Roger Smith reviews John Murray’s “attempt to recapture a poetry of place”.
In his introduction, John Murray says that this book (first published in 2014, and recently reissued) is “an attempt to recapture a poetry of place… given to landscape by generations of Gaels”. As such it is to be greatly welcomed.
We have all looked at maps of Highland Scotland and wondered about the names of hills, rivers and other features. For many people, myself included, this has led to an infinitely rewarding study of these names; and my hill outings have been made far more meaningful by uncovering even the most basic levels of Gaelic toponymy.
Murray goes much further, patiently unravelling what may in some cases be centuries of misnaming on maps, and looking at the roots and structure of not only the names we see today but also those that are generally hidden from view.
The main part of the book is divided into chapters dealing with hydrology, land use, the climate, and the cultural landscape. Each contains a thorough investigation of relevant place names with rigorous attention to detail. This reflects the approach taken by the original namers: the nuances and subtleties contained within the Gaelic words for colours, for example, open up whole new layers of meaning in the landscape.
Extensive tables list all the variant names while three carefully compiled indexes assist in cross-referencing, and to me the book sparkles with light as it uncovers more and more hidden gems of place-naming. Take water features for example: the little diagram on page 95 will do wonders in revealing the wholly logical system of naming streams and rivers, from the rushing allts and feiths of the uplands down to the broader abhainns.
The table in the above chapter has no fewer than 70 Gaelic words associated with water and hydrology; earlier on, a similar table for landforms has 40 examples. There’s a lifetime of discovery here.
John Murray rightly acknowledges the work done by other authors, including Peter Drummond, whose Scottish Hill Names is an outstanding piece of work. However, Murray’s book goes some way deeper into the way the landscape of Highland Scotland has been graced by beautiful topographical names. It is some kind of miracle that so many of them have survived, enabling authors like John Murray to present us with such an unending gift of resonance.
Reading the Gaelic Landscape, £18,99, is published by Whittles Publishing.