GÁILIG AN EILEIN BHÓDAICH: The Gaelic of Bute

From my earliest days, I was probably more familiar with the sight of
Bute than I was with that of Cowal, despite having grown up there. From
the double dormer window of the house at Rubha Bàn, I sat in the
wooden castle constructed by my father to fit into the left-hand side
of the window bay and played, watching the small birds come, feed and go
again from the tray outside on the slate roof. Goatfell glowed in the
far distance and Kames was visible to my right as I stared out across
the Kyles of Bute. I believe that this view from around 18 months old
when I began to play in this little castle completely conditioned my
concept of home and of beauty.

When I returned much later to Cowal and after a decade’s complete absence, I did so with the Lismore Gaelic dialect I had learned bits and pieces of from my friend Pàruig MacNeacuil on my tongue, and with no idea of what still remained in Cowal. I had heard that the Gaelic language was dead there, but how could I be sure unless I checked every nook, crannie and corner? This I did, finding no-one fluent, but several with a keen smattering yet.

Bute, however, if I had wished to conduct a similar investigation, would have been a different proposition. When Fred MacAuley visited the island for the School of Scottish Studies’ Gaelic Linguistic Survey in 1950, he reported finding next to nothing that was worth a trip back. David Clement was of the opinion that the dialect had survived most recently amongst the Port Bannatyne fishermen, but that it had likely passed away entirely as a spoken tongue by the Second World War. This is backed up by what the minister of the Free Gaelic Church in Rothesay reported during the latter part of the 19th century:

“In Bute, and the district on the shores of Cowal, from Inverchaolin, by Toward, Dunoon, Sandbank, Kilmun, and Strone, English prevails, but a few natives and a considerable immigrant population still speak Gaelic.

Of the native farmers in the Isle of Bute, probably ten can speak Gaelic.

A small portion of the Gaelic-speaking people in the town of Rothesay are also natives, but the large body consists of immigrants.

Gaelic is still preached in the Established Church at North Bute, also occasionally at Port Bannatyne, while there is regular Gaelic service in the Established and Free Gaelic churches in Rothesay.

The Gaelic population in North Bute is almost entirely immigrant.

About 1843-5, the estate of Skipness was sold, and the new proprietor cleared away a large part of the inhabitants, who came over and settled in Bute”

Although we know that the Gaelic of Kintyre, especially that of the northern part of the peninsula, was most certainly similar to what was spoken natively in Cowal and in Mid-Argyll, there were enough differences to mean that the incoming dialect could have muddied up what was extant in Bute were it also different to Kintyre. Due to the longstanding ferry services between Cowal and both the NW and NE coasts of the island, I have always felt it safe to assume that the dialect of Bute was closest in aspect to its nearest neighbours, these being the Kerry Shore and Colintraive, between the speech of which districts the difference was negligible.

Another consideration which lends itself to this view is the fact that it was undoubtedly easier to move between North Bute and Cowal across the ferry than it was to take the land road south to Rothesay, this becoming all the more true the further back in time one goes and rural roads what they were.
However, everything that I have written up to this point is unreferenced, lacking any sort of scholarly citation. There is only so far that I can expect the reader to trust in my local knowledge without some kind of demonstrated evidence.

Given the lack of reference to the nature of the Gaelic spoken in Bute, it has long been difficult to provide this evidence. What we know is confined to snippets of vocabulary here and there.
Dwelly notes that the term breac-bhoiceannach meaning “herpes” or “shingles” belongs to Bute, Cowal and Lochfyneside. Likewise, the term fairc is apparently what the people of Bute used to refer to a “hole” although the term seems etymologically obscure. Unfortunately, these paltry offerings give us no clue about what salient features of the dialect might be.

There are phrases that refer to Bute and Bute folk, e.g. Chan ann am Bód uile ’n t-olc, ach ann an Comhall mu choinneimh (tis not all in Bute the evil, but in Cowal opposite); Gáidheil dhubh Bhóid (Black [i.e. disreputable] Gaels of Bute). While both of these phrases are decidedly pejoritive in their take, they provide nothing of a linguistic nature for our study here.

Imagine then my joy in hearing of Gilbert Márkus’ undertaking to delve into study of the island’s place-names. Finally, there could be some evidence unearthed of how the language sounded through the manner in which spoken forms were Anglicised by map-makers. Ironically, the sounds of defunct dialects stand something of a chance of being guessed at because of the unfamiliarity of non Gaelic-speaking scribes with the indigenous tongue. Were the scribes au fait with whatever constituted the perceived Gaelic literary standard of the time (which was really the Gaelic of North Argyll and Lochaber until very recently), we might expect them to write in consistent fashion, thereby obliterating local forms. However vague the phonetic representations of Gaelic place-names the map-makers compiled, they are often – and very happily – closer to authentic local pronunciation than that which written Gaelic itself might have provided.

What then would we be looking for as evidence of something akin to Cowal Gaelic in the written place-names of Bute? When it comes to *Gáilig Dhail Riada, the Gaelic of Cowal and Mid-Argyll, there is no more salient feature than the preponderence of final /əv/ where otherwise /əɣ/ prevails. Only in the MacKay Country, East Sutherland, Cowal and Mid-Argyll is this feature to be found in Scotland, and even then, only in the conditional tense of the verb does one find it in the two northern areas, e.g. bhitheamh sin math (that would be good). That said, the sound is always /u/ unless bhitheamh preceeds a word beginning with a vowel, in which case it is not unknown to hear /əv/.

Although the instances of this termination are much more common in both Cowal and Mid-Argyll, appearing everywhere one might expect final /əɣ/; in the Gaelic of Cowal the sound is also rendered /u/. This means that final /v/ could have been undetectable in speech and therefore not have appeared in what was written to represent words in which it was normally in evidence.

However, when quizzed on individual words in the 1970s, Cowal native Gill-Easpuig Bacastair of Colintraive gave fieldwork legend David Clement seamh /ʃöv/ (“yes” Standard Gaelic seadh) despite that word being rendered /ʃö/ (often /hö:/) in natural speech. This suggested that the loss of final /v/ was relatively recent and that it could well have been a normal feature of Cowal Gaelic at one time just as it was in Mid-Argyll. It seemed when listening to the recording as if Archie was somehow aware that the /v/ should still be there despite not sounding it in natural conversation. I wondered then whether Cowal speech perhaps exhibited atrophy (of which loss of /v/ might be a feature) in comparison with the rest of the dialect area to the west, something that was certainly alluded to by the minister tasked with the Kilfinan contribution to the statistical account of 1796:

“The language most commonly spoken in this parish is the Gaelic, although not in that degree of purity and perfection as on the North [i.e. West] side of Loch Fyne.”

Either way, I was on the look out especially for place-names in which there might be the sniff of a final /v/ and kept my eye open for anything else which suggested similarity with Cowal and Mid-Argyll as I read “The Place-names of Bute”. Márkus’ work was indeed excellent from cover to cover. Unfortunately however, there was very little of what I sought, most of the differences to what one might encounter in Standard Gaelic conforming to general features of what could simply be regarded as “Argyll Gaelic”.

In Márkus’ treatment of Kingarth Parish, I noted Creag a’ Chlaidheimh (Rock of the Sword). It is a point worth noting that while the termination –adh is most often rendered –amh, instances of –amh which normally appear in the standard dialect are rather contrarily missing in Cowal and Mid-Argyll, when occurring as a verbal termination rendered –achd e.g. feitheachd, seasachd (waiting, standing) or being dropped e.g. claidhe, ceathra (sword, quarter). I believe the latter is what accounts for the variant form provided by then Kingarth minister John Buchanan (1864) Craig-a-chloy the final syllable of which being more or less in keeping with local Gaelic for “sword”. The full form Creag a’ Chlaidhe written in dialect shows final –imh missing.

In the form Langalchorad, also from Kingarth Parish, we find Márkus wondering about the origin of the second element of the place-name. However, out of the universal pronunciation of comhnard (flat, level) in Cowal and Mid-Argyll /kɔ̃ːrəᴅ̥/ can be neatly extrapolated the mystery second element, comhrad. Langal Chomhrad is therefore the form that has escaped our author here, which without a full knowledge of Argyll dialect has understandably remained obscure.

Staying in Kingarth, we find the form Langalculcathla, about which I am in total agreement with Márkus. Langal is followed this time by Cùl-Cachla, the final element being common in the Colintraive and Glendaruel areas opposite Bute, e.g. Dail na Cachla and A’ Chachaile Bhuidhe leaving us in little doubt.

Having examined these South Bute forms, I believe it is fair to say at the very least that they follow the rest of Argyll, meaning that although it’s possible that there were North and South Bute dialects at one time, on this extremely limited evidence, it would be impossible to suggest any great difference. The other point to note here is that throughout my reading, I likewise came across no place-names containing elements that were demonstrably foreign to Argyll.

Although the above examples are interesting, they represent a tiny percentage of what would be required to declare outright that the dialect of Bute was the same as that of Cowal. We would require at the very minimum another dozen strong examples of shared forms. The word but (small field) crops up often throughout the corpus of Bute place-names with which Márkus deals, tying in with similar examples in Cowal, e.g. But nam Bodach, but once again, it is hardly a stone cold clincher.

There are of course other words, like the seemingly monosyllabic representation of buidhe as buie. Cowal and Mid-Argyll pronunciation is not monosyllablic, but could be construed as such by the untrained ear with its hiatus /bu•i/. This is something that occurs in many words, including in fact the aforementioned claidhe /kɫa•i/ but buie is hardly a localised Anglicisation, rearing its head elsewhere in Argyll, e.g. Lochbuie.

Were we relying entirely on what has already been noted, bringing Bute under the Cowal and Mid-Argyll banner would be on a fairly shaky peg. Likely as it may be that the island’s Gaelic was a sub-dialect of Central Argyll – despite being under the thrall of the Stewarts and not any of the Cowal families – it would most certainly be nice to have something more concrete to rely upon, which in fact, we may well have in the next and final example from Márkus’ text.

Our last throw of the dialect dice falls on the following place-name from the Parish of North Bute: Ardnagave. What is immediately obvious to the fluent speaker of the Cowal and Mid-Argyll dialect is the final /v/ in the last syllable. Márkus notes:

“McLea’s rendering of the name suggests ‘shieling of the geese’ Àirigh nan Gèadh. It may be correct but the final –ave in all the other forms of the name indicating pronunciation with a final /v/ raises questions over McLea’s interpretation”.

Márkus is correct in saying that it raises questions, but the questions are not those he has in mind. The question required here would be to ask whether neighbouring dialects pronounce with final /v/ where you would otherwise expect to find /ɣ/. I am in no doubt that the placename is in fact Àirigh nan Gèamh and due to this, find myself able to wholeheartedly back Márkus’ note that the first element in the most recent of the Angliscisations, Àrd, is most likely wrong. We can do this by asking ourselves whether geese tend to congregate on bluffs, or on flatter grassy areas of which a shieling is one, the latter of course being the correct answer.

In confirming the only instance as far as I can detect of a decisively Cowal and Mid-Argyll Gaelic form, there is no point in trying to claim that it closes the book on debate about the former nature of spoken Gaelic in the Island of Bute. What I would suggest we can do however, is to combine common sense due to the island’s proximity to Cowal with the twin ferry routes at the north end of the island operating well into the 20th century and ally to that the evidence from above. With this in mind, it is really no great stretch to claim that the Gaelic of Bute was most likely very similar to that of the Kilfinan and Kilmodan Parishes of Cowal.

Although Kintyre people may well have bolstered the northern Gaelic population of the island in the mid 19th century thereby diluting the local dialect’s purity, the form Márkus gives us from Roy’s map has Arinagave from a century earlier, suggesting that final /v/ was a previously existing native feature.
I have long considered Cowal and Mid-Argyll dialect, what we neologistically refer to as *Dalriada Gaelic in my family, to be the linguistic heritage of the Isle of Bute. Proving this has stayed outwith my reach for the last 12 years. Irrefutable evidence I may not have, but the solid evidence of even just this one form does speak for itself. From this, we can make the not unreasonable jump to suggest that Bute people were saying such things as:

feumaidh mi smaoineachamh, air feamh na dùthcha and seamh, gu dearbh.

Whether the /v/ had or would have atrophied, as in Cowal, by the mid 20th century we cannot say, but if Bute followed Cowal and Mid-Argyll, then there is very little reason to suspect that it did not follow the rest of Argyll south of Appin in saying:

Dé mar a tha sibh?

…when enquiring after someone’s health, answering with a brisk:

Tha gu gasta!

…as my late friend Seumas MacEalair of Shellfield Farm used to do when I would hit him with that very question. If the foregoing has proven to be correct, then it would be little more than a hop, skip and jump to assume that as with everywhere from South Lorne to Islay, Bute people would show gratitude with the phrase:

gu robh math agaibh!

And with that, I shall thank Gilbert Márkus most warmly for his crucial contribution to the subject, yourself for reading this blog, and hope that it has offered a little insight into one of the least known and least-recorded Scottish Gaelic dialects, one which can most likely be happily included in the *Dalriada dialect area and referred to as:

Gáilig an Eilein Bhódaich! /gɛːlik əˈnʲelanʲ voːᴛiç/

 –

Àdhamh Ó Broin

November 2022

*NOTE: The dialect area which covers Bute, Cowal and Mid-Argyll has been named Dail Riada (Dalriada) because of the manner in which the dialect seems to have operated, with a locus of linguistic conservatism and purity around Kilmartin, Kilmichael and Lochfyneside with slight differences in speech observable in South Knapdale.  The people of the first two areas were referred to as Dail Riadaich which seems to have been a survival of the previous Iron Age power structure. Cowal and arguably Bute belonged to the eastern extent of the dialect, which if we are correct, seems to have exhibited atrophe, meaning that it was not in a pre-eminent position of influence in respect to the rest of the area. Linguistic prestige seems to have lain with the aforementioned Dail Riadaich and due to this, we have named the dialect for them. It has also been said that Cowal and Mid-Argyll Gaelic exhibits certain “original” features in common with Irish dialects, one of which being the lack of dipthongisation in words such as ann, cam, tróm (trom) and fìon. This tempted us to think that there may be a link which is traceable back to the early speech of the area, the dialect having been sheltered from overt influence from outside by the might of Clan Campbell. These are mere theories, as while I consider my scholarship adequate enough, I make no claim to academic training, ÀÓB.

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