THA MO CHÙRAM NAS FHEÒRR NA MO CHUIMHN: Life, Death and the Mighty MacKay PART 2

BEATHA LIFE
Mrs Gallagher?
Yes. An almost regal-looking
lady, with a youthful complexion, white hair and a keen eye, regarding me with
curiosity, but not suspicion.
I’m sorry to bother you. I’m cutting about
looking for people with the local Gaelic
. A bheil
Gàilig agaibh?
(Is Gaelic at-you?)
Tha. ([It] is). The MacKays
returned triumphant! And Hope slunk back out of the Kyle, somewhat self-conscious,
trying to look casual and hoping not to be seen.
thánaig mi seo bho cheann ùine mhóir a’
rùrachamh Alick George
. I had been here before
seeking Alick George, but he had been out when I’d called, ach tha e air
falbh a-nis, nach eil?
(but he’s away now, isn’t he?)
tha, theirig Alick George. (yes, Alick George died). I had arrived in Melness late one afternoon in
2010 and had gone to the door of their most knowledgable son, the house of the
magical man that was Alick George MacKay, whom I know only from
recordings lifted by those lucky enough to meet him. My daughter Eilidh and
I had knocked at the door, waiting for the roar of the retroflex R under those
unmistakable black eyebrows, but got nothing. We had somewhere to be that night
and had to leave and so it was we missed the great man, most likely by a matter
of minutes.
Càit ás an dànaig u? (Where have
you come from?) asks Nan.
Á taobh Ghlasachamh, tha mi ás Arra-Gháidheal
bho thùs ach tha gu leòr de mo mhuinntir, ‘s ann ás an taobh seo a tha ead
. (from Glasgow way, I’m from Argyll originally but plenty of my people,
tis from this side that they are)
Ó seadh. Bheil u ‘g iarraidh tighinn a-staigh? (oh aye. Do you want to come in?). It is rare that the famed hospitality
of the Gael, second only perhaps to the Arabian desert people, is found
wanting, not that I would have been put out at all had I not been invited in. I
was after all a random 30-something male appearing mar chlach ás an àr
(like a stone out of the air).
Seo a-nis clàr-siùcair a reinn mo bhean air son
duine sam bith air an tiginn a’ chéilidh
. (Here now
is a little tablet my wife made for anyone that I’d come to visit)

What is it?


Tablet!

Ó! she laughed, thig
a-staigh, thig a-staigh!
(come in, come in!). Seo agad a’ charaid agam ‘s chan ail Gàilig aic. (Here you have my friend and she doesn’t have
Gaelic). By then of course I didn’t mind a bit. We had one, and that would do
beautifully. It was one more Gaelic mind to get to know, one more privilege to
add to the immensely lucky existence that has been my life, and one more than I
had thought was possible by that point. I shook hands with Nellie, my host’s
friend. I met with a lovely smile and a firm hand.

Nan, Nellie, Àdhamh

The man there’s looking for folk with the Gaelic. says Nan, filling in her friend on the randomness, before enquiring to me
Will you have a cup of tea? that immortal question to which there is
only one answer! It was time to delve into the lives and memories of my hosts.
Coming to a place like Melness as an incomer or a holiday-maker, there are many
people who will never learn anything more than they need to know to get by and
do what they want to do, escape from whatever it is they want to leave behind.
Whenever I arrive in a place, I want to know it all, the topsoil and the
underbelly, the culture as carried along by the people who sprang from the very
earth of the place, and are best placed to tell the tale.

Nellie explained why she didn’t end up with the Gaelic: my father could
speak it, he was a Melness man, Charles Munro.
Was he related to Calum Munro?
Yes! You knew Calum?
No, he was away sadly before I got the chance to
meet him
–this was true. Like Alick George, Calum was now a permanent part of the
history of Melness, but a contributing force no more.
He used to call on me every time he was here and
he had great yarns and tales.
Oh he would have. I had heard
him on the radio a good few times. I learned that despite Nan and Nellie going
to school together in the same class and in Melness, Nellie’s maternal
grandparents had been from Golspie and the Black Isle and so her mother, and in
turn Nellie herself, never got the Gaelic.
If someone says ciamar a tha sibh? to me
I can answer tha gu math and so forth
she said, but
I’m not a fluent Gaelic speaker although I can pick it up just fine when people
are chatting to one another.
I explained that I had come round to see if there was anyone left speaking
the language in Melness.
Oh well, there’s very little of the old Melness
ones left you know, of the families that were there when we were young and
there’s so many incomers, bless them, it’s a good job they’re there or the
place would be empty but it’s not just the same as it was.
I remembered speaking to someone a few years before and they had said oh
I think you’ll still get a few up in Melness
. I had been genuinely hopeful
of finding three or four speakers before I left Glasgow but this appeared to
have been wishful thinking.
Everyone went to Alick George for information on
the place
Nellie told me.
Alick George and I, our grannies were sisters said Nan, popping her head in from the kitchen. Now how do you take
your tea?
My host showed me a photo on the wall among many others old and new. The
room was clean and tidy and I sat on the couch with Nellie on my left in a big
chair and the window to my right with Nan’s seat underneath. She elaborated
further on the legendary Alick George: Now he didn’t learn too much in
school…. but he was an only child and he remembered every story his parents
told.

Alick George
Nellie continued: We didn’t realise how sharp Alick George was when we
were kids because he didn’t do so well at the school work.
Well this is it, I said, the
school’s not for everyone.
But he had total recall! Nan finished triumphantly.
To me, the ability to speak for your countryfolk and have them pleased as
Punch to let you get on with it is where it’s at. That is respect earned over
years of being a conduit for the power of knowledge, yet wielded with absolute
humility. People like Alick George kept the mindset of the Gael alive and well,
protected by their very skulls and ribcages where lay their musical brains and
throbbing hearts. I inquired as to whether he had a Gaelic name because even
the Gaels I talked to would still just call him Alick George.
Well, Alasdair I suppose we would say….
and Seóras, but he was always just Alick George right enough.
Did they
have a name for you in Gaelic?
I inquire.
Alick George
always called me Johannie,
says Nan, but I called myself Nana as a child
and that stuck and that’s what they call me around here.
But Nan NicDhomhaill would probably be the simplest name in Gaelic.
Did they ever call you Seonag?
Yes, they did, Seonag.
And what did
they say around here for MacDonald?
I wonder.
Well because
everyone was MacKay around here they had nicknames to differentiate between
them all and with my father being the only MacDonald, he was just called
An Domhallach
(no ‘n’).
Despite how warmly and openly I’d been received, I suddenly became
conscious again of my having shown up randomly out of the blue. I hope I’m
not putting you to trouble because I didn’t come up here to do that.
Not at all, said Nan, we
normally have a wee run out on a Saturday and then come back here for a seat
and a cup of tea so what’s one more?
I felt happy to be one of the gang for
a day. Och yes, we’ve been best friends since we were in school.
And that wasn’t yesterday! joked Nellie. I wish Alick George had been here for you though, because
he had a wealth of information. He knew every stone and ruin in the place.
I must admit with not a little regret that there had always been something
about the fact that I knew Alick George was well-recorded that had prevented me
going out of my way to get back to Melness. I had always had the feeling that
he was already greatly appreciated and that my priorities therefore, ought to
lie elsewhere.
Oh I’m being treated now, look at this, I said as my tea with just the perfect blend of milk and sugar arrived
with a generous plate of biscuits and cherry cake.
Well you know James Grant who did the Gaelic
dictionary lived down there in my niece’s house,
said Nan. He
was back and forth all the time as my sister lived next door. He would come in
talking Gaelic to us and he always brought in a cherry cake!

Yes, this was life. I had met with death and disaster this morning, now I was
being treated to life, with people who belonged to Melness the same way the
grass belonged in the field opposite the house. It was able to replant itself,
its seeds caught in the wind and finding most often a new home not 100 yards
away. Not so the people, so many of whom had been made to cross an ocean to find
home, and had ploughed through all manner of peril to get there.
(all Gaelic forms from now on will be MacKay Country dialect)
Cà bheil u ‘dul a-nis? (where are you going now?) asks Nan.
Tha mi ‘dul gu Loch an Inbhir.
I had made up my mind I was going to get to Lochinver. I had only ever
passed through it once or twice on my way south from the MacKay Country and I had
decided bloody-mindedly that one day I was just going to get there by hook or
by crook and assess the language situation properly. My grandmother insisted
our MacLeods were from there originally, from Assynt, and so it was that
another kind of seed, of some kind of connection that ought to be explored, was
planted.
Chan ail e gu diubhar cùin a ruigeas mi ‘n
dùthaich
(it doesn’t matter when I reach the place) I continued, ach chan ail mi ‘g iarraidh ur cumail air ais.
Ha! laughed Nan to Nellie. He
doesn’t want to keep us back he says!
clearly amused at the concept of
anything other than Highland Time applying in this house.
uinneag don Chaoil

He’s going to Lochinver, said Nellie, understanding fine what I was saying.

Yes he’s going to Lochinver, Nan replied, and still with a grin on her face: but he’s not in a hurry.
I realised I was bedded in for the afternoon. After the day I’d had so far,
this was bliss. As soon as Nan realised I wasn’t fussy about what we spent the
next hour or two doing, she set about hunting high and low for a CD she had of
Melness Gaelic, music and song.
You’ll hear my two brothers talking Gaelic on it and that’s interesting for
you because you can hear the Melness Gaelic. They had a good quality of voice,
it was lovely to hear them speak.

And hear them I did. As they and Nan talked it made me sad to think about
what had been lost in the Highlanders’ pursuit of being accepted by a fickle
Britain that is now on the verge of falling apart. We endeared ourselves to the
British establishment by attempting to become more like them only for the
imperialist dream to fall apart in front of our very eyes. Britain must have
seemed indestructible in the not so distant past. It must have seemed like the
ticket for the future. I believe strongly that we were duped, had, conned and
ripped off. The question now is whether frustration can be turned into genuine,
long-lasting action. Despite losing people like Alick George and Calum Munro
before they got the chance to see what our determination could produce, the
remaining Gaelic-speaking Gaels of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
should not have to witness the wholesale descent of their sacred mindset into
the nothingness of the cultural void that is failed Britain. As people’s sense
of place wilted under toxic pressure from cultureless bureaucrats, they nevertheless continued trying to scrape a crust. I began to wonder what Nan’s father did for a living.

Dé ‘n ubair a bh’ aig na h-athair? (what work did your father have?)
Bha e na phost ‘s bha croit aig. Bha shop
aig athair ‘s a mhàthair
. (He was a postman and he had
a croft. His mother and father had a shop). Do you say bùth for a
shop
?
We do. The shop
had its goods sent up from Leith by boat and went from one end of the district
to the other by horse and cart. A lot of people paid for their groceries with eggs. When Nan’s
father came home from the First World War he carried on the shop. The
depression years meant that people couldn’t afford to pay for their groceries
at all and the family was forced to give it up. That’s when An Domhallach worked as a
postman, going round the whole district. Nan felt that they were very lucky to
have the croft to fall back on.
She informed me that one of the men
featured on the CD had in fact died only a week or two back: Willie John used to
play in the local band and we were thinking about him a lot and even before you came I was going to
put on the CD to remember him by, you know?
An robh Gàilig aig·as? (did he have Gaelic?) I asked, assuming correctly that this was another
speaker lost to us.
Ó bha (oh yes)
answered Nan. Chìthinn e le daoin ‘s cha robh aid a’ bridhinn, ach nam
faiceamh e mis, bhitheamh sinn a’ bridhinn Gàilig ri chéil.
(I’d see him
with people who wouldn’t speak it, but if he bumped into me we would be
speaking Gaelic to each other).
Now Nellie, said Nan as
the accordian-driven dance band got into full swing, didn’t we love the
waltzing?
Och, we’d go dancing to five o’clock in the
morning!
Nellie replied, indicating to the youth of today how a real dance
enthusiast does it.
There was no bridge then, Nan continued, and we’d walk up to the ferry and the ferryman would
take us across in the boat. We’d go to the dance in Tongue till four o’clock in
the morning and then we’d wait till it was light and we had to put up a flag
for the ferryman so that he would come across for us. Didn’t we have lovely
times right enough?
I love the old tunes, Nellie
agreed, make me want to dance and that was just the local band.
The hospitality showed no signs of letting up.
Shall I make you a sandwich? Nan asked me.
No no, I wouldn’t want to put you out. Tha rudaigin agam sa charbad. (I’ve got something in the car).
Bheil an rud agad nas fheòrr na th’ agam·as? (is what you’ve got better than what I’ve got?). I’d had it. I wasn’t
going to escape some more being looked after and that’s all there was to it.

We spoil our sons said
Nellie, that’s what it is.

Exactly, we spoil our sons, Nan concurred. Altram Dhùthaich MhicAoidh (adopted by MacKay Country) If you can’t see to
the wellbeing of a wayfarer, then you’re no Highlander. I was a visiting Gael
from Argyll, and I was being looked after accordingly.

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