The Fading, Untranslatable Words of the Gaelic Mindscape

Robert Macfarlane has been exploring two very interesting and inter-related phenomena in recent years: words that are tied to features or perceptions of the landscape that are highly culturally specific, and the extinction of those words from common usage because of the changing relationship between people and the landscape that they inhabit. Such words are specific to a particular way of being and living within the land that are reflected in people’s concepts and vocabulary, and as “modernity” (or whatever we want to call the technocratic mentality and way of life) has bulldozed all previous forms of life in its path and condemned them to extinction, so have the concepts and words become highly endangered. Macfarlane explores the words and history on his daily Twitter feed, in publications, and so on.

His work tends to focus on the British Isles, and fortunately he includes Scottish Gaelic (and other Celtic languages) in his discussions. There is one Gaelic word that I don’t think that he’s yet discovered, a word which is important, powerful, mysterious, and ineffable by nature: buadh (and its related variant buaidh). This word has a long history, being attested in personal names in ancient Gaul and Roman Britain, such as the renowned warrior-queen Boudica. The root element is usually translated as “victory” in such contexts, but actual usage of the word in many other contexts, including that of the landscape, demonstrates that it has a much more complex and significant meaning.

Gaelic literature is deeply embedded within its own cosmology, its own way of seeing and understanding the world, life forms, time, power, states of mind, and so on. There are a great many poems in praise of people and places in which bua(i)dh appears – especially before the twentieth century – which are virtually impossible to translate or convey in English, although words such as “virtue,” “power,” “quality,” and “efficacy” are often offered as approximations. (For notes on the historical usages of bua(i)dh in Gaelic/Irish, see the entry in the eDIL here.)

Standing stone and well at Cille Brighde, Strath, Isle of Skye which I took during fieldwork in Strath in the mid-1990s.

For example, Tormod Domhnallach composed a popular Gaelic song in praise of his native island of Skye, calling it Eilean Sgiathanach nam buadh (“The Island of Skye of the Virtues”), which is usually used as the title of the song.  Virtually every island and strath in Highland Scotland has been praised in other songs using the word bua(i)dh. It is also used of the talents and skills that people are gifted with (see discussion in this article).

My own understanding of the most general meaning of the word is this: bua(i)dh is how the invisible essence of a thing manifests in this world. It is essentially a spiritual lens through which to understand emergent phenomena, a glimpse of something underlying the physical plane. That’s why I think its use has diminished so greatly in the last several generations of Gaelic poets: the dominance of the literalist, materialist, objectivist mindset of anglophone modernity has had a stultifying effect on the Gaelic spiritual mindscape.

And by “spiritual,” I mean a worldview that accepts and expects a numinous world that co-exists with the physical one, a worldview that can be compatible with Christianity but not necessarily synonymous with it. Reading the implications of Gaelic cosmology into this picture (such as I’ve done in my doctoral dissertation about trees in Gaelic tradition) my understanding would be that the essence of things (brìgh) resides in the timeless Otherworld and is made manifest in the mundane world through their bua(i)dh. It was the conviction that great physical power was derived from great spiritual power that led to buaidh’s connotation of “victory.”

I’ve just stumbled upon what is the best example of the use of the word in Gaelic poetry that I know of: it relates to an ancient sacred well on the island of St. Kilda, known as Tobar nam Buadh. There is a fascinating description of the well from the 1764 account of the Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, who wrote:

Near the fountain stood an altar on which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before they could touch the sacred water with any prospect of success, it was their constant practice to address the genius of the place with supplication and prayer. No one approached him with empty hands. But the devotees were abundantly frugal. The offerings presented by them were the poorest acknowledgements that could be made to a superior being, from whom they had either hopes or fears. Shells and pebbles, rags of linen, or stuffs worn out, pins, needles or rusty nails, were generally all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though rarely enough, copper coins of the smallest value.

Clearly, islanders treated the well with reverence and awe, similar to ancient holy wells in the ancient Celtic world and in other indigenous cultures. There is a very impressive photograph of the well on the CANMORE website. The renowned poet Rev. Dr. John Macdonald of Ferintosh (1779 – 1849), also known as “The Apostle of the North,” visited St. Kilda in 1822 and was so inspired by the well that he composed an impromptu poem to it, moved to do so when he heard the gush of water emanating from the rocks.

The poem addresses the well as a living entity in the second person (an ancient literary convention reflecting Gaelic cosmology that I explored previously in the essay “Chì Mi Cuimhneachan Sgrìobhte Nach Gabh Leughadh Le Coigreach” in the volume Dualchas agus an Àrainneachd: sin am fearann caoin). I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that he was making obeisance to the well with a poetic offering, just as bards did in acclaim for the élite patrons they served (a topic I’ve explore in Warriors of the Word, pp. 320-26).

I offer what I think is the first English translation of this remarkable relic below the original Gaelic:

Is tu Tobar nam Buadh tha shuas ’s a’ ghleannan
’S neo thruaillidh fallain do stòr;
Chuala mi t’ fhuaim mas d’ fhuair mi faisg ort;
’S gur fuaran gast’ thu tha beò.

Sruthadh bho cheàrnaidh àrd tha creagach
Do làn co-fhreagar gach uair;
’S mar rinneadh le càch, le m’ làimh bheir mis’ ort
Mar ainm, “Sàr uisge nam Buadh.”

’S tu tobar tha fìor-ghlan aotrom soillear
Gun aon nì foilleil fo d’ ghruaidh
Tha sìor shruthadh sìos gu fial o chruinnich
Am fearann air thùs o’n chuan.

Gun ròdadh, gun traoghadh, a ghnàth ro mhilis
A ghnàth cur thairis gach uair;
’S mur tig ort crith-thalmhainn sgealbas creagan
Chan fhalbh thu am feasd gu La Luain.

Ged tha thu ’n gleann fàsail, càil-eigin folaicht’
An àit’ nach fuirich mór shluagh
Cha tig iad ’nad chòr le onfhais mara
Mór stoirm is feallsanachd cuain.

Tha spréidh agus daoine daonnan faisg ort
Is òigridh thaitneach gun ghruaim,
Is gheibhtear an taobh-s’ iad daonnan ’s treisead —
Siud chum na Hiortaich cho buan.

[From The Celtic Magazine 11 (1886), pp. 125-26]

My translation into English

(NOTE: I have left buadh untranslated)

You are the Well of the Buadhs up in the little glen,
Uncorrupted and healthy is your treasure;
I heard your noise before I came close to you;
You are an excellent spring that is alive.

Streaming from a high corner that is craggy
Responding to your fullness every hour;
As others have done, I will touch you with my hand
Calling you by name, “The superb water of the buadhs.”

You are the well that is pure, light, and clear,
There is nothing treacherous under your cheek
That has constantly streamed generously since the land
Originally accumulated from the sea.

Without emanating prematurely, never drying up, always sweet,
Constantly running over at every hour;
Unless you are overcome by earthquakes that split the crags
You will never depart until the Day of Judgment.

Although you are in an deserted glen, (your) essence hidden,
In a place where no large population lives,
They will not approach you by way of the roaring sea,
Great storms, or sophistry of the sea.

Livestock and people are always near you
And untroubled, cheery young people,
They are always found here in the strongest health —
That is what has made the people of St Kilda so long-lived.

I hope to write in the near future about one of my pet-peeves: the constant use of the pejorative term “superstition” in reference to Gaelic cosmology and indigenous knowledge, even by people who seem to be sympathetic to it. This is a colonial hangover … to be continued.

Until then, may the Buaidh be with you!


15 Comments Add yours

  1. Feàrnach says:

    Are you sure you’re not mixing “buaidh” , victory, with “buadh”, virtue? As a rule, the genitive plural, which you mentioned as “buadh”, is the same as the nominative singular. The words “buaidh” and “buadh” are probably (or have been) connected (folk etymology or shared root?) but I’m not sure that they are the same word, at least in modern usage.

    1. It’s my understanding that they are variants of the same root. See

      1. Feàrnach says:

        “Buadh” has a genitive singular “buaidh”, whereas “buaidh” (nominative singular) has at least one genitive singular “buadhach”. That suggests that the two have been used as distinct words for centuries, even if they have a common root. It occurs to me that “lus nam buadh”, for example, has no possible connection with “buaidh”. Any buadh/buaidh confusion or combination in placenames might depend on the placename being old enough to incorporate a (slenderised) locative case.

      2. Thanks for your feedback. I’ve tried to modify the article to cover both terms and the relationship between them. If you look over my article on creativity, you’ll see that buaidh & buadh were understood to have semantic fields in common and hence have overlapping usages. See especially phrases like buaidh na bàrdachd. I expect that buaidh emerged through dissimilation from buadh historically.

  2. Neil McRae says:

    Clach na h-Annait agus Cille Bhrìghde! Tìr Gilleasbuig Aotrom nam Buadh.

  3. Damon says:

    Interesting. Compare the Maori usage of the pan-Polynesian concept of “mana” –

  4. Brid Boland says:

    excellent article..delighted to read someone thinking on the same lines as myself

  5. Ilaria says:

    I just found out your blog, I’m new to the Gaelic/Celtic culture and I have been trying to learn more since I moved to Scotland. I wanted to point out that your words “… It was the conviction that great physical power was derived from great spiritual power that led to buaidh’s connotation of “victory” might be associated with the Ancient Greek concept of kalos kai agathos: the hero is beautiful, strong and full of grace because of his internal beauty and devotion to the Gods. Thank you for the post.

    1. Yes, it’s a pretty universal concept, and I would never claim some kind of Celtic exceptionalism.

  6. Mary Stenson Shanahan says:

    I loved reading this piece Michael and see many similarities with the beliefs about the Otherworld that were held in pre-Christian Ireland.

  7. patricknelson750 says:

    “I hope to write in the near future about one of my pet-peeves: the constant use of the pejorative term “superstition” in reference to Gaelic cosmology and indigenous knowledge, even by people who seem to be sympathetic to it. This is a colonial hangover … to be continued.”

    I think it more a 19th century materialist convention that has been drummed into most ‘modern’ people like a mantra.

    Similarly most of what once passed for history in Ireland and Scotland has now been written off as mythology, whilst highly speculative and unprovable archaeological fancies have been taken as the new ‘facts’ even though they are largely guesswork.

    1. Actually, the condescending élitist rhetoric about superstition goes back to the Classical world — it’s not a modern invention.

      1. patricknelson750 says:

        Yes but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the average European jumped the bandwagon : )

      2. True, the mass of the European population was not affected by the attitudes of the élite in the Classical world, but social values, attitudes, and practices started becoming reformed at a wide scale a little earlier than the 19th century, with the spread of literacy, Protestantism, etc., in the 17th century, even if it took until the 19th to become virtually universal.

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