Outdoor learning: helping to heal our young people

It has long been recognised that outdoor learning can be beneficial for health and wellbeing. NatureScot recently published the evaluation of a large collaborative outdoor learning project – the Learning in Local Greenspace project – which ran between 2015 and 2021. During Green Health Week, we thought it would be timely to explore what impact the project had on the health and wellbeing of those that took part, writes Sue Munro.

Schoolchildren walking on the nature trail at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project worked to support and embed outdoor learning in local greenspaces amongst the project schools, in collaboration with local and national partners. We worked with over 115 schools and at least 500 teachers across 12 local authorities to remove or reduce the barriers to outdoor learning. This gave over 6000 learners access to their local greenspace for learning and play.

Outdoor learning can be beneficial for health and wellbeing. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The final year of the project was severely affected by the global pandemic which we know negatively impacted many people’s health and wellbeing. It was also during the midst of the pandemic that the schools’ evaluation of the project was conducted. It was therefore heartening to discover that, despite these unprecedented circumstances, the number of teachers that believed their pupils’ emotional wellbeing was average to excellent had risen from 76.8% pre-project to 84.2% post-project.

This was backed up by many quotes and anecdotes from teachers and pupils during the course of the project.

“My class goes out at least once a week, but we vary the curriculum area … It has helped to raise attainment in my class and pupil’s health and wellbeing.” (Primary School Teacher, West Lothian)

“I don’t feel as stressed when I am out but when I am in class I get stressed.” (Primary pupil, West Dunbartonshire)

Teachers observed that learning outdoors can positively impact behaviour and social interactions which can enhance emotional wellbeing:

“The social element is also very important for our pupils as many of our children have social, emotional and behavioural issues and outdoor learning has had a very positive impact on these pupils, who have demonstrated more self-confidence, less anger and aggression. There have been less absences from some of our more vulnerable children as they know they are joining with our outdoor learning programme.” (Teacher, North Lanarkshire)

The study saw an increase in the number of teachers who believe outdoor learning has positive effects on pupils.

The impacts of the project on physical health were less clear and again were likely to have been negatively impacted by Covid-19. The number of teachers that believed their pupils’ physical health was average to excellent fell over the course of the project (72.6% pre-project and 65.8% post-project). However, there was anecdotal evidence that teachers believe outdoor learning had been good for pupils’ physical health.

“At the start of the project, some children found the short walk to the local greenspace very tiring, as they were not used to the physical exertion.  There were lots of trips and falls in the greenspace… This was a lot to do with building resilience and getting used to being in a woodland, which improved over the weeks.”  (Falkirk partner) 

For all the positive impacts of outdoor learning on pupils’ emotional and physical health, it would seem likely that teachers would also reap some similar benefits from being out in nature and being more physically active through the school day. Certainly the project positively impacted on teacher confidence in teaching outdoors (up from 54% to 85%), and this, combined with seeing their pupils more engaged in learning outdoors (up from 56% to 79%), would surely give greater on-the-job satisfaction?

Teacher awareness and confidence in outdoor learning grew over the course of the project.

In addition to the health and wellbeing benefits to pupils and teachers, it would seem there was a ripple effect going on through the project, with anecdotal evidence that pupils’ families and communities would reap positive impacts from the outdoor learning experience. Pupils were frequently reported to be taking family members and friends to ‘their’ greenspace at weekends and after school and these spaces were being rediscovered as a community asset to be enjoyed and to take pride in.

“Many families visited the woods during this stressful and worrying times [Covid-19 lockdowns]. Many families sent us photos, or shared what they had been doing in the woods, and I’m positive that it helped to ‘save and support’ during those uncertain months.” (Head teacher, South Lanarkshire)

“We are working clearing up all the rubbish, giving back to the community” (Pupil, Fife)

Much has been written about the impact of the global pandemic on the health and emotional wellbeing of the nation. As we re-emerge from the pandemic, outdoor learning deserves to be recognised as a possible solution to helping our young people not only to heal from the impacts of the pandemic, but also to thrive and engage in their learning.

For more information about learning in local greenspace, see our website.

Sue Munro is a Greenspace Officer with NatureScot.

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The five ingredients to a happier and healthier life revealed!

Green Health Week – the annual Scottish mental health and wellbeing campaign offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the therapeutic effects of being in nature, writes Claire Williams.

For me, volunteering with NatureScot at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve has helped unearth a happier and healthier version of myself.

As a mature student pursuing a qualification to support a career change, coursework can be intense. Factor in work commitments and juggling family responsibilities, and weekly volunteering might have seemed a step too far. How wrong I was! Mental health research has identified five key ingredients which are supported by my belief that volunteering in nature can promote our health and wellbeing.

Ingredient 1: Connecting with others

Making time to connect with people around us improves our health. Building supportive social connections can be fun and enriching, and they’re essential for making us feel good.

Spending time with members of the volunteer group is always a tonic. We share similar ecological and conservation values, and a sense of community spirit and fun. I have had the pleasure of working alongside incredibly kind, compassionate, and determined volunteers from various walks of life. I have made new friends.

Claire burning gorse scrub. Image credit: Maria Eugenia

Ingredient 2. Be active

As well as helping to shift a few extra pounds, regular physical activity can help increase your sense of wellbeing and protect against depression, anxiety, and age-related cognitive decline. My wonderful interactions with fellow volunteers and the NatureScot staff – not to mention the stunning scenery and wildlife – lifts my mood for days.

Tasks like cutting a meadow and baling the grass are very physical activities but also require concentration, teamwork, and focused effort. Slowly my concerns melt away and I realise that I’m making a bale of hay for the first time! What a sense of achievement.  It has certainly built my confidence, replacing negative thoughts (“I’m no good at doing anything practical”) with positive ones (“I have gained some good practical skills”).

Claire raking meadow grass. Image credit Maria Eugenia

Ingredient 3. Take notice… Be curious.

Slowing down the busy pace of the mind and focusing on self-awareness by ‘taking notice’ of your surroundings can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. 

The late economist and green revolutionist David Fleming spoke on the notion of an ‘encounter’ with nature. An encounter is what happens when you take the time to deeply observe and connect with your surroundings. It requires a respectful acknowledgement of the complexity of a life system without judgement, or a need to tame, control or understand it through logic. Last summer I had a meaningful encounter with a Common Hawker Dragonfly – the reserve’s gossamer jewels of the sky. The beautiful creature landed on a leaf stem in front of me.  As I paused in awe to observe its beauty and elegance the world seemed to fall still. I was not alone in this reflective space, as the dragonfly began observing me back and for some seconds we were engaged in a silent conversation. Savouring moments like these can help you rediscover and strengthen your core values and a sense of appreciation of what matters most in your life.

A Common Hawker Dragonfly. Image credit Lorne Gill / NatureScot

Ingredient 4. Keep Learning.

Trying something new like volunteering for a cause close to your heart may help improve your confidence, give you something fun to look forward to, and keep you active. Research shows that continued learning throughout our lifetime can improve wellbeing and support our resilience. For me, volunteering re-invigorated my love of the outdoors and wild foraging and baking. Inspired by nature, I tried new recipes like hawthorn berry ketchup, wild garlic and parmesan scones, and rowan berry fruit rolls. Learning how to combine unique ingredients to create tasty treats is both challenging and fun. However, sometimes keeping things more traditional is often what’s needed too, such as a toffee apple cake for our Autumn BBQ get-together, which went down well!

Claire’s foraged wild garlic and parmesan scones. Image credit Claire Williams.
Claire’s toffee apple cake. Image credit Claire Williams.

Ingredient 5. Give to others.

The adage giving is good for you is not wrong. Even small acts of kindness may do wonders for your mental health and others. It is incredibly rewarding when we begin to see the impact of our efforts in the wider community.  One such example is the Phoenix Hide at Loch Leven NNR, a stunning structure that has been “resurrected from the ashes” after fire damage. This has been the result of huge efforts from the volunteers, NatureScot staff, and others. To see the collective efforts culminate in a wonderful free space for all members of the community to enjoy really is inspiring and uplifting.

The Phoenix Hide. Image credit Lorne Gill / Nature Scot

Green Health Week summed up.

Rather than add to the burden of life’s pressured timetable, volunteering rewards me with time to pause, breathe, and re-set my sometimes-neglected mental health – our local green places can be viewed as Our Natural Health Service, good for body and soul. Volunteering with NatureScot has provided me with the five ingredients to wellbeing, and each week I am able to attend I reap the benefits. And so can you!

Claire Williams is a volunteer at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve.

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Enhanced Shepherding: Working together to find solutions to a complex issue

Lambing season on Scotland’s hills can be a challenging time for farmers and crofters.  In this guest blog we hear from Freya King from Skye who has been delivering enhanced shepherding supported by the Sea Eagle Management Scheme, a measure aimed at mitigating and better understanding sea eagle predation of lambs on more extensive areas.

Growing up in the beautiful Highlands, I’ve always had a keen eye for agriculture and the environment.  The influence of neighbours and friends working the land and managing livestock has ultimately led me into following a career path in a similar direction.

For two years now I have been helping my local sheep stock club, North Talisker, with lambing.  In the second year I took up a role supported by the Sea Eagle Management Scheme, working to deliver enhanced shepherding.  This partnership between NatureScot and North Talisker has given me an opportunity to develop in so many ways. 

Enhanced shepherding involves working closely with NatureScot staff and call off contractors © C. McIntyre

The purpose of enhanced shepherding is to support farmers and crofters experiencing issues with sea eagle predation during lambing on more extensive areas, such as North Talisker common grazing.  The measure aims to gather more information on a range of variables including sea eagle interactions with the flock, as well as attempting to provide a scaring element through the provision of additional presence on the hill.

Participating in the scheme has promoted greater awareness of sea eagle movements within the local area and provided an opportunity to advance hill shepherding skills and knowledge of sea eagles.  This experience has all helped with my lambing work and education.

Observing sea eagles during an enhanced shepherding refresher session © C. McIntyre

I am currently studying a degree in conservation biology and my involvement with the scheme has certainly expanded my experience of fieldwork data collection skills.  I am aware that the environmental sector can be a competitive field and I’m hopeful this experience will help in securing future employment in the sector.

The enhanced shepherding has also offered seasonal employment opportunities for other people within the local community, which has been essential during the pandemic and is beneficial to those who have an interest in, or are wishing to pursue a career in agriculture or environmental studies.

Collaborative working is a key aspect of the enhanced shepherding measure as seen here at a refresher session © C. McIntyre

The ongoing partnership between North Talisker and NatureScot has highlighted the benefits of working together to try and find solutions to complex issues such as sea eagle predation, where both parties can learn from each other.  The importance of data collection and the value to both NatureScot and North Talisker in this shared data has been another positive.

Heading out on the hills to try and deter sea eagle interaction with the flock has had mixed success and I found this to be fairly effective in more commonly covered areas.  In areas or seasons when the measure has not been as effective, benefits can still be drawn. 

Vantage point observations are a component of enhanced shepherding as seen above on North Talisker common grazing © C. McIntyre

The data collection has allowed impacts to be recorded and can help our shared understanding of sea eagle movements and behaviour during the season.  The data is analysed and discussed, with a shared report produced at the end of each season; which helps both North Talisker and NatureScot. 

With a number of farms and crofts now participating across the sea eagle range, the data collected will help NatureScot and farming and crofting groups assess the effectiveness of enhanced shepherding and hopefully help inform their joint work to address the issue of lamb predation where it occurs.

Data collection is a key part of enhanced shepherding with data collected helping both farmers and crofters and NatureScot © NatureScot/Lorne Gill

NatureScot runs the Sea Eagle Management Scheme on behalf of the National Sea Eagle Stakeholder Panel.  The Sea Eagle Management Scheme extends support for livestock farmers and crofters who suffer impacts across the sea eagle breeding range. More information on the Scheme can be found here.

North Talisker Sheep Stock Club was established in 1924 and manages almost 2000 ha of land, with over 1000 cheviot sheep and around 50 cows. More information on the work of North Talisker Sheep Stock Club can be found here

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Flora Gadelica

Lightfoot’s Flora Scotica (1777) makes considerable reference to the uses of native trees by the Gaels.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

The Reverend John Lightfoot (1735-88) is rightly lauded for his seminal work Flora Scotica, published in 1777, which contributed to his considerable reputation as a naturalist, and which in turn saw him elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785. While, in some respects, the text is a standard botanical cyclopaedia of its day concerning native Scottish flora, it also contains a significant number of cultural references and is therefore a particularly valuable document to this blogger.

A native of Gloucestershire, Lightfoot was educated at Oxford University and was a close friend of Joseph Banks, the leading English botanist of his day. His journey to Scotland with the Welsh author Thomas Pennant in 1772 led to two major volumes of work – Pennant’s ‘A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides’ which remains in print today and Lightfoot’s self-published Flora Scotica in two volumes which can be accessed on the internet.

For the many accurate references within each author’s work to the Gaels and the Gaelic language, we can be grateful that they chose as their travelling companion the Rev. John Stuart of Killin in Perthshire (later of Luss, Loch Lomond), one of the foremost Gaelic scholars of his day and the chief translator of the Old Testament into that language. He made crucial contributions to the published accounts of each of his companions, giving them authority and understanding which would have otherwise eluded them.

In this blog, I would like to delve into the cultural references in Flora Scotica with regard to some of our native trees, largely restricting myself to Lightfoot’s commentary on particular uses by the Gaels, although he also makes considerable reference to the natives of Lapland and other parts of Scandinavia. I have employed modern orthography where it differs from that used by Lightfoot and Stuart.

The first is the beithe ‘birch’ with which ‘the Highland woods abound’, according to Lightfoot, and which was widely used by the people. The bark was used to tan leather and to make ropes, and the outer part of it, called meilleag (a word still in use today in Gaelic Scotland and Canada), was sometimes burned in place of candles. Lightfoot adds that the wood was ‘formerly used by the Highlanders to make their arrows, but is now converted to better purposes, being used by the wheelwright for ploughs, carts and most of the rustic implements; by the turner for trenchers, bowls, ladles etc, the knotty excrescences affording a beautiful, veined wood, and by the cooper for hoops. To which may be added that it affords excellent fuel, and makes the best of charcoal and the soot is a good lamp-black for making printer’s ink.’

Birch ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The leaves of the birch were used as fodder for sheep and goats and yielded a yellow dye. Its small branches ‘serve the highlanders for hurdles, and side-fences to their houses [and] the pliant twigs are well known to answer the purposes of cleanliness and correction.’ The last seems somewhat cryptic until one recognises that domestic practices with regard to toileting have changed significantly over the last two and a half centuries.

Lightfoot is by now well into his cultural stride and spends the next page and more describing in detail how to tap into birch trees at the beginning of March and extract sap using hollow sticks of elder in order to make a ‘generous and agreeable liquor’ i.e. birch-sap wine. The English parson pointedly recommends it to his ‘Highland friends’ and declares it to be ‘a happy substitute in the room of the poisonous whisky!’

The second major tree in Flora Scotica is the feàrna ‘alder’, the timber of which ‘endures moisture well and is therefore esteemed for making water-pipes, or any other use where the situation of it must be wet or damp, in which state it turns black like ebony. It is used also by the wheelwright and turner for making wheels of carts, bowls, spoons, rakes, heels for women’s shoes, clogs, pattens [overshoes] etc. The highlanders often make chairs of the wood, which are very handsome and of the colour of mahogany.’ And, just in case you thought the good reverend had exhausted the uses of alder, he adds that the ‘knots furnish a beautiful, veined wood for cabinets and the branches make good charcoal’. In the Highlands, a black dye was made by boiling yarn with a mixture of alder bark and copperas, and Lightfoot notes the occasional use of the leaves for tanning leather.

The darach ‘oak’ is noted as being ‘frequent’ in the Lowlands but ‘dwarfish’ in the Highlands. In addition to its being employed in ‘navigation and architecture’, as well as tanning, Lightfoot notes that the ‘highlanders use the bark to dye their yarn of a brown colour or, mixed with copperas, of a black colour. They call the oak “The king of all the trees in the forest” [it is still referred to as Rìgh na Coille in Gaelic], and the herdsman would think himself and his flock unfortunate if he had not a staff of it.’ Of the calltainn ‘hazel’, Lightfoot claims that some Gaels looked upon the tree as unlucky, but that they considered two conjoined nuts, known as a cnò-chòmhlaich, to be a good omen which would be carried on the person as an ‘efficacious charm against witchcraft’.

The giuthas ‘Scots Pine’ (called ‘The Wild Pine or Scotch Firr’ by Lightfoot) is reckoned by the English parson among the most useful of all our trees, with the tallest and straightest ‘formed by nature for masts to our navy’. He notes the use of bog pine in many parts of the Highlands, with the resinous roots being dug out and splintered, to manufacture candles. At Loch Broom (Ross-shire) he notes that fishermen made ropes of the inner bark, a material often used because of ‘hard necessity’ as a food in Scandinavia. He also makes the following entertaining comment, although not in particular reference to Scotland: ‘The farina, or yellow powder, of the male flowers is sometimes in the Spring carried away by the winds in such quantities where the trees abound, as to alarm the ignorant with the notion of its raining brimstone!’

Scots pine in Glen Affric ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lightfoot makes considerable comment on the taxonomically challenging willows, whose Gaelic names are poorly recorded, and admits that specimens gathered for him by the Rev. John Stuart had proved impossible to classify ‘in so difficult and vague a genus’. He does, however, record the Gaelic generic seileach and notes that the ‘inhabitants of the Highlands and Hebrides frequently use the bark of these to tan their leather.’ The smooth soft, flexible wood was used to make tool handles and to ‘furnish shoemakers with cutting-boards and whetting-boards, to smooth the edges of their knives upon.’

Of other tree species which are notable in Gaelic tradition, Lightfoot notes that the iubhar ‘yew’ is ‘found here and there in the Highlands, in a truly wild state’ (a matter of some contention in the modern era) and he notes that his ‘ingenious friend, Mr Pennant’ had noted the remarkable ‘decayed’ specimen in Fortingall churchyard, a tree still celebrated today for its longevity. He makes general comments about the aiteann ‘juniper’ and its use in the manufacture of gin, and he gives an account of an ancient tradition concerning the uinnseann ‘ash’, thus: ‘In many parts of the highlands, at the birth of a child, the nurse or midwife, from what motive I know not, puts one end of a green stick of this tree into the fire and, while it is burning, receives into a spoon the sap or juice which oozes out at the other end, and administers this as the first spoonful of liquor to the new-born babe.’

Perhaps it’s appropriate to conclude with the account in Flora Scotica of one of the iconic trees of the Gàidhealtachd, the craobh-chaorainn ‘rowan tree’ (given as Quicken-Tree or Mountain Ash for an English readership, with the Scots form written ‘roan’, representing a common English pronunciation of ‘rowan’). Lightfoot notes that on Jura the juice of the berries was used ‘as an acid for punch’ and that ‘the highlanders often eat them when thoroughly ripe and, in some places, distil a very good spirit from them.’

Rowan berries. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Lightfoot also comments on the special place of this species in the hearts and minds of the Gaels: ‘It is probable that this tree was in high esteem with the Druids, for it may to this day be observed to grow more frequently than any other in the neighbourhood of those Druidical circles of stones, so often seen in North-Britain, and the superstitious still continue to retain a great veneration for it, which was undoubtedly handed down to them, from early antiquity. They believe that any small part of this tree carried about them, will prove a sovereign charm against all the dire effects of enchantment or witchcraft. Their cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil; for the dairymaid will not forget to drive them to the shealings or summer pastures with a rod of the Roan tree, which she carefully lays up over the door of the sheal boothy [sic], or summer-house, and drives them home again with the same. In Strathspey they make, for the same purpose, on the first day of May, a hoop of the wood of this tree, and in the evening and morning cause all the sheep and lambs to pass through it.’ I don’t imagine that Lightfoot would be altogether surprised that there are many ‘superstitious’ folk alive in Scotland today who yet ‘retain a veneration’ for the rowan tree.

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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Flora Gadelica

Tha cunntasan gu leòr mu bheul-aithris nan Gàidheal co-cheangailte ri craobhan ann am Flora Scotica le Iain Lightfoot (1777)

Read in English

Bithear a’ moladh an Urramaich Iain Lightfoot (1735-88) airson a shàr-obrach Flora Scotica, a chaidh fhoillseachadh ann an 1777, a chuir ri a chliù mar eòlaiche-nàdair agus a dh’fhàg gun deach ballrachd a’ Chomainn Rìoghail a bhuileachadh air ann an 1785. Ann an dòigh, ʼs e a th’ ann am Flora Scotica ach leabhar àbhaisteach dhen t-seòrsa a bha cumanta aig an àm, le lusan dùthchasach na h-Alba mar chuspair. Ach, a bharrachd air sin, tha fiosrachadh gu leòr na chois a tha a’ buntainn ri dualchas nan Gàidheal agus tha e mar sin prìseil dha-rìridh don bhlogair seo.

Rugadh Lightfoot ann an Siorrachd Ghloucester agus fhuair e foghlam ann an Oilthigh Oxford. Bha e cuideachd na dhlùth-charaid aig Ioseph Banks, an luibh-eòlaiche a bu chliùitiche ann an Sasainn aig an àm sin. Ghabh e turas a dh’Alba ann an 1772 cuide ris an ùghdar Chuimreach, Tòmas Pennant, agus thàinig dà phròiseact mhòr fhoillseachaidh gu buil ri linn sin – an leabhar ‘A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides’ le Pennant, a tha fhathast ann an clò, agus Flora Scotica, dà leabhar a dh’fhoillsich Lightfoot e fhèin agus a ghabhas leughadh air an eadar-lìon an-diugh.

Faodar a bhith taingeil gun tug iad leotha an t-Urramach Iain Stiùbhart à Cill Fhinn ann an Siorrachd Pheairt (a bhiodh na mhinistear ann an Lus, Loch Laomainn, an dèidh sin) oir bha esan am measg nan sgoilearan Gàidhlig a b’ fheàrr ri a linn. Bha e os cionn a’ phròiseict airson an Seann Tiomnadh eadar-theangachadh gu Gàidhlig. Is cinnteach gun tug esan tòrr fiosrachaidh gu Pennant agus Lightfoot a tha a’ toirt ùghdarras do na cunntasan aca mu na Gàidheil.

Anns a’ bhlog seo, bu mhath leam sùil a thoirt air na nochdas ann am Flora Scotica a thaobh ar craobhan dùthchasach, gu ìre mhòr mu dheidhinn na sgrìobh Lightfoot mu chleachdaidhean nan Gàidheal, ged a tha e cuideachd ag aithris air cultar is cleachdaidhean nan Sami agus muinntir Lochlainn anns an fharsaingeachd. Tha mi air gnàthasan litreachaidh an latha an-diugh a chur an sàs far a bheil iad diofraichte bho na sgrìobh Lightfoot agus an Stiùbhartach.

ʼS e a’ chiad chraobh a’ bheithe a ‘bh’ ann am pailteas ann an coilltean na Gàidhealtachd’, a rèir Lightfoot, agus a bh’ air a cur gu feum gu mòr leis an t-sluagh. Bha an rùsg no cairt air a cleachdadh airson leathar a chartadh agus airson ròpan a dhèanamh. Chlàir an t-ùghdar am facal meilleag airson rùsg air an taobh a-muigh (facal a chluinnear fhathast aig na Gàidheil ann an Alba agus Canada) agus sgrìobh e gum bite ga cur gu feum an àite choinnlean. Tha Lightfoot ag ràdh gun robh a fiodh ‘uaireigin air a chleachdadh leis na Gàidheil airson saigheadan a dhèanamh ach a-nise gu bheil e air a chur gu feum ann an dòighean nas fheàrr, leis an rothadair airson crainn-threabhaidh, cairtean agus a’ chuid as motha de dh’acfhainn an tuathanaich; leis an tuairnear airson truinnsearan, bobhlaichean, ladair is m.s.a.a, na faobain a’ toirt fiodh bòidheach cuisleach, agus leis a’ chùbair airson chearcallan-baraille. Agus ris a sin, dh’fhaodamaid cur gun dèan e connadh air leth agus sàr-ghual-fiodha, agus gu bheil an sùith sònraichte mar dhubhach-cobhain airson inc a’ chlò-bhualadair.’

Bhathar a’ cleachdadh duilleach na beithe mar fodar do chaoraich is gobhair agus airson dath buidhe a dhèanamh. Bha a geugan beaga math airson chliathan agus bha na meanbh-gheugan, a rèir choltais, feumail anns an taigh-bheag. Sin ma thuig mi dòigheil na briathran car dìomhair aig Lightfoot air a’ chuspair!

Tha Lightfoot a’ cur seachad còrr is duilleag ann a bhith a’ mìneachadh don leughadair gu mionaideach mar a chruinnicheas e no i snodhach na beithe aig toiseach a’ Mhàirt le bhith a’ stobadh biorain dromain gun ghlaodan a-steach don stoc. An uair sin, tha am pears-eaglais Sasannach a’ mìneachadh mar a nithear fìon leis an t-sùgh. Tha e ga mholadh do a ‘charaidean Gàidhealach’ agus tha e ga chomharrachadh mar mòran nas fheàrr na ‘uisge-beatha na mollachd’!

ʼS e an dàrna craobh mhòr ann am Flora Scotica an fheàrna. Sgrìobh Lightfoot gun robh a cuid fiodha a’ seasamh gu mòr ri uisge agus gun robh e mar sin feumail airson pìoban-uisge a dhèanamh no airson a bhith ann an àite fliuch, far an tionndadh e dubh mar fiodh-eaboin. Bha e air a chur gu feum cuideachd leis an rothadair agus tuairnear airson cuibhlichean cartach a dhèanamh, cho math ri bobhlaichean, ràcan, sàilean bhrògan boireannaich, brògan-fiodha, paitein is mar sin air adhart. Bhiodh na Gàidheil gu tric a’ dèanamh sheithrichean leotha agus bha na geugan freagarrach airson gual-fiodha a dhèanamh. Air a’ Ghàidhealtachd, tha e ag ràdh, bha dath dubh air a dhèanamh le bhith a’ goil snàth ann am poit le rùsg na craoibh-fheàrna agus copar-dubhaidh.

Sgrìobh Lightfoot gun robh an darach ‘bitheanta’ air a’ Ghalltachd ach ‘meanbh’ air a’ Ghàidhealtachd. A bharrachd air a bhith air a chur gu feum ann an longan is togalaichean, agus ann an cartadh, tha an t-eòlaiche-nàdair ag innse dhuinn gun robh na Gàidheil a’ cleachdadh an rùsg airson an snàth a dhathadh donn no, le copar-dubhaidh ann, a dhathadh dubh. Sgrìobh e gun do ghabh na Gàidheil ‘rìgh nan craobhan gu lèir sa choille’ air an darach [bidh sinn fhathast a’ gabhail ‘rìgh na coille’ air] agus gum biodh am buachaille ga thomhas fhèin mì-fhortanach mura robh bata-daraich aige. Dhen challtainn, thuirt Lightfoot gun robh cuid de Ghàidheil a’ tomhas na craoibhe mar mhì-fhortanach ach gun robh dà chnò a bha ceangailte ri chèile mar cnò-chòmhlaich na deagh chomharra agus gum biodh daoine gan giùlan leotha mar sheun an aghaidh buidseachd.

Bha am pears-eaglais Sasannach dhen bheachd gum b’ e an giuthas tè de na craobhan a b’ fheumail’ a bh’ ann, leis an fheadhainn a b’ àirde agus a bu dhìriche air an cur gu feum mar chrainn-shoithich anns a’ chabhlach rìoghail. Sgrìobh e mu dheidhinn cleachdadh giuthais nam boglaichean, agus sliseagan dhiubh air an cleachdadh mar choinnlean. Aig Loch a’ Bhraoin (Ros an Iar) mhothaich e gum biodh iasgairean a’ dèanamh ròpan dhen rùsg a th’ air an taobh a-staigh agus sgrìobh e gum biodh feadhainn a’ dèanamh dheth gum biodh pronnasg a’ tuiteam mar uisge à nèamh nuair a bhiodh am poilean giuthais air a chur a-mach ann am pailteas.

Sgrìobh Lightfoot gu leòr air na seilich, nach eil air an aithneachadh dòigheil mar dhiofar ghnèithean leis na Gàidheil, agus dh’aidich e gun robh feadhainn a chaidh a chruinneachadh dha leis an Urr. Iain Stiùbhart air a bhith do-dhèanta aithneachadh is ainmeachadh. Ge-tà, chlàir e seileach mar ainm Gàidhlig anns an fharsaingeachd agus sgrìobh e gum biodh na Gàidheil a’ cleachdadh rùsg na craoibhe gu tric airson leathar a chartadh. Bha am fiodh bog air a chleachdadh airson làmhan innealan a dhèanamh agus mar bhùird cutaidh is lìomhaidh aig greusaichean.

Dè na gnèithean craoibhe eile a nochdas ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal, bha Lightfoot ag ràdh gun robh an t-iubhar ri lorg ann an staid fhiadhaich fhathast ann an cuid de dh’àiteachan air a’ Ghàidhealtachd (cuspair a tha rudeigin connspaideach fhathast), agus tha e a’ dèanamh iomradh air an t-seann chraoibh-iubhair ann am Fairtirchill – tè a tha beò fhathast. Sgrìobh e anns an fharsaingeachd mun aiteann agus mar a bhathar a’ dèanamh sine leis, agus tha e a’ toirt dhuinn cunntas iongantach air an uinnseann mar a leanas: ‘Ann am mòran phàirtean dhen Ghàidhealtachd, aig àm breith leanaibh, bidh a’ bhanaltram no bean-ghlùine, air adhbhar nach aithne dhomh, a’ cur aon cheann aig geug uaine dhen chraoibh seo a-steach dhan teine agus, fhad ʼs a tha e a’ losgadh, tha i a’ gabhail ann an spàin an sùgh a nochdas aig a’ cheann eile, agus bidh i a’ toirt seo mar a’ chiad làn-spàin lionna dhan leanabh ùr.’

ʼS dòcha gu bheil e iomchaidh an t-iomradh mu dheireadh a dhèanamh air a’ chraoibh-chaorainn. Sgrìobh Lightfoot gun robh na Diùraich a’ cleachdadh sùgh nan caorann mar ‘shearbhag airson puinnse’, gum biodh na Gàidheil ‘gu tric gan ithe nuair a bha iad làn abaich agus gum biodh iad a’ dèanamh deoch làidir blasta leotha.’

Caorain ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Thug Lightfoot beachd seachad cuideachd air a’ ghnè seo, aig a bheil àite sònraichte ann an cridhe nan Gàidheal: ‘Tha e buailteach gun robh na Draoidhean a’ tomhas na craoibhe seo mar naomh oir chun an latha an-diugh tha e a’ fàs nas trice faisg air na tùrsachan draoidheil seach ann an àite sam bith eile ann an ceann a tuath Bhreatainn; agus bidh na saobh-chràbhaich ga tomhas le mòr-urram, rud a ghabh iad mar oighreachd bho chian nan cian. Tha iad a’ creidsinn gun dìon pìos beag sam bith dhen chraoibh seo iad an aghaidh droch gheasan no buidseachd, nuair a tha iad ga ghiùlan leotha. Bidh an crodh cuideachd air an dìon bho olc, cho math riutha fhèin, oir cha dìochuimhnich a’ bhanarach an iomain don àirigh le slat caorainn a bhios i a’ cur os cionn doras a’ bhothain-àirigh, agus gan iomain dhachaigh leis an dearbh shlat. Ann an Srath Spè, bidh iad a’ dèanamh, air an dearbh adhbhar, air Latha Buidhe Bealltainn, cearcall de dh’fhiodh na craoibhe seo agus feasgar agus sa mhadainn a’ toirt air na caoraich is na h-uain a dhol troimhe.’ Cha chreid mi gum biodh Lightfoot a’ gabhail iongnadh mòr gum bi cuid de ‘shaobh-chràbhaich’ a tha beò an-diugh fhathast a’ toirt ‘mòr-urram’ don chraoibh-chaorainn.

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

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Yellow plant of Beltane

The marsh marigold is a vivid reminder of the close links between Gaelic culture and the Scottish seasons, as Ruairidh MacIlleathain explains.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

Marsh marigolds. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
The yellow Beltane plant. To Scotland’s Gaels, the marsh marigold in bloom is a traditional symbol of the start of summer.. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The day that starts the summer, now the first of May, is still known in Gaelic as latha buidhe Bealltainn – the ‘yellow day of Beltane’. Buidhe, however, doesn’t just mean ‘yellow’. It also has suggestions of good fortune. This plant, which bears yellow flowers at the time of Beltane (the English word came from Gaelic), is lucky – its blooms would often be tied above doorways or to the tails of horses or cattle to bring good fortune. The Gaelic name for the species is lus buidhe Bealltainn (sounds like ‘looss boo-yuh BYOWL-tin’) or the ‘yellow plant of Beltane’.

Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker
Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker

Another species named for this season is the whimbrel – eun Bealltainn (‘eeun BYOWL-tin’), actually meaning ‘bird of Beltane’. And Tullybelton in Perthshire would have experienced the fires through which cattle and other goods were passed as part of the purification rites of this pre-Christian festival. Its name comes from the Gaelic Tulach Bealltainn or ‘Beltane hill’. The two greatest festivals in the old Gaelic calendar were Bealltainn and, six months later, Samhain – the start of winter. The first day of Samhain is still widely celebrated in Gaelic Scotland, as it is in the English-speaking world, where it’s called ‘Halloween’.

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Lus buidhe Bealltainn

Tha na Gàidheil fhathast a’ comharrachadh na Bealltainn, co-dhiù le bhith ag ainmeachadh a’ chiad latha dhen Chèitean mar ‘Latha Buidhe Bealltainn’. Tha ‘buidhe’ an dà chuid na chomharra de dhath agus de dheagh fhortan (canaidh sinn ‘nach buidhe dhut’ gu cumanta fhathast). Bha Bealltainn bhò thùs na fèill phàganach a bha na inntrigeadh don t-samhradh. Bha e aig ceann eile na bliadhna bho ‘Shamhain’, fèill phàganach eile a bha a’ comharrachadh toiseach a’ gheamhraidh. Chanadh na seann daoine ‘bho Shamhain gu Bealltainn’ nuair a bha iad a’ ciallachadh an leth fuar dhen bhliadhna.

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Marsh marigolds. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
Buidhe aig a’ Bhealltainn.  Bha, and tha, lus buidhe Bealltainn a’ comharrachadh toiseach an t-samhraidh ann an inntinn nan Gàidheal. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Tha Bealltainn air a comharrachadh ann an lus dùthchasach air an nochd dìtheannan buidhe mun àm sin dhen bhliadhna. ’S e sin Caltha palustris, lus ris an canar marsh marigold ann am Beurla. Ann an Gàidhlig, ’s e ‘lus buidhe Bealltainn’ an t-ainm a th’ air. Bhiodh daoine a’ cur dìtheannan an luis seo os cionn an dorsan airson droch gheasan a sheachnadh; uaireannan bhite gan ceangal ri earbaill cruidh air an dearbh adhbhar. Is cinnteach gu bheil dath an luis co-cheangailte ris mar a bha daoine ga thomhas mar fhortanach.

Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker
Eun Bealltainn ©David Whitaker

Tha e mar as trice blàth gu leòr aig a’ Bhealltainn ach corra uair cuirear an sneachd mu dheireadh dhen gheamhradh aig an àm sin. Thathar a’ gabhail ‘sneachd mu bheul na Bealltainn’ air a leithid. Agus bhiodh na balaich ag èisteachd airson na cuthaig air latha na Bealltainn. Nan cluinneadh iad i, dh’èigheadh iad “‘Gug-ùg!’ ars a’ chuthag Latha Buidhe Bealltainn”. Agus mhothaich na seann daoine gum biodh an t-eun beag ris an canar a whimbrel ann am Beurla a’ nochdadh aig an àm sin a h-uile bliadhna (coltach ris a’ chuthaig, bidh e a’ cur seachad a’ gheamhraidh ann an Afraga). Mar sin thug iad ‘eun Bealltainn’ air mar ainm.

Marsh marigolds growing in a coastal flush, Skaw, Unst, Shetland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
©Lorne Gill/SNH

B’ e an seann chleachdadh a bhith a’ togail dà theine air Latha na Bealltainn tron chùirte sprèidh is iomadh rud eile airson an ùrachadh is dìon an aghaidh droch bhuidseachd. Thathar a’ smaoineachadh gu bheil Tullybelton/Tulach Bealltainn ann an Siorrachd Pheairt am measg nan àiteachan anns an tachradh a leithid. Ged nach eil an t-seann fhèill Cheilteach seo air a comharrachadh gu mòr ann an Alba an-diugh, tha i air beatha ùr fhaighinn anns na bliadhnaichean a chaidh air an oidhche mu dheireadh dhen Ghiblean air Cnoc na Calltainn ann an Dùn Èideann. Ged a tha dreach rudeigin ùr-nòsach oirre, tha teine aig meadhan a’ ghnothaich fhathast.

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Bird photography – do I need a licence?

In our latest blog, we take a look at bird photography and the issues that people need to consider to ensure they stay within the law and don’t disturb wildlife.

Wildlife Photographer ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The explosion in digital photography and associated technology in the last couple of decades, while great for encouraging people to take more interest in nature, has raised concerns about increased disturbance of birds, especially of our rarer and more sensitive breeding species. Often pictures seen online are subject to complaints, but current technology makes it very difficult to know whether the photographer caused any adverse issues.

So what do you need to consider?

Firstly, the law. Generally, it is not illegal to photograph birds. However, any bird can be sensitive to disturbance while nesting or roosting so best practice should be followed to minimise this.

While all birds are legally protected, many of our rarer and more sensitive species are specially protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act. During the breeding season, which can vary between species, these birds are protected at or near their nests right from nest building through to having recently fledged dependent young.

Schedule 1 species can be photographed away from nests and outwith the breeding season without a licence but when nesting, a NatureScot licence for photography will usually be required. The licence actually covers the photographer for disturbance to the birds in the course of the photography, rather than the photography in itself.

Black Throated Diver ©Laurie Campbell/NatureScot

What is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act?

The Act covers both reckless and deliberate disturbance. A reckless offence occurs when it can be foreseen or there is a likelihood that continuing a course of action will result in an offence, for example if a person set out to take photos of a nesting bird (Schedule 1 or not) knowing they were likely to cause disturbance in the process. Reckless offences can potentially be mitigated by recognising the potential for disturbance, and retreating from the nest as quickly and safely as possible and not revisiting.

Deliberate offences are where someone has set out with the intention to commit an offence, such as purposefully scaring a bird from a nest to obtain a photograph while the bird is in flight. Playing recording of calls to get Schedule 1 birds into the open to view and photograph is also a disturbance offence without a licence.

In the worst cases such disturbance can cause breeding attempts to fail, however it is the disturbance, not the consequences of it, which is the offence.

There are a number of ‘grey areas’ in relation to breeding Schedule 1 bird photography. Some rare breeding bird sites are well known and viewable from public roads, tracks etc. or on nature reserves and easily viewed from reserve hides. In such cases it comes down to risks of disturbance to the bird. If they are behaving normally, not alarmed or concerned, then it likely safe to take photos. In these situations there is a level of habituation by the birds to human activity they consider non-threatening. However, leaving a hide, vehicle, road or path to get closer may cause the birds to be disturbed. Bird behaviour in habituated situations cannot be assumed to apply elsewhere.

Golden Eagle ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

How to know if birds are disturbed

Different species behave differently, but many of the signs are obvious. Most birds will alarm call, usually insistent, repetitive and loud calls. Some combine this with mobbing behaviour, flying around calling. Others will run off, leading an intruder away from a nest or young. This can include the bird behaving as if it’s injured, dragging its wings. Others will fly off, abandoning the area and not returning until they think it’s safe, which can be several hours later. There are also some more subtle signs – birds may take up alert or ‘threat postures’ fluffing up or sleeking down feathers, preening their feathers with their bill in an agitated way.  If you start to see these types of behaviours it’s time to back off – they usually mean there’s a nest or young nearby which may not be visible.

Other factors can affect the impact of disturbance. If the adults leave eggs or chicks unattended they are vulnerable to the weather; cold, wet and windy weather leads to chilling whereas really warm weather can lead to overheating. Approaching a nest and leaving a trail to it, or removing vegetation near the nest to get a good picture, can leave it more exposed to a risk of predation by other mammals and birds.

It’s also important to remember that even where birds are nesting close to walk routes, roads and tracks and appear unconcerned, the cumulative risks of many people stopping may become an issue. The welfare of the birds comes first in all cases whether specially protected or not.

Capercaillie ©Colin Leslie/NatureScot

Related to this is the fact that many breeding locations of rare and more sensitive species are not widely known and it is best practice not to publicise them, please do not post pictures online with their locations unless it is an already publicly known site, like a nature reserve.

Outwith the breeding season, best practice should still be followed. A regular concern is disturbance to communally roosting waders and waterbirds. Disturbing birds whilst they are resting can seriously affect them, how do you function when you’ve had no or disrupted sleep?  Roosting flocks will often raise their heads becoming obviously alert if they are approached and birds will often start to shuffle away from the approach before eventually taking flight. Again, if you see these behaviours back off.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to minimise disturbance and if in doubt don’t take the risk. Please enjoy birds and your photography responsibly. Below are links to more helpful guidance and information.

Royal Photographic Society best practice

David Tipling Guidance

Disturbance distances of selected sensitive species

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Nathraichean Nimhe is Gliocais

Tha àite mòr aig an nathair ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal

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Bha na seann Ghàidheil gu math measail air tòimhseachain, agus seo eisimpleir de a leithid, ged nach bi e furasta do dhaoine anns an latha an-diugh am fuasgladh a lorg:

Tha slat an coille Alasdair,

Cha ghiuthas i, cha dharach i,

Chan aon fhiodh air thalamh i,

’S cha thomhais thu gu oidhche i.

Tuigidh sibh gu bheil diofar chiallan air an fhacal slat. Agus ʼs e am fuasgladh don tòimhseachan – ‘nathair’. Bidh nathraichean a’ nochdadh gu tric ann am beul-aithris is abairtean nan Gàidheal. ʼS e dì-mholadh mòr a th’ ann an ‘sgath na nathrach ort!’ Agus, nan canamaid ri cuideigin ‘tha nimh na nathrach aige dhut’, tuigidh sibh gu bheil fuath aig an dàrna duine air an duine eile.

Tha faclan càirdeach do nathair ann an cànanan eile, a’ gabhail a-steach na Beurla. Bhiodh am fuaimneachadh dheth uaireigin rudeigin mar ‘nadar’ no ‘natar’ agus tha e càirdeach do neidr (Cuimris), naðra (Tìlis) agus naddre (A’ Bheurla Mheadhanach). Ann am Beurla, chailleadh an ‘n’ aig an toiseach don alt agus an àite ‘a naddre’ bithear ag ràdh ‘an adder’. Mar sin, tha na faclan nathair agus adder càirdeach do chèile. Tha dùil gu bheil an Laideann natrix ‘nathair-uisge’, a nochdas ann an ainm saidheansail na nathrach gun phuinnsean – Natrix natrix – cuideachd càirdeach do nathair, ged a tha cuid de dh’eòlaichean air tomhas gun do dh’èirich e às an fhreumh nat ‘snàmh’.

Nathair gun phuinnsean
Nathair gun phuinnsean ©Richard Revels.

Faodaidh nathair seasamh airson nathraichean de sheòrsa sam bith, ach gu tric bithear a’ ciallachadh nathair-nimhe no ‘adder’. Tha samhla ann – cho carach ris an nathair-nimhe. Tha e inntinneach ann an dualchainnt Ghàidhlig sgìre Gheàrrloch (Ros an Iar), gun do thachair rudeigin coltach ris a’ Bheurla, agus an ‘n’ aig toiseach nathair a’ falbh. Ann an Geàrrloch, canar athair-neimhe ri a leithid de chreutair, agus tha faclair iongantach Roy Wentworth nach maireann mu dhualchainnt na sgìre ag innse dhuinn gu bheil ainm-àite ann – Camas nan Athraichean-Neimhe (faisg air an Rubha Dhearg), ged nach eil sin ri fhaicinn air na mapaichean.

Bad nan Nathraichean air Rubha Bhatairnis san Eilean Sgitheanach air mapa na Suirbhidh Òrdanais
A rèir na Suirbhidh Òrdanais, tha Bad nan Nathraichean, air Rubha Bhatairnis anns an Eilean Sgitheanach, a’ ciallachadh ‘bearradh nan nathraichean’. Le cead bho Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Tha am facal nathair a’ nochdadh an siud ʼs an seo air mapaichean na Gàidhealtachd. Tha Creag na Nathrach faisg air Loch Luinn, Loch Abar, tha Càrn na Nathrach ann an Àird Ghobhar agus tha Meall Nathrach deas air Loch Lagain. Tha Cnapan Nathraichean air oighreachd Bhoth Mhoireil ann an Siorrachd Obar Dheathain, agus gheibhear lorg air Geodha nan Nathraichean air cladach an earra-dheas Leòdhais. Tha an t-ainm mu dheireadh iongantach oir tha na Leòdhasaich as aithne dhomh a’ cumail a-mach – cleas Èirinn Naoimh Phàdraig – nach eil nathraichean rin lorg ann an Leòdhas ann. Agus thathar a’ cumail a-mach gu bheil an t-ainm ceart air Meall Arachaidh faisg air Srath Maolchaluim air a’ Chomraich – Meall nan Nathraichean.

Mapa na Suirbhidh Òrdanais a' sealltainn Cnapan Nathraichean air oighreachd Bhoth Mhoireil
Tha Cnapan Nathraichean (gu h-àrd, clì) air oighreachd Bhoth Mhoireil, a bhuineas don Bhanrigh.
Le cead bho Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba

Ann an Carmina Gadelica II, tha Alasdair MacIlleMhìcheil ag innse dhuinn mu rud annasach, ris an canar clach-nathrach agus a nochdas ann an dualchas cuid de nan dùthchannan Ceilteach eile: ‘Lorgar stuth ris an canar ‘clach-nathrach’ air freumh an fhraoich. Tha i liath agus car coltach ri tàth-thaois bhog nuair a tha i ùr agus coltach ri tàth-thaois chruaidh nuair a tha i sean, agus i cho aotrom ri sligeart. Tha i cruinn agus eadar òirleach is trì òirlich ann an trast-tomhas. Tha toll cruinn mu chairteal òirlich ann an leud tron mheadhan. Thathar ag ràdh gu bheil an stuth seo air a dhèanamh le nathair a chuireas a-mach cop timcheall air gas fraoich. Tha fèill mhòr air a’ chloich-nathrach agus bidh e a’ dol eadar ginealaich mar shuaicheantas de dheagh fhortan.’

Thathar ag ràdh gu bheil fuath aig an nathair air trì seòrsaichean craoibhe – beithe, giuthas agus, gu sònraichte, a’ chraobh-uinnsinn. Tha abairt ann: Thèid nathair tro theine dearg mun tèid i tro dhuilleach an uinnsinn. Ge-tà, bhathar a’ dèanamh dheth gun robh ceann nathrach air leth feumail ann an leigheas, agus bhiodh seann lighichean-baile a’ cumail pocan cheann anns am biodh cinn nathrach, muile-mhagaig agus dearc-luachrach. Bhiodh seo air a bhogadh ann an allt a bh’ air crìoch dà chroite. Bhiodh an t-uisge a thigeadh às a’ phocan air a shuathadh air lot airson a leigheas.

Chlàir an t-eòlaiche Cuimreach, Eideard Lhuyd, an cleachdadh am measg Gàidheil na h-Alba gun ruitheadh iad a-steach a dh’uisge mar leigheas airson bìdeadh nathair-nimhe. Dh’aithris e cuideachd gum biodh seann nathraichean a’ dèanamh cruth-atharrachadh gu bhith nan dràgonan sgiathach. Sgrìobh Lightfoot ann am Flora Scotica (1777) gum biodh ‘nimh [nathrach] a th’ air leigeil air claidheamh a’ dèanamh fais mar a bhios uisge air iarann teth, agus gur e fuar-lite de bhuachair aig mac an duine a bhios mar leigheas do bhìdeadh nathrach’! Tha an t-ùghdar airson dèanamh soilleir nach eil e a’ moladh gin de na ‘leigheasan’ sin!

Tha beul-aithris a’ ceangal nathraichean ri Latha Fèill Brìde (1 Gearran), air am biodh feadhainn a’ pronnadh caoran mònach ann an stocainn; tha dùil gun robh a’ mhòine a’ riochdachadh nathair a bh’ air ùr-nochdadh bho a toll. Bhathar ag ràdh gum biodh an nathair a’ gealltainn mar a leanas do Chlann Ìomhair nuair a nochdadh i on toll aice air Latha Fèill Brìde (toiseach an Earraich o shean).

Mhionnaich mise do Chlann Ìomhair

ʼS mhionnaich Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa

Nach bean mise do Chlann Ìomhair

ʼS nach bean Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa.

Thathar a’ smaoineachadh gu bheil an rann a’ riochdachadh seann chàirdeas eadar Clann Ìomhair Siorrachd Pheairt agus math dh’fhaodte Clann Donnchaidh aig an robh nathair mar shuaicheantas cinnidh.

Dà nathair-nimhe
Nathraichean-nimhe ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

ʼS dòcha gur e am faoinsgeul Gàidhlig as ainmeile mun nathair am fear mun draoidheachd co-cheangailte ri feòil aig nathair gheal (agus tha a leithid ann oir chunnaic mi fhìn tè dhiubh aon turas – geal le comharraidhean dubha air a druim). Tha sgeul à Tiriodh air a bheil An Nathair Gheal ag aithris mu rìgh brùideil a tha sireadh comas tuigse cainnt nan eun ʼs nan ainmhidhean ach a chailleas a chothrom nuair a dh’itheas prionnsa òg an fheòil roimhe. Tha fitheach – eun an eòlais – a’ toirt comhairle don phrionnsa teicheadh le a bheatha, agus tha a h-uile càil a’ tighinn gu deireadh toilichte!  Chan eil teagamh ach gu bheil am moitif sin – de dh’fhear òg a’ faighinn eòlas mar thuiteamas le bhith ag ithe feòil eòlais – a’ tighinn on mhòr-sgeul mu mar a fhuair Fionn mac Cumhail a chuid eòlais le bhith ag ithe feòil bradain.

Tha sgeulachd à Dùthaich MhicAoidh, stèidhichte air fìor charactar eachdraidheil, air a bheil Fearchar Lighiche. Tha Fearchar, fear de na Peutanaich Ìleach a bha nan lighichean ainmeil, na chìobair ann an Gleanna Gollaidh. Tha e a’ falbh gu fèill-reic stuic air a’ Ghalltachd, far a bheil fear a’ tabhann duais dha ma bheireas e dha nathair gheal a tha beò aig bonn craoibh-calltainn ann an Gleanna Gollaidh. Tha Fearchar fhèin ag ithe beagan dhen fheòil mus fhaigh am fear eile cothrom agus sa mhionaid tha tuigse aige air leigheasan airson gach tinneas san domhan. Air a shlighe dhachaigh (gun duais), tha e a’ frithealadh rìgh a tha a’ fulang pian dòrainneach agus aig a’ cheann thall tha e na lighiche agus na uachdaran beartach. Math dh’fhaodte gun robh Fearchar ann an dha-rìridh na lighiche do Raibeart II, Rìgh na h-Alba, anns a’ cheathramh linn deug.

Tha sgeul coltach à Loch Aillse a’ gabhail a-steach an lighiche Naomh Faolan a bha beò anns an ochdamh linn agus a tha a’ toirt nathair gheal leis don Fhraing. Tha e ri chluinntinn, air aithris le Donnchadh MacMhathain (Donnchadh Stalker 1929-2010) air làrach-lìn Tobar an Dualchais. Agus tha beul-aithris mu nathraichean air leantainn an ìre mhath chun an latha an-diugh. Bha Alasdair MacNeacail (Alasdair Shomhairle Mhòir 1884-1966) às an Eilean Sgitheanach air a chlàradh le mac a pheathar, am fear-cruinneachaidh beul-aithris, Calum Iain MacGill-Eain, ann ann 1959, agus e ag innse mar a chunnaic e agh a bh’ air a dhol a dh’at nuair a bha e na bhalach òg. Dh’fheuchadh leigheasan, leithid dòrtadh uisge a bh’ air tighinn far an airgid thairis oirre, agus snàithlean dearg a cheangal timcheall oirre fhad ʼs a bhathar a’ gabhail rann leigheis, ach cha robh iad soirbheachail.

Thàinig coimhearsnach agus bha esan deimhinne gur e bìdeadh nathrach a bu choireach. Thug e ceann-nathrach a bha e a’ cumail a-staigh (mar a bhitheadh!) agus shuath e claban-cinn na nathrach thairis air an lot. Ro mhadainn, bha an agh ceart gu leòr a-rithist. Tha MacNeacail a’ toirt a chunntais gu crìch le bhith ag ràdh, ‘Chan fhaca mise riamh ceann nathrach a bhith ga chur air feum ach aig an aon àm ud’ Is beag an t-iongnadh, tha fhios! Cuimhneachan prìseil, air a ghleidheadh gu sìorraidh.

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

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Adders of Poison and Wisdom

Adders have a significant place in Gaelic folklore

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

The old Gaels were very fond of puzzles, and here’s an example of one whose solution might not be immediately obvious to the modern eye or ear:

Tha slat an coille Alasdair,

Cha ghiuthas i, cha dharach i,

Chan aon fhiodh air thalamh i,

’S cha thomhais thu gu oidhche i.

‘there’s a rod in Alasdair’s wood; it’s not pine, it’s not oak; it’s not of any wood on earth, and you’ll not guess it till nightfall.’

The solution is a nathair ‘snake/adder’. Slat, while meaning a rod, such as a fishing rod (or a yard measure), can also refer to a long thin object such as an uncoiled snake and even, colloquially, to a penis. Nathraichean ‘snakes/adders’ pop up several times in Gaelic folklore and sayings. An example of a malediction is sgath na nathrach ort! ‘the bite of the snake on you!’. And we might say of somebody who has a strong aversion to another person – tha nimh na nathrach aige dhut ‘he has the snake’s poison for you’.

Nathair [pron. NA-hir] has cognates in other languages, including English. The silent ‘th’ [sounded like an ‘h’ between two vowels] would have once been sounded like a ‘t’ or ‘d’, demonstrating the word’s relationship with Welsh neidr, Icelandic naðra and Middle English naddre. The English form lost the ‘n’ to the article and ‘a naddre’ became ‘an adder’. So nathair and adder are close relatives. The Latin natrix ‘water snake’, employed in the scientific appellation for the grass snake – Natrix natrix, is also likely to be cognate with nathair, although some authorities have sought a derivation from the root nat ‘swim’.

Grass snake ©Richard Revels

While nathair can be a generic for snakes or serpents of any sort, it is commonly used in reference to the adder. If we want to be specific, we can refer to the adder as a nathair-nimhe ‘poisonous snake’, with the non-venomous grass snake being referred to as nathair gun phuinnsean ‘snake without poison’. There is a simile cho carach ris an nathair-nimhe ‘as devious as the adder’. It is interesting that, in the Gaelic dialect of Gairloch (Wester Ross), a similar process has occurred to that in English, with the initial ‘n’ in nathair being lost. An adder in Gairloch is athair-neimhe, and the late Roy Wentworth’s comprehensive dictionary of the dialect lists a local place-name (not on the maps) – Camas nan Athraichean-Neimhe ‘the bay of the adders’.

Ordnance Survey map showing Bad nan Nathraichean - serpents' cliff - on the Waternish Peninsula in Skye.
Bad nan Nathraichean, interpreted by the Ordnance Survey as ‘serpents’ cliff’ is on the Waternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Gaelic landscape boasts a number of place-names where nathair appears in its standard genitive or possessive form – nathrach [‘NAR-uch’] in the singular or sometimes plural, and nathraichean [‘NAR-ee-chun’] in the plural. Examples are Creag na Nathrach ‘the rocky hill of the adder’ near Loch Loyne, Lochaber, Càrn na Nathrach ‘the hill of the adder’ in Ardgour and Meall Nathrach ‘adder hill’ south of Loch Laggan. Cnapan Nathraichean ‘adders’ knob’ is on the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire and Geodha nan Nathraichean ‘the geo of the snakes’ is on the south-eastern coast of Lewis. The last name is fascinating, as several of my Lewis-born acquaintances maintain that, just as with Ireland, there are no adders on the island. And Meall Arachaidh in Applecross is considered to be properly Meall nan Nathraichean ‘the lump of the snakes’.

Ordnance Survey map showing Cnapan Nathraichean - adders' knob - on Balmoral Estate.
Cnapan Nathraichean ‘adders’ knob’ (top left) is on the Queen’s Balmoral Estate.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Alexander Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica (Vol II) gives the following information about a phenomenon also recorded from the traditions of other Celtic peoples: ‘A product called ‘clach-nathrach’ serpent stone, is found on the root of the long ling [heather]. It is of steel-grey colour, has the consistency of soft putty when new and of hard putty when old, and is as light as pumice-stone, which it resembles. It is of a globular form, and from one to three inches in diameter. There is a circular hole, about a quarter of an inch in width, through the centre. This substance is said to be produced by the serpent emitting spume round the root of a twig of heather. The ‘clach-nathrach’ is greatly prized by the people, who transmit it as a talisman to their descendants.’

It is said that the adder has an aversion to three species of tree – birch, Scots pine and, most particularly, the ash. There is a saying in Gaelic: Thèid nathair tro theine dearg mun tèid i tro dhuilleach an uinnsinn ‘a snake will go through a red-hot fire sooner than through the leaves of the ash’. An adder’s head was viewed as a useful component in the medical bag of old healers who would keep a pocan cheann ‘little bag of heads’ – containing the heads of an adder, toad and newt. This would be dipped into a stream that divided two crofts. The water that escaped from the bag when it was lifted out of the stream was then applied to a wound. The Welsh polymath, Edward Lhuyd, noted the Gaelic tradition of immediately running into water as an antidote for adder-bite. He also reported the belief that old snakes turned into winged dragons! Lightfoot in Flora Scotica (1777) tells us that ‘[snake] venom dropt on a sword will cause it to hiss like water on hot iron, and that a poultice of human ordure is a sovereign remedy for the bite’! The author hastens to point out that he does not advocate any of these ‘cures’!

There is an ancient tradition connecting the adder to Latha Fèill Brìde ‘St Bride’s Feast Day’ (1 February), a manifestation of which was to pound a piece of peat in a stocking on that day, the peat representing the emergence of the snake from its winter lair. The snake is supposed to make a promise to the MacIver clan as it emerges from its hole on Bride’s day (traditionally the start of Spring), perhaps recalling some ancient motif or even an echo of clan alliances in ancient times – possibly between the MacIvers in Perthshire and Clann Donnchaidh, the Robertsons, among whose animal totems was a serpent.

Mhionnaich mise do Chlann Ìomhair,

’S mhionnaich Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa

Nach bean mise do Chlann Ìomhair

’S nach bean Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa.

‘I have sworn to Clan Iver, And Clan Ivor have sworn to me, That I shall not touch Clan Ivor, And that Clan Ivor will not touch me.’

Two male adders dancing
Adders ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot.

Perhaps the most famous of the Gaelic legends of the adder concerns the magic contained within the flesh of a white specimen (of which the author has seen one example in the wild). A tale from Tiree called An Nathair Gheal ‘the white snake’ tells of a tyrannical king who seeks the power to understand the speech of birds and other animals but who is thwarted by a young prince who eats the flesh of the white snake that he has procured for the king. A raven – a bird of great wisdom in Gaelic tradition – tells the prince to escape with his life, and all ends well. The motif of the young man inadvertently gaining knowledge by consuming the flesh that contains wisdom has likely been transferred from the powerful and influential pan-Gaelic tale of how the young Fionn mac Cumhail gains his intellectual powers by tasting bradan an eòlais ‘the salmon of knowledge’.

A Sutherland legend, based on an attested historical character, is of Fearchar Lighiche, a Beaton physician with Islay origins, who is a shepherd in Glen Golly in the Mackay Country of the far northern Highlands. He attends a fair in the Lowlands, where a stranger offers him a reward if he can capture a white snake from the base of a hazel tree (the tree of knowledge) in his native glen. Fearchar himself consumes some flesh from the snake and suddenly gains magical knowledge of how to cure all human ailments. On his way home (without his reward) he attends to a king, alleviating his excruciating pain, and becomes a famous and wealthy physician and landowner. The real Fearchar might well have been a physician to Robert II, a 14th century king of Scotland.

A very similar story, based in Lochalsh and concerning the 8th century healer Naomh Faolan ‘St Fillan’ who takes a white snake to France, is related by Duncan Matheson (Donnchadh Stalker 1929-2010) on the Tobar an Dualchais website. And traditions concerning snakes have continued virtually to the present day. Alexander Nicolson (Alasdair Shomhairle Mhòir) of Skye (1884-1966) was recorded by his nephew, the folklorist, Calum Iain Maclean, in 1959, relating how, as a boy, he had seen a young heifer suffering bad swelling. Folk cures such as using uisge far an airgid ‘silvered water’ or tying a red thread around the beast and reciting a healing rann ‘verse’ were attempted but had not proved efficacious. A neighbour suggested that the problem was snake-bite, and he offered to effect a cure with a snake’s head that he had inside the house (this foresight is not explained!) He rubbed claban-cinn na nathrach ‘the top of the snake’s head’ over the site of the wound and by next morning the swelling had gone and the animal was cured. Nicolson concludes by saying, ‘Chan fhaca mise riamh ceann nathrach a bhith ga chur air feum ach aig an aon àm ud’ (I never saw a snake’s head being used except that one time). Indeed! A precious memory, captured for posterity.

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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