Field of the land producing thatch
Shieling of grinding wheat
Burn beside the dun coloured dell
Burn of the mournful bleat
Burn of the black waterfall
Burn of the windy space
Burn of the rock where MacRenish lived
A robber of that place
Burn of the hawthorn tree
Trough of the grey hound’s peak
Burn of the house of the ravine
Knoll of the men of peace
Pass of the dell or arrows
The dell of hides and skins
The hamlet of the hollow
Hill of the moaning winds
The coffer of the hand mill
The stone of the slender grass
Pass of the little bramble bush
Brae where the corpses pass
The glen suited for cattle
The hollow of the bog
The clachan of the stepping stones
Of Linn and fallen log
The fairy knoll of battles
The mountains of the mine
The black peak of the badgers
The ben of the creeping pine
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2015. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2015 was Ken MacLeod.
David Bowie remarked that when he first read the dictionary, he thought it was ‘a really really long poem about everything’. Gaelic place names, like most (c.f. Judith Taylor’s ‘The Water’) contain a long poem of land, lore, and legend. Blackhall has found some of its verses here, and made them memorable – and memorisable.
The Celts believed Balquhidder was a ‘thin place’ where the spiritual world and the earthly world were close. There you’ll find Ben Ledi (‘the hill of God’), and traces of a Neolithic temple have been found. Tom nan Aingeal, the ‘hill of fire’, dates back to its use by Druids as a site for sacred fires lit on Beltane and Samhain.
For fifteen years I’ve travelled to Balquhidder each June for a week’s residential writing course at the Buddhist Retreat Centre of Dhanakosa. All the landmarks are Gaelic, and I wrote this poem place-list whilst staying there. Many Gaelic poems are written as lists, e.g. a verse dialogue between mother and daughter (c.1600): ‘If they are your brothers, they are my sons /It was from the bottom of my womb they dropped / It was on my knees they got comfort /It was my linen smock they wetted / It was the milk of my breasts they swallowed…’.