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.

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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.

 

Sources

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

Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.

It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.

 

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Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.

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Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.

However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”

Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.

To be continued…

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.

The Ceilidh house at Gruids

The flickering of the fire picked out the creases in the old man’s face. He had their attention now. The room was crammed. The usual codgers from the Barony of Gruids had gathered in the Munro house for story-telling, just like in the days when he was young. His childhood friend had finished recounting one of the clan feuds of the district and the elderly man was deciding which epic tale of Ossian and the Fionn he would fill the rest of the evening with.

In the far corner he could just about make out his old friend Munro, the smoke from the central hearth misting above his head as he sat in his low wooden chair. In age he was shorter now than when they took to hill and river with gun and rod, but still a solidly built man, his grave face hiding a cheerful temperament. Never one for idleness, although his son now largely ran the farm, he still worked as a factor for the proprietor of Gruids. The old man chuckled as remembered the wild youth of half a century before. Even in those days when dancing at wakes as well as weddings was common, he had been legendary. He had once even persuaded a new widow to take the floor in a strathspey beside her husband’s corpse. When everyone else failed he roguishly remarked in her hearing, ‘that whoever else might have refused to dance at poor Donald’s death wake, he little thought it would have been she.’

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A chair of the type common in Sutherland. Doubtless the Munro household would have made and used such chairs. Part of the Historylinks Dornoch Museum collection. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

William, the eldest lad, sat beside the patriarch. The gathering was in honour of him, the fortune-earning merchant son home for a visit from the south. Rumour had it he was worth fifteen hundred pounds a year. For weeks the old man had seen the string of visitors, most who never normally set foot in the Munros’ home, resurrecting faint ties of friendship. It was such a strain that poor Mrs Munro had called on her sister from Cromarty to help with the catering. Young Mrs Miller looked delicate, but she had apparently walked the thirty miles from Cromarty with that boy of hers in two days.

In later life that boy described his uncle’s house as a ‘low, long, dingy edifice of turf’ which ‘lying along a gentle acclivity, somewhat resembled at a distance a huge black snail creeping up the hill.’ Dingy with lack of light perhaps, but the six milk cows shifting and chewing behind the wattle wall betrayed the Munros’ comfortable circumstances. Beyond where the company circled around the open hearth, was a further room split for privacy into small, dark bed-rooms. Further was a closet with a little window, assigned to the Millers. And at the extremity was ‘the room’. Built of stone with a window and chimney, it had chairs, table, a chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small but well-filled bookcase. While William the merchant was home, this was his.

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Gruids, south of Lairg. The area is now crofted, but when young Hugh Millar visited the Munros the land was laid out in infield/outfield, farmed for grain and cattle by tenants and joint tenants like his aunt’s family. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

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This longhouse did not belong to the Munros as it is set on top of a small hill, unlike Hugh Millar’s description. However they would have known the people who lived there. The house was similar in that it clearly shows at least two living spaces and a byre for housing the cattle. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Next to William, leaning close to the central hearth to get the light, was Hugh, carving those little snuff boxes he liked to give his friends. Despite spending every daylight hour building his father a barn, he couldn’t keep his hands still. And big George, the mason and slater, home also to see his brother. For all his reading of books and the English poetry-writing he had picked up when working in the south, the old man knew what George really loved was hearing the ancient tales by the fireside. On a stool, poking at the peats, was the other Hugh, the Cromarty schoolboy. He had no Gaelic, but George had been muttering translations all evening. The lad might enjoy the story about the Fion who were despised by the women of the tribe as, being only fifteen feet tall, they could not leap across the Cromarty or Dornoch Firths on their spears. The danger of telling any of these stories was that it was likely to call forth a lecture from William on the ongoing controversy as to how genuine or otherwise were the published ‘translations’ of Ossian. James MacPherson claimed to have gathered the stories at firesides, passed down by word of mouth since time immemorial. But detractors maintained he had fabricated the lot. William had the nature of a teacher and young Hugh was the current target. When not out exploring the countryside, the boy was expected to master the key thinkers in the debate, and then learn Gaelic. Well, if he were learning about the old stories out of modern books, then he should also experience them the way they were meant to be told. An active lad like him, what would he like? Yes, the lecture would be risked, and the boy would hear of when jealous Fingal tried to eliminate the handsome hunters by sending them after the monstrous wild boar with the poisonous bristles.

Source:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), chapter 5.

A Man of Letters

Graham Hannaford completed his MLitt in the History of the Highlands and Islands at UHI in 2015, studying from Australia. He is now embarking on a PhD with Federation University, Australia.

Scattered across the world like autumn leaves on a lawn are place names that suggest the presence of a home-sick Scot. Nova Scotia and Nouvelle Caledonie are well known, as are some on the eastern side of Australia in New South Wales: towns like Glen Innes, Aberdeen or Scone, or the Sutherland Shire in the south-east of Sydney. Others are tucked away in what must have seemed like the great emptiness of the Australian bush, places like Golspie, New South Wales. Golspie today is not even a village, but the road signs still point to it, west of the road which winds from Goulburn over spectacular countryside via Taralga, the Abercrombie River, and Black Springs to Oberon.

“Golspie” was the farm owned by George Murray, a native of Sutherland, Scotland. He was born at Loch Shin near Lairg in 1818 to George Murray and Kate McDonald. The family relocated to Golspie at the time of the infamous Highland clearances. In his new book, Set Adrift Upon the World, James Hunter describes some of the trouble which accompanied the clearance of the people from this area. It is small wonder that the Murrays and most other residents left Loch Shin and moved to places like Golspie where the estate management had decided was to be the new place of settlement.

From the list of male convicts who arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the Moffatt on 30 August 1836 it appears that the 18 year old George Murray (the younger), a Protestant farmer’s boy, was convicted of shop breaking in the Inverness Court of Justiciary on 23 April 1835 and sentenced to seven years transportation. He was described as ruddy and freckled with brown hair and hazel eyes; his distinguishing marks were a horizontal scar over his right eye brow with a scar over the inner corner of the same and with a scar on the back of the lttle finger of his left hand. After various assignments in the colony he met Margaret Cameron, a native of Ardnamurchan, who had arrived in Sydney in 1838 with her parents, James and Catherine, and eight siblings as free bounty immigrants. George and Margaret were given permission to marry and did so in the Presbyterian church in Goulburn in July 1841. They lived first at Strathaird near Taralga where their first child was born in 1842. Their next eight children are recorded as born at houses, their’s or neighbours’, named Strontian, Cutty Cuttgang (or Cutty Gutty-ang), or Lairg. The last child, Ann, was born in 1861 at Golspie, by now the accepted name of George and Margaret’s farm.

Golspie seems to have been the place to which mail for the surrounding farms was delivered. Perhaps it was convenient to the postman’s route, or perhaps Margaret was a kind hostess for postman and neighbours alike, maintaining the long tradition of Highland hospitality. It became common practice for local farmers to append “Golspie” to their addresses and when in December 1872, locals petitioned the Postmaster General of New South Wales for the establishment of a post office it was clear that Golspie was where it was wanted. The petition was supported by the Presbyterian minister in Taralga and the postmasters at Taralga and Fullerton. Against the wishes of the postmasters at Laggan and Tuena, on 8 April 1873 the Postmaster General approved the establishment of the post office. George Murray was offered the position of postmaster at a salary of £16 pa; he commenced duties on 1 May 1873.

After twenty-five years in the position and at the age of 80, three years after Margaret’s death, George tendered his resignation in October 1898. His handwriting was still clear and firm as his resignation letter shows, notwithstanding that the transportation records show that at the time of arrival in the colony he could read but not write.

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Image from National Archives of Australia

On George’s recommendation, his daughter Ann, married but apparently still living at Golspie, was appointed as postmistress. She had been helping George for the past twenty-one years.

Papers in the National Archives of Australia show an ongoing correspondence between Ann and various officials over the allowances which should be paid to her, with Ann suggesting that she would resign if matters were not arranged satisfactorily. By January 1915, she had been paid £19/5/- and in the previous year had earned £3/-/9 for telegraphic and telephone duties. At this time, Ann had to prompt her superiors to pay a promised increase of £2/10/-, threatening that if it were not paid “I shall have to throw up the whole thing”. It was paid. The post office continued to be operated, sometimes by members of the family, until its closure in 1990.

George died on 29 December 1906, at the age of 88, having survived Margaret by some eleven years and nine months. Each died at Golspie and they are both buried in Stonequarry cemetery in Taralga, half a world away from their origins in Sutherland and Ardnamurchan.

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The Presbyterian section of the Stonequarry Cemetery in Taralaga, with the Roman Catholic section beyond. (Photo: Judith Matthews)

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Headstones of George and Margaret Murray (Photo: Judith Matthews)

Acknowledgements:
Thanks to Mrs Judith Matthews, historian, of “Fairview”, Golspie New South Wales for checking facts and supplying photos.

This is an updated version of the original item posted on 14 March 2016. With thanks to Barbara Kernos for alerting the writer to the convict records concerning the young George Murray.

Sources:
National Archives of Australia, NAA: SP32/1, Golspie Post Office file 1872 – 1971
James Hunter, Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2015) pp. 332-3
Golspie (New South Wales) Progress and Landcare Association, History of Golspie, privately printed 2005
Northern Times, ‘How Cutty Gutty became Golspie, New South Wales’,5 March 2009, http://www.northern-times.co.uk/Opinion/Letters/How-Cutty-Gutty-became-Golspie-New-South-Wales-5638.htm (Extensive efforts to contact the writer of this letter to the Northern Times to check facts have been unsuccessful)
Northern Times, ‘The man who put Golspie on the map – in New South Wales, 4 June 2009, http://www.northern-times.co.uk/Features/The-man-who-put-Golspie-on-the-map-ndash-in-New-South-Wales-6141.htm
Australian Cemeteries http://www.australiancemeteries.com/nsw/mulwaree/stonequarry_taralga_gndata.htm

The Travelling Bishop

On 22nd June 1760, a strange little party made its way along the south banks of the Dornoch Firth.  The fifty six year old Bishop of Ossory was touring Scotland.  After a short visit to  Richard Pococke travelled eastwards, stopping to inspect every ‘Pictish house’ he came across!  At Loch Shin they acquired a boat so they could explore an island.  He was delighted with the nests, eggs and chicks of the gulls and grey lag geese.  A sighting of another ‘stone fortress’ two miles up the loch drew them into to the western shoreline.  Such excitements could not take their minds off their stomachs for ever.  The group spied a ‘Highland cabbin’ and decided to draw on that hospitality that was so necessary in a region in which there were very few inns.  Pococke’s observations give us a rare insight into the domestic life of a family who were probably joint tenants, in the generation or two before the clearances.

There were ‘five apartments, one at the entrance seemed to be for the cows, another beyond it for the sheep, and a third, to which there was an entrance only at the end of the house, for other cattle; to the left was the principal room, with a fire in the middle, and beyond that the bed-chamber, and a closet built to it for a pantry; and at the end of the bed-chamber, and of the house, a round window to let out the smoak, there being no chimney.  The partitions all of hurdle-work so as one sees through the whole.  A great pot of whey was over the fire, of which they were making Frau.’  This dish was also known as omhan.  It was essentially whisked cream and was often eaten at Christmas.  It was made with a horse-hair whisk, or loinid, in a churn.  ‘This they work round and up and down to raise a froth, which they eat out of the pot with spoons, and it had the taste of new milk; then the family, servants and all, sat round it, and eat, the mistress looking on and waiting. She brought us a piggin of cream, and drank to me, and we drank of it round.  The dairy is in a building apart.’

Far from finding the barren wilderness that southerners might have expected, Pococke noticed ‘many spots of fine ground in this country, mostly on the side of rivers and streams, and some large ones up the sides of hills.  They breed much young cattle and sheep, but not so many I think as the ground would bear.  At night they house the sheep all the year, and the poorer people shear in May and November, who have not grass for them abroad.’

When making their way to the ferry at the south end of Loch Shin they met ‘an aged person, who had much the look of a gentlewoman.  She had about her shoulders a striped blanket, and saluted us genteely. She was followed by a maid without a cap or fillet, with a bundle at her back’.  Pococke was surprised at the young woman’s headgear and discovered that until a Highland women was married, she wore a ribbon in her hair.  The old lady was ‘a sort of decayed proprietor, who, I suppose, was going round a-visiting; and as they are very hospitable to all, so they are not uncivil to such unfortunate persons.’  It seems that this lady who had fallen on hard times was being supported by charitable gifts from local people.

ImageNo longer any herdboys or women bearing high fat snacks for the traveller in the ‘forrest’ around Ben Kilbreck, but still some dubious accommodation.  (Worth visiting for the hundred year-old graffiti).  Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

He crossed on the ferry on 24th June and started for the house of Thomas MacKay, minister in ‘Larig’.  MacKay was delighted to see the bishop.  He brought cakes and a bottle of wine, and asked if they had eaten breakfast.  Pococke was to ‘bless the entertainment’ then MacKay decided to join the group as they journeyed northwards, crossing the Tirry repeatedly ‘to avoid the cutts made by the floods’.  As they travelled they talked.  Pococke discovered that MacKay’s parish extended up both sides of the loch, yet he was paid only £50 a year.  MacKay explained that this was somewhat compensated for as the minister could rent land cheaply.  They ascended ‘over the foot of Ben Clibrig, [Klibreck] the Earl of Sutherland’s forrest.’  Although it was still June, to a man used to more southern climes he felt it was like November with the ‘flood gushing out at the side of a mountain.’  As they moved away from the more fertile strath, Pococke came upon the summer grazings.  ‘We came to another rivulet and sat down in a sheltered place half a mile beyond some sheelings or huts, to which they come in the summer with their cattle. We asked about the accommodation’.  It sounded a bit dubious so they decided just to stop for some food. Some ‘boys came near with their cattle … we invited them to take share’.  Word had already got around about the visitors.  Just as they were packing up the boys declared that their mother was coming with some refreshments.  ‘Immediately she appeared at a good distance; she carried a piggin of cream, and her maid followed her with a small tub covered, which was warm whey.  She drank to us, and we took it round and tasted of the whey.’  This good food and friendliness set the party up for their further travels all the way to the north coast, having glimpsed, amongst all the ruins and gulls, a little of the society and economy of the rural Highlands.

Richard Pococke, Tours in Scotland, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&A Constable, 1887)