe airson clò a dhathadh. Gun teagamh sam bith, ʼs e a th’ ann an cairt-làir ach lus beag le dualchas mòr!

Tormentil – little plant with a big reputation

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) might be something of a small, cryptic plant, unexceptional in its vegetative appearance and only openly advertised by its small four-petalled bright yellow flowers, but its virtually ubiquitous use across Highland Scotland has left us a legacy of at least seventeen recorded Gaelic names for the species and a strong heritage of tanning and healing.

Perhaps the most recognised name is that given to the plant by fishermen in the Western Isles – cairt-làir ‘ground-bark’ – a nod to the species’ most valued use as a tanning agent to prolong the life of materials such as leather and fishing nets. The word cairt came also to be a verb meaning ‘tan’, as the most favoured source of tannins was originally the bark of trees such as the oak. However, as oaks became less frequent and in some parts of the Highlands disappeared altogether, the dark red swollen roots, or rhizomes, of tormentil became the next-best option for the provision of tannins. In the Northern Isles, the plant is known as ‘bark-flooer’ for the same reason.

The roots were boiled up in vats, and the skins and nets would be immersed in the solution once it had cooled. However, the rhizomes of tormentil are relatively small, and one 19th century account tells us that it would take a person a whole day to dig up enough roots for one infusion. On largely treeless islands like Coll and Tiree, a ban was placed on its use because of fears of over-exploitation.

©NatureScot

Another common name for the species is based on the word braonan, which stands for something shaped like a (tear)drop and is applied to earth ‘nuts’ (swollen rhizomes) such as pignut and tormentil roots. Thus, for tormentil we have Braonan a’ Choin ‘dog’s earth-nut’, Braonan a’ Mhadaidh-ruaidh ‘fox’s earth-nut’, Braonan-bachlaig ‘plant-shoot earth-nut’ and Braonan Fraoich ‘heather earth-nut’. The last is a reference to the plant’s preference for acid moorland, where it often grows among heather. The great environmental poet, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, called the above-ground part of the plant barra bhraonan, meaning ‘the vegetative part above the earth-nuts’.

It is in the braonan form that tormentil is most commonly represented in the Gaelic landscape. Place-names like Cnoc nam Braonan ‘the hill of the tormentil’ (Skye), Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain ‘the peak of the tormentil’ (Lochalsh) and Leacann nam Braonan ‘the slope of the tormentil’, adjacent to the Glencoe Mountain Resort, probably advertise localities where the plant was once collected.

Cnoc nam Braonan, Bracadail, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach. Bha braonan no cairt-làir uabhasach feumail do mhuinntir taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd ʼs nan Eilean.
Cnoc nam Braonan ‘the hill of the tormentil’, Bracadale, Skye. The plant grows well on the damp acidic moorland which is widespread in the West Highlands and Islands.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Alexander Carmichael, the author of Carmina Gadelica, collected a story about a man at Bruernish on the Isle of Barra who was out collecting tormentil when he heard a fairy woman singing a song, while grinding with her quern. He noted that not only was the plant good for tanning, but that it was effective as a cure for diarrhoea. This was another common use for the species throughout the Highlands and supports the interpretation of the English name as referring to the relief of intestinal pain (tormentum in Latin). The roots were boiled in milk, and the solution strained and drunk – and even dysentery was treated in this way. Calves suffering from loose bowels were also fed milk infused with tormentil.

The root had additional uses. It was chewed for the relief of toothache, and as a remedy for cold sores in South Uist. It was applied as a poultice to corns and gave a valued red dye for the colouring of cloth. All in all, a small plant with big heritage!

The Author

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

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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Scotland’s Giant Mozzies

We’ve had several reports recently from people who have been attacked by ‘giant mosquitos’, asking whether this is ‘normal’ in Scotland. The short answer is yes, it is normal, there are several native species of mosquito in Scotland. Some species don’t bite at all and of those that do, it’s only the females that will bite you...

Culex pipiens, (C)Pieter van Breugel

Of the world’s 3,000 species of mosquito just one percent are found in the UK, 10 of which are known to occur in Scotland. Fortunately none of these are disease-carriers or pose a threat to human life.

European distribution maps of two mosquito species found in Scotland.

Mozzies like to breed in moist, humid places, so they can really be found anywhere, in towns and the countryside, as long as there is undisturbed water to be found, such as pools, ditches, water butts, even bird baths.

It’s been a pretty good summer overall in Scotland, although quite humid in many areas. With Covid-19, perhaps people are getting out and about more than usual in their local patch, exploring new bits and so encountering mosquitos when they wouldn’t normally.

Also, there may be areas around towns and villages which have benefitted from being managed less, so pools of water and damp areas remain where they might not otherwise be allowed to and that’s perhaps helped mosquitoes to expand their breeding area.

Mosquito larva. Photo Sven Petersen

Mosquitos begin life as filter feeding larvae consuming the remnants of other insects, leaves and algae. As adults, the males feed only on nectar, so they have no need to bite you. Females however, need to supplement their diet with protein so their eggs can develop, and this is what they’re looking to find in blood. Depending on the species this blood meal can be obtained from birds, reptiles or mammals, including you and me.

Anophoeles plumbeus females are persistent biters. Photo via ECDE

You have probably noticed however, that while all humans are born free and equal, from the female mozzie’s point of view, some are indeed more equal, than others. At times you will have noticed that you seem to be be getting ravaged by the blighters while others you are with seem blissfully bite free, or perhaps the other way around. This is largely to do with genetics and around 20% of us tend to get more than our fair share of mozzie bites.

A pair of Culex pipiens – can you identify the biter? Credit Free Nature Images

There are some popular myths around why this is the case, such as wearing perfume or eating salty and potassium-rich foods increasing your appeal to female mosquitoes, or nicotine making smokers’ blood less attractive. While science doesn’t support these theories, there are several reasons why researchers do believe some of us get bitten more or less than others. A few of which we can mitigate, but the rest are inequalities we were born with and which we just need to take on the chin (…. or ankle, back of the knee, elbow or wherever it may be).

There has been a lot of research into the reasons why you might be more susceptible to mozzie bites. According to the Smithsonian, latest studies into this suggest that reasons why you might be more or less appealing to mosquitoes include:

  • Blood type – mosquitoes seem to be particularly attracted to those with an O blood type. It’s thought that they are able to detect this preferred blood because about 85 percent of people secrete a chemical signal through their skin that indicates which blood type they have.
  • CO2 – mozzies are attracted to CO2 and can detect carbon dioxide from as far as 164 feet away. So if you are producing more of it, you’re more of a target. This can be due to being overweight, drinking alcohol or exercising.
  • Bacteria – some studies have suggested that particular types and amounts of bacteria that live naturally on our skin make us more appealing, so if you were unable to take a shower for some reason, you could increase your attractiveness ( to mosquitoes at least!).
  • Clothing – at least one study has suggested that dark colours are more visible to mosquitoes.
  • Natural chemicals – some of us naturally produce more lactic and uric acid, ammonia and other substances than others, which mozzies like very much and detect through their antennae. Exercise also increases the build up of these substances in our bodies. Some people also seem to produce more chemicals that repel mosquitoes.
  • Pregnant – studies have shown that pregnant women attract twice as many bites as others, likely due to the fact that they produce more carbon dioxide and are little bit warmer.

While the above could make you more susceptible to mozzie bites, if you are with someone who ticks those boxes, you may become less of a target. So perhaps the best advice for those of us who are hoping to fly below the mozzie radar is simply to choose our friends very carefully!

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A new way to benefit nature on farms and crofts

Today’s blog, written by NatureScot agriculture officer, Kirsten Brewster, details a new trial in Scotland, which gives incentives to farmers and crofters to manage flower-rich meadows, help vulnerable populations of wading birds thrive, restore peatlands, and manage other nature-rich areas.

Hawthorn hedge and ox-eye daisies growing on a field margin. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Piloting an Outcomes Based Approach in Scotland (POBAS) is a project we’re taking forward with farmers and crofters looking at how best to benefit the environment on agricultural land in the future. We expect to see significant change in the coming years after we leave the EU and therefore leave the Common Agricultural Policy, which has been pivotal in supporting farm incomes. Our project aims to pilot alternative approaches after 2024 (following the current transitionary period from 2021-2024 of Stability & Simplicity in Scotland).

A large part of our project so far has focussed on payment by results as a means of rewarding good management for nature on farms and crofts. Agri-environment schemes have in the past tended to involve specific prescriptive management measures as a means of achieving the desired results. On the other hand, results-based schemes, such as the one we’re trialling, have payments linked to evidence of what has been achieved, rather than evidence of completing specific management actions. Farmers have the flexibility to decide how to achieve a positive environmental result on their land, and their fields’ environmental quality is scored: the more the land supports nature, the higher the score and consequently the higher the payment.

Farmers and crofters in Argyll discuss the grassland and woodland trial in this area.

A results-based scheme also has the added benefit of routine monitoring of habitats to allow us to review success in achieving the desired outcomes. Results-based schemes are being trialled across Europe (for more information, see the RBP website) because they have the potential to achieve benefits for the environment while also working well for land managers.

We are testing this approach with over 50 farmers and crofters within five pilot areas across Scotland. We are also working with partners (RSPB and the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism) in a further two pilots.

Feedback from the workshops across all areas showed that there is enthusiasm and scope for taking forward this approach in Scotland and that it is possible to have a standard approach that can be tailored for a locality.

This map details where the trials are taking place across Scotland,
as well as the types of natural improvement they each focus on.

We recognise that this approach will not be suitable in all circumstances, but it is exciting to develop an approach that could provide more flexibility for farmers, an improved understanding of how to manage the land to achieve a better-quality environment, and better value for money, while keeping the approach simple enough for it to be a realistic and practical way forward.

We have now published the report of Phase 1 on our website while we work on phase 2, finalising the scorecards, guidance and payment rationales to enable us to run a pilot scheme that would put the methods into practice.

If you want to read more about this exciting and novel area of work, download our Phase 1 Report here.

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#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Peatland ACTION Project Officer Matthew Cook

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been featuring NatureScot staff and partners working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. This month we hear from Matthew Cook, from the Crichton Carbon Centre, on his day in the life of a Peatland ACTION Project Officer.

The sun shines down on a beautiful autumn day in the South of Scotland.  Parking the car at a remote farmhouse in Robert Burns’ Sweet Afton Glen, I hike for an hour uphill, through forest plantations and fields of grazing sheep, and arrive at Star Bog around 1,700 feet above sea level.  Under clear blue skies, far reaching views stretch out to the Lowther Hills in the East and the faint outline of The Isle of Arran in the West.  

Blue Skies ©Matthew Cook

With my peat probes, GPS, mapping tools and camera I begin to survey an area of eroding blanket bog, identified for possible restoration.   High up here, with the peat beneath my feet and no one else around, it is easy to remember why I signed up to be a Peatland ACTION Project Officer.

Tools of the Trade ©Matthew Cook

That was yesterday.  Today, as I sit in my makeshift home office, I weave together the different strands of work that go on behind the scenes to make a successful peatland restoration plan. As well as surveying out on site, a project requires detailed Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, consideration of appropriate restoration techniques, landowner liaison, contractor tendering processes, health and safety paperwork, funding applications and data management.  All being well, good planning and preparation will result in machines on site later in the year.

Series of drainage channels across the bog ©Matthew Cook

Often wild, inhospitable and lonely places, Scottish peatlands are also beautiful and diverse stores of history and culture, home to unique plant and animal life.  Peatlands play a vital part in regulating water flow and quality, contribute to wildfire mitigation and are a natural store of millions of tonnes of organic carbon.  They are also one of the few remaining quiet, remote and mystical landscapes we have.  To restore and preserve this beautiful natural habitat is the least we can do, and there is plenty of work to be done.

Sphagnum Moss – the bog builder ©Matthew Cook

Although the lockdown restrictions earlier this year stopped all work on the ground, the winter programme of works had almost been completed, resulting in another 6,000 hectares of peatlands across Scotland being put on the road to restoration.  

On the ground restoration work usually begins in September, after the breeding bird season.  This winter, here in the South of Scotland, 150 hectares of eroding and drained blanket bog in the Lowther Hills will start the restoration journey.  The restoration incorporates ditch blocking, hagg re-profiling and bare peat restoration techniques, working to slow the erosion of peat into watercourses and return the hydrology of the peatland to a more natural state.   As well as improving the quality of water in a protected drinking water catchment, the work will improve the condition of a habitat designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, noted for its assemblage of upland plant life. 

Eroding peat haggs ©Matthew Cook

Next time you are walking across hills of blanket bog or skirting an ancient raised bog in the mist and rain, you might like to think of the project officers, landowners and contractors working hard behind the scenes to safeguard this precious landscape.  On the other hand, you might want to just enjoy the moment, safe in the knowledge that we are doing our best for the peatlands of Scotland.

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‘Sneachd’ air Aghaidh na Tìre / ‘Snow’ in the Gaelic Landscape

Faodaidh ainmean-àite le sneachd innse dhuinn mu àiteachan far an laigh an stuth geal sa gheamhradh, agus àiteachan a thaisbeanadh a dhearbhas dhuinn buaidh blàthachadh na h-aimsire / Gaelic place-names with sneachd can help to inform our understanding of the nature of snow lie and perhaps throw clues our way as to the consequences of climate change

‘Sneachd’ air Aghaidh na Tìre

Tha sinn a-nise fo bhuaidh a’ gheamhraidh, agus ʼs fhiach beachdachadh air far an nochd an stuth geal, co-dhiù a rèir ainmean-àite na Gàidhealtachd. Bidh an eileamaid ‘sneachd’ a’ nochdadh air aghaidh na tìre meadhanach tric. ʼS e an t-àite as aithnichte – ged a tha e gu tric air fhuaimneachadh ceàrr le sreapadairean is muinntir spòrs nam beann – Coire an t-Sneachda ann an ceann a tuath a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh. Ann an Gàidhlig Shrath Spè, ʼs e Coir’ an t-Sneachdaidh a chanar. Tha aghaidh a’ choire ris a’ cheann a tuath agus bidh e a’ cumail a chuid sneachda airson ùine mhòr.

Coire an t-Sneachda (coireachan a’ chinn a tuath, Am Monadh Ruadh) anns a’ gheamhradh.
Coire an t-Sneachda (northern corries, Cairngorms) in winter.
(C)William M. Connolley (fromWikimedia Commons)

Beagan mhìltean air falbh, gu h-àrd sa Mhonadh Ruadh air Beinn Bhrotainn, tha coire eile leis an aon ainm, ged a tha e air taobh an earra-dheas na beinne. Tha Coire an t-Sneachda eile ri lorg air beinn air a bheil Toll Creagach ann an Gleann Afraig – àite iomallach far am bi sgithearan dhen nòs Lochlannach agus feadhainn a thogas taighean-sneachda a’ dol bho àm gu àm.

Os cionn Loch Iall ann an Loch Abar tha àite ‘sneachdach’ eile – Beinn an t-Sneachda, le Allt Eas an t-Sneachda air a leathad. Agus air ais anns a’ Mhonadh Liath, siar air Bail’ Ùr an t-Slèibh, tha Sneachdach Slinnean, ged a bhiodh dùil air Slinnean Sneachdach mar dhreach an ainm. Chan eil ‘sneachdach’ ro chumanta air aghaidh na tìre – mar as trice ʼs e an dreach ginideach dhen ainmear – ‘an t-sneachda’ – a dh’innseas dhuinn gum bi sneachd a’ laighe ann.

Bidh ainmean ‘sneachda’ rin lorg eadhon faisg air a’ chladach air taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd. An cois na mara air Eilean Seona Beag ann am Muideart, tha Coir’ an t-Sneachda. Tha e a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àird a tuath agus tha e air a dhìon le beinn bho ghaoth bhlàth an iar-dheas. Tha coire eile anns a’ mhonadh deas air Loch Suaineart air a bheil Coire an t-Sneachda cuideachd.

Feumaidh gun deach Coir’ an t-Sneachda (shuas) ainmeachadh nuair a bha na geamhraidhean na b’ fhuaire na tha iad a-nise. Tha e ri taobh na mara air Eilean Seona Beag aig beul Loch Muideirt.
The maritime Coire an t-Sneachda on the north coast of the island of Shona Beag at the mouth of Loch Moidart. The spelling of Coire as Coir’ reflects the loss of pronunciation of the terminal ‘e’ in front of the vowel in the article ‘an’. This is a common feature of Coire place-names.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha Glac an t-Sneachda faisg air Mullach Glac an t-Sneachda anns an Ros Mhuileach agus, air ais air taobh sear na h-Alba, ann an Gleann Ìle, fear de ghlinn Monadh Aonghais, tha Dail na Sneachd. Feumaidh gun robh sneachd boireanta ann an seann Ghàidhlig Sgìr’ Aonghais.

Bidh sneachd gu tric na laighe ann an glacan is claisean far am bi uillt a’ ruith, agus corra uair bidh a leithid de shruth a’ giùlan an ainm Allt an t-Sneachda. Tha fìor dheagh eisimpleir air taobh a tuath an Aonaich Mhòir faisg air a’ Ghearasdan far a bheil goireasan mòra spòrs-sneachda. Faisg air Loch Muic ann an Siorrachd Obar Dheathain tha allt eile dhen aon ainm; gu siar air tha Allt an Uisge – feumaidh nach eil an sneachd a’ fuireach reòite cho fada an sin.

An iar-thuath air Bail’ a Chaisteil Bhràigh Mhàrr air ceann a deas Beinn a’ Bhùird, tha cruinneachadh beag de dh’ainmean ‘sneachdach’ – ann an àite a chumas a chuid sneachda fada. Bidh allt a’ sruthadh às an Iar-choire Sneachdach (Iar-choire an t-Sneachda gu h-ionadail) a’ coinneachadh ri allt eile a shruthas às an Ear-choire Sneachdach (Ear-choire an t-Sneachda gu h-ionadail). An dèidh a’ chomair, ʼs e Allt an t-Sneachda a th’ air an t-sruth. Agus tha caochan (allt beag falaichte) deas air Srath Fharagaig anns a’ Mhonadh Liath air a bheil Caochan an t-Sneachda.

Sealladh thairis air Beinn MacDuibh gu ruige am Bràigh Riabhach anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh.
Aerial view over the summit of Ben Macdui to Braeriach beyond, Cairngorms.. ©P&A Macdonald/NatureScot

A bharrachd air sneachd, bu chòir dhuinn a bhith mothachail gum bi am facal cuithe a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air a leithid oir tha e a’ seasamh airson àite far an laighe sneachd nas fhaide na gach àite timcheall. Feumar a bhith faiceallach, ge-tà, nach e cuidhe a bha luchd nam mapaichean a’ ciallachadh – tha sin a’ seasamh airson crò no buaile. Tha dà dheagh eisimpleir de dh’ainmean-àite le cuithe anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh – le chèile A’ Chuithe Chrom (oir ʼs e sin an cumadh orra). Tha tè air taobh an earra-dheas Beinn nan Cìochan agus tè eile air leathad a tuath a’ Chùirn Ghuirm (chithear i às an Aghaidh Mhòir air latha math). Gu mì-fhortanach, ʼs ann ainneamh a chithear tè a’ Chùirn Ghuirm air mapaichean. Bhiodh na seann daoine a’ dèanamh fàisneachd air aimsir an t-samhraidh agus toradh an fhoghair a rèir a’ chinn-latha air am briseadh no am falbhadh cuitheachan-sneachda.

Ma tha sibh shuas sa mhonadh sa gheamhradh am-bliadhna, cumaibh ur sùilean a-mach airson ainmean ‘sneachda’ ionadail. Bithear an dòchas, agus blàthachadh na gnàth-shìde oirnn, gum faicear sneachd annta fhathast.

‘Snow’ in the Gaelic Landscape

As we have now reached the time of year when snow is once more close at hand, it is worth considering where the white stuff might be expected to lie – at least according to Gaelic place-names on our landscape. The Gaelic word for snow is sneachd (approximately ‘SHNEH-uchk’), which has cognates in many European languages, including Russian снег (‘sneg’), German ‘schnee’, Swedish ‘snö’, English ‘snow’ and Scots ‘snaw’.

Am Monadh Ruadh / The Cairngorms: Coire an t-Sneachda. Photo: Scott Muir/Steep Scotland

The best-known place-name containing the element sneachd is Coire an t-Sneachda ‘the corrie of the snow’ in the northern corries of the Cairngorms. The pronunciation – approximately ‘kor(-uh) un TRE-uchk-uh’ – seems to often pose a challenge to members of the outdoor fraternity who commonly frequent the location for skills training and pleasure. The corrie is well-named; north-facing and relatively sheltered, it holds its snow for a long time.

Coire an t-Sneachda – fear de choireachan a’ chinn a tuath anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh. A dh’aindeoin a chuid sneachda, chan eil e freagarrach do sgithearan Ailpeach a chionn ʼs nach eil a leathaidean cas gu leòr. Bidh sgitheadh air a chumail anns an ath choire gu tuath – an Coire Cas (air adhbhar follaiseach a rèir ainm!)
Coire an t-Sneachda (Coir’ an t-Sneachdaidh ‘kor un DRECHK-ee’ in local Strathspey Gaelic) is a well-known and much-loved topographical feature at the northern end of the Cairngorms. The t- blocks the sound of the ‘S’ in speech. Its name means ‘the corrie of the snow’.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Just a few miles away on Beinn Bhrotainn, also high in the Cairngorms, is another corrie of the same name, although this one faces south-east. Yet another Coire an t-Sneachda is to be found on Toll Creagach west of the Great Glen in Glen Affric – a remote hill that is occasionally frequented in winter by Nordic skiers, ski mountaineers and igloo-builders. Above Loch Eil in Lochaber is another ‘snowy’ place – Beinn an t-Sneachda ‘the mountain of the snow’, whose western side is drained by Allt Eas an t-Sneachda ‘the burn of the waterfall of the snow’. And back in the Monadh Liath, west of Newtonmore, is the unusually-named Sneachdach Slinnean ‘snowy shoulder’; the opposite word-order ie Slinnean Sneachdach would be expected. The adjective sneachdach is not common in the landscape; more usually the genitive or possessive form of the noun, ie an t-sneachda ‘of the snow’ is used as the descriptor.

‘Snow’ names are even found on the milder west coast (perhaps reflecting a naming process that took place when winters were considerably colder). Close to sea level on the island of Shona Beag in Loch Moidart, there is another Coir’ an t-Sneachda, a small wooded corrie that runs down to a rocky and muddy shore. It is north-facing and under a steep hill which protects it from both direct sunshine and the effects of the mild south-westerly wind. Another Coire an t-Sneachda with a similar aspect, although a little higher in altitude, is in the hills south of Loch Sunart.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, os cionn Coire an t-Sneachda, le leathad a’ Chùirn Ghuirm air a chùlaibh.
Stob Coire an t-Sneachda derives its name from the corrie below. In the background is the southern slope of Cairn Gorm. ©Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Licence

The Ross of Mull boasts another west coast hollow named for retaining its snow. North-west of Beinn Chreagach is Glac an t-Sneachda ‘the depression of the snow’. And, back in the east, Glen Isla – one of the famed Angus Glens – hosts in its upper reaches a ‘snowy field or dell’, Dail na Sneachd, the word sneachd here being feminine (it is masculine in most locations).

Snow will often lie in the dells and depressions created by burns in the hills, and occasionally the relevant burn is named Allt an t-Sneachda ‘the burn of the snow’. A classic example is a burn of that name which drains the northern side of Aonach Mòr near Fort William, one of Scotland’s major snowsport centres. Another example near Loch Muick in Aberdeenshire is instructive; the adjacent burn to its west is Allt an Uisge ‘the burn of the water’, possibly named in comparison to its snowy companion.

Allt Coire an t-Sneachda far an ruige e Allt na h-Imrich faisg air Beinn a’ Mheadhain, Gleann Afraig.
Allt Coire an t-Sneachda where it meets Allt na h-Imrich near Beinn a’ Mheadhain, Glen Affric.

North-west of Braemar at the southern end of Beinn a’ Bhùird is a collection of fascinating ‘snow’ names (in an area renowned for good snow in winter). The Iar-choire Sneachdach ‘western snowy corrie’ (locally called Iar-choire an t-Sneachda) and nearby Ear-choire Sneachdach ‘eastern snowy corrie’ (locally Ear-choire an t-Sneachda) are drained by burns which join to form yet another Allt an t-Sneachda. And another stream named for snow – Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘the hidden streamlet of the snow’ – is to be found in the Monadh Liath south of Stratherrick.

In addition to sneachd, a consideration of ‘snow’ names in our landscape should also take in the occasional appearance of the element cuithe ‘snow wreath’ ie a place where snow continues to lie when it has melted all around. One has to be careful with such names, however, as cuithe can be confused with cuidhe ‘cattle-fold, enclosure’. Two clear examples of cuithe ‘snow’ names – both Cuithe Chrom ‘crooked snow-wreath’ – are on Cairn Gorm and Lochnagar, the former rarely being shown on maps. The date of the breaking or complete melting of a cuithe could be used to predict the weather for the remainder of the summer and the likelihood of a favourable harvest.

If you’re out in the hills this winter, see if you can spot any local ‘snow’ names. Hopefully, in these days of climate change, the description will still apply.

The Author

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

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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Coigach and Assynt’s secret hazel woodlands

We sometimes think of Assynt, in the north west of Scotland, as a spectacular but stark place of rock, heath and bog. But here and there are plenty of trees – marvellous woodlands, those on better soils often dominated by hazel trees of amazing maturity, hosting stunning lichens, mosses, liverworts and fungi which are unique to these type of woods.  On a sunny day, all the greens are there: the bright leaves, the subtle mosses on trunk and rock, and the really wild range of lichens.  There are leafy, crusty and hairy forms on old, thicker stems and magical runic-style writing: dots, dashes and startling colours on the fresh younger growth.

We’ve found out a lot more about those stunning hazel wood over the last four years. Nature Scot has been a key partner and funder of the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP). The Hazel Wood Audit was one of over 30 projects that the partnership, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is delivering, with funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The audit project was led by the Assynt Field Club.

The final report, written by ecological consultant Roz Summers, has recently been released, and makes fascinating reading. This extract gives you a glimpse of the many intricate ways in which hazel trees are woven into the natural and cultural landscape of this wild corner of Scotland.

The trees themselves are in a myriad of forms: multi-stemmed and groaning outwards, mega-stemmed with an astonishing range of ages in one tree, broad single-stemmed trees with wide boles at the base, decrepit-looking ancients falling down the hill.  These, however, are rarely dead, indeed they seem to morph into new forms, even possibly reverting to upright multi stems.  This is the Celtic Rainforest.

Ancient hazel tree. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

Coastal Temperate Rainforest was identified as a rare and distinct part of a priority “Major Habitat Type” by WWF. It is confined to only seven areas of the world. The West Highlands of Scotland are part of the Northeastern Atlantic sector.  These Atlantic hazelwoods are special because of the high rainfall, lots of wet days, proximity to the coast and relatively even temperatures. They are also invaluable because they are still here – perhaps having survived in some form since the last ice retreated 10, 000 years ago.

Hazel arrived in Assynt around 9,500 years ago, and was an abundant part of the forest cover on mineral soils along with Scots pine and birch.  The mineral soils became progressively washed out over time as the climate cooled and got wetter.  The tree cover began to retreat from 5,000 years ago, and peat began to spread, with no evidence of human influence. 

Hazel leaves and nuts, © Lorne Gill

Birch and birch-hazel woods on mineral soils seem to have been cleared by fire from 3,500 years ago, surviving as fragments on brown forest soils. Human history in this area, close to the lochs, has been dated from around 4500 years ago. so the Neolithic cairns were being built when hazel and other woodland was still fairly plentiful, and it is possible they were gradually cleared for agriculture.

Our ancestors must have valued, indeed revered, hazel.  Hazels provided the 300,000 carbonized nutshells found in a 5m pit in the island of Oronsay, Inner Hebrides, dated to around 7700BC.  Hazel shells were found in Skara Brae, Orkney, eaten 5000 years ago.  It is possible our Mesolithic ancestors helped to spread, and possibly even managed hazel for tools, building and heat.

A hazel coppice. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

The natural growth habit of hazel means it is possible to select the exact size of stick or pole you need for a multitude of uses, particularly building works and stock management. Hazel trees may well be the main reason the ancestors could survive in North West Highlands, and would have been vital up until 100 years ago.

In Celtic memory the hazel tree was the tree of wisdom.  They believed the hazel nuts would fall from the tree into the river and be eaten by salmon, which made them clever enough to travel out to sea and find their way back.  Humans eating the salmon would gain that wisdom.  The spots on the salmon were evidence of their diet, they said.  Hazel is also one of the nine sacred woods used to light the Beltane fire every year.

Lichen training for the Assynt & Coigach Living Landscape project. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

To find out more about the Assynt and Coigach project, and what the audit discovered about these very special trees do read the full report. Hundreds of hours of volunteer work went into carrying out the surveys and processing the data – a huge achievement which will help inform action to help landowners and managers to protect these trees for the future.

Posted in biodiversity, conservation, Ecology, Lichens, NatureScot, trees, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Herald of Winter – and other November fungi

As the trees turn bare and opportunities for momijigari diminish – a Japanese word for admiring the colours of autumn leaves – lower your eyes when out on your woodland walks and you’ll find that there are still a good many fascinating fungi around to seek out and admire. Today we look at six species, some more common than others, that you might discover fruiting in Scotland during November.

Herald of Winter (Hygrophorus hypothejus)

As its English name suggests, this species is said to appear after the first frosts, signaling the beginning of winter, although of course frosts can occur any time in Scotland! This species can regularly be found under conifers later in the season, is very distinct and, once you get your eye in, it is very easy to spot.

Hygrophorus hypothejus, (C)David Kelly

Look out for an olive brownish cap with a darker centre and a glutinous surface texture – the remains of a glutinous universal veil. A universal veil is a temporary membranous tissue that fully envelops the immature fruiting bodies of some gilled mushrooms.

Universal veil

The flesh is a rich yellow / orange below the cap, which can sometimes be seen in damaged areas. The gills are decurrent (running down the stem) and become yellow at maturity. The stem is dry above the pronounced veil zone and slippery below.

Fruiting can occur as early as August but the main season is from September to November, tailing off quickly in December. It likes the acidic soils found under conifers – most usually under pine but occasionally larch and even birch. It is thought to be ectomycorrhizal with pine, a form of symbiotic relationship which provides the tree with most of its nutrients.

Herald of Winter, (C)Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh

Cucumber Cap (Macrocystidia cucumis)

The small brown cucumber cap is also quite distinct. The cap can grow up to 5cm across and usually has a rich, dark red brown rather velvety appearance. The colour will fade as the cap dries out. The cap can be conical or more flattened with either a broad or nipple-like umbo – the small bump on the top of some species. The edge of the cap can be faintly striate (stretch-marked) and is often a paler and contrasting yellow brown colour. The gills are paler, starting out white and becoming a reddish ochre colour; and they are adnexed, reaching the stem but not attached to it. The stipe is stiff, pale at the apex, but dark and velvety below. 

Types of gill attachment to stipe.

It is a saprotrophic or ‘recycler’ fungus, which helps to break down dead plant material. Fungi are the only group of organisms that can break down lignin, found in wood and bark, and without them we would be buried under many metres of woody debris. They also play a vital role in driving the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients that they don’t require back into the environment.

The cucumber cap has a smell that ranges from putty, through cucumber to distinctly fishy – along the lines of cod liver oil. It likes rich humus or nitrogen rich soils and is often found in nettle patches and increasingly on woodchip mulches in gardens and parks. It occurs throughout the year but can also be found in the late autumn and winter months.

Olive Oysterling (Panellus serotinus)

The olive oysterling also occurs throughout the year but is mostly recorded between late November and February. This species has a much reduced stem forming to the side of the cap and a more or less kidney-shaped cap which can reach 10cm across. The upper surface is distinctly olive greenish, sometimes with reddish or lilac tones near the point of attachment to the wood on which it grows. In wet conditions, the cap will be viscid and glutinous but the cap can become dry and matt. The under surface has yellowish /orange gills.

The olive oysterling is another saprotrophic (recycler) fungus, breaking down dead wood on the forest floor. Look for it on dead deciduous wood, usually large fallen trunks or branches, particularly beech and birch but also on alder, ash, oak, willow, elder and elm.

Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Chicken-of-the-woods is also saprotrophic, causing brown rot often on oak and other hardwood trees, such as beech, chestnut, and cherry.  It can colonize both dead and living trees acting as a weak pathogen on living trees. Wood is primarily composed of cellulose (long chains of sugars) and lignin (one of nature’s most complex substances). Brown rot is characterised by the brown colour of the wood which is a result of the fungus degrading the cellulose and similar wood components but leaving the lignin untouched. It is one of the easier to recognise fungi, its large size and striking yellow / orange colour making it hard to miss, especially as a single tree can often produces several kilos of this fungus.

Chicken-of-the-woods on oak, credit: Jane Corey / Woodland Trust

Some say it possesses a remarkably similar texture and taste to chicken, which is where it gets its common name. If collecting to eat it is advised to just collect young specimens, being bright yellow to orange, as older specimens, being dull yellow to white, become rather woody with age and often develop an acrid flavour. It’s a fast growing fungus which, if just the outer edges (about 5 cm) are collected/cut, recovers quickly and allows for a second harvest later during the season. However, around 20% of people show sensitivity to this mushroom becoming ill quickly after consumption. For this reason it is advised to only consume a small portion the first time it is tried. In addition, fruit bodies growing on yew trees are best avoided as the conifer itself contains toxins which apparently are taken up by the fungus.


The wavy-edged cap of the fruit body ranges 5 to 30 cm across, up to 20 cm deep and up to 3 cm thick, growing in a cluster that can reach up to 75 cm across. The Chicken-of-the-Woods belongs to the family of the Polyporaceae, and as suggested in the name Laetiporus meaning ‘with bright pores’, has small, pale yellow tubes, rather than the more commonly encountered gills, underneath the fruit bodies. The fruit body grows directly out of the tree trunk and therefore does not possess a stem. The flesh of the fruit body is thick, watery and soft when young and turns into a tough and woody like structure that becomes crumbly and cheese-like with age.

Chicken of the woods is most commonly found from August till late autumn but occasionally occurs as early as May.

Piggyback Pinkgill (Volvariella surrecta) & Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Piggyback pinkgill is a species that fruits on the fruiting structures of another late season, litter-rotting species –  the clouded funnel. The exact relationship between the two is not entirely clear. Piggyback pinkgill has free gills, produces pink spores and has a distinct volva – a cup-like structure at the base of a mushroom that is a remnant of its universal veil.

While rarely recorded in Scotland, so far, with such distinct characteristics and its specific preference for the clouded funnel this is a pretty easy one to identify.

The cap of the clouded funnel can be variable in form as the images below demonstrate. The wavy cap edge is not an important distinguishing feature even though it looks distinctive in one of the photos. Not getting distracted with these variable characters is something that you learn with experience and all part of getting to know your fungi.

The host species, Clitocybe nebularis is often found in nitrogen rich soil and litter in gardens and both deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Since the key to finding Volvariella surrecta is to track down the host, these are the habitats to check.

The main fruiting period for these species in Scotland is in September and October but records occur in November, December and January so it is worth keeping an eye out for even late in the season.

Piggyback pinkgill on a clouded tunnel, (C)Natterjacktoad

Scottish Fungi

You can help to improve our knowledge of the distribution of fungi in Scotland by reporting your sightings to Scottish Fungi here. And if you’d like to get more involved you could join one of Scotland’s six fungus groups, each of which promotes the appreciation and survey of fungi in their area. Find your local Fungus Group.

Many thanks to Liz Holden & Dave Genney of Scottish Fungi.

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Mentoring the next generation of conservationists

In February 2020, Murray Borthwick was staring down a telescope at Morton Lochs, undertaking fieldwork for his honours thesis and simultaneously realising that studying birds was what he wanted to do for a living.

Fast forward to the summer and we find Murray with a first class honours degree in Animal Biology from Edinburgh Napier University, graduating in what might be one of the hardest years to find an entry-level job in the environmental sector. Never an easy task even at the best of times!

For many years, NatureScot staff have taken part in Napier’s long-established mentoring programme to help support youth employment and the green jobs sector. Sue Haysom, one of our ornithologists, has mentored undergraduates and was delighted to take part in the new summer long micro-mentoring initiative for 2020 graduates.

A mute swan, one of the species Murray studied in his honours project, at Morton Lochs. Copyright Murray Borthwick

“Having been a mentor for Edinburgh Napier University before,” Sue said, “I knew how rewarding it would be. I’m so aware of how lucky I am to do a job I love, but also how difficult it is to get that first foothold within the environmental sector. We’ve all received advice and support during our careers and it’s great to be able to pass that on. I used my coaching and mentoring skills to listen carefully to what Murray wanted from the mentoring partnership, and we used that to build an action plan together.”

Murray signed up to the programme to gain a better idea of what a career in ornithology might look like and where and how to start. As Sue and Murray talked, it became clear that two things were important: developing specific technical skills, as well as more widely transferable skills, such as writing reports and presenting work to different audiences.

Murray explained, “Sue has shown me a huge range of places to look for jobs and volunteering positions, as well as giving me advice on CVs and cover letters. She also helped me carry out a skills gap analysis and identify how I can proactively fill any gaps to improve my employability.”

A tufted duck – another species which Murray studied. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Sue said that one of the unexpected downsides of mentoring is that it can make you feel very old! After her first meeting with Murray, she realised it had been several decades since she’d been in his shoes so she reached out to NatureScot’s Young Employees’ Network to ensure she didn’t miss out on any new aspects of job-hunting. They had some great ideas and were delighted to help; some of the network are now looking out for opportunities to become mentors themselves.

One of the most powerful and enjoyable parts of the mentoring partnership was revealing how environmental career paths are usually rather wiggly. Sue set up video conference meetings with other ornithologists in NatureScot, RSPB and private consultancies, which Murray found very useful. “A particularly valuable experience was meeting other ornithologists and hearing about their jobs and the paths they took to get there,” he explained. “This helped me understand for the first time exactly how I could work towards a career doing what I love.”

Morton Lochs at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. Copyright Murray Borthwick

Sue added, “It’s easy to assume that people in roles you aspire to get there by following a strategically planned progression of jobs – but I’ve yet to meet that person! We’ve all been tenacious, worked hard on our skills and building networks but beyond that there’s not much commonality. It’s a cliché but there really is no wrong path.”

How would Sue and Murray sum up what they’ve gained from their mentoring partnership thus far?

 “Most importantly,” Murray said, “Sue has given me the confidence to approach people and apply for jobs which I would have been unsure about before. I’ve been kept on my toes and encouraged to continue pursuing opportunities. This has been vital when graduating in a time that it would have been easy to take my foot off the gas, but with Sue’s encouragement I have already found my way into several exciting projects.” Murray has become a mentee with the Scottish Raptor Study Group, a WeBS surveyor and a data entry volunteer for the Garden Bird Feeding Survey.

Sue found she gained a lot from mentoring as well. “Working with young people is energising,” she commented. “It helps you to pause and reflect on your own path and think about what your next steps might be. Working with Murray has reminded me how bright a future we have in the green sector.”

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