On names, losing names, and renaming by walking

Early June. We leave the car in an unnamed layby beyond Coylumbridge, near a tourist attraction labelled ‘The Fun House’ (I look at the map, not the location).

I have left quotations behind on a powered-down notebook (Toshiba Satellite R930-1CV). Toshiba has no direct original meaning and superseded the corporation’s first name, which can be Anglicised to Tokyo Shibaura Denki.

I look at the map (OS Explorer 403: Cairn Gorm and Aviemore). We are here, my brother and me, to walk Glen Eanaich to its loch. I like this idea because nobody I have heard of bags lochs, and I have never met anyone who has been to Loch Eanaich.

I study the map: we begin on the same route as the Lairig Ghru and then peel off into forestry. The Rothiemurchus estate sign warns us to keep to ‘recognised paths’ (I make a note of this so it is expressly a quotation). A yellow plastic amendment warns a red deer cull is in progress. I heard one shot during the two-day trip, but as I write this I cannot narrow it down on the map.

Walking the floor of the glen, which is boggy throughout, is interrupted rhythm and talk. It is catching up on news, it is patterns of laughter and silence, an exchange of shared names and memories. We walk against the flow of Am Beanaidh, the small river that flows out of Loch Eanaich, note the rotting snow still in ridges around the tops to left and right, on Carn a’ Phris-ghiubhais, and Sgòran Dubh Mòr. When I ask friends later, one thinks the name Carn a’ Phris-ghuibhais might be something to do with a particular tree (perhaps a pine) which may once have been a landmark, while another translates the name (speculatively) as ‘hill of the prize’, but none of us can read the landscape fluently. I know well enough, though, that any name with historical provenance will not always give away its identities lightly. Nevertheless, two Highlanders walked up a glen and stumbled the bog and in pronouncing bastardised Gaelic names on a map. At one stage a cornice on Sgòran Dugh Mòr looks about to speak, the decaying snow splaying into lips, but there is neither movement nor sound. The walk remains ours, then, the boots in the bog walk our own, the nearing rain—a proper Cairngorm wetcloak rain—prompts us to pull on waterproofs (Berghaus: a UK mountain clothing company which adopted a German name).

We pass another couple of walkers who camped out at the loch the previous night. They tell a tale of miserable hours of semi-darkness, their tent blown away and damaged. We exchange generous sympathies, but I did not get their names.

Crossing Am Beanaidh for the second time we find a metal bridge which suggests military engineering, and there may be a name for this kind of modular metal structure but I do not know what it is. On the other side more bog and rain—see a red grouse (Lagopus lagopus) and, much later, a pipit, which I note down as a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) but swither: the Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) can look similar. A friend I contact later gives me a forensic lesson on the differences between one and another: flank streaking thickness, hind-claw length, and song. The bird did not speak. I did not see the claw. One more thing that evades fixity.


We arrive at the loch in heavy rain blown by wind, seek shelter behind an erratic and drink stewed tea until the weather yields and we can see Coire Odhar at its southern end, the waterfalls (marked ‘waterfalls’ on the map) driving down it, melting out of later winter and into wet June. As I travelled north I asked Alec Finlay to give a translation of what Loch Eanaich might mean, and there was a smile in his email for sure as it came back as Loch Bogbit. Standing on its shore the name fitted well: a wet but friendly glen, which felt familiar (our ‘bit’ for the afternoon), gathering and processing water, a chill-the-bones wind speeding over its wee length of surface.

Turning back to find a drier place to camp, summer interrupted—it screamed in from behind us (the winter direction) as the loch receded with its rain, and whirled around above our heads: a warm storm. Swifts. Without doubt: Swifts (Apus apus). Sometimes they can be confused with swallows (the shape deceptive only at a glance), but a swift is not even a Hirundine (the family which includes Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins). The swift family contains only other Swifts and is wholly its own: the wings long and thin, the bird never destined to touch land. It is, anyway, more like a fish of the air than a bird—a power rower of the breathable atmosphere.

That night we camped on a tiny island which has no name—or no recorded name, although history must have visited—a holm in Am Beanaich inhabited by Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and short tenacious Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). I roosted my rucksack—by Osprey—in the jamb between branches on one of the Pines and above, still bearing a thin cap of snow, Carn Elrig (which may, or may not, have something to do with a deer trap).

Reaching the car on the 2nd day I realised that Alec’s translation surely made Glen Eanaich into Glen Bogbit. We were the first to walk the length of the name, then, and see it through all that suggested. No summits were crested, but we bagged the Bogbit end to end and its meaning only grew with time.

With thanks to Steven Rutt for birding help, and MM for the Gaelic.

David Borthwick

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.