Yes. An almost regal-looking lady, with a youthful complexion, white hair and a keen eye, regarding me with curiosity, but not suspicion.
I’m sorry to bother you. I’m cutting about looking for people with the local Gaelic. A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh? (Is Gaelic at-you?)
Tha. ([It] is). The MacKays returned triumphant! And Hope slunk back out of the Kyle, somewhat self-conscious, trying to look casual and hoping not to be seen.
tháinig mi seo bho cheann ùine mhóir a’ rùrachamh Alick George. I had been here before seeking Alick George, but he had been out when I’d called, ach tha e air falbh a-nis, nach eil? (but he’s away now, isn’t he?)
tha, theirig Alick George. (yes, Alick George died). I had arrived in Melness late one afternoon in 2010 and had gone to the door of their most knowledgable son, the house of the magical man that was Alick George MacKay, whom I know only from recordings lifted by those lucky enough to meet him. My daughter Eilidh and I had knocked at the door, waiting for the roar of the retroflex R under those unmistakable black eyebrows, but got nothing. We had somewhere to be that night and had to leave and so it was we missed the great man, most likely by a matter of minutes.
Càit ás an tànaig u? (Where have you come from?) asks Nan.
Á taobh Ghlasachamh, tha mi ás Arra-Gháidheal bho thùs ach tha gu leòr de mo mhuinntir, ‘s ann ás an taobh seo a tha ead. (from Glasgow way, I’m from Argyll originally but plenty of my people, tis from this side that they are)
Ó seadh. Bheil u ‘g iarraidh tighinn a-staigh? (oh aye. Do you want to come in?). It is rare that the famed hospitality of the Gael, second only perhaps to the Arabian desert people, is found wanting, not that I would have been put out at all had I not been invited in. I was after all a random 30-something male appearing mar chlach ás an adhar (like a stone out of the air).
Seo a-nis clàr-siùcair a reinn mo bhean air son duine sam bith air an tiginn a’ chéilidh. (Here now is a little tablet my wife made for anyone that I’d come to visit)
What is it?
|Nan, Nellie, Àdhamh|
Nellie explained why she didn’t end up with the Gaelic: my father could speak it, he was a Melness man, Charles Munro.
Was he related to Calum Munro?
Yes! You knew Calum?
No, he was away sadly before I got the chance to meet him –this was true. Like Alick George, Calum was now a permanent part of the history of Melness, but a contributing force no more.
He used to call on me every time he was here and he had great yarns and tales.
Oh he would have. I had heard him on the radio a good few times. I learned that despite Nan and Nellie going to school together in the same class and in Melness, Nellie's maternal grandparents had been from Golspie and the Black Isle and so her mother, and in turn Nellie herself, never got the Gaelic
If someone says ciamar a tha sibh? to me I can answer tha gu math and so forth she said, but I’m not a fluent Gaelic speaker although I can pick it up just fine when people are chatting to one another.
I explained that I had come round to see if there was anyone left speaking the language in Melness.
Oh well, there’s very little of the old Melness ones left you know, of the families that were there when we were young and there’s so many incomers, bless them, it’s a good job they’re there or the place would be empty but it’s not just the same as it was.
I remembered speaking to someone a few years before and they had said oh I think you’ll still get a few up in Melness. I had been genuinely hopeful of finding three or four speakers before I left Glasgow but this appeared to have been wishful thinking.
Everyone went to Alick George for information on the place Nellie told me.
Alick George and I, our grannies were sisters said Nan, popping her head in from the kitchen. Now how do you take your tea?
My host showed me a photo on the wall among many others old and new. The room was clean and tidy and I sat on the couch with Nellie on my left in a big chair and the window to my right with Nan’s seat underneath. She elaborated further on the legendary Alick George: Now he didn’t learn too much in school…. but he was an only child and he remembered every story his parents told.
Nellie continued: We didn’t realise how sharp Alick George was when we were kids because he didn’t do so well at the school work.
Well this is it, I said, the school’s not for everyone.
But he had total recall! Nan finished triumphantly.
To me, the ability to speak for your countryfolk and have them pleased as Punch to let you get on with it is where it's at. That is respect earned over years of being a conduit for the power of knowledge, yet wielded with absolute humility. People like Alick George kept the mindset of the Gael alive and well, protected by their very skulls and ribcages where lay their musical brains and throbbing hearts. I inquired as to whether he had a Gaelic name because even the Gaels I talked to would still just call him Alick George.
Well, Alasdair I suppose we would say…. and Seòras, but he was always just Alick George right enough.
Did they have a name for you in Gaelic? I inquire.
Alick George always called me Johannie, says Nan, but I called myself Nana as a child and that stuck and that’s what they call me around here. But Nan NicDhomhaill would probably be the simplest name in Gaelic.
Did they ever call you Seonag?
Yes, they did, Seonag.
And what did they say around here for MacDonald? I wonder.
Well because everyone was MacKay around here they had nicknames to differentiate between them all and with my father being the only MacDonald, he was just called An Domhallach (no 'n').
Despite how warmly and openly I'd been received, I suddenly became conscious again of my having shown up randomly out of the blue. I hope I’m not putting you to trouble because I didn’t come up here to do that.
Not at all, said Nan, we normally have a wee run out on a Saturday and then come back here for a seat and a cup of tea so what’s one more? I felt happy to be one of the gang for a day. Och yes, we’ve been best friends since we were in school.
And that wasn’t yesterday! joked Nellie. I wish Alick George had been here for you though, because he had a wealth of information. He knew every stone and ruin in the place.
I must admit with not a little regret that there had always been something about the fact that I knew Alick George was well-recorded that had prevented me going out of my way to get back to Melness. I had always had the feeling that he was already greatly appreciated and that my priorities therefore, ought to lie elsewhere.
Oh I’m being treated now, look at this, I said as my tea with just the perfect blend of milk and sugar arrived with a generous plate of biscuits and cherry cake.
Well you know James Grant who did the Gaelic dictionary lived down there in my niece’s house, said Nan. He was back and forth all the time as my sister lived next door. He would come in talking Gaelic to us and he always brought in a cherry cake!
Yes, this was life. I had met with death and disaster this morning, now I was being treated to life, with people who belonged to Melness the same way the grass belonged in the field opposite the house. It was able to replant itself, its seeds caught in the wind and finding most often a new home not 100 yards away. Not so the people, so many of whom had been made to cross an ocean to find home, and had ploughed through all manner of peril to get there.
(all Gaelic forms from now on will be MacKay Country dialect)
Cà bheil u dul a-nis? (where are you going now?) asks Nan.
Tha mi dul gu Loch an Inbhir.
I had made up my mind I was going to get to Lochinver. I had only ever passed through it once or twice on my way south from the MacKay Country and I had decided bloody-mindedly that one day I was just going to get there by hook or by crook and assess the language situation properly. My grandmother insisted our MacLeods were from there originally, from Assynt, and so it was that another kind of seed, of some kind of connection that ought to be explored, was planted.
Chan ail e gu diubhar cùin a ruigeas mi ‘n dùthaich (it doesn’t matter when I reach the place) I continued, ach chan ail mi ‘g iarraidh ur cumail air ais.
Ha! laughed Nan to Nellie. He doesn’t want to keep us back he says! clearly amused at the concept of anything other than Highland Time applying in this house.
Yes he’s going to Lochinver, Nan replied, and still with a grin on her face: but he’s not in a hurry.
I realised I was bedded in for the afternoon. After the day I’d had so far, this was bliss. As soon as Nan realised I wasn’t fussy about what we spent the next hour or two doing, she set about hunting high and low for a CD she had of Melness Gaelic, music and song.
You’ll hear my two brothers talking Gaelic on it and that’s interesting for you because you can hear the Melness Gaelic. They had a good quality of voice, it was lovely to hear them speak.
Dé an ubair a bh’ aig na h-athair? (what work did your father have?)
Bha e na phost ‘s bha croit aig. Bha shop aig athair ‘s a mhàthair. (He was a postman and he had a croft. His mother and father had a shop). Do you say bùth for a shop?
We do. The shop had its goods sent up from Leith by boat and went from one end of the district to the other by horse and cart. A lot of people paid for their groceries with eggs. When Nan’s father came home from the first world war he carried on the shop. The depression years meant that people couldn’t afford to pay for their groceries at all and the family was forced to give it up. That's when An Domhallach worked as a postman, going round the whole district. Nan felt that they were very lucky to have the croft to fall back on.
She informed me that one of the men featured on the CD had in fact died only a week or two back: Willie John used to play in the local band and we were thinking about him a lot and even before you came I was going to put on the CD to remember him by, you know?
An robh Gàidhlig aig·as? (did he have Gaelic?) I asked, assuming correctly that this was another speaker lost to us.
Ó bha (oh yes) answered Nan. Chìthinn e le daoin ‘s cha robh aid a’ bridhinn, ach nam faiceamh e mis, bhitheamh sinn a’ bridhinn Gàidhlig ri chéil. (I’d see him with people who wouldn’t speak it, but if he bumped into me we would be speaking Gaelic to each other).
Now Nellie, said Nan as the accordian-driven dance band got into full swing, didn’t we love the waltzing?
Och, we’d go dancing to five o’clock in the morning! Nellie replied, indicating to the youth of today how a real dance enthusiast does it.
There was no bridge then, Nan continued, and we’d walk up to the ferry and the ferryman would take us across in the boat. We’d go to the dance in Tongue till four o’clock in the morning and then we’d wait till it was light and we had to put up a flag for the ferryman so that he would come across for us. Didn’t we have lovely times right enough?
I love the old tunes, Nellie agreed, make me want to dance and that was just the local band.
The hospitality showed no signs of letting up.
Shall I make you a sandwich? Nan asked me.
No no, I wouldn’t want to put you out. Tha rudaigin agam sa charbad. (I’ve got something in the car).
Bheil an rud agad nas fheòrr na th’ agam·as? (is what you’ve got better than what I’ve got?). I'd had it. I wasn't going to escape some more being looked after and that’s all there was to it.
Exactly, we spoil our sons, Nan concurred. Altram Dhùthaich MhicAoidh (adopted by MacKay Country) If you can’t see to the wellbeing of a wayfarer, then you’re no Highlander. I was a visiting Gael from Argyll, and I was being looked after accordingly.