Some Colour Trends

mountains are cultivated
with the eyes

The familiar settings in which my recent walking and mapping projects have found themselves – A Company ofMountains (14 mountain conspectus on the Isle of Skye), Walking and Seeding the John Muir Way, a walk and planting from Dunbar to Helensburgh, and there were our own /there were the others, a series of silent walks of remembrance at parks and gardens in England in the care of the National Trust – are, in their distinct characters, at odds with the wild atypical uplands of The Cabrach. This peaty 'gamekeepery' region is lodged between the Cairngorm massif to the south and the ferm-touns of Strathbogie to the north. Here there are hills, but no definitive mountain range, and glens, but set within expanses of boggy mire. To the novice it seems a region likely to endanger ankles and displace the mind from sensible landmarks and settled categories.

word-mntn (Cairngorm), poem AF, photograph LA

The Cabrach is, in human terms, semi-extinct. It bears the traces of settlement, transhumance and wayfaring, in shieling, drove roads, blue-stone cairns, fords, wells, stone circles, and bothies – all hinted at in place-names. 

Nowadays the hills are dominated by the old and new technologies of factory grouse shooting and wind-farms, which lay down metalled tracks, erect deer fences, and speak to the horror vacui of forced decline and exploitation. Land ownership in Scotland remains an issue that froths and grumbles but awaits the full spate of reform.

The Cabrach+ project that I have been working on over the past year was commissioned by Deveron Arts Hielan’ Ways, co-ordinators of The Walking Institute. I have given the work the title:

Some Colour Trends:

a genealogy of place-names relating to colour in the Cabrach and neighbouring regions with new translations into English

Here trend is shucked away from its metropolitan context: trend, from treid, troda drove, a path, a direction of travel. My trending is a tweet-free zone.

Unlike previous journey projects, the road north and Out of Books, which revived the traditional notion of The Tour and renewed cultures of viewing, in The Cabrach I could find no figures to follow – no Basho & Sora, Boswell & Johnson, Pennant, or Burns, to act as visitors and guides. Aside from some local history there were no obvious significant texts to rub shoulders with. Its an oral landscape, best known for its bothy songs.

At first I felt thwarted by the seeming lack of definition in the landscape – one could almost say, in contemporary-speak, the place seemed to lack topographical 'celebrity', compared to Skye, with its famous mountain peaks. The drove roads – or trends – that defined the project sometimes exist as marked routes, some of which carry names; others have been colonised by roads, where folk's need to travel upgraded them; and sometimes the trends are anonymous, half-lost, or forgotten. Haldane's Old Roads of Scotland remains the classic history.

Today Scotland brims with new Ways named after celebrities – Muir, Cuthbert, Buchan – but out there on the moors, looking for Ca' place-names, following -------- paths, we would be looking to tread in the footsteps of the anonymous drover.

There were also my practical limits as a walker. Claudia Zieske, a hiker of marathon proportions, was curious about how I might access these remote places, without stepping over them? And I had to ask myself: why this insistence to track with the mind and imagination where the legs cant step? 

Skye has a culture of skylines. The John Muir Way is a single trail to plant seeds along. But what of the all-over-up-down-and-boggy Cabrach? What landscape is more removed from the careerist highways of the contemporary, from the Sublime or Romantic? 

My research began with John Milne's Celtic Names of Aberdeenshire – this was before I learnt that he is notoriously unreliable. I read that the drovers, always travelling at the pace of their beasts, a steady 10-miles a day, would distinguish between the black roads, Ca' Dubh, whose peat moss became impassable in rain, and the more secure footing of the yellow trends, Ca' Buidhe. From that black/yellow differentiation I then devised a systematic analysis, based upon place-names and colours.

Names, to reveal the patterns of habitation and hybridity, from Gaelic, to Gaelscots, Scots, and English, with traces of Pictish and hints of Indo-European.

Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe

   Meikle Caochan Odhar

      Gowdie Hillock

         The Wormy Hollow

         River Deveron

Colours, to reveal how the inhabitants perceived the stuff of the earth’s surface, how they spoke to its appearance, and what that said of use.

Hill of Snowy Slack

   Hill of Greenfold

      Hill of Blackroads


            Cnapan Or

Colours to isolate cultural perceptions – names – and topographical realities – peat, heather, moorgrass, sward, heathen stone – and expose them to an aesthetic regime of typographical modeling, rendering the colour walks that illustrate this blog – the colours chosen in collaboration with John Murray, the designed composed with Studio LR. The Cabrach was revealed to be more colourful than its appeared.

after Nicolaisen


names are composed of words
for what a place once was


the names of rivers, burns & mountains
are the mother lode of onomastics


no text reveals the gap
between speaking and writing
more than the maps
of the Scottish Highlands:

The task was to explore lost languages and eroded ecologies.

there are no rowan
on Rowan Mountain

Trace land usage.

from shieling to shooting butt

a rise in class
a fall from grace

To finally understand why so many Gaelic names refer, in translation, to combined colours, bluey-grey, greeny-grey; to grasp why a mountain range was blue-gorm to some folk and red-ruadh to others; and see how broken-breacain, pockled hillsides defined the original tartans.

the complexity of Scotland’s rocks
gave birth to a science: geology
as its terrain gave birth to tartan

(after Paul Shepheard)

Three Burns


Allt na Duibhre, Gloomy Burn

my head rose in moor-grass
then spilt into darkness


Ault Tairich Laichcavine, Ruddy Burn of the Butterwards

a faint flavour
   of butter

Allt na Greine, Wee Sun-warmed Burn

vestiges of cud
flushes of  sun

Another task that I took on was the composition of English translations of the names. I have attempted to create respectful equivalents to the Scots and Gaelic originals, as an alternative to the existing translations, which are functional transcriptions of elements, with little attempt to suggest the names’ music or deeper associations. Perhaps this is one way in which the poet can renovate the wilderness?

The Thwarts

   Ferricky Burn 

      Drabbit Hillside

         Haunt of the Lucky Stag

            Bridge of the Eerie-lanestanes

the walk leaves
a lag that lurks
in pools of darkness

And what of that fundamental question of belonging – in a place that I can barely access, whose moors are bare, strange, beautiful in moments of sunny prospect? I think back to the accusation You can never belong in nature”, and recognize again how that forced my awareness: with or without walking, we may find and share ways of belonging in the wilderness.

Some Colour Trends was made in collaboration with:

Ron Brander, who advised on local history.
Maoilios Caimbeul, who made Gaelic translations.
Alexander Twig Champion, who made field trips
Peter Drummond, who advised on the interpretation of place-names
John Stuart-Murray, who advised on place-names on colours
Amy Porteous, who helped with the mapping
Gill Russell, who made field trips and maps
David Wheatley, who composed a companionable essay
Simone Kenyon, who walked the entire route

And Luke Allan and Brodie Sim, who co-ordinate the studio.

It will appear as a book and digital prints in November 2014, on the occasion of a symposium organized by The Walking Institute, Deveron Arts, in Tomintoul.

for Hielan’ Way, commissioned by DeveronArts.

The WalkingInstitute initiative was developed by Deveron Arts in collaboration with guest curator Simone Kenyon.

The Hielan' Ways network includes historical routes, colour walks, hydrological walks, and a 5-day route with accommodation.


  1. Thanks Alec, this is lovely.
    Did you publish the book? If so, please direct me to it.
    A couple of thoughts of mine:
    I remember the full shock when I saw that the mountain slope of Carn Mor Dearg by Ben Nevis really was Red, a big red cairn right down to the fault line where the stream runs.
    There may be no rowan on Rowan Mountain, but I saw 2 black birds on the foothill of the Ben, by Fort William, I didn't realise it properly at the time but when I checked the mountain's name, it was in Gaelic raven crag or something like that.
    The colours glow most vividly when it's a little overcast, right down to the blades of grass.


    1. Hi Tim,

      Thank you for your comments and recollections. Some Colour Trends was published by Deveron Arts. You can find the details for the book through the link below, and if you would like to order a copy just email info@alecfinlay.com and we can organise that for you.


      Studio Alec Finlay



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