Landmarks in Islay

From where I am resting on the sofa with my broken leg propped up, to the north I can see the whole of Laggan Bay curving away up Loch Indaal towards the Point. I have the view in miniature laid out below me in intricate OS detail, and I  can check off the landmarks by looking up and craning over the window sills: the Kintra River flowing out into sand and sea; the Machrie just a little further north; Knockangle Point; then at the far end, Laggan River, substantially larger than the other two burns. To the south, behind me, is The Oa where, I’m told, there are choughs and golden eagles. Sitting here just moments ago, watching a buzzard along the conifer tree line a short distance behind the cottage, a superb silver male hen harrier angled past, not twenty feet from the doors.

What the map cannot convey is the sound map of wave, bird and wind – the elementals that give vitality to what I can see, in the full sense of that Latinate noun: both necessary and indispensable, and literally with life, with being. Oystercatchers burst and then settle on the rocks (even they are named – Rhuba Glas) immediately north-west from the windows – piebald flurries that patrol the shoreline continuously. Even at night I hear them. There are always flotillas of eider close into shore, males shabby and patchy now they are in their dark eclipse plumage, ducklings closely attended by their mothers in the rough surf. As is typical in these isles, weather fronts come and go quickly – rain and blue-black clouds hurtling across the bay, and then sun five minutes later.


I have had it in mind to get onto the dunes this afternoon, but my leg is preventing me from my usual exploratory holiday forays. Even short excursions are tiring. I may try stumping up to the Kintra outflow and look for brown trout. I’ve started reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, bought months ago but whimsically saved for a suitably inspiring environment. The chapters are built around nine glossaries of dialect words from all over the British Isles denoting phenomena of the natural world, particularly physical, topographical features. What is most exhilarating and striking about these terms, and what seems to bind them as a collective, is their great specificity; ‘finely particular phenomenon’ as Macfarlane puts it himself. I have been searching the categories to illuminate and more precisely express my view from where I write. How much more vivid and shared the world becomes when you have words like these at hand, inaccessible and absent to most in the modern world because they are the local, imaginative inventions of the ordinary, unacknowledged man and woman giving voice to the finest of observations relating to their lives working on and with the land, now and in centuries past, named and spoken  in their land-rooted, down-to-earth vernaculars. Part of what Macfarlane laments and aims to recover is the loss of such rich testament to to our earth-belonging and -being: as we lose so much of the natural world to intensive agriculture and urban developments, so we lose these languages, for if the land is not there, or not there to be wondered at, at least, what purposes do such words serve beyond eulogy?


This view does not ignore or dismiss the fact that landscapes have always been affected and managed by human civilisations. The ‘scape is not a geological or ecological entity, is not untouched or ‘wild’ (an explosive word in today’s conservation scene, particular since the rise of the ‘rewilding’ concept) as it might be imagined in some idyllic, Arcadian vision. The term itself tells us this: in the sense that we popularly refer to the word today, associated with the artistic or picturesque, landscape comes from Dutch landschap, a term deriving from late 16th century Dutch painters. But the preceding and cognate Old English word landscipe (Middle English landschippe) also carries the meaning of land that has been ‘shaped’ or constructed.

The view does, however, argue that such places can easily be dismissed as redundant, as terra nullis, to borrow another of Macfarlane’s phrases, as blank spaces that must be filled somehow with something ‘useful’. Governmental policy refers to ‘natural capital’, a thoroughly prosaic term that is acutely at odds with the rich and nuanced language in Macfarlane’s glossary. This, surely, is where the grievous losses are now – the land uses which pay little or no heed to biodiversity; to the role of place for species other than the human; to the possibilities of all-species engagement with environments that creates sensitive and crucial relationships of the sort that allows the human species (as just one) to know land so intimately – through belonging, loving and observing as much as harvesting and controlling – that it is possible for one to witness the most intricate and particular of objects and occurrences and name them. The feadan (small stream running from a moor or loch); the bàrr fhàd (topmost layer of peat cut); the raon (wide flat area of moorland); the af’ rug (reflex of a wave after it has struck shore); the bretsh (breaking of waves on a rocky shore); the baa (sea rock as may be seen at low tide); the faoilinn  (strand between a shingle beach and a loch) – to offer a few Gaelic examples that relate to my window experiences here on Islay. And my favourite, for its extended precision which seems comical for such a brief word: èit (practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and, therefore, attract salmon in late summer and autumn!) These are terms that do far more than locate or possess. They speak of intimate and enduring relationships and affairs with the land – local and exact, knowledgeable and meaningful.


2 thoughts on “Landmarks in Islay

  1. Interested in your comments on the etymology of ‘landscape’. I had read the OED as implying that the term was an artistic one in origin, describing the painting of the scene rather than the scene painted (we still use it that way, of course, as in ‘A Turner landscape’). Your derivation is more attractive and ‘deeper’ in various ways, not least for the rhetorical use you make of it, but how does it relate to this other one?



    1. You’re quite right there Jeremy – it is artistic in the sense that we tend to use it today (although I don’t know whether the term referred to the painting or also to the scene itself to the Dutch artists). The word itself is much older though and carried the sense of land being shaped, which in a sense is not far off the later, painterly use of the term. Anglo-Saxons certainly weren’t standing there with easels and oils though! Makes me think of Romantic notions of the Picturesque. Given that the Dutch and Old English term are cognate, I’m sure there must be a more full relation too.


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