Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Gaelic Memories

In days gone by Gaelic was the native tongue of the people in Sutherland.  In the late 18th century it was said that the only English written was by the clerks who looked after the church records!  When did the people begin to speak English was a recent question discussed in our mailing list. Fascinating detail emerged and I am showing some of the interesting responses here. This helps to give us a good indication of how long Gaelic was spoken.

From Andy Ross:
"I'd say that most Highlanders were Gaelic only speakers pre 1850 and English really was pushed after formal education was introduced in the 1870s. By the 1901 census most were bi-lingual, but Gaelic would have been their mother tongue. Through a project of outlawing the language and thrashing it out of children in school, Gaelic was doomed, but refused to die. The real death knell in my view was when English was beamed into the home via radio and television in particular. The fact that Highland Scotland does not speak English with any strong accent is evidence to that language having not had a great foothold in the region.

Once Highlanders left the Highlands and moved to large cities, they became English speakers, but would have continued to speak Gaelic in the home. Their children born in Glasgow and the likes would only have picked up a smattering of the language, as was common back then, the parents spoke Gaelic only when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying.

My mother-in-law comes from South Uist, an island which is still almost 100% Gaelic speaking and English is very much a second language, but even in her school days back in the 1930s, they entered the system as Gaelic only speakers and were garbled to in English only, so they understood nothing for about the first year. She still laughs at what kids would say to each other when they spoke "Am Beurla" (English). 'Was I went at the school the day' for I went to school today! Schooling was almost entirely in English and anyone caught speaking Gaelic would have been thrashed. Also the train of thought was that if you spoke Gaelic, you were stupid. Even today I still hear people use the term "that is a right Gaelic way of doing a thing" meaning it is stupid, just in the same way as the Irish are made out to be stupid. If I hear it, believe me, those saying it do not go without a piece of my mind!!!

On the mainland in the 1930s most parents were bi-lingual but again they spoke only in Gaelic when they did not want to be understood, so the language was not being passed on to their children. Also at that time there was a great deal of one parent who had Gaelic, but the other did not, so it was never spoken in the home, thus killing it. My mother's parents were both native speakers, as was my father's father, but his wife was English. My mother had a smattering of Gaelic, but my father knew almost nothing of it. By the 1970s people who were having children then were monoglot Anglophones! So in less than 70 years, the Highlands went from being almost totally bi-lingual to virtually English only.

Gaelic, even with all the pressures it has faced has never died out. The latest statistics suggest there are 56,000 native speakers, but there are many who are now learning the language and the media which helped to eradicate it from so many areas is being used to try and breathe life back into it. Recently on the Sky TV a new channel has started broadcasting in Gaelic only. BBC ALBA can be found on channel 168. Gaelic playgroups for pre-school children are springing up all over the place and Gaelic medium education is growing fast too.

East Sutherland had its own peculiar form of Gaelic, which was certainly still being spoken in 1945 when my grandfather retired to Dornoch from Scourie, as being a Gaelic speaker he tried to converse with the locals but found their dialect almost incomprehensible! 
So in the past we might have brought the language to the brink of extinction, but today there is no excuse for letting it die, as we have ample access to Gaelic and chances to learn it!.

From Morag Sutherland:
"The following is a slightly rambling account of what I remember growing up in a home in Brora (Clyne) in the 1960s, a mere 70 years after my grandparents arrival on God's earth. My maternal grandparents, Sarah Sutherland and John Macrae, were both born into fishing homes in Lower Brora in 1889. They both spoke Gaelic in a home environment until they went to the local school in Brora - English was the language of the school place - of the educated and of those who wished to progress and so it was that Gaelic was the language they used at home as they grew up and also in their work related to fishing and English to outsiders.

When my grandfather was in the navy in the Great War he was with men from the village so I suspect they used Gaelic on the ship to each other but English to the officers. My grandfather was very proud of the fact that he could read, write and speak in both English and Gaelic - he was the family correspondent to all the others who had emigrated to Canada. My granny was always embarrassed to write much in English although she read the newspaper every day. My granny's siblings all married non Gaelic speakers in Canada - when playing bridge the Gaelic speakers would tell each other what they had in their hands - not very popular at the bidding stages with the others........ !!

My uncle was born in 1921 and he won a prize at the local mod here in east Sutherland for recitation in Gaelic. My mother was born in 1927 and she grew up with English as the main language of the home and obviously of the school although she sang in Gaelic she was never a fluent speaker. Nancy* used to ask my mother questions to see how she could watch the changing pattern of usage.

I was born in 1953 and my granny used some Gaelic to me - phrases more than anything - certainly not much effort to teach me the language of which they had been taught to be ashamed. When visitors came, those who had migrated or emigrants returned, quite often, although not exclusively, Gaelic was used. Every Sunday evening after church a group of my granny's cousins came to the house for tea and a ceilidh and more often than not Gaelic was used among the women. I don't remember my grandfather using it much but maybe that was because his male friends were not Gaelic speakers.

My father grew up in Embo (Dornoch) and he always used Gaelic to my granny simply because he didn't have any other language until he went to school and it was belted out of them all if they used it into the classroom. In Embo in the late 1920s / early 1930s Gaelic was very much the language of play and home and not the language of education. Blame the Education Act passed in the late 19th century.

Childhood memories include the inevitable use of Gaelic when they did not want me to know something, the punch line in a joke being in Gaelic, hilarity among the Gaelic speakers and me feeling outside a world I could not enter. So it is a sad tale, grandparents born 1889 - fluent in Gaelic - the language of their birth home - taught English in school and fluent in it, my mother born 1927 into a Gaelic speaking home but only having a little but a fairly good comprehension of the spoken word and then me - only able to speak in English - that's why Nancy* called her book - the “Language of Death”. I am off to watch English speaking television now!"
* Nancy Dorian, author of the Language of Death.

From Ian Polley
Morag has given a very good report of our family history, her granny and my mother were sisters, my mother being the youngest, her granny the oldest. My mother and a cousin after finishing school went into service together, and moved to England, where I was born. As a child I recall both my mother and her cousin always speaking in Gaelic together. They were also very proficient in English. As a child growing up during World War Two I spent most summer holidays in Brora staying with Morag's grand parents. I do recall in those days many of the older folk all spoke both Gaelic and English. These older people were born about the 1850’s. My grandmother, who was born in 1855, could neither read nor write, however, could converse in both languages. I have been led to believe she was the oldest daughter in her family and had to look after her younger siblings whilst her mother was helping her husband who was a fisherman. I believe that was the usual practice amongst fisher folk in those days.

I don’t recall where I heard, or read that Gaelic was usually widely spoken amongst the fisher folk from Lower Brora, Golspie and Embo. Not so prevalent amongst non fisher folk.
I immigrated to Canada in 1955 to join my parents who preceded me a couple of years earlier. My mother and her siblings would always converse in Gaelic amongst themselves. None of my Canadian cousins or me was taught or learnt Gaelic. Now that the older generation has all passed away, Gaelic is no longer spoken within our family. I recall a conversation I had with Morag’s mother, “Granny Dot”. About 10 years ago she said that Lower Brora had changed so much, that all the old families, who were fisher folk and both Gaelic and English speakers were now gone, either died or moved away.

From Allan Lannon
"My late mother from Golspie, and a resident in the Golspie area all her life, knew no Gaelic and neither did any of her eight siblings. She would have been in her 80s now and she was the youngest of the nine children with the oldest living and working initially in Golspie area.

When I was young in the 1950s I only recall Gaelic being spoken by a few of the older women from Golspie’s fishertown area around Shore Street and Church Street. ‘The Tyranny of Tide’ by Nancy Dorian is a superb book about life in the Golspie fishing community. In her introduction referring to the period before World War One she says; ‘But although Golspie was a much more compact village then than it is now, it was almost two villages in one. There was no visible boundary to mark the division, but the village divided into the “East End” and the “West End”, with altogether separate populations living in the two “Ends”. At the “West End” lived the fisherfolk: almost every man an active fisherman, almost every woman a fishwife, and Gaelic spoken in every home.

Nancy Dorian’s work is the result of careful observation and interviewing of families, one in particular, with roots in the fishing community. If you do not know the book I recommended it to you. A search on the internet should bring forth a second hand book shop with a copy".  See also link below to view Nancy in a short video taken while she was studying East Sutherland Gaelic.

From Marion Quillan
"My grandmother was born in Oldshoremore, Eddrachillis, in 1870 and went to school there and later in Scourie when her family moved to Badcall. Her parents spoke only Gaelic and of her 13 surviving siblings all spoke Gaelic and English once they started school as they were obliged to do their learning in English. One sister who spent the most time with her grandparents never learned to speak English fluently but the rest who went out in the world on service or the boys into the navy all were fluent but retained the rhythms of their native language.

Hugh Fraser, the headmaster at Scourie School, who was Granny's first cousin, was apparently rigorous in enforcing the speaking of English even in the playground. By the end of 1950 when Granny died she and several brothers and one of her sisters were all living in Glasgow and spoke only Gaelic to each other so they kept it alive until the end".

From Sheila Viemeister
"My Grandfather’s first language was Gaelic. In 1956, when I first visited the family home in Melness, Tongue, most of the people I met spoke Gaelic, although they switched to English once they noticed me. My Granny seemed to understand a fair bit of Gaelic, but I can't recall ever hearing her speak it (she was from Easter Ross). Granpa could read and write Gaelic - I have some notes of his, giving a literal translation of the Gaelic version of Genesis. Alick George Mackay is a generation younger than Granpa, and doesn't read or write Gaelic at all, but even when he's speaking English, you can tell his first language is Gaelic.
I spoke about this with Mary 'Midfield' a few years ago (she was in her 90s), and she said that in her day, the majority of people on the Melness side of the Kyle had Gaelic as a first language, but that they were in a minority on the Tongue side.
When my mother was a child she and her eldest brother were sent to Gaelic language classes - she still has the textbook used - but she only has a few phrases, and certainly couldn't hold a conversation in the language. Growing up in Edinburgh, it was English she heard every day".

From Mona Black
There is no doubt that the turbulence in Sutherland in the 19th century had wide ranging effects on the use of Gaelic as a language of learning. The clearances disrupted the lives of large numbers of Gaelic speakers, forcing them to make new homes in far flung places. In many of these far flung spots there is an enduring interest in Gaelic language.
The Disruption in the church in 1843 had an enormous impact on schools and schooling in Sutherland. The Free Church built schools as well as churches. The Ladies Association of the Free Church was instrumental in bringing education to some very isolated places. The system they used allowed young Gaelic speaking men to study for the ministry of the Free Church but to teach in schools from April to the autumn.
After the Education Act in the 1870s, the churches passed the responsibility for education (by and large) to the state.
In 1883 the school leaving age was raised from 13 to 14.
In 1884 Gaelic as a subject was allowed to attract grant money
In 1887 Gaelic speaking students were permitted to apply to be Queens Scholars.

There are a number of sites on line to help those wishing for either more information or to learn Gaelic.  Google Gaelic!

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