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.

 

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

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The funeral of James Sutherland of Pronsie, 1741

This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.

In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his 'raging distemper' or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his ‘raging distemper’ or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.

As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.

Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].

Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4 [40] Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.

Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.

The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.

Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.

‘Hector the Hero’?

We begin the new year with a post from Ben Thomas.  Ben is a third year history PhD at Aberdeen University working on a thesis that explores the relationship between the Highlands and the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century.  His research looks at the impact of the Empire ‘back home’ in the Highlands, and seeks to understand the ways in which Empire shaped and affected how the people of the Highlands engaged with the British state.

The date is March 25, 1903, and a prominent British general lies dead in a hotel bedroom in Paris.  General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald was the son of a crofter from Mulbuie.  He had taken his own life after ‘grave charges’ of paedophilia in Ceylon were brought against him.  However, to his Scottish compatriots, and in particular the people of the Highlands, ‘there is but one opinion as to the charges, namely, that they are groundless and incapable of being established’.  The Town Councils of Tain and Dingwall passed special resolutions regretting that MacDonald’s widow had opted for a quick and private burial in Edinburgh, instead stating their desire that he be reinterred with ceremony in the Highlands.

Why, after facing such serious accusations, did the people of the Highlands rally around their fallen hero?  The answer is suggested by a visit MacDonald paid to his homeland in May 1899.  He had been granted leave in the wake of Britain’s decisive victory at Omdurman – a battle at which he was widely believed to have saved the day by a timely manoeuvring of the Sudanese troops under his command.  Although his tour began in London and saw him visit Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, in the minds of commentators his visit home to the Highlands that was the main attraction.  Taking in Dingwall, Tain, Invergordon, Mulbuie and Inverness, this whirlwind trip saw him meet with rapturous responses.  Civic holidays were granted by the authorities and the streets of the towns were bedecked with bunting and flags for his arrival.

ImageCelebrations for MacDonald in Dingwall (Photos courtesy of Dingwall museum – no images of the Tain or Invergordon events are available)

Although the newspaper reports of MacDonald’s visit were monopolised by the events in Dingwall, Inverness and Mulbuie, the celebrations in Tain and Invergordon were equally exuberant.  In both towns MacDonald was given a guard of honour by the local Volunteers, and in Invergordon his carriage was drawn along the High Street by local men.  In both places his recent military success was highlighted with a welcoming rendition of ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’, whilst in Tain his Highland roots were celebrated with a banner reading ‘failte do ar gaisgeach gaidhealch’ (welcome to our Highland hero).  Tain also treated him to a cake and wine banquet – at which around 300 people were present to celebrate his achievements – and MacDonald was presented with an address in the form of an illuminated star, which included pictures of Inverness, Tain, Omdurman, Majuba Hill and Kandahar.

MacDonald’s homecoming was an opportunity for the people of the Highlands to celebrate their own place within the wider British nation and Empire.  It was the distinctly ‘Highland’ contribution to the cause of Empire that was being celebrated in MacDonald’s homecoming celebrations, filtered through the person and career of Hector MacDonald.  Tain’s Provost Fraser told the gathered crowd that ‘they met to do honour to a man whose heroism was already part of the glorious history of the British army’, whilst both the Tain and Dingwall addresses praised MacDonald for the sense of honour that his actions had reflected on the people of Ross-shire.  Ever modest, MacDonald’s replies throughout these celebrations often passed the accolades onto the army, but it is also apparent from his brief speeches that he took great pride in his birthplace, and enjoyed meeting old friends and comrades during his tour ‘home’.

MacDonald’s status as a particularly ‘Highland’ hero helps explain why Highlanders showed such sorrow and anger at his death, and why many here saw the charges as part of a conspiracy designed to discredit a man who had ruffled a few establishment feathers in his desire for army reform.  Indeed, MacDonald’s memorial on Dingwall’s Mitchell Hill, erected in 1907, stands as a lasting monument to Ross-shires’ native son, and to the service of this particular Highlander in the name of the British Empire.

ImageOpening of the MacDonald monument in Dingwall

As one local newspaper put it:

‘Sir Hector’s presence in the county, just after his Omduman triumphs, when he had reached what was destined to be virtually the zenith of a brilliant, glorious, and romantic career, brought his personality nearer to the hearts of his fellow countrymen than otherwise it would have been.’

MacDonald was also commemorated in the tune ‘Hector the Hero‘, composed by James Scott Skinner and played here by Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham and others.

Information from:

Ross-Shire Journal, March 27, 1903

Ross-Shire Journal, April 3, 1903

Aberdeen Journal, May 12, 1899

Aberdeen Journal, May 13, 1899

Inverness Courier, May 16, 1899