Chapter 4: Gaelic in Highlands and Lowlands

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The Highlanders speak a sort of Irish, which they call Albannach. Chamberlayne’s History II, 50.

In the minds of most people today, the Gaelic language is associated exclusively with the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but until the spread of feudal government Gaelic was spoken in every part of Lowland Scotland, including Lothian, Ayrshire, Galloway and the Borders. With the eye of faith something very like Gaelic can be traced in Cumbria, Northumbria and even in Kent. Since the eleventh century the use of Gaelic has retreated across the Scottish landscape. G.W.S. Barrow 1989 ‘The lost Gàidhealtachd of medieval Scotland’, in W. Gillies (ed) 1989, 67-88. and C.W.J Withers, ‘On the geography and social history of Gaelic’ in W. Gillies (ed.) 1989, 101-130. There was no invasion by English-speakers, no violent change. People took pains to learn English and make sure their children could speak English because they believed, correctly, that a command of English opened doors closed to those who could speak only Gaelic. They found that the English language was more relevant to their lives, and this is still largely true.

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Many historical sources provide evidence of the disappearance of Gaelic from Lowland Scotland. As we saw already, English appears to have been unknown there in 1074. Barrow notes the persistent usage of Mauchchuy (for Magh Chuaich) in Kinross-shire in 1320, G.W.S. Barrow, in W. Gillies (ed) 1989, 79, note 2. a date which is probably well within the Gaelic-speaking period in that area. It appears that Gaelic was still the local vernacular in Midlothian when James IV moved down from the old citadel on Edinburgh Rock to build his new palace at Holyrood in 1503, for the name Croft an Righ ‘King’s croft’ came to be attached to an adjoining plot of land and can hardly be earlier. Duncan Anderson, History of the Abbey and Palace of Holyrood, c.1859. John Major, writing in 1521, confirmed that ‘at the present day almost the half of Scotland speaks the Irish tongue’ but that ‘not so long ago it was spoken by the majority of us.’ J. Major Bk I, Chap. IX, Scottish History Society 1892, 50. His contemporary Hector Boece, in 1527, found that ‘al thingis began to change’ in the time of Malcolm Canmore, when trade with England began and the Gaelic-speaking Scots then living in the Borders began to learn English in order to deal with their neighbours. By 1527 the old language had disappeared from Lowland Scotland but was retained in the Highlands. P. Hume Brown, Scotland Before 1700 from Contemporary Documents, 1893, 101. At that time parts of south-east Perthshire were half-Gaelic and half-English. C.W.J. Withers, ‘On the geography and social history of Gaelic’, in W. Gillies (ed), 1989, 103. Sir Thomas Craig of Riccarton (1538-1608) remembered a time when ‘the inhabitants of the shires of Stirling and Dumbarton spoke pure Gaelic’. I.F. Grant 1930, 56. In 1560 in Galloway ‘the people for the moste part speketht erishe,’ R.B. Armtrong (ed), Archaeological Collections relating to the Counties of Ayr and Wigton, 1884, 4, 17. Gaelic lingered there into the eighteenth century J. McInnes 1987, 106. and for almost as long in Ayrshire.

The former use of Gaelic in Lowland Scotland is evident from its place-names. Gaelic place-names are found in every part of Lowland Scotland from Galloway to Caithness. Lothian is considered the most ‘English’ part of Scotland, and is certainly the part most remote from the Highlands, but it has scores of pure Gaelic names such as Dalkeith, Inveresk, Inverleith, Inchgarvie, Inchkeith, Balgone, Dunbar, Dunglass, Balerno, Malleny, Dalmeny, Abercorn, Garvald, Innerwick, Cramond, Corstorphine, The Drum, Drumsheugh, Drumore, and Moredun, all of which would be equally at home in the Highlands. Some of these names refer to topographical features and must therefore be of considerable age. Others define original enclosures or farms, many of which became substantial settlements, a feature which suggests a considerable age for the original settlement. Duncan Stewart also noted that in Galloway, ‘Celtic names are almost the only ancient appellations of places’. D. Stewart 1822, I, 11.

The change from Gaelic to English can be traced through the centuries. Since it continued well into the twentieth century its mechanisms and motivations are not difficult to trace. The last native-born speaker of Perthshire Gaelic was still alive in the 1980s but Rob Roy, Tutor of Clan Gregor (1671-1734) was literate in English and, at the level of the clan followers or poorer tenants, the acquisition of English was in full swing in Balquhidder by 1790. The older boys went to school only during the winter months, from December to March, but ‘towards the end of Spring, most of the boys go to the low country, where they are employed in herding till the ensuing winter; and, besides gaining a small fee, they have the advantage of acquiring the English language. The language of the common people is the Celtic, but most (if not all of them) can buy and sell and transact business with their low-country neighbours in English.' D. Stewart, OSA Balquhidder, 1791, 1977 reprint, 44-45. The great incentive for those who returned to the Highlands was to be able to use of English in commercial transactions with Lowland customers but a command of English opened up the opportunities of Lowland Scotland, England and the colonies.

In Blair Atholl in 1844 the process of conversion by way of primary education in the parish school was advanced and the parish minister reported astutely that the fate of Gaelic was beyond doubt: ‘The Gaelic is the language of the country… There are few, however, under thirty years of age who cannot read and write, and speak the English language. The manners of the people, as well as their dress, resemble those of their low-country neighbours, and no power can resist the assimilation of their language. The elementary books now in Gaelic, and the numerous publications of the present day in that language, whether well or ill executed, and the more general reading of Gaelic in the schools, are but indirect methods of enabling the children to acquire a knowledge of English with greater facility.’ J. Stewart, NSA Blair Atholl, 1844, 570. The reason for this, which he does not explore, was that English provided these young people with a brighter future, though not in Blair Atholl.

Ronald Black reported that he ‘once heard of a woman in Islay who used porridge to punish her children if she caught them speaking Gaelic. “As long as you speak only Gaelic,” she’d say to them, “ you’ll never eat anything but porridge.” So porridge is all she gave them, till she’d cured them of the habit.’ R. Mac Ille Dhuibh (R. Black), The Scotsman, 14 November 1987. Worse stories are known from other areas. The inhibition on speaking Gaelic was not done out any dislike for their native language but from an accurate awareness of the deprivation and lack of opportunities faced by those who remained in Gaelic-speaking areas and the very real advantage a command of English offered those who were equipped to migrate to Lowland Scotland, or England, or the British colonies.

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In the eleventh century Scotland was, by the standards of England or the Continent, a very backward country. It had no urban centres, a very sketchy and not very orthodox Christian establishment, and little or no trade. Its population at that time appears to have been entirely Gaelic-speaking. When Scottish churchmen met Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, in 1074 at Dunfermline in Fife, to debate the proper time of Lent, her husband acted as interpreter since the Queen could speak only Saxon and the Scottish clergy or Culdees could speak only Gaelic. J. Knox 1831, 156. The story was recorded by Turgot in his Life of Margaret. The Queen’s view prevailed; so, eventually, did her language, though this was more to do with the proximity of England as a trading partner than any deliberate policy.

Inspired by Margaret’s ideals, Malcolm Canmore and his sons did their best to introduce commerce, literacy and feudalism into Scotland but they did nothing deliberate to foster the use of English. The Scots were still illiterate and, even in a society where literacy is widespread, it is all but impossible to influence the language of illiterate peasants. It is however possible for a peasant to become bilingual when he sees some advantage in it. The change from Gaelic to English as a first language took several generations to achieve in every case and was restricted to the children of migrants who grew up in the novel, literate environment of Lowland Scotland. A large-scale invasive movement of English-speakers into Lothian is generally cited but, like most theories explaining language change in terms of invasion and population replacement, it can be ruled out, even in those parts of southern Scotland which were for a short while possessions of the Northumbrians. Scots, the variety of English that is spoken in Scotland, is not Northumbrian. It is not a single dialect but a collection of very varied dialects, which change from parish to parish and sometimes from one end of a village to the other. Any explanation for the Scots of Lothian must also be true of the Scots of Ayrshire, Fife, Angus and the rest of Lowland Scotland as far as Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. The belief in an English invasion may arise from the historical fact that the earliest written English in Scotland was the standard Middle English also taught in English schools but, like any written language, it had little impact on the spoken language.

The change to English was fortuitous but, with hindsight, inevitable. King Malcolm and his sons were anxious to develop their kingdom. They did this by copying the nearest model, which was the Anglo-Norman feudal movement in England. The development of Scotland was a boot-strap exercise in which the independent and democratic trading burghs were as important as feudal systems of land management and an imported Church. In the burghs such raw materials as Scotland produced – hides, salt beef, and wool – could be collected and converted into the hard cash needed for other innovations, which often took the form of monastic foundations imported from France. They in turn continued the feudalising process and fuelled the process of trade, notably with the Low Countries. The Scots who were involved in the trade of the burghs were at first non-literate and Gaelic-speaking but they needed from the outset to communicate with customers speaking English, French, Dutch, or German. It took a very long time. In the closing years of the fifteenth century, Andrew Halyburton traded with Flanders. ‘His clients included many leading churchmen and laymen in Scotland, as well as many of the tradesmen who supplied goods to the Royal Household. An examination of his Ledger shows that the exports from Scotland consisted almost entirely of unmanufactured products; a few bales of Scottish cloth seem to be the only exception. The bulk of the trade is in skins, wool and fish, and even these do not always arrive in creditable condition.’ J. Warrack 1920, 7. In 1598, Fynes Moryson reported that Scottish traders could not afford to undertake long voyages because they were too poor: ‘the chief traffic of the Scots is in four places, namely at Camphire in Zetland (Campveere, the Scottish staple in the Netherlands), whether they carry salt, the skins of wethers, otters, badgers and martens, and bring back from thence corn. And at Bordeaux in France, whether they carry cloth and the same skins, and bring from thence wines, prunes, walnuts and chestnuts. Thirdly, within the Baltic Sea, whither they carry the said clothes and skins, and bring thence flax, hemp, iron, pitch and tar. And lastly, in England, whether they carry linen cloth, yarn and salt, and bring thence wheat, oats, beans and like things.’ Other exports were coal, and pickled, dried, smoked and salted fish. P. Hume Brown (ed), Early Travellers in Scotland, 1893, 86-7.

Scots emerged as a locally variable trading language, the written form essentially English but with considerable admixture of Dutch, Low German and Gaelic vocabulary. Gaelic remained the language of the herders, hunters and farmers. It did not adapt – it did not need to adapt – but lost ground in the burghs and their hinterland, though it contributed a great many words to Scots. Civilised living and English became synonymous.

John of Fordun, in his Chronicles of the Scottish Nation (1380) is perhaps the first to mention the mutual antagonism between Lowland Scots speaking English and Highland Scots speaking Gaelic. He nowhere suggests that they were two separate peoples – on the contrary, he makes it plain that the Scots were a single people who spoke either English or Gaelic according to where they lived and their way of life. P. Hume Brown 1893, 11-12.

The manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken among them, Gaelic and Scots, the latter of which is the language of those who occupy the seaboard and plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coasts are of domestic and civilised habits, trusty, patient and urbane, decent in their attire [&c., &c…] The highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, of a docile and warm disposition, comely in person, but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel. They are however faithful and obedient to their king and country and easily made to submit to law, if properly governed.

The existence of two distinct cultures by the fourteenth century is beyond doubt but Barrow feels that the hostility between them is over-stated, for even then much of Lowland Scotland was still Gaelic-speaking and not yet fully converted to a ‘domestic and civilised’ way of life based on trade, arable farming, taxation, and some degree of literacy in English. He also makes the point that at this time and for some time to come many people were equally at home in Highland and Lowland society. G.W.S. Barrow, The lost Gàidhealtachd of medieval Scotland, in W. Gillies (ed), 1989, 67. Perhaps the extreme picture painted by Fordun arises from the fact that he was a historian, and historical studies, as noted already (page ref), are biased in favour of those who control the system, in this case, feudal authorities. The documents available for study in the fourteenth century were all written by churchmen, and very largely reflected feudal concerns. From them we can learn about Lowland fields cultivated by oxen, and taxes in the form of cereals paid to the Church, but leave those parts of Scotland where it was difficult to grow a surplus of grain in almost total obscurity. The exception was the not infrequent occasion when a Gaelic-speaking native was accused of breaking feudal law, an offence ranging from treasonable resistance to imposed authority to killing a wild animal. The documented complaints of Lowland authorities have given the Gaels a reputation for lawlessness which they have not yet lost but such crimes do not necessarily indicate a lack of law and order beyond the Highland Line. One might with equal justice accuse feudal authorities of using undue violence in introducing change. Feudal law and tribal law had little or nothing in common, and those who were adversely affected by the imposition of feudalism – by definition the Gaelic-speaking leaders and clansmen of the old tribal society – tended to resent the usurpation of their rights by feudal appointees whom they did not know and had not chosen. Highland history is largely a chronicle of this confrontation. The Gaels were no more lawless than the Lowlanders but their law was adapted to very different circumstances.

The change from Gaelic to English took many centuries. In every case it required an individual to make a decisive effort, backed up by means and motive. In this process the church, both Catholic and Reformed, played an important role. The Reformed church fostered education in English and made it fashionable, but the Catholic church, as a great landlord, had fostered a way of life that assumed a knowledge of English. Its various managers took a keen interest in the productivity of their possessions, well shown by the account book of George Brown, Bishop of Dunkeld. Ref Rentale Dunkeldense. This account book also shows a direct correlation between the three critical elements: climate, language and economy. The ability of an area to grow cereals in sufficient quantities to pay its rents determined whether or not it could support a cash economy and a generally evolved way of life in which English was the dominant language. Where cereals could not be grown in sufficient quantities, as in Rannoch, Gaelic and the older way of life survived for many more centuries. Ref to Rannoch in Rentale Dunkeldense

The Bishop of the Isles in 1609 had a keen interest in promoting English. D. Gregory & W. Skene (eds), Collectanea de Rebus Albanicus 1833, 119-20.

The quhilk day it being understand that the ignorance and incivilitie of the saidis Ilis hes daylie incressit be the negligence of gaid educatioun and instructioun of the youth in the knowlege of God and good lettres: for remeid quhairof it is enactit that everie gentilman or yeaman within the saidis Ilandis or ony of thame having children maill or famell and being in goodis worth thriescoir ky, sall putt at the leist thair eldest sone or, having na childrene maill, thair eldest dochtir to the scuillis in the lawland and interteny and bring thame up thair qujill thay may be found able sufficientlie to speik, read and wryte Inglische.

It is ironic that the Bishop or his amanuensis used an out-moded regional form of Inglische which was within a generation to be replaced in Scotland by the standard modern English of the King James Bible. It is equally ironic that four hundred years later the last Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland survived in these same islands. The Bishop, no doubt with reason, associated the speaking of Gaelic with uncivilised and Godless behaviour, and believed that education in English was the only way to create a more civilised and, as he saw it, a more Christian society in the Isles. He aspired to move his flock away from their native culture, with its connotations of pagan primitivism, towards something like the respectability of Lowland society. This admiration of Lowland society was apparently shared by the wealthier Hebrideans since within a relatively few generations the elite of the Isles had become so civilised – though not noticeably more Christian – that they were unhappy living anywhere but Aberdeen, Edinburgh or London. The Bishop might not have foreseen or welcomed such a dramatic conversion to his point of view, but he was right in seeing that lifestyle and language went hand-in-hand and that a change of attitude could only be achieved by removing children from their Gaelic-speaking environment in the Isles to be educated in English in the very different environment of the Lowlands. The clansmen, deprived of both the opportunity and the desire to change, continued to speak the only language they knew and to live as their ancestors had done.

Various factors played their part in persuading individuals to speak English instead of Gaelic. With the encouragement of the church, who found it easier to evangelise in English than in Gaelic, English came to have snob value and a popular fashion for all things English, as now there is a popular fashion for all things American, spread in the Highlands. Gaelic names were anglicised, children were sent to local schools where English was studied, young men went to work in the Lowlands in order to pick up a few words. The most compelling incentive was the very real fact that a man who could speak enough English could move out of the Highlands, where traditional life and Gaelic culture was in rapid decline, to make a better life for himself elsewhere. He was already, to some extent, an exile within his own culture. The experience of massive migration in Scotland goes back to the seventeenth century. As most Scottish people alive in the 1950s or 1960s had remote cousins in Canada or New Zealand, most Gaels alive in the 1750s or 1760s had relatives living in Lowland burghs or in North America who told of their great good fortune. In order to share in this opportunity, they needed at least a smattering of English.

The temptations offered were considerable and real. As we will see, up to the seventeenth century and in some places well into the eighteenth century, life for many Highlanders was extremely basic. They lived in rough huts, generally without proper doors, windows or chimneys, heated only by a smoky peat fire in the middle of the floor; they slept on mattresses made of heather or ferns and their principle garment was a hard and apparently very smelly woollen blanket. Bread in the form of oatcakes was a luxury. Instead of chiefs who treated them like family, the Highlands increasingly had absentee landlords, educated in England, who employed English-speaking factors to run their estates. Traditional Gaelic culture was maintained in places, notably the Catholic areas of the Isles, but in others it was banned by the Reformed church. Hunting was reserved for the landlords, possessions were small and often unsuited to arable farming, rents tended to increase. Despite these problems, the population was high and continued to grow.

To modern eyes the Scottish burgh towns as late as the eighteenth century would seem small, over-crowded, and unhealthy but they were also bustling centres where local enterprise was free to flourish. Life in a town offered an alluring contrast to life in the country and it also offered genuine possibilities, even if the reality might be different from the expectation. The key to this stimulating life and to eventual prosperity was the ability to speak English.

The process is familiar to any family historian working with Highland families. It is typified by the Perth burgess, mentioned in records between 1575 and 1603, who was a first-generation migrant and a highly successful one, with considerable inherited property in the Highlands and considerable purchased property in Perth. This gentleman was known as Gregor MacGregoure in Highland Perthshire but as George Johnestoune in Perth. A.G. Murray MacGregor 1898, 170-1, 174-5. Such first-generation migrants typically exploited their links with primary producers in the hills – their fathers, uncles, brothers and nephews – and set up as cobblers, butchers, cattle dealers, leather merchants, or glove-makers – the glove-makers of Perth were a notable force in the town. They often became established and prosperous, and their sons carried on the family business or branched out as bankers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, engineers, goldsmiths, ministers of the Gospel, university professors and officers in the British army or navy. Such talented, educated and enterprising individuals spread all over Britain and, indeed, all over the world, and were extremely influential. They often acknowledged their Highland ancestry and were proud of it but nothing but a few genes and a surname survive to show this.

By the time of Edward Burt (1728), the fashion for English had reached Inverness, in the heart of the Highlands, a town whose population, other than the army of occupation, was entirely Highland. But, he explained, ‘the natives do not call themselves Highlanders, not so much on account of their low situation, as because they speak English. This rule whereby to denominate themselves, they borrow from the Kirk, which in all its acts and ordinances distinguishes the Lowlands from the Highlands by the language generally spoken by the inhabitants, whether the parish or district lies in the high or low country. Yet although they speak English, there are scarce any who do not understand the Irish tongue; and it is necessary they should do so, to carry on their dealings with the neighbouring country people; for within less than a mile of the town, there are few who speak any English at all’. E. Burt 1728 I, edition of 1815, 33-4.

This shows very clearly that the boundary between Highland and Lowland Scotland and between Gaelic and English was cultural and partial, not ethnic and absolute. Those who lived in areas beyond the reach of commercial influences remained non-literate and continued to find Gaelic quite adequate. If a Gael wished to work in the Lowlands, or to earn money by trade, or to emigrate to one of the colonies, he or she should first learn English. If a couple wished their children to escape from an insecure existence with no prospects for improvement, living on potatoes or on oatmeal doled out by the laird, or if, taking a more positive view, they wished their children to take advantage of the opportunities presented by urban life, they educated them in English and punished them when they spoke Gaelic. Bilingual families invariably spoke English, and actively obliterated the Gaelic of the parents and grandparents. ‘Speak Gaelic and eat porridge’ was the unattractive alternative.

Thus the linguistic boundary, as it moved across the landscape, did not simply separate two languages but two cultures: a evolved English-speaking society equipped with corn-farms, trading burghs, literacy, money, Christianity, courts, and good communications, and a Gaelic-speaking tribal culture with hill pastures and deer forests, a seasonally-shifting life, a very sketchy pre-Christian religion, and a simple diet based on venison, milk, and shell-fish. The change from Gaelic to English has a certain inevitability, given Scotland’s geographical situation and reliance on its southern neighbour. This becomes clear if we suppose that Scotland was a more favoured country and that its people had embraced Roman influences and developed an evolved and urbanised trading culture in the Dark Ages, as happened, for example, in Gaul. The language of Scotland would now be Gaelic, with simplified spelling and full of Latin and English loan-words, but still Gaelic.

Despite their common origins, or perhaps because of them, wherever the boundary settled for the moment there was little love lost between those living on the two sides. The Gaels had ‘an adherence to one another as Highlanders, in opposition to the people of the low country, whom they despise as inferior to them in courage, and believe they have a right to plunder them whenever it is in their power. This last arises from a tradition, that the Lowlands in olden times were the possession of their ancestors’. E. Burt 1728 II, edition of 1815, 84. Like many traditions, this is right in detail but wrong in essence, for their origins were identical and there was a constant trickle, sometimes a stream, of folk like Gregor MacGregor moving down from the hills to settle in Lowland burghs, marry girls of identical origins, and, converted to George Johnston, become respectable property-owning burgesses.

The use of Gaelic is concomitant with the archaic way of life. Wherever Gaelic-speaking areas adopted literacy, the cash economy and urbanisation, the old language failed. Some Gaelic-speaking communities in favoured areas were able to profit from these innovations, but Highland towns invariably ceased to be Gaelic-speaking. Gaelic-speaking communities survived only in marginal rural areas and there very often the local economy and social structures were too fragile to survive conversion to new methods. In most of these marginal areas society collapsed and the people left, taking their Gaelic with them. It is no accident that most of our evidence for archaic survival comes from Highland Perthshire, Argyll, and the Islands, which were all poor, remote and conservative areas.

The question of archaic Gaelic will be explored in a following volume. Its fragmentary survival runs parallel to the survival of archaic habits in Highland Scotland recorded in the following pages. The only assumption made is that archaic Gaelic was the language of people who lived by hunting deer and by pastoral farming, not by arable farming (though they were fond of oat-cakes when they could get them). As the language of a deer-hunting society it appears to take us back to the Mesolithic, as do many other aspects of Gaelic culture. If this culture did not arrive in Scotland in the Mesolithic, it is not clear when it might have arrived. Archaic Gaelic (AG) can very largely be retrieved from the modern dictionary if one makes the same assumption that what is recorded was once the language of a hunting and herding society whose old oral hunting culture lingered for many centuries but then almost, but not quite, passed out of memory altogether. Our first purpose is to identify these deer-hunters and their extraordinary way of life.

Hunting Gaelic.
The following sample of Gaelic terms gives their modern and archaic meanings, as well as some further links. The variety of meaning which is now often attached to a single word shows the contribution made to the modern language by the evolution in meaning of words originally used with a more limited meaning by hunters. This section also demonstrates a method of isolating and identifying hunting roots such as ar and ceall.

aith ‘hill’: a deer forest.
aith ‘kiln’: a fire or beacon.
aith ‘skirmish’: a deer drive. Probably the genitive of aodh ‘fire’ and tir ‘land’.
all ‘foreign’: a hunt or hunter in a neighbouring district. E. ally.
all ‘great’: the proceeds of a hunt. E. all.
all ‘white’: fire or light.
an t-slat thomhais ‘measuring stick’: a surveying implement, Orion’s Belt.
annaladh ‘age, era, calendar’: the hunting calendar, a year. The first element is ain ‘fire’. Fr. an ‘year’.
aoigh ‘hero, skilful person, traveller, stranger, guest’: a hunter who travelled to a neighbouring district for a major drive. The first element is probably aodh ‘fire’.
aonach ‘fair, great assembly’: a communal hunt. The first element is ain ‘fire’. In landscape use we find aoineadh ‘beacon site’.
arach ‘bier; a framework of wood on which the dead are carried to the grave’: a framework of wood on which venison was carried home.
arach ‘field of battle’: an ambush site in a deer forest.
arach: ‘gallows’: a wooden framework to support a beacon. The root is gall ‘fire’. It is very common in landscape use as Gallowhill or Gallow’s Hill.
arach: ‘plain’: a deer forest seen as the field of view of a beacon.
arach: ‘restraint’: a trap, evidently consisting of a wooden framework (see below).
àrair: ‘slaughterer, warrior’: hunter. Appears to be cognate with E. warrior which retains evidence of an initial aspirate.
aran ‘bread’: food of any kind, meat, the proceeds of the hunt.
arbach ‘slaughtering’. Cognate with ar-fhaich and àr-mhagh.
ar-fhaich ‘field of battle’. Ar ‘hunt’ is a cognate of E. war, which retains the initial aspirate of an even older form such as car (G. car ‘circular motion’: driving deer) or *par ‘fire’.
arg ‘champion, chief’: hunter or hunt master.
arg ‘white’.
arg-thoir ‘plunderer’.
àr-mhagh ‘field of slaughter or battle’: as Armagh, Ireland.
àrmunn ‘hero, warrior, chief’: hunter or hunt-master.
aroll ‘great slaughter, great many’.
art-theine ‘fire-stone’: flint strike-a-light.
àruinn ‘deer forest, bounds’: deer forests were always peripheral to settled lands and Gaelic (like English) retains many words for remote areas.
bagh ‘battle’: hunt.
bagh ‘strength’: an attribute of a hunter or, perhaps, an attribute of a muster of hunters.
bagh ‘word’: a message or signal.
baodhannach ‘elk, moose’, the quarry of a hunt.
bàr ‘dart’.
bàr ‘hero’: hunter.
bàr ‘son’: a young hunter, a young man of the clan or tribe.
bàth ‘drown (a fire)’: beacon sites generally had convenient access to water to be able to control the fire. As E. bath. The first element is the Ba ‘fire’ root.
bàth ‘slaughter, massacre, extinguish’.
boirche ‘elk’.
bonnan-buidhe ‘heron, crane’. Like many names of birds and plants this is a hunting pun. It means ‘fire of the hunting troop’.
bràc ‘deer, reindeer, red deer’. G. breac ‘speckled’. In place-names such as Egglesbreac, the Gaelic name of Falkirk, not a speckled church after all but a hunting rendezvous. Fr. bric-à-brac is illuminating: the older expression is de bric et de broc ‘a collection of odds and ends’. A drive normally picked up a variety of animals in addition to deer.
brach ‘dog’, ie. one who chases bràc.
brag ‘herd of deer’.
breisim ‘war-cry’: the shout raised by the chain of hunters as a signal to begin the drive.
broc ‘badger’ but originally ‘deer’. cf. braich ‘stag, buffalo, badger’.
bru ‘hind’.
ceal ‘concealment’: lying in ambush.
ceal ‘death’.
ceal ‘heaven’. Insofar as the Gaels envisaged heaven, it was the happy hunting-ground, the land of perpetual youth.
ceal ‘joint (of meat)’.
ceal ‘prophecy’. This was not a supernatural ability but the announcing of a future event by lighting a major bonfire.
ceal ‘woman’s private parts’: a common metaphor for an ambush site in a narrow place or cleft.
cealach ‘fireplace of a kiln’: a stone nook used as a beacon site or fire place. In place-names as ceall for Kil in place-names.
ceall ‘cell, church’. Used anachronistically to identify early church sites but originally and in place-names a stone nook used as a beacon site. The context shows that the beacon served a purpose in hunting. The chapels and churches found at such places are either secular fuel stores or later developments. Their saints can generally be recognised as personifications of the beacon or light. Irish keels are circular stone enclosures with pre-Christian associations.
ceallach ‘war’: hunting.
ceann-ubhal ‘ball or globe on top of a pillar’, lit. ‘head-apple’. Ubhal is a pun on éibheall ‘live coal, flame, hearth fire.’ The ball on top of a pillar was a ball of fire or a beacon.
cill chumhang: not ‘narrow church’, pace Francis Diack F.C. Diack 1944, 185. but ‘deer trap’. Kilwhang is the Gaelic name for Stonehaven. The Lang Whang is a road running down the western flanks of the Pentland Hills in Lothian. Sc. fank ‘pen for sheep’, E. fang.
clearc ‘curled, bright, shiny, bright yellow’. The clerks in Arthurian romance had curly yellow hair. They often passed with messages and may be seen as anthropomorphised signal fires.
conairt ‘hunting with hounds’.
cuirm ‘feast, banquet, a kind of strong beer’. Du kermiss ‘feast’, Scots kirn ‘harvest home’. The intoxicating liquor was probably not beer but bland, made from fermented buttermilk, and apparently the same as the kumiss made by Asian nomads.
Doiteag Mhuileach, a celebrated Mull witch. She was a local version of the Cailleach or hunting goddess. Her name appears to come from G. deud ‘tooth’. Her teeth were presumably the deer trap. Large sharp teeth feature in symbolic contexts.
dreimhne ‘warfare’: hunting. E. drive?
faghaid ‘hunting’.
fàir ‘a ridge on the horizon’; faire ‘watch-hill’; fiur ‘a ridge below the horizon.’ F.C. Diack 1944, 176. It is possible to deduce from Scottish folklore that Scottish fairies were hunters.
foghail ‘plunder, spoil’.
fonnach ‘war chariot’.
grech ‘dog, hound’, greigh ‘herd’, gru ‘greyhound’.
gribh ‘warrior’. An earlier meaning appears to be ‘claw’, as in the griffon, which had prominent eagle claws. E. grab, grip are cognate.
grim-charbad ‘war chariot’. Grim is commonly attached to dykes and similar landscape features which may originally have served a purpose in communal deer drives, to constrain the animals or offer a perch for the hunters.
imir ‘balk or ridge of land’. One of many words in im, in or iom ‘hunt’. The imir again appears to have served a purpose in hunting.
inntil ‘budget, wallet, satchel’. Hunters and other travellers carried fire-lighting equipment, kindling, herbs, scallop shells (to use as cups) and iron rations in waterproof leather pouches. Several Pictish carved stones show individuals equipped for the hunt with boots, a hooded cloak, a crook or caman, and a pouch round their necks or held in their hands.
iomairg ‘plunder’.
iomairt ‘bustle’: one of a group of words deriving from the confusion and noise of a hunt.
iomall ‘borders’. As noted above, a border was a hunting preserve.
iom-fhorran ‘battle’: hunt. The second element is an FR ‘fire’ word.
losgann ‘drag, sledge’. There is a link, but not a very evident one, with loisg ‘burn, inflame, cause to burn’.
màrrach ‘enchanted castle, labyrinth, thicket to catch cattle in’: hunting trap. The enchanted castle became a popular theme in wonder tales.
màrsadh ‘marching of troops’. All military references link back to hunting.
mong ‘border, edge’: hunting forest where fires were lit.
mongach ‘red, fiery’.
mór-mhaor ‘great mayor’: master of hunting.
niach, niadh ‘champion, hero’. All heroic epithets originated in a hunting society. Farmers were seldom heroic.
nìth ‘slaughter, battle’: hunt.
oe ‘sheep’, as E. ewe, G. aodh ‘fire’. From European ‘sheep’ words it is clear that they were protected at night by fire. Hunters regarded them as an infernal nuisance.
orcain ‘murder, killing’; hence or ‘hunt’.
orn ‘slaughter’.
os, os-alluidh ‘elk, deer, stag’.
ràbair ‘wrangling’: hunting. E. robber was originally a hunter.
ràbal ‘noise, bustle’: a communal hunt or a cattle round-up. E. rabble.
seàrr ‘slaughter, massacre’.
seasdair ‘hunter’s cry’.
segh ‘moose, elk, wild ox; milk’. The elk and the wild ox were probably milked in the Palaeolithic.
seun ‘charm, incantation’. E. song, sing.
sgairt ‘war, outcry’.
sgal ‘man, hero, champion’.
sgal ‘scorching’.
sgann ‘herd, drove, swarm’.
sguich ‘booty, spoil, plunder’.
siosdan ‘hunter’s cry’.
sorch ‘pedestal’: a beacon stance. The extra height made for extra visibility.
sorcha ‘light.’ Linked by poets with dorcha ‘dark’, hence the dualism of many irrational schemes.
sorchan ‘fireplace of a still’.
spòld ‘piece of a joint of meat’. E. spoil.
spolt ‘to slaughter, butcher’. E. spoil.
spuinn ‘spoil, booty’: the proceeds of the hunt.
sracadh ‘robbing, plundering’: hunting. Hunters imagined they were stealing from the goddess.
suist ‘battle-field’: an ambush site in a deer forest.
tuir ‘pillar’; tuirean ‘troop’; tuireann ‘spark of fire; lightning’; tuiridh ‘pillar’. This suggests that a tower was originally a beacon site, artificially heightened, where a gathering beacon was lit.
ùir ‘fire, grave, body’.
ur ‘border, brink’: deer forest, hunting preserve.
ursainn ‘ranks of a battle’. This is the same word as E. urchin: a hedgehog looks like a small army bristling with spears.

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