For Black Wood of Rannoch Workshop, Macdonald Hotel, Kinloch Rannoch, 22 November 2013.


Alphabet / Colour / Gaidhealtachd: An Ecology of Mind[1]

Murdo Macdonald



When I was thinking about what to present at the Black Wood of Rannoch Workshop, the last thing I was considering was a formal paper, but I suddenly realised that one of the most relevant things I could do was to revisit some writing to do with the Gaelic alphabet.[2]

The whole notion of ‘ecology of mind’ – which complements the notion of ‘cultural ecology’ seems very relevant to this event. It derives from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s work in the 1960s and 70s. For me, such a notion is fundamental to any appreciation of Highland landscape because of the profound way in which the Gaelic language is informed by that landscape, and in turn informs our view of it.

A central example of this interpenetration of landscape and language is the way that trees and related plants give ecological substance to the Gaelic alphabet. My own thinking about this aspect of Gaelic was stimulated by visits to the studio of the artist Donald Urquhart, who has created a remarkable set of drawn responses to that alphabet.[3]

It is usually claimed that the letters of the Gaelic alphabet correspond to, or are represented by, different kinds of tree. That is not quite true. They are in fact represented by different types of woody-stemmed plant. Here they are as they appear in Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic-English dictionary:

A:Ailm – Elm; B:Beith – Birch; C:Coll – Hazel; D:Dair – Oak; E:Eadha – Aspen; F:Fèarn- Alder; G:Gort – Ivy; H:Uath – Hawthorn; I:Iogh – Yew; L:Luis – Quicken Tree; M:Muin – Vine; N:Nuin – Ash; O:Onn – Gorse; P:Peithe – no plant assigned by Dwelly; R:Ruis – Elder; S:Suil – Willow; T:Teine – no plant assigned by Dwelly. U:Ur – Yew tree.

So for Dwelly there are two unassigned letters and two yew trees. This raises interesting issues, which I will not take further here except to note some insights from James MacKillop with respect to the old Ogham Gaelic alphabet of Ireland.[4] While he is broad agreement with Dwelly, there are a number of interesting differences. For example, ‘Ailm’ for MacKillop is represented by pine not elm, and that may be of particular interest in terms of old Caledonian woodland. He also notes that ‘p’ is a late addition to the alphabet via Latin and that its plant is ‘a tree or bush with edible berries’. ‘Teine’ has no plant assigned by Dwelly, but Mckillop calls it ‘tinne’ which in the ogham alphabet is represented by holly;[5] ‘Ur’ to which Dwelly assign the Yew tree, is assigned Blackthorn by MacKillop.

The questions I ask myself are these: what is – or was – the landscape distribution of these plants? Can the alphabet be thought of as, in its own right, a commentary on landscape? Were there local alphabets for different environments? If we just take the species Dwelly notes, we have: Elm, Birch, Hazel, Oak, Aspen, Alder, Ivy, Hawthorn, Yew, Rowan (Quicken Tree), Vine, Ash, Gorse, Elder, and Willow. This list could be broken down in various ways, for example as, first of all, a group of wood providers: Elm, Birch, Oak, Ash, Alder, Willow and Yew. If you like, those can be complemented by nut, berry, fruit and medicine providers: Hazel, Rowan, Willow, Vine, Ivy, Hawthorne and Elder. And, again, by watercourse markers: Alder and Willow; and then a tree of free space: Aspen, a wayside tree: Hawthorn, and a solitary climber: Ivy. At a higher altitude or further from cultivation are the plants that mark out mountain and moorland: Gorse, and Rowan. It is interesting to note that even this very provisional classification yields a sense of the textures of landscape.

So this is an ecologically informative grouping of plants, a selection of species that reflect the types and indeed the levels of the landscape. It is worth pointing out that one of the most famous poems or songs (there is really no distinction in this case) is Duncan Bàn MacIntyre’s ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’, and that that poem, written in about 1760, describes in detail the ecology of a place, Ben Dorain, close to MacIntyre’s birthplace.[6] It should also be noted that this ecology extends, for MacIntyre, to sound, for the structure of the poem is the structure of piobroch, the great music (ceol mòr) of the Highland bagpipe, a music made for an instrument designed to be heard in the landscape.

Duncan Bàn McIntyre was born at Druim Liaghart above Allt Tolaghan, about a mile west of Loch Tulla on the lowest level of Rannoch Moor. He is often described as the Bard of Glen Orchy and he is routinely described as having been born in Glen Orchy. But the former description does not do justice to his range of influences in and around the Rannoch Moor area and the latter description is wrong. The remains of the house of his birth, childhood and youth – now marked by a simple memorial cairn with an inscription in Gaelic – can still be seen at Druim Liaghart. The house is close to the route which links across to Loch Etive via Glen Kinglass. It is also within half a mile or so of the then new military road to Glencoe, which now forms part of the West Highland Way. People sometimes wonder about Duncan Bàn’s love for Ben Dorain, the subject of his most famous song. By the standards of the Highlands it is not, to the driver on the A82, the most beautiful of mountains. What can be forgotten is that when he refers to Ben Dorain, Duncan Bàn is referring to a hill covered on its lower slopes in the varied woodland of the old Caledonian forest, not a cone of grass stripped bare by sheep. He is also referring to the mountain above which the sun rose to illuminate the place of his youth. To a poet what could be more magical than that ridge? We can still begin to see Ben Dorain with Duncan Bàn’s eyes if we just remember where he spent his childhood.

Duncan Bàn was himself illiterate but that simply serves to illustrate the deep ecological potentials of the Gaelic language, whether considered through the oral tradition of Duncan Bàn, or through the foundation of literacy, the alphabet. For example one can imagine the pioneering ecologist Patrick Geddes using the Gaelic alphabet to demonstrate the different altitudes and possibilities of habitat in his Valley Section. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Geddes, a pioneer of vegetation mapping and one of the founders of modern ecology, had a Gaelic speaking father.

A puzzle is the presence of the vine in the Gaelic alphabet. Does this simply underline the fact that what we are looking at here is a human ecology, in which nature balances culture? One might see it as a Christian symbol but, as John MacInnes notes, wine was considered – from the perspective of the Gael – to be a distinguishing feature of the Gael when compared with the Lowlander. That is to say: the vine seems to have had a fundamental importance to the identity of the Gael. MacInnes writes of this stereotype of the Gael from within the Gàidhealtachd, as follows:

‘The Gaelic warrior wears the distinctive tartan plaid; the Lowlander wears hodden grey breeches, black cloak and hat. The Gael drinks wine and fights with sword or bow-and-arrow; the Lowlander uses a gun. The Gael eats venison, beef and pork; the Lowlander subsists on kail.’[7]

Thus wine-drinking is seen as a very positive part of Highland Gaelic identity, associated with wearing tartan and eating well. But in order to be part of that identity, it of course also implies the importance of international trade, another significant identity marker for most cultures.[8] However in some versions of the Gaelic alphabet, ‘Bramble’ an other sinuous plant, is substituted for ‘Vine’.

The more one thinks about these different plants, their different habitats and their different functions with respect to human culture and perception, the more intriguing an ecological interpretation of the Gaelic alphabet becomes. An appreciation of landscape seems to be fundamental to an understanding of the alphabet.

Such landscape awareness also seems to be at the heart of understanding Gaelic colour words for these colour words seem to depend on the landscape knowledge of speaker and listener, rather than on a specific hue open to definition within the electromagnetic spectrum. This can be illuminated by considering the differences in the meaning of colour words in Gaelic as opposed to English. I should note that I am a Gaelic learner, not a native speaker, not even remotely fluent, so my comments should be taken with that in mind. Furthermore this paper as very much work in progress, open to correction and clarification. An interesting question is whether the speaking of Gaelic influences visual perception, particularly with respect to the making of art. For example one might ask oneself whether the great 19th century artist William McTaggart was more inclined to paint in this way or that way, because of his native language. At the very least it is interesting to note that McTaggart was a Gaelic speaker, for he was the artist who did more than any other to open up the possibilities of colour in the depiction of Scottish landscape and by so doing to created the conditions for modern art in Scotland. Did his linguistic heritage make it easier for him to ignore what might be considered the Anglo-centric norms of the time?

Thinking about the relationship between art and language – even if one’s conclusion is usually just another speculation – is always interesting. What is clear, however – and this may well be relevant to McTaggart’s work – is that where in English colour words tend to at least imply an experience of specific hue, in Gaelic colour words tend to address a phenomenology of colour. Developing this point, Hugh Cheape has pointed out with respect to Gaelic and English that ‘the development of colour terms is different or uneven’ in the two languages. He goes on to note that ‘apparent discrepancies or contradictions in the use of colour epithets may not be evident in translation from Gaelic to English, unless the translator is conversant with or fluent in Gaelic.’[9]

The underlying point here is that colour meaning is specific in English in a way that it simply is not in Gaelic. For example, it would probably be true to say that the English word ‘blue’ would almost always be translatable by the Gaelic word ‘gorm’ (as in Cairn Gorm), however the Gaelic word ‘gorm’ is by no means always translatable by the English word blue.[10] The asymmetry results from colour words functioning differently in the two languages. So, in most Scottish Gaelic dialects, ‘gorm’, for example, refers to a widely defined – but landscape appropriate – set of blues and greens changing with time of day. So perhaps this aspect of Gaelic language does indeed tend to a more integrated and responsive view of landscape, a more culturally ecological view, that fits in with the widely adumbrated notion that early Celtic poetry, rather like Japanese poetry, is very responsive to nature. And perhaps not just responsive to nature, but able to deal with nature in a more holistic way, a way that we might truly call ecological. The point being that these colour words tend to be holistic rather than discrete descriptions. One might say that these colour words tend to reflect the general colour properties of a place rather than a precisely defined aspect of a place. That is to say they are as much about place as about colour.

When thinking of McTaggart’s art here the notion of human ecology also becomes relevant for if we study McTaggart’s work he not only creates for us an extensive colour field that refers to environment but also an extensive social field that refers to community. The point is that these Gaelic colour words tend to open up one’s environmental perceptions rather than closing them down. It has often been noted that McTaggart differs from French contemporaries like Monet in that an explicit interest in community is almost always a consideration for him. He is thus as much a painter of the social environment as he is of the geographical environment, so – whether one can connect his perception directly with Gaelic colour words, or not – the phrases ‘human ecological’ and ‘cultural ecological’ do indeed seem appropriate.

And with respect to this interplay of human beings and environment, it is worth noting that in Scotland we tend to translate the word ‘Gàidhealtachd’ as ‘Highland’ and vice versa. They do not mean the same thing at all, but in terms of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd there is at least a reasonable geographical approximation that allows these quite different terms to pretend to approximate to one another.[11] But already we are in an area where users of English discover themselves using a geographical term, what the geologist James Geikie brilliantly described as ‘earth sculpture’, while users of Gaelic find themselves defined by a language and a people living, that is to say a cultural-ecological term.[12] But which is the more adequate definition of a place? The sculpting of the earth or the language of place that sculpts the interior landscape? They are interdependent of course. In terms of the visualisation of landscape, for those who, like myself, have lost Gaelic some generations back, beginning to consider the language again is a reminder of how English can restrict our vision.

The difficulty is that English, or at least the current, post-Enlightenment, use of it, gives the impression that something like objectivity is always attainable and indeed desriable. This impression is interpenetrated by the development of science over the last four centuries, which now finds in English, or rather in American English, its great linguistic representative. That is, of course, both an advantage and a limitation. For example, we know, or think we know, for sure, what a colour is in English. ‘Red’ is immediately tied into its position on the spectrum or painted on the pillar box. Now any artist or writer will immediately be saying ‘but, but, but …’ and of course that right. It isn’t quite as simple as that even in English. By my point is that English tends to push things towards easy definition, an insistence that in the end an exact definition will be appropraite, in a way that is not, perhaps, conducive to the sculpting of our interior landscape.

Writing in The West Highland Free Press, Ronald Black (Raghnall MacilleDhuibh), has drawn attention not only to colour words, but to another class of visually related words, words which link through shape and texture. He writes: ‘In my days as a teacher of Gaelic literature my students were often baffled by the variety of meanings provided by Dwelly for a given word.[13] I used to say: “Don’t just pick a meaning at random. Look at all the meanings and try to make a picture in your head of what they have in common. Everything called a crann will be pole-shaped. Everything called a cliath will be grid-shaped. Everything called a cròic, will be like the ice-cream in your cone before it begins to melt.’[14]

Derrick McClure notes that ‘this phenomenon cannot be explained by a suggestion that Gaelic has a small vocabulary so that a given word has to stand for a large number of concepts … on the contrary, Gaelic has a very extensive vocabulary; and the shifting and variable meaning of the words appears to be simply a feature of the language itself.’[15]

As we have seen, such flexibility applies also to colour. Ronald Black’s piece begins it with a discourse on the colour word glas, as explored in a song of return and misperception recorded by Lord Archibald Campbell. Black writes that the song is a discourse on glas, ‘which as Lord Archibald points out (he was a Gaelic speaker himself) “has no exact equivalent in English. It signifies certain types of grey, vegetable green, and sallowness of complexion.” My translation’ continues Black, ‘is based on his, but where he has “grey” I’ve preferred “sallow”.’

So already we have the notion not just of greyishness, but of a washed out sort of grey green sallowness. But the point, for me at least, is that every occurrence of the word in the song gives it a difference. So glas is not a colour word used to define a colour with precision. Its precision is as a word used to link a set of visual experiences for glas is used in a number of unsaturated colour environments. Indeed it could be argued that the nearest English equivalent to glas, is not ‘grey’ at all, but ‘less saturated’. That is to say tending to black and white, but with colour still evident. Close in many instances to the ‘sallow’ that Black suggests as an English equivalent.

A few years ago I took a picture of peat cuttings in Lewis in low light. The picture has an almost monochrome quality. As a Gaelic learner I would hesitate to describe it as glas without more advice, but I think it does reflect something of the unsaturated, sallow, sort of experience to which glas refers.

Here is some of Black’s translation of the song:

Sallow’s the young corn, sallow’s the grass,

Sallow’s the forest beneath her black gloom

Sallow’s the tuft at the top of the tree,

And, in my opinion, sallow’s the holly.[16]


At the conclusion of his translation Black notes that ‘this is as good a list as you’ll find anywhere of things on dry land which can be glas, with the possible exception of holly – note [the songwriter’s comment ar leam fhéin,] “in my opinion”, on that one, because most people would consider the deep green of holly leaves to be gorm.’

Meg Bateman has observed that this line may be intended by the singer to indicate that he is not what he seems, i.e. is not the ‘glas’ fellow perceived by his former betrothed, thus signaling to her his true identity.[17] In the remainder of these usages glas evokes an experience of place and time of day and season. The word does not define what our experience is, it requires us to draw on our experience in order to properly interpret it. This is hard for us to express in English colour words, yet easy to understand. And here I return to art, for this understanding of Gaelic colour word use is, I think, particularly easy for the painter.

 I still ask myself whether, as a native Gaelic speaker, William McTaggart was more inclined to paint in this or that way, but what I am beginning to understand also is the power of approaching the question the other way around. The point is that if, as an artist, you have truly engaged with the Highland landscape, it may be that you would be well advised to learn Gaelic so that you can describe what you have done. I am thinking of one painter in particular, Jon Schueler. I do not know if he had much – or indeed any – Gaelic for he came from New York to live near Mallaig. But so many of Jon Schueler’s Highland paintings are, to my mind, glas.[18] This is the word that best describes them. I suppose you could call them in English ‘composed of subtle tones of shifting grey inspired by Highland light and landscape’ …. But calling them glas is, ar leam fhéin, quicker and more to the point.[19]

All this can give us a different perspective on, for example, the common use of colour words in Gaelic hill names, for the use of these words doesn’t so much specify a colour as a landscape perceived through colour and light. It is interesting to note the substantial attention given to Gaelic colour terms by Peter Drummond in his book Scottish Hill Names.[20] He discusses the following colour and texture words in some detail: ruadh, dearg, liath, buidhe, breac, odhar, riabhach, uaine, glas, gorm, bàn, fionn, geal, dubh, donn.[21] Each of these occurs in hill names and all are words that evoke qualities of place. And that is the point: Gaelic colour words are not intended to be abstracted from the situation – one might again say from the ecology – to which they refer. But what can we take from this? The main point is the obvious one, namely that colour, as we perceive it, is a complex phenomenon linking us into the world not only through wavelength but through our own context-dependent perception. Gaelic enables us to communicate this relational complexity. Furthermore it reminds us that from a human point of view, issues of saturation and light level are just as important as issues of hue. Gaelic arrives at the word ‘glas’ through saturation and light level. English arrives at the word ‘grey’ through combination of hue. These two approaches are markedly different.[22] One might say that where English makes salient the exploration of abstract notions, Gaelic makes salient the exploration of being in the world.

To use another phrase from Gregory Bateson, ‘mind and nature’, what I have argued here is that, whether one looks at the Gaelic alphabet with its botanical references, or the landscape subtlety of Gaelic colour words, the Gaelic language facilitates the understanding of ‘mind and nature’ as integral to one another.





[1] My thinking in this paper has its immediate origin in a research project, Window to the West: Towards a Redefinition of the Visual within Gaelic Scotland, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which was a collaboration between the Visual Research Centre at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College in the Isle of Skye.

[2] An earlier version of this paper was presented to the University Of Dundee, Culture & Arts Forum Event, Come To Your Senses, 5 November 2008, under the title ‘Seeing Colour in the Gàidhealtachd’. A short version was given to the annual conference of the Scottish Word and Image Group, held at the University of Dundee, 30 June -1 July 2009. A more extended version was presented to the Revisioning the Highlands symposium at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye, on September 3 2009. A related published version is ‘Seeing Colour In The Gàidhealtachd: An Ecology of Mind?’ which appeared in Scottish Affairs, no. 73, autumn 2010. The present text (2013) refines, adds to, and significantly reorganizes that text.


[3] Donald Urquhart’s print series was first shown, in an art gallery context, as part of his exhibition Abidil is Nòtan eile bhon Fhearan / An Alphabet and Other Notes from the Landscape, at An Lanntair in Stornoway in May 2009. The original drawing were commissioned for Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow.

[4] See entries for individual letters in MacKillop, J., 1998, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Note that The Book of the Club of True Highlanders / Leabhar Comunn nan Fion Ghael, 1881, links ‘broom’ with Oir and ‘whin’ with Teine.

[6] See, for example, Alan Riach’s 2012 translation into English, Praise of Ben Dorain (Newtyle: Kettalonia, 2013), which also contains the original Gaelic text, as dictated by Duncan Bàn MacIntyre.

[7] MacInnes, J., 1989, ‘The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands’, in William Gillies, ed., Gaelic and Scotland /Alba agus a’ Ghàidhlig, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 89-100; 94. (Reprinted in John MacInnes, ed. Newton, M., 2006, Dùthchas Nan Gaidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes, Edinburgh: Birlinn).

[8] John MacInnes has also noted that the letter ‘I’ which is represented by ‘Iogh’ a word normally translated into English by ‘yew’, may have a more general significance of ‘sacred tree’. [John MacInnes, personal communication, at Donald Urquhart’s studio, Edinburgh, 23 January 2009]. That suggests another cultural dimension of this landscape alphabet.

[9]A’ lasadh le càrnaid: Rhyme and reason in perceptions of tartan’, Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History, Vol. 18, 2008-9; 33-38.

[10] Note also that in some dialects, such as that of South Uist, ‘gorm’ is not even used for light blue, the word used is ‘liath’.

[11] For the definitive discussion of this point see John MacInnes, 1989, ‘The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands’, in William Gillies, ed., Gaelic in Scotland – agus a’ Ghàidhlig, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 89-100; 90. (Reprinted in John Macinnes, ed. Michael Newton, 2006, Dùthchas Nan Gaidheal: Selected Essays of John Macinnes, Edinburgh: Birlinn).

[12] James Geikie, 1898, Earth Sculpture, London: John Murray.

[13] Dwelly, E., The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, Glasgow: Gairm, 1977. First issued in parts from 1901-1911.

[14] MacilleDhuibh., R., 2008, ‘The Epitome of a Colour’, West Highland Free Press, 9 May, 2008.

[15] McClure, J., 1990, ‘Douglas Young and Sorley MacLean’ in Gaelic and Scots in Harmony, edited by Derick S. Thomson, Glasgow: Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow.

[16] Se labhair i, le còmhradh borb, / What she declared, with wild speech / Gun robh mi ’m chorra-ghille glas / Was that I was an odd, sallow lad. / Is glas am fochann, is glas am feur, / Sallow’s the young corn, sallow’s the grass, / Is glas a’ choill fo a duibhneul / Sallow’s the forest beneath her black gloom / Is glas an dos tha ’m bàrr a’ chroinn, / Sallow’s the tuft at the top of the tree, / ’S ar leam fhèin gur glas an cuileann. / And, in my opinion, sallow’s the holly.     etc.

[17] Personal communication. My particular thanks to Meg Bateman for commenting on this paper.

[18] For an introduction to Schueler’s work see, e.g., Norland , G., & Ingleby, R., 2002, John Schueler: To the North, London: Merrell.

[19] My thanks to Ronald Black for taking the trouble to read an early version of this piece. This helped me to avoid a number of errors.

[20] Drummond, P., 2007, Scottish Hill Names: Their Origin and Meaning, Scottish Mountaineering Trust.

[21] My thanks to Arthur Watson for drawing these passages to my attention.

[22] For discussion of how English acts as dominant cultural code which leads to the destruction of Gaelic colour words in favour of English models, see Macdonald, S., 1997, Reimagining Culture: Histories, Identities and the Gaelic Renaissance, Oxford: Berg; 249-50. My thanks to James Oliver for reminding me of this passage.