|Steven headstone, Watten|
My connection to the north is a Gallaibh (Caithness) one. This comes from the fact that just about all my mother’s people hailed from the north-eastern tip of Scotland. They were Gàidheil (Gaels) and Goill (Lowlanders), some speaking Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) and some Beurla Ghallta (Lowland Scots). Despite all of that linguistic richness in my background, you would never have known from speaking to the infant me. I was brought up in a nominally British household, where my mother and father had little or no interest in culture of any kind other than classical music and English poetry and I was taught to speak the perfectly enunciated tongue with barely the slightest hint of a Scottish accent.
The Friday night on the first day of my trip north saw me making for Caithness once more. My reason for the detour north-east was the burying of my mother, Marjorie Steven’s ashes in Cladh Bhatain (Watten Cemetery) and the completion of the final chapter of the Caithness saga which has grown ever more important the older I’ve become. The connection may have been all but lost had it not been for my grandmother Laura who passed away in 2009 at the superb vintage of exactly 100 years old. She had a great amateur interest in history and geneology and as I got older, started explaining to me about our people, MacLeods from Latharn (Latheron). Her father Iain MacLeòid (John MacLeod) was disgusted that his own father Coinneach (Kenneth) had never passed on the Gaelic language before he died in 1902.
This disgust followed through to my grandmother who had told me that it was considered infradig to speak the Gaelic. Her grandfather was a most irascible man by all accounts who only spoke the language to his wife when he didn’t want the children to understand. It was unthinkable not to pass it on, she said, but that’s what happened. All my father knew were three phrases, madainn mhath (good morning), slàinte mhath (good health) and oidhche mhath (good night) which she pronounced /ɛçə va/.
She considered herself too far down the road to bring it back, but encouraged me wholesale to try it myself. This was a late addition to the picture of my identity on which I received not a sausage of an education until I was in my early-mid teens. I didn’t even know my father’s folk were almost 100% Irish until the same grandmother told me. Jimmy had never cracked a light and it had taken his mother-in-law to fill his son in on what most of us would consider a crucial fact about who a person is. And so I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where I came from, how my ancestors had lived or the fact that they hadn’t been native English speakers until I was about 13 years old. You could happily call me a walking tabula rasa.
I headed for Bun Illidh (Helmsdale) and bedded down for the night on the very southernmost edge of my ancestors’ range. My 4x great-grandmother Ròs Nic a’ Phearsain (Rose MacPherson) was from this area, the landscape a stark one, almost artificial-looking hills scraped practically naked, clad only in a low covering of conasg (gorse). Stoney fields stretch down towards the sea which is often separated from the land only by sheer cliffs. Apart from the rigs 20 miles out into the gloom, your next stop is Norway. This is the view my people had when they were cleared from the glens that ran off this coast and were forced to learn a fresh living from the unknown art of salt water fishing.
I awoke on the morning of the funeral, ate a substantial breakfast in a B&B at the back of the village and got on my way up the coast, soon crossing the border from Sutherland into Caithness. I was heading for the abode of my last known relative in the area, the redoubtable Jamesina MacGonigill, a shepherd of many years experience who still tends a flock in Am Bràigh Mór (the Great Brae) where she remembered an older shepherd speaking solely in Gaelic to his dogs. My 4x great-grandfather Seumas Guinneach (James Gunn) was cleared from his house in the glen and forced to carry his daughter Seònaid (Janet) 20 miles to settle at the coast in Latheron which became the nexus of our Gaelic-speaking ancestors for the following 100 years. The cliabh (herring creel) in which he carried Janet would have been about all he knew of fishing upon arriving at the sea.
Jamesina led me across the Causiemire road which connects Latheron and Inbhir Theòrsa (Thurso) in her car and I followed behind, preparing mentally for what lay ahead. Taking the turn-off, I passed the old post-office which once sat next to Kenneth MacLeod's shop. The route over the moor is remarkably straight and I stole the odd glance off to the west between keeping my eye on the road. I could see Sgoil Bhuilseach (Boultach) in the far distance, where my great-grandfather was sent after his irascible father had fallen out with the headmaster of the school at Latheron. Travelling on past Leodabost (Leod’s Farm) the restored croft of my Sutharlanaich (Sutherlands), I looked across the moor to Smearral (Smerral) out of which Clann Eanraig (Hendersons) had come. Had my grandmother not kept such a sterling record of our geneology, I may never have known anything about these people.
The modest ceremony for my mother was attended by a minister who by sheer chance happened to have learned conversational Gaelic in my home district of Dail Riata (Dalriada), in Ceann Loch Gilb (Lochgilphead) to be precise. Although not speaking the dialect itself, he was able to give the ceremony at the graveside an extra resonance by making use of the old language. I’m not religious in the conventional sense and so this was for me the most significant aspect of the blessing and a most appropriate nod to previous generations. I also read a verse I'd written for my mother and her people the Stevens from Bowermadden, meaning that homage was also done to the Scots-speaking contingent:
TAE THE MITHER
Yer shouders braud, ye'r yin o thame,
Ald Caithness fowk frae Northern hame
Tho past yer life ye did tae south,
Wae southren gait an marbelt mouth,
Yer lips an eyes, yer Steven guise
A see wae ease an realise
Jist whaur you'r frae
Yer ruddie cheik geiz aff the louk,
That plowin feidle be mistouk
Fir whit ye spent yer days upon
At drap o dusk an lowerin dawn,
Frae Bowermadden doun tae Lathron
Up the Causiemire tae Watten
That's whaur you'r frae
Yer stubborn brow yince creast wae thocht
Wis ower the sea wae Fjordsman brocht
That saltet air that fillt ther lungs
An garred them speak wae fearsom tungs
Aft dun the same tae you scarce tame
But haudin thrawn the Steven name
Frae whaur you'r frae
Yer big strang erms, A ken thame tae,
Ther's mair than yin's had thame 'n thur day
When Sandie Steven peched his last
An plow tae soil he coudna cast
His erms yit his an no jist his
But ilka faither that aye wis
Ower whaur you'r frae
Yer upturnt neb A'v gote an aa
Lik heuk it's sharp an kinna sma
This maun be us an hou we'r made
Frae sandstane rid an peat ower laid
Frae Caithness sprang we cum an gang
An ald kin line baith prowd an lang
It's whaur we'r frae!
I left Caithness after tea, scones and a fill-up at the local fuel station in Thurso. Although great to catch up with relatives and friends, it had been an understandably emotional ride so far that day, a lot of pent up grief spilling forth with the finality of the act. I struck out across the moors in my car, feeling that the only way had to be up from here. I had three days in which to gather my thoughts and track down the last vestiges of the language in the mighty Dùthaich MhicAoidh (MacKay Country), Asainte (Assynt) and Ros (Ross). I was not at all prepared for the road taking as decidedly downward a slope as it did.
Ruairidh MacCoinnich (Roddie MacKenzie) was a postman in Wester Ross for many years and a warm, decent man with a veritable fountain of knowledge that he was only too happy to share patiently with me whenever I called on the phone. The reason for my contact with him was Sony Pictures’ Outlander, an American TV series on which I work whenever Gaelic language content is required. Roddie seemed genuinely pleased to assist me whenever necessary as I had gone out of my way to make sure that Clann MhicChoinnich (the MacKenzie clan) featured in this production would have MacKenzie Gaelic. I can tell you that I was happy enough if I could get the actors to sound like they weren’t from England or Lowland Scotland in terms of accent; anything more inside the five weeks we had to get those six lovely gents with not a word of Gaelic in their heads ready for the screen was a bonus. I knew however, that despite the lads not being likely to manage Ross-shire accents, what I could ensure was Ross-shire idiom and vocabulary. If Roy Wentworth’s incredible dictionary Gaelic Words and Phrases from Wester Ross was my rock during this process then Roddie was my staff. Between this hero of mainland Gaelic preservation and one of his chief confidants I found my way through, one way or another. I dialed Roddie’s number from my hands-free and was pleased to hear his wife Alice on the other end.
|Aileas agas Ruairidh|
‘S e Àdhamh a tha seo, dé mar a tha sibh? (It’s Àdhamh here, how are you?)
Tha gu math, Àdhaimh ‘s tu fhéin? (well, Àdhamh and yourself?)
Tha gu gasta. Saoil a bheil Ruairidh aig an taigh an ceartair? (oh just grand. I wonder is Roddie at home just now?)
Ó tha mi duilich, chaochail Ruairidh anns an Òg-mhìos (oh I’m sorry, Roddie passed on in June)
BOOM. Like a gunshot through my belly. I gave Alice my deepest condolences and came off the phone, not wishing to bother her any further. The tears flowed. I pulled in off the road feeling that I was about to burst with grief. I had just buried my mum and now my great friend and guide, an exemplary human being and Gael had departed this world. I had not been in contact for the best part of a year due to personal circumstance. Mo chreach, a Ruairidh, tha mi duilich! I shouted, as much at myself as at the sky, when the phone suddenly rang out at my end this time. It was Alice calling back.
Bu chòir fhios a bhith agad gun do chòrd e uabhasach math ri Ruairidh a bhith bridhinn riut. Bha e gu math toilichte do chuideachadh (You should know that Roddie thoroughly enjoyed speaking to you. He was very pleased to help you).
Ó bha. Agas ma tha rud sam bith ann as urrainn dhomh·sa dianamh, na bith diùid ‘s tu cur fón” (oh yes. And if there’s anything I can do, don’t be shy in picking up the phone).
What a lovely thing to say. I set off in better spirits, but still feeling pretty crushed. I felt like I’d said goodbye to more Gaels than I could begin to count over the last couple of years and of course this rate has no chance of slowing up. It’s why I do what I do, why I try to encourage people at every opportunity to value these wonderful individuals, because you turn around every second month to find another person you knew, another history, another Gaelic speaker gone for good and Scotland as ignorant of what it has lost as it ever was.
The north-eastern expanse of Sutherland, its mountain and moor stretched out before me was glorious, made even more so by the blooming fraoch (heather), tame under a pale blue sky, but somehow still foreboding. It might just have been the way I was feeling after that morning’s events, but hope was at a premium, and my expectation of finding anyone left with the old dialect of this country was extremely low.
I was making for Am Blaran Odhar (Bettyhill) in the parish of Fàrr (Farr) and the house of Uilleam Gòrdan (Billy Gordon), reputed to be the village's last habitually speaking Gael and a very knowledgeable man. I arrived, coasting down the curious brae that leads into the settlement and back up the other side like the return of a swinging pendulum. Into the shop I went to enquire about Billy’s whereabouts and having purchased a mug to take home with me I set off on a twenty minute ruith na cuthaige (cuckoo’s chase i.e. wild goose chase) bobbing up and down the Bettyhill braes in my little black Volkswagen and failing dismally to find the house. When I eventually got there, I found only a brutag (caterpillar) on the sign of his house for company, as Billy had just gone out. I closed the gate to his garden and got back in my car. I let the car trundle down the road from Billy’s house.
He’d be your best bet right enough, said a farmer in a nearby field as I rolled down the window.
|Brutag an Àird|
The man had the strongest Sutherland accent I’ve ever heard, rivalling even that of the late, great Alasdair Seòras MacAoidh (Alick George MacKay) of Mealanais (Melness), the village to which I intended traveling next.
I can hear the Gaelic in your voice sir, your parents must have spoken it.
I got a knowing smile, but no Gaelic in reply. The verging on fait-accompli that seemed to be the death of the language in this area is more acute than anywhere else I’ve been. The man continued wrestling his sheep about the small field. It had been a crippling summer; if farmers had wanted to go swimming, they would have gone to the baths in Thurso or taken to the sea, not traipsed about in their own fields trying to earn a living.
Bettyhill got left behind and I made for Ceann an t-Saile MhicAoidh (MacKay’s Kyle of Tongue) as opposed to Ceann an t-Saile MhicCoinnich (MacKenzie’s Kintail) Sweeping across the Kyle over the causeway, I was graced with breathtaking views on either side of me and the sense -as always in the north of Scotland- of being somewhere very special. I got to Melness with the book of MacKay Country Gaelic wonderfully compiled by Seumas Grannd (James Grant) and a list of people he had spoken to, some of whom might just still be with us and willing to help me continue my education. Universities, colleges, schools, all have their purpose, but nothing beats the company of those who have lived, and lived long.
I reached Melness buoyant but ravaged by grief, in that particular way only grief leaves you feeling; ragged, tattered, knackered and a little numb. I stepped into the local shop wondering if the game was up. I was sent straight off down to An Srathan Shìos (East Strathan) and the house of one Seórdag NicLeòid (Georgina MacLeod). The roads wound round like a tangle of old hair and I had an inadvertent tour of the whole Melness end of Sutherland, passing as I did, a pair of suspiciously helpful-looking elderly ladies in their car. We waved politely as we allowed each other past and I thought ruefully to myself: bu chòir dhomh stad ‘s an uinneag a chur a-sìos gus bruidhinn riucha! (I should have stopped and put down the window to speak to them!)
Before I knew it I was back up the way I had come having left Georgina’s again. She had the Gaelic as a child, but was not in the way of speaking it. I left her a nice lump of my wife’s tablet and went on my way. Georgina was also unsure of anyone else in the Melness area who might speak it, in the earnest opinion that they were all gone. I got to the crest of the hill with MacKay Country spread out before me and decided I’d had enough.
Car-son fo ghréin a tha mi cur seo orm 'hé? (why on earth am I putting this on myself) I thought. The rage of the drowning Sutherland mountains the last time I was here in the rain was quietened to a gentle whisper in the mid-afternoon sun and the Gaelic had clearly swallowed her own tongue and choked. I was fo mhulad air fad (completely under sorrow) and sat trying to come to terms with the idea that the mighty north-west Sutherland, land of the warlike MacKays who had made their neighbours lives a misery whooping their way home with every second cow in Caithness, had fallen silent. Is mairg leam an smaoin gu léir (The whole idea of it is detestable) I thought, ach ‘s ann anns a’ chlamh a-mhàin a gheobhar Gàidhlig Dhùthaich MhicAoidh an seo a-nis (tis in the graveyard alone that you’ll find the MacKay Country Gaelic here now).
|Ceann an t-Sàile MhicAoidh 's an cladh|
Hope had slid unceremoniously into the Kyle. A few bubbles popped from the surface, then it was gone, an amorphous shape growing ever dimmer as it came to rest on the sea bed. I slumped down with it into my chair, poised on the verge of letting it all go again and having another quiet bleat to myself. As I did, I suddenly thought: amadain! Cha do ghabh u 'hé ‘s am fear sa bhùth beachd air na h-ainmean ud! (you and the fella in the shop never actually looked at the list!). I had forgotten to bring out Seumas Grannd’s book. There might still be a chance.
With that, I took off down the hill back to the village at pace, swung round the narrow roads and pulled up once again at the shop, caring little for the jaunty angle of my parked car as I emerged through the door to find the slightly bemused shop staff as I suddenly brandished the list of speakers.
She’s away. Well yes, you’ve got to expect that. She’s away. OK, that makes sense, it has been ten years. He’s away. Aye, OK, good old Alick George, I knew that right enough. She’s away. This isn’t going to get any better, is it? It’s all buggered, I might as well pack up and go, I’m on a hiding to nothing, a fool’s errand, another wild goose chase. Oh… she’s in!
Off like a hare out the door and into the car. Simple directions to a house down the road. I can do that. One more throw of the dice. Hoping against hope. C’ mon you son of a gun, there’s got to be one!