Staff blog: Gaelic enriches understanding of Quinag landscape

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett joins local Gaelic tutor Clarinda for a guided walk around the 'milking pail'

Gaelic guided walk quinag june 2016 detail

It was bright and sunny and with the peaks of Quinag in the distance as a backdrop we attempted to learn old Gaelic names for gullies and lochs and knolls. Clarinda Chant, our guide and locally based Gaelic tutor, explained the meanings of place names and also plants and birds as we walked along the path.

This walk was part of the guided walks programme in and around Quinag this summer. As we set off we had time to ask questions and look at our surroundings. A good mixture of locals and visitors joined in, with 11 people attending altogether. Clarinda helped us with our pronunciation as we attempted the words.

It was surprising how many Gaelic references there are in the landscape to cattle and milking. We learnt that Quinag spelt Cuinneag in Gaelic means milking pail which could refer to the narrow flat-topped peak that looks like an upside down milking pail. Cattle were more common in the landscape in pre-clearance times, before the land was emptied to make way for sheep. Cattle would have been a major asset for crofters and the successful breeding of them formed a large part of people’s livelihood. Gaelic gives a direct glimpse into the past as it unravels historic uses of places now long forgotten.

The island just north of the land we manage is ‘Eilean a’ Ghamhna’ Island of the stirk. A stirk is a young male cow that would be put out onto poorer ground for grazing. The saddle of Quinag named ‘Bealach a Chornaidh’ means pass of the folding cloth. ‘Bathaich Cuinneige’ is cowshed or byre of Quinag. This corrie is hidden between Sail Gharbh (rough heel) and Sail Ghorm (grey heel) and is still called the byre by some people living here. It is reported to have been the place where cattle rustlers kept their beasts hidden having driven them up the steep west-facing side of the mountain and over the Bealach. They would then continue onwards until they could sell them in markets further south.

As we walked along the path Clarinda pointed out the distant peaks and we learnt that Cnocan crop up often in the landscape and Spidean Coinich means mossy peak and how body parts are used as with Sail (heel). Size is important too in Gaelic, Mor and Beag (big and small) are often used for mountains like Cul Beag. There is Airigh na Beinne (summer hill pasture of the mountain) Shielings indicate where people must have spent their summers having put their cattle out onto the high ground for the season. This was common practice back then giving the in-bye land a rest for the summer. Cows were probably milked here on the summer grazing.

We had our lunch along a small rise in the path and enjoyed the sunshine. After lunch we headed back down the path as the emphasis was on learning (and remembering!) the Gaelic words rather than on walking a great distance.

Places were often named after the plants that grow there and animals too as with Allt na Doire Cuilinn (burn of the grove of hollies.) There are still some lovely old holly trees scattered about here. Saodhaidh Mhor, (big den of the fox) is under the foot hills of Sail Gharbh where there are plenty of possible hiding places for foxes in amongst the boulders. Loch nan Eun (loch of the birds) may be named after red-throated divers or teal that may have been seen here. There is Alt na Bradhan (burn of the salmon) on the north side of the mountain where people must have fished.

It was enjoyable taking time to look and learn a bit more and as we got back to the car park it felt like Gaelic meanings uncloaked the past; enriching our understanding of the landscape.

Page updated: 3 October