Bho Bheul an Eòin - From the Bird's Mouth

A language holds its own traditions and treasures. In Scottish Gaelic, the word “dualchas” encompasses the intimate bonds that exist between the natural world, the land, and its people, connecting through language, tradition and culture from generation to generation. The Gaelic names of the animals and plants that inhabit that landscape are a part of that tradition and reflect aspects of these relationships. (Right - Firecrest)

In recent times, a number of animals and plants have appeared in Scotland as our climate changes, or otherwise helped there by human agency, and some are so newly arrived that they don’t yet have a Gaelic name, which is something that this exciting project is addressing.

From the Bird’s Mouth, Bho Bheul an Eòin, is naming the new.  Through a process of research and consultation, the project has given over 40 Gaelic names to these colonisers, and tell their story through poetry and prose, through a high-quality art book, an expanded website, a travelling exhibition, and numerous articles and presentations.

Cattle Egret

This project has been supported by NatureScot and Bord na Gàidhlig. I was extremely grateful for the help of a wide range of advisors, including scientists and researchers, linguists and writers. These included the Gaelic nature writer Roddy Maclean and advice from Bob McGowan, SOC member and then Senior Curator at National Museum Scotland. The poet Rody Gorman created three-line, Gaelic poems that use the newly created names in the context of the landscape, language and human encounters and these accompany the paintings I have created to illustrate the book and species accounts. The project advisors are from a wide variety of agencies and the names created have already been submitted to their database archives and used in published articles and translations.

The project allows Scottish Gaelic speakers and learners to give voice to the new nature around them and maintain Gaelic's rich, cultural link with the changing ecology of the landscape in which it is embedded. As a Gaelic learner who paints, studies and talks a lot about wildlife and environment, it feels unwieldy to borrow English words into Gaelic to describe the natural world, especially as Gaelic has such beautiful naming conventions for birds and plants that have long and interesting traditions.  This project was initiated to create names to use in conversation and in written accounts of Scotland’s nature and the consequences of changing environment because, really, this book is about the effects of human agency and climate change and the wider care of our heritage, both natural and cultural.

Montagu's Harrier

In choosing Gaelic names, I drew up lists of names that followed their names in English, Irish, and their scientific name. I then looked to see what their common names were across the rest of their range and especially the names in the languages from where they originated. I also considered what the Gaelic names were for their closest relatives or for species that acted in a similar way in the environment. From this list of alternatives, we discarded anything that was confusing, unwieldy, or clashed with another species and then asked for views from our panel of advisors. We finally chose a name based on the majority view or, where a decision was divided, gave more weight to arguments by Gaelic linguists and advisors who had a specialist knowledge in that species. In doing this, we were sensitive to Gaelic naming conventions and traditions. In Gaelic, finches are usually named after their colouring and a plant or tree, so Chaffinch is “breacan beithe” – multi-coloured little one of the birch. When choosing a name for Scarlet Rosefinch, we settled on “deargan drise” – little red one of the briars (which links to both its habitat and its scientific name).

In working out bird names, I was hugely reliant on the excellent, standardised list in The Birds of Scotland (Forrester et al, 2007), published by SOC, that was drawn up by Tristan ap Rheinallt with advice from Peigi M Nicholson and Murdo M Macdonald. In this work, they rationalised the varied, duplicate and confusing “local” names (such as the 20 Gaelic names for snipe). Understandably, they felt that it wouldn’t be appropriate to coin names for new species, but I hope my project gives a collegiate and acceptable process for naming, especially as one-off translations have previously been hastily and inappropriately coined from English into Gaelic when a well-considered approach could give a far better name than the English version. I think we can all agree that Bearded Tit is a terrible name for a bird that is neither bearded, nor a member of the tit family. In Gaelic, it is now “cuilcear staiseach” – the moustached reed worker.

Bearded Tit 

In other names, the English version translated across very well so Mediterranean Gull became “faoilleag Mheadhan-thìreach” (whether there should be an h after the M was the source of several months of debate!). For other species, a Gaelic name existed for closely related species, so it was easy to replace “yellow” with “flaming” in the Gaelic name for Goldcrest to create “crìonag lasrach” for Firecrest – the tiny, wee flaming creature. We found that Irish had a great name for Bee-eater that was easily understandable to Gaels. A little tweak into the spelling conventions of Scottish Gaelic gave us “beachadair Eòrpach”. “Beach” is an old word that covers both wasps and bees so the new name means European bee/wasp worker.

Bee-eater 

The project has been absolutely fascinating and has made me think about species as widely varied as Leathery sea squirt (spùtachan-mara leatharach – little squirting creature of the sea – and Emperor dragonfly (tarbh-nathrach ìmpireil – imperial bull snake!), and the naming processes behind these in both Gaelic and English. Despite press reports of Gaelic as a dying language, my experience of Gaelic and Gaelic speakers is that it is a vibrant and creative language that is fully engaged with the modern world and is continually and dynamically creating and inventing in poetry, music, prose and in all sorts of writing and debate. In addition, there has been a huge surge in interest to learn the language as online learning platforms become more accessible. I really hope that this project can contribute to this changing linguistic ecology as well as maintaining the links between the language and the natural environment with which it has always been so closely entwined.

 

Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a professional wildlife artist who lives in Fife and on the Isle of Skye. His work has won many international awards and he has contributed to books and television as a writer, illustrator and presenter. He is chair of the Tay Ringing Group and has been a member of the SOC for nearly 40 years. You can find out more about this project from www.fromthebirdsmouth.com and about Derek’s other work at www.derekrobertson.com Copies of the book are available for sale at Waterston House.

Artwork © Derek Robertson