Ten years ago, on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled ‘Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary’, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior.
Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is ‘a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight’, while a fèith is ‘a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer’.
Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means ‘the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day’; and teine biorach is ‘the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer’.
The ‘Peat Glossary’ set my head a-whirr with wonder-words – and it prompted me to begin collecting and organising words for weather, nature and landscape from across Britain and Ireland. After eight years’ work, I had more than 2000 words from over thirty languages and dialects, from Orcadian (grimlins: ‘the night-hours around midsummer in the far north when dusk blends imperceptibly into dawn’) to Cornish (zawn: ‘a wave-smashed chasm in a sea-cliff’). I published these words in nine glossaries, as part of my book Landmarks, about the relations of landscape and language.