Tanalach — sometimes tanalachd — means shallow water or shoals.
It could also be used as a description for shallow land, for example when ploughing, as an informant from Islay explained (and who would pronounce the word [ən̪t̪ɛ̃ṉəɫɑx], i.e. with the initial ‘a’ becoming an ‘e’).
Speaking about the sea, we would say in Gaelic about being ‘anns an doimhneachd’ (in the deep) but ‘air an tanalach’ (on the shallows).
Here’s how the word was used in a story by Gilleasbuig MacCoinnich (Archibald J. MacKenzie) from Cape Breton:
Mu leth mìle a mach on chladach bha tanalach air nach robh a bheag de uisge. Chunnaic sinn long mhór a ruith ro’n t-soirbheas agus a’ stiùireadh dìreach air an tanalach. ‘Có an t-amadan a tha na cheannard air an iùraich ud?’ arsa m’ athair.’ ‘Tha e dol ga cur ann an leaba às nach toir esan i.’ Mar a thuirt b’ fhìor. Ghabh a long suas air an tanalaich ’s cha mhór nach do bhrist na cruinn dhi. Leag iad na siùil ’s dh’fhiach iad gach innleachd a bha na’n comas gus a toirt far na tanalach ach cha ghluaiseadh an iùrach.
(About half a mile out from the shore there was a stretch of shallow water. We saw a large ship sailing directly for the shallow water. ‘Who is the fool who is in charge of that vessel?’ asked my father. ‘He is going to put her in a bed out of which he will not be able to take her.’ As said, it happened. The ship sailed up the shallow and the mast almost broke off her. They lowered the sails and tried every device in their power to move her but the vessel would not move.)
In Irish the word ‘tanaí’ means the same thing as tanalach. There is an expression ‘Tá tú ag rith ar thanaí’, which is the equivalent to the English idiom, ‘you are on thin ice’.
In fact, tanalach is also used to describe thin ice, according to a Skye informant. However, I haven’t been able to find the word used in a similar saying. [*]
The tanalach of the sea was where people would gather seaweed and many kinds of shellfish.
Another word ‘oitir’ is used in this sense and is similar to tanalach: it could be a tanalach that is exposed at low tide, or it could be a shallow fishing ground — unlike a deeper fishing ground which would be a ‘cuan’ (according to Father Allan MacDonald’s Gaelic Words from South Uist).
Good food could be found on an oitir-shrùban (a cockle-ebb or bank), an oitir-mhuirsgean (a razor (shell) clam ebb), and an oitir-shìolag (a sand eel/lance ebb). In the latter, however, you should be careful not to come across a ‘tarbh-shìolag’ (lesser weever).
This small fish is also called in Gaelic the ‘bioran deamhnaidh’ (Devil’s prickle) and the ‘nàthair-ghainmhich’ (sand snake). It has poisonous spikes on its back and if you are stung by it on the foot apparently the pain is difficult to describe.
The tarbh-shìolag enjoys sandy areas of the tanalach. [**]
[*] In Roy Wentworth’s Words and Phrases from Wester Ross there is: ‘You’re going on thin ice, boy, tha thu ruith air deibh, a bhalaich’.
[**] More advice about the lesser weever from Scottish Natural Heritage here.
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