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Gaelic language in Scottish nature

Written by Fiona

January 15 2019

The Gaelic language is an intrinsic part of Scottish heritage, nature and history. Most of modern Scotland was once Gaelic-speaking, although today only a small percentage of the population use it every day.

However, there are many reminders of the language in the words that are used to describe the landscape, animals, birds and plants of Scotland.

Gaelic words in Scottish nature

Bog: There are more than 40 different words in Gaelic for “bog”. In fact, the English word “bog” comes from the Gaelic language.

The Trotternish ridge on the Isle of Skye. ©Lorne Gill

The Isle of Skye: The place name is Eilean a’ Cheò in Gaelic, which translates as “the isle of the mist”. Hopefully, there is not too much mist when you visit Skye, so you can take in the stunning island.

October: The Gaelic for October is An Dàmhair, derived from damh-dàir, which means “deer roaring time”. Autumn is the rutting season for red deer and their eerie roars can be heard across hills, mountains and in glens.

The Cairngorms. ©Lorne Gill

The Cairngorms: Their name for this mountain range comes from the Gaelic An Càrn Gorm “the blue mountain”. Their Gaelic name is Am Monadh Ruadh “the russet mountains”, which describes the colour of the granite that dominates the range.

Avalanche: We have adopted the French word for avalanche, yet there is a native Gaelic word for the same phenomenon: Maoim-sneachda, meaning “gushing forth of snow”.

Captive golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Eagle: There are 276 Gaelic place names in Scotland that name the iolaire, “eagle”. More than two-thirds are thought to represent the golden eagle and the remainder the white-tailed sea eagle.

A Gaelic proverb: The Gaelic phrase “às an dris, anns an droigheann” translates as “out of the bramble into the blackthorn”. It’s the same as saying: “Out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Lochnagar, Grampian Area. Credit: Lorne Gill/SNH

Lochnagar: The Aberdeenshire mountains gets its name from Lochan na Gàire, or “the lochan where the wind makes a noise”, near the summit. In Gaelic, it is Beinn nan Cìochan “the mountain of the nipples”.

Aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights. ©Lorne Gill

Northern Lights: The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, is known in Gaelic as Na Fir-chlis, which is literally translated as “the nimble men”.

Loch Lomond: The name for the loch was originally Loch Leamhain, after from the river that flows from it (it means “elm river”). The modern name comes from Ben Lomond, which in Gaelic is Beinn Laomainn, meaning “beacon mountain”.

Lewisian rock on the Isle of Iona. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Iona: The shortest place name in the world is the one-letter Gaelic for Iona – Ì. It is often known as Eilean Ì or Ì Chaluim Chille, the latter linking it to its most famous inhabitant of the island, Calum Cille (the “dove of the church”, St Columba).\

Male Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus mutus) in winter plumage. ©Lorne Gill

Birds: The English names for two of Scotland’s native birds come from Gaelic: Ptarmigan (tàrmachan) and capercaillie (capall coille).

Foxglove: This flower is believed to be a fairy plant in Gaelic tradition. Among its Gaelic names is Lus nam Ban-sìth “the plant of the fairy women”.

Oak tree: The darach, or oak tree, is known in Gaelic as rìgh na coille, translated as “the king of the forest”.

  • Scottish Natural Heritage is involved in an extensive programme of projects to promote the use of Gaelic and to boost interest in the language and secure its future as a unique and important part of life in Scotland. Also an on-line Gaelic Nature Words dictionary.

This article appeared in my Sunday Mail outdoors column. See the pdf.


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