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


Fisherman’s Friend

In the early 1820s Embo was re-developed as a commerical fishing village.  As the Sutherland Estate commercialised their vast tracts of land, they moved people around, sometimes forcibly, and introduced new industries.  The Estate re-organised the village of Embo to promote commercial fishing, building it on a modern grid pattern of streets imitating Edinburgh’s New Town and the redevelopment of Paris.  In about 1819 a young fisherman sat in a house in the new village, ignoring his boisterous children, to puzzle over the letters in a Gaelic psalm book.  He was a devout Christian but, living several miles from the parish church in Dornoch and with a young family, he wasn’t always able to get to Sunday services or the Sabbath school.  He wanted to be able to read so that he could read the Scriptures himself during the week and so he could include Bible reading in the daily worship time which was the custom of many families at the time.

A few years before the young man decided to teach himself to read, a group of philanthropists in Edinburgh saw a need for a missionary society in the Highlands.  The felt the best way to reach people was by teaching them to read the Bible for themselves. Despite the aims of the Reformers, very few ordinary rural people had access to a school at this time.  Most schools which did exist were taught in English which was useless for Gaelic speakers.  The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools provided temporary schools which taught pupils to read the Gaelic Bible.  When we think of a school today we think of a classroom, of book learning, a room full of children, and a teacher who stays in the classroom.  When Mr Sutherland was sent to teach in Embo the young fisherman must have been delighted to meet him as not only did he do all of these things, but he did much more.


Children in a nineteenth-century Scottish fishing village. 

Image from: www.tayroots.com 

In 1821 Mr Sutherland reported that he had twenty boys and twenty one girls on his school roll.  He added that the keenest student was not a child but a certain thirty year old fisherman who had taught himself to read using his psalm book and now attended the school with his three children.  The psalms were a good place to start learning to read as most people knew many by heart, having sung them all their lives.  Once the young man had figured out the letters and sounds, he would have quickly found sentences that he recognised.  When the school came, he enrolled to improve his skills.  It was possibly also his enthusiasm which caused the number of pupils “to increase, till the fishing and the harvest called the efficient hands away.”  The teacher anticipated “a very crowded School for the Winter-Session”.  Going to school was not obligatory, so people attended when they could.  If people were busy with work, or needed the children to work, then they stayed away.  But in the winter, when it was too stormy to take to the sea, when it was the wrong season for working on the land, and when the evenings were dark and long, the school was popular.

It was not only during school hours that Mr Sutherland was busy.  To avoid treading on the toes of local ministers the SSGS, despite being a missionary school, ordered its teachers not to preach.  However in many parishes, especially where the minister was an evangelical, the rule was ignored.  In Dornoch parish Angus Kennedy was the minister and he was grateful for any assistance.  Kennedy was unable to meet all the needs of the villagers and happily passed on some responsibilities to Mr Sutherland.  Sundays may have been busier than weekdays for the teacher!  He “tests children [on their catechism], teaches a Sabbath School for adults and preaches every 3rd Sunday in a nearby fishing village”.  If anyone has any idea where this other fishing village near to Embo was, then do let me know!  Kennedy was delighted with the effect as the children were attending Sunday services more frequently and more parents wanted their children baptised.  Embo residents may be relieved to hear that the school also apparently inspired “a general attention to cleanliness and decency in their clothing.”

The school had already fulfilled the dreams of the nameless young fisherman, but Angus Kennedy was still looking to the future when he wrote to the SSGS full of optimism about what might yet happen.  “Upon the whole I have every reason to hope that these Schools, situated as they are in populous Districts, and disposed, as the people appear to be, to attend them, shall prove, by the Divine Blessing, a means of training the rising generation in the knowledge and fear of the true God”.

Rogart and the Society for Gaelic Schools

One of the aims of the Reformation was that people should read the Bible for themselves. In Scotland the Reformers intended that every parish should have a school. This plan failed because of insufficient money, too few teachers, and because Highland parishes could be enormous so most children could not walk to school each day. Various charity schools tried to fill the gaps, but there were not enough of them and many taught only in English even though the children spoke Gaelic. In 1811 a group of Edinburgh philanthropists decided to create the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools.

The main aim of the SSGS was to spread Evangelical Christianity through teaching Gaelic speakers, especially children, to read the Bible in their native language. The Society provided education in townships which were far away from schools or churches. If a community was interested, they had to build a schoolhouse before the Society would send a teacher. The teachers were funded by donations and stayed for two or three years. The school taught reading alone. There was no writing, arithmetic or other subjects. This was because the ESSGS was primarily a missionary society. They wanted people to be able to read the Bible.

Seventeen years after the SGSS began, it established a school in Rogart parish, in the little township of Knockarthur. The first we know of it is when the ministers of Rogart and Golspie, John MacKenzie and Mr. McPherson, inspected the school on 15th March, 1828. There were 139 pupils on the roll!  94 of these were present for the inspection, 37 of whom were adults. The SSGS was happy to teach anyone who came along: adult or child. At the inspection, the students showed the ministers what they could do. Some read the New Testament, like the man who was “seventy five years of age, has been twice married, and had in school with him two of his family by his first wife, and four of his family by his second.” Other pupils could recite parts of the Bible. The schools were also very keen on teaching students to memorise. This is a teaching method which is out of fashion nowadays because often people can memorise material without understanding it. However, two centuries ago the culture of ordinary people was an oral culture, very much based on memory. One of the main forms of entertainment was gathering in each other’s houses in the evenings and spending the time making ropes, knitting, spinning or doing other odd jobs while telling long narrative stories and singing. John Mackenzie wrote “A great number repeated portions of Scripture committed to memory, with accuracy that was pleasing.” So by encouraging pupils to memorise Scripture, teachers like George Gordon in Rogart were evangelizing in a way which was meaningful to the people.

The Rogart folk were hardly unaware of Christianity. Their minister explained that “the people in this part of the country have long been familiar with the Scriptures, as translated to them, from the English version, by persons who could read. This, I need not observe, could not always have been very correctly done.” He went on to explain why, unlike some ministers who saw the schools as a threat to their authority, he was such a keen supporter. “By Gaelic Schools the Gaelic version will be brought into general use; and thus a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures will be attained.”

By 1828 the school was popular, but at first it wasn’t. Initially there

was a prejudice against Gaelic schools which has now disappeared. The old begin to see that they may still be able to do what they but lately never expected – to read the word of God … I am glad to find that the School is regarded as an important benefit by the people of the district; I trust it may, by the blessing of God, prove such to them.

Indeed enthusiasm was spreading. John Mackenzie wrote to the Society explaining that just down the hill, in the neighbouring district of “Morness, there are several heads of families who cannot read, and who entreat me to express their desire to your benevolent and useful Society, to send them a Teacher.” He explained that most of the “scholars at Knockarthur are young children; and the greater part of them will be kept out of school, during Summer and Harvest, herding cattle.” While the Knockarthur children were working, in Morness “a number of grown-up persons, and some far advanced in life, would make an effort to attend, at least for some hours in the day, during those seasons.” By December 1828 there were 73 on the school roll at Morness. Attendance at the school declined in the autumn as the harvest was brought in. By winter, a good number of adults came along, but fewer than expected. However, the school was successful enough to still be in operation in 1830. Indeed Mackenzie reported that year that “there are several persons who come from the neighbouring parishes, and board themselves, in order to enjoy the privilege of attending the School.”

I have cycled around Knockarthur. There is no obvious location for the school, however there is a collection of ruins at the crossroads which I like to imagine might be its remains, although, of course, it could be anywhere! In St Callan’s churchyard, however, there is a grave of a family who lived in Knockarthur at the time the school was present. In all likelihood they attended the classes. The ESGSS is not a well-known organisation but it had a significant impact on the educational and spiritual lives of ordinary Highlanders in the midst of the social and economic upheavals of the clearances. Other nineteenth century missionary organisations might have done well to learn from the cultural sensitivity of the Gaelic Schools, and their efforts at providing socially appropriate methods to promote Christianity. Rogart was not the only place to have ESSGS schools in east Sutherland, but more of that at another time!