Gaelic and Irish in Australia – Just how different are we?

According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 Gaelic-speakers in Australia, and 1900 Irish-speakers. Both are tiny numbers compared to the total Australian population, and given that the two languages are very, very similar, you’d think the two communities would also be very, very similar.

Think again.

Group photos at Sgoil Earraich (November 2018) and Daonscoil (January 2019). Two languages. Two events. Two communities. What unites us… and what divides us?

What are you doing here, then?

I’ve been going to Irish-language events (weekend language Scoileanna and half-day pop-up Gaeltachtaí) for a little over two years now. At first it was because I was living in an area where I could count the number of Gaelic-speakers on one hand, and simply wanted to talk to people – even if the language was a little different. More recently, it’s been because I’ve been in a city where there are a lot of events that I’m able to get to, and I’ve made Irish-speaking friends so I go along to hang out. Which is much the same reason, really.

But two years is enough time to go from “regarded-with-suspicion” to “you’re part of the furniture now and stop saying you don’t speak Irish”, and it’s given me the apparently-rare opportunity to experience both language communities from the inside. We have the same stories, the same music, the same inability to say “yes” and “no”, but here are a seven points where the two communities are quite different.

 

The Age Range

The first thing to note – and the thing that drew me to hanging out with the Irish in the first place – is that Irish-speakers in Australia cover a much broader age range than Gaelic-speakers.

Gaelic-speakers are weighted very heavily to the 60+ demographic, and most of them are in the 80+ range. Yes, there are younger speakers and learners, but we’re very much in the minority.

Irish-speakers, on the other hand, are much more evenly-spread. There are older people, of course, but they don’t outnumber the younger people six-to-one. There are twenty-somethings, both fluent speakers and learners, and there are teenagers who appear regularly.

 

Expats and Aussies

Gaelic-speakers in Australia are mostly Australian-born, and mostly multi-generation Australian-born. There are a few Scottish-born learners, and there are a few Scottish expat native speakers, but far and away the greatest number of people active in the language community are Australians, both speakers and learners, and both of the Gaelic Societies in the country are run by Australians.

Irish-speakers and -learners in Australia are a pretty even mix of Australian-born (both first- and multi-generation Australian) and Irish expats. While there are Australians in positions of power within the Irish-language community in Australia, the classes and events are overwhelmingly run by expats.

 

Government Involvement

Simply put: the Irish government cares. The Scottish government doesn’t (or can’t). The Ambassador or the Embassy is almost always involved in the Irish Scoileanna, the Irish government supports language classes and programmes for supporting the language in the children of Irish-speakers abroad, and Irish-language programmes and events are almost always run under the purview of an expat support organisation.

Now, of course it’s like comparing apples and oranges to talk about whether an independant government supports its official language outwith the country verses a semi-devolved government supporting a minority indigenous language outwith the country, but basically – Gaelic-speakers don’t hear a peep from the Scottish government about the language. Even people who are involved in Gaelic language teaching and community support in Scotland, and who are well-versed in the idea that there’s a language community in Canada, are very often surprised to hear that there are Gaelic-speakers in Australia.

 

Community Support

Irish expats, as a whole, are stickier than Scottish expats. Irish expats usually set up a single club in a given city and every Ireland-related activity occurs either at that premisis or with the full knowledge of whomever’s running that premisis.

Scottish expats… well. The word “clannishness” is marching steadily towards this blog post, and not in the warm fuzzy Gàidhlig sense of the word. Scottish expats divide themselves into tiny little groups based on surname or special interest, and then don’t talk to each other. Ever. At all if they can help it.

So the Irish expat community, all sitting together in their pub-slash-hall with a children’s playgroup and dancing classes and music sessions as they bond over how one once visited the neighbouring town of whomever they’re sitting next to as they drink their Guinness on tap, might only speak the cúpla fócal and have bad memories of the Gaeilge themselves, but a Mháire Mháthair they’re going to support the people who do speak the language because that’s part of our culture like innit?

Meanwhile the Scottish expat community, gazing suspiciously across the footpath from their individual tartan-festooned tents as five separate pipe bands play different tunes and drown out the possibility of talking at all, regard the blue-and-white “Comunn Gàidhlig” sign down the way with even more suspicion than the Donalds reserve for the Campbells because why would anyone want anything to do with that dead teuchter language that wasn’t ever spoken where I’m from anyway?

 

Religion and Politics

Okay, that one was very negative on the Scottish side of things, so here’s one swinging it the other way.

Irish-speakers in Australia are very, very sectarian. Actually, I understand this is true of Irish-speakers in Ireland. Either you’re a Catholic, Republican, anti-Monarchist, or you can shut up and get out. Never mind that most of the young people are atheist and the rest are practicing neopagans.

Gaelic-speakers in Australia… Well, always have been and still are a pretty even mix of Catholic and Protestant. The two main “colonies” of Gaelic-speakers in Victoria in the mid-19th century were one Presbyterian (Campbellfield) and one Catholic (Little River). These days, the majority of older speakers are Catholic (there are a number of Brigidine nuns…), Anglican (those multi-gen Aussies I was talking about), or agnostic, with a good smattering of Uniting and Presbyterian in there for fun. The younger ones tend to be atheist. Plus me. I’m Orthodox. But that’s an unrelated story for another time.

Oh, and as for the other two points – Gaelic-speakers here in general seem to think Scotland would be better off on its own and can get quite anti-English when you rile them up, but have no problem with the Queen as head of state for Australia.

 

Speaking Like They Do There

As far as I’m able to tell, the Irish spoken in Australia is just like the Irish spoken in Ireland. Sure, there are speakers of all three major dialects as well as the Caighdeán, but basically, Irish-speakers in Australia speak the same way Irish-speakers do in Ireland. I chalk it up to the steady stream of Irish-speakers that have augmented and got involved with the Irish-speaking community here over the last two hundred years.

Not so with Gaelic. Yes, there are a few native speaking expats here who appear at events, but as mentioned above, not so many as with the Irish. It might be the splinterish nature of Scottish expats that just means they never realise there’s Gaelic spoken in the community. It might be because the position of Gaelic has been such over the last hundred and fifty years that even when there are expats who speak Gaelic, they keep it quiet and to themselves and stop speaking it once they arrive in Australia. I don’t know why it is, but the situation is that Gaelic in Australia has mostly been on its own since the mid-1800s.

And that means that there are a whole lot of random things that we simply do differently to how Gaelic-speakers in Scotland do them. Probably a lot of it is because Gaelic was almost lost here, it mostly stopped being transmitted to children around 1900 and picked up by the grandchildren of the last native speakers when they retired in the 70s and learnt to spell from ancient books.

So we spell things with a whole bunch more letters and spaces and apostrophes than they do in Scotland. (That’s not unique to us; the Canadians are like that, too. We’re a little more extreme in some cases, though). There are some words for modern things that are different; words we’ve coined that in Scotland they’ve borrowed, and vice-versa. Vowels before nn and ll and m are diphthongs, not nasals like in Scotland, and the vowel certainly hasn’t swallowed the consonants like it has in Canada. We put a phone air someone, not gu them. We say taigh beag for a flat or a unit, and taigh cach for a toilet. We say teatha for that thing that’s not coffee, and inneal-sgrìobhadh for computer. And we never, ever say rach if we can help it, even if people from Scotland give us a funny e-look for saying deigh.

Will these differences stick around in the internet age? I don’t know. The older people still speak and write like this, but most of the learners these days are visiting Scotland regularly and doing courses at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Comunn Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria now seems to be endorsing Canadian correspondence courses over the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig ones (I think it has to do with money, not the courses themselves, because SMO is expensive!), so maybe we’ll keep the archaic spelling but turn all those diphthongs into nasalised long vowels. Who knows?

 

The Drinking Culture

Mo chreach the Irish don’t half drink. Now, I’m Australian. Australians are known as drinkers. I’m no stranger to being around people with stubbies of beer in their hands. But Australians hold nothing to the Irish. It gets to five o’clock at a Sgoil, barely afternoon in summer, and out comes the Guinness and the wine. My first Sgoil I found it quite shocking.

By comparison, most Gaelic-speakers in Australia will have a shot of whisky while they chat at the pub on a Wednesday night, but that’s pretty much it. I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a bottle of wine bought out at a Gaelic-language event and I honestly can’t remember it happening. I don’t know what’s to blame – the Presbyterian influence, the older demographic, the surprisingly high percentage of nuns that show up to these events – but the Gaelic-speaking community here doesn’t seem to have a drinking culture to speak of.

 

After all those differences, is there anything left that unites us?

 

Cèilidhean!

Well, the Irish-speakers might call it “craic agus comhrá”, but the general principle is the same. Get a bunch of people sitting around, some of them might have instruments, sing a few songs, have a good chat, get some food and/or drink into you, and sing a few more songs.

 

Sgoiltean/Sgoileanna

The high point in the calendar of both groups is that one weekend where people from all around the country converge on a designated convention centre, camp out in tiny little one-bed-in-a-shoebox rooms, and spend their days sitting in classes and their nights singing songs.

It’s just a shame we can’t do it at the same time and place.

 

Dancing

I’ll grant that the music’s slightly different. While both Gaelic-speakers and Irish-speakers go for slow, sad ballads, the Irish songs have wobbly tunes and the Gaelic ones are in funky keys. The Irish love their fast fiddle jigs, reels, and polkas, while the Gaelic-speakers would rather you sung your strathspeys in gibberish.

But the dancing’s the same. Everyone in two lines – or a circle – or in groups of six – and with all the same steps and all the same fun. But then again, that basically describes a traditional Australian dance as well.

 

Love of Language

You wouldn’t be part of a minority-language-speaking community if you didn’t love your language, especially not since most of us are either bilinguals stronger in English, or learners with a first language of English. So that’s something we can agree on. We love our language, we love our culture, we love speaking it, and we want to see it still spoken in this country in fifty years or a hundred.

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Teuchter tropes and someone called Màiri

A recent and surprisingly decent article about Gaelic has been floating around the interwebs about why a little bit of funding for Gaelic isn’t a bad thing, why people so obnoxiously persist in speaking it in this modern day and age, and why it’s probably a good idea for them to continue to do so.

www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180731-can-27m-a-year-bring-a-language-back-from-near-death

As I said, overall not a bad article, but a couple of people on twitter commented on rural idyll trope.

Rooted in close-knit rural communities, these original languages also tend to place people.

As someone on twitter commented,

Urban Gaels, by contrast, tend to disappear in a puff of smoke.

While the article was right in saying that one of the first questions asked when you meet another Gaelic-speaker for the first time is, “Who from are you?” (Cò às a tha thu?), and honestly it’s driving me crazy to continually have to explain that no, I’m not from Scotland to people who can’t grasp the idea that someone can speak Gaelic and be not from Scotland, I don’t think it’s an exclusively Gaelic habit. After all, I’m asked “Where are you from?” in English all the time. Especially by the aforementioned people who can’t understand how I can speak Gaelic and be not from Scotland, who are almomst always not Gaelic-speakers. And that the introductory habit was brought up to imply that Gaelic is an exclusively rural language is annoying.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not a rural person, because even though I’m sitting in the middle of a massive city right now as I type this, the place I continue to call “home” is essentially a croft, especially when it’s our turn to have the communal lawnmowers (ahem, sheep).

But not all Gaelic-speakers are teuchters and country people, and it’s not even a recent “Gaelic is the new fad and I the urbanite will learn it” thing. Case in point, Màiri Bhàn.

Now, while a quick google has just told me that Màiri was, in fact, an actual person, I’m not talking about Màiri herself, but rather the song. If you’re a Gaelic-speaker, you probably do know it as Màiri Bhàn. If you’re Australian, your only exposure to it may well be the Wiggles cover. It’s known in English as “Mairi’s Wedding”.

The song was written in 1934 in Glasgow, by John Bannerman, who was born in South Uist but raised from the age of seven in Glasgow, through Gaelic. The words of the song, in Gaelic, talk about how wonderful Màiri is in every way, from her voice to her looks to the fact that she won the gold medal at the Mòd.

The English translation, quite apart from completely ignoring the achievement and any skill or personality Màiri herself may or may not have had, and focusing entirely on her looks, the celebration of her wedding reception, and her future life as a wife and mother, are very, very, entirely rural.

Previously I’ve been annoyed by the lack of acknowledgement of her singing achievements in the translation, but after a discussion of the song yesterday, I begun to be annoyed by the rural-ness of it.

Because it’s a stereotype: Gaelic is the language of crofts, and it’s not spoken in the city. The Irish edition of the language faces the same stereotype. And while it’s true that Gaelic is a language spoken by rural people, it’s also true that Gaelic is spoken by thoroughly urban people (again, not me, not yet and hopefully never), and it has been for a while.

Maybe – just maybe – we can give all those sensationalist news-article writers at the BBC and elsewhere the benefit of the doubt and think that maybe they just didn’t know that there are urban Gaels, although that would imply an alarming inability to do any research into the topic being written about. But we can’t give Roberton, who translated “Màiri Bhàn” into English, the same benefit of the doubt, given he had worked with Bannerman on various other songs before.

And yet he still countrified the lyrics and gave it the title “Mairi’s Wedding: the Lewis Bridal Song”.

It’s either a fetishization of Gaelic culture as being quaint and back to nature, or a deliberate forcing of the Gaelic language out of the urban sphere and back to the crofts where it can be dismissed and ignored.

But both tropes seem to be still part of even the most well-intended news articles today.


Here’s the Wiggles cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByCLxPTA9AM

And here’s the Wikipedia article about the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mairi%27s_Wedding

A “Brief Word” on the Gaelic Situation in Australia

Before I start, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not disrespecting anyone in the Gaelic community here. Yes, I get frustrated with the attitudes that seem prevalent at times. Yes, I get frustrated that more Gaelic isn’t spoken. Yes, I sometimes think about how much more could happen if the “younger” people didn’t always have someone pooh-pooh-ing their ideas. But, aig deireadh an latha, we’re all in this together.

I get annoyed with the establishment, but, truth be told, I’m somehow now a part of it. I express my frustration with the two Gaelic Societies, whilst conceding that I’m on the committee for both. I grumble about the choirs learning everything phonetically, whilst pointing out that I’m actually the Music Director for one of them. Yes, I wish things were slightly different. But it’s not anyone’s fault that things are the way they are. This post is simply a statement of the way things are, and a bit of an explanation as to how they got here. It’s not meant to be biased or provocative, but there are bound to be some people who will be upset by how I’ve described something.

I originally started writing the post in response to being asked several times by Americans and/or Canadians about Gaelic in Australia, my Gaelic life in Australia, and so on, and wanting to write down all my thoughts about what it is and how it got this way. Since then, I’ve had an unfortunate interaction with some bodach on Facebook, so I need to add this disclaimed.

Anyway, on with the “brief word” about the Gaelic situation in Australia (if that’s possible).

Gaelic used to be well-spoken in pockets around Australia, especially regional and semi-regional Victoria (such as Gippsland) and New South Wales, as well as the two capital cities, but it stopped being transmitted around the time of Federation (about a hundred years ago). That means the last native speakers died in the 70s and 80s. Well, the last one died in about 2012, but most of them were gone in the 70s and 80s.

However, they’re the ones (and their parents) who set up the Gaelic societies as formal community groups with committees, and it’s their grandchildren (now in their 70s-ish) who still, for the most part, hold positions and power within the official Gaelic community. So those people have memories of Gaelic being spoken, and while some have learnt Gaelic mostly from books over the last 30-40 years, others are mostly in the committees to preserve the memory that Gaelic was spoken, and are at times quite against any actual Gaelic being used in meetings, or even newsletters and other publications.

Those who have learnt Gaelic, though, are quite pro-Gaelic-use, although there are many varying levels of ability (from barely capable of greetings to pretty much fluent). But those who either can’t or won’t use Gaelic well tend to hold the balance of power in committees.

The books most popularly used in classes taught by these descendant-learners tend to have been published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s – so these people learnt the traditional spellings and tend to cling to them iercely and refuse to see any other spelling. (I have seen them argue for changing the spelling minimally on a song-sheet, even though most of the choir are just relying on phonetics and can’t speak Gaelic!). Part of this is the idolisation of Canada which seems to grip the whole nation at large (Justin Trudeau can do no wrong, apparently) – there have been many articles from Canada fiercely arguing against the revised spellings, and these are pulled out and waved around at any opportunity.

So there are these older people who have been committed members of the community for quite a long time, and they’re holding the balance of power, but one thing they often don’t realise or even ignore is that there are a LOT of younger speakers and learners these days – who either don’t access (or don’t have time to access) the traditional structures. Meetings are often held during working hours, or information is conveyed by word-of-mouth, and younger people simply don’t know about it or can’t get to it. Something I’m trying to do when I come across a new speaker or learner looking around online (which happens at least once a month, and I’m not on most of the social media!) is to connect them to the existing structure in their area… which they don’t know about, because often nothing is mentioned online.

The younger speakers fit into two broad categories: speakers (or proficient learners) recently immigrated from Scotland; and Australians (often with Scottish/Gaelic ancestry, but not always) who are learning. Often the Australian learners have had contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they’re found by CGA or CGBh. These younger speakers are passionate, generally more proficient (on average) in the language than the older/established/powerful, but busy, available at different times, and much more connected online.

Sometimes I think it would be easy – so much easier – just to give up on the traditional structures and do our own thing with young New Speakers online, organise meet-ups that work for us, communicate via means that work for us… but that’s foolish. Younger speakers need the Gaelic Societies and the older people – native speakers, non-native learners who have years of experience running events and dealing with paperwork – just as much as the Gaelic Societies need the younger speakers.

In Adelaide, the Gaelic “class” meets on Tuesday mornings, with a group of retirees. Some have been learning for a while, or had Gaelic-speaking parents, and speak it quite well. Some have been learning for decades and still look at you with a blank smile when you say “Ciamar a tha sibh?”. One has come more recently, thrown themselves into the language, and frankly amaze me by how quickly they’ve got so proficient in such a short time.

With their blessing, I ran a course at the WEA, and found a dozen eager learners, most of whom had no idea the Tuesday morning class exist. Some of my class were retirees, had had an interest in Gaelic for a while, were of Scottish background – the standard mould for a Gaelic learner. Some were much younger – uni students. On social media, I also found a handful of other speakers in the Adelaide area.

In Melbourne, the Gaelic community is much larger and more active. There are around a hundred speakers, learners, and persons with an interest in the language. There are classes every week, and a choir, and regular cèilidhs – the sitting and singing sort. In Adelaide, you can hear Gaelic once a week, if you put your mind to it, but probably not speak it. In Melbourne, you can hear and speak Gaelic every day if you really want to. But it was in Melbourne that I first encountered the “preserving the memory that Gaelic was once spoken” attitude.

Sydney is the home of the national society, atlhough in truth, except when it comes to the Sgoil Nàiseanta, it’s very much more of a “Sydney Gaelic Society”. I haven’t lived in Sydney, so I don’t know the details, but there are regular classes and regular conversation groups.

There are of course Gaelic-speakers and Gaelic-learners scattered across Australia, including in the regional areas. With less than a thousand speakers nationwide, it’s very easy to be very isolated as a Gaelic-speaker. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that there’s simply more opportunity in the city – that’s why I live in a university hall of residence with a hundred other farm kids and country kids – and that’s no different with Gaelic. It’s simply easier to speak Gaelic regularly living in urban Melbourne than ever it was in the semi-rural Adelaide Hills.

The Gaelic community isn’t huge. It needs everyone there is. We’re a diverse group, and everyone has a different life situation, different ability level in the language, different desires for where the language should fit in their life. The situation isn’t the best it could be – but it isn’t the worst. The differences are not insurmountable. Many of us already work together in committees and planning events. I for one am confident that the Gaelic language – and the community of those who speak it – is going to be around for a long time yet. 

As predicted, this “brief word” has been anything but brief – it’s currently running to two and a half pages on the word document – and there’s so much left that could be said.

But to boil it down:

          Gaelic used to be spoken by small communities, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, but also nationwide

          It stopped being commonly transmitted as a first language about a hundred years ago, and most of the last Australian-born native speakers died in the 70s and 80s

          Many of the long-term members of the two Gaelic societies are the children and gradnchildren of these last speakers

          Many of those learnt Gaelic from books in the last few decades of the last century. Some are proficient to fluent. Most are supporters of the older orthographic conventions.

          Younger learners come from all backgrounds and connect mostly through social media. Some know about the Gaelic societies but many don’t know about their local branch, group, or class. Many have made contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they can find local speakers and learners.

          The Gaelic community is of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. However, it is very small, unseen and unknown by wider society, and there is the perception among the older members that there are no young people and everything will die soon

Gaelic? In Australia?

Twice recently I have encountered people who are surprised at the amount of Gaelic there is in Australia. It isn’t something I’ve thought much about, since I was raised in the Australian school system being taught that the first hundred years or so of European settlers were from the British Isles – and after all, there are only a few hundred Gaelic-speakers for all that.

At a fiddle workshop weekend run by musicians from Scotland, one of the tutors was mulling over the rediculousness of using Italian words when English ones should suffice. In particular, he said, Why should we say ‘arco’ when we could say ‘with the bow’? And why couldn’t we use the Gaelic? “We should all learn the Gaelic terms,” he said, but he didn’t know how to speak it. “Does anyone know how to say ‘with the bow’ in Gaelic?”

I thought he was asking the room at large – I learnt later he was addressing it mostly to one of the workshop graduates who had learnt Gaelic at school – and after a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, “It would be ‘leis a’ bhogha’, wouldn’t it?”

“It could be. What does that mean?”

“Literally ‘with the bow’. I don’t know if that’s a fiddle bow or just a rain-bow…”

“Do you yourself have the Gaelic?”

“Yes,” I nodded, a little embarrassed by the whole thing, and we moved on with the workshop.

A little later, one of the facilitators was telling us about the organisation. “We’re based in Scotland,” she explained. “Have any of you been to Scotland?”

About half of us put up our hands, me a little timidly. After all, I was a few days shy of my second birthday last time I was in Scotland. I can’t remember anything of it. To all practical intents and purposes, I haven’t been to Scotland.

But she looked straight at me and asked, “You’ll have been to the Highlands, haven’t you?”

Again, technically, I have, and I said as much, before gabbling out some excuse about having been a toddler when we came back to Australia.

Later in the day, the same facilitator caught up with me over morning tea and asked how I came to speak Gaelic.

The truth is, I don’t really have a sensible answer – about how I came to speak it or why. I told her a story about how my grandmother, who grew up in New Zealand, probably spoke it. I told her about how, as a teenager, I started spending more time with the Gaelic-speaking community in Adelaide than I had previously, I learnt to hold a basic conversation with them. I explained that, because I had been exposed to Gaelic for the first few years of my life, learning it as a teenager felt more like remembering something I already knew than it did the hard task of learning German when I started at a German-medium school for high school. I told her about how excited I’d been to move to Melbourne, where there are more than half a dozen Gaelic-speakers, and how I’d joined the Gaelic choir. I mentioned that Australia, like Canada, used older spellings and had a few different words. And I commented how, when I was doing the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig course, you could guarantee that every written assignment would come back with the word “‘n-uair” highlighted and the correction “nuair”, even though the former is how it was spelt in Scotland 30 years ago.

“Oh, so you did spend time at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig?” she asked. She seemed relieved to finally have a reasonable explanation about how I spoke Gaelic. I’d been to the immersion language centre on Skye.

“No,” I told her, “It was a correspondence course I did when I was in Year 12.”

According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 household speakers of Gaelic in Australia. Most of the Gaelic-speakers I know are the only speaker in their households, and so wouldn’t answer Gaelic on the census. According to Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia, there are Gaelic classes in every capital city, and learners’ groups in a number of regional centres as well.

Just a few days ago, someone posted a question on the FaceBook group Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Learners). Feeling curious, he asked,

“This may be a stupid question, but how come Gaelic is popular in Australia? I can understand having courses in Scotland (obviously) and Nova Scotia but if anyone ever asked me where they might be able to find a course, I would never have thought of Australia…”

There were a lot of responses. Ideas from non-Australian learners. Ideas from new Australian learners. Comparisons to other parts of the world with either lots of Scottish settlers or historic Gaelic where classes and groups no longer exist.

“Gàidhlig was briefl a major language in the early days of European invasion. There was even a newspaper called An Teachdaire Gaidhealach published in the 1850s which was 85% Gàidhlig.” – Prenna Ello.

“I suppose Scottish people have always had a presence in Australia, in numbers, and Gaelic has always been part of that – “Taladh ar Slanuighear” was written by a priest moving from Muideart to Australia in the 1850s, and he’s buried in Geelong. Recently I sang with Còisir Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria at the 150th anniversary of a church in outer Melbourne that was built by Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My ancestors came from Skye to New South Wales in 1838. They could onl speak Gaelic and they attended the first foreign language church service in Sydney to offer thanks for their safe arrival. As the family historian I travel to Skye each year to immerse myself in Gaidhlig language and the wonderful culture of my forebears.” – Rachel Heath.

“My own family came out much more recently (I’m first generation, although there was some time spent in Dunedin/ NZ a few generations ago), but there’s always someone at Sgoil Nàiseanta who’s just started learning because he’s done some family history and discovered that his Gaelic-speaking family moved out in eighteen-whatever and continued using the language until his grandparents’ generation.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My mother and her family moved to Australia from Scotland in the 60s. Part of my desire to learn Gaelic is because of my family’s connection.” – Kiah Bergman.

“The British Isles were always favoured for immigration, so there’s always been a constant flow of Scottish immigrants, presumably with an average representation of Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“So Gaelic societies in Australia are not a new thing and are often 100+ years old, with recent immigrants from Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, and “Australian-as-they-come” people with Gaelic-speking heritage who are re-connecting to the language, and – the most confusing part for me – a lot of completely non-Scottish-heritage-whatsoever people who are learning it.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“According to the 2011 census around 8.3% of the Australian population claim Scottish ancestry, which is the fourth biggest ancestry group represented in the figures. Not sure how this compares to other countries but it might be a factor. My question is why isn’t Gàidhlig *more* popular?” – Prenna Ello.

“Interestingly enough, hubby did some online training at work and one of the questions at the end of completing it had a drop down for identifing all languages spoken at home. Scots Gaelic was on it! So he picked it. I have never seen this on anything in Scotland and here it was in Adelaide.” – Ash Kane.

“I’m told Gaelic used to be offered with the School of Languages into the 90s so maybe it was once more widespread in Adelaide than we think…” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Gaelic was one of the languages on the SBS radio service until 2003.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

It was great bouncing around all those fantastic ideas an anecdotes, but there was another side of the story represented:

“Because Australia has immigrants from around the world and, not all the Scottish went to New Zealand.” – Simon Hogan.

“But I’m sure there are Scottish immigrants all over and you don’t see so many courses.” – Tom Morrison.

“Maybe it’s like Nova Scotia and there was a dense population of speakers in one or more areas.” – Fo Gish.

“The 2011 census had around 720 primary-language-at-home speakers of Scottish Gaelic listed, which is only around half as many as Nova Scotia I think – it’s just that Australia (even if it’s just the eastern states) is a lot bigger than that, even bearing in mind that Australia and New Zealand did get a lot of refugees from the Clearances. Gaelic was more spread-out here to begin with, so it’s not as well-known about as Nova Scotia.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Lotta Scottish in Appalachia, US, no Gaelic.” – Gwyn Fae.

“Lots of Scottish in South Australia, not historic Gaelic (a few learners these days but mostly recent immigrants). Most of the Scottish “founding settlers” in SA were from the lowlands from what I vaguely recall from primary school history lessons. Might be a similar sort of thing? Eastern states were taking immigrants at the right time to get a lot of people from the highlands & islands.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Until the early 1900’s, there was a Gaelic speaking community in North Carolina. Many Gaels settled in the mountains because they were reminded of the highlands of Scotland.” – John Grimaldi.

So what did Australia do differently?

We weren’t the only place to get Gaelic-speaking early settlement, but it wasn’t as dense as in Nova Scotia.

Gaelic stuck around in Australia for a while, like North Carolina, slowly dying until the early 1900s.

Australain-born Gael numbers have always been supplemented by newer immigrants from the UK – but they didn’t always come to the same places.

Gaelic societies were set up in Australia – but also in New Zealand, where many of them have ceased to be Gaelic societies and become generic “Caledonian” societies.

There are up to 1000 Gaelic-speakers in Australia today, with around 200 in Melbourne and many more in Sydney, where there is a native speakers social group, regular learners’ conversation groups, and it’s even taught at one of the universities.

All around Australia, there are Gaelic classes, Gaelic learners, and Gaelic speakers.

I suppose, reviewing the evidence, I can see why someone from Scotland or elsewhere would have such a hard time understanding that there are so many Gaelic-speakers in Australia. It doesn’t make sense for it to have stuck around so long. We shouldn’t have the numbers we do – even though they seem small to me – with two Gaelic choirs, an annual national live-in weekend, our own quirks of vocabulary and spelling, and courses and classes run every week of the year by locals to teach and preserve the language.

It probably shouldn’t be possible for a teenager to learn enough Gaelic for a conversation without ever leaving Australia.

Sgoil Nàiseanta 2017 Enrolment Form

/\ By the way – next month, 14th-16th, Brisbane.

Latha na #Gàidhlig sona dhaibh uile!

Bidh mi ag innsidh dhaibh cùplan rud mu dheidhinn Gàidhlig agus mise an-diugh.

Is mise Raghnaid NicGaraidh. Tha mi aon bliadhn’ ‘us fichead d’ aois agus tha mi às Astràilia-a-Deas. Agus – mar tha fios agaibh an-nis, tha mi cinnteach – tha Gàidhlig agam.

Chan eil Gàidhlig aig mo mhathair agus chan eil ach cùplan facal aig m’ athair. Tha sinn a’ smaoineachadh gun robh Gàidhlig aig mo sheanmhair, ach thàinig mo phàrantan air ais a dh’Astràilia an-uair a bha mi dà bhliadhn’ d’ aois, agus bha mo sheanmhair a’ fuireach ann an Sassainn.

An-uair a bha mi aig àrd-sgoil tromh meadhan Gearmailtis, bha mi airson Gàidhlig a dh’ionnsachadh. Chan eil ach còig no sia daoine le Gàidhlig ann an Astràilia-a-Deas agus rinn mi cùrsa le SMO. Ach cha robh àm no airgead gu leòr agam airson an cùrsa an-uair a thòisich mi aig an oilthigh.

‘S ann bho chionn tri bliadhna an-nis agus tha mi a’ fuireach ann am Meall Bùirn an-nis. Tha mòran Gàidhlig an-seo! Tha mi a’ seinn leis a’ Choisir Ghàidhlig Bhioctoiria gach seachdain agus, ged nach fhaod mi do ‘m Baile Mòr a dhol airson clàsaichean Gàidhlig, tha cùplan daoine eile an-seo le Gàidhlig agus faodaidh mi riutha a bhridhinn an-nis ‘s a-rithist.

Tha daoine le ùidh air Gàidhlig ann an Adelaide cuideachd, agus an-uair a tha mi an-siud, tha mi a’ teagasg clàsaichean na Gàidhlig. Bha barrachd air fichead daoine ‘s a chlàs an-uiridh! Tha aiteas agam gu bheil Gaidhlig cho mòr-chordte an-nis. An-uair a thòisich mi Gàidhlig a dh’ionnsachadh, dh’innis h-uile duine dhomh, “Don’t do that. It’s a dead language and it’s too difficult anyway.”

Chan eil sin ceart! ‘S e beò-cànan a th’ innte agus ‘s caomh leam i. ‘S Beurla mo chiad chànan ach is Gàidhlig cànan mo chridh’. Ach ‘s e cànan glè bheag a th’ innte cuideachd. Tha nas lugha na millean daoine le Gàidhlig anns an saoghal mòr. Seo comas: tha ceithir millean daoine is leth ann am Meall Bùirn fhèin.

Mur a tha sibh ann am Meall Bùirn, nise, tha Gàidhlig an-seo bho chionn fhada. Bidh sinn a’ seinn an 7mh Giblean aig eaglais far an robh daoine le Gàidhlig bho chionn ceud bliadhna ‘us leth!

Agus carson a tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh sin an-nis?

Latha na #Gàidhlig sona dhaibh uile!

A Brief Look at Pre-Clearances Clothes for Women

Recently, I’ve started going along to SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) events. You might say, “But Rachel, of course! You are both creative and an anachronism! Why haven’t you gone before?”

Well, to be honest, I always thought it was a little weird. And in Adelaide, most of the things they were at were things I was also at, but in another capacity (fiddler, Scottish radio presenter, member of a Clan, and so on). But then I found a SCA College listed on the uni website and thought, “Well, when I move away, I’ll join.”

It’s been good, so far, too. I mean, people in my res House have gone out a couple of nights and got drunk, which really isn’t my scene… Sitting on the lawn in period dress, sewing while a bunch of men in armour whack the living daylights out of each other with sticks is definitely more my scene. And there’s less alcohol, too.


I started researched pre-Clearances Highland clothing long before I ever considered joining the SCA. I suspect it might have been in relation to a Doctor Who fanfic (I’m a fan of Jamie McCrimmon), but that’s really how I do fanfics – copious research with little to no actual story produced. Anyway, since the Highland dress has now become my SCA garb, purely by virtue of it being the only suitable clothing I have, I thought I’d explain it a little.

Pre-Clearances includes the 18th century, so it’s a little later than the SCA period, but Highland life had changed relatively little in the preceding thousand years or so, so it stands to reason that women’s clothes hadn’t changed much, either.

In the initial research, I disregarded SCA sources as much as possible. And there was a reason for that. A lot of the SCA-based information on Highland dress came along with phrasebooks for Gaelic, and those were… not the most accurate, shall we say. I mean, not bad, but not accurate either, considering how much Gaelic there is available on line these days. And a lot of the same mistakes crept into a lot of the lists, so I suspected that the SCA lore on Highland dress, like their Gaelic phrasebooks, were based more on hear-say than on actual research.


There are two or three items of clothing which are essential to making the Highland woman’s outfit, as far as I’m concerned: the earrasaid, the headcovering, and possibly the shawl (but only if you want there to be no mistake about where you’re from).

 

The Earrasaid

The earrasaid is essentially the girly version of the fèileadh-mòr (known in English as the “great-kilt”). Both are giant rectangles, like bedsheets, of traditionally wool (but I live in Australia, so I’m not using wool), belted at the waist. There are a few differences: men’s are checked, and women’s are striped; men’s are in darker colours, women’s have a lot of white and yellow; men’s are pleated at the waist and fall to the knee, women’s are gathered and fall a few inches above the hem of the dress.

Point 2 on colour is actually very interesting. Modern “dress tartans” are variations on the standard tartan with a lot of white in it. The common assumption is that a “dress tartan” is more formal than the standard, ancient or hunting tartans, but actually “dress” means “dress”, rather than “formal” – it’s the girl’s tartan.

M. Martin, Gent., wrote in 1791 describing how women dress in the Western Isles:

“The antient Drefs wore by the Women, and which is yet wore by fome of the Vulgar, called Ariʃad, is a white Plad, having a few fmall Stripes of black, blue, and red; it reach’d from the Neck to the Heels, and was tied before on the Breaft with a Buckle of Silver, or Brafs, according to the Quality of the Perfon. I have feen fome of the former of a hundred Marks value; it was broad as any ordinary Pewter Plate, the whole curioufly engraven with various Animals, &c. There was a leffer Buckle, which was wore in the middle of the larger, and above two Ounces weight; it had in the Centre a large piece of Chryftal, or fome finer Stone, and this was fet all round with feveral finger Stones of a leffer fize.

“The Plad being pleated all round, was tied with a Belt below the Breaft; the Belt was of Leather, and feveral Pieces of Silver intermix’d with the Leather like a Chain. The lower end of the Belt has a Piece of Plate about eight Inches long, and three in breadth, curioufly engraven; the end of which was adorned with fine Stones, or Pieces of Red Coral. They wore Sleeves of Scarlet Cloth, clos’d at the end as Mens Vefts, with God Lace round ‘em, having Plate Buttons fet with fine Stones. The Head-drefs was a fine Kerchief of Linen ftrait about the Head, hanging down the Back taper-wife; a large Lock of Hair hangs down their Cheeks above their Breaft, the lower end tied with a Knot of Ribbands.”

I definitely need a better belt and a buckle. Actually, I really need a buckle or a broach for under my chin. But overall, the earrasaid is really comfortable and cozy. And practical. If you tuck it right, there is so much pocket storage space you don’t even notice the drink bottle and purse. If it didn’t look so weird, I would wear it a lot more. Possibly all the time. I’m a massave fan of the earrasaid.

R. R. McIan’s Tartans provides useful colour pictures of highland dress, including two of earrasaidean worn by the Urquhart and Matheson ladies:

urquhartmatheson

 

The Shawl

If there was any tartan involved at all in the Highland woman’s dress, this is where it is. The Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland describes the tartan shawl:

“The plaid is the undress of the ladies; and to a genteel woman, who adjusts it with a good air, is a becoming veil. But as I am pretty sure you never saw one of them in England, I shall employ a few words to describe it to you. It is made of silk or fine worsted, chequered with various lively colours, two breadths wide, and three yards in length; it is brought over the head, and may high or discover the face according to the wearer’s fancy or occasion: it reaches to the waist behind; one corner falls as low as the ankle on one side; and the other part, in folds, hangs down from the opposite arm.”

The edition I read from also adds the clarification from Martyn’s Western Islands,

“The plaid is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind: it consists of divers colours; and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason, the women are at great pains, first, to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double ells; the one end hands by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body hangs by the end over the left arm also. The right-hand above it is to be at liberty to do any thing upon occasion.”

On the topic of tartans, it does bear adding this: there’s a common belief that clan tartans were invented by Victorian English nobility and aren’t a true Scottish thing really. So I was interested to read M. Martin’s description of men’s plaids:

“Every Ifle differs from each other in their Fancy of making Plads, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main Land of the Highlands, in-fo-far that they who have feen thofe Places, are able, at the firft View of a Man’s Plad, to guefs the Place of his Refidence.”

Bearing in mind that location is basically synonymous with clan, we can definitely see that regional clan tartans were well-established in the Highlands and islands by the end of the 18th century, and were foreign enough as a concept to an Englishman to be worth commenting on

R. R. McIan’s Tartans shows shawls worn by the Sinclair and Lamond ladies:

 

The Headcovering

People who know me will know I take headcoverings seriously. It’s not just some “oh, look at that interesting historical headgear” for me. I look at an historical headcovering through the eyes of someone who wears one all day, every day. I want something that’s comfortable, practical, and secure.

That has nothing to do with anything, really, but I felt like saying it before describing the Highland headcovering. In Gaelic, the word “brèid” can refer to many different squares of cloth, from tablecloths to sails and of course headcoverings. The LearnGaelic dictionary has a whole list of sayings involving the term, and most of them have to do with head-kerchiefs.

Brèidean are strictly for married woman, and “brèideach” means “married woman”, and there’s a waulking song I encountered in the EBI library which uses “put on the brèid early” as a synonym for “had an affair before she got married”. Despite that, I am wearing a headcovering with my outfit because I don’t like the hairstyle for unmarried women. I’ll cover that in a minute.

So my final plot of the brèid I have based largely on an air or love-song I know which is found in the Carmina Gadelica, as well as on a selection of other descriptive terms for the brèid which I’ve encountered. The two verses of the air with which I am concerned are:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

“Gur a math thig breid ban
That becomes well headcovering white,
Air a charamh beannach dhut
On the position pointed/horned to you
Agus staoise dh’ an t-sioda mhin
And cords to the silk soft
‘G a theannadh ort.
Approaching it on you.

There are no pictures of the headcovering, it having been long replaced with frilled bonnet-caps or babushka-style veils by the time people started painting pictures of Highlands women, so all I have to go on is that it’s somehow mountain-like (beannach), and it’s attached to the head with silk cords. It’s white (brèid ban) and looks a bit like a crown or three (brèid cuimir nan [tri] crun), with three corners (currachd tri-chearnach), possibly held up with some sort of support (brèid an crannaig).

So it’s certainly not a simple kerchief tied around the head! It’s quite elaborate, actually. I recall hearing or reading somewhere that gold and silver pins were used, although I can’t recall where – but based on Martin’s description of belts and broaches, it seems quite likely. From the evidence, the headcovering is done in some way in which the three points look like crowns or horns. One of the descriptions, “brèid an crannaig”, uses the same word that’s used for a pulpit or the base of a statue, so that provides some clue – there might be a wooden support inserted under.

This is the style I’ve settled on, which I think does justice to the evidence. It’s quite comfortable and reasonable secure, although it tends to pull back a little bit if I bring the earrasaid up over my head. I’ll take step-by-step pictures to put on my headcoverings blog sometime when I’m home.

Breid.png

 

Girls’ Hairstyles

Young unmarried women continued to wear their hair in a single ribbon near the hairline, binding the plaits or curls up, well into the 18th and 19th centuries, so we have pictures of that.

From R. R. McIan’s Tartans:

matheson

Two details from David Allan’s 1780 A Highland Wedding and Blair Atholl:

A headband is called a stiom, and has been transliterated as “stem” and translated as “fillet” by early English commentators.

That air I mentioned earlier describes the hairstyle:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

So it looks like it might be several plaits or two-strand ‘rope-plaits’ tied back off the face with a wide ribbon.