The Gaelic Alphabet, and Belonging to a Place

17B Heather_9483

This last post from Scotland, before I move onto Australia, is here because I think it demonstrates how essentially connected to the landscape we are. This is the essence of Grounded; that because of this intrinsic connection, perhaps the world might better survive by embracing our environment, connection to place and the traditional cultures that uphold this.

The first morsel that I think demonstrates this is that the connection is even the essence of language: “Scottish Gaelic is written with just 18 letters each of which is named after a tree or shrub”. (Listed below. From Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages)

(You can learn also about the lore behind each tree in the alphabet at Mandy Haggith’s website)

A – Ailm(Elm)

B – Beith(Birch)

C – Coll(Hazel)

D- Dair(Oak)

E – Eadha(Aspen)

F – Fearn(Alder)

G – Gort(Ivy)

H – Uath(Hawthorn)

I – Iogh(Yew)

L – Luis(Rowan)

M – Muin(Vine)

N – Nuin(Ash)

O – Oir/Onn(Gorse)

P – Peithe(Guelder Rose)

R – Ruis(Elder)

S – Suil(Willow)

T – Teine(Furze)

U – Ur(Heather)

Secondly, from the Visit the Hebrides website:

“A Gael is identified by his or her sloinneadh, an enumeration of ancestors (usually patrilineal descent) and by a home village. The first two questions that any native Gael would traditionally ask a Gaelic-speaking stranger are Có leisthu? and Có ás a tha thu? ‘Who do you belong to’ and ‘Where do you come from’, meaning not where your current residence is, but where you were born and raised. Typical phrases about locale are very interesting, as statements of origin translate in English, for example, as ‘I belong to Glen Uig’. People are conceptualised as belonging to places, not the other way round.”

This concept that people belong to place and not the other way around is the same in Australian Aboriginal culture which I’ll start posting about next.

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Day 10, How people’s connection to a place can help it survive

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

24 June 2013

It’s Monday. I drive west again, today to Bragar where Anne Campbell works as an artist, painting the beautiful colours of the moors; the russet browns and mossy greens, bright yellows and the dancing creamy whites of the bog cotton.

Anne is another who grew up spending time at her family sheiling, out on the moorlands with her father.

She explains how each pool of water or variation in the ground is identifiable and finely mapped in Gaelic names, to those who know the moors. The sheiling culture that facilitated this knowledge, continued into the 1950’s, and now, alongside the decline of people moving to the moor with their cattle for the summer, these Gaelic names are dying out. The names are largely remembered through song and stories.

The significance of this is important, Anne tells me. For a place to slip into anonymity poses a threat to its wellbeing. If we are all like strangers on the road seeing only vast, empty landscapes, that to many may appear difficult and forbidding, what is there to prevent the destruction of that landscape, she asks.

In the words of a “geographically removed” proponent of large-scale moorland wind farms, she tells me the moorlands were described as “miles and miles of nothing”.

Large, foreign-owned companies have proposed massive wind farms on the Lewis Peatlands that, to date, have not been approved due to the environmental significance of moorland and its function as a carbon sink. Anne wonders, if the names and the landscapes were still known by all, if people remained more connected, would this threat exist? As crofters are offered money, perhaps a delicate balance might be tipped. But why do we want money, says Anne, and many like her. We have what we want.

There is, as in any community, a range of views. Some think a few windmills on a smaller scale might be beneficial to the community. Others do not want any disturbance to the moors, its cultural significance, and the important ecosystem it supports. I did not meet any locals who were in favour of a large-scale development, though I make no claims of having spoken to everyone.

Anne points to a hill in her painting and then through her window. That is Beinn A’ Bhoghalan, the name from the west side of the hill. The map says Beinn Mholach, the name as viewed from the east side of the hill. The name from the west is disappearing.

Moorlands are full of stories of faeries and the supernatural; they were places of edgy excitement for the children who played at the wild freedom of the sheiling, and the songs and the poetry of activities on the moors live vividly on in the consciousness of local people today.

It is late afternoon and from Bragar I am driving south again towards Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.

I stop on my way at the Iron Age Norse mill and kiln in Shawbost, that I see marked on the map. The small building is hunkered down under thick thatch, roped in place with the weight of boulders, which hang to secure the thatch. Powered by the stream that runs from Loch Roinavat, the corn mill and kiln were in use up until the 1930’s.

Back in the car and following the road south through Càrlabhagh (Carloway), I can’t resist taking another stop at Callanish, revisiting the site of the stones in the daylight. But my destination is Tarbert and a Gaelic drama production run by Pròiseact nan Ealan, in conjunction with the schools. Pròiseact nan Ealan works nationally and internationally to promote Gaelic language and culture through the arts. They are also a supporter of this residency. Thank you Pròiseact nan Ealan!

It is hard to find the time to write a little each day – I am on the go from dawn to dusk, and dusk is 11.30pm. But that is good.

(I am adding some more information to the Digital Resources page of the blog)