An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Strathnain Newsletter.
What's smaller than a streamlet, and is something you can hear but can't see? ... And it can't see you....
There are a great number of small watercourses in Strathnairn described by the Gaelic word Caochan. Caochan could be translated as streamlet or rivulet but that translation is unsatisfactory.
There are several other Gaelic words applied to watercourses, and in order of size they are - uisge (water, river), allt (burn, stream) and alltan (burnie, streamlet). These are all plentiful on the maps but Gaelic has an extra word for a watercourse smaller again. Translating Caochan as a 'streamlet' doesn't make good enough sense.
There is a meaning and a connotation that feels just right. A letter send to Seaton Gordon, writer and naturalist, from William Watson, toponymist and chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University, dated January 13th 1925, contains a list of Gaelic place names and their meanings - the relevant line reads:
Caochan is literally "little blind one" i.e. A burn or rivulet so obscured by vegetation that it is hidden.
This definition is charming as it seems to ascribe the streamlet itself with properties. Robert MacFarlane in his brilliant book 'Landmarks' (Penguin, 2015) describes it as -
Caochan: slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden (possibly from Old Gaelic caeich, meaning 'blind', i.e. The stream is so overgrown that it cannot see out of its own bed)
Dwelly, the Gaelic dictionary compiler, cites caochan as also applying to the first distillation of whisky or the sound made by fermenting wort.
Looking to the first edition of the Scottish OS 6 inch maps, I count 27 Caochain / "little blind ones" on one section of the high moor between Strathnairn and Strathdearn, running from Farr to Dunmaglass and over to the Findhorn. On this expanse, away from habitation, we find a wealth of names full of descriptive precision and colour. I've highlighted them on this map.
They are; (* = little blind one )
1 Caochan na h-Earbaige - * of the hind
2 Caochan Dubh - black *
3 Caochan na Caillich - * of the old woman
4 Caochan Bad an Daimh - * of the place of the stags
5 Caochan Coire Sheilich - * of the corrie of the willow
6 Caochan Dubh - black *
7 Caochan na Cloiche Claise
8 Caochan na Buidheig - * of the buttercup
9 Caochan Breac - speckled *
10 Caochan nam Breac - * of the trout.
11 Caochan Odhar - dun coloured *
12 Caochan na Mòine Guirme - * of the blue/ verdant peatmoss
13 Caochan a' Ghille - * of the ghille
14 Caochan a' Chàirn - * of the cairn
15 Caochan Dubh - black *
16 Caochan Seileach * of willow
17 Caochan Dubh Ghlaic - * of the black hollow
18 Caochan Bad an t-Sneachda - * of the place of the snow
19 Caochan Cosach - * of the crevices
20 Caochan Ruadh - russet / rust coloured *
21 Caochan na Poite - * of the illicit still
22 Caochan Dubh Ruighe na Sròine - little black blind one of the sheiling of the promintory
23 Caochan an Fhèidh - * of the deer
24 Caochan Beag an Sgianair - small (little) blind one of the knifer
25 Caochan Meadhonach - * of the middle part
26 Caochan a' Chùil - * of the back part
27 Caochan na Claise Gairbhe -* of the rugged hollow
Just off the map is Caochan na Duibh Chaileig - * of the black haired lass between East & West Croachy.
Andy Cumming in his unpublished notes on place names of Strathnairn gives the following detail for Caochan na Duibh Chaileig ‘The streamlet of the dark lassie. At Croachy. The story goes that this girl had drowned her unwanted child and that she haunted (or haunts) the place.’ In a handwritten addition to the notes he writes ‘I think her name was Mairid’ (Mairead).
But from 27 named ‘caochain’ for this area on the first edition of the OS map , I count only three on the 1:50 000 OS map today (9,25. & 26). We are losing the names given to the features of our landscape as they are excised from maps.
That these small features were named, and in such detail, goes some way to proving how fundamentally connected the Gaels who named this landscape were to the place and suggests that language allows for attention to detail and facilitates an ability to notice things in nature, that adds value and interest to life here.
That having language to describe something allows for attention and care, is an idea MacFarlane expands upon in his book:
'... Words are not just a means to describe landscape, but also a way to know it and love it. If we lose this rich lexis, then we risk impoverishing our relationship with nature and place. What we cannot describe, we cannot in some sense see.'