waternish point and some interesting gaelic names

Sat, Jul 12, 2008

Last Saturday, myself and Dawn went for a bimble along the path from Trumpan to Waternish point, in the north of Skye. The forecast was clag on the hills and a strong east wind so the low hills of Beinn a’Ghobhainn and Beinn Bhuidhe would shelter us from the icy blast. After 3 months without rain earlier in the summer, we’d have constant heavy rain for weeks but as we set off from the old chapel at Trumpan the sun was blazing down from a clear blue sky and we were treated to the sound of a Corncrake in the meadow on the right. A rare visitor to Skye, various crofting subsidies have helped maintain the bird’s habitat in the remoter places and it’s a wonderful sound to hear.

Dunvegan Head over Ardmore Bay

Not far along the path, there’s a cairn to the west of the path commemorating a clan battle between the Macleods and Macdonalds. I always read any Gaelic inscription first, as it’s often more expressive and if you’re ever at the Glenfinnan monument and you can read Gaelic, have a look at the inscription on the tower. It’s a lot more poetic than the English version.

From the cairn we headed over to the ruined sheiling and then up the hillside to Dun Borrafiach, an iron age broch with a well preserved southern wall. Dun means a fort and I think Borrafiach comes from Borr an Fhithich (swelling or lump of the Raven). I’ll plump for Raven as there is a Caisteal an Fhithich on the east coast of the peninsula, meaning the Raven’s Castle. Lump in this case might refer to the rise on which the fort stands.

Dun Borrafiach

There’s a faint track connecting Dun Borrafiach to Dun Gearymore which passes through an area of sheilings, some of them quite large but it’s best to keep slightly above the flat area of bog cotton and bog asphodel as it’s very, well, boggy! Dun Gearymore is less well preserved than Dun Borrafiach and I’d say Gearymore comes from Gearradh Mor, meaning big garden. The views from the forts are stunning though, with the blue Minch leading the eye to the distant hills of North Uist and Harris.

Dun Gearymore

From Dun Gearymore we headed back to the main path, a good landrover track and had a look at Unish, with its storm facing construction, gable end to the winds and projecting blocks around the house just below the roof line, where the roof would have been strapped down, as was down with the black houses. Lunch at Waternish Point watching the Gannets dive and soar round the lighthouse and the seals bask on the rocks. What a superb day to be out and about. As we approched the lighthouse Dawn thought she heard a dog whining and we expected to see someone round the other side but we were the only ones there. Eventually the sound came again, only stronger and it turned out to be a seal, singing on the rocks below. It would open its mouth into a funnel shape and sigh in a most haunting way. It was a beautiful sound to hear in such a remote place. There was a gathering of gulls on the rocks too, with one persistent character following the gannets about, waiting until one dived in with a soft plop and stream of bubbles and harry it to make it drop its catch, while just inland, a Bonxie sat on the grass, soaking up the rays no doubt but in no hurry to dive bomb us.

Seals at Waternish Point

There are sheep tracks you can follow from the point back along the cliffs and this is what we did as I wanted to have a look at a very interesting place marked on the map as Biod Sgiath Corra-Gribhich. This is a very specific placename indeed. Biod comes from Bioda, a pointed top, while Sgiath means a portion of land that juts into the sea and Corra-gribhich (Corra-grithich these days) means a Heron. So translated, it means “The pointed top that juts into the sea, where the Heron lives” and it looks just like that on the ground:

Biod Sgiath Corra-Gribhich

Corra-Gritheach is an interesting name in its own right. Corra is the Gaelic name for a Heron while Gritheach comes from Old Irish “grith”, meaning a scream. It’s an apt description if you’ve ever sat under a Heronry for while! While I was researching this I found an old Gaelic name for a Swan, Corra-ghrian, which means Sun Heron. Sounds beautiful.

I also got to thinking about the Isle of Skye itself. It’s normally called Eilean Sgiathanach (The Winged Isle) or Eilean a’Cheo (The Misty Isle, although this is less common and more touristy). Sgiathanach is the adjective form of Sgiath, which does also mean a wing but I wonder if, while sailing up or down the west coast, the sailers of long ago thought, “not another one of those long bits of land jutting into the sea getting in the way!”. I’ve always thought that to recognise something as winged, you’d have to be above or below it but coming to something on the level, so to speak, you’d either name it for what it looked like or how it affected you. Diomhain (useless) is a term used a lot in placenames for things like ridges that get in the way of travel. I wonder if those sailors (for sailing would have been the easiest form of transport then) meant the jutting out meaning of Sgiath when they came across Skye.

You can see all the pics here.

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