Nadokoro Deeside

‘The first time me and my love met
/ was in the woods o' Fyvie’

The journeys we make by choice are one of the ways we show respect for places and names. Some names are so well known from songs that we hear them as lilting phonemes, dow-wee-dens-oh-yah-row, nott-a-mun-tow-n, mill-oh-tiff-tee. 

A courageous deed, tall-tale, tragic death, or association with someone famous can elevate a wee patch of the world into a name. The Japanese call this reverence nadokoro: the honour due to a place of name. In an age when travel was arduous, nadokoro included renowned views that were praised in poetry and art. The associations that such places had were gradually consolidated; they gathered degrees of fame, in poems and woodblock prints.

For instance, the 2,600 pine-covered islands at Matsushima, the wee pine-isles, one of the three great views of Japan, which Basho described: ‘steep ones pointing to sky, others creeping upon waves … some piled double on each other, or even triple, and some divided at one end and overlapping at the other’, and then enhanced in a name poem.

          Matsushima ya                                    Wee Pine-isles, aye
          ah Matsushima ya                        aww Wee Pine-isles aye
          Matsushima ya                                     Wee Pine-isles aye

As well as sublime prospect of pines and waves, there were also, of course, battlegrounds, tumulus, and flag-bearing keeps that become nadokoro and gathered words of praise. The crossed swords, gothic script, crenellated towers, and scenic viewpoints of our maps are likewise cultural markers.

In the world of poetry and song it is possible for modest places to flourish, elevating their names. The Ballad of Andrew Lammie, the trumpeter of Fyvie Castle, and his beloved Annie (Agnes) Smith, daughter of the farmer at Mill o’ Tifty is one example. Here it is in a version sung by Sheila Stewart.

The castle still guards the banks of the Ythan – traditionally the gorse river, though Jacob King suggests the talking one, a name may represent the talking goddess, from the Pictish root, jext-, speech, language. Andrew and Annie trysted in a copse by the burbling river, at Bridge of Skeugh. As with any ballad, the specificity of names makes the tale more believable. At the same time, a place in a ballad may have little relation to a real place: as Nicolaisen says, there is a Ballad Yarrow and a Real Yarrow.

Annie was imprisoned in her father’s farm, from where she could hear the trumpeter’s horn calling over the mile or so between Tifty and the tower. Some say a jealous Lord Fyvie dispatched Andrew to the West Indies, while Annie was cruelly murdered by her brother, who is said to have broken her back in an ‘honour’ killing. She was buried in St Peter’s Kirk on 19thJanuary, 1673, with her body turned to face towards Fyvie. The song became popular soon after: can it really be true that Andrew learned of Annie’s death when he heard their story being sung in an Edinburgh tavern, after he returned to Scotland? Ballads as news, but had no letters reached him in the West Indies?

Many traditional songs are threaded around place-names. Bill Nicolaisen mapped over 2,000 examples from the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection. ‘The Ballad of Harlaw’ is another well-known North-east ballad – when Hamish Henderson first knocked on Jeannie Robertson’s door he gave her his version on the doorstep, to win her trust. Ian Olson tells the story of a local farmer saying to him ‘it’s the same farmer has the land’ upon which the battle was fought in 1411, right down to this day – The Maitlands of Balhaggardy. 

There’s a similar tradition in classical Gaelic poetry: dinschenchan, ballads in praise of famous places. In the case of some places, such as the graves of heroes, they are so famous that they can be carried, like tents, and set up wherever the story fits. I’ve stood on two of Diarmaid’s graves, one by the sea, at Loch Shiel, another in Glenshee – both utterly convincing as burial barrows. His death is, as Seton Gordon records, located I many places: ‘on Tiree in the Hebrides, in Sutherland, in Ross-shire (both Easter Ross and Kintail), in Brae Lochaber, in Knapdale in Argyll, and in Skye’. The barrows may be natural land forms amenable to the tale, or they may contain the bones of a local chief; but in terms of what I call the Fianscape – the mytho-poetic projection of Fingalian tales onto particular topographies – they are the grave of the hero and his lover.

In The Cairngorm region the most famous ballad landscape is Glenshee of the Fian, whose names I will map later. 

Tradition is a changing thing. Oral poets trained themselves to reweave songs using aural patterns, set phrases, and linguistic rhythms. These skills would allow them to re-compose the verses as they performed them, into improvisatory tales, some so lengthy, according to one nineteenth-century folklorist, as to occupy ‘a night or even several nights in recital’.

When David Hume turned against Macpherson and attacked the status of Ossian as a genuine translation he wondered, in an unpublished essay, how ‘above twenty thousand verses, along with numberless historical facts, could have been preserved by oral tradition during fifty generations, by the rudest, perhaps, of all European nations, the most necessitous, the most turbulent, and the most unsettled’, without being written down. Whatever we make of his prejudicial view of ancient Gaelic culture, there is a richness of modern evidence proving tradition bearers were – are? – capable of reciting epics that run to over 10,000 lines, verbatim, passage by passage. They depended on a range of skills and devices, and, in all of the great civilizations, at one time composition and reproduction was oral.

The names of people and places were another of their mnemonic devices. With them the singer-poet could compose flexible mental maps, as with mad king Sweeney, who leaps from Gleann Bolcain, to sleepless Cloonkill, the steeple of Cloonburren, the mountains of Slieve Aughty, and Sliabh Mis, across from Inishmurray to Ailsa Craig, Islay, and on to Donnan’s Cave on the Isle of Eigg. Flann O’Brien knew names crystallize tales when he chose the title for his Sweeney fantasy, Snámh dá Én, swim-two-birds, a ford over the River Shannon, another ordinary place made nameful. 

Greg Allen: ‘Fyvie’s Tale of Tragic Love’, in The Leopard, May 1993
Anon.: ‘Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie’
Basho, tr. Cid Corman: Back Roads to Far Towns
Guto Rhys: Approaching the Pictish language (PhD thesis)
David Buchan: The Ballad and the Folk
James Hunter: On the Other Side of Sorrow
Jacob King: Analytical Tools for Toponymy: Their Application to Scottish Hydronymy 

Earl Miner: Naming Properties
W.F.H. Nicolaisen:  ‘“As I cam’ in by Ythanside”: On the Function of Place Names in the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection’, in Emily Lyle: The Persistent Scholar, ed. by Frances J. Fischer and Sigrid Rieuwerts, Basis 5 (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2007) 231–240.
W.F.H. Nicolaisen: ‘Names and Narratives’, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 385, 1984
W.F.H. Nicolaisen:  ‘“There was a Lord in Ambertown”: Fictitious Place Names in the Ballad Landscape’, in Narrative Folksong – New Directions: Essays in Appreciation of W. Edson Richmond, ed. by Carol L. Edwards and Kathleen E. B. Manley (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985) 73–81 (79).
Ian A. Olson. ‘Some Songs of Place and Ballads of Name’, in Simon J Bronner (ed): Creativity and tradition in Folklore
Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside

Dairmaid's Tomb, Glenshee: Hannah Devereux, 2016
St Donnan’s Cave, Isle of Eigg: AF, 2013
‘AVIFORM / sweeney’, Isle of Eigg: AF, 2013
the translation of Basho’s Matsushima haiku is by AF 

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.