THE HIGHLANDS REVISITED: Chapter 1

 

Lochaber No More

 In honour of Andrew Wiseman and his efforts to maintain the legacy of Calum. I MacLean

agus do mhuinntir Alba Nuaidh a chumas beò cainnt Loch Abair fhathast.

 

My sources of information were
not to be guidebooks, travellers’ accounts or the prejudiced writings of formal
historians.
  They had to be living
sources breathing the air and treading the soil…

They are, of course, the people
who know most about Lochaber.

– Calum I. MacLean

 

          From the roof of Scotland, Loch Abar stretches out at peace;
twinkling lights and patches of forestry, tiny scudding vehicles and miles-long
naturally wrought slots filled with fresh rain.
 
From the perch of the Cailleach
Bheur
[1],
only the seeming intrusion of technology has changed this scene, the character
of the people and the language upon their lips indiscernible.
  From the heights of Beinn Nìbheis[2],
all appears well.

Gleann Nìbheis, air cùl na beinne

Scots Pines in the Glen behind the Ben.

          On one of my many sojourns through
Lochaber – admittedly most often on my way elsewhere – I stepped into a café near
the home of the man most closely associated with this area for any Gael who
remembers the 20
th century. 
The voice of Iain Domhnallach[3]
the Lochaber Bard echoes reassuringly in my ears as I travel, safely revered as
uniquely representative of the area’s Gaelic heritage.

          I finished my sandwich, slurped the
last of my tea, and went to settle up with the pleasant lady who had served me;
grey-haired, blue-eyed, handsome-featured and of a vintage that would secure
her in knowledge of the Bard, whose passing in the 1960s was not so very long
ago.
  As I completed the transaction for
my victuals, I enquired of the poet, asking about how well he might yet be
loved in the area – not expecting devotional fireworks, but hardly anticipating
the dearth of any kind of recognition whatsoever that such an individual had
ever walked the Lochaber Braes.

          “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you mean”
she said, most courteously, but with a look of blank resignation on a face that
had the genetic imprint of her Gaelic ancestors upon it yet.

          “He’s very famous” said I, trying not
to expose my plaintive desperation.
  I
looked at the lady behind her: “No?”
  She
shook her head.
  John the Bard was dead
to these ladies, if he had ever been alive.
 
I was unexpectedly wounded by this and with a wan smile and a grasp of
my change, I made out into the faint Highland sun.

 

          From the peak of Ben Nevis, John the
Bard lives.
  In fact, every hero who ever
set foot in Lochaber, or anywhere else in the Highlands, still lives.
  The glow of the west in the dusk is as Gaelic
from the roof of Scotland as it ever was and the fires of Highland homes
secrete their jolly smoke from chimneys long cold as if the Clearances had
never taken place.
  In the mind of the
Gael from the throne of the Cailleach Bheur, his people are everywhere still to
be found.
  There is a welcome, an
assuaging of the cultural loneliness which pervades the reality of ground
level, in every township now ruined and overgrown, a warm hug from a compatriot
to dry the tears of grief for our shattered matrix, our mouldering character
and our shrunken husk of a language, spoken now by hobbyists and modernists,
but most often expunged from use amongst the descendants of its original
speakers.

          Lochaber: the Outdoor Capital of the
UK –as if the area is nothing but a playground for mountaineers and hikers,
kayakers and cyclists.
  The very sight of
this phrase on signs at the side of the road has my hackles up as I pass.
  Lochaber has been commoditised, captioned and
branded, like “Argyle’s Secret Coast” or the “North Coast 500”.
  I cannot imagine what John the Bard would
make of it, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t be much.

         

John MacDonald is a sturdy man, somewhat
under medium height, but very alert and active.
  His little grey eyes seemed to pierce right through me as I approached
him. I greeted him in Gaelic.
  On hearing
his own language, he immediately shed his reserve and smiled.

He was John the Bard.

(c) School of Scottish Studies

          If even the memory of this man is
gone, then Lochaber can be no more, I thought.
 
The cultural amnesia of the people here represents the final stage of colonisation.  Once the population have lost their sense of belonging,
the land around them is defenceless in the face of being apportioned off and
rebranded for commercial purpose.
  People
and place linked by language and culture provide a resilience now missing.

         

I regret that lamentably little
of the fine traditions of Lochaber are being passed on to the younger
generations.
  Men like John MacDonald of
Highbridge… could stand anywhere on the highway between Fort William and Roy
Bridge and name every valley, every stream, every copse and every peak in an
absolute sea of mountains as far as the human eye could reach.
  Their knowledge did not however, stop at mere
names.
  They knew the why and the
wherefore of them all.

 

          What the Statutes of Iona had begun in
1609; what the last Jacobite Uprising had brought into very brutal and
ignominious relief – all the sharper at the point of the redcoat bayonet – the
television had completed with passive yet all-pervading power.
  The Butcher could not get a spy into every
Highland Home in 1746; his 30,000 merks were as useless before the monetarily
ignorant Gael.
  But the television is a
stroke of unparalled colonial genius, allowing the voracious consumerist
mindset of the less palatable among the ranks of the Anglo-American free reign
to wreak havoc in the Highlands as elsewhere like some hypnotising,
pontificating mechanical owl perched on the wall or side cabinet, feeding not
on the innards of rodents, but on the minds of children.

          The television is an incredibly useful
piece of technology.
  There would be few
who could deny it.
  What a fantastic
thing to be able to witness language and culture from the other side of the
world with just the flick of a switch.
 
That it is rarely used for such endeavour, we can only attest as we walk
into the living rooms of people who should know better than to leave it on from
dawn until dusk.

          A friend once pointed out to me that
in Uist, the TV set was often referred to by the elders as
am bogsa-puinnsein “the poison box” and how right these venerable folk
were.
  I was taken on a delightful tour
by a friend to the homes of some people in North Uist in 2009 from whom I
received hospitality which if for some unlikely reason I ever wished to shake
from my memory, I most certainly could not.
 
The factor that has lasted just as long however, is the memory of the TV
that never ceased to deliver its opinion evening long, despite the valiant
struggle of the gathered Gaels to make themselves heard, remote control in
hand.

          After a valiant struggle of my own
against the mighty measures of lovingly-poured whisky into my less than voluminous
glass, I sickened of sipping from the constantly-topped brim and let my
terrible hunger be known.
  Embarrassed as
I was to put upon these people, I was led bodily into the kitchen and seated at
a table and chair, while all manner of comestibles were laid out before
me.
  The té-an-taigh[4]
bustled behind me, punctuating every bite with enquiry as to my satisfaction,
which safe to say with mounthful of butter, cheese and oatcakes in situ, was
complete.
  Not content with this, it was
time for the scones and jam to emerge, with more tea, and my hostess barely a
day over 40 years of age.
  She morphed
seemlessly into her grandmothers, and touched me lightly on the shoulder now
and again as whispers of
sin u, ma-thà[5]
and
an dian sin an gnothach, a ghràidh?[6]
were heard close to my ear.
  Inside this
lovely lady, who I have not had the pleasure of seeing since, lived the beating
heart of her Gaelic ancestors; Highland Hospitality had not yet met its end in
the talons of the Omnipotent Owl next door.
 
Another 30 years of a TV in every human home however, coupled with the
miniature TVs now in every human hand, and we shall see its end within the
lifetimes of our children, independence of culture lost in the same manner as
independence of mind and nation.

 

          I was thankfully about to be spun on
my heel as I searched for memory of John the Bard in the hope that all was not
lost.
  I decided that in attempting to
get under the skin of Lochaber, I would have to find an orifice somewhere.
  That somewhere was the graveyard at Cill mo Naomhaig[7]
near
Drochaid an Aonachainn[8].

 

In one of the headstones, there
is a hole made by a bullet.
  Away back in
the days of the ‘bodysnatchers’, John MacDonald’s father was one night watching
the Kilmonivaig graves.
  He was armed with a muzzle-loader.  Towards morning he was tired and drowsed off
to sleep.  Suddenly he awoke and saw what
he thought was the figure of a bodysnatcher.
 
He shot.  The figure did not move.  The bullet, however, went clean through his
victim – the headstone.

 

          I entered the graveyard on a beautiful
March morning, the smell of spring strong in the air and a gentle cascade of
sunlight descending through less than heavy cloud.
  It took a matter of only a minute to find the
headstone through which the bullet had crashed.
 
I hadn’t found John yet, but I had found my orifice, the handiwork of
his father.
  The wound was sizeable,
clearly having entered at the back of the stone and blown a wider exit hole out
of the front.
  It felt good to handle it,
to know that true Lochaber hands had done the same, and that strong West
Highland Gaelic had been heard repeatedly in the stone’s presence.
  As my friend who had come along that day
lifted a picture or two of me at the little monolith and as we rose to depart,
I was called by the only other person we encountered while visiting.


 

“The bullet however, went clean through its victim”

 

          “Is there anything I can help you
with?” asked the kindly man on the other side of the original entrance to the walled
graveyard, the gate’s feet now thick with earth and moss and unable to shuffle open
its iron bulk.

          “Well what I’m doing is writing a book
about what’s happened since Calum MacLean visited here in the 50s” I informed
him.

          “Kenny MacIntosh is the man you want
to speak to,” said he, and off we were sent back down the brae into Spean
Bridge.

 

          Not only is Coinneach Mac an Tòisich only too well aware of exactly who the
Bard is, he also boasts among his fine collection of books on Scottish and
Gaelic matters a first edition copy of “The Highlands” by Calum I.
MacLean.
  When I returned alone the next
day, Coinneach was more than pleased to spend the afternoon ferrying me around
all manner of sites that had been mentioned by Calum is his book and filling me
in on exactly what had changed since he left.
 
A better guide to the history of Lochaber in the verging on post-Gaelic
age a person would be hard-pressed to find.
 
Coinneach was born around the time Calum visited, meaning that his life
spanned the exact period since.
  When I
described what I thought must be the right gravestone, Coinneach confirmed that
I had indeed located the correct one and that when he was a child, the school
teacher would regularly point it out to the class as they passed.

 

My own beloved first edition copy of “The Highlands”

Glen Roy must be one of the most
beautiful glens in the Highlands.
  In a few years, it will be
derelict and dead.
  The ageing population
there at present will have gone because among other things, they have no water
supply and no electric light in their houses.


          Coinneach insisted much to my great
pleasure in delivering me some way up this admittedly most stunning of
glens.
  We reached a high viewpoint and
paused to take in the scene.
  As my
generous host informed me that Upper Glen Roy had once supported many occupied
houses, he pointed out areas of former cultivation on what seemed like mightily
steep hillsides.
  “There’s a lot of
bracken, but that’s good ground you know” said Coinneach, whose perfect passive
understanding of Scottish Gaelic was tempered only by timidity in speaking
it.
  His arm swept along the braes on
either side of the River Roy, scotching the modern perception that such natural
beauty comes at an unavoidable price – the absence of human habitation.
  Coinneach, like the tradition bearers before
him, knows the names of townships, of cottages, of caves, of hills, and of
those who frequented them.
  He may not be
a fluent Gaelic speaker himself, but he is a fluent exponent of the Lochaber
way.

          “Further up the glen” he said, “there
is a shooting lodge, with staff and what have you, but no community.”
  I ventured that what Calum predicted about
Glen Roy being derelict and dead had indeed come to pass. “Well funnily enough,
they did get electrticity,” Coinneach continued, “and they got water too!
  But it’s a different way of life up here
now.
  The old crofting communities have
been broken up and the old people did die out.
 
There are very few young ones either though and it’s gone that they
don’t want small crofts, they want everything to be big units and big
farms.
  That’s the way it’s gone; it
kills community.”

 

“Glen Roy must be one of the most

beautiful glens in the Highlands”

          When I arrived at Coinneach’s house
before we made off out for the day, I was greeted from the garden, having tried
unsuccessfully to locate him in the house.
 
A smile emanated from a neat grey beard behind the cover of a hedge and
I hung up my speculative mobile phone realising that Coinneach was not ten
yards away!
  As we shook hands under the
proud saltire on a pole sporting the European stars, we noticed an imposing figure
descending slowly into the driveway.

 

It was in Glen Roy that I found
the only Gaelic speakers under forty years of age…

With Glen Roy, a language, a
culture, a civilisation passes into oblivion.

 

          This civilisation was not altogether
dead and it had arrived in the figure of
Raghall
Caimbeul
, “Ronnie the Crofter” as he was locally known.  The fact that this appellation had followed
him was not lost on me, the inference being that he was perhaps the only
crofter left of the old guard.
  I had
long tried to get a hold of Raghall, ringing him, calling at his croft, and had
failed utterly to make it happen.
 
Stories of his fierce, uncompromising nature preceded him, and I had
resigned myself to the rendezvous never taking place.
  Upon reaching the croft, I had been greeted
by a pair of ferocious Border Collies, caged at the roadside, but clearly
itching for the chance to take my throat out.
 
I have plenty experience of working sheepdogs and know fine not to
expect affection, but the wildness of this pair was off the charts, giving me a
taste, I felt, of the warrior nature people had associated with Raghall.
  As with so many other moments on this journey
however, my faith in the ancestral purpose that has driven me along during the
last 15 years was rewarded, and Raghall came to me.

          We passed through the gate at the side
of Coinneach’s house and he and Raghall chatted for a brief minute before I was
introduced.
  Raghall and I shook hands
for a long time, he with my wrist and I with his, gripped, looking one another
squarely in the blue of our eyes and speaking contentedly in the tongue of our
forebears.

          Bha
mi ’feuchainn ri greim fhaodainn oiribh
I said with an eyebrow raised.  Tha mi
’creidsinn gu robh
answered Raghall in what I realised was typically
taciturn fashion after the most friendly welcome to a fellow Gael.
  He knew I’d been trying to get a hold of him,
knew just fine who I was, but had not been in the mood to be questioned.
  In fact, it was not his forebears that had a
hold of Raghall’s attention at that particular moment at all, but bears of a
decidedly different sort.

          “I’m about to be set upon” he stated, with
a dramatic glint in his eye. “Bears and wolves will be running round my croft
very shortly, you know.”
  Coinneach
grinned and looked between our two faces, clearly not taking the matter
altogether seriously.
  “I’ll be thrown
out and the wild animals will take over” finished Raghall.
  And with that he wandered off up the sloping
drive and across the tarmac to a waiting car on the other side of the road
without a backward glance.
  Just as Calum
had felt when meeting John the Bard I felt myself having finally met Raghall –
a real character!

          What the old crofter was referring to
was the buying up of a dozen Highland estates by Danish billionnaire Anders
Polson for the purposes of rewilding.
  As
Coinneach and I drove up through Glen Roy, I ventured that from an ecological
perspective, and for the future survival of anything verging on a healthy
ecosystem in which humans could live in a sustainable fashion, soil
regeneration and species diversity were going to have to be ensured.
  It quickly became clear however that the
problem Raghall might have was not so much with the process, but with what
could potentially amount to a lack of consultation; another foreign power
inserting itself into the Highlands in the wake of British colonialism.

          I wondered whether the indomitable Raghall
would have been part of this coterie of younger Gaels that Calum encountered in
1950s Glen Roy.

          “Yes, yes, I imagine he would have
been.” confirmed Coinneach.
  “There was
quite a big squad of them in fact, quite a lot of people under forty
then.”
  Coinneach went on to list a
number of nicknames referring to local families. “That would be your younger generation
of Gaelic speakers.”

Àdhamh ‘s Coinneach ann an Gleann Ruadh

          While at the far end of Glen Roy, I
was reminded of an encounter with a Greek author some years previously, a most
eccentric woman to be sure, but someone with a number of interesting theories
on the relationship between Ancient Hellenic myths and the Scottish Highlands.
  During an email conversation, we had suddenly
got into a most rapid exchange which resulted from her sharing both a rough hand-drawn
map of what she referred to as “Hyperboria” and a theory that Hercules had
visited the far north.
  Clearly this map was
of Scotland and as I looked at the placing of what were termed the
“Paralliloi”, I knew upon pouring over an Ordnance Survey map of Lochaber that
these could only be Glen Roy’s Parallel Roads, the result of a lowering
shoreline during the Younger Dryas.
 
Could there be a case made for Hercules and Cù-Chulainn being one and the same? 
It certainly begs further investigation.

          From my discussions with Coinneach, it
seemed as if the communities in Glen Roy had receded ever further out of the
upper part of the river course since Calum’s time, sliding inexorably towards
the mouth of the glen.
  Coinneach suggested
I have a look at Roy’s Military Map which places the townships of the locale
exactly where they were.
  My host has been
all the way up to investigate them himself and confirmed the map’s accuracy.
  There had also been 30 Highlander-occupied
houses in Bohuntine not so long ago, where many of Coinneach’s people hailed
from, but now the demographic had been turned on its head.
  Instead of people from the Scottish Lowlands
or England being the exception, the vast majority of homes were now occupied by
what Coinneach judiciously termed “our friends from the South”.
  It appeared as if the colonisation of the
Scottish Highlands had surged ahead here at just the same pace as anywhere else
in the decades since WWII, and especially since the advent of “right to buy” which
Coinneach rightly considered a dreadful thing.

 

A photoshoot with a classic car takes place in Glen Roy

          Turning back to discussion of the
Bard, I wondered whether he was often a feature of conversation among the older
people of the area.
  Coinneach confirmed
that he was.
  “Everyone knew where the
Bard’s house was and in fact his nephew was still in the house when I was
young, so it was still in the family.
 
People often talked about his papers, wondering what had happened to
them.
  My mother used to get quite
excited talking about the Bard’s stuff”

          “So there was a sense in which in your
own younger days then, there was a natural amount of celebrity surrounding
him,” I ventured, “in that old school Gaelic way?”

          “Oh yes.  They used to talk about the Bard’s stories,
there would be people discussing those.”

          “And was there anybody who was able to
sing a chorus from any of his songs or anything like that?”

          “No, I certainly don’t remember that,
no.
  That’s not to say there wasn’t
though!
  I think he used to sit and sing
them himself.
  He may have been the only
person that sung some of them!
  But he
wrote them down which was a good thing.”

 

Cille Choiril

          We had gone looking for John’s grave,
but after a drive through
Braighean Loch
Abair
[9],
hadn’t found it in
Cille Choiril
churchyard, a most gorgeous environment in which many of the Catholic Gaels of
the area had found their rest.
  A little
chapel still sees use in the summer time and has been greatly boosted,
Coinneach informed me, by the charitable input of Nova Scotian descendants of
the local stock, remedial work on subsidence having prevented the descent of
the church into the glen via the long steep bank.
  Upon a mound roughly east of the chapel grows
a yew tree, and a most sturdy, healthy-looking exponent of the species he is
too, indicative of the fact that this cemetery – like most others – had been
used since ancient times before being requisitioned by the new monotheistic system
arriving from the east.

          A wander up this bank was in order
after we had examined the wrongly-placed stone to commemorate
Iain Lom, bard to the MacDonalds of
Keppoch and documentor of the stunning victory by
Alasdair mac Colla chiotaich and Montrose over the Covenanting
forces under the Campbells of Argyle at
Inbhir
Lòchaidh
[10]
in 1645.
  The finely-carved monolith had
been put up close to where
Domhall mac
Fhionnlaigh
had been interred, also mentioned in Calum’s book, while it is
thought that the remains of Iain Lom are most likely halfway up the bank
towards the yew.

 

Crois-cuimhne dlùth ri uaigh Dhomhaill mhic Fhionnlaigh

 

The actual spot where his remains
lie is not known now.

The last tradition bearer who
knew for certain is long dead.

 

          Coinneach pointed out that in the
early 18
th century, there wouldn’t be the same marking of graves as
there is now and that you’d be lucky if you got a lump of stone with a rough
cross on it.
  Perhaps given Iain Lom’s
lack of popularity in the district, he was lucky to have made it into the soil
at all.
  We headed out of the graveyard
and back into the car in search of the poet’s house, the foundations of which
are hidden in amongst the ubiquitous forestry which has completely blanketed
the area from a mile east of the chapel over to Badenoch.
  My host reckoned that Iain Lom had been
shoved out of the road due to his notoriety, his legacy amongst the people
remarkably different to that of John the Bard.

          “He’s never been remembered kindly by
anybody actually!” laughed Coinneach.
  “He
was anything but a popular man.”

          “You have to wonder” I mused, “whether
in fact Alasdair MacColla was really of a mood to hang him from the nearest
tree if his news turned out not to be sound, or whether Iain was just cheeky to
him!”

          “Well this is it” agreed Coinneach, “I
think he was cheeky to everyone!
  Funnily
enough, if we’d gone right up Glen Roy, I could have shown you that tree.
  It’s only the stump that’s still there, a
good bit further up, just this side of the lodge, but it’s actually quite
visible.
  And people used to say ‘och no,
that’s just a recent tree; it couldn’t possibly have been there 350 or more
years ago’ but an expert forester actually had a look at it – I think it’s a
Scots Pine – and said ‘no, that’s actually quite reasonable, that it could have
been there that amount of time’.
  And
that’s where Iain Lom was to be hung if he was telling lies!”

          Coinneach explained to me that the
well opposite the house, facing the Laggan Dam was where the poet drew his
water.

          “They’re supposed to have sent
somebody to kill him latterly; but the story went that the guy, when he came
and he saw him – I think he was just a wee wizened old man – couldn’t be
bothered with the idea of killing him.
 
He thought ‘time will take care of that one’!  He had a lot of enemies, Iain Lom.”

 

Far an robh taigh Iain Luim

          As with most people that are of Glen
Roy, Coinneach and Raghall are related, second cousins, and share an ancestor
in
Eoghann Ruadh Mac an Tòisich who
was out with the Prince.

          “Eoghann Ruadh was a Mackintosh,”
explained Coinneach, “and he was from Bohuntine and he was a farmer and a
sargeant in the Prince’s army and he’s supposed to have joined the Rising at
Glenfinnan and gone all the way down to Derby and back and was actually wounded
at the Battle of Falkirk.
  He had a
musket ball in the shoulder – they just left it there.
  And he went on to fight at Culloden and had
both his legs broken with grapeshot.
  He
was with the MacDonalds of Keppoch and he was fortunate enough that I think his
people lifted him onto a pony – because there was horses careering about – so
they lifted him onto a pony and whether he managed to steer the pony home from
Culloden Moor all the way back to Bohuntine, the story is that he died of his
wounds eventually when he got home and he’s actually supposed to be buried
under the flagstone of the door at Cille Choiril church!”

          “Well that’s not bad going as a Highlander
if you’ve a story like that to tell about an ancestor!” I exclaimed.

          “Aye, well the Redcoats had a field
day round about here; really terrible depridations were visited on this area,
dreadful stuff, but a few managed to escape now and again and make a nuisance
of themselves!”

          I was very keen to find out if the
Forty-Five had left a legacy in the area in terms of the sentiment of the
people, whether there was anything left of what Calum most certainly found in
the 1950s; that there was still only
one
Prince
.

          “Oh very much so!  Very much so.” Coinneach was emphatic on this
point.
  “They were rabid Jacobites…
still.
  Oh god aye!  My own father used to do the Jacobite
toast.
  They would take the glass and
pass it over the water, and then it was: ‘the king over the water and the
little gentleman in the black velvet coat’ – which was the mole.
  And it was a mole that killed King Billy,
because his horse tripped over a molehill.
 
Yup!  So that was the toast.”

          “So they would be saying slàinte Mhór instead of slàinte mhath?”

          “Exactly.  Slàinte
Mhór
.  Yup, yup!  To Mórag.  Oh they were quite bitter Jacobites, yes.  Even what I remember of them.  Oh god aye! 
250 years later and they had no regret at all about joining the Rising.  They had all kinds of thoughts and theories
as to why it went wrong.
  They tested the
Hanoverians.
  Yes.  And their successors!  There was more to Jacobitism than just the
succession.
  It was actually quite a
progressive kind of a movement.
  All the
really ‘go-ahead’ people were Jacobites.
 
The Hanoverians were a pretty dour, unnattractive lot; I think they were
just money-grabbing; ‘corrupt’ I think would be the word.
  It’s why they were so unpopular.”

          It was quite remarkable to hear
Coinneach talk about fervent Jacobitism in the Scottish Highlands as if it were
yesterday.
  It was perfectly plausible
that there had been an unbroken tradition of anti-Hanoverian and therefore
anti-establishment feeling right through to my own time, which given my birth
in 1979, seemed almost incredible.
 
Despite being a republican and considering monarchy an anachronism, I
have always felt a strong pull to the Jacobite cause because of the people who
were involved in it, my people, the Gaels.
 
Although my Sutherlands and MacKays were most likely on the wrong side
of the conflict, there would no doubt have been just as much pro-Jacobite
feeling amongst the common people in the glens of my ancestors as there was
anywhere else.

 

Kenny with his copy of Calum I. MacLean’s “The Highlands”

 

          Even if Gaelic had been on the wane
for decades by the time Coinneach came into this world, it was clear that much
of what was held important in the old fabric of Lochaber society still held
sway, and not that long ago.
  I did
wonder however, whether the following prediction had come to pass:

 

There is hardly one child in any
school in Lochaber today
who will be able to read, write
or even speak Gaelic upon reaching school-leaving age.

 

          “When you were at school, do you
remember anyone coming in still in those days who wasn’t able to speak
English?” I asked Coinneach.

          “No,” he said, “there wasn’t anyone
who could speak Gaelic at all in fact, nevermind not being able to speak
English.
  Not in the 60s.  Even if they had Gaelic, they wouldn’t be
speaking it.”

          “And was it ever spoken of round here
that people had suffered at the hands of teachers because of the language?”

          “Oh yes!” Coinneach snapped back
swiftly. “In my parents’ time, they were thrashed for talking Gaelic.
  They were belted.  The 1930s. 
It was definitely discouraged. 
They were made to feel inferior.”

          Institutional child abuse, which within
Scottish schools extended well past the speaking of Gaelic to the speaking of
Scots and all manner of other things that were seen as not being befitting of polite
British society.

 

          As a child, I would venture the two
miles along the coast on my bicycle from
Rubha
Bàn
to Camus nam Muclach[11]
to watch Kyles Athletic.
  They were the
local team and it was natural to root for them.
 
I played the occasionl game of shinty myself, although never
competitively and I can’t say I was ever particularly great at it, but it was
most certainly a big part of life in the Kyles of Bute area.

 

Shinty is still the most popular
game in Lochaber.
  Three senior shinty
teams, Fort William, Kilmallie and Brae Lochaber, represent the district in
competitions open to the Highlands….

In districts where there is a
long tradition of shinty playing, every effort is made to carry on
out of a sense of loyalty to a
game regarded as distinctly Highland and national.

 

          This was a key subject on which to get
an update on the last 60 years from Coinneach, who was an avid fan.
  How long had this loyalty positively affected
continuance of the game?

          “My aunt’s husband John MacDonell, his mother had the Spean
Bridge Hotel, and he used to run Calum around from there to see all these
people; he used to do the taxi.
  He’d
take him down to John the Bard’s place as well.”

          “That’s quite an honourable way to
pass your time”

          “Yes, he remembered Calum MacLean
well.
  He was a great shinty man, my
uncle, and Calum was too.
  He used to
take him to shinty matches as well.
  He
said it was a pleasure but that Calum was a very intense man.
  There wasn’t an awful lot of crack about him;
he was really focussed on the folklore you know?”

          “You follow the shinty yourself?”

          “Yes, the season’s just starting
again, but we’re stuggling actually, the game here.
  People aren’t interested anymore.  It’s an awful shame.  Lochaber is our local team.  We just got relegated.  We used to have two teams here but we
struggle to put one out now!”

          My worst fears had been realised.  Coinneach’s village, Spean Bridge, had been a
place of justifiable boasts in terms of the Highlander’s national game.

 

In the years immediately before
the Second World War, ten Camerons from Stronenaba played for Spean Bridge
shinty club.
  Physically they were much
the best shinty team in the Highlands.

 

          Now there wasn’t even a Spean Bridge
team, nevermind a recent pedigree of players and statistics.
  I asked Coinneach if he played himself.

          “For fun really. The New Year game had
died out by my time.
  They were always fairly
organised since the Camanachd Association came along.
  But I’m pretty sure they used to have a
free-for-all up at Roy Bridge on New Year’s Day!
  That would have happened, but not in my
memory.
  It’s all just part and parcel of
the degradation of the old ways.”

          It reminded me of what GillEasbuig Bacastair[12]
had said about ColGlen Shinty Club in Cowal across the loch from where I
watched Kyles Athletic.
  In the days of
his youth, they were capable of putting out three teams had such been required,
but by the 1970s, they could barely put out one.
  It seemed that shinty was just another facet
of the crumbling jewel of Gaelic society, and one that has subsequently hit a
very rough patch of road in Lochaber.

 

The Lochaber room in which Àdhamh composed this blog in March 2020

           I asked Coinneach about his thoughts on a
matter that some in the Gaelic world consider controversial.
  I have at times been accused of disloyalty to
the Gaelic language because of it.
 
Despite this being as far from the truth as is possible to get, it must
be admitted that this loyalty lags behind that of a different kind, the same as
feeds my Jacobite sentiment, my loyalty to the Highlanders themselves.

          “I would rather speak English to a
Highlander with a thorough knowledge of his local area, submerged in the
history and tradition of his people but maybe not fully fluent in the language,
than speak to a fluent urban learner without a clue about
dualchas[13].”
I said to Coinneach, gleaning as I spoke that he knew precisely where I was
coming from before I had even begun.
 
“Does that make any sense to you?”

          “I quite understand that, yes, I quite
understand.
  A sense of time, a sense of
place, a sense of history.
  I quite
agree.”

 

Without doubt, the transmission
of knowledge [that] had proceeded orally for centuries…
was about to cease because the
younger generation was no longer interested in its continuance.

The culture of Hollywood has
certainly influenced youth in Lochaber today.

 

          Coinneach went on to elaborate on the good
old poison-box itself: “TV and social media I reckon are the biggest changes in
society during my time.
  We had nothing
but a black and white TV with one channel on it.
  That was TV. 
But the TV completely changed people’s lives.  And social media?  I can’t stand it; a lot of rubbish.  People posting pictures of their bloody
breakfast for heaven’s sakes!”

 

Crofting is no longer regarded as
a means of livelihood.
  Sons and daughters of crofters
now learn next to nothing about work on the land.  What is worse, they no longer
want to learn.

 

          “Crofting used to be a big communal
thing but it’s changed completely, the farming practice.
  The people have changed, the values have changed.  It’s invidualistic.  The place used to be full of nice old
Highland people; they were lovely.
  You
just don’t see them anymore.
  They’re
gone. It was the pulp mill that brought a huge amount of folk in from
elsewhere.
  The new town at Caol was
built for them and of course they spread into the villages roundabout.”

 

Now that Gaelic is no longer
spoken, the use of Gaelic sounds in English speech must be
avoided at all costs. There is
nothing worse than having the epithet “Heilant” hurled at one.  There has always been some subtle
insinuation that ‘Highland’ and ‘barbaric’ are synonymous.

 

          “Even a good strong Highland accent is
a thing of the past.
  Yes it was a very,
very distinct thing, the way the old people spoke, even in English.
  I actually got to listen to my parents in
Tobar an Dualchais and I couldn’t believe how Highland they were.
  It never occurred to me before, but listening
to them 40 years later, goodness!
  My
mother’s speaking in Gaelic and my father in English, but you can hear the
Gaelic in his pronunciation.
  And that’s
changed completely.

          It’s funny because they seem to have
all gone away the Gaels and there’s people coming in, there was kind of a
reversal where the Gaels became the minority in their own country.
  And that’s everywhere in the Highlands now.  Mind you, if these new people weren’t there,
there’d be no communities at all.
  That’s
the thing, what can you do?

          I would say though, the changes on the
whole have been very negative.
  The
forestry planted an incredible amount of trees which completely altered the
landscape.
  All of the changes in terms
of modern conveniences and travel and all of that has been wonderful, but the
character of the local folk, that’s what we’ve lost, you know?
  Just different families, different types of
people.
  I mean they were very communally-minded,
they were very kind people, the Gaels, that was a great thing, the hospitality
and what have you, but that’s changed.
 
Everyone’s just insular now, in their wee box, absolutely.  They don’t go to visit one another.  People used to go round the houses at New
Year.
  They used to have fantastic
parties then that went on for days.
 
There’s none of that now.  The
young people go off to street parties in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.”

 

Àdhamh’s little set of mini-Highland bagpipes

         

They used to gather on winter
nights to listen to storytelling.

The people have gone, the
storytelling a thing of the past.

 

          “There seems to be much more of a
divide between the young people and the old people, it’s almost like ‘never the
twain shall meet’ whereas in these days when I was growing up, young people and
old people, they mixed, it was absolutely anything you went to was a mixture of
ages, but that’s kind of stopped as well.
 
I don’t know if that’s a general thing in society or whether it’s just a
Highland thing.

          There were a couple of good pipers
around here, but they were much more into fiddling in this part than they were
into piping.
  My grandfather was a great
fiddler, Jock Kennedy.
  They used to have
their own band.
  They would get together
and play.
  But most of them actually would
play something, or give you a song, the older people.
  There was Lochaber songs, Bohuntine songs,
Domhall Donn’s songs, Creag Uanach and other Lochaber songs.
  Caisteal a’ Ghlinne, Maighread Òg and so
forth.

          I didn’t know my father’s parents, but
they were certainly Gaelic speakers.
  And
my grandmother came from down Garbhan, just the other side of Loch Eil
there.
  I knew both my mother’s parents,
although they died when I was still quite young.
  My mother’s mother was quite the Gaelic
scholar.
  My grandfather would speak
nothing but Gaelic and we wouldn’t understand him, he’d be shouting at us in
Gaelic!
  I was never quite
conversational.
  But they used to try and
teach us words and what have you.
  There
was an affection for the language but as soon as you went to school there was
no Gaelic, that was it.
  Your peer group
was what was important.
  But the old folk
had plenty Gaelic.
  We heard a lot of
Gaelic in the house.
  I can understand
you perfectly well Àdhamh, but speaking is quite frustrating; I don’t have
enough words.
  I probably need to do more
practice at it but it’s getting the opportunity.”

 

Any Highlander worth anything
ought to say that
his

language and nationality must
be saved at all costs.

 

          “I see myself as a Highlander, very
much so, and a Gael.
  I’m the first
generation not to be a fluent speaker.
 
The education system is responsible for that as well as the social thing,
the culture, British colonialism.
  All
they wanted to produce was monoglots.
 
Diversity was a joke.  They had a
fearsome assault on the Gaelic language for most of the 20
th
century.
  I feel I’ve been robbed.  That’s why I spend my time trying to learn
Gaelic; it’s a sense of grievance that keeps you going!

          My own generation is probably the last
to have even a pronounced Highland accent, nevermind the Gaelic.
  It’s very, very scary.  There’s a total disconnect in the next
generation.
  They’re not interested.  In 20-30 years time it’ll all be gone, or
else there might be one of these massive resurgences; that kind of thing can
certainly happen, but maybe not very often.
 
It’s usually too late.”

       

Site of the Battle of Mulroy, 1688

  

          I had met in Coinneach the very salt
of the Highland earth and for that I felt most grateful.
  Often during our conversations that afternoon
I asked him about different clans, different strands of history and different
characters of Lochaber.
  There weren’t two
families of the same name he could not tell apart as well as explaining to me exactly
where they came from and when.
  There
wasn’t a single name in Calum’s book he didn’t know, nor a single battle he couldn’t
name the flash point of.

          Coinneach is a true Highlander in
every single way but language, and even then despite his lack of spoken
confidence, he could tell me the names of caves where the Prince hid in perfect
local Gaelic, the names of streams and corries, mountains and long-abandoned
townships out of which his people came.
 
His manner was quiet, measured, pleasant; he would not speak ill of
people who I assumed must have irritated him somehow, simply smiled if I
mentioned a name and changed the subject.
 
His humour is ready but restrained, and he is kind and generous with
both his spirit and time.
  He has respect
for animals and for nature in general, but wouldn’t hesitate to take a wild
salmon from the River Roy had they not ceased to climb through Lochaber in
these environmentally catastrophic days.

          Lochaber as anything approaching what
it once was may be hanging by a thread, but as long as there remain men like
Coinneach Mac an Tòisich, both it, and the character of the Gael are not yet
no more.


[1] The Gaelic Crone of
Winter

[2] Ben Nevis

[3] John MacDonald of
Highbridge (1876-1964)

[4] lady of the house

[5] that’s you, then

[6] will that do the
trick, love?

[7] Kilmonivaig

[8] Spean Bridge

[9] The Braes of Lochaber

[10] Inverlochy, just
north of modern day Fort William

[11] Kames

[12] Archie Baxter of
Fearnoch Farm, Colintraive

[13] cultural heritage

4 Comments

  1. Sgrìobh mi sgeulachd gu math fada is dh’fhalbh e, chan eil fiosam càite. Co-dhiù, chuala mi gun tàinig an clach leis an toll à chladh Mucomir, is ‘s e Drochaid Aonachain a tha daoine air a bheil mise eòlach a’ cleachdadh. Gheibh sinn cothrom cabadaich uaireigin. Bha an teaghlach agam gu math càirdeil leteaghlach Iain.

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