The Gaelic Dialect of Strathspey
This itch is quite simply the desire to know the eldest and wisest of my compatriots, to know their minds and hear their thoughts, and eventually it finds itself getting scratched because of the growing feeling that there’s something getting lost while I acquiesce, something irreplaceable and never to be seen or heard again.
Not for the first time, it struck me that we live in a society which culturally speaking spends most of its time standing on its head. Everything’s bun os ceann (base over head), as we’d say in Dalriada. Whisky exports generate something in the region of £4 billion every year. That’s heading for £1000 per head of the Scottish population. It’s funny money. And a lot of that trade comes from the distilling, bottling and selling of Strathspey whiskies. It’s an absolute hotbed of activity. Looks like the area’s “earning its keep” and helping to maintain the superficial front required to convince everyone that Scotland is still Scottish. Forgetting the fact of course that the entire area is English-speaking and that the dialect that named just about every bottle of the local scud is a gnat’s wing away from a final deoch an dorais (drink of the door).
|A farm in Perthshire from the A9|
I left Glasgow later than expected on Friday morning and hit the A9 -one of the most dangerous roads in Europe, but swift if you’re lucky- and made for Ceann a’ Ghiuthsaich (Kingussie) to meet up with our lovely TOSGAIR for Bàideanach (Badenoch), Màirin mhór Uilleim Sheathanaich (Maureen Hammond) who very luckily knew the way to Noel’s house. I had listened to Niall MacGriogair‘s patient instructions on how to get there as a man realising he’s bitten off more than he can chew. Put it this way; if you’re a salesman thinking of visiting Noel because he’s getting on and might purchase a few of your wares, think again. You’ll never find him.
|Noel and Màirin standing at the porch|
After a quick stop in to pick the brains of dialect legend Seumas Grannd, we set off to Noel’s place, driving through the lush, green surroundings of Strathspey and into the hinterland of Drochaid Neithich (Nethy Bridge). At the end of a rough track we found a run-down but beautifully-situated white house and entered to find Noel sitting at the fire. We were given a most hearty welcome and he was clearly thrilled to bits to have both company and two young Gaels to boot. The fire was on, and a couple of bluebottles buzzed lazily from wall to wall. We deposited our offerings to our host, some cake and the first portion of my wife’s homemade tablet from the tin in my car, on the table by the window and made a seat opposite the man himself.
quickly I noticed that what Noel spoke was not the pure Strathspey dialect,
that it was in fact a fairly standard but remarkably rich Gaelic clearly learned from
all sorts of sources, with words pulled from every nook and crannie he could
find. That said, whenever we asked him about local words he was able to
reach deep into that particular well of his youth and pull out all manner of
jewels for us and his blas (accent, lit. taste) was clearly not out of
any learner’s handbook!
shown a photo of Na Gobhaich (The Gows), Domhall (Donald, Noel’s
father) and Seumas (James, his uncle) and informed that both them and everyone
else in the photo had spoken fluent Gaelic, but that this was the last
habitually-speaking generation. You can hear both of the aforementioned men in
recordings for the Survey of Gaelic Dialects in the 1950s,
available for a listen in the School of Scottish Studies archives in Edinburgh.
|a’ bheil a’ Ghàidhlig agad·sa?|
and received a hearty reply in the old language, being informed that she was from just down the road in Badenoch. He then inquired as to myself and having found out that I hailed from Arra-Ghàidheal
(Argyll), he asked: a bheil a’
Ghàidhlig a’ togail ceann ann an Arra-Ghàidheil? (is the
Gaelic raising its head in Argyll?). My reply was
that although there are plenty of speakers over a certain age in Tiree and Islay,
we are in a pretty dire situation in the mainland with perhaps only three or four of us able to do more than dish out a few random words.
We got to talking about how this same situation arose in Strathspey. Cha robh Gàidhlig anns an sgoil (Gaelic was not in the school) said Noel. As soon as they began, the Gaelic was air a cur ris an darna taobh (put to the second side) and English was the sole medium of instruction. There were two teachers that were both Gaels, one a Frisealach (Fraser) from Geàrr-loch (Gairloch) and the other from further north in Noel’s local area and yet cha robh aon fhacal a’ tighinn thairis air am bilean (there wasn’t a word [of Gaelic] coming over their lips).
I often wonder how Gaels could bring themselves to speak anything other than their own language to their compatriots who knew no English before they went to school, but the answer of course is that in Scotland we have long been taught that we should aspire to being “British”, that our own languages are worthless and culture parochial, and that English is the medium of progress and civility. People seeking to secure their family’s livelihood in rapidly changing times took by far the simplest option open to them and went with the flow. When this option was backed by the teacher’s strap, ready to strike the hands of little children for speaking the only language they knew, parents protected their own and encouraged them to comply.
|dualchas: Nól Gobha|
Noel rubbed a sore knee that had been under obair-lannsa (an operation) as he called it and went on to chat about what he calls Gàidhlig an latha an-diugh (the Gaelic of [the day] today) and the challenges of maintaining spoken ability. An aon chnap-starra, chan eil i ga bruidhinn gu cunbhalach an seo (the one barrier [is that] it’s not spoken regularly here), meaning that if you are to speak Gaelic at all, you have to go out of your way to create opportunities.
Both Màirin and myself were eager to get to the meat, to talk about Strathspey words and phrases, as Màirin‘s Badenoch no longer sports a spoken vernacular and what remains of the evidence of the dialect is not in the most plentiful supply. Strathspey is the next best thing.
I have long been interested in finding out about the children’s verses that cropped up in local areas to name the fingers of the hand, but unfortunately Noel was unable to recall the one from Strathspey. When I recited our version from Dail Riata (Dalriada), he recognised the words for thumb and little finger, but not the rest.
òrdag (little hammer)
corragag (little finger)
mealla-fada (long lump)
mac an lùba (son of the pinkie)
lùdag (little hinge?)
Our word in Dalriada for smoke is toit, but in Strathspey Noel said that something along the lines of tuinnt was used.
In most of southern Argyll a spider is a figheadair (weaver) and a large grass spider or harvester is a figheadair-feòir (weaver [of the] grass). Noel had not one but two local words. The first was marbh-allaidh (lit. dead-wild) called such because of its natural habit of killing cuileagan (flies) and other small insects. Likewise the second word spadadh-allaidh (lit. killing-wild) suggests the same idea.
Here are some other words Noel gave us:
|dithis a tha siùbhlach anns a’ chànain|
In Strathspey, the word for a fox is balgair which Noel was quick to inform us also means someone who is a bit on the sly side. Màirin agreed when he said that the word in Badenoch is madadh-ruadh which although being the same as what we use in Dalriada, I can tell you that seannach was also heard. We chatted about the fact that many words are boireann (feminine) in Badenoch while fireann (masculine) in most other locales. Màirin was keen to reinforce the fact that the Gaelic of Badenoch and Strathspey were quite distinct despite there being a mere two miles between them. Geography and clan loyalties seem to have played a massive part in the story of our Scottish dialects.
I have a very strong desire to know the words for certain things in different locales and I’m not really sure I can do justice to the reason for that in English. The names of the fingers are some of those, as well as the names for spiders and insects in general, but another two of these are the local words for frogs and toads. I think in general I associate knowledge of these things with memories of rural Argyll while growing up. To be in the presence of nature is to feel that you have not been excluded from the inner machinations of the planet and that you are a part of -and not a stranger in- your home area. Spoken Gaelic is the way in which I interact directly with the land on which the tongue itself was grown.
(Someone came a visiting on a man once. He said: “how is the little child?” The man answered: “oh, she’s on all fours now” i.e. crawling)
What is interesting about the usage of ur(a) here is that we can trace the history of the word ùraisg (fresh water spirit) by its use. From ur (child) and uisge (water), we get ur-uisge (water-child), which gradually declined to ur-uisg’ and uruisg, before falling into the pot of words due reform of their final vowel and receiving an accent to ensure correct emphasis, ending up as ùraisg.
|Àdhamh Ó Broin, Dail Riata & Nól Gobha, Srath Spéidh|
Tha usa togail an leòr de dh’fhacail ‘s a’ cumail greim orra (you are lifting plenty of words and keeping a hold of them) Noel said to me, which was a nice compliment on my memory which can’t be much better than his and me half his age! He then asked, since I happened to mention Loch Fìn (Loch Fyne): bheil sgadan loch Fìn eadar-dhealaichte bhon fheadhainn eile? (are Loch Fyne herring different from other ones?) tha ‘d beag ‘s tha ‘d nas mils’ (they are small and sweeter) I answered, although you won’t find many now as chaidh ead thair a’ bhalla leis an iasgach (they went over the wall with the fishing, i.e. overdid the fishing).
We then got to talking about Noel’s working life over the years.
I said that in Loch Abar (Lochaber) and Arra-Ghàidheal a Tuath it’s common to describe nasty weather as robach. Although Noel understood this meaning fine, he said that in Strathspey this would more likely refer to someone’s face were it stuck with food round their beard or moustache!
One of Noel’s words for stubborn was what sounded like duinealach, which I couldn’t find at all in Dwelly’s dictionary. Another was dìorrasach and he was fascinated when I told him that our Argyll word is the lovely stallachdach, although interestingly Dwelly suggests that Argyll folk regarded this word as meaning something more like careless. The Scots word thrawn comes much closer to what I have come to understand about its correct usage!
I asked about the most common expressions for greeting someone and Noel gave me several, some of which were:
ciamar a tha u? (how are you?)
dé do chor? (what’s your condition?)
I was fascinated to hear that the latter phrase was a common expression in Strathspey as I had never heard it outside of Lios Mór (Lismore)!
Noel remembered a couple of interesting anecdotes from his youth giving us a window into how people answered such questions:
His uncle would be asked: ciamar a tha sibh? (how are you?) to which he most often replied cho math ‘s a bhitheas mi tuilidh! (as good as I’ll ever be!)
It was crystal clear throughout our conversations that Noel was a man in possession of both an innate respect of where he had come from but also an unquenchable inquisitiveness to find out more about the Gaelic language of his ancestors. He commands an admirable ability to decipher fairly sharply between what are Strathspey expressions and what constitutes “standard” or Western Isles-influenced idiom.
And so we rose to leave, feeling that we had just been treated to something entirely unique, something that despite Noel’s relative fitness for what he called his seann aois (old age), time would not be on our side. The house was like it hadn’t been touched in 80 years, with a great amount of wooden furniture and “old-fashioned” wallpaper. The only thing that betrayed the time period we were now in was the TV in the corner. Otherwise, it could easily have been 1915 rather than 2015.
We made it outside, the wind having got up a little and a bite in the air telling us that the summer we never actually had was nevertheless at an end.
|Bithidh sinn uile anns an fhéineig! (we’ll all be in the selfie!)|
Bithidh sinn uile anns an fhéineig! (we’ll all be in the selfie!).
ó gu cinnteach! (oh for sure!) I replied raising a palm, and I walked away contentedly knowing that Màirin and Noel were excitedly making plans to meet again much sooner than I was likely to return. This had been an immense and singular pleasure. We had met with a man who lives more or less as his people have lived through the ages; in the family home, with the land around him and a fire to keep him warm.
When people talk about the Gaelic revival, there are many reasons I don’t buy into it, but above all it is this. Any true revival would not leave Gaels like Noel in isolated cottages without the chance to speak the language of their childhood for weeks on end. Why should cultural stimulation be anything less of a priority than shelter, heat or food? Not only should Noel have access to what is essentially a basic human right, but what all of us actually need more than anything is the chance to converse with people like Noel. Perhaps we even need this more than Noel needs us. We must do this so that Gaelic does not turn into an accentless, idiomless vehicle for a mono-culture all of its own, modeled on the one which stole the fire from the top of our mountain in the first place. Rather than establishing our battle plan on the wisdom of our old people, drawn from centuries of learning directly from land, weather, language and elders, we have given a back-handed compliment to the admittedly brilliantly executed bureaucratic destruction of our native outlook by aping it chapter and verse to put in place our so-called revival.
We have established a cohort of “experts” who spend their lives talking about “code-switching” and “pre-aspiration” instead of kneeling obediently at the alter of native wisdom. We bend over backwards to get our degrees and doctorates while the only thing that ever mattered, the outlook as preserved in the minds of our people, irreplaceable and worth a billion PHDs, slips quietly out the back door with few even sparing it a farewell glance. In 20 years time, it will be dead in the Scottish mainland. In 50 years time, it will be dead in the Western Isles. The “broader picture” has all but blotted out the needs of actual people on the ground. Once all the committees and quangos and departments are done pressing their suits and talking about “what needs done”, will they get their new shoes dirty getting reacquainted with the people? I’m too busy to care either way. But they really should.
“Excellent post that resonates completely with my experiences doing Gaelic fieldwork in
the 1990s on the mainland and in the Southern Hebrides. I met many
elderly Gaelic speakers who felt unrepresented and although
very good and important scholarship was happening in the universities,
it had virtually no positive trickle down effect on the lives of
“revival should have set folk like Noel at its heart, not its margins”
-Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul