Week eleven: NURHAG (probability 10966), by David Sutton

Meeting it for the first time, one might assume that a NURHAG is some kind of malevolent tree-dwelling witch out of Teutonic myth, a kind of dryad of the dark side. Actually it is a kind of ancient round tower, found in Sardinia, probably dating from the Bronze Age. The word comes from Sardinian dialect, and it has a variant NURAGHE, which has plural NURAGHI: no NURAGHES*! It also yields an adjective NURAGHIC, of or like a NURHAG.

There are several words for similar defensive structures. There is ATALAYA, a Spanish word for a watchtower, deriving ultimately from the Arabic al tala'i, the vanguard; this has a variant TALAYOT which is essentially the same word but comes from a dialect of Spanish spoken in the Balearic Isles. Also from the Spanish we have MIRADOR, deriving from the same root mir-, to look at, that is found in MIRAGE. Then there is MARTELLO, which is named for Cape Mortella in Corsica, where one such tower resisted for some time a British cannonade in 1794: this impressed the British so much that they built them all along the English south coast to guard against the threat of Napoleonic invasion, and some can still be seen. There is the BROCH (or BROGH or BROUGH), a circular tower of the late Iron Age associated with the Picts and found in northern Britain. And there is the PELE or PEEL tower found in Northumberland, designed to furnish families with a refuge from the border REIVERS (also spelt REAVERS or RIEVERS), the dreaded Armstrongs, Nixons and the like. (Let me in passing recommend an excellent historical novel by the late lamented George Macdonald Fraser which really takes you back to those times, 'The Candlemas Road'; he also wrote a non-fiction account of the rievers entitle 'The Steel Bonnets').

I visited a PELE tower once and a very impressive structure it was, though not entirely efficacious against the reivers, who developed a tactic of lighting fires in the space beneath the tower and so smoking the inhabitants out: this tactic has given us the wonderful verb SCUMFISH or SCOMFISH, which sounds like real Geordie dialect but actually is a by-form of discomfit.


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