Sunday, 17 April 2016



Assynt is one of those areas which seems somehow to have escaped the academic eye. When it comes to the far north of Scotland, you can start in the south of Rosshire and work your way up, finding most dialects covered by a monograph or a dictionary or a collection of some kind. Only Assynt and Caithness –ironically the two areas which initially interested me because of my family connections- have been left unexamined. I am currently going through the Gaelic Linguictic Survey entries for south Caithness with a fine-toothed comb and finding some very interesting features, especially in comparison with neighbouring dialects. Houston, we have an isolate! Other than that, Caithness will prove a difficult one given the lack of supplementary poetry, song or vocabulary, despite the bonus of 126 specifically dialect entries in Dwelly!

Dual·chainnt Ghollaibh an Dwelly
A great bonus for areas not covered by monographs is the Survey of Irish Dialects’ entries for the Scottish section. From Loch Carrann (Lochcarron) up, the northern dialects are covered by the SID, Ternes’ volume on a’ Chomraich (Applecross), Wentworth’s astounding work in Geàrr·loch (Gairloch), the terrific little book on a’ Chòigeach (Coigeach) dialect by Domhall Uilleam Stiùbhart (Donald William Stewart) and co, the SID again in Assynt and Seumas Grannd’s coverage of MacKay Country with his delightful dictionary. On the east coast, we have Watson’s fascinating study of Easter Ross Gaelic and the rightly world-famous investigation into East Sutherland Gaelic by my friend of some 6 years now, Nancy Dorian. There’s a lot of great material to work from for potential revival purposes. But from the perspective of the revivalist, will that be enough? If not, what’s missing?

Kenneth Jackson’s insistence on local parentage for all informants involved in the Gaelic Linguistic Survey was a stroke of utter genius. It means that we have as complete and as reliable a picture as can possibly be imagined -in a Highlands now so dreadfully deprived of dialect speakers- of how native Gaels sounded. In terms of what they said, Jackson’s attitude to word geography left a lot to be desired. The subject appears to have been almost looked down upon because of the unpredictability of the results but for me this simply betrays the cloistered lifestyle of the über-academic. The fact of the matter is that for the person on the street, it is words and their variety that capture the imagination, rarely whether someone said /a/ or /ɛ/ or /əɣ/ or /əv/. I mean it’s great to possess this information and we should be mighty glad to have it as part of the picture but over and above that, no-one in their right mind gives a flying phoneme. My experience is that it is only people who have been shut away from the real world their entire lives in universities who believe these concerns to be remotely important. So while phonologists and phonemecists were fighting their fiddly little esoteric battles in the corridors of imagined power, we were losing dozens upon dozens upon dozens of precious words for things, which will never be regained. A-CHAOIDH. Bheil sibh ga mo thuigsinn? (Are you understanding me?) A-CHAOIDH! (EVER!).

SID Volume IV
I must admit, I adore listening to scholars discuss the finer points of lingistics; I could pass hours at it. In fact I have several friends  -they know who they are!- whose knowledge astounds me and to whom I regularly go for all manner of advice, but c’ mon down to brass tacks with me folks, Scotland has been putting the cart squarely before the horse for the last 50 years at least. Since the rumblings of the revival began, we have bent over backwards to keep up with the Whittingtons, establishing a university, drafting all sorts of rules and regulations, insisting that railway station signs in the middle of Lothian are in Gaelic, putting quantity squarely before quality in terms of speakership, and leaving old people who didn’t come from Skye or the Western Isles, whose dialect didn’t “fit”, to quietly pop their clogs in ignominy while the hallowed, well-funded halls of esoteria buzz with essential activity. All of the above-mentioned things had their place, some of them a very large and important place in fact, but I can't help thinking that while the bone was being polished to a sheen worthy of the British establishment, the marrow was yet being sucked out from within.

I’m getting to my point in these blogs by the way, don’t worry... I do have a solution, and it ain’t got sh*t to do with suits, side-partings and seminars. It’s irreverent, old-fashioned and very cheap. Read on.


STILL YES: taigh ann an Asaint
Having scribbled away into my notebook for a good 15 minutes, I looked up at the sky. It was dimming down and if I didn’t want to be hitting Dornie in the dark and missing my dinner, I’d need to get moving. I scoured my brain for anything else that was said, pulling bits I’d forgotten from the beginning of the conversation with Iain back to mind and writing them down at the end. Iain had long since closed the door and got back to enjoying his Sunday rest as I turned the car around and set off.

His directions took me over a different road or two and I drove for what seemed like longer than it should have been before hitting a gentle brae between the moors with their scattered houses which scooped itself back out of a hollow to arrive at the house of Iain MacIllEathain (Iain MacLean). It was a neat-looking grey number, clearly kept in decent condition by its owner, with a nice garden round about, but nothing too fancy. The sea was visible from the road and the air was cool and laced with moisture. I went through the gate, imagining what Iain looked like, mindful as always of disturbing anyone unnanounced in these days of obsessive organisation.

Robh Iain aig an taigh?
I grew up with people coming in and out of the house completely unannounced. You wouldn’t know someone was visiting our place at Rubh’ Bàn (pale point), just north of Taigh na Bruaich (House of the Bank) until they were already upon you, in the door and practically with their arse in the seat waiting for their coffee before you had any idea they’d arrived. Nowadays, if you haven’t Booked someone in the Face, or Grammed them Instantly, or Snapped their Chat, you’re being exceedingly rude. Turn up without texting ahead? How very dare you!

I’m very rarely apprehensive in the Highlands, but this was Sunday, and Assynt was rather a religious neck of the woods not that long ago. I entered the porch, the front door being open, and saw a nimble grey-haired man in his 70s scampering up the stairs of the house. I chapped the glass panel in front of me before he could escape and he peered quizzically through the balustrade, trying to work out if he recognised me.

I stepped back from the porch, not wanting us to have to vye for space within it should he see fit to emerge. And so it was I met with Iain a Dhà (Iain #2).

Iain? He padded back down the stairs and loomed up to the glass with a pleasant if confused expression. Nach gabh sibh mo leisgeal (Won’t you accept my excuse ie excuse me). Thuirt Iain the Gate rium gum bu chòir dhomh tighinn gur faicinn (Iain the Gate said I should come and see you) I said as Iain tugged the front door open.

Ó Iain, tha mi tuigsinn (Oh Iain, I understand).

Thuirt e gur sibhse an duine as fheàrr air son Gàidhlig an àite (he said you were the best man for the Gaelic of the place ie local Gaelic).

Ó an duirt gu dearbh? says MacIllEathain, amused. Có às a tha u? (where are you from?)

Arra-Gháidheal (Argyll). Chaidh mo thogail shìos taobh Dhùn Omhann, ann an Taigh na Bruaich (I was brought up down Dunoon way, in Tighnabruaich).

Ó tha fhios ‘am (oh I know [what you mean]). Shìos an sin, seadh (Down there, yes). Bheil holiday agad an seo? (have you a holiday here?) There must not be that many Argyllmen randomly showing up on Iain’s doorstep these days.

Chan eil. Shiubhail mo mháir ‘s chaidh a tiodhlacamh an Gollaibh ‘s cha robh mi air son a dhol air ais a dh’obair anns an uair (No. My mother traveled ie passed away and was buried in Caithness and I didn’t want to go back to work immediately) ‘s mar sin, bha mi los feuchainn an robh duine sam bith thathast ann an Dùthaich MhicAoidh ‘s Asaint ‘s Sgireachd Ròis aig an robh Gàidhlig an àite (and so I was for seeing [lit. trying] if there was anyone left in MacKay Country, Assynt and Ross who had the local Gaelic).

Ó gu dearbh? (oh really?) Chan eil móran Ghàidhlig an seo a-nis (there’s not much Gaelic here now). Tha i air bàsachadh air fad ann an seo (She’s completely died here). It could bring a tear to a glass cabinet nevermind an eye, this story, heard as it is from one end of the mainland to the other. An ann à Barraigh a tha a’ Ghàidhlig ads’ (is it from Barra your Gaelic is?). That’s a reasonable assumption if you’re from Assynt as my dialect must sound a little outlandish.

Ha-ha, chan ann, ‘s e dual·chainnt an àit’ ás an táini’ mi ‘hé tha seo. Gáidhlig Arra-Gháidheil (no, it’s the dialect from where I come from this, Argyll Gaelic).

Seadh, ‘s e mac-samhladh de Ghàidhlig nan Eilean a th’ agad (Aye, it’s the exact match of the island Gaelic you’ve got). I’m chuffed enough with that, despite it being out by a good couple of miles... mac-samhladh... the likeness’ son; lovely to hear that expression used. Bha mi seòladh chun gu leòr de na h-Eileanan dair a bha mi sa Mherchant Navy (I was sailing to plenty of the islands when I was in the Merchant Navy).

Gu dearbh? (Indeed?) It suddenly hit me as always that I should check and make sure I wasn’t keeping Iain back from his normal activities. Bheil sibh trang an ceartair, robh sibh am beachd itheamh no gas, no a’ bheil cothram againn bruidhinn tacan? (Are you busy just now, were you intending on eating or anything, or have we an opportunity to speak a wee while?)

Ó tha. Ó, chan eil mi trang an-dràst’, chan eil (Oh yes. Oh I’m not busy just now, no). Result!

‘S e an rud a bh’ ann, bha mi ‘g iarraimh beagan cheistean a chur air muinntir an àite seo a thaobh ghnothaichean a theireamh sibh (The thing was, I wanted to put a few questions on the people from here in terms of things you would say).
Chan eil móran ann an Dwelly ás Asaint

Tha mi tuigsinn (I understand).

Bha mi feòraich de dh’Iain, dé theireamh sibh ri na corragan? (I was asking Iain, what would you say to the fingers?). An robh rann sònraichte ann an Asaint orra? (Was there a special verse in Assynt on them?) Iain MacIllEathain looks at me with complete recognition, as if he knows exactly what I mean:

Seadh, bha ainm ac’ air a h-uile corrag, ach chan eil fhios am·as dé na rainn a bh’ ac’ a-nis (Yes, they had a name on every finger, but I don’t know what the rhymes they had were now). Oh ye booger, I thought I had them there. Having gotten home and finally sat down with my notes to write this blog six months later after a hard winter trying to make ends meet, I have the opportunity to look up the Irish Dialect Survey and much to my disappointment, the finger names are not listed. It appears as if the people of Assynt referred to them as meòirean and to a single one as a miar, but there are only the following individual names for the fingers, the last two of which strike me as Beurlachas (Gaenglish): òrdag (little hammer), ____ (no entry), ____ (no entry), miar an fhàinn’ (ring finger), miar beag (little finger).

Nis, na bh’ againn an Arra-Gháidheal, ‘s e seo (now what we had in Argyll was this): òrdag (little hammer), corragag (little finger), mealla-fada (long lump), mac an lùba (son of the pinkie), lùdag (pinkie). I had gotten this from Ràibeart Mac a’ Bhiocair (Robbie MacVicar), our last native speaker, and for all my lack of formal training have gone over it every time I’ve seen him since to make sure I’ve got the right version. Apart from a little vascillation over whether it’s lùdag or lùbag, I get the same thing every time, with very little prompting.

Ó, nis, lùbag, bha sin againn (oh, now, lùbag, we had that) Given my experience with Robbie, it’s interesting that Iain has said this word with a b rather than a d... ach chan eil cuimhn’ am·as air (but I don’t remember on)...

...air an fheamhainn sa mheadhan? (on the ones in the middle?) I added.

Chan eil, chan eil (I don’t, no.) Och chan eil feadhainn Ghàidhlig ann a-nis ann, chan eil (Oh there’s no Gaelic ones here whatsoever, no). Chaochail a’ chuid mhór aig an robh Gàidhlig (The biggest lot with Gaelic changed ie died).

Feumaidh gu robh gu leòr a Ghàidhlig ga bruidhinn bho cheann da fhichead bliana? (there must have been plenty of Gaelic spoken 20 years ago?) I venture, keen to find out more about the shift in Assynt.

Och seadh, tha cuimhn’ am·as air thoiseach, bha Gàidhlig ga bridhinn sa h-uile taigh (oh aye, I have a memory at the beginning [of Iain’s life], Gaelic was spoken in every house).

Sa h-uile taigh, seamh (in every house, yes). This is painfully familiar.

A-nis, chan eil gin den fheadhainn shuas Loch an Inbhir ach mi ‘hìn ‘s Iain a bhridhneas Gàidhlig, chan eil (Now there aren’t any up Lochinver but myself and Iain that speak Gaelic, no). Chan eil gin ann (There aren’t any).

"poca-salainn" ann an Asaint
Nise, ceist eile a chuir mi air Iain ach cha robh fhios aige·san (Now, another question I put on Iain but he didn’t know). Thuirt e nach do bhruidhinn e mun cuairt air a leithid bhon a bha e na bhalach! (He said that he hadn’t spoken about the like of it [in Gaelic] since he was a boy!). Dé theireamh sibhse san dùthaich seo ri spider?

Ó, after a moment’s thought, chanainn “poca-salainn”, ach chan eil mi glé chinnteach (Oh, I’d say poca-salainn [salt-bag], but I’m not quite certain). That’s the very boy though, the very boy!

Feumaidh gum bitheamh e car coltach ri sin (It must be that it would be fairly similar to that), bhon sin a th’ aca an Sgìreachd Ròis co-thiù (for that is what they had in Ross-shire anyway)... bhon a tha a thòin car geal (because his bum is somewhat white ie salty-looking).

Och seadh (oh yes). Gu dearbh feumaidh (indeed it must), sin a bhiodh an ùis co-dhiù (that’s what would be in use anyway). It seems just discussing it a little further has affirmed Iain’s conception of whether the word is right or not. Sometimes it’s dicy to speak further on it, in case an erroneous response is set in stone, but in this case Iain’s word was spontaneous without prompting and can be taken as representative of Assynt. A check with the SID entry and we get pocan-salainn, a diminutive version, and interestingly lacking pre-aspiration. Och, tha móran ann (oh there are lots) says Iain continuing on:

Na h-eòin bheag’ an sin; stonechat a chanas iad sa Bheurla. Nach e “clachair” a bh’ ac’ orr’? (The little birds there, “stonechat” they say in English, isn’t it clachair they have on them?) If only I had a couple of days up here to get into all of this...

Och sna lathan air dol seachad, bha ainm ac’ air a h-uile dithean ‘s a h-uile biuthach (oh in the days gone by, they had a name on every flower and animal) I reminisce, as if I had been there. That makes Iain think of something amusing.

Rud a bha mi smaoineachadh air (a thing I was thinking on) he says, dé a’ Ghàidhlig a th’ ac’ air umbrella? (What’s their Gaelic for an umbrella?).

Sgàilean, cha chreib mi (Shade, I reckon), quoting the standard tongue. Iain nods, but is clearly in thought. The word doesn’t seem too familiar to him.

Tha beagan diofar eadar a’ Ghàidhlig ann an Leódhas agas Uibhist (there’s a bit of a difference between the Gaelic in Lewis and Uist) says Iain, gesticulating towards the sea as if to bring back to mind that there are islands out there to the west.

Ó tha, I agree, theirinn gu bheil a’ Ghàidhlig an seo (I’d say the Gaelic here), gu bheil i nas coltaiche ri Gàidhlig Leódhais na tha i ri na h-Eileanan eile ge-tà (that it’s a little more similar to Lewis Gaelic than it is to the other Isles). I’m keen to find out if Iain a Dhà thinks so too.

Ó tha gu dearbh, ó tha (oh yes indeed, oh it is), he replies. Tha i nas fhaisg’ air a’ Ghàidhlig a th’ ac’ an sin (It is closer to the Gaelic they have there). Ach na bha ‘d a’ bridhinn an seo, ‘s e seòrsa Gàidhlig eile bha sin (But what they were speaking here, it was a different kind of Gaelic). It’s lovely to hear that self-awareness, that distinctness acknowledged by someone who is still a source of it himself. Iain’s kind are on the way out on the mainland, and very, very few people seem to consider it loss enough to get off their backsides and put on the brakes. Native Gaelic in the Scottish mainland will be dead in 30 years. TOPS. Are we ready to admit that to ourselves? If it doesn’t hurt you to think of it, wake the heck up people.

Nise, dé bha sibhse ‘g ràdh ann an seo (Now, what were you saying here) air –mar a their ead anns a’ Bheurla- how are you? (on –as they say in English- “how are you?”) Dé a bh’ agaibh·se air sin? (What did you have on that?). I’m always curious about this one. We once produced a map here at DROITSEACH showing where the different phrases were used and I’m keen to settle a debate raised by someone who was sure that cionnas a tha u? was used all the way from Gairloch north.

Ó, “ciamar a tha u?” Iain says without hesitation.

"ciamar a tha u?"
“ciamar a tha u?”? I repeat, slightly surprised. Bhon, daoine shuas taobh Dhùthaich MhicAoidh, their ead “cionnas a tha u?” (Because, people up MacKay Country way, they say cionnas a tha u?) Ach ‘s e “ciamar” a bh’ agaibh ann an seo? (But it’s ciamar that you had here?)

Ó ‘s e (oh it was).

Agas ‘s e “ciamar” a bh’ aig ur pàrantan cuideachd? (And it’s ciamar that your parents had too?)

Ó gu dearbh, ‘s e (oh indeed, yes). That’s that one beyond any doubt.

Tha sibh ga mo thuigsinn a-nis, nach eil? (you’re understanding me now, aren’t you?). I often try to speak the dialect of the older generation if I’m with them to make sure I come over ok, but in this case I wasn’t too sure what the dialect of Assynt was like. Unlike the MacKay Country where I can converse quite freely in the local patois, here I thought while I’d better round out some obvious Dalriadisms, I may well just confuse matters by starting to make guesses about what might be more comprehensible. Sure, they’ll say can instead of abair (say) and obvious northern things like that, but I didn’t want to go out on too weak a branch on a first visit.

Och tha, tha glé cheart a-nis (oh yes, just fine now). I’m off the hook!

Ach co-thiù, cha robh mi ach dol seachad (But anyway, I was but going past), tha mi dol sìos thun an Dòrnaidh a-nochd (I’m going down to the Dornie tonight).

Ó, an Dòrnaidh, tha mi tuigsinn (oh the Dornie, I understand).

Thuirt mi ri Iain, an ath uair a bhitheas mi dol seachad (I said to Iain, the next time I’m going past), thig sinn uile comhla ‘s bruidhnidh sinn beagan Gàidhlig (we’ll all come together and speak a little Gaelic).

Ó seadh, glé mhath, nì sinn sin ma-thà (Oh yes, very good, we’ll do that then). There’s no sense of imposition about this idea in Iain’s voice whatsoever, I can tell he’d be more than happy to sit with a cup of tea or a dram and blether in the old tongue. Uair sam bith a tha u dol seachad, trobhad a-staigh (anytime you’re going past, come on in). And once again. There it is!

Bithidh sin gasta ma-tà (that’ll be splendid then). I smile as we back away from the house, still chatting.

Tha fliuch! (It’s wet!) adds Iain, as we stand at the gate getting lightly spat on.

Tha, bha fliuch fad an t-Samhraimh (Yes, it was wet throughout the summer). Bha dona ([It] was bad).

Ó gu dearbh, bha móran uisg’ ann (oh indeed, there was a lot of water ie rain). Bha sneachd ann cuideachd. (There was snow too). Cha do thiormaich am mòin' a bh' agam son an tein' gu ceart (The peat I had for the fire didn’t dry out properly). Uisg’ uisg’ uisg’! (Rain rain rain!).

clàr-siùcair air son nan Gàidheal
Och seamh (oh aye), ‘s e dìle-bhàit’ a bh’ ann o cheann gu ceann na mìos, an July mar a their ead (there was a drowning flood from head to head of the month, in July, as they say). It is not common for dialect speakers to know the months of the Julian calendar, as it was not used until relatively recently. Nise, rud a th’ agam an seo (now, the thing I have here), reinn mo bhean beagan clàr-siùcair son na h-uile duin’ a chì mi shuas an seo (my wife made a little tablet for everyone I see up here).

Dé a th’ ann? (What is it?)


Ó glé mhath (oh very good).

Tha uarraidh milis (It’s awfully sweet).

Móran siùcair ann! (Much sugar in it!)

Dìreach (Exactly). Nise, tha mi dol a thogail dealbh bheag dhinn an seo leis an taigh (Now I’m going to lift a small picture of us here with the house). Bheil sin ceart gu leòr? (Is that alright?)

Och tha (oh yes).

Àdhamh Ó Broin agas Iain MacIllEathain ann an Asaint
Innsidh do mo chlann gun do thachair mi air Gáidheal, Iain MacIllEathain (I’ll tell my children that I met a Gael, Iain MacLean), shuas taobh Asaint (up Assynt way). The kids always like to hear that there are other people in other places who speak their language.

Ha-ha, sin agad e! (there you have it!).

And with that, I took my leave, feeling genuinely buoyed up by this encounter, but more sure than ever of what needed done. Seven months later and that feeling has only grown. Both Iains, despite the protestations of Iain #1 to the contrary, were very fluent. Coupled with the vocabulary contained in the Survey of Irish Dialects, this means that the local dialect is absolutely capable of being rescued in the nick of time. All we lack is the will. Or do we? Is there actually someone out there with connections to the place, who has learned enough Gaelic to take the work on, who could become a TOSGAIR for the area and spend a few hours a week learning to speak like the two Iains? Could their tale and that of their language be prevented from its end when inevitably sometime over the next 20-odd years, they are parted from this world? This may seem like a very personal way to speak about two people I barely know, but what choice do I have but to take on this responsibility when very few others will? Don’t tell me that local lore, vocabulary and accent are important and then do bugger-all about it. It’s either worth something, or it’s not. There is no in between.
Asaint nan Loch 's nan Creig

And so I left Assynt feeling that while I had spent barely three hours there, I had got under the turf, down to the peat of it a little. The Land of MacLeod lived yet as it was, but was barely hanging on by the skin of its teeth. I had dug under the myth of Neil the Traitor and I had heard the tongue of his people, who for better or for worse had stuck it out in Assynt ever since, through Clearance, poverty and war. The whole experience had been very moving.

Dair a bhitheas mi ‘n Asaint (When I am in Assynt), as Rob Donn MacAoidh (MacKay) put it, Is Leòdach mi (I am a MacLeod). Whatever area I enter, I become one of the people. I never feel like I am an outsider because I value deeply all that every nook and crannie of the Scottish Highlands has to offer and I can’t help but take the demise of its culture as a personal injury. My journey took me back across to Lochinver and I was struck by how rugged the land was, pocketed with wildly uneven lochs and hollows, puntuated vertically by jagged rock and bluff, green and grey and ginger with dying bracken under a film of kissing rain. This land is the physical expression of the language that our Iains speak and when these men cease to speak, the land will fall silent forever, another corner of the Highlands will go dark, its cultural life’s blood will cease to pump through local veins, will reach no more these extremities, withdrawing out to the Isles where it will meet a similar fate in little over 50 years, if we are not very, very, careful and more importantly, indefatigable in our determination to resist.

Monographs, dictionaries, manuals -however good- are but a single cornerstone, not a whole house.

Scholars, academics, researchers -however smart- must be as slaves to the wisdom of our elders.
Dair a bhitheas mi 'n Asaint, is Leòdach mi

To putting the horse back before the cart, in the land of MacLeod and beyond, ur slàinte mhór!


"Beautiful gripping writing.
Should be a book, not just a blog"
Alastair McIntosh



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!