Pontificating about Gaelic

I’m not sure I should be pontificating about Gaelic given I’ve been learning it now for not even 2 years, with a previous failed shot about 40 years ago when I gave up because the verbs – apart from tha and bha – were confusing me. However I’m going to. I’ve already written about some word borrowings from Gaelic into English and on Gaelic place names ( see “Gaelic was never spoken here!” ) but I’ve been recognising more Gaelic words which have made their mark on Scottish English and also Gaelic constructions which were used in the English of my mother’s family and neighbours in East Sutherland.

If you go to https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/scottish-gaelic-in-decline/ you’ll get a series of maps showing the change in percentages of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, using the data from census returns. In both 1891 and 1901, 50 – 74.9% of folk in East Sutherland recorded themselves as speaking Gaelic; in 1911, 1921 and 1931, this had declined to 25 – 49.9%. Obviously no data was available for 1941 but in 1951, the corresponding figure was below 25%.

My Gaelic-speaking Granny moved from Raasay to Bonar Bridge to work as a servant for a Free Presbyterian minister. In 1911, she married my grandfather who, as far as I know, had no Gaelic and she didn’t use it with her 9 children. Aunt Katy and Uncle Alister however competed in a children’s Gaelic choir at a local Mod in 1931. (Was it a teacher who anglicised the spelling of his name, I wonder?) I’ve written before about how she reverted to Gaelic in the last few months of her life, her children unable to understand what she was saying ( see A Dinner of Herbs ).

Aunt Jeanie often said what I took to be “Oh henner” in moments of stress which I later realised was “A sheanair“, a call on a grandfather for help or support. Another favourite of hers was “scruss” as an expression of annoyance, almost certainly “sgrios” meaning ruin; I’ve noted “Mo sgrios!” beside it in Angus Watson’s dictionary, with the fabulously poetic translation of “My ruin is upon me!” – who hasn’t felt that in times of self-inflicted crisis ? (Another useful phrase for a drama queen – or king, for that matter – would be O, mo creach-sa thainig! which means O, my very destruction has come!)

My mother could refer to fingers as croags, as in “Get your croags out of that” – from the Gaelic word for finger corrag, possibly, or maybe from crog – a big hand or fist or an animal’s paw. Another of hers was speek for a longer part of an uneven haircut which I’m sure is from spic, with its long vowel sound, meaning a spike, and lurk meaning a wrinkle in a sheet etc which Mairi says in a comment is from lurc. ( I’ve written about these last two in Return to Turadh and you’ll find her helpful comment there).

Bourach, smoorach and stoor are fine-sounding words in the mouth. Burach (with its long first vowel sound) is a mess or a guddle; I even heard it used as a verb by a man on Raasay who was making himself a sandwich in his kitchen – “I’m just bouraching about” he said by way of apology for the mess. Smur (long oo sound) means dross / peat ashes and smoorach is used in Highland English to describe something that’s disintegrated, fallen apart into very small pieces – “It’s just gone into smoorach”, for example. Stur (another long oo sound) has come straight into Scots as the word for dust, with just a change of spelling.

Can roo-ra, used to describe something which has been quickly thrown together and is uneven or unsteady as a result, have come from ro-radh, meaning a foreword or preamble? And what of ropach, which has a similar meaning I seem to remember, but with no connection to ropes? When a person is feeling fyown, they’re feeling a bit weak or faint; the Gaelic word however is spelled fann. I haven’t been able to solve gyards though, used as an expression of disgust when seeing something horrible.

Folk could be categorised as good crac or grim crac, according to their personalities, and when giving directions, if you wanted someone to keep going straight, you said “Cairt on” as if they were still on a horse and cart. Long and weary was a favourite expression to describe the difficult passage of time; could this be from cian, used as a noun or an adjective, which noun Angus Watson translates as “distance, remoteness in time or space” and the adjective as “long, weary” with reference to a collection of Derek Thompson’s poetry called An Rathad Cian, The Far Road?

As dead as a herring was another of my mother’s expressions, though when teaching us cho marbh ri sgadan, my Gaelic teacher was surprised I knew of it as she’d never heard it used in English.

When Mairi’s auntie saw an early school photo of The Loon, looking less than pleased to be posing, she said “He’s got a bus (boos) on him there” from bus + airbus is a grimace, a pout of anger or pique so her words were a direct translation of Tha bus air. Although I hadn’t heard the word used in English before, I knew just what she meant as his expression was unmistakeable.

More obvious words which stayed in usage as the language shift happened are fank for a sheep pen from faing and croft from croit. And burn and loch of course, along with glen from glean, strath from srath, ben from beinn, crannog from crannag.

Can neeps be from sneap and / or tatties from buntata? Wheest is clearly from ist (be quiet), but is ta from tapadh leat (thank you)? And what of craitur, used of a poor wee living thing, a creature – presumably it came from creutair used in Gaelic for both a person and an animal? Who now has tackety boots and did the adjective come from the Gaelic noun tacaid – in English, a hobnail? Press, for a cupboard is surely from preas.

The expression ‘to be in your glory’ I had a Gaelic explanation for but I’ve currently mislaid it, like so much else these days; I’m hoping I’ll find it again. It means to be in your very happy place!

It’s not just vocabulary that’s rung bells with me, but also some constructions. I used to be confused as a child when somebody came into a Bonar house and would often be acknowledged with “Oh it’s you that’s in it”; I’d be thinking “In what”? However, now I know it’s directly from ‘S e thusa a th’ann. The first words from the household might also have been “It’s yourself”, ‘S e thu fhein a th’ann, literally It’s yourself that’s in it and could be followed up with not How are you? but “How’s yourself?” – Ciamar a tha thu fhein?

Where do you stay? not Where do you live? is, I think, quite widely asked in Scotland. Is it just coincidence that the Gaelic verb a fuireach means to stay or remain, as well as to live, to dwell?

Maybe more Highland-based, a question could be “What are you at?” rather than What are you doing? Is this directly from aig, meaning at, used before a verb for what a person is currently doing? For example: Tha mi a’ leughadh (where a’ is short for aig) translates literally as I’m at the reading.

Asking someone if they were for doing something instead of if they wanted to do something also struck me when we were learning airson (for) + a verb, to mean ready or willing or wanting to do something as in A bheil thu airson falbh? “Are you for leaving?” Or a more important question: A bheil thu airson sgain? “Are you for a scone?”

Finally in these grammar paragraphs where I may well have made mistakes, I’ve been thinking about hearing Highland folk say that they are after doing something, meaning that they have done it; I’m wondering if this is from the use of air + a verb to make the perfect tenses, for example Tha mi air na soithichean a dheanamh meaning I’m after doing the dishes or in standard English I have done the dishes.

I’m ready to be corrected by Gaelic speakers on any or all of the above, but what’s not in doubt is the present precarious state of the language. There were around 87,000 folk at the last census in 2011 who said they could speak, write or understand Gaelic; since then there have been many more Gaelic medium schools established and yes, there are about 300,000 folk worldwide signed up to learn on Duolingo, including me. However, the word being used to describe the current situation is “crisis” and for once, it’s being used appropriately. It’s highly unlikely that figures from the next census will cause the colours to change on the next version of the decolonial atlas map of Scotland referred to above and a recent book entitled The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic , shows that the social and community use of Gaelic is collapsing. It came from a collaboration between the University of the Highlands & Islands and Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye with researchers studying Gaelic language use in the Western Isles, in Staffin on Skye and in Tiree.

The book, published by Aberdeen University Press, costs £25 and can be bought from The Gaelic Books Council. However, you can depress yourself for nothing by reading online an article in The Irish Times by Eanna O Caollai from last July at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/scottish-gaelic-at-point-of-collapse-major-study-finds-1.4296760 . We’re told the researchers found that in the areas studied, Gaelic was “rarely used by younger generations following its accelerated decline as the community vernacular since the early 1980s”. Most speakers are over 50 and are using Gaelic in “fragile and marginal social networks”. These communities are now in the final stage of a shift to English and are expected to be monolingual in English within ten years; in 1981, 80% of the resident population spoke Gaelic but in 2011, it was down to 52%. The conclusion is that Gaelic is on its way to being a “heritage language”, no longer a community language in any part of Scotland.

The journalist points out that the situation in Ireland – with few community speakers of Irish Gaelic and irrelevant public support for these communities – is similar to that in Scotland, though it’s maybe facing a slightly less severe crisis as Irish is a core curricular subject for its young people. In the not too distant future however, Gaelic will just be part of both countries’ heritage but it will not be a “living language”, as fewer and fewer people speak it in its former heartlands coupled with the “irrelevance of formal public support and provision for the Gaelic community”. In spite of all the doom and gloom of the findings, there is still a call for “relevant initiatives to avert the loss of vernacular Gaelic” and I note with some hope in my heart that Chapter 9 of the book is titled “Towards a New Model for the Revival of the Gaelic Community”.

The Scottish Government’s current Gaelic Language Plan covers the years 2018 to 2023 and there’s been one in place since 2010. In The National on 16 July, Gregor Young had an article called “Government bids to boost ‘frail’ Gaelic” in which he publicises the launch of Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville’s consultation on this plan, an appeal for views on ways for the “government and partners to promote and enable the use of the language” if “it is to have a sustainable future”. The consultation paper acknowledges that “there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of Government, the public sector, the private sector, community bodies and individual speakers” with the aim of maximising “the opportunities to use, learn and promote the language”. No time to lose, I’d say.

VisitScotland has produced a ‘toolkit’ – no hammers or sharp knives, but “advice and resources” for using Gaelic to “improve tourists’ experiences” and to “position Scotland as a unique and special holiday choice”. Many tourists I believe are looking for some kind of authentic experience when they come to Scotland, but very often they don’t even come close to finding it. I’m reminding myself now of one of the online comments about the good old NC500 – see The Hurts in the Highlands . Many Highland hospitality workers are run ragged at the moment trying to provide any kind of service, what with Covid and Brexit and shortages and some appalling behaviour from a minority of visitors, so I hope that if they have time to open this ‘toolkit’ they will find things of substance rather than vague suggestions.

The redoubtable Joy Dunlop is involved in a new SpeakGaelic initiative launching in about 7 weeks. It’s a collaboration among MG Alba, Sabhal Mor Ostaig and the BBC which intends to be a “wide-ranging, multi-faceted learning brand”; “Oh dear”, I thought on reading that phrase, “will this be suitable for a cailleach“? It aims to “empower lapsed or less confident speakers to use Gaelic with courage”. I liked that phrase and, although there’s a bit of a cowardly lion in me, I’ve signed up.

As a learner, I know it’s not just about getting more folk to learn as I usually don’t speak Gaelic from one Zoom class to the next unless I happen to meet a neighbour, originally from Barra. I know I’m unlikely now to get to the stage where I’ll be thinking in Gaelic or even be approaching fluency, and I can understand why some native speakers get cross with all the emphasis going on encouraging learners. I look back with regret at the opportunities for learning and speaking I passed up when I was young but I intend to keep on thinking about how it has shaped and is continuing to shape the language I speak.

Sorley Maclean said that Gaelic was a small thing but while it existed, it would always be loved.


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