Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Scottish Plant Names

Posted on by royvickery |

Gregory J. Kenicer, Scottish Plant Names: An A to Z, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2023.

Having spent much time during lockdown compiling an as yet unpublished dictionary of English plant-names, I awaited Kenicer’s book on Scottish names with great interest; how might it stimulate me to improve my work?

On flicking through Scottish Plant Names one’s initial impression is that the text and illustrations have been thrown on to the pages, leaving numerous expanses of  blank paper.  Closer examination doesn’t dispel this impression, the text for knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare) refers to a seaweed, and towards the end the alphabetical arrangement of entries goes awry, with wracks being placed before wheat.  However, we are told that two editors and a design and layout person were involved in the book’s production.

The book starts with a 13-page introduction (about one third of each page being blank).  This includes ‘language in Scotland’, ‘plant names’, ‘origins of names’ and ‘how to use this book’.  Plant-names in three languages – Gaelic, English and Scots – are included. It is not explained what Scots language is; why is it a language, rather than a dialect?  It seems to be no more different from standard English than dialects such as that of, say, Devon.  Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) has the English name queen of the meadow, and the Scots name queen o’ the meadow.*

The bulk of the book consists of entries arranged alphabetically according to the plants’ standard English name, starting with adder’s tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum) and concluding with yew (Taxus baccata).  Each entry consists of lists of English, Gaelic and Scots names and notes about the species, ranging from a sentence to several paragraphs.  These notes can be of little value, or misleading.  Does cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) really grow in ‘slightly drier, sandier areas than the other two common species of heather’?  In my experience, admittedly mostly based on observations in England, it prefers damper areas, such as the margins of sphagum bogs.  As well as flowering plants, ferns, mosses (sphagnum), fungi, algae (seaweeds), and ‘a few lichens’ (in fact only one, Ramalina) are included.

No indexes are included; if one knows only a plant’s scientific name one has to work through the entries to find its English name. Thus if I want to find the Scottish names for Galium aparine I have to search through until I reach cleavers. If I want to know the identity of the plant Ialthus I need to scan through the lists of Gaelic names under each entry until I eventually reach mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).

Most of the illustrations are rather crude representations of the plants, others are less easy to understand, thus the illustration included in the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) entry shows six plump flies, presumably referring to one of the plant’s English names, bluebottle.

To sum up this volume is a disappointment; the lack of indexes make it difficult to consult, and this reviewer, at least, finds its illustrations unattractive.  And it contains nothing that stimulates him to improve his dictionary of English plant-names.  RV.

*Since writing this I have been informed that Scots differs from English not so much in its vocabulary as in its grammar.

Readers of  Scottish Plant Names who consider this review to be over harsh are urged to send  comments to

Edited 10 March 2024.

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