ACCLAIMED writer Roddy Maclean has compiled a compendium of Gaelic words and phrases that celebrates the nature, land and heritage of Scotland to celebrate the winter solstice.

The list features words and phrases in Gaelic referencing events and natural phenomena, from the Night of the Seven Suppers (Oidhche nan Seachd Suipearan), through to the cosmic spectacle of the Ursids meteor shower (An Dreagbhod) and on to January’s Wolf Month (Am Faoilleach), which showcase the connections between Gaels and the natural world.

Maclean compiled the Winter Solstice Gaelic Compendium for NatureScot, and said the project had been a “joy”.

He added: “As keepers of a unique language and culture, the love Gaels have for their native environment resonates in these markers of winter. It has been a joy to compile them to celebrate the winter solstice of 2022.

“Language and its deep relations with nature help us experience a greater love and respect for our environment, where Gaelic can be at the heart of a holistic conservation movement to cope with climate change, species extinction and loss of biodiversity.”

Robyn Ireland, NatureScot’s Gaelic officer, said: “We are grateful to Roddy Maclean for his work on highlighting the rich and abiding connections between Gaelic and Scotland’s nature. We hope everyone will enjoy a taste of a Gaelic winter solstice.”

Have a look at the index of Gaelic words and translations below.

Winter Solstice Gaelic Compendium

1. Winter Solstice

Oidhche nan Seachd Suipearan (meaning "The Night of the Seven Suppers")

December 21 is the longest night and shortest day of the year. It is so named because it can feel – for good or for bad – like a night so long that you could sit down to supper seven times before the sun rises again.

2. Ursa Minor

An Dreagbhod

The unusual annual cosmic phenomenon of the Ursids meteor shower is remembered in the Gaelic name for one of the best-known constellations, which is readily visible at this time of year. The star cluster in question is Ursa Minor (Little Bear), also known as the "Little Dipper", which appears almost as an adjacent but reversed mirror image of an even more famous grouping – The Plough, known as "Crann-arain" (baker's shovel) in Gaelic.

The Gaelic name for Ursa Minor is "An Dreagbhod", derived from "dreag", meaning “meteor”, and bad, meaning “constellation”. An Dreagbhod was an important constellation to recognise, particularly for mariners. At its outer end is Polaris, the pole star, known in Gaelic as "An Reul-iùil" (the guiding star), because of its usefulness to navigators. It hardly moves through the night or year, and always indicates north.

This year, it is expected that the Ursids will be active between December 17-24 and that they will peak on 22-23 December.

3. Snow

Sneachd (approximately pronounced "SHNEH-Uchk")

The best-known place name containing the element sneachd is "Coire an t-Sneachda" (The Corrie of the Snow) - approximately "kor(-uh) un TRE-uchk-uh" - in the northern corries of the Cairngorms.

Being north-facing and relatively sheltered, the corrie holds its snow for a very long time.

4. Snow wreath 

In addition to sneachd in our placenames, there is also the occasional "cuithe" (snow wreath).

This denotes a place where snow continues to lie when it has melted all around. Two clear examples – both "Cuithe Chrom" (crooked snow wreath) – are on Cairn Gorm and Lochnagar. The date of the breaking or complete melting of a cuithe could be used to predict the weather for the remainder of the summer and the likelihood of a favourable harvest.

The National: The snow covered coire an-t sneachda, northern corries, Cairngorms. Pic: Lorne Gill/NatureScotThe snow covered coire an-t sneachda, northern corries, Cairngorms. Pic: Lorne Gill/NatureScot (Image: NatrueScot)

5. Snowflakes

One of the nicest Gaelic words for snow has no direct equivalent in English. It is generally applicable only in very cold weather when "spiandagan" (a few snowflakes floating in the wind) are to be seen.

If snow is falling very lightly and sparsely, in Gaelic it is “tha e a’ spianadh an t-sneachda”.

6. Avalanche

Whereas English adopted the French word "avalanche", there is a native Gaelic word for the same phenomenon – "maoim-sneachda" (gushing forth of snow) – reflecting the fact that avalanches have always been part of life in the Scottish mountains.

7. January

Am Faoilleach (meaning "Wolf Month")

The National: A wolf at Highland Wildlife Park near KincraigA wolf at Highland Wildlife Park near Kincraig (Image: NatureScot)

The Gaelic calendar is strongly linked to both the Scottish environment and our Celtic heritage. January is "Am Faoilleach" (approximately “um FOEUIL yuch”).

January is known as “Wolf Month” as this is when these wild animals were reputedly at their most dangerous due to hunger.

8. February

Latha Fèill Brìde (meaning Bride’s Feast Day)

The beginning of February is a special time in the Gaelic calendar. It is connected to the ancient pagan figure Brìde and her later Christian namesake.

"Latha Fèill Brìde" (Bride’s Feast Day), February 1, halves the six-month interval between the pivotal Celtic celebrations of Samhain (the start of winter) and Bealltainn (the start of summer).

People would hope for bad weather at this time, believing that if February 1 was a clear, sunny day, the remainder of the winter would likely be long.

9. Redwing

Smeòrach an t-sneachda (meaning “snow thrush”)

A Gaelic name for the redwing – "smeòrach an t-sneachda" (snow thrush) – indicates how this visitor is seen as heralding the winter cold.

10. Robin

Brù-dhearg (pronounced “broo YER-ek”)

The National: A robin in the snowA robin in the snow (Image: NatureScot)

The "brù-dhearg" (robin) was listened to carefully by Gaels as its call was seen to foretell good or bad weather. When it sits in a hedge or bush, giving a subdued chirp, this is viewed as a sure sign of poor conditions to come, whereas when it sings cheerfully on a pleasant evening, even if it is overcast, a good day is certain to follow.

11. Mistletoe

Uil-ìoc (meaning “all-heal”)

The Roman writer Pliny recorded that the ancient Celts regarded mistletoe as the "all-healing plant" (omnia sanantem). This heritage is retained in the plant’s modern Gaelic name "uil-ìoc" which means “all-heal”.

12. Black

Dubh (pronounced “doo”)

This is an ideal time of year to analyse place names that contain the Gaelic adjective dubh. While it primarily means “black”, in landscape terms it can often mean “dark”. The low sun in winter can reveal places that remain in shadow for much of the time and which therefore attract this descriptor. A classic example is the Gleann Dubh (dark glen) south-west of Killin.

It opens into Glen Dochart in the north – a direction from which the sun never shines in the winter months – but is surrounded at all other compass points by a ring of great hills which leave it in shade for long periods.

Winter proverbs

13. No wind ever blew that did not fill someone’s sails

Cha do shèid gaoth riamh nach robh an seòl cuideigin

There is a Gaelic proverb "cha do shèid gaoth riamh nach robh an seòl cuideigin" (no wind ever blew that did not fill someone’s sails), but in the array of Gaelic expressions concerning the wind, it is one of a minority that presents a positive outlook.

Most phrases concern the challenges of living in such a windy and changeable climate as Scotland boasts.

14. The seagulls of our own shore

Faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin

It might be said of people who belong to our own community and are unlikely to venture far from home that they are "faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin" (the seagulls of our own shore).

The National: Herring gullsHerring gulls (Image: NatureScot)

If they persist in staying in a poor situation, when they should really move on to better things, they might be termed "faoileagan an droch chladaich" (seagulls of the bad shore).

These sayings arise from the traditional observation that gulls are not as strongly migratory as some other species of seabird – or, at least, many of them can still be seen locally during the winter months.