What’s in a Name? – Muir of Dinnet NNR

What’s in a name? We’re taught, as children, that name calling doesn’t matter – ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. But, of course, that’s not true – names, words and descriptions are strongly tied up in who we are, and how we view the world. They are part of our identity to the point we often change them if we are seeking to define ourselves in the world. And, in terms of the world around us, they define what we see, in a deeply personal way. If I say ‘tiger’, what do you conjure in your head? The Tiger Who Came to Tea, lounging in the kitchen, drinking daddy’s beer? Or burning bright in the forest, a flash of eyes, orange stripes, talons and the scream of the kill? If one word can call up so many and varied images, than what’s in a name is important.

Garden tiger moth. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t have the feline kind in our image library.

Here at Muir of Dinnet, we can trace at least some of the history through the names. Muir of Dinnet itself likely means ‘moor of the brown place’ and, well, there’s plenty of heather here, it’s brown for most of the year, so I suppose that makes sense. And Loch Kinord has miscellaneously been Loch Kander (Loch of the Headwater), Loch Canmore (probably after Malcolm Canmore, he of the ‘great head’) before setting to Loch Kinord – the loch at the head of the Ord hill.

Kinord reflections

Bogingore, near Burn o Vat, is ‘Little Bog of the Heron’. Or crane, there would have been cranes here a few centuries ago. It’s sometimes hard to tell from a name which large, long-legged bird would have been here in times past, as people were more obsessed surviving that differentiating between cranes and herons – often the key question was  ‘is it easy to catch and can you eat it?’. All that changed as the written word became more common and bestiaries, containing fantastic beasts, were replaced with something we’d recognise as an early versions of a field guide. Probably the first of these were the Thomas Bewick bird guides from the 1800s and, given these were hand-engraved, the quality of the artwork is astounding.


But there was still the intransigent problem of names. Depending on where you are in the country, peewit, peesie, green plover, teuchit, flapjack, flop-jack are all lapwings. To me, a ‘spink’ or ‘spinkie’ was a primrose. To my husband, brought up in the south of England, it was a chaffinch. And that’s all within the UK, it gets even harder when people from different countries are trying to communicate -a German birder would say ‘alpenstradlaufer’ (the alpine beach runner) and we’d say ‘dunlin’ (the little brown one). So we need an international language.


That’s where scientific names for things come in. These are usually derived from Latin or Greek, or a combination of the two, and are termed the binomial system, with the genus name being followed by the species name. Now, sometimes you hear scientists using these and it’s easy to think it’s just them being a bit superior and pretentious. And, fair enough, sometimes it is. But often it’s just to avoid ambiguity – oystercatcher is Haematopus ostralegus  to any birder in the world, whether they call it oystercatcher, sea-pie, skirlie-wirlie, tjeld, strandskata, austernfischer or gillie-brighde. Or even ‘those damned noisy black-and-white things that nest on the roof!’


So lets, have a look at some local things – and their names. And let’s start with something dead common that everyone will know, the blackbird. One of the most simply-named birds, it is also  Turdus merula (the black thrush), a coalie-bird, or lon-dubh in Gaelic. Unsurprisingly, all the names refer to its colour!

Male blackbird

Or how about this puffball mushroom? Its genus name is Lycoperdon, meaning ‘wolf fart’. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour?


Sometimes, scientific names can be surprisingly descriptive when you break them down. Cormorants, which we are used to seeing hanging themselves out to dry on the trees on Castle Island, are  Phalacrocorax – the bald-headed sea raven.

Cormorants roosting on Castle Island

And possibly my favourite belongs to the curlew. Whaups locally, they are also  Numenius arquata,  the bird with the new-moon, bow-shaped bill.

Curlew, blending into it’s background

Or there are the old names. The fireflirt – a redstart, with it’s red ‘steort’ -old English for ‘tail’.

Redstart (c) Ron Macdonald

As for the ‘skiddy-cock’, it sounds a bit rude. I suspect ‘water rail’ is a bit more socially acceptable but ‘brook-runner’ is more evocative.

Water rail

And I have no idea where ‘hedge mumruffin’ comes from for long-tailed tit. Bottle-tit I can kind of see, with the long tail making them vaguely shaped like an old bottle, but they can also go by ‘poke-pudding’. Your guess is as good as mine!

Long-tailed tit

So, next time you head out, look around you, you might see a dun-cock fiddling about in the bracken, or a yellow-neb on the loch- you may never know what you’ll see, but you can bet it’ll have a lot of different names!

Whooper swan

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