Caisteal Àrd Bhric
I came back to my car after my wander round the castle soaked through but feeling good. There’s nothing like a cold shower to get shot of the last throes of
a hangover. I had a quick change of shirt before settling back into my seat
for the drive round to Loch an Inbhir
(Lochinver), where I hoped to do the same as I had in Melness. I didn’t have to
wait that long. The clues fell into place in a matter of an hour.
I first picked up a German hitchhiker who had
in fact been living in Scotland for a good couple of years and was part of the
local set-up. A cracking fellow, he took me straight to the house of Clarinda
Chant who helps out with local Gaelic classes, a lady who gave me a most courteous and helpful welcome and allowed me to try
the next link in the chain over the phone, fluent learner Claire Belshaw, to see if she had
any idea about surviving native speakers. I couldn’t get Claire, but Clarinda
did furnish me with an idea of how to reach a certain Iain “The Gate” MacCoinnich
(Iain MacKenzie) who was apparently a fluent Assynt native. I set off out of
Lochinver with time beginning to get pretty tight for my next appointment in An Dòrnaidh (Dornie) a few hours later.
I could make it though. I was in Rome and I was determined to meet some Romans.
What happened after my initial success was that
I spent the following 45-60mins completely lost in amonsgt all the little roads
that intersect Rubh’ an Stòir (the Stoer
Peninsula). I was looking for a house close to the beach. I found one. I got
all the way down to it only to encounter a friendly chap at the door still in his
dressing gown and informing me pleasantly that he definitely wasn’t Iain the
Gate. I set off again through the sandy fields filled with trash, old cars and
rabbit holes and before I knew it I was out at the taigh-solais (lighthouse). Thighearna
(Lord God) I thought, this is another bloody ruith na cuthaige (cuckoo chase). I met a lady selling snacks and
drinks at the end of the road who did her best to re-direct me. She gave me a
sideways glance as I departed. I wondered whether I really looked that clueless. Quite possibly.
Bàigh Bhail’ a’ Chladaich ‘s an taigh-solais air a chùl
Just at the point of thinking the game was a
bogey, I coasted down yet another hill and into Bail’ a’ Chladaich (The Shore Village) and what did
I see but a gate… next to a house plonked neatly into the sand with the
Atlantic not 200 yards away. Iain’s Gate. Iain the Gate’s gate. I got out and
stretched, thinking as always: cha
bhith e aig an taigh idir ann a-nis an déidh a’ ghnothaich seo uile!
course, he’s not going to be home now after all this business!).
I wandered round the side of the house and
chapped the door. Nobody came out. After all that. Bollocks to it. Then I heard
a faint sound of movement from the bowels of the house. It took a minute or
two, but Iain the Gate appeared at the door, looking relaxed but weather-beaten
from a life on the land. He settled his gaze on the stranger on the doorstep and
I hit him swiftly with my usual explanation of why I was there. So it was I met
Iain a h-Aon (Iain #1).
Tha mi gabhail cuairt
a’ rùrachamh dhaoin’ aig a bheil Gàilig an àite, Iain
(I’m taking a trip looking for
people who have the local Gaelic) I said, as Iain regarded me patiently.
Och, chan eil móran
Ghàilig agam·as

(oh I don’t have much Gaelic) he lied comedically with a slight smile.
Och! tha coltach gu
bheil gu leòr agaibh!

(oh! It seems like you have plenty!) I reply insistently.
Ó, chan eil. Tha mi ‘fàs ro shean a-nis. Tha usa nad bhalach òg (oh no. I’m growing too old now. You’re a young lad).
Seo a’ chiad uair a chualaig mi Gàilig
Asainte gu ceart
(this is the first time I heard Assynt Gaelic properly) I admit.
Robh u seo roimhe? (were you here before?) Iain asks.
Cha do stad mi an uair
a bha sin
(I didn’t
stop the last time) I concede before wondering Chaidh ur togail san dùthaich, nach deachaigh? (You were raised in
this country, weren’t you?)N ann á seo
a bha ur pàrantan?
(Was it from here your parents were?)
Dachaidh Iain: Bail’ a’ Chladaich
‘S ann gu dearbh (it certainly was).
Bheil crodh agaibh? (do you have cattle?).
Ó tha, tha ‘n dà chuid
agam. Crodh ‘s caoraich agam
(Oh yes, I’ve both. I’ve cattle and sheep) says Iain. Inevitably, it
wasn’t long before my current obsession -finding out the names of the fingers-
reared its head. Nan hadn’t recalled the names for the MacKay Country, but
luckily they were in Seumas Grannd’s
book. Robh rann aca air na corragan?
(did they have a rhyme for the fingers?)
Unfortunately Iain couldn’t bring them back to
mind either. Chan eil cuimhn’ agam air
(I don’t remember that). Bha e
ann, ach cha bhith daoine ga bridhinn ‘s mar sin, tha mi ga call
(It was
there, but people don’t speak it [Gaelic] now and so I’m losing it) Chan eil ach an aon duine ‘nis a bhitheas
ga bridhinn, Iain MacIllEathain an sin
. (there’s only one man now who
speaks it and that’s Iain MacLean there) he said, motioning back the way with his head. Ma
théid u thigeas, gheobh u do leòr an sin
(If you go towards him, you’ll get
your fill there). This sounded great. Mental note made to bring that name up
again if Iain didn’t. A question for me this time: Dé chanas tus’ air
do làmhan? Air an làmh seo?
(What would you say on your hands? On this
hand?) asked Iain, gesturing with his right hand. An làmh cheart? (the right hand?) Sin a chanas aid sna h-Eileanan (that’s what they say in the Isles).
An làmh dheas (the ready hand).
Ó sinne cuideachd (oh us too) says Iain, pleased. Bho chionn ghoirid, chuala mi air an television, “làmh cheart” ach an seo, ‘s
e “làmh dheas” a chanas aid.
(I heard on the television, làmh cheart, but here, it’s làmh dheas that they’d say).
Dé their ead ris an
làmh eile?
(What do
they say to the other hand?) I ask.
Làmh cheàrr (the wrong hand).
Gu dearbh? (really?) ‘S e “làmh chlì” a th’ againne. (It’s the “awkward hand” we have). Bheil facail eile anns an dùthaich a tha
car sònraichte?
(are there other words in the country that are somewhat
special?) leithid, tha fhios agaibh, their
sinne “polladair” ris a’ bheothach sin a tha fanachd san talamh
(the likes
of, you know, we say polladair [mudder] to
the beast that lives in the earth) mar a
their ead sa Bheurla, mole
they say in English, “mole”).
Rubh’ an Stòir ann an Asaint
Ó seadh, ‘s e famhan a
bh’ againn air sin

(oh aye, it’s famhan that we had on
Dé theireamh ead ri spider? (What did they call a spider?). I adore this
kind of chat.
Iain laughs and looks at me shaking his head. I
can tell he wants to sneak off and have a think about these! Ó hó hó he chuckles, cha do bhridhinn mi a leithid bhon a bha mi
(I haven’t spoken its like since I was young!)
‘S e figheadair a
their ead an Arra-Gháidheil
(they say figheadair
[weaver] to it in Argyll). I have never found the actual word for a spider in
the Dalriada dialect, but found figheadair
in Perthshire, Islay and South Lorn and having triangulated using those assume
that this word must at least have been known in Mid-Argyll.S e figheadair-feòir a their ead ri h-aon mór, tha fhios agaibh, harvester (It’s figheadair-feòir [grass-weaver] that they say to a big one, you
know, a “harvester”).
Ó seadh! (oh aye!) says Iain, clearly seeing
the sense in that expression.
Having listened to a little Assynt Gaelic in Tobar an Dualchais, I had always
thought it was fairly close to the Lewis dialect. Perhaps not as close as Coigeach, but close enough. Feumaidh gu bheil a’ Ghàilig an seo, gu bheil i car coltach ri
Gàilig Leódhasach, nach eil?
(The Gaelic here, it must be pretty similar
to Lewis Gaelic, eh?)
Tha, ó tha. (Yes, it is). Rudaigin faisg oirre (Something close to it). Anns an sgoil a-nis, bithidh aid a’ cunntadh (in the school now,
they will be counting) ach mar a chanas
sinne, ‘s e seachd ‘s ciad caoraich, no dà thar fhichead
(but as we say, seven and a
hundred sheep, or two over twenty), ach
chan e sin a th’ ann a-nis
(but it’s not that that’s there now).
Despite the fact that the new manner of
counting is not actually a new system but a very old one and certainly less
confusing than trying to learn the multiplication of twenties which forms the
backbone of the old system, the new way is another departure from what native
dialect speakers understand, it’s another blockage in the road of the old folks
trying to reach the young and vice-versa.
Tha an saoghal air
world has changed) I say, with what I know to be a wry grin on my face. Iain
raises an eyebrow, as if I have understated the matter:
Chan eil e idir
mar a bha e
(It’s not at all as it was). Tha an
seann ghinealach air falbh a-nis
(the old generation are away now). A
statement made with obvious regret but a certain resigned acceptance.
Bha coltach gun
deachaidh gach rud atharrachamh anns an tir-mhór anns na seachdadan
(It seems like everything changed
in the mainland in the 70s) I say, something I’ve heard many times from older
folk. Cha duair mi ‘n dearbh aobhar car-son a
dh’atharraich a h-uile gnothaichean, ach sin a their na sean-daoine sa h-uile
h-àit’ an Arra-Gháidheal
(I didn’t get an exact reason why everything
changed, but that’s what the old folks say everywhere in Argyll). Thánaig na Goill a-staigh ‘s an sin cha
téid gas air ais thun mar a bha e a-chaoidh
(The non-Gaels came in and then
nothing will ever go back to how it was).
Ó sin agad e dìreach (oh there you have it exactly). Sin na thachair (That’s what happened).
Ach chan eil feadhainn òg’ ann an seo
(But there’s no young people here now whatsoever). Och, ach chan eil gin air fhàgail ga bridhinn ach MacIllEathain
(Oh there’s no-one left speaking it but MacLean). Excellent, Iain has brought up
MacLean again. Tha Gàilig mhath aige
(He’s got good Gaelic). Chaidh a thogail
le dà bhoireannach anns an taigh ‘s bha adsan a’ bridhinn Gàilig
(He was raised by two women in the house and they were speaking
Gaelic always). This is brilliant news.
Bail’ a’ Chladaich le Aonghas MacDhomhaill

‘S mar sin, thuair e a
h-uile facal
so, he got every word).

Thuair, sin agad e (He did, there you have it)
confirms Iain.
Agas am bith e ‘staigh
an ceartair?
will he be in just now?) I inquire.
Ó shaoilinn gum bith,
shaoilinn gum bith

(Oh I would reckon he will be, yes).
Am bith sibhse agas
MacIllEathain, am bith sibhse bruidhinn na Gàilig dair a chì sibh a’ chéile?
(Do you and MacLean, do you speak
Gaelic when you see one another?) I venture hopefully.
Ó bithidh, ó bithidh!
Mar as tric’, bithidh

(Oh we do, oh yes! More often than not, yes). And there you have it. No lack of
language loyalty from dialect speakers, as it is in Lismore and Ardnamurchan,
as it was with Noel Gow in Strathspey and Mrs Gallacher in Melness, just barely
anyone to speak to as the world moves on mercilessly and leaves behind the
jewel in the Scottish crown, the naturally occurring Gaelic language, while a
homogenised cardboard cut-out of it that was never actually spoken anywhere
usurps her throne.
Och glé mhath, tha sin
(oh very
good, that’s great). I am now aware that I have made a friend and with that happily
achieved and with time being what it is, I’d better go looking for MacLean. Cha chum mi air ais sibh ‘s sibh gabhail
fois Di-Domhnaich
(I won’t keep you back and you relaxing on a Sunday). Is cinnteach, ma tha croit agaibh ‘s nair a
tha fois agaibh, bithidh sibh air son gabhail rithe!
(For certain, if you
have a croft and you have some peace, you’ll want to accept it [ie go with it]!).
Och seadh, gu leòr a
dh’obair ri dhianamh ach tha mi fàs ro shean a-nis
(oh aye, plenty of work to be done but I’m
growing too old now). “Cha tig an aois
leotha fhéin”, mar a chanas aid!
(“the age does not come alone” as they
say!). No, this is true. The sciatica down the back of my left leg that’s crept
in even just in my 30s attests to this. I don’t take for granted the fact that
the story of the body will get more complex as time wears on and as the old internal
engine wears down.
Bha fuathasach math ur
faicinn ‘s ma bhitheas mi san dùthaich, thig mi gur faicinn a-rithist
(It was terribly good to see you
and if I’m in the country, I’ll come to see you again).
Ó latha sam bith! (oh any day!). Ma bhitheas tu air d’ ais a-rithist, thig a-staigh! (If
you’re back again, come in!). There’s the hospitality once again.
Shin agaibh na nì mi (there you have what I’ll do). An ath uair, theaga gun téid an dithist
againn a chéilidh air MacIllEathain ‘s bruidhnidh sinn Gàilig comhla
next time, maybe the two of us will go a-visiting on MacLean and we’ll speak
Gaelic together).
Ó seadh, gu dearbh (Oh aye, indeed). A plan and a half.
Glé mhath, ciad taing
dhuibh ‘s slàn leibh

(very good, 100 thanks to you and health [be] with you). And with that, Iain
waves and watches as I nip round the wall and over to my car. I get in and
breathe a sigh of relief at having managed to continue my education despite the
hiccups. Whipping out my notepad again, I scribble pell-mell and in what is now
barely legible script the conversation topics we had and as much direct speech
as I can manage to recall before making for MacLean’s!

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