Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs”

"Doing The Dubhs" illustration

[The letter] h is one of the most common letters on any page of Gaelic, and as a result has become the victim of its own popularity. In pseudo- or pidgin Gaelic it is used by many who do not know the language well and feel that the liberal insertion of a few examples of h will give a more authentic flavour to their Gaelic.

George McLennan A Gaelic Alphabet (2009)

I recently wrote about the linguistic phenomenon of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, using a puzzle poem by Lionel Hinxman (from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897) as my jumping-off point. You can find that poem, and discussion, here.

Reading that poem brought to mind another piece of poetry, about “Doing the Dubhs”, also published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, in which Gaelic hill names were pressed into use as substitutes for English words. Eventually I discovered I had four copies of this poem on my bookshelves, in two different versions—and it was one of these versions that brought to mind McLennan’s words, quoted at the head of this post.

I’ll let you read the poem in a minute, but first a couple of examples of what McLennan is talking about.

The one I’m reminded of most often comes from an organization based not too far from where I live: the Cairn O’ Mohr winery. (“Care No More.” Geddit?) There’s obviously a reference to a famous Scottish road in there, the Cairn o’ Mount, but there’s really no apparent justification for that ectopic “h”, other than as an attempt to “Gaelic up” the company’s name in the way McLennan describes. But anyone who knows any Gaelic will recognize that the “h” is in the wrong place to form any plausible Gaelic word. Then there’s the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. In Gaelic this is Rùm, though the meaning is unclear. What it certainly isn’t is “Rhum”, a name concocted by its one-time owner, Sir George Bullough, reportedly because he didn’t like to be associated with the apparent reference to an alcoholic beverage. Again, the “h” just looks Gaelic, provided you don’t know any Gaelic, and the Nature Conservancy Council (who acquired the island from the Bullough family), eventually reverted the spelling to “Rum” in 1991.

Another common example is the “h” in skean dhu, the common English version of Gaelic sgian-dubh, “black knife”—which is the (now) decorative short knife worn in the stocking-top of a person wearing formal Highland dress. The “h” in “dhu” serves no useful purpose in conveying the sound of the original dubh, “black” (which is close to “doo”)—again, it’s just there to make the English look a bit Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this spelling comes from Sir Walter Scott (he wrote “skene-dhu”), so we know who to blame. And in this case it’s actively counterproductive, because in Gaelic the “h” would alter the sound of the “d”, making “dhu” sound like “ghoo”.

Which brings me, seamlessly, to the two versions of the famous “Doing the Dubhs” poem. The most commonly quoted version appears in my copy of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s regional guide, Island of Skye (2nd ed., 1948), and their Climber’s Guide to the Cullin of Skye (1958), as well as in Hamish MacInnes’s mountain-rescue memoir, Call-Out (1973). It goes as follows:

Said Maylard to Solly, one day in Glen Brittle,
“All serious climbing, I vote, is a bore;
Just for once I Dubh Beag you’ll agree to do little,
And, as less we can’t do, let’s go straight to Dubh Mor.”

So now, when they seek but a day’s relaxation,
With no thought in the world but of viewing the views,
And regarding the mountains in mute adoration,
They call it not “climbing” but “doing the Dubhs.”

Gaelic “Dubh Mor” is doing duty for English “do more”, while “Dubh Beag” is filling in for “do beg”. The former makes a reasonable fit between the Gaelic and English, but the latter relies on a common pronunciation in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic—in Scottish Gaelic dubh beag sound more like “do bake”.

So that’s the bilingual wordplay dealt with. But unless you know your way around the Skye Cuillin, there’s a bit of background required before I go on to discuss the other version of the poem. “The Dubhs” to which the poem refers are three summits along a ridge that extends eastwards from the main Cuillin ridge towards Loch Coruisk—the summits are, from west to east: Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (“Black Peak of the Two Mountains”); Sgùrr Dubh Mòr (“Big Black Peak”) which is the highest point; and Sgùrr Dubh Beag (“Little Black Peak”). Here they are on the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet of 1903:

Sgurr Dubh ridge, OS 6-inch 1903
Click to enlarge

(Notice, in passing, that the cartographer has mistakenly placed the diacritical mark intended for the “u” in “Sgùrr Dubh Mòr” over the “g”.)

“Doing the Dubhs” generally means making a traverse of this ridge, which is by no means an easy undertaking. But my link also reports that:

Doing the Dubhs’ is a paraphrase born from the Isle of Skye that translates roughly as ‘having one of the best days possible in UK hills’.

This seems to refer back to the “day’s relaxation” of the poem.

For a full explanation we need to move on to the second version of the poem, which appears in The Munroist’s Companion (1999) by Robin N. Campbell.

Campbell provides a publication history for the poem, tracing its origin to the reverse of the menu card for the Scottish Mountaineer Club’s annual dinner in 1905, and deduces that the poem, though unattributed on publication, is perhaps the work of William Douglas, a pillar of the SMC in its early days. He also reproduces the cartoon that graces the head of this post, presumably from the same source. And he gives us a title, which takes the form of a quotation attributed to A. Ernest Maylard, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club:

“We Had Always Wanted To Do The Dubhs” – A.E. Maylard

Maylard, of course, features in the first line of the poem. His companion, “Solly”, is no doubt Godfrey A. Solly, a notable climber of the day. And the inspiration for the poem is, Campbell tells us, an article Maylard wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1905, entitled “Only a Beautiful Day on the Hills”. This was something notable in the SMCJ of the time, which dealt largely with new routes and daring adventures—Maylard chose to write about a day:

[…] with no further objective than to enjoy ourselves, and with just that charming sense of inertia that is felt when nothing special has to be accomplished.

It’s by no means lacking in physical activity—it involves a snowy ascent of Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. But it also involves quite a bit of strolling and sitting and enjoying the scenery—the essence of “doing the Dubhs”, according to the poem.

But now (finally), I can get to the aspect of Campbell’s version that brought to mind McLennan’s observation about the intrusive, pseudo-Gaelic “h”—because the version of the poem reproduced by Campbell talks about “Dubh Bheag” and “Dubh Mhor”. Now, Campbell is a careful editor, who elsewhere in his book comments in negative terms about the Ordnance Survey’s distortion of Gaelic hill names; so I assume he has faithfully transcribed the spelling in the original version. In support of that assumption, we can note that Maylard, in his original article, also writes of “Sgurr Dubh Mhor”. (The Ordnance Survey seems to be blameless on this occasion, as my image taken from their contemporary mapping shows, above.) And, lest you imagine that this is merely a century-old variant, you can still find “Sgurr Dubh Mhor” on the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s own website, as well as scattered around the internet in walk reports and photo captions.

But that variant spelling is a tragedy for the poem. While “Dubh Mor” and “Dubh Beag” are reasonable stand-ins for “do more” and “do beg”, “Dubh Mhor” and “Dubh Bheag” are most definitely not—the intruded “h” shifts their Gaelic pronunciation to “do vore” and “do vake”.

There’s also the problem that, while mhòr and bheag are perfectly good Gaelic adjectives (they’re the lenited forms of mòr and beag), they do violence to Gaelic grammar when applied to the noun sgùrr.

Gaelic uses lenition (the “weakening” of an initial consonant, usually by adding an “h”) as a grammatical marker. In particular, with relevance to the naming of hills, adjectives are lenited after nouns with female gender, but not after those with male gender—and sgùrr is a masculine noun. So Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is the correct form. To see appropriate lenition, we must look for hill names that use feminine nouns like beinn and creag. We can, for instance, see both dubh and mòr being appropriately lenited in the name of Creag Dhubh Mhòr.

So it should be easy enough to figure out when the adjectives in a hill name can be appropriately lenited with an “h”, and when it’s just pseudo-Gaelic. If the hill is a beinn or a creag or a stùc (all female), then lenite away; but if it’s a sgùrr, a tom, a càrn, a meall or a stob (all male), then don’t.

Unfortunately, while this can serve as a useful rule of thumb, it’s far from infallible. Look, for instance, at Beinn Dearg (“red mountain”). It’s a common name—I’ve linked to just one of the many hills in Scotland called Beinn Dearg. But a modern Gael, asked to translate “red mountain” into Scottish Gaelic, would probably offer the lenited form: beinn dhearg. And yet I search in vain for a Beinn Dhearg in the Ordnance Survey database that comes with my Anquet Outdoor Map Navigator software.

What’s going on? It turns out that Scottish Gaelic used to have a fairly wide-ranging pronunciation rule, the “homo-organic rule”, which blocked lenition under some circumstances. This has largely faded from modern Gaelic, the last survivor of the rule being that a noun ending in “n” blocks lenition of a following adjective beginning with “d” or “t”. This is still stated in modern Gaelic grammar books, like my copy of Olaf Klöcker’s Concise Grammar: Scottish Gaelic (2015), but there’s evidence that many modern Gaelic speakers aren’t actually following the rule. However, Gaelic placenames, which are centuries old, generally abide by it. In this case, because the terminal “n” in “Beinn” and the initial “d” in “Dearg” are both pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the back of teeth, the one sound slides into the other easily, and lenition was consistently blocked in Gaelic at the time when these landscape features were being assigned names by the Gaels.*

There’s a fine example of blocked and unblocked lenition quite close to the Dubhs, in the form of Beinn Dearg Mhòr. There you can see how the homo-organic rule blocks the lenition of “d” after “n”, but not of “m” after “g”.

So is that it all sorted, then? Are lenition and the homo-organic rule all we need to know, to decide whether we should insert that pesky “h”? Sadly, no. There are many departures from these rules. For instance, there’s a fully unlenited Beinn Dearg Mòr out there, sitting incongruously right next to a half-lenited Beinn Dearg Bheag. I’ve no idea what that’s about—perhaps it reflects some peculiarity of local pronunciation, or is just one of the Ordnance Survey’s notorious errors of transcription. And sgòrr, a variant of sgùrr that is listed as a masculine noun in modern Gaelic dictionaries, frequently turn up accompanied by lenited adjectives, as if it were feminine—for instance Sgòrr Dhearg and its neighbour Sgòrr Bhan.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has explanations for these.

* The sgian-dubh I mentioned at the start of this post is another example of blocked lenition preserved into modern usage—a so-called “frozen form”. Sgian is a feminine noun, so if you took a knife and painted it black, a modern Gael would call it sgian dhubh. The old, lenition-blocked name sgian-dubh now applies solely to the decorative stocking-top item. (Which, so the story goes, was named dubh in a figurative sense, because it was originally a concealed weapon. The Gaels are said to have used dubh, “black”, in the same metaphorical way that English sometimes uses “dark”—the Victorians labelled the regions of Africa that were yet to be seen by Europeans “Darkest Africa”, for instance; and the “dark side of the moon” was so named because it is hidden from view, not because of any imagined lack of sunlight.)

2 thoughts on “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs””

    1. Interesting, thanks. Where do you know it from?
      The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a headword entry for “dhu”, which suggests it’s strongly dialectic; nor does it appear in the on-line Dictionaries of the Scots Language, so it must be quite obscure, even by my standards.
      The OED does offer “dhu stone”, with “dhu” pronounced as you say, which it derives from Welsh du, “black”. So another ectopic “h”, it would seem, and the English pronunciation has strayed a long way from the original Welsh “dee”.
      The DSL offers “sidier dhu” (from Gaelic saighdear dubh, “black soldier”) for members of the nascent Black Watch regiment—another concoction first known from the writing of Walter Scott.

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