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" The songs of our ancestors

are also the songs of our children "

The Druid Way


March 12th, 2015

A fabulous article by nature and travel writer Robert Macfarlane about his latest book Landmarks  – an exploration of the intimate connection between language and landscape…

The Word-Hoard: Robert Macfarlane on Rewilding our Language of Landscape

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

LandmarksThe “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.dew sparkle

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing…to read the whole article click here.

3 Responses to “Landmarks”

  1. Ahh Lovely! Thanks so much for sharing this on your blog. It is such delightful reading in itself; poetic and very thought-provoking — I really wanted to somehow share it with all our druidic kindred spirits!:-) Some of the older words and phrases seem to give me a sense of how much more intimately less industrialized peoples related to their natural native landscapes than many, perhaps most people seem to do today. I wonder if part of the problem is that so few people bother to walk places anymore, and also that people are so competitively goal-driven, and in such a constant rush. One cannot even notice, much less get to know the details and nuances of landscape and weather without allowing oneself to really BE in it and part of it frequently, and preferably at walking pace with time to dally and muse. Even in rural environments, and on farms these days, the competitive ( I can’t help but see it as Fomorian) business aspect fuels a state of incessant bustle and rush. And jeeps, ATVs, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles rather than shank’s mare are the preferred way to get from one field to another. These conveyances are very speedy, and their noise and stink effectively block the senses from appreciating natural features, (or even fresh air!) I feel that our modern culture seems to be losing the wonderful gift of being able to value where we are right here and now — to learn to enjoy the journey. The descriptors MacFarlane records have a magic of their own. They can give us a glimpse of the world through the eyes of our ancestors who lived in a quieter time, and perhaps can act like a lens to help direct and focus our own perceptions into the natural world that at all times surrounds us and that we are part of. 🙂

  2. So the word ‘acorn’ is no longer relevant to a modern childhood? How sad, how wrong. I’ll be joining the campaign to reinstate ‘acorn’ and other iconic nature-based words to the Oxford Children’s Dictionary. I overheard someone discussing the same issue in a shop yesterday. So thanks to Robert and you for bringing this to a wider audience.

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