Sunday, 17 April 2016



Caisteal Àrd Bhric
I came back to my car after my wander round the castle soaked through but feeling good. There’s nothing like a cold shower to get shot of the last throes of a hangover. I had a quick change of shirt before settling back into my seat for the drive round to Loch an Inbhir (Lochinver), where I hoped to do the same as I had in Melness. I didn’t have to wait that long. The clues fell into place in a matter of an hour.

I first picked up a German hitchhiker who had in fact been living in Scotland for a good couple of years and was part of the local set-up. A cracking fellow, he took me straight to the house of Clarinda Chant who helps out with local Gaelic classes, a lady who gave me a most courteous and helpful welcome and allowed me to try the next link in the chain over the phone, fluent learner Claire Belshaw, to see if she had any idea about surviving native speakers. I couldn’t get Claire, but Clarinda did furnish me with an idea of how to reach a certain Iain “The Gate” MacCoinnich (Iain MacKenzie) who was apparently a fluent Assynt native. I set off out of Lochinver with time beginning to get pretty tight for my next appointment in An Dòrnaidh (Dornie) a few hours later. I could make it though. I was in Rome and I was determined to meet some Romans.

What happened after my initial success was that I spent the following 45-60mins completely lost in amonsgt all the little roads that intersect Rubh’ an Stòir (the Stoer Peninsula). I was looking for a house close to the beach. I found one. I got all the way down to it only to encounter a friendly chap at the door still in his dressing gown and informing me pleasantly that he definitely wasn’t Iain the Gate. I set off again through the sandy fields filled with trash, old cars and rabbit holes and before I knew it I was out at the taigh-solais (lighthouse). Thighearna Dhia (Lord God) I thought, this is another bloody ruith na cuthaige (cuckoo chase). I met a lady selling snacks and drinks at the end of the road who did her best to re-direct me. She gave me a sideways glance as I departed. I wondered whether I really looked that clueless. Quite possibly.
Bàigh Bhail' a' Chladaich 's an taigh-solais air a chùl

Just at the point of thinking the game was a bogey, I coasted down yet another hill and into Bail' a' Chladaich (The Shore Village) and what did I see but a gate… next to a house plonked neatly into the sand with the Atlantic not 200 yards away. Iain’s Gate. Iain the Gate’s gate. I got out and stretched, thinking as always: cha bhith e aig an taigh idir ann a-nis an déidh a’ ghnothaich seo uile! (of course, he’s not going to be home now after all this business!).

I wandered round the side of the house and chapped the door. Nobody came out. After all that. Bollocks to it. Then I heard a faint sound of movement from the bowels of the house. It took a minute or two, but Iain the Gate appeared at the door, looking relaxed but weather-beaten from a life on the land. He settled his gaze on the stranger on the doorstep and I hit him swiftly with my usual explanation of why I was there. So it was I met Iain a h-Aon (Iain #1).

Tha mi gabhail cuairt a’ rùrachamh dhaoin’ aig a bheil Gàidhlig an àite, Iain (I’m taking a trip looking for people who have the local Gaelic) I said, as Iain regarded me patiently.

Och, chan eil móran Ghàidhlig agam·as (oh I don’t have much Gaelic) he lied comedically with a slight smile.

Och! tha coltach gu bheil gu leòr agaibh! (oh! It seems like you have plenty!) I reply insistently.

Ó, chan eil. Tha mi fàs ro shean a-nis. Tha usa nad bhalach òg (oh no. I’m growing too old now. You’re a young lad).

Seo a’ chiad uair a chualaig mi Gàidhlig Asainte gu ceart (this is the first time I heard Assynt Gaelic properly) I admit.

Robh u seo roimhe? (were you here before?) Iain asks.

Cha do stad mi an uair a bha sin (I didn’t stop the last time) I concede before wondering Chaidh ur togail san dùthaich, nach deachaidh? (You were raised in this country, weren’t you?) ‘N ann á seo a bha ur pàrantan? (Was it from here your parents were?)
Dachaidh Iain: Bail' a' Chladaich

‘S ann gu dearbh (it certainly was).

Bheil crodh agaibh? (do you have cattle?).

Ó tha, tha ‘n dà chuid agam. Crodh ‘s caoraich agam (Oh yes, I’ve both. I’ve cattle and sheep) says Iain. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before my current obsession -finding out the names of the fingers- reared its head. Nan hadn’t recalled the names for the MacKay Country, but luckily they were in Seumas Grannd’s book. Robh rann aca air na corragan? (did they have a rhyme for the fingers?)

Unfortunately Iain couldn’t bring them back to mind either. Chan eil cuimhn’ agam air sin. (I don’t remember that). Bha e ann, ach cha bhith daoine ga bridhinn ‘s mar sin, tha mi ga call (It was there, but people don’t speak it [Gaelic] now and so I’m losing it) Chan eil ach an aon duine ‘nis a bhitheas ga bridhinn, Iain MacIllEathain an sin. (there’s only one man now who speaks it and that’s Iain MacLean there) he said, motioning back the way with his head. Ma théid u thigeas, gheobh u do leòr an sin (If you go towards him, you’ll get your fill there). This sounded great. Mental note made to bring that name up again if Iain didn’t. A question for me this time: Dé chanas tus’ air do làmhan? Air an làmh seo? (What would you say on your hands? On this hand?) asked Iain, gesturing with his right hand. An làmh cheart? (the right hand?) Sin a chanas iad sna h-Eileanan (that's what they say in the Isles).

An làmh dheas (the ready hand).

Ó sinne cuideachd (oh us too) says Iain, pleased. Bho chionn ghoirid, chuala mi air an television, “làmh cheart” ach an seo, ‘s e “làmh dheas” a chanas iad. (I heard on the television, làmh cheart, but here, it’s làmh dheas that they’d say).

Dé their ead ris an làmh eile? (What do they say to the other hand?) I ask.

Làmh cheàrr (the wrong hand).

Gu dearbh? (really?) ‘S e “làmh chlì” a th’ againne. (It’s the "awkward hand" we have). Bheil facail eile anns an dùthaich a tha car sònraichte? (are there other words in the country that are somewhat special?) leithid, tha fhios agaibh, their sinne “polladair” ris a’ bhiuthach sin a tha fanachd san talamh (the likes of, you know, we say polladair [mudder] to the beast that lives in the earth) mar a their ead sa Bheurla, mole (as they say in English, “mole”).
Rubh' an Stòir ann an Asaint

Ó seadh, ‘s e famhan a bh’ againn air sin (oh aye, it’s famhan that we had on that).

Dé theireamh ead ri spider? (What did they call a spider?). I adore this kind of chat.

Iain laughs and looks at me shaking his head. I can tell he wants to sneak off and have a think about these! Ó hó hó he chuckles, cha do bhridhinn mi a leithid bhon a bha mi òg! (I haven’t spoken its like since I was young!)

‘S e figheadair a their ead an Arra-Gháidheil (they say figheadair [weaver] to it in Argyll). I have never found the actual word for a spider in the Dalriada dialect, but found figheadair in Perthshire, Islay and South Lorn and having triangulated using those assume that this word must at least have been known in Mid-Argyll. ‘S e figheadair-feòir a their ead ri h-aon mór, tha fhios agaibh, harvester (It’s figheadair-feòir [grass-weaver] that they say to a big one, you know, a “harvester”).

Ó seadh! (oh aye!) says Iain, clearly seeing the sense in that expression.

Having listened to a little Assynt Gaelic in Tobar an Dualchais, I had always thought it was fairly close to the Lewis dialect. Perhaps not as close as Coigeach, but close enough. Feumaidh gu bheil a’ Ghàidhlig an seo, gu bheil i car coltach ri Gàidhlig Leodhasach, nach eil? (The Gaelic here, it must be pretty similar to Lewis Gaelic, eh?)

Tha, ó tha. (Yes, it is). Rudaigin faisg oirre (Something close to it). Anns an sgoil a-nis, bithidh iad a’ cunntadh (in the school now, they will be counting) mar a chanas sinne, seachd ‘s ciad caoraich, no dà thar fhichead (as we say, seven and a hundred sheep, or two over twenty), ach chan e sin a th’ ann a-nis (but it’s not that that’s there now). Despite the fact that the new manner of counting is not actually a new system but a very old one and certainly less confusing than trying to learn the multiplication of twenties which forms the backbone of the old system, the new way is another departure from what native dialect speakers understand, it’s another blockage in the road of the old folks trying to reach the young and vice-versa.

Tha an saoghal air atharrachamh (the world has changed) I say, with what I know to be a wry grin on my face. Iain raises an eyebrow, as if I have understated the matter:

Chan eil e idir mar a bha e (It’s not at all as it was). Tha an seann ghinealach air falbh a-nis (the old generation are away now). A statement made with obvious regret but a certain resigned acceptance.

Bha coltach gun deachaidh gach rud atharrachamh anns an tir-mhór anns na seachdadan (It seems like everything changed in the mainland in the 70s) I say, something I’ve heard many times from older folk. Cha duair mi 'n dearbh aobhar car-son a dh’atharraich a h-uile gnothaichean, ach sin a their na sean-daoine sa h-uile h-àit’ an Arra-Gháidheal (I didn’t get an exact reason why everything changed, but that’s what the old folks say everywhere in Argyll). Tháinig na Goill a-staigh ‘s an sin cha téid gas air ais thun mar a bha e a-chaoidh (The non-Gaels came in and then nothing will ever go back to how it was).

Ó sin agad e dìreach (oh there you have it exactly). Sin na thachair (That’s what happened). Ach chan eil feadhainn òg’ ann an seo ann (But there’s no young people here now whatsoever). Och, ach chan eil gin air fhàgail ga bridhinn ach MacIllEathain (Oh there’s no-one left speaking it but MacLean). Excellent, Iain has brought up MacLean again. Tha Gàidhlig mhath aige (He’s got good Gaelic). Chaidh a thogail le dà bhoireannach anns an taigh ‘s bha iadsan a’ bridhinn Gàidhlig an-comhnaidh (He was raised by two women in the house and they were speaking Gaelic always). This is brilliant news.

Bail' a' Chladaich le Aonghas MacDhomhaill
‘S mar sin, thuair e a h-uile facal (And so, he got every word).

Thuair, sin agad e (He did, there you have it) confirms Iain.

Agas am bith e ‘staigh an ceartair? (And will he be in just now?) I inquire.

Ó shaoilinn gum bith, shaoilinn gum bith (Oh I would reckon he will be, yes).

Am bith sibhse agas MacIllEathain, am bith sibhse bruidhinn na Gàidhlig dair a chì sibh a’ chéile? (Do you and MacLean, do you speak Gaelic when you see one another?) I venture hopefully.

Ó bithidh, ó bithidh! Mar as tric’, bithidh (Oh we do, oh yes! More often than not, yes). And there you have it. No lack of language loyalty from dialect speakers, as it is in Lismore and Ardnamurchan, as it was with Noel Gow in Strathspey and Mrs Gallacher in Melness, just barely anyone to speak to as the world moves on mercilessly and leaves behind the jewel in the Scottish crown, the naturally occurring Gaelic language, while a homogenised cardboard cut-out of it that was never actually spoken anywhere usurps her throne.

Och glé mhath, tha sin gasta (oh very good, that’s great). I am now aware that I have made a friend and with that happily achieved and with time being what it is, I’d better go looking for MacLean. Cha chum mi air ais sibh ‘s sibh gabhail fois Di-Domhnaich (I won’t keep you back and you relaxing on a Sunday). Is cinnteach, ma tha croit agaibh ‘s nair a tha fois agaibh, bithidh sibh air son gabhail rithe! (For certain, if you have a croft and you have some peace, you’ll want to accept it [ie go with it]!).

Och seadh, gu leòr a dh’obair ri dhianamh ach tha mi fàs ro shean a-nis (oh aye, plenty of work to be done but I’m growing too old now). “Cha tig an aois leotha ‘héin”, mar a chanas iad! (“the age does not come alone” as they say!). No, this is true. The sciatica down the back of my left leg that’s crept in even just in my 30s attests to this. I don’t take for granted the fact that the story of the body will get more complex as time wears on and as the old internal engine wears down.

Bha fuasach math ur faicinn ‘s ma bhitheas mi san dùthaich, thig mi gur faicinn a-rithist (It was terribly good to see you and if I’m in the country, I’ll come to see you again).

Ó latha sam bith! (oh any day!). Ma bhitheas tu air d’ ais a-rithist, thig a-staigh! (If you’re back again, come in!). There’s the hospitality once again.

Shin agaibh na nì mi (there you have what I’ll do). An ath uair, theaga’ gun téid an dithist againn a chéilidh air MacIllEathain ‘s bruidhnidh sinn Gàidhlig comhla (the next time, maybe the two of us will go a-visiting on MacLean and we’ll speak Gaelic together).

Ó seadh, gu dearbh (Oh aye, indeed). A plan and a half.

Glé mhath, ciad taing dhuibh ‘s slàn leibh (very good, 100 thanks to you and health [be] with you). And with that, Iain waves and watches as I nip round the wall and over to my car. I get in and breathe a sigh of relief at having managed to continue my education despite the hiccups. Whipping out my notepad again, I scribble pell-mell and in what is now barely legible script the conversation topics we had and as much direct speech as I can manage to recall before making for MacLean’s!

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