Staff blog: The murmuring ptarmigan of the Cairngorms

Membership officer Emma Cessford explores a map of the Cairngorms National Park under the expert guidance of Gaelic tutor Roddy Maclean

Denis mollison   ptarmigan detail

Earlier in the autumn, I joined a small group of Trust staff and fellow conservationists to learn about Gaelic and nature in the Cairngorms (Am Monadh Ruadh - which I now understand means ‘the russet-coloured mountain range’).

Ruairidh MacIlleathain (Roddy Maclean) – a Gaelic journalist, broadcaster and author of several publications on Highland place names – led the workshop which had been organised by the Cairngorms National Park. Roddy’s passion for the hills and their associated myths and legends helped bring a map of the park alive.

Many are aware that Ben (derived from the Gaelic beinn) means mountain, but did you know that it is only one of over 100 terms that the Gaelic language uses to describe a mountain, based on its size, shape, colour, use, the presence of a particular species of animal or plant or on local folklore?

Beinn itself actually comes from “animal’s horn” which quite appropriately describes one of the Trust’s most well-known pieces of land: Ben Nevis. A mountain can also be shaped like a nose (sròn), ridged like the spine of an animal (druim) or be characterised by steep, precipitous height (sgor).

What I found so interesting about the Gaelic language was that it is so poetically descriptive. For example, ptarmigan, a bird living on many of our properties, means “the murmuring one” to describe its distinctive call.

Wearing my John Muir Trust hat, with our mission to look after wild places, it was fascinating to learn that the term for “wild” in Gaelic comes with a great background. Fiadh is one of many Gaelic words for “deer” but it can also be used to describe wildness, thought to have derived from a time when people believed humans and animals could inter-change.

So the next time I look at an Ordnance Survey Map, I’ll be sure to look out for the big (mhor) or small (bheag) hills, the river which is home to willow (seileach) and the area of land once known for its vast presence of eagles (iolair) or green woodland (glas-choille).

If only more of our wild places could be better linked with glas-choille in the present day… Our work continues.

To learn more about Gaelic in the landscape, check out Roddy Maclean’s week-long course on Skye in April 2017.

Photograph of ptarmigan by Denis Mollison