Aiste / Essay: Re-imagining a Grouse Moor through Gaelic place names, Raghnaid Sandilands
An Sealbhanaich: An Unmapped Placename in Strathnairn
It would seem that only a couple of people locally know of An Sealbhanaich /the Sealbhanaich today - it doesn’t appear on any OS map or in the place name books. Here is a satellite image:
The name refers to a large plateau in the hills between Strathnairn and Strathdearn and lies ‘within a natural boundary, obvious when you are there and being really the farthest North beginnings of the Monadh Liath’. This according to Willie Forbes, Milton of Farr. ‘It’s huge - maybe 3 miles by 2 miles and if you went to the watersheds it would be much bigger than that.’
The Gaelic ‘Sealbhan’ is given by Dwelly’s Gaelic dictionary as 1. a herd, drove, number of cattle or of small cattle (sheep, goats, &c). 2 Multitude, company. It has its roots in ‘sealbh’ (possession, inheritance, cattle, good luck). It looks to be remembered in its dative form and originally it most probably was ‘An Sealbhanach’. People would have spoken about a bhith a’ dol dhan t-Sealbhnaich / going to the Sealbhanaich etc. A possible translation could be ‘the place of the herds’ or ‘the place of the herding’.
The name would suggest an area rich in transhumance; there were shielings up there, one stone fold remains and a bothy that was roofed with tin until relatively recently and in which there was, to Willie’s memory, the remains of a headboard and stone jars.
There is a pony track leading up through the hills (to the North of Creag nan Gobhar) that would have come from Inverarnie. Another steeper path comes up by Allt an Lòin Uaignich, the yellow grass makes the track still visible from the Srath floor. These routes would probably have been for droving cattle up to their summer grazing and for taking deer off by pony.
The only written note of the name appears in this rental record for an estate at Inverarnie in 1803:
I asked Willie what made the place special for generations of Strathnairn people;
His brother Alasdair has commented on the ‘sacred’ reverence’ people had for the Sealbhanaich that…
Willie commissioned his own map for the Strathnairn Heritage Association and was determined that The Sealbhanaich be marked.
He knows the hills around here well having walked between Farr and Kingussie before the wind farm was erected, as a farewell of sorts and speaks fondly of happy family camping trips there and lighting camp fires with the wood from the peat hags. He thinks that there is a high concentration of tree roots on the Sealbhanaich and suggests that trees in the main part of the Monadh Liath could have been floated down the Findhorn. The Sealbhanaich was perhaps forested until later due to its inaccessibility. The pine roots are probably 500 years old.
In evidence gathered for the Deer Commission reports in 1892 a crofter named Donald Campbell, Merchant, Kingussie, 57, tells that the predecessors of the current crofters in this area had almost the whole of the Monadh Liath for summer grazing some 40 or 50 years previous. He knew the men that came for the summer grazing.
Travelling roughly in a circle, starting from the North East, here are the place names around the basin of An Sealbhanaich / The Sealbhanaich;
Càrn na h-Easgainn - cairn of the bog/fen - easgan; a ditch formed by nature / bog
Càrn na Loinne - cairn of the shimmer / heat haze
Càrn nam Bò-àirigh - cairn of the shieling cattle
Càrn Mòraig - Morag’s cairn
Càrn Dubh-chromagach - crooked black cairn
Càrn Caochan Ghiubhais - cairn of the pine streamlet
Càrn Choire Odhar - cairn of the dun corrie
Càrn Dubh - (the) black cairn
Càrn Odhar - (the) dun cairn
Càrn na Sguabaig - cairn of the sharp gusting wind
Cnoc na Saobhaidh - hillock of the fox’s den (on the plain)
Càrn Dearg - (the) red cairn
Càrn Bad an Daimh - cairn of the place of the stags
Beinn Bhreac - (the) speckled hill
Creag Chrò - Crò here means ‘narrow’ according to the OS place name book
Creag an Dubhair - crag of the shadow / Little blackish rock. (This in the second edition is marked as Creag an Tuathan - Tuathan - connected to Tuath; folk, peasantry?)
Meall na Fuar-ghlaic - rounded hill of the cold hollow
Beinn Dubh - (the) black hill
Càrn Ruidhe Rèithe - cairn of the level flow. Later this is given as Càrn Dar-riach.
Bèinn nan Cailleach - hill of the old women
Creag an Eòin - crag of the bird
The Uisge Dubh (black water) is the main water course coming from the plateau, with some of the smaller burns that feed it being;
Caochan na Buidheig - Little blind one (streamlet)* of the buttercup. (See the previous blog ‘A Map of Some Caochain’)
Caochan Breac - speckled * /
Caochan Dubh - black *
Allt Uisge Geamhraidh - burn of the winter water
Caochan na Caillich - * of the old woman
Caochan na Cloiche Glaise - * of the grey stone
Allt na Slànaich flowing North East - burn of the healing (there is a mineral well marked nearby on the first edition OS map)
Allt an Rànain flowing North - burn of the stag’s roar/ cry/ bellow
It is May, the sky was blue at 6am and the rest of the house was asleep so I took off with the camera. Here are some photos of a walk from the door to the edge of the plain.
Today An Sealbhanaich is just another grouse moor and the only signs of human life there are traps of different sorts and butts. The wind farm turbines that Willie fought against are there. The Uisge Dubh has a private hydro now. A busy dusty forestry road runs through the woods below Creag nan Gobhar. Signs are in English and Polish. There are new large pylons following the Càrn na h-Innseag(/Innseig) road, the old droving route that takes you over the hills between Strathnairn and Strathdearn. Times change but, you can understand why Willie laments the rate and scale of these changes.
These names tell of other times and speak of human capacity, a diversity of habitat and wildlife, an awareness of conditions in the sky and underfoot, old beliefs maybe... This place had its own function. The people had purpose and a busy working life and spoke another language, Gaelic.
I’m glad to know there is a peaceful place just over the hill line. I can see Meall na Fuar Ghlaic from the door. I’ll take the kids to the Sealbhanaich this summer and tell them about these things.
Here is a map done in a hurry with inks and tracing paper, an ode to the place and a way to get to know it. I could add another layers with the wind farm roads and turbines or little pockets of life such as in the cut of Càrn Dubh Chromagach. A project that will roll on maybe …