Gaelic plant names. Study of their uses and lore

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This paper is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the flora of the Highlands, but a study of the outstanding plants and trees known to the Gael for their several virtues—dietetic, medical, and magical. Naturally, therefore, some may be disappointed at a favourite plant or flower of theirg not being mentioned. I have given the Irish synonyms of the Gaelic names, and, where the resemblance is found, the Armoric ones. I shall, at the outset, describe the various parts of plants and trees and how they came to be so called. Beginning then with the root we have—

  1. Freumh. This is the general term. The word Bun is sometimes used, bi t relates rather to the underground stem or rhizome. Ex­amples:—A.s an fhreumh, from the root; eadar bhun is bhàrr, root and branch.

  2. The stem is variously designated in the case of herbs by cas, cuiseag (diminutive); of trees by stoc or bun.

(3) Flowers—Buds are boinnean, gucag -
gireag; blossom or bloom, plùr, plùran, guc,
barr-guc, blàth.

(4) The leaf is duille. More common, how-
ever, is its diminutive, duilleag; duilleagan,
leaves; collectively as cladding a tree, duill-
each; duilleagach, leafy.

Bileag is the diminutive of bile or bil, an edge, and generally applied to leaves of grass.

  1. The peel of a plant or tree is rusg.

  2. For the branch there are several terms :—

  1. Meangan, but its variant meanglan is commoner. Meangan Dhaibhidh, meangan fireanta (the branch of David, the righteous branch, respectively), are Bible terms for Messiah.

  2. Geug, which I think rather connotes the shape, or attachment, as the case may be :— " Thig geug a mach o fhreumh Iese," " A branch shall come out of the root of Jesse."

  3. We have also meur, which is used to denote the internal spring from the parent stem as the finger from the palm of the hand.

(7) For the fruit we have several interesting
terms :—

(a) The general term is meas. It is the same
word in Irish, but in common with other cog-
nate Celtic languages it was used in that
tongue at first for acorn. Thus measog is Ir.
for acorn; mesa, Early Irish for fruit; Welsh
mes, acorns; Cornish meson, glans; Bretonic
mesen, acorn. MacBain derives it from messu,
root from med and mad, to eat; Greek medomai,
to think of. It would seem to be akin to the
English word mast, Anglo-Saxon maest, the
fruit of the beech, etc.

(b) Then as to more definite terms we have
dearc, a berry; Irish same; Old Irish derc
(this word has nothing to do with dearc in
dearc-luachrach, where the root is really earc,
the d at the beginning belonging originally to
the article). The cranberry plant is named
after its berry, muiZeag, which means little
frog. Muilteag is probably a variant. Crow-
berry is eidhreag or oidhreag; cloudberry is
broidhleag. Caor, plural caoran, is the berry
of the mountain ash or fowler's service tree,
or rowan tree. MacBain derives it from or
identifies it with caor, a blaze, which will
naturally appeal as cogent to any one who has
feasted his eyes on a clump of rowan trees in
the month of August, with their branches
bending under their crowded umbels of coral-

red berries so beloved of the various ouzel "tribes.

(c) Another word for fruit was subh, sùbhag;
in the West Highlands and Islands pronounced
-jui'eag. It was at one time applied to the
mistletoe, sùbh-daraich, i.e., the fruit of the
■oak. It is now used only of the strawberry
and raspberry, viz., subh-làir and subh-chraobh
respectively — that is, in contradistinction
(owing to the resemblance of the two to each

other), earth-fruit and tree-fruit.

The bramble or blackberry is smeur or smiar, sometimes smeurag.

(d) The hawthorn berry or haw is sgeach
(Irish same); also sgiach; Early Irish see. A

variant is sgitheag. Compare Bible crùn sgitheach, crown of thorns. As a place-name

we have Altnasgiach, Hawthorn-burn.

  1. The hip of the rose is mucag, or plural ■mucan (short for mucagan), little pig. In Skye the hips are mucan-faileag.

  2. Ubhal or abhal is for apple. It was ap­plied in Gaelic to the fruit of the potato, just as in English the word plum is used.

  3. Such fruits as pods and other legumes are "known as cochul, a term that is also applied "to a husk or sac or ca.ul. Chaidh e a cochul a chridhe—He burst the caul of his heart.

(8) A most interesting field of investigation is the ways in which plants are designated and differentiated. The great majority are simply named by a term denoting some quality they possess. All such have similar or nearly similar names in Irish, and can be easily traced to Early Irish, while at the same time they show a family resemblance to the same in the other Celtic group of languages; nay more, a good many can be shown to be related to the cognate terms in the various Aryan tongues.

Again there are many names that are com­pound. The ordinary botanical classification ii sometimes followed by adding the specific to the generic name; thus, Giuthas geal, G. Lochlannach, white pine. Norway spruce, Feamainn, sea algae, gives F. bhuidhe, F. dubh, _F. dearg, F. bholgan—yellow, black, red, and drop tangles respectively. The peculiarity of a plant gives its name often, as Duilleag bhaite, Water-lily (literally the drowned leaf), and. still further differentiated in D. bhàite gheal and D. bhàite bhuidhe, white and yellow water-lily respectively.

So caor, blaze, gives cao.a dearg, rowan ber­ries; caora fitheag, crowberry; caora staoin, caora bad miann, caor thalmhainn. So also meacan, root or bulb, gives meacan each and meacan ruadh, horse parsnip and carrot respec­tively. Where genera include several species the one is made to precede the other; thus. Glunach, the polygonum or bistort, gives-G. uisge, G. dhearg, G. mòr, G. teth, etc.

Similarly Mionnt, mint, gives M. arbhair, wild mint; M. coille, wood sage, etc., etc.

We find again Plùr, flower, prefixed as more descriptive of certain flowers. Similarly peasair, pea, and pònair, bean, are prefixed before their various species.

The sime usage is followed in the case of Raineach, fern. B. nan creag, rock fern; B. cruaidh, hard fern (blechnum spicant); B. rioghal, royal fern; R. uaine, green spleenwort, and sr> on.

A great term in Gaelic plant nomenclature was praiseag, from the Irish praiseagh, broth, potherb, pottage, thus:—P. na mara, seakale; P. faidh, monk's rhubarb, and many others. MacBain derives it from Latin brassica, cab­bage, through Early Irish braiseach; cf. Welsh bresnch, cabbages. Cameron, on the other hand, in his Gaelic names of plants, derives it from vràiseati, which is the diminutive of pràis, a little pot, derived from Mid. Eng. bras, brass.

Càl, cabbage, was generically prefixed to several species :—Càl na mara, seakale; C. colbhairt, colewort; C. cearslach, drumhead; C. gruidheam, cauliflower.

But the word most commonly used as a dis­tinguishing nrefix (more rarely affix) was Lus. Thus L. caitheamh, woodruff; L. nan cnamh briste, comfrey; L. chosgadh na fola, yarrow; L. an t-siapuinn, soapwort; L. a chriibain, gentian; or to point a resemblance, e.g., L. na nathrach, viper's bugloss; L. na peighinn, pennywort; L. a chinn chriom, daffodil; or to JiSTiify original habitat, e.g., L. na Frainge, (French) tansy; L. na Spainnte (Spanish) ox-eye daisy; or its personal association, e.g., L. an rìgh, L. na banrigh, L. Phara-liath (Breadalbane term for groundsel, literally Grey Peter's plant).

Let me now go back to the first mode men­tioned of naming plants, viz., by some quality. This was done by such affixes as an (masc.) and ag (fern.), and ach or ch. The first two con­veyed also the sense of diminution. As ex­amples we have seangan, the least (yellow) clover; sgeallag (in some districts sgeallan), oharlock, probably from geal (the s euphonic), white.

Ach is very expressive. It may mean agency, e.g., darach, oak, the hard, unyielding one, from dor, dur, cf. dour; or more frequently it means abounding in, Gallanach, abounding in "butter-bur, or appertaining to, as in Bealaidh Frangach, Bealaidh Sasunnach, French and Knglish broom respectively. It may also signify a plant's distinguishing charac­teristic, as Aigheannach, (hearty) corn thistle; Aon-chasach, one-stemmed sea wrack; Beatha carraigeach, knotty birch; Barr-cluigeanach, "bell-flower; Cannach, cotton-gra«s: Miosach and Caolach lus, two names for cathartic flax; Cluaran deilgneach, spear-tliistle; Da-bhileach, twayblade orchis; An fhiodhagach (the woody one), birds' cherry; Seileach, willow; Gluin-each, the gneed one; Meangach, the branched one.; Babhagach, water-lily (the warning one, from its dangerous locale); Dromanach, the common elder; Sobhrach (also Sobhroichean (plural), primrose.

The chief food plants are :—

(1) Cereals, such as oats, core, It. coirce, Mid Ir. corca (which is still the colloquial form on the West Coast and Islands), Welsh ceire, Bret, kerc'h, Lat. ceres (cereal). This may be said to be the national cereal of Scot­land, especially in the form of porridge. It was much more so two centuries ago. John­son, in his bias against Scotland, defined in. his dictionary oats as the food of horses in England, and of men in Scotland, which called forth Lord Jeffrey's retort, " And where will you find such horses and such men?" When the famous Edinburgh Review wa^ started a century and a half ago, its founders chose as its motto, Incolunvus litteras parvo-avenae—" We cultivate literature on a pickle-oatmeal." '

The primitive mode of preparing oats for food is not so very long extinct. I well re­member seeing the quern or hand-mill at work. In my early days people occasionally might be-compelled to resort to the wasteful method of gradanadh (from grad, quick, sudden), when a. sheaf would be held over a flame, and the grain-thus parched was winnowed and then directly ground in the quern. Our forefathers largely) subsisted on this grain in various forms of preparation—e.g., porridge, lite, or brochan. Brochan, however, might be of several consist­encies, thus:—Brochan tiugh (thick), and brochan tana (thin porridge); gruel was sifted brochan mixed with milk, butter, and salt, and known as seasan. Oatcake was bonnach (alsoi bannag) or araji. A hired hand would think it beneath him to accept aran eorna (barley cake) as his food. " Cumte 'n t-aran rium fhad 's is earrach e "—" Feed me on oatcake during the spring."

Eorna, barley, probably connected with-.j Latin hordeum. Some see a resemblance in i Lat. horreo, to bristle, from the beard of the-cereal. This is less widely grown in Oaeldom than the preceding. It is cropped chiefly for distilling purposes. Our ancestors used it for­tius purpose, whisky being termed by the noets* as ilfac na braiche (son of the malt), Subh an eorna (barley-bree). As a food grain it isl cultivated in the Outer Hebrides and north­west Sutherland more than elsewhere in the Highlands because it is better adapted to the light soil there than the ordinary oats. In-Uist it is very much so. The isle is poetically-known as Uist an Eorna. The only oats thata succeeds there is the thin, snndy kind.

Cruithneachd or cruineachd, wheat, Ir. cruithneachd, O.Ir. cruithnecht. It also has been compared to Lat. ceres (Eng. cereal), Lat. creo and cresco.

Cameron connects the word with the " Cruithne," a tribe or tribes who, tradition­ally, came from Lochlin to Erin and thence to Albin, where they founded a kingdom which lasted down till the seventh century. Natur­ally Cameron does not identify the Cruithne with the Picts of Roman writers, seeing that Skene and others who made the discovery wrote their works later. Of course the resemblance is a mere coincidence. Cruithneachd was not cropped in Scotland north of the Forth till comparatively recent times; hence the hardly any traces of it in Gaelic place-names, the only place-name that would seem to be associated with it beinsr Airidh-nan-Cruithneach (in Applecross), which, however, is not " the shiel­ing of the wheat," bait " the shieling of the Cruithneach or Picts," seeing that nan, " of the," is used only of collective or plural no\ms.

Seagal, same in Ir., rye, Mid. Ir. secul, from ■Lat. secale, Breton segal. " An cruithneachd agus an seagal." " Nach cuir e 'n cruithn­eachd anns an ait' a's fearr, agus an t-eorna anns an ionad shuidhichte, agus an seagal 'na. chrich fein?" (Isaiah xxviii. 25). This erain was but sparely cultivated in the Highlands, and then only but of recent years, after it was discovered to crop heavily after potatoes. It has never appealed, however, as an article of food on account of its coarse taste and com­paratively small nutrient value.

(2) Of root plants we naturally give the premier place to the potato, which, like the Gaelic buntàta (and indeed all European forms of the word), is from the Spanish batata. This, in turn, must be from some S. American dialect, seeing that the tuber was introduced by the Spaniards from Chile. Sir John Mac-grcgor has humorously derived its Gaelic name from bun-taghte, choice root. The potato belongs to the e-reat family Solanàceai, which include some 1000 species of herbaceous plants and shrubs, and which are found distributed over most parts of the world except the coldest, and are most abundant within the Tropics. The prevailing property of its members is narcotic, hence many of them are highly poisonous. In others certain parts of the plant have poisonous properties, the rest of it being harmless, and some even containing a large quantity of nutritious matter. The genus Solatium, to which our tuber belongs, contains species of either of the foregoing description. Por while it includes the Woody Nightshade or Bitter-sweet and Black Nightshade (Sol. dulcamara and Sol. nigrum respectively), both dangerously narcotic in all its parts, it con­tains the Potato (Solanum tuberosum), which, though its leaves and fruit are narcotic, in its tubers has nothing noxious, but abounds in a:i almost tasteless starch; on which account it is less liable to clog on the ipalate than any other vegetable food except bread. " It was introduced into Spain between 1580 and 1585, and into Ireland by Thomas Heriott, who brought it from Virginia in 1586, when Sir Walter Raleigh planted it on his estate at Youghal, Co. Cork. It was cultivated in the Emerald Isle for food long before its value was known in England. The first mention we have of it there is by John Gerard, the famous herbalist, who grew it in his garden prior to 1597, the year in which his Herbal was pub­lished. The frontispiece of thig book repre­sents the author holding a flowering branch of the potato. It was nearly two hundred years after, before the plant was known in Scotland : a fact which, as we think of the V'lace it has made for itself as an article of food, makes us wonder what our forefathers previous to that time did without it." But of course they could not miss what they did not know.

The next root food in order of importance is the turnip, sneap (cf. " neep "). tuimeap. from tlie English, and swede, sneap shuaineach. These, while used for the table, are mainly grown for cattle and sheep, which soon condi­tion well on them. Rape is also srrown for stock-feeding. All three belong botanically to the same genus (Brassica) as the various forms of cabbages, the difference being that the one set developed, through cultivation, more in the root, and the other in the leaves.

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