Flanes Checked for Truth.

I’m not crazy about Robin Robertson’s “Near Gleann nam Fiadh” (LRB, 30 July 2020; archived) as a poem, but it’s got some intriguing vocabulary. It begins:

All night preparing: the pelts oiled, blades whetted, the flanes
checked for truth and sharpness, set loose enough
there in the quiver, before the dawn, before the Becoming.
To hunt the stag with honour, Father said, you must
change your shape and nature: assume his form.
Latching on the headpiece, the skullcap with its horns,
I walked soft into the morning, alert, changed:
no longer man but hart, red deer, fiadh, stag.

Flane is an Old English word for ‘arrow’ (Beowulf 2438 “Syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan, his freawine flane geswencte”; Battle of Maldon 71 “Þurh flanes flyht”) that was occasionally revived by poets of an antiquarian cast of mind (1724 Poems on Royal Company of Archers 34 “Burnished swords and whizzing flanes”); the OED (entry not fully updated since 1896) says:

Etymology: Old English flán masculine and feminine = Old Norse fleinn (masculine), cognate with Old English flá: see flo n. The word survived longest in Scots; otherwise the normal form would have been flone.

I like that last bit of alternative-history lexicography. As for fiadh, it’s the Irish word for ‘deer’; Wiktionary says:

From Old Irish fíad (“wild animals, game, especially deer”), from fid m (“wood”).

But Buck’s Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages isn’t so definitive, saying:

NIr. fiadh = Ir. fiad ‘wild animal, beast, deer’, W. gwydd ‘wild’ (: Ir. fid ‘tree’ or ON veiðr ‘the hunt’? Walde-P. 1.230, 314. Pederson 1.111 f.). Specialization as in NE deer. Loth, RXC 35.35.

Later in the poem he uses cleuch (Scottish) “A gorge or ravine with precipitous and usually rocky sides, generally that of a stream or torrent” or “The precipitous side of a gorge; a steep and rugged descent”; “stooping him through with my dirk” (apparently the OED’s stoop 11. To plunge (a knife) in a person’s body. Obsolete. 1662 J. Lamont Diary “[He] was strangled in his bed priuately, and, fearing he sould recouered, a knife was stooped in his throat”); inmeat (Now rare exc. dialect) “Those internal parts or viscera of an animal which are used for food; hence gen. Entrails, inwards”; and redd² (Of uncertain origin) “To clear or clean out; To put in order, to make tidy.” In a single line we get:

Acorné, sanglant, fracted.

I can’t find acorné in either my French or English dictionaries (including OED and TLFi), but James Parker’s Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry (1894) has (in the H section) “Horned, (fr. acorné) of the Bull, Unicorn, and Owl, when the horns are of another tincture”; sanglant is of course ‘bloody’; and fracted is “1. (heraldry) Having a part displaced, as if broken; said of an ordinary. 2. broken.” That’s my idea of fun.


  1. cleuch (Scottish) “A gorge or ravine with precipitous and usually rocky sides, generally that of a stream or torrent”

    English “clough.”

  2. fiadh “deer” is also conflated with fiadha “lord”, “Lord [God]”, whence perhaps the Irish expression “the dear knows”.

  3. Ah, I thought that sounded familiar — you mentioned it in 2018. (Not a reproach — I’d forgotten it, and being reminded of things is increasingly useful!)

  4. I may be headed to a ski area called Caberfae next month. They state that the name is Scottish Gaelic for stag’s head. I don’t find it in online dictionaries, but presumably fae is cognate with fiadh, and related feidh? Did fae use an older spelling convention?

    Of course, I don’t find caber in the online dictionaries either.

    On a somewhat related topic, I had been reading comments on another thread here which mentioned Vich Ian Vohr, I wondered whether Vich had a normal etymology in Gaelic that might have a relationship with -vich in Slavic languages, but reflected that more likely it was just cognate with Fitz. But it was another Gaelic term I was unable to track down at all. Any search I could come up with just led me back to that particular name. Can anyone tell me anything about that.

    Or are both just examples of English speakers dabbling poorly in Scottish Gaelic? Both seem to have Walter Scott in their pedigree, which has me dubious.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Mhic Iain Mhòr…? I don’t know what form mhic is of mac, but it exists, IIRC.

  6. https://www.scottish-country-dancing-dictionary.com/dance-crib/caberfei.html quotes “Cabar Feidh” as meaning “”A Deer’s Antlers”. Seems to check out – cabar fèidh – based on dfctionaries.

  7. mhic is genitive

    Fergus MacIvor Vich Ian Vohr

    Fergus mac Ìomhair mhic Iain mhòr

    Fergus son of Íomhar son of big Ian

  8. There’s a road in Cork named Uam Var Drive. The government Placenames Branch recommends Céide na hUaimhe Móire for the Irish translation, but “Uam Var” is left untranslated in the council’s nameplate, presumably erected at a time when institutional memory had forgotten that it was a Gaelic name from another stag-hunt poem, by the aforementioned Walter Scott. OTOH the Placenames Branch leaves nearby Benvoirlich Estate (from the same poem) as Eastát Benvoirlich, not Eastát Binne Mhúrlaig.

  9. Should be “Fergus mac Ìomhair mhic Iain mhòir” … I think

  10. Ah, thanks. So these are good Gaelic, but not spelled in the modern standard. Were they based on an earlier convention? Or just a freelance English transliteration to avoid misunderstandings for people like me who would want to pronounce Cabar Feidh like guitar played.

  11. The Michigan ski resort of Caberfae was apparently named by Kenneth MacKenzie of Chicago in 1919; I couldn’t find any similar name in https://gazetteer.org.uk/ ; Kenneth may simply have made it up. “cabar fèidh” would be Scottish Gaelic for “deer’s antler” rather than “deer’s head”.

    Most English placenames in Ireland are anglicised respellings of the Irish Gaelic name. In Scotland many minor placenames preserve the Gaelic spelling.

    In Ireland, Gaelic personal names were given adhoc anglicisations as needed until the 19th century, by which time surnames were somewhat standard (modulo O or Mac) and given names were mostly standard Latin-rite saints, with only a few common names of purely Gaelic origin. Dunno about Gaelic Scotland.

  12. If you Google caberfae walter scott, you can see that it wasn’t the Chicago McKenzie who made it up. And googling caber feidh mckenzie there seems to be a genuine ancient connection between the term, however spelled, and the family.

    My guess is the Chicago McKenzie had no strong connection to his ancient ancestors, whatever spelling they used, and got it from Scott.

    There’s even a shinty team called Caber Feidh in Scotland, and they translate it as stag’s head. I think the distinction between head and antlers may be too subtle to be useful when our subject is something primarily discussed in its role as a hunting trophy.

    Update: The shinty team’s village was the seat of the McKenzies and backdrop for several of the battles of the original Caber Feidh, also named Kenneth, in the late 1400s.

  13. Excellent research. Also, Strathpeffer is a funny name.

  14. Yes. Srath Pheofhair I wondered if it was a cognate with pepper/pfeffer. But it’s the Valley of the Peffery, the Bright Shining River.

    Reminds me the Vietnam history I once read, A Peffery Lie

  15. Heh.

  16. And Sheehan of course is an Irish name. It all fits.

  17. The “checked for truth” sounds peculiar to me. I think the archery enthusiasts I once knew would have said their shafts were “checked for true” (a phrasing which, to those unfamiliar with it, probably sounds even more peculiar). Obviously, however, my acquaintances were speakers of a different dialect from the narrator of that poem.

  18. >The “checked for truth” sounds peculiar to me.

    You true a bike wheel. Checking it for truth sounds off to me, but I don’t talk about the topic very much. Any bike mechanics here?

  19. And there he plays extravagant matches
    In fitless finger-stalls,
    On a cloth untrue
    With a twisted cue
    And elliptical billiard balls.

  20. There is also a certain whisky brand that purports to have a deer as part of its name.

  21. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue puts this stooped under stop, sense 6.b. The entry also shows other instances of the spelling of this verb with oo in Scots. (Unfortunately, no digital version of the manuscript of Lamont’s diary appears to be available to verify the reading of the print edition, top of p. 145, of 1830.) The Scots verb corresponds to Modern English stop, rather than stoop (Scots equivalent under stoup), of course. The OED entry for stop also has this sense (I.11.a): “To thrust, push (a thing, more rarely a person) in, into a receptacle or place; also, †to thrust (a boat under water). Chiefly Scottish.” Was it mere spelling that led the OED editors to put the passage from John Lamont’s diary under stoop rather than stop? The development they imply, “to let down” > “to plunge (a knife) in”, is not as straightforward as “to stop up” > “stick (a sharp point) in”, at least to my mind. I’ll write to the editor I know at the OED and ask that they consider a review of this sense.

  22. elliptical billiard balls

    I’m not the first to point out: Rather “ellipsoidal.”

  23. Was it mere spelling that led the OED editors to put the passage from John Lamont’s diary under stoop rather than stop?


    I’ll write to the editor I know at the OED and ask that they consider a review of this sense.

    Let us know what you hear back.

  24. So Capricorn means goathorn. So how would one add ‘with a fish’s tail’ ?

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    The initial fl- made me idly wonder if there was any connection to “fletcher” as an archaic arrow-related occupational title (preserved in a surname subsequently repurposed as a given name for such varied worthies as Fletcher Christian and Fletcher Henderson). But apparently “fletch” is un-Anglo-Saxon and goes back via French to (conjectural?) Vulgar Latin *fleccia. But that is in turn hypothesized to be a borrowing from Frankish or something else Germanic, so my vague sense that “fletch” sounded like it could be Saxon was not too embarrassing …

  26. Just noticing this

    >”Later in the poem he uses cleuch (Scottish) “A gorge or ravine with precipitous and usually rocky sides, generally that of a stream or torrent”

    This seems precious, since the English word clough already exists. It’s kind of my take on the whole poem – dialectical and technical terms might have added color, or handled differently might have seemed the authentic voice of the narrator, but in profusion they become precious and even tedious. Using nose as a transitive verb doesn’t help my impression.

  27. Yeah, the poem is not impressive; “precious” is le mot juste.

  28. So Capricorn means goathorn. So how would one add ‘with a fish’s tail’ ?

    Capricorn Piscicaud? But the “goathorn” and he “fishtail” are from different depictions of the constellation.

  29. “Pregnant banana,” was how my middle school Earth Science teacher described the constellation.

  30. I’ve been known to go nosing about, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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