The Seashore Through Gaelic Eyes

Cho fad ’s a bhios muir a’ bualadh ri lic

‘as long as sea beats on stone’.

A Gaelic expression of eternity.

Like all the peoples of Atlantic Europe from prehistoric times to today, the Gaels of Scotland had, and still have, a close relationship to the seashore. In earlier times, at the end of winter, when food supplies were growing thin and the domestic stock animals were in poor condition, the shore provided a bounty of food. This is remembered in the proverb San earrach, nuair a bhios a’ chaora caol, bidh am maorach reamhar ‘in Spring, when the sheep are lean, the shellfish are fat’. In times of famine, and for families deprived of their homes in the infamous Clearances, the Highland seashore often kept starvation at bay.

Birds take advantage of the reothart ‘spring tides’ when there is a very large shore exposed at low tide. This is most notable in March with reothart mòr nan eun ‘the big tides of the birds’ – also a good time of year for humans to forage for toradh na mara ‘the bounty of the sea’. Faochagan ‘winkles’ (the common periwinkle) are plentiful in Winter and Spring, a fact that is recognised in the proverb Is gann an t-earrach anns an cunntar na faochagan ‘scarce is the Spring when the winkles can be counted’. They are famously abundant in southern Skye where the native MacKinnon clan are known colloquially as Na Faochagan ‘the winkles’.


Both winkles and bàirnich ‘limpets’ are often made into a broth, and were traditionally considered to increase milk production in nursing mothers. Limpets are reckoned to be superior food to winkles after Latha Fèill Pàdraig ‘St Patrick’s day’, and they are much admired for the strength of their attachment to rocks. Grèim na bàirnich ‘the grip of the limpet’ is descriptive of great strength. Another shellfish much used and admired is the feusgan ‘common mussel’. It is named in places like Ardaneaskan (Àird an Fheusgain ‘mussel promontory’) near Lochcarron and Òb nam Feusgan ‘mussel bay’ on the isle of Rona.


The interaction of the languages of northern and western Scotland are in evidence on the shoreline. For example, the Gaelic farspag ‘black-backed gull’ (both species) originated in Old Norse svart-bakr ‘black-back’. Sgarbh ‘cormorant’ is also of Norse origin. The Scots partan ‘crab’, commonly used in the Doric of the North-East (and well known in partan bree, crab soup) is from the Gaelic partan ‘shore crab’. English dulse (an edible seaweed) originated in the Gaelic duileasg.


The coilleag ‘common cockle’ (also known as the srùban) and the muirsgian ‘razor shell’ are two species commonly harvested for food on the sandy and muddy shores of the Highlands. While the origins of some of the Gaelic names for shellfish are ancient and unclear, muirsgian is obvious; it is muir-sgian ‘sea-knife’, a description of its long narrow shape and sharp-edged shells. The slige ‘shell’ of this dà-mhogalach ‘bivalve’ has an opening at both ends, hence the saying feumaidh beul muirsgein a bhith air an sporan ‘the purse needs the mouth of a razor fish’, regarding a situation where prices are so high that a double opening to one’s wallet appears a necessity! The slight depression in sand that indicates the presence of a burrowed muirsgian is called a sùil ‘eye’. Another species that leaves a sùil is the luga ‘lugworm’ (a marine annelid, not a mollusc); this species is commonly used as fishing bait.

The general Gaelic word for mollusc is maorach – a word seen in place-names like Camas a’ Mhaoraich ‘shellfish bay’ at the mouth of Loch Broom. Perhaps the best known of our seashore proverbs is dèan maorach fhad ’s a tha tràigh ann ‘collect shellfish when the tide is out’. This is an equivalent to the English proverb ‘strike when the iron is hot’ ie do something at the appropriate time.

Feamainn – Seaweeds

Cairgean earraich, duileasg samhraidh, gruaigean foghair, stamh geamhraidh ‘carragheen of spring, dulse of summer, badderlocks of autumn, tangle of winter’. A Gaelic commentary on edible seaweeds and when best to harvest them.

The seashore is a bountiful source of numerous seaweed species, at least eight of which were, and are, eaten regularly, being exceptionally nutritious and a valuable source of trace elements such as iodine, potassium, phosphorus, bromine, zinc and magnesium; others are used as fertilizer, livestock feed and even to make a drink.

The brown alga found on the highest part of the shore, just a little below the tiùrr ‘the seaweed line left by the high tide’ is the feamainn chìrean, literally ‘cocks-comb seaweed’ (referring to the reproductive structures). This is known as ‘channelled wrack’ in English and is commonly fed to cattle to give their coats a sheen.

On the middle part of the shore are two bladdered brown algae. The feamainn bhuilgeanach ‘bladdered seaweed’, known as ‘knotted wrack’ in English, was used in earlier times to pack oysters for transportation (the original bubble wrap!) Boiled up with oatmeal or oat husks, it makes a reasonable food for livestock or poultry. Propach ‘bladder wrack’ was sometimes used to treat rheumatism on the knee and to make a tea. Both species are useful as fertilizer on fields or feannagan ‘lazy beds’. Just below them the bladderless ‘serrated wrack’ is common. This is slaodach in Gaelic, a name that refers to how the weed can be cut at low tide and then pulled ‘air a slaodadh’ to shore with an encompassing rope on the incoming tide; this species is an excellent fertilizer.

Tangle and cuvie are known collectively as stamh in Gaelic, although the word strictly refers to the stem of the frond. The Gaelic verb stamhadh ‘training’ is derived from the use at one time of dry kelp stalks as horsewhips. These species, found at the lowest part of the littoral zone possess a strong greimeachan ‘holdfast’ that anchors them to the substrate. The leafy part of the frond, the liadhag (literally ‘little oar-blade’) was commonly used for wrapping butter and cheese for export from Atlantic Scotland. Also on the lower part of the shore are two notable seaweeds which carry English names derived from Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) – the tiny cairgein ‘carragheen’ (lit. ‘little one of the sea rock’) and duileasg ‘dulse’ (lit. ‘water leaf’). Both are still widely eaten in Gaelic Scotland, the former being dried and made into a pudding, the latter being the main ingredient in a delicious càl-duilisg ‘thick dulse soup’.

Two notable, and relatively abundant, green algae, both of them edible, are the sea  lettuce glasag ‘little green one’ and gutweed glasag chaolanach ‘intestinal sea lettuce’. Slòcan‘laver, sloke’ resembles glasag in form, but is brown to purple in colour, and more locally abundant, sometimes covering rocks in a soft film. This nutritious seaweed is regularly eaten, usually boiled and dressed in butter, although sometimes made into a jelly or mixed with oatmeal and made into bannocks. It was an important food at times of famine and hardship.

Two other notable species of large brown algae are the mircean (or gruaigean) ‘badderlocks, dabberlocks’ and langadal (or ròc) ‘sweet kelp, sugar kelp’, both of which can only be encountered at the lowest of spring tides, or when they are brought to shore in a storm. Mircean has a cnàimh ‘midrib’ which is edible and sweet (the older the plant, the sweeter the taste); a little above the holdfast is the duilleach (a group of small sprouts, actually sporophylls) which are delicious fried in butter. Langadal has no midrib, but is similarly tasty to mircean, and the entire frond is edible. Cut into small pieces, it makes a good addition to a seafood stew or stir-fry.

Beul-aithris agus an Cladach / The Seashore and Oral Tradition

Scotland’s Gaelic heritage boasts many ancient stories about the Fianna ‘Fingalian heroes’, sìthichean ‘fairies’, various supernatural creatures like the each-uisge ‘water-horse’ and crodh-mara ‘sea cattle’, and the ability of certain animals to be transformed into human form. Some tales are linked to specific locations, while others are more generally applied. Here are four condensed examples from the seashore.


Bride’s Bird

The oystercatcher is intimately connected to St Bride or Brigid, a famous, if historically questionable, heroine from the early days of the Church (who is remembered in the many Scottish places called Kilbride (Cille Brìde or Brìghde, ‘church of Bride’). She appears to have in fact been an amalgam of an ancient pre-Christian goddess, St Bride of Kildare (5th–6th Century) and perhaps other female figures of spiritual importance. She was called Moire nan Gàidheal ‘Mary of the Gaels’, being considered only slightly less important than the Virgin Mary among the Gaelic people.

A story explains the relationship to the bird. St Bride was running away from a band of evil men who desired to kill her. She was alone and eventually reached a beach where there was no place to hide. She decided the game was up, gave a prayer to God to thank him for her life and lay on the sand to accept her death. But before the evil men reached the beach, the oystercatchers, who were patrolling the shoreline, saw her, realised her predicament and covered her with seaweed, hiding her and saving her life. She blessed the species and since that day the oystercatcher has been the brìdean (Brìd-eun ‘Bride’s bird) or gille-brìde ‘servant of Bride’.

The oystercatcher’s call is ‘Bi glic, bi glic’ ‘be wise, be wise’.Unfortunately, one of their number one day ignored the advice and tried to prise a limpet from the rock as the mollusc was ‘drinking the sun’. The limpet jammed its foot hard against the rock, trapping the bird’s beak under its shell and causing it to drown as the tide flowed in. The song it reputedly sang to its friend (through its closed bill!) and the unhelpful answer it received to ‘hang on till the tide turns’ was recorded by folklorist Alexander Carmichael.


The Lucky Cowrie

The cowrie is known in Gaelic as the faoiteag and it is considered good luck to find one. If you keep it in your pocket, it will bring you good fortune, and if you carry three of them on your person, you will always find your way in the thickest mist. But beware – some beaches have a tradition that any slige-fhaoiteig ‘cowrie shell’ taken away from the location must be returned a year to the day to the same place – or bad luck will result!




How the Flounder got its Crooked Mouth

A Gaelic story tells us that the lèabag ‘flounder’ became cearra-ghobach ‘wry-mouthed’ after an altercation with the powerful and holy Calum Cille (St Columba). The great man was wading across the sand of a sea-ford on one of his journeys when he accidentally stood on a flounder’s tail. The fish was hurt and offended and gave Calum Cille a good telling-off, saying he was big and clumsy, with crooked feet. The saint, who despite his holiness, had a fiery temper, retorted, saying angrily, ‘If I am crooked-footed, let you forever be wry-mouthed.’ And that’s how the flounder is to this day.


Mary and the Seal

The ròn ‘seal’ (the generic name refers to both the common and grey species) is an extremely important element in Gaelic folklore and permeates the world of proverb and simile. Well-known examples of the last include cho reamhar ri ròn ‘as fat as a seal’ and cho sona ri ròn air sgeir ‘as happy as a seal on a skerry’.

Many traditional stories have seals changing into human form. One of these is Màiri agus an Ròn ‘Mary and the Seal’, in which Mary, who lives with her parents in a West Highland hamlet, keeps going off to an uninhabited island nearby, even into her late teens when her mother would prefer her to be meeting boys and doing ‘normal’ things. But Mary is irreproachable, always being good-natured and industrious. Her mother notes that her daughter is always extremely happy when she returns from the island, and she suspects she is having a secret rendezvous there with a young man, so she enjoins her husband to investigate the matter. He finds out that she is in fact meeting a cullach-cuain (lit. ‘ocean-boar’), a full-grown male seal, and dancing ecstatically with him on a lonely beach. Tha nàdar nan ròn innte ‘she has the seals’ nature’.

The mother thinks that Mary has been bewitched by the King of the Land of the Waves, and asks her husband to kill the seal in order to break the spell. Reluctantly, he eventually agrees and fires a bullet into the seal, which escapes into the sea. The next day, Mary goes to the island once more and this time fails to return. When her father goes to look for her, all he sees are the heads of two seals swimming together in the bay where they once danced. He realises that Mary has become as one with the ròin ‘seals’, and that they have lost their daughter for ever to the great call of the ocean.


Author : Roddy Maclean (Ruairidh MacIlleathain), an Inverness-based journalist, broadcaster and educator working in the Gaelic language.







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