Reading the Gaelic Landscape (Leughadh Aghaidh na Tire)

Reading the Gaelic Landscape. John Murray. 2014. Whittles Publishing. 232 p.

Most of my walking and other outdoor activities are done in Scotland. I did some Scots Gaelic with the University of Glasgow in the mid-1990s while on the dole in the days before every neo-liberal whim crossed the Atlantic and one could continue to learn things rather than be yoked to a/ This smattering of Gaelic which sometimes helped with Gaelic place names, as well as avoiding diplomatic incidents while working in the Gàidhealtachd in 1995-1997. Peter Drummonds’s excellent book Scottish Hill Names was a welcome gift a few years ago but my scientific work often encompasses areas and features outwith the uplands, so this book was a welcome find. John Murray is the Director of Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh and part of the appeal of the book is that Murray will unabashedly includes quite theoretical ideas and fine discussions such as the psychogeography of Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘Hallaig’. Such discussions can be skipped by those seeking more prosaic information but they enrich the book.

The book is organized in two sections. The first deals with the history of Gaelic in Scotland, explaining that Gaelic was used throughout Scotland until the shift of the national capital to the English-speaking Lothians and the coming of Feudalism. The practices adopted by the OS during the mapping of the Highlands are then examined, with a comparison of the practice in Ireland. My own experience of Gaelic place names in Ireland was that the renderings into English made them nearly uniformly mysterious until I saw the original Gaelic place names on road signs or the landscape itself.

A chapter on Gaelic grammar and pronunciation follows, which explains why spellings change. Murray also explains the lack of certain concepts in the Gaelic language, to do with possession, which can leave the interpretation of a name ambiguous. A chapter on finding and interpreting layers in the landscape is the most theoretical chapter but a rewarding one. Murray uses many examples of urban naming practices to show there is nothing peculiar in this and to remind the reader that naming is a dynamic process. Murray also notes the extent to which those who still work and play in remote areas have become the new namers of places and features, partly from necessity and often because they are the only travellers or occupants of some remote areas.

The remainder of the book covers the layers in the landscape, like a verbal GIS. Each has at least one table that collects the key information and usually offers an example with a grid reference. Murray starts with the abiotic features of the landscape: landform and hydrology, including coastal and seascape features. Moving on to the biotic layer, landcover and ecology are split into habitat, woods and forests, then flora and fauna. The table that explains the Gaelic Tree name alphabet and the differences in the Old and Modern Gaelic names for trees is especially useful. Human land use (or human ecology) is covered in Chapter 8, covering arable, grazing and enclosed land in barely a page each. Shielings and movements of people animals between winter and summer grazing sites, which were of more importance during the early mapping by the OS, are dealt with at length. Place names relating to farm animals and other domestic animals round off the chapter. The differentiation of names for sexes, neutering and specific ages of some animals may be confusing to those with limited knowledge of livestock.

Climate, season, sound and time are gathered into a short grab-bag chapter, that might have been better added to other chapters. Human elements such as buildings, kirks and chapels, myth and legend and individual people are surveyed in the next chapter. This chapter contains many hints at Gaelic folklore and practices. The final chapter in the book examines adjectives, tackling the vexed topic of the (non-) correspondence between Gaelic and English colours and there is a helpful colour plate of hues overlain with their Gaelic names. Landscape character is discussed and Murray presents an intriguing comparison of the Scottish Natural Heritage Landscape Character tables and the concepts expressed in Gaelic that can be nearly all be directly correlated, which gives the lie to notions that an affinity and appreciation of the landscape is ‘posh’ or ‘elitist’: it is about the intimate knowledge of a place and having the ability to read a landscape and put that into words. Duncan Ban MacIntyre (Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir) is a fine example of these skills in his poem ‘Praise of Beinn Dorain’ (Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain).

Such thoughts lead on to the final chapter on what it is to read a landscape from Gaelic place names, given the palimpsest of misspellings and changes in land use and settlement patterns and the loss of the connection of people, whether residents or visitors, with a particular area. Saxon place names were dealt with just as clumsily by the Norman Domesday Book, as Hoskins’ The Making of English Landscape explains in detail. Anyone interested in the English landscape will be pleased to know that this key work has been recently republished as part of the Nature Classic Library.

The book has many photographs to provide a visual explanation of classes of place and the subtle differences that can be captured by Gaelic toponyms when English fails.

Overall, this is a very worthwhile read. Much of the key information is summarized in tables for quick reference but the longer, more theoretical passages are what really sets the book apart from the more prosaic works on place names.

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I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

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Posted in Book reviews, Geodiversity, Mountains

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Al is a Hill and Moorland Leader and has also completed the Expedition Skills module
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