Eco-poetic Mapping

YES WE CA(LEDO)N, motto for TfL, Dundreggan


This is an eco-poetic mapping of Glen Moriston, Glen Garry, Lochaber, and adjacent airts composed by means of place-names. It initiates a series of collaborative projects in association with Trees for Life, as part of Rewilding the Highlands. The map, made in collaboration with the Gaelic place-name expert Peadar Morgan, and artist Hanna Tuulikki, is a reckoning of the terrain in which the centre at Dundreggan is set. In time the project will shift from mapping to wolving, as Richard Bracken and I devise on a new shelter-come-dwelling for human wolves at Dundreggan as part of Project Wolf, which aims to reduce the damage caused by grazing deer.

word-mntn (Creag a’ Mhadaidh, Wolfcrag)

It is in the nature of names that they are neither complete nor accurate in terms of the ecological record. For one thing, names are formed in different eras, and they evolve as communities change and languages evolve, or are supplanted – as with Shewglie, whose Scots contains a condensed Achadh an t-Seagail, Place of Rye (NH416297).

(Achadh an t-Seagail)

Creag a' Mhadaidh

Roe-deer Cairn
Càrn nan Earb

The names offer a description of the flora and fauna of a region, but it is an emphatically human record; as an index names identify favoured species, chosen because of hunting or agricultural practices, until these lead to exhaustion, or extinction, as with wolves, and the name becomes a memory.

Every culture has its totem species, defined by economic use or spiritual belief – the one shaping the other – and these can be read in its songs, poetry and place-names. Walter Benjamin describes names as a code that is embedded in the landscape, in a fragile equilibrium. The book of species is under threat of having pages torn out.

‘Isn’t every region governed by a unique confluence of plants and animals, and isn’t every local name a cipher behind which flora and fauna meet for the first and last time.’

Place-names are rendered in a language that may erode, or die.

Buttercups Rise
Leac nam Buidheag

Bullrush Loch                 
Loch na Cuilce

The map doesn’t include the most important landmarks – mountains and rivers – nor do the main towns feature – there’s no Urquhart or Fort William. It is a sampler, a starter survey, a work of translation, and an invitation for the reader to continue the work themselves with the aid of a dictionary and the historical records. The second post includes a detailed discussion of the names and their derivations.

Allt Coinneag, wild bee burn

These are the sources I consulted, comparing them to the OS name-books, which can be viewed on Scotland’s Places.

William Owen: Glenmoriston Places of Interest
Lachlan MacKinnon: Place-names of Lochaber
Edward C. Ellice: Place-names in Glengarry and Glenquoich and Their Origin
Place names of Stratherrick’, from the Appendix of Alan Lawson’s book A Country Called Stratherrick
Clan Cameron: Reference Guide

For any project such as this there are also amateur and professional websites that are invaluable.

Ordnance Survey 

Edmund Dwelly’s Gaelic Dictionary

Wilderness Tracking, Hanna Tuulikki

My collaborator, Hanna Tuulikki, will draw the map, adding the symbols for each species, reflecting her interest in tracking.

Rather than following the rectangular lines of standard cartography the map emphasizes the geological fault written in the long lochs of Glen Albyn, the Great Glen. The lochs allow the reader to locate the names on a standard map. Hanna and I debated including the river systems, but decided to let the names hold the floor. The reader can read them against OS maps, to see the contours and extent of tree cover.

The project will be published in stages, as I identify flora, fauna, and evidence of human dwelling. Of course, Dundreggan features, home to Trees for Life, whose Rewilding the Highlands the map contributes to.

 species column: BIRCH-PINE-JUNIPER

The English translations are my own, based on the listed sources, and with advice from an expert in Gaelic place-names, Peadar Morgan. My approach to translation differs from the old conventions. I have written about this in detail elsewhere, but it is worth repeating that the act of translation is making new, bringing meanings or images over into today’s English. Traditional translations are respectful of Gaelic word order, but I prefer to bring them over into English. The original translations are available in the sources listed above. As a non-Gaelic speaker I tend to think of my translations as versions, and my project is a counterpoint to the conservative – in the best sense of the word – tradition of place-name study. 

Some examples

Flitting Cairn
Càrn na h-Imrich

Ptarmigan Boss
Meall an Tarmachan

Sows Snout
Sròn na Muic

Tent Tump
Meall a' Phùbuill

What English word could carry the fly-by-night anxiety of flitting, for Càrn na h-imrich?

The range of Gaelic names for hill forms is broad for obvious reasons. I’ve never been happy with giving lump for meall, and John Murray suggests a range of alternatives in his primer, Reading the Gaelic Landscape, including boss – a large mass of rock – enjoyable to pun with.

Why do people translate sròn as nose? If this is a pig then the sticky-out bit of the hill is surely a snout? In Glenmoriston Sròn Muic, and Creag an Tuirc, Boar's Crag, may suggest a totemic presence. There are wild boar once again in Dundreggan; Trees for Life take advantage of their rooting and browsing which helps pine regeneration. Names can suggest which species should be reintroduced into a landscape, as with ash at Allt an Uinnsinn or cloudberry on the shores of Loch nan Oighrean

Another of John Murray’s suggestions for meall is tump. The kinship with tumulus is fitting for a name with human associations, and so I used it for my version of the hill of the shelter, booth, or tent, whether this was used as a temporary hunting lodge or stance for droving? There is a shieling by the Bealach Dearg in the Cairngorms called Allt Phouple, from the same derivation.

  word-mntn (Sròn na Muic)

For the poet some names are hard to resist and, while it has no significance in terms of species, I included this as a poem in its own right.

              Quiet Height
              Ard an t-Suaimhneis

The derivation is from the Irish Gaelic suan, sleep, slumber; perhaps this hill seems to dream, or maybe it is just out of the wind? Imagery comes from what we know and handle, as with the teat and the torrent.

Sheepmilking Rise Wood
Leacann Doire Bainnear

              Milky Loch
              Loch a’ Bhainne

Whey Loch
Loch a’ Mheag

November Birch, Trees for Life, Dundreggan

Meg Bateman has an essay from which I learnt that the Gaels classified trees and bushes into four categories: chieftain, peasant, herb, and shrub. George Calder lists them in his study of ogham, and they present an interesting challenge to our perceptions of the woodland.

The Chieftains


The Common-folk


The Shrubs

bird cherry
test tree
white hazel

The Herbs

bog myrtle

(Fir refers to pine, fir, and spruce; the test tree is the aspen, crainn-fhìr, the tree of ordeal.)

  The Nursery, Dundreggan

Trees for Life is a fitting location to puzzle away at a list like this, and compose a new one for the Republic of the Trees to come.


This project is an eco-poetic place-name mapping of Glen Moriston, Glen Garry, Lochaber, and neighbouring airts, conceived by Alec Finlay.

A map, drawn by Hanna Tuulikki, will identify over one hundred place-names that relate to flora, fauna, and evidence of human dwelling. The English translations of the names are by Alec Finlay. Original sources and historical translations are published in the blog posts.

A series of workshops, facilitated by Ken Cockburn, will be held in 2017 using the species mapping to explore rewilding and biodiversity from an eco-poetic perspective.

With thanks to Peadar Morgan for his guidance in terms of Gaelic Place-names. 

Alec and Richard Bracken are collaborating on a related project, designing and constructing a shelter for human wolves at Trees for Life, Dundreggan, as part of Project Wolf. This will be discussed in future posts.

All photographs on this blog are by Alec Finlay.


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