Updated: Mar 2
Scottish Gaelic is spoken by about 87,000 people in Scotland (Alba), mainly in the Highlands (a’ Ghaidhealtachd) and in the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar), but also in Glasgow (Glaschu), Edinburgh (Dùn Eideann) and Inverness (Inbhir Nis). There are also small Gaelic-speaking communities in Canada, particularly in Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh) and on Cape Breton Island (Eilean Cheap Breatainn). What I love most about learning the language is that the alphabet is written with just 18 letters each of which is named after a tree or shrub.
Today I will explore the first letter – “A” one of five vowels. Like French and other romantic languages, gàidhlig vowels (fuaimreagan) have second pronunciations and diphthongs (dà-fhoghair).
a is pronounced long as in cat
á is pronounced short as in bata (boat) or lochán (lake)
à is pronounced long as in cad, or gàidhlig (scottish gaelic) or bàta (stick)
The first letter of the scottish gàidhlig alphabet is A. A = ailmUlmus glabra Wych Elm or Scots Elm
This is the most common elm tree in Scotland, the Wych Elm or Scots Elm (Ulmus glabra). Although this tree does not produce foliage until later in the spring, the seed cases appear early – around the same time as wild cherry leaves – and look like small leaves at a distance. A very grand stately tree when mature as it can reach heights over 40 m (120 ft) with the typical broad crown (think really big broccoli).
Leaves are deciduous, alternate, 6–17 cm long and 3–12 cm broad, usually obovate with an asymmetric base, the lobe often completely covering the short petiole; the upper surface is rough – think sandpaper. Leaves on juvenile shoots sometimes have three or more lobes near the apex.
Flowers are perfect, produced in clusters of 10-20; 4 mm across on 10 mm long stems and are apetalous.
Like the plight of elms in North America, the Wych or Scots Elm is highly susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease so it is now quite rare.
However, elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning, and were the preferred choice for coffins. In Lichfield it was the custom to carry elm twigs in a procession around the Cathedral Close on Ascension Day, then to throw them in the font.
Not so cheerful Christian rituals.
Pagan symbol for ailm. “A” – the first letter of the gàidhlig alphabet.
Let’s go back to the pagan roots: the majestic and noble elm was always associated with the loving Mother and caring Earth goddesses, and a perfect home for the wee fae people.
Ailim be the lady’s tree; burn it not or cursed ye’ll be – Kipling
Once valued for its resistance to splitting and stability, the inner bark was used for cordage and chair caning, so it’s no wonder it was considered a noble tree.
Nature was very important to the Gaels.
Gus an ath-thuras!