Songful Burns

‘the strength of running water…’

– Nan Shepherd

The wilderness is vocalized in burn names – a hubbub and plashing which the Gaels and, before them, the Picts, and before them cultures we have no ready names for, heard in these ways.

, the river calling in its spate
, the river crying
, waters churning through a stone trough
, the fleet-water
, the hard-running water
, the going river
, the moving water
, the driving river
, the rapid stream
, the keening river
, the wailing river
, the wee river that gurns
, the speechifying burn
, the blattering burn
doirbheag, the grumpy auld biddy
, the gliding water
Caochan Dùird Beag
, wee humming burnie
Caochan Dùird Mór
, big humming burnie
an tuil-bhinn
the mellifluous water
all choinie
                                    the echoing burn
                                    the songful burn, or wee impetuous one  

water is known
by its motion

after Nan Shepherd

The root cal- occurs in Callater, Allt Challa, Invercauld, and possibly Coldrach. While it is hard to define with certainty, common sense tells us that a hard river is a rocky river, a rocky river is a fast river, and a fast river will call loudly. Among the sources, WJ Watson has cal-, Gaelic for cry, or call,
giving Callater as the sounding stream, saying that ‘any one who has fished a pool below a little rapid at dead of night knows how the stream talks’; he later refined this meaning to hard water, rocky water. MacBain preferred calentora, where dubron is (flowing) water, as in the Deveron, and cal-, sound, call, Gaelic, caladair, Latin, calendarium. More recently, Jacob King points towards the quality of the stream-bed, its hardness or stoniness – true of all these burns – or the manner of its flow which, it follows, is fleet. The Coldrach Burn flows down the opposite side of Glen Clunie from Callater Burn, and may be the place of hard-running waters.

Callater and Allt Challa are near to one another: they are the primary tributaries of the Clunie and Dee, a significant confluence by the royal seat of Doldencha (Braemar). WFH Nicolaisen suggests that confluences with the sacred Dee, , were cultic sites.

Invercauld is the
quick river mouth, or mouth of the fast flowing water, Allt Challa, though some prefer hazel, G. caltainn – none are found there now – while others think the name refers to the site of a ruined fort, or battle, or the confluence at the narrows, from caoil, kyle.

It is impossible to say what the Ey means with any certainty; these suggestions come from Adam Watson, Francis Diack and Peter Drummond.

Adam Watson gives a number of possible derivations of the
River Gairn: ghairein, crying one, or, via Macpherson, gar, rough. Gàir, can also mean ‘laugh, shout’.

The names Gairn and Girnock may both relate to the Gaelic
ghairein, which here becomes a dimunitive, giving goirnag, the little crier.

MacKenzie supposes that River Isla is related to the Welsh, il, which denotes motion, and elyf, what glides.

Alt Lowrag, near Lochan na h-Earba, is the loud-sounding one, from labhraiche, oratory, speaking distinctly.

Allt Luineag, the burn of songs, is also known as Allt Linneach, the burn of pools. Luineag is Gaelic for verse, implying also melody.

Adam Watson gives
Caochan Dùird Beag and Mór as the little streamlet of humming and big streamlet of humming; they are near Bynack Lodge.

An Tuil-bhinn is on the lower slopes of Morrone.

Allt Choinie, which Adam Watson says is now an obsolete name, was a tributary of the Baddoch.

Nicolaisen and Adam Watson both give the Allt Darrarie, a tributary of the Muick, as rattling.

William Forsyth gives ‘Doirbheag’ as a cross, ill-tempered woman, and says that this exactly describes the character of this stream. It has a short run, and comes down at times with great quickness and force.

‘It is said that a farmer, who had suffered much from its depredations, used to make this part of his daily prayer,
‘From the storms of Gealcharn, the floods of Dorback, and the wrath of the factor, good Lord, deliver us’. The climax is significant. The storm was bad, the flood was worse, but the wrath of the factor was worst of all.’

William Forsyth: In the Shadow of Cairngorm



Peter Drummond: email to AF, 2015
Jacob King:
Analytical Tools for Toponymy: Their Application to Scottish Hydronymy
William Forsyth: In the Shadow of Cairngorm
Alexander MacBain: Place Names: Highlands and Islands of Scotland

W.C. MacKenzie: Scottish Place-Names

Charles Plumb: Walking in the Grampians

Nan Shepherd: In the Cairngorms

Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside

WJ Watson, The Celtic Place-names of Scotland

Allt Darrarie: Alec Finlay, 2015
Callater Burn water sample
: Alec Finlay, 2015
Girnock Burn
: Alec Finlay, 2015
Callater Burn
: Alec Finlay, 2015
Ey Burn:
Alec Finlay, 2015

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.