Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.



Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home


A Highland Quest, 2014

This week Professor Eric Richards reflects on the three months he spent in northern Scotland this summer as Carnegie Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History.

Historical research often depends on serendipity, on chance connections, many leading to dead ends. The Carnegie Trust brought me from Australia for three summer months in the Highlands in 2014 and gave me special moments just like these. One was the lucky find, in the Highland Archives in Inverness, of a small bundle of unseen documents relating to the Munro of Novar estates which witnessed a sustained explosion of protest among the small tenantry in the Spring of 1820. These were the Culrain Riots in Easter Ross, quite well known from other sources, but here were some internal documents of the estate factors and the legal authorities, which exposed much more about the origins and the pattern of the events. The Culrain events were a well co-ordinated spasm of popular resistance against a clearing landlord. Munro had ordered the removal of a large number of small tenants to make way for a new sheep farmer. He needed Culrain cleared.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated 'improved farm' with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 150 years ago.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated ‘improved farm’ with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 200 years ago.

The protest entailed a series of riots in which women were at the forefront, leading the resistance, humiliating the authorities, generating great alarm for law and order, and eventually causing the intervention of military force to suppress the ‘rebellion’. The women at Culrain were reinforced by men allegedly dressed as women: the main group of men remained in the background ready to act. The Munro documents also exposed the ineffectual plans of the landlord to make provision for the people he was about to evict, namely the offer of their resettlement at the Cape of Good Hope or on moors in the West of England. The events in Culrain, and at neighbouring Gruids soon afterwards, prompt a reconsideration of the question of resistance during the clearances, the prominence of women, and the place of women in both traditional and transitional Highlands of the early nineteenth century. These episodes, often following strikingly similar patterns, had been recurring ever since the 1790s and continued even at late as the 1860s, for instance at Clashmore in Assynt. They prefigured some of the later radicalised crofter agitation of the ‘Land Raids’.

Another happy chance was a find of emigrants’ letters in Gairloch, letters written in the early 1850s from Gairloch to people who had left for New South Wales a few years earlier. This type of correspondence is pure gold, the direct voice from ‘people below’ – in this instance they reported the potato famine in the west, they celebrated the death of the local estate factor, and they explained the unpopularity of the well-meaning improvement polices of Dr John Mackenzie. The Gairloch horde was a nice moment in the unending quest for emigrant letters and all documents about the circumstances of Highland emigration.
Then, reaching Stornoway and the Long Island for the first time, a new old world was opened up. Here I discovered a bewildering set of variants on the general narrative of the Clearances. The clearance events in Lewis and Harris have been extremely well-documented by local historians such as Angus Macleod and Bill Lawson. I was shown around innumerable townships where evictions and resettlements had occurred, and the great question was usually the actual sequence of displacement and transplantation of communities over long historical time. Evidently in many paces people were shifted about decade after decade – and this history makes less surprising the eventual upsurge of resistance and revolt – and the demand for the resumption of the old lands of the forbears.

Travelling around the Highlands arouses all sorts of questions, with hares running in several directions. One was the notion of a comparison of cleared with non-cleared zones within the region during the Age of the Clearances. This would be a big and unexplored agenda, even that of identifying the locations for comparison. I began to think of another comparison, on a much smaller scale might be more manageable. This entailed two islands involved in ‘precipitate emigration’ in the mid nineteenth century. It is intriguing that sudden ‘mass ‘emigration affected the insular communities of St Kilda (to Port Phillip in 1852) and of Handa (to Canada in 1848). Each episode was small enough and reasonably well documented to allow detailed investigation of the propellants of these emigrations, and perhaps offer unusual insights into the pressure of circumstances (notably from their respective landlords) in each case. But there is never enough evidence, especially direct testimony of the emigrating people themselves.

Eric Richards modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson.  July 2014.

Eric Richards (centre) modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson. July 2014.

Reay Clarke, a well-known farmer in Edderton, has just published an important book on sheepfarming in Sutherland, and he has long connections of his own with a great sheep farming family in Edderachillis. He writes critically of the great and ostensibly permanent damage that sheep farming has inflicted on the Highland environment and on the productive capacity of the land. Talking to the author immediately stimulated the idea of a long distance comparison with the impact of sheep farming on Aboriginal Australia and on the Australian environment – a subject of much current contention among historians. And of course there was always a fine irony in the importation of sheep farmers and shepherds from the Highlands into colonial Australia, some of them cleared, some of them so successful that they eventually undermined the Highland sheep economy itself.

Two other questions kept intruding on all these other Highland thoughts. I was in pursuit of the much-decried figure of the Highland estate factor, especially his role in the clearances. He was responsible not only for the management of the estates but also for the rough work of eviction and resettlement. Once more the challenge is to sort out the mythology from the realities of Highland life in those times, and to put the matter in perspective.

The other question brought me back to my benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Not only the richest man in the world, he was also the most successful returned emigrant, using some of his colossal wealth to educate his homeland. In the Highlands there were earlier returned migrants who employed their overseas wealth to cross-subsidize their estates – from the East Indies, from India, from the United States and Canada. But even more prevalent, especially in the Age of the Clearances, was wealth generated in the Caribbean, from the slave trade and the slave plantations. This is a subject now being energetically excavated which casts a not always attractive light on the region as beneficiary of tainted wealth. So my Highland agenda kept expanding, but there must be help from among the new legions of Highland historians.

Reay Clarke’s book can be ordered from the Islands Book Trust: http://www.theislandsbooktrust.com/

Women and World War Two

Last weekend I went for a delightful cycle around the firth.  I started in Dornoch and pedalled past the enchantingly named Cyderhall Farm – originally the land of a Viking named Sidera.  The name seems to have been gentrified to Cyderhall in the late eighteenth century.  After ten miles or so I stopped at the war memorial in Edderton, ostensibly to enlighten myself about local history and nothing at all to do with the state of my lungs and legs.  I ran my eyes over the usual depressing list of young men’s names.  Poignantly, attached to each one was the name of their farm or home.  Three of those young men were from one house: the manse.  I hopped on my bike and continued to Ardgay and stopped again at the memorial.


This time two names caught my attention: Mary Urquhart and Mary MacAskill.  Women.  Young women.  Along with all those young men.  What on earth happened to them?  A little bit of online searching brought up the bare bones of a biography.

Initials: M
Nationality: United Kingdom
Rank: Leading Aircraftwoman
Regiment/Service: Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
Unit Text: 953 Balloon Sqdn.
Age: 22
Date of Death: 18/05/1943
Service No: 2045888
Additional information: Daughter of Norman and Joan MacAskill, of Culrain.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Grave 166.
Cemetery: KINCARDINE CEMETERY, Ross and Cromarty


URQUHART, Mary Annie Ross
Rank: Sister
Number: 274611
Unit: Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
Died: 12.2.44 Lost at Sea
Age: 31
Parents: Mr and Mrs Donald Urquhart of Rhelonie
Buried: Brookwood Memorial, Pirbright, Surrey
Memorials: Listed on the Kincardine and Croick War Memorial, Ardgay

Sister Mary Urquhart QAIMNS was one of 76 female service personnel who drowned when the S.S. Khedive Ismail was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean on 12th February 1944. She is also commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial.

There are other women’s names scattered about on local war memorials: Lily Murray in Dornoch and Williamina Matheson in Brora.  There are doubtless more that I haven’t found yet.  Some letters carved in stone and some basic facts.  Not much left of the lives of four Sutherland women.  But something.

This information and photos were gleaned from: http://warmemscot.s4.bizhat.com/warmemscot-ftopic841.html


Transcriptions of all the war memorials around the Kyle of Sutherland and photos can be found here: http://www.kyle-of-sutherland-heritage.org.uk/page10.html