gangrel (noun): a vagabond, vagrant or wandering beggar; a lanky, loose-limbed person; a toddler (Scottish hillwalking: a person who wanders far among the hills)

  Only the real gangrel penetrates this remote corrie with its shivering waters and black Sgurr.

Hamish Brown, Hamish’s Mountain Walk (1978)

Brown is talking about Loch a’ Choire Mhoir, above—an out-of-the-way spot tucked around the back of Seana Bhraigh, one of Scotland’s more out-of-the-way hills. There aren’t any topographic features called sgurr (a pointed peak) in the vicinity, but Brown’s description, black sgurr, certainly fits the ridge of Creag an Duine, which looms across the loch from Coiremor bothy, where he was spending the night. Brown uses the word gangrel fourteen times in his classic book, and always with approval. In Brown’s vocabulary, a gangrel is the very model of a hill-wanderer, someone to be admired and respected—in contradistinction to its original meanings, all of which to some extent reflect the implications of the -rel suffix, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “diminutive and depreciatory”. Brown’s book, describing his continuous, self-propelled round of all Scotland’s Munros (hills over 3000ft), was hugely popular among Scottish hill-walkers. Brown was the first to complete this feat, and his book has been pretty much continuously in print ever since. There’s no doubt that Brown cemented this particular usage of the word gangrel into the minds of a generation of walkers. How did it come to acquire this new meaning? I don’t know, but there was a fashion among hill-writers of Brown’s generation (and among his predecessors) to resuscitate and repurpose Scots words—I suspect a close examination of back-issues of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal would cast a lot of light on the subject. Brown also introduced many of his readers to the word stravaig. Its original meaning is “to stroll or wander aimlessly”, but again under Brown’s care it became a positive thing—the sort of thing gangrels do. But nowadays, any hill writer who uses gangrel or stravaig is aiming for a particular effect—a sort of couthy, misty-eyed harking-back to a Golden Age of Scottish hill-walking. Use should be sparing—anyone who puts them both in the same sentence is liable to incur mockery. Both words feel as if they’re Gaelic, don’t they? But stravaig is Latin in origin, a cut-down rendering of extravagate, “to wander”, which will perhaps be the focus of another post. This time I’m going to concentrate on gangrel, which is a fine Germanic word. Gangrel comes from the Old English gangan, “to go”, which has living cousins in many Germanic languages—German eingang and Icelandic inngangur both mean “entrance”, for instance. In Scots, the Old English verb has been kept alive as gang, “to go” as in Robert Burns‘s lines from To A Mouse:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

(The second line can be rendered into standard English as “Go oft awry”.) A person who walks is a ganger. That usage is commemorated in the cognomen of Rolf the Ganger (in Old Norse, Gongu-Hrólfr), the first Viking ruler of Normandy—a man so large he couldn’t find a horse that could carry him, obliging him to walk everywhere. (Although I’ve also seen it suggested that he was simply so tall his feet hung down to the ground when mounted on one of the diminutive horses of his time, so it looked as if he was walking.) As a noun, gang has had multiple meanings in English. First, it was used to designate the act or a style of walking, or a journey; then a road or passage, or the course of a stream. Much later, it was used to indicate the amount of something that could be carried in a single journey, by a person or a pack animal—two pails of water was a gang, for instance. From that idea, it came to mean any set of things—so a pair of oars was a gang. And from that, a group of people working or going about together—a gang of workmen, a gang of thieves—which is our current understanding of the noun. The oldest meaning is preserved in gangway and gang-plank, which are things you walk along. The Edinburgh suburb of Oxgangs gets its name from an old measure of land area, the oxgang. A carucate was the amount of land that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen in a year; an eighth of that area was considered to be the contribution of a single ox—an oxgang. (An odd measure, really, since all the oxen had walked all the way around the land.) And what the Christian church now calls Rogation Days (the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day) were once called gang-days, because they were a time of processions; Rogation Week was then called Gang-week. (Rogation means “supplication”—so the focus has shifted from the processions themselves, to the prayer chanted during the processions.) As well as people, some animals go around in gangs—bison, elk and turkeys. All of these have alternative collective nouns—a herd of bison or elk, an obstinacy of bison, and a rafter of turkeys. Finally, we have gangling, which was once applied to straggling growth in plants—as if the plant were seeking to travel somewhere. By analogy, it’s now applied to people who are tall and loose-limbed, and that’s probably the derivation of the second meaning for gangrel (“a lanky, loose-limbed person”) I gave at the head of this post. With regard to -rel, that “diminutive and depreciatory” suffix, we have numerous examples. Some are of obscure origin, like mackerel, doggerel, scoundrel and kestrel. Some are obvious diminutives—a cockerel seems to have originally been the word for a small cock, and a pickerel is a young pike. A hoggerel is a young … sheep. (The word comes from hogg, a sheep that is no longer a lamb but has yet to be sheared.) And some are dismissive—a wastrel is someone who wastes; a haverel is someone who havers (talks nonsense); a bedrel is a bedridden person; a dotterel is a stupid bird (from the same root as dote and dotard); and a mongrel takes its name from a shortened form of among, indicating a mixture. Some are splendidly obscure. A custrel was the attendant of a knight—the name coming from custile, a large two-edged knife carried by such attendants. A costrel was “pilgrim’s bottle”, supplied with looped handles so it could be carried on a belt while travelling. Its name derived from the Old French costier, “a thing which is by the side”. And a stammerel is a stammerer, but not the sort you think. Stammerers and stammerels were loose stones left in the quarry after the larger rocks had been removed—as if the rocks had developed some sort of physical stammer. Finally, Scots dialect gives us gomerel and gamphrel, both of unknown origin, both indicating a simpleton. But perhaps Scottish hill writers of the future will find a way to give them a positive spin, as happened with gangrel.

2 thoughts on “Gangrel”

    1. Yes, all the old meanings of “gangrel” have pretty much died out. There’s just this one odd reinterpretation in a Scottish hillwalking context, being kept alive by a few people.

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