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Savour the huam

Artist Amanda Thompson on the roots of her new book

by Amanda Thompson

A Scots Dictionary of Nature has been a long time in the making. As an artist, much of my work is about the Scottish Highlands, and in 2010, when I made an artist’s book called A Dictionary of Wood, I was doing research about the remnant Scots pinewood forests of Abernethy, and about Culbin, a Forestry Commission forest in Morayshire. Earlier that year, in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh, I had found an old Jamieson’s A Dictionary Of The Scottish Language, abridged by John Johnstone and published in 1846. The original price of £11 was embossed in gold on the spine, and I bought it for £20. In opening random pages, I’d come across words such as timmer breeks (timber trousers), meaning a coffin, and dedechack: the sound made by a woodworm in houses, so called from its clicking noise, and because vulgarly supposed to be a premonition of death.

I loved these words and more: they had a resonance and a particular feeling to them that was sometimes poignant and affecting, and sometimes conveyed a prosaic descriptiveness that nonetheless spoke of close connections and an attentiveness to the nuances of the landscape, what it contains, how we move through it, and even specific times of day or year. Break-back: the harvest moon, so called by the harvest labourers because of the additional work it entails. There were also words like huam: the moan of an owl in the warm days of summer, evocative of that feeling of the haziness of a long, hot summer’s day as it spills into evening. This old dictionary made me begin to wonder about lost connections to land and place and perhaps even ways of seeing and being in the world, and I began wondering what else I might find.

Eard-fast means a stone or boulder fixed firmly in the earth, or simply, deep rooted in the earth, and it’s a word that seems to get to the heart of this book. It resonates with ideas of place and belonging, makes me think of deep connections to places and particular landscapes and makes me consider how language can assist or be at the root of such connections.


adder-bead, -stane n the stone supposed to be formed by adders.
adder-bell, -cap n the dragon-fly.
adhantare n one who haunts a place.

Between 2009 and 2013 I was doing a doctorate and an element of my research related to the gradual changes that happen over time in the forests of Morayshire and Abernethy and how, when one is familiar with a place, one sees many more layers and begins to recognise the subtlest of these changes. I was also interested in how we make sense of and articulate our relationships to the land, both visually and verbally. As I walked with foresters and ecologists, I came across words like gralloch, used by a deerstalker to describe the innards of a dead deer (and the verb to gralloch, which so viscerally describes the task of removing them). Such words were unfamiliar to me, and yet foresters and ecologists used them with ease and specificity to describe their everyday activities. As I listened and heard these new (to me) words, they informed additional ways of seeing and gave me different understandings of the places where I was walking and of the activities they were carrying out. And there were other phrases too, some quirky, others pithy. An older forester told me about a man who started working for the Forestry Commission but was not very good at his job: he was not “wid material”, the forester said.

I decided to systematically go through the Jamieson dictionary looking for words related to wood, and did the same when I subsequently found a Supplement to Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary, edited by David Donaldson and published in 1887, and then a copy of The Scots Dialect Dictionary, edited by Alexander Warrack and published in 1911. I started making my way through each of these dictionaries, noting words – most of them completely unfamiliar – first in relation to wood, then over the years birds, weather, water, and of course, the land itself. The focus on words relating to walking came at a later date, as I began to think about how we discover places by moving through them; and how places themselves (and what we’re doing in them) dictate how we move.


Banff-baillies n white, snowy-looking clouds on the horizon, betokening foul weather.
baumy adj balmy.
beir, bere, bir, bier n, v noise, cry, roar; force, impetuosity, often as denoting the violence of the wind.

Words pull us together across borders and times. I have lovely conversations with a friend from Yorkshire, where we compare Scots and Yorkshire words. I always remember him telling me a story about his elderly father who had fallen down in his garden and couldn’t get up. “Help!” he shouted, when he heard the postman at the door, “I’m rigwelted.” The postman, also a Yorkshireman, heard his cry and knew to go and help him up, as rigwelted describes a sheep stranded on its back. I couldn’t think of an equivalent word in Scots, and joked that perhaps our sheep just didn’t fall down, but when I looked through these old dictionaries, there it was… Awalt sheep: a sheep that has fallen on its back and cannot recover itself.


caper-lintie n the whitethroat.
cat-gull n the herring gull.
catyogle n the great horned owl.
chack, check n the wheatear.

I’m not a lexicographer, a linguist, or a historian of the Scottish language, but as an artist I am interested in words and language and how we might describe our world. In mining these dictionaries, I’ve found words that are rarely heard, no longer in use or perhaps largely forgotten. These “found” words evidence a confluence of local and social histories, allude to changing ways of life and shifting connections, and point to fascinating relationships with nature and the land.


The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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