THA MO CHÙRAM NAS FHEÒRR NA MO CHUIMHN: Life, Death and the Mighty MacKay PART 3


It was time to find out exactly what the state of the Gaelic language in
the MacKay Country was. After all, that had been why I’d made the trip and
not just gone back home to the bosom of my family to grieve there instead.
There is nothing better than setting yourself a mission when thralled to the passage of a dismal, hopeless hour. It is one of the ways in which I have
made life worth living despite the numerous less than hurried trips
through the Darkshire Downs.

Dùthaich MhicAoidh
If you went from the top of Melness right down, I ask, trying to ascertain whether Georgina MacLeod had been right enough
about the lack of speakers, other than Nan of course.
Well Georgina’s 98 years old, said Nellie, I would have expected her to be very fluent as she was
leaving school when I began and they wouldn’t have spoken anything but Gaelic
in the family home, but I can’t think of anyone else.
I explained that when I presented the list of people in the dictionary from Tongue Parish to Tommy at the shop he had sent me off to Nan’s.
We were in the shop today! said Nellie. And it dawned on me. Nan and Nellie were the two ladies I had
passed on the road.
What about Hugh MacLeod, Georgina’s brother? Nellie asked Nan. Did he not make a Gaelic poem? displaying the
influence of the old language on her speech with use of the verb make
instead of write.
Nan explained that it was about a man they thought was a spy. Nellie
wondered whether he really existed. Nan explained further: Oh no, I’m sure
he did. He came to Melness and he went to Port Vasco at the other end of the
district. He came on a bicycle but he was picked up in a boat. You see the
Germans could easily have landed here in the north of Scotland as they were
sending spies over. In the poem Hugh tells all about the people this fellow
spoke to when he came across on the ferry. And then he went down to Port Vasco
and they found the bicycle the next day, but no sign of him. And they think he
might have been making signs to someone and a boat picked him up. Supposedly
the people found money down a rabbit’s hole or something
too, but I’m
not altogether sure.
I have tried since to find both the tale and the song online, but with no
success. I remembered having seen a program some years before featuring a lady
who arrived back in her home island in a helicopter. It had been great because
the lady spoke Sutherland Gaelic with Alick George.
Is there anyone else left from Eilean nan Ròn (Island of the Seals)?
I inquire of Nan.
They all moved out in 1935 and they were just
children at the time. Willie John the Island would have been the last one. He
was a very interesting man.
Do you remember the people from there having
anything in the way of different words?
I wanted to know more about their Gaelic. The language is nothing if not
varied, and your experience of dialect can change just by walking between two villages not five miles apart.
Well I didn’t really know anyone from the island
too well. My sister went to work over in Tongue and the doctor had Hugh and
Willie John there as handymen. So my sister used to tell me about those two
from the island, but they’re both away now. She would be quoting what they were
saying but I can’t remember if they had any special words.
I wondered if Nan could think of anybody else at all in Sutherland that has
the local Gaelic. I was in Bettyhill and I went to see Billy Gordon but he
had gone out just before I got there.
Billy’s very knowledgable, he’s very good, said Nellie. I can’t think of anyone in Durness though and we don’t
know Kinlochbervie that well.
There’s nobody in Tongue now either, Nan continued. Even when we were young, the people of Tongue pretended
that the people of Melness were the wild lot who spoke Gaelic and that they
were civilised and didn’t!
Well it’s good to know the Melness Gaelic’s not
completely gone and that you’re holding fast yet
. I said,
despite everything, still genuinely relieved I’d managed to meet somebody. The
CD hummed away in the background, with lots of older residents of the area
speaking in the local dialect.
I suppose I must be the only one then, said Nan, a little forlornly, but it’s very much alive in my head you
know and it’s great to have that CD. If I didn’t have that it would disappear
out of me altogether. Alick George talks quite often on the radio and TV, but
at the end of the day, that’s all we have.

Cuid de na MicAoidh agam fhéin
It really was a dire situation to be in. I felt very sorry that things had
got to the stage where the founding culture of the world-wide brand that is
Scotland now existed for the most part in sound archives. The Mighty MacKay laid low. Despite having tracked down a speaker of this noble dialect, the
situation was nevertheless verging on the hopeless. While the natives of this
northern extremity of Scotland exude a physical strength, a resolute
stubbornness that is only thinly covered by their genuine smiles and cheery
demeanor, they are beginning to melt into the background of bland Caucasian
homogeneity. The ruddy cheeks and gnarled hands of the old men are just one
emblem of an ancient way of life that is grinding to its death. Their Gaelic
language has evaporated to a mere dew on the moorland grasses under the heat of
the angry British gaze; patronising, tempting, ridiculing the noble souls of
this now desolate paradise into trading in everything that mattered for forty
silver-tongued words of English. Despite the eyeglass which channeled
this hate having lost its focus somewhat over the years, it is difficult to
believe that this is for any other reason than that the job is done; the
language has been all but extirpated, the establishment’s mission of cultural
genocide accomplished. The Highlanders were never completely
broken in battle despite suffering under desperately poor generalship; we had
to be broken sneakily using other means, attacked just for being who we were, for everything that made us distinct and under the banner of progress, rendering these measures palatable to the general public.

As Lewisman Murchadh MacPhàrlain (Murdo MacFarlane) put it:
Na Hitleran breun Breatannach (those stinking British Hitlers)
A mhurt mo thìr mu thuath (who murdered my northern land)
Gu Lebensraum do chaoraich (to make a habitat for sheep)
‘S na daoine sgiùrs’ thar chuan (and scourged the people across the ocean)

Nellie then brought up something else, quite out of the blue, and something which among other things
could be said to epitomise the future for me, the possibility of any kind of independence for
people living on what central government still regards as the edge of
civilisation. As we spoke, I realised that this was the ultimate metaphor for
what Gaelic needed to do at a local level in the years to come.
Are they fighting over the windmills down your
she asked me.
Well you know I quite like them. I answered honestly.
They could have had them way up in the hills
there where nobody would see them
, added Nan, where we used
to have a peatbank. I thought that if you had them there it would be like a
memorial to the peatbank.
The mood I had been in, I had been on the verge of throwing in the towel
and just getting the memorial put up to the whole lot; the language, culture,
everything. This was a lovely idea, a game-changer: It’s just a different kind of fuel
really, isn’t it?
It’s a different kind of fuel, precisely. Nan realised I knew exactly what she meant. And you see the peatbanks
are dead, they’ve dried out. And they could have had the windmills way out in
the distance…. but it caused a lot of consternation.
And there you have it. The consternation. Just like the consternation when women first got the vote, when motorcars began to overtake carriages on the road, and when men turned up for work not having shaved.
Saorsa, Caoimhe ‘s muillean-gaoithe

Let us just take a moment before we go on. A moment to imagine a different Highlands, without the Statutes of
Iona, Union, Culloden, clearance, the complete ignorance of Gaelic in the
Education Act, two world wars and many more besides and the savage beating,
belittling and humiliating of children in Britain’s Highland schools for being
themselves. Let us imagine a Scotland without the “choice” to be Scots or
Brits, without the poisoned chalice that should never have been offered, let
alone accepted. Let us imagine something approaching a small-scale farming and
fishing culture in the Highlands, a people replete with home crafts selling
beautifully on international markets and all manner of other imported skills and trades having been taken up by choice for the sake of variety and versatility and not dire necessity, a society whose language finds a constant
home where it belongs and spreads to our cousins in the Lowlands who wish to
understand better their countryfolk. Let’s imagine converted blackhouses with
modern sewerage, central heating, hot water and decent bloody windows, each
with one of those very wind turbines out back to generate electric power and the clear, pure water of Scotland flowing through its
pipes. Let’s imagine ultra-decentralised councils of Gaelic speakers taking to
do with the running of everything that mattered in any given area and a living story-telling and musical tradition to rival any the world over. Let’s
imagine a concept of progress that doesn’t necessarily stem from the desolation
of empire scorching the earth before new growth out of the ashes is possible in a Highlands where the native human current flows both ways and not just in a constant deluge south, passed only by intrepid White Settlers in their expensive canoos.

Let’s also accept that this concept is fanciful. However, we shouldn’t
forget one of the main reasons nothing remotely like that came to pass. This reason is that Gaelic culture
has been running around like the hen less its head which was lopped off when
the Lordship of the Isles found itself on the sharp end of the wrath of an
Anglicised monarchy. Hens can live for a surprising length of time
missing their heads. So Gaelic culture has done because of the remoteness of
communities in the Highlands. The moment better road links were established,
these communities capitulated culturally-speaking almost immediately, like
ancient mummified remains crumbling to dust under the glare of the sun. With no
central nervous system, no central structure maintaining anything approaching
unity of purpose, it’s actually quite surprising that Gaelic society lasted as long as it

And so the
scorched earth of the Scottish cultural landscape is indeed exactly what we
plough through in the earnest hope of return. In time perhaps these ashes will prove to
be the most fertile soil possible. Once the history of what happened here is
fully understood, those of a mind will be filled with an unquenchable thirst
for justice. Some of course, are already far down that first furrow, keeping
their heads low so as not to catch a glimpse of the gargantuan expanse of soil
that is still left to sow. Some never left, keeping the faith of their elders
and showing us an admirable example. Others took a wrong turn and ended up in
ill-fitting Brit-suits at desks in the belief that it’s better to be
calling the shots in out of the rain than dealing with the consequences of these decisions on the ground.

To an extent therefore, they’ve sown
our seeds into the ditch of the road to London, and more recently Edinburgh. An
about turn and a relentless march back to where we come from is the only hope.
What then can the concept of local wind turbines teach us about language
revival? Not all that much actually. But what they are
is a potential bid for independence, they are people’s chance to get off the grid. Just
as a turbine at the back of every croft would give it plenty of power
to survive off its own back, so local investments of pure passion, that golden fuel that drives
anything into which it is poured, are the only thing that can help the Gaelic
language get off-grid, off life support, and plug back into the original vein that will
nourish her into the future and on her own terms. The peat-banks of old dialect speech have all but dried out, but with a smart new injection of passion technology, we might just be able to get up the right amount of momentum to fuel a genuine revival and lift the drought.

A model of
language revitalisation based on learning directly and consistently from our elders is about the only hand
we’ve not yet played. It’s the one which should have been employed in the first place and one which ought to cause little in the way of consternation. Given that it’s already working in communities all over the world, why are we not giving it a go? Tune in soon for our next blog in which I’ll head south into Assynt only to discover yet another dialect balancing on a knife edge….

Slàn leibh
air an àm…. 

Mar chuimhneachan air Ruairidh MacCoinnich nach maireann….

the opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent those of
anyone else mentioned or quoted in it. I paraphrase from memory what was said
in order to paint a picture of my experiences in the MacKay Country. My special
thanks to Nan and Nellie for a lovely afternoon and to Nan for subsequent
tune-ups of my information over the phone!)

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