I recently received an email from Michael Bruce and a list of Gaelic words that he had been sent by Gaelic speakers around the subject of muirburn. Michael had also been told to look further east for cultural references to moorland and supplied me with a list of Scots terms and quotes from various publications. He is keen to promote the work of Dr Cathy Smith who is a social historian, among other things, working for the Leverhulme Centre and researching how “to represent indigenous and local knowledge in global fire models”. This blog sets out a few examples of what Michael has unearthed, so that you can get a feel for our predecessor’s understanding of their moorland environment and its management. Please get in touch if you can provide more information and examples along these lines and we will see that it gets to Dr Cathy Smith.
The Gaelic word ‘falaisg’ pertains to muirburn/burning of heather which is perhaps most commonly used but there are several derivatives such as ‘falaisgeach’, ‘falasgair’, ‘falaisgear’ and ‘falaisgeadh’. These may reflect how the word was spoken in different regions. ‘Fraoch’ is the Gaelic for Heather/heath/ling and the plural is ‘fraoich’. The Gaelic ‘riasg’ is a general word used for recalcitrant moor grasses but ‘canach’ is used specifically for Bog Cotton. The generic term for moorland grasses and sedges is ‘fianach’ in Gaelic. You may have encountered some of these terms when looking at place names within the Highland and Island landscapes shown on Ordnance Survey maps.
There are lots of terms in the Scots Dictionary around the theme of muir for moor. A ‘muir-bird’ is the term used for bird species that nest on moorland but usually refers to Red Grouse. The ‘moor-blackbird’ is the term used for a Ring Ouzel. The Meadow Pipit is referred to as the ‘moorcheeper’ and the word ‘muirduck’ is another name for Mallard. Hare’s-tail cotton-grass is known as ‘muir-crops’ and there is a cultivated pear which goes by the name of ‘muirfowl egg’. The ‘muir-edder’ seems to be an apt description for the Adder. The term ‘muir-man’ is used for someone who lives in wild, moorland country. I will stop there for the time-being and leave you with a few snippets that might help you to warm-up ahead of reciting some of Burns’ verse.
*Mry. 1764 Caled. Mercury (26 March): “They were unanimously of opinion, that the numberless instances of houses, corns, woods, etc. destroyed by moor-burn, in this and many counties of Scotland, discover the necessity of having some prudent regulations to restrain that practice”.
*Ayr.1788 Burns Bonie Moor-hen i.: “Our lads gaed a-hunting ae day at the dawn, O'er moors and o'er mosses, and mony a glen. At length they discover'd a bonie moor-hen”.
(1) *Bwk. 1809 Farmer's Mag. (Dec.) 529: “In every quarter of the country, moors occur. . . . They are composed of various kinds of soil; for the term moor is extremely vague. . . . some are of a thin poor clay, upon a bad till bottom; others of a thin surface of peat moss wasted to a kind of black light earth, often mixed with sand, upon a subsoil of impervious till, or a compacted clayey sand, apparently ferruginous, like a bad species of sandstone not perfectly lapidified. This peculiar species of subsoil is provincially called Moor-band, and . . . is absolutely impervious to water”.
*Sc. 1814 J. Sinclair Gen. Report Agric. Scot. App. I. 442: “Muirfowl egg. Often placed against walls in Scotland, but the standard fruit much higher flavoured. It is a well-known autumn pear, and keeps well. It is said to be originally Scottish”.
(17) *Ayr. 1818 Kilmarnock Mirror 111: “I've seen some o' our muirfolk keep up an argument wi' mony a fallow that's been at the college”.
*Sc. 1829 G. Robertson Recollections 20: “Every town or large village had then its own particular tract of ground in common, on which a plough never entered: this, in all landward towns, was called the Muir, and in towns by the sea-side, was called the Links”.
*Sc. 1956 Abd. Press & Jnl. (13 June): “They made muirburn contrary to the Hill Farming Act, 1946, Section 23; made muirburn and failed to provide sufficient staff and equipment to control and regulate it; made muirburn without due care, whereby damage was caused to woodlands, adjoining lands and fences”.
*Ork. 1963: “About 40 or 50 years ago the muir spade used to be taken to the hill along with the tusker. The muir spade, sometimes called the flauchter spade, was needed when yarfa peats were cut. These are not now needed in modern stoves and the muir spade has been succeeded by the ordinary garden spade”.