MIC THREUN' AOIDH THE MIGHTY MACKAY
If you went from the top of Melness right down, I ask, trying to ascertain whether Georgina MacLeod had been right enough about the lack of speakers, other than Nan of course.
Well Georgina’s 98 years old, said Nellie, I would have expected her to be very fluent as she was leaving school when I began and they wouldn’t have spoken anything but Gaelic in the family home, but I can’t think of anyone else.
I explained that when I presented the list of people in the dictionary from Tongue Parish to Tommy at the shop he had sent me off to Nan’s.
We were in the shop today! said Nellie. And it dawned on me. Nan and Nellie were the two ladies I had passed on the road.
What about Hugh MacLeod, Georgina’s brother? Nellie asked Nan. Did he not make a Gaelic poem? displaying the influence of the old language on her speech with use of the verb make instead of write.
Nan explained that it was about a man they thought was a spy. Nellie wondered whether he really existed. Nan explained further: Oh no, I'm sure he did. He came to Melness and he went to Port Vasco at the other end of the district. He came on a bicycle but he was picked up in a boat. You see the Germans could easily have landed here in the north of Scotland as they were sending spies over. In the poem Hugh tells all about the people this fellow spoke to when he came across on the ferry. And then he went down to Port Vasco and they found the bicycle the next day, but no sign of him. And they think he might have been making signs to someone and a boat picked him up. Supposedly the people found money down a rabbit’s hole or something too, but I'm not altogether sure.
I have tried since to find both the tale and the song online, but with no success. I remembered having seen a program some years before featuring a lady who arrived back in her home island in a helicopter. It had been great because the lady spoke Sutherland Gaelic with Alick George.
Is there anyone else left from Eilean nan Ròn (Island of the Seals)? I inquire of Nan.
They all moved out in 1935 and they were just children at the time. Willie John the Island would have been the last one. He was a very interesting man.
Do you remember the people from there having anything in the way of different words? Unsurprisingly, I wanted to know more about their Gaelic. The language is nothing if not varied, and your experience of dialect can change just by walking between two villages not five miles apart.
Well I didn’t really know anyone from the island too well. My sister went to work over in Tongue and the doctor had Hugh and Willie John there as handymen. So my sister used to tell me about those two from the island, but they’re both away now. She would be quoting what they were saying but I can’t remember if they had any special words.
I wondered if Nan could think of anybody else at all in Sutherland that has the local Gaelic. I was in Bettyhill and I went to see Billy Gordon but he had gone out just before I got there.
Billy’s very knowledgable, he’s very good, said Nellie. I can't think of anyone in Durness though and we don't know Kinlochbervie that well.
There’s nobody in Tongue now either, Nan continued. Even when we were young, the people of Tongue pretended that the people of Melness were the wild lot who spoke Gaelic and that they were civilised and didn't!
Well it’s good to know the Melness Gaelic’s not completely gone and that you’re holding fast yet. I said, despite everything, still genuinely relieved I'd managed to meet somebody. The CD hummed away in the background, with lots of older residents of the area speaking in the local dialect.
I suppose I must be the only one then, said Nan, a little forlornly, but it’s very much alive in my head you know and it’s great to have that CD. If I didn’t have that it would disappear out of me altogether. Alick George talks quite often on the radio and TV, but at the end of the day, that’s all we have.
It really was a dire situation to be in. I felt very sorry that things had got to the stage where the founding culture of the world-wide brand that is Scotland now existed for the most part in sound archives. The Mighty MacKay laid low. Despite having tracked down a speaker of this noble dialect, the situation was nevertheless verging on the hopeless. While the natives of this northern extremity of Scotland exude a physical strength, a resolute stubbornness that is only thinly covered by their genuine smiles and cheery demeanor, they are beginning to melt into the background of bland Caucasian homogeneity. The ruddy cheeks and gnarled hands of the old men are just one emblem of an ancient way of life that is grinding to its death. Their Gaelic language has evaporated to a mere dew on the moorland grasses under the heat of the angry British gaze; patronising, tempting, ridiculing the noble souls of this now desolate paradise into trading in everything that mattered for forty silver-tongued words of English. Despite the eyeglass which channeled this hate having lost its focus somewhat over the years, it is difficult to believe that this is for any other reason than that the job is done; the language has been all but extirpated, the establishment's mission of cultural genocide accomplished. The Highlanders were never completely broken in battle despite suffering under desperately poor generalship; we had to be broken sneakily using other means, attacked just for being who we were, for everything that made us distinct and under the banner of progress, rendering these measures palatable to the general public.
As Lewisman Murchadh MacPhàrlain (Murdo MacFarlane) put it:
Na Hitleran breun Breatannach (those stinking British Hitlers)
A mhurt mo thìr mu thuath (who murdered my northern land)
Gu Lebensraum do chaoraich (to make a habitat for sheep)
'S na daoine sgiùrs' thar chuan (and scourged the people across the ocean)
Nellie then brought up something else, quite out of the blue, and something which among other things could be said to epitomise the future for me, the possibility of any kind of independence for people living on what central government still regards as the edge of civilisation. As we spoke, I realised that this was the ultimate metaphor for what Gaelic needed to do at a local level in the years to come.
Are they fighting over the windmills down your way? she asked me.
Well you know I quite like them. I answered honestly.
They could have had them way up in the hills there where nobody would see them, added Nan, where we used to have a peatbank. I thought that if you had them there it would be like a memorial to the peatbank.
The mood I had been in, I had been on the verge of throwing in the towel and just getting the memorial put up to the whole lot; the language, culture, everything. This was a lovely idea, a game-changer: It’s just a different kind of fuel really, isn’t it?
It’s a different kind of fuel, precisely. Nan realised I knew exactly what she meant. And you see the peatbanks are dead, they’ve dried out. And they could have had the windmills way out in the distance.... but it caused a lot of consternation.
And there you have it. The consternation. Just like the consternation when women first got the vote, when motorcars began to overtake carriages on the road, and when men turned up for work not having shaved.
|Saorsa, Caoimhe 's muillean-gaoithe|
Let’s also accept that this concept is fanciful. However, we shouldn't forget one of the main reasons nothing remotely like that came to pass. This reason is that Gaelic culture has been running around like the hen less its head which was lopped off when the Lordship of the Isles found itself on the sharp end of the wrath of an Anglicised monarchy. Hens can live for a surprising length of time missing their heads. So Gaelic culture has done because of the remoteness of communities in the Highlands. The moment better road links were established, these communities capitulated culturally-speaking almost immediately, like ancient mummified remains crumbling to dust under the glare of the sun. With no central nervous system, no central structure maintaining anything approaching unity of purpose, it’s actually quite surprising that Gaelic society lasted as long as it did.
Slàn leibh air an àm....
Mar chuimhneachan air Ruairidh MacCoinnich nach maireann....
Mar chuimhneachan air Ruairidh MacCoinnich nach maireann....
(disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent those of anyone else mentioned or quoted in it. I paraphrase from memory what was said in order to paint a picture of my experiences in the MacKay Country. My special thanks to Nan and Nellie for a lovely afternoon and to Nan for subsequent tune-ups of my information over the phone!)