Namedropping: A Challenge with People Need Nature and Jen Hadfield

Following the brilliant poems we received for our Ways to be wilder challenge in 2016, we’ve partnered up once again with the charity People Need Nature and T. S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Jen Hadfield. This time we’re asking you to consider the names we use every day and the histories lurking behind them.

The poet Don Paterson says, ‘Every morning the writer should go to the window, look out and remind himself of this fact: aside from his own species, not one thing he sees – not one bird, tree or stone – has in its possession the name he gives it.’ (The Book of Shadows)

This Young Poets Network challenge is all about naming, renaming and un-naming. What happens when we give names to places, plants, and creatures? Do names make it easier or harder to know exactly where we are? What histories do names smuggle into the present day? What witches and myths crouch behind the names of everyday places and plants?

Haunted by history

I live on the Shetland archipelago, an island group haunted by mysterious names and characters. For instance, in the parish of Nesting is a croft (or farm) called ‘Finnister’, which probably derives from the family name Finnie. The Finnies were related to the Finns. Half-witch, half-midwife, they possessed all kinds of magical powers. They were shape-shifters. They could brew a storm at will, cure or kill your cow. They possessed phenomenal strength, and could row to Norway in just seven strokes of their oars. The storyteller Davy Cooper believes the Finns or Finnfolk were real people, perhaps nomadic Saamis who fled the north of Norway because of persecution from their southerly neighbours.

In midsummer, Shetland’s marshes are covered in bog cotton, which you might know as cotton grass. Mops of gleaming floss, they bob and shine in the wind. In Shetland, the plant is known as Lucky Minnie’s Oo. ‘Oo’ means ‘wool’… and Lucky Minnie is ‘one of the guidficks, or fairies.’

Bog cotton, cotton grass, or Lucky Minnie's Oo

Shetland is full of fascinating place-names that people say every day but rarely write down. Da Buggin, the Rummelies, the Swimming Pool carpark (where there is no swimming pool). I know of a house called ‘Krowdrah’, which is ‘Hard Work’ backwards. The same thing happens everywhere. In Argyll, locals fondly call the town of Helensburgh, ‘Hell’. The service bus, swinging wildly along the winding shore of the loch, is known endearingly as the ‘Vomit Comet’.

I love place-names, their stories and the sound of them. I love their mystery. Once, crossing Canada on the train, after three days of uninterrupted forest, we got side-tracked by a hundred-car freight train. Looking out the window I saw a clearing, like an island in the forest, a hut, and a sign which said ‘Lucky Seven’. I’ve puzzled over it ever since. In the Rockies, the rivers have names like ‘Two O’Clock Creek’. What happens if you arrive at five? But names don’t always mean what they seem to. The wild North-west corner of Scotland, Cape Wrath, was named by the Vikings. Doesn’t it sound like a terrifying place? But Wrath comes from a much milder word Hvarf, meaning ‘Turning Point’ in Old Norse.

Checking the map on a walk in Yorkshire once, I saw the very ordinary field we were about to cross had a name: ‘Nigh-No-Place’. It often happens this way, but the mystery of the name inspired me to write. My poem, ‘Nigh-No-Place’ is simply a rhythmic list of place-names, which you can listen to here. Some of the places are real and some are made up.

A field in Yorkshire

Lost language, secret names

Words change over time, for a whole host of reasons. Perhaps the way we say them changes, or we lose regional variations of a standard word, or we forget what certain words used to mean. Names are no exception. In Brian Friel’s play Translations, set in Ireland in the 1700s, English soldiers are sent to record the local place-names for the new Ordnance Survey maps. They don’t speak Gaelic, and don’t know that ‘Druim Dubh’ for example, means ‘The Black Ridge’. So they change the names to something that sounds roughly similar. ‘Druim Dubh’ becomes ‘Drimdoo’. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers – and it would be funny, except Drimdoo is the name that goes down on the OS map. The made-up word has displaced the original meaning. Hugh, the local teacher in the play, says ‘a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape […] It’s an eviction of sorts.’

Across Aboriginal Australia hums a network of private, precious meaning taking the form of ‘songlines’. Journalist Paul Daley describes ‘songlines’ as the oral archives of Indigenous history that chart the very creation of the land and sea by the Dreaming totems (animals), and the various marks – trees, waterholes, rocky outcrops and creatures – along them. The songlines also hold the stories of the people and the eternal spirits who inhabit them.’

A songline can mark the arrival of the first Muslims in Australia or the journey of the creator lizard as he looked for the perfect grinding stone. Indigenous Australians navigate great distances by following these songlines, which must be sung to keep the land alive. But it isn’t only in Australia that people renew their relationship with their land in melody and sacred stories. Gaelic poetry often evokes a land in long, loving lists, as Sorley Maclean does in his long poem ‘The Island’. Here is an extract translated into English:

… great beautiful bird of Scotland,
your supremely beautiful wings bent
about many-nooked Loch Bracadale
your beautiful wings prostrate on the sea
from the Wild Stallion to the Aird of Sleat,
your joyous wings spread
about Loch Snizort and the world.

from ‘The Island’, From Wood to Ridge, by Sorley Maclean

Doesn’t the poem sound love-sick, almost like a person repeating the name of their beloved until it sounds strange?

Landscape photo of the isle of Skye

Following in this Gaelic tradition, Robin Robertson uses names to take us on a voyage around the cliffs and stacks of St Kilda:

… Past the Beak of the Wailer, Cleft of the Grey Cow,
the Landing Place of the Strangers, to An Torc, The Boar,
rising from the sea under Mullach Sgar and Clash na Bearnaich,
and The Notches that sit under Ruaival
the Red Fell, pink with thrift…

from ‘Leaving St Kilda’, The Wrecking Light, by Robin Robertson

I can’t decide if Robertson’s very long poem describes his own experience, or imagines what it was like for the islanders who had to say one last goodbye to these islands when they were devastated by famine and disease in 1930. Have you ever had to say goodbye to a beloved place yourself – maybe a favourite beach or lake or graveyard or tree? Do you have private names for places you know deeply and love?

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Our names for our world help us get lost and home again, like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. But sometimes we forget that names are just labels. The name we have for ‘mountain’, for instance, no longer really conjures the terrifying, overwhelming reality of a mountain. When we use a word too much, it becomes easy to lose the essence of what we’re talking about. According to Gertrude Stein, poetry can wake us up to the ‘thingness’ of things again:

Now listen. Can’t you see that when language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there. He could say ‘O moon’, ‘O sea’, ‘O love’, and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just worn out literary words. The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them; they were just rather stale literary words. Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language.

Maybe this is the game we’re always playing with poetry: dancing between the familiar and the strange, so we can see our well-kent world as if for the first time.

When writing, we have to ask ourselves, too, whether we’re talking about the landscapes that surround us, or to them. David Abram believes that when we invented writing, we stopped speaking to the natural world.

We talk about such beings … but we do not talk to them … And how insulting to the other beings – that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world … we talk about them behind their backs…

from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, by David Abram

Before we kept it in books, our poetry was in living dialogue with the world around us. We prayed the sun up and thanked the salmon when they swam into our nets. We addressed our world by name to ask it to hold us gently. How can we use poetry now to reopen our direct line to the natural world?

Photo of a sunrise over a tree

The challenge

Create a poem inspired by names or a name.

You might be inspired by a name on a map or a road sign, or you decide to make names up for insects, flowers, or feature in your local landscape. You might want to do a bit of local history and ask the older folk in your neighbourhood about place-names that are being forgotten. What are the new folk-names for the places near you? Write your own songline for your local landscape. Make an extinction list of imagined species. Or, as thousands of people have done before, look at our moon (perhaps through binoculars) and name the white mountains and lakes. Take a star map and dot-to-dot your own constellations. Write your own love poem to a personally precious place.

Whatever you choose to write, ask yourself how you can use your poetry to really root yourself in your local landscape.


Winning poets will have their poems published on the Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, book tokens, and other assorted poetry goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is now closed. Thank you to everyone who entered – we’ll let you know as soon as we have a result!

Jen HadfieldAbout the author

Jen Hadfield has published three collections of poetry. Her first, Almanacs, won an Eric Gregory Award, and her second, Nigh-No-Place, the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. She has family in Canada and England and lives in Shetland. Her third collection, Byssus, was published by Picador in 2014.


Our thanks go to People Need Nature for helping to make this challenge possible. Find out more about their work.

Published September, 2017


12 thoughts on “Namedropping: A Challenge with People Need Nature and Jen Hadfield

  1. Is it necessary that the names have to be inspired from western culture I mean being an Indian we have names in our regional languages can they be used ?

    1. Hi Kartik,

      Not at all! We would very much encourage you to take inspiration from the the names in your surroundings. We can’t wait to read your poems about your experience.

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    2. Greetings from Canada. Saw the nod to Two O’clock Creek named by my great uncle, a Scot, and I tell story of the name in this poem from my book (new and selected poems) f the same title. See Love your blog! Please pass this along to Jen.

      by Bruce Hunter

      All that summer couldn’t understand
      in the morning as we drove through
      dry boulder wash, the matter-of-fact sign nailed
      on a creekside spruce:
      – and no water anywhere.

      Me twelve with Uncle John on patrol
      in the forestry truck.
      Him hungover and with that temper,
      you didn’t push the obvious.

      But that sign taunted me.
      As first ranger in the district
      he named things factually like an explorer:
      Abraham flats after a Stony chief
      The map men kept that one,
      thinking it Biblical and it was, in a way.

      But each afternoon, driving back, sure enough
      at two o’clock, there was a creek
      roaring cold under the wheels.

      Finally, a week before school and the city, I asked,
      a prairie boy baffled by the magic of water
      appearing anywhere, and on time.
      John smirks, swings the Ford
      into the ditch and around,
      a madman on his way to a holy place.

      I hang on as we climb, boulders boil in the fenders.
      Double-clutching down into first
      onto a horsetrail, then straight up on foot,
      a pika whistling at us. Beginning to wish
      I hadn’t asked about that sign.

      Over the alpine meadows
      a plateau where mountain sheep startle
      at the two of us covered in dust.
      He draws his pipe across the crowfoot of a glacier
      tipped from the distant sky, a white glory
      scooped into the sunslope
      in a sheltered cowl of rock.
      John points to a green waterfall
      spilling over the lip.

      Here sky meets land
      and water is hard as rock this high
      and liquid ice to the tongue and our aching feet.
      Where all the rivers begin,
      the Whitegoat, the Bighorn
      after the sheep behind us.
      Headwaters of the upper Saskatchewan
      I knew from schoolroom maps,
      coursing down to Hudson Bay
      with canoes full of coureur de bois.

      Below us, blonde grass riffles on Kootenay Plains,
      clouds jam the chute the weather comes through
      where the Kootenay descended to barter the Cree.
      Up here the wind howls cold.

      And I saw how a few hours of daylight
      warms the ice to a trickle that becomes a torrent
      in the glacier’s pit. The mystery of rivers
      is that they come from somewhere
      between earth and sky.
      wrung by the sun from clouds and wind.

      But when night comes, Two O’clock Creek sleeps,
      the waterfall waits frozen, and all the years
      since I learned how rivers are made,
      this is the place I come to in my dreams
      between the highest point of land and the sky,
      so I can drink from the clouds.

    1. Hello,

      Yes, Jen would be excited to read poems on any type of names – people or places!

      Looking forward to receiving your entry,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  2. I didn’t do mine on where I live but more where my grandparents live. I hope that’s okay. That place has more meaning to me, in all honesty.

    1. Of course it is Mary! Thanks for writing. Have you sent us your poem? I can’t seem to see it in our inbox…

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Emma,

      Thanks for your comment. Unless specified, all challenges on Young Poets Network welcome poetry in all forms, including free-verse! Best of luck in the competition,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  3. Hi there,
    I’m a little unsure if my email has come through for this challenge.
    I had this same problem with a previous challenge so I’m sorry to be a bother! I’m just having real issues with my email. Thanks, and sorry.

    1. Hi Matilda,

      Thanks for your message! I did receive your poem ‘Naming Girls’. I tried to reply to your email but it bounced back, as it was to “outlook[a string of numbers and letters]” – weird! Perhaps next time you enter, you could type out your email address into the email so that I can confirm receipt? But it came through this time (hurrah) so no need to worry about that.

      Thanks again for entering and best wishes,


  4. Love this challenge, I wrote a book (primarily aimed at younger readers and also adults) on the lost art of creating new names/words for the natural world. The spirit and energy of your challenge arises from the same things that motivated me to write this book. I wish I could get this book into the hands of your winners and contestants! It’s called “Language Making Nature”,, please keep me posted if you’ll be doing more work along these lines 🙂

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