Back when the birds spoke Gaelic

Species: A tawny owl (Strix aluco) and magpie (Pica pica) have a battle of wits and it gets UGLY. An ambiguous grey bird is the judge.

Source: ‘Dàn mu Chonaltradh’ (English title: The Colloquy of the Birds).

Date: Modern! First published 1798, and written a few years before.

Highlights: Once upon a time, long ago, birds could speak Gaelic. Here’s the most famous example.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.


In British literature scholars occasionally find the strong belief that animals and especially birds used to be able to speak. We’ve dealt with a few examples before, but you don’t have to even go medieval to find a good source of anthropomorphic talking animals.

You may feel like you are medieval though. Sorry about that

‘Beast Literature’, stories where human-like, talking animals and birds are the main characters became especially popular in the twelfth century (Salisbury, 1994:124-8).

But the Beast Literature tradition did not invent the concept of talking animals. There was a native tradition in Gaelic and Welsh literature (e.g. ‘Nauigatio Brendani’, ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’) which may have originally been derived from the biblical stories of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and Baalam’s Donkey (Numbers 22). (Harris-Logan, 2007: 88-91).

Actually, the idea of animals learning to talk remains common in Scottish Gaelic folklore to this day. There is a literary saying (seanfhacal) in modern Gaelic. ‘Nuair a bha Ghaidhlig aig na h-eoin ‘s ann a bha linn an aigh’ (Back when birds spoke Gaelic…. that was the age of joy).


The most famous example of speaking animals from Scotland is probably a piece of poetry written by Eoghan MacLachlainn (Ewen MacLachlan) called ‘Dàn mu Chonaltradh’ (English title: The Colloquy of the Birds). It was first published in 1798, but is set in the distant age of joy. The translation I give is from Forbes (1905) and is tentative and literary rather than exact.

When MacLachlainn wrote this poem (c.1795) he was still a young man, working as a tutor at Clunes in Lochaber, south-west Scotland, saving money and hoping to go to university (Mackenzie, 1841:321-3). Perhaps the intended theme is one of hope – the world was once a magical place. Harris-Logan (2007:111) has pointed out that Gaelic poetry which represents birds talking is often written for escapist reasons or out of an aspiration for otherness.

But the theme does not have to be decided by the subject matter. In this case the poetry is not solely influenced by the Gaelic tradition. Given the biblical quote at the end, perhaps we should interpret the poem after the fashion of a fable. In this case the moral would glorify the owl’s passive and quiet role – its better to be quiet and thoughtful than loud and brash.

Nuair bha Gaelic aig na h-eoin
‘Sa thuigeadh iad gloir nan dàn
Bu tric an còmhradh sa choill
Air ioma ponc m’ as fior am bard
Thainig piaid luath na gleadhraich
Shuidh i air grod-mheur còsach fearna
Bha chomhachag na gurach riabhach
Ma coimibh gu ciallach, samhach.
(Macleoid, 1828:227-8)
When the birds spoke the Gaelic tongue
And understood the glory of song.
Full oft their converse in the woods
On many a point, unless the Bard is wrong.
Down then came the noisy magpie
And perched on a rotten branch of a hollow alder;
The owl like a speckled bunch
Opposite her, sensible and silent
(Forbes, 1905:236-8)

The introduction of the poem situates the poem. Birds generally are associated with woodland habitat (coille) and do not just speak but understand verse (dàn), and talk intelligently about all sorts of subjects (ioma ponc). They are not just speaking but wise, if we can trust what bards tell us (fior am bard).

The characters are also introduced. The magpie is introduced as if it was an action hero from the Fenian cycle. Its lines often start with actions. ‘Thainig iaid… shuidh i… Dh’eirich a phiaid gu grad’ (A magpie came… it sat… the magpie jumped up). At the same time its actions are hasty and foolish. It perches temporarily on a weak branch (a dying alder (alnus sp.) which may break at any time, stamps its foot and jumps around. The owl is introduced more placidly. It was there before the magpie arrived and very few actions are assigned to it.

Of course, the idea that owls are wise and quiet and magpies are loud and brash is not original to the poem, and was probably a popular cultural conceptualisation even in the eighteenth century. We have previously seen magpies being berated for their loquaciousness as early as the fourteenth century. A similar folkloric poem praising the owl’s quiet wisdom is preserved as Roud 7734 although only from the nineteenth century.

Dh’èirich a phiaid gu grad;
Thuirt i, ‘s i stailceadh a bonn:
“An dthusa sin a’ d’ mheall air stob?
An-uair air do choid-cheann trom!
‘M bi do theanga ghnà fo ghlais,
‘S tu gun luaidh air neach na ni
Cha dùinte ri sean-chloich bhric?
A spuch-shuileach a chnaip gun bhrigh!””Pu-hu-hu-u! tha thu faoin,!”
Ars eun maol a mhothair chòir
“Os mis tha fiosrach sa chùis,
Fheudail! ‘s beag an tùr tha’ d’ ghlòir.
Cha bheus liumsa glige ghlaige,
Chaoidh cha ghabh mi tlachd do’n luath-bheul;
Labhraidh mi ‘nuair chi mi feum air;
‘S cha choisinn mo bheul dhomh bruaidlein
Ach ‘s tric càch ort fein a’ magadh,
‘S a lithad glug-mhearachd bristeach,
Thaomas le cladhaireacd fhacal,
O shìor-chlabar guib gun tuigse.”
(Macleoid, 1828:227-8)
Then up started quickly the magpie
And said, while stamping her feet,
“Art thou there in a heap on a thorn.
While your silky head hangs heavy?
Is your tongue to be always locked
without mentioning any one or thing?
You’re as close as an old grey stone,
Which sapless on yonder knoll we see.”“Boo-hoo-hoo! You’re a fool!”
Said the bald bird of the kindly murmur.
“‘Tis I who am knowing in the case;
Dear and senseless is your chatter,
I do not admire glig-clag,
And never take pleasure in the hasty mouth.
I will speak when I see ’tis necessary
And my mouth won’t bring me sorrow;
But others often mock you.
While so many stupid mistakes
Pour forth in the cowardly word
Spoken flippantly by a senseless gab.”
(Forbes, 1905:236-8)

The second part of the poem is a traditional Scottish flyting battle of wits, where each participant heaps scorn upon another to win points and argue their case.

First the magpie speaks. It claims the owl is as dull as the scenery around it, and takes its silence as an indication of brainlessness.

The owl’s answer is very interesting. First, it claims the magpie talks too much and makes too many mistakes so will be seen as foolish.

More interestingly it also compares its own call ‘pu-hu-hu-u’ to the magpie’s ‘glige-ghlaige’. Fobes (1905) makes the owl’s call into the sound of crying, and leaves the magpie’s call untranslated suggesting just a nonsensical glug-glug sound. There is more to it than that however. This is actually an example of mimesis (mimicry). Gaelic poets of this period frequently represented bird calls in poetry, and expected readers to be able to mimic them.

The ‘pu-hu-hu-u’ is supposed to represent the call of an owl. It is the first sound the owl makes and assists the audience’s realisation that a new character is speaking. From this we can actually identify the owl to species level as a tawny (Strix aluco) (Harris-Logan, 2015 has pointed out to me the bird is also actually called riabhach (brindled), an adjective often applied to the tawny owl).  The magpie’s call is even more interesting in some ways because it is being used in mockery. The very sound the magpie makes is being held against it.

“Bu ghreis doibh mar so sa chonnsbuid,
A gearr-bhearradh gloir a chèile;
Gus an do leum a nuas an glas-eun,
‘S rinn esan gach beairt a rèiteach;
Air gach taobh ‘nuair chuail e chùis,
Thuirt e riu le rùn gun chleth:”M’as fiach mo bhriathran èisteachd,
So mar dhearnainn fein duibh breith,
‘S ioma barail a measg sluaig;
Is toigh le cuid ni ‘s fuath le càch
Pairt their dìreach na ni cùis,
‘S cuidach dùraig sgr gu bràth.
Tha àm gu labhairt, ‘s àm bhi sàmhach
Am gu cràbhadh, ‘s àm gu cleasachd,
Am gu bròn, is àm gu h-àbhachd;
‘Sonadh ‘n dream a thàras ceart iad.
S lionmhor iad da’n ainm bhi tuigseach,
O’n dthig mìle focal cearbach,
Còrr uair a mheasa tu gorrach,
Le tuille ‘s a chòir de sheanachas;
Neach ‘g am bi theanga fo smachd,
‘S ainmig leis gu’n gluais e lochd:
‘S saoilear gum bi ‘n t-ùmaidh glic
Nam b’eol da bhi tric na thosd.”
(Macleoid, 1828:227-8)
Awhile they thus colloquied or discussed.
Criticising sharply each other’s speech
‘Till down leapt the graybird.
Who speedily settled each point or case.
When he had heard all sides of the case.
He said to them, with evident design,”If my words are worth listening to
Thus would I do judgment among you:
Many people, many opinions ;
Some love what others hate,
Some say sufficient for the purpose.
Others hardly ever wish to stop;
There’s a time for speech and [a time to be quiet, a time for devotion and] a time for play,
A time for sorrow and a time for joy ;
[Happy are those that get what’s right for them?]
Many are there who are thought intelligent,
From whom come a thousand mistakes,
Occasionally you’d think them daft,
By the superfluity of their talk;
He who has his tongue under command
Seldom causes any harm —
The very fool may be thought wise
If frequently he held his peace.”
(Forbes, 1905:236-8)

The parts in square bracket were not translated by Forbes and are based on my own translation.

The end of the poem sees a new bird introduced, the ‘glas eun’ (grey bird). This could represent several birds. Dwelly (1988 ed.) suggests (1) rock-pipit (Anthus petrosus), (2) tree sparrow (Passer montanus), (3) sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) (4) falcon (Falco sp), red kite (Milvus milvus) or (5) chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). Carmichael offers (6) the meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis), which is called the ‘glasein’ in Harvie-Brown & Buckley (1888:58).

There are six clues for identification here:

  1. These birds are mainly small songbirds, meaning the term probably suggested these species first.
  2. The fact there is confusion suggests to me that the term is original to a rarer or especially a dwindling species with a less secure profile in the cultural memory, and the term has been shifted to other similar speces.
  3. However, the bird always solves disputes so it must be relatively widespread.
  4. The bird is called glas (green-grey)
  5. These birds meet in a wood.
  6. There are two pipits on the list

Considering all these factors I would suggest the most likely candidate for the ‘glas eun’ is the meadow pipit. It does not entirely meet all the criteria however, so I am not altogether happy with the identification. Harris-Logan (2015) has suggested to me that the reference was probably kept deliberately vague.

Photograph taken by Zambog and licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

You don’t find the meadow pipit. The meadow pipit finds you. Photograph taken by Zambog and licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The bird starts by paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 3. It is Christian and knows its scripture. Clearly therefore it is well qualified for ‘gach beairt a rèiteach’ (to settle each case). This bird gives its ‘briathran’ (courtroom judgement) on the flyting in the owl’s favour.

Even clever people can appear foolish if they talk too much, whereas foolish people being quiet can be mistaken as wise. The owl’s approach to life is therefore correct. According to the meadow pipit, it’s better to be quiet for fear of being seen as silly.

BUT in order to get this judgement, the owl had to make a bitter, personal and therefore especially fun attack against the magpie. This included even mocking the way the magpie spoke. The poem does not set the owl up as a model of behaviour, but as one of two comical opponents. I would suggest the poem was not written (primarily) to persuade its readers to copy the owl, but to entertain them.


The characters assigned to the owl and magpie here are typical and have a long tradition, but it is worth emphasising that they are not natural but entirely culturally determined. We previously examined a Welsh text from 450 years earlier where (tawny?) owls were seen as so loud that the poet threatened to burn their woods down.

On the other hand, although the depiction is not especially naturalistic and the birds can speak, the text is still important for what it says about the species in human culture. The way that the poet could represent their cries in onomatopoeia is impressive but typical of Gaelic poetry from the period (see: Harris-Logan, 2007). Readers were so familiar with both of these birds their cries could be represented in poetry.

Overall then, ‘Dàn mu Chonaltradh’ (‘The Colloquy of the Birds’) represents a point when two birds had such considerable profiles in Britain’s collective memory that they could confront each other and argue their respective lifestyles. In some ways that the owl won is no surprise. It has always been higher in the hierarchy of birds than the magpie.

Tawny owl in hollow tree photographed by echoe69 and licensed under CC-BY-ND-2.0.

Once upon a time birds could talk. It wasn’t pretty. Tawny owl in hollow tree photographed by echoe69 and licensed under CC-BY-ND-2.0.

Have you ever heard of a meadow pipit holding court? Do you have any opinion on the theme of this text? Contact me on Twitter @NaturalHistoryL, or follow me on Facebook to get the highlights without any of the boring bits.


Special thanks are due to Stuart Harris-Logan for his assistance with this blog post. All mistakes are my own.

Dwelly E (1988 ed) The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary. Gairm Publications, Glasgow.

Forbes AR (1905) Gaelic names of beasts (mammalia), birds, fishes, insects, reptiles, etc. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh.

Harris-Logan S (2007) Nuair a bha Gaidhlig aig na h-eoin. Unpublished MPhil Dissertation, University of Glasgow.

Harris-Logan S (2015) Personal communication

Harvie-Brown JA & Buckley TE (1888) A Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides. David Douglas, Edinburgh.

Mackenzie J (1841) Sar Obair nam Bard Gaelach. Macgregor, Polson & Co., Glasgow.

Macleoid T (1828) Co’chruinneachadh, air a chur r’a chle air iarrtas Comuinn Ard-Sheanadh Eagluis na h-Alba. A. Young. Glasgow.

Salisbury JE (1994) The Beast Within. Routledge, London.

4 responses to “Back when the birds spoke Gaelic

  1. In terms of glas-eun I think the solution is much more prosaic. Phonetically, this is identical to glaisean /gLaʃan/ and may (glas-eun) even just be a folk-etymology in terms of the spelling.
    Glaisean itself just is glas ‘grey/grey-blue’ + the diminutive (and nominalising suffix) -(e)an, i.e. “grey one” and covers a wide range of grey things which cannot be nailed down to specific species or objects. With that I mean it covers both a grey-haired person, a grey-faced person, a variety of grey birds and other animals.
    Gaelic (and indeed other languages) have various words which are highly ambiguous (or flexible, depending on the POV) as to what they refer to. In Gaelic, buidheag (yellow-one), buidhean (yellow-one), bànag (white-one), dubhag (black-one) all can refer to a wide range of things or animals. This is not restricted to colours – gobhlachan (forked-one) equally refers to a whole range of things from graips to centipedes to various birds.
    Perhaps I’ve spent too much time with Gaelic dictionaries but these days I’m fairly certain that entries such as Dwelly’s for glaisean are much less down to Gaelic dialects and regionalism but shoddy lexicography where each author tries to nail down these to a specific species – followed by profuse copy-and-paste errors. It would be like author A glossing creepy-crawlie as “bug” and author B as “beetle”, followed by author C giving “1 bug 2 beetle 3 caterpillar” when it should really be glossed along the lines of “unspecific term for a wide range of insects and caterpillars”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic to have your input, thanks!

    I’m definitely not completely happy with the mapping glas eun as Anthus pratensis, You might be right that it is intended to be ambiguous. There is definitely some overlap between glas eun and glasein/glasean. On the other hand, the form that MacLachlainn used does suggest to me he believed it to be a bird of some kind.

    My own instinct with this is that its an example of dialectal difference and semantic shift rather than linguistic flexibility or ambiguity. In my mind, before we had such a strong media and literary form of the language, words could have meant completely different things to different people. Even today, when I talk to people, species terms are not always standard. In English I have heard for example “field mouse” (for Apodemus sylvaticus; wood mouse), “grass snake” (for Anguis fragilis; slow worm) and “crane” (for Ardea cinerea; heron). They were all native speakers and understood by others and therefore not wrong, however I felt about the terms!

    That suggests to me that all the different meanings of “glas eun” could all have been true at some points and in some places. The idea that texts don’t have one single true reading is a foundation of literary theory. I’m sure meadow pipit was understood in the text at some point, if only by readers of this blog post!


  3. You’re welcome!
    I’m pretty sure by now (and I’ve been working on this for years) that it’s only partly dialectal but in the main simply semantic flexibility of the root forms and beyond that, shoddy lexicography.
    If one looks closely, you find that all of those ‘roots’ (i.e. colour + suffix) all come with modifying nouns i.e. as compounds (glaisean-daraich ‘pied wagtail’, glaisean-daraich ‘greenfinch’ etc) which on the whole tells me that Gaelic (when people still knew the names of birds) HAD specific terms but when sloppy, reverting to the shorthand roots. Which in context works without any problems – not many settings in which a snowdrop, whiting and albumen are competing for visual attention.
    It’s actually those specifics which show dialectal differences (very similar to dialectal names in English for plants and animals). But not the roots. Which I don’t think were “intended” to be ambiguous but they just happened to be ambiguous by virtue of their derivation. Very much like what happens with new world blackbirds which are lumped together under ‘blackbird’ without belonging to a species or even family.
    Anyway, certainly an interesting topic!

    Liked by 1 person

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