Art show with Gaelic twist is a thing of wonder in any language

11th July 2022

Enchanting watercolours created to help people see the natural world in a new light are to be showcased at a Fife gallery.

The exhibition is part of wider initiative that seeks to deepen understanding of Scotland’s changing environment and widen appreciation of the Gaelic language.

New works by acclaimed wildlife artist Derek Robertson – to be shown at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries – will highlight 40 plant and animal species recently arrived in Scotland.

Each featured species is so new to these shores that no Gaelic names existed for them – until the launch last year of a project called Bho Bheul an Eòin (From The Bird’s Mouth).

Through a process of research and consultation, with advice from scientists, linguists and writers, new Gaelic descriptions – which are both detailed and delightful – have been created.

The bespoke colourful depictions by Derek Robertson, who is a Gaelic speaker based in Balmerino, introduce these latest additions to an ancient language to a whole new audience.

Accompanying each portrait is a short Gaelic poem, written by the celebrated poet Rody Gorman, and accompanied by an English translation.

The 40 species span flowers, birds, butterflies, marine life, slugs and even snow-bed algae.

In most cases, species with fairly ordinary English names become far more appealing in Gaelic. The bearded tit, usually found in the south and east of England, becomes cuilcear staiseach – ‘moustached reed-worker’ – and the azure damselfly is cruinneag liath, meaning ‘grey, tidy girl’.

Most Gaelic versions reflect the creature or plant’s distinctive features. In readiness for the expected arrival of Muntjac deer, originally from China and now spreading across England, researchers came up with fiadh-comhartaich, meaning ‘barking deer’.

And the surf scoter, more often found on the coasts of Gaelic-speaking Nova Scotia and occasionally appearing on the Scottish coast, becomes lach-dhubh tuinne, meaning “black duck of the wave”.

Mr Robertson says the project not only aims to highlight how climate and ecosystems are changing but how Gaelic continues to evolve today.

“Gaelic has a rich tradition of naming things in the natural world,” he says. “Things that are named in Gaelic have a pattern of meaning – so all the finches, for example, are named after species of plants or trees."

Mr Roberston adds: “I learned Gaelic as an adult, and it was obvious that there were animals and plants that did not have a Gaelic name.

“The options were to follow the English name and directly translate it, but following the English name feels out of place - it’s uncomfortable, because we know that language would just create names organically.”

Bho Bheul an Eòin is supported by NatureScot and Gaelic language body Bòrd na Gàidhlig and is accompanied by a book of the same name.

The project involved representatives from a wide range of organisations, including the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and nature organisation Buglife.

The exhibition runs from 15 July to 14 October. The venue will host a series of related events, in English and Gaelic, which include Gaelic Bookbug sessions for younger readers, Gaelic language awareness classes and nature walks. The artist will host a free talk in the gallery at 11am on 16 July.

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