The Monash University Linguistics Society has asked me to write some blogs and videos about Scottish Gaelic language and living with it in Australia over the course of this semester. A “language spotlight” featured in the most recent newsletter and this is the first official blog. via The Grammar of Scottish Gaelic (part 1)
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
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.
/\ By the way – next month, 14th-16th, Brisbane.
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!
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 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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
I’ve used the Middle Irish name for the language for a reason. Is it called “Gaeilge” or “Gaidhlig” or “Gaelg” or “Gaoileann”? Let’s settle for this instead.
Well, last weekend, I went to Canberra (and yes, it’s taken me a week to blog about it).
In fact, I should say, Aig deireadh an t-seachdain seo falbh, chaidh mi gu Chanberra.
Or, perhaps, Ag an deireadh seachtaine seo caite, chuaigh mé go dtí Canberra.
I went to Canberra for the Scoil Teanga, or Irish Language School. And I sang at a reception held by the Irish Ambassador to Australia. With no preparation whatsoever. But no-one believed that.
Seo ceist: Cén fáth a bhfuil tú ag an Scoil Teanga?
Deagh chèist. Uill… níl mi ag labhairt móran Gaeilge Albainn i Adelaide agus bha doigh liom nach bhfuill Gaeilge Éireann chomh difriúil.
Speaking Irish is… How to find an analogy?
Speaking Irish as a Gaelic-speaker is like visiting Christchurch as someone from Adelaide. It’s all very familiar, and you can mostly find your way around, but it’s just enough different to get you lost, even though when you look at a map you recognise everything.
And most of it’s missing.
Seriously, where are all the letters in Irish?
Here are some things I learnt:
|“ao” = /ə:/||“ao” = /e:/|
|“aoi” = /aɪ/||“aoi” = /wi:/|
|“à” = /ɑ:/||“á” – /ɔ:/|
|emphasis = air a’ chiad syllable||emphasis = far a bheil an fada|
|N às deidh T, M, C = /r/||N às deidh T, M, C = /n/|
|“sibh” do mòran daoine AGUS do gach duine nas sine||“sibh” NI ACH do mòran daoine|
|riaghaltan “BUMP”, m.e.:
“dùthaich nam bò”
“duthaich na mbó”
|“chd” = /xk/||“cht” = /xt/|
|“bha” agus “mha” = /v/ aig tòiseach ‘us dèireadh, /w/ ‘s a mheadhan||“bha” agus “mha” = /w/ gach uair|
|“oidhche” = /ɤɪxɛ/||“oíche” = /i:hɛ/|
|“tha mi a’ smaoineachadh”||“is doigh liom”|
|“is toigh leam”||“is maith liom”|
|“tha mi a’ fuireach ann…”||“tá mi i mo chónaí i…”|
Honestly, having completely understood the first three things on that list beforehand would have fixed about a day of confusion and not understanding anything. Never underestimate just how much three little sound shifts can impede meaning.
Here are some grammar things to prove they’re really the same language, though:
Irish is a confusing mixture of “sounds the same but looks different” and “sounds different but looks the same”. In spelling, a lot of words seem to be missing half or more of their letters, but in other places it seems to have retained letters that Gaelic hasn’t (for example, dhéanfainn for Irish “I would do”, but dhèanainn for Gaelic “I would do”, although they’re pronounced exactly the same; or chomh for “so” instead of cho in Gaelic).
Raghnaid’s hot tip for the Irish language: Find someone from Donegal. If people aren’t understanding you, tell it to someone from Donegal and get them to translate it. If you can’t understand other people, find someone from Donegal and get them to repeat it.
Overall, I think if you’re thinking about learning a Goidelic language and can’t decide which one, go with the Scottish version. It’s not just because I’m biased, too. Here are my reasons:
- Gaelic grammar is simpler. That is to say, there are fewer tenses than in Irish. Plus the verbs don’t conjugate, which they do in Irish.
- Irish orthography has lost a lot of connections. For example, take the preposition “in”. In Gaelic, it’s ann, and “in the” is anns an, often shortened to ‘s an. In Irish, it’s í, and “in the” is san. As a learner of Gaelic, you can see the connection. As a learner of Irish, it’s just a strangely irregular grammar feature you’ve got to memorise.
- Irish has three dialects. Yes, Gaelic has dialects, too, but there’s nowhere near as much variation as there is between the Irish dialects. It did my head in, even as someone who already knew the grammar and could understand the Donegal dialect, to try to keep track of three different ways of pronouncing and phrasing things. It’d be really difficult if it were my first venture into Celtic languages.
On the other hand, here are a few plusses for the Irish dialects:
- Irish is much more flexible when it comes to sounds. Goidelic languages have a lot of sounds which are really difficult for English-speakers. Gaelic-speakers will correct you if you don’t manage to make them, but Irish has a larger percentage of learners, I think, so they’re a lot more accepting of not being able to differentiate, for example, between the final sounds of poc, feic, and each.
- I’ll concede that Irish spelling, with all its missing letters, probably does make more sense to someone new to the language.
- I think there might be fewer prepositions, but I’m not 100% sure on that one.
That first point tripped me up a few times, too. I found it much easier to understand the native speakers than the fluent learners (even the one Gaelscoil-educated woman) and I came to the conclusion by the end that it was probably the sounds. I thought on the first day that Irish simply had fewer sounds than Gaelic, but then I listened to a native speaker from the Conamara speaking and realised that all the sounds are still there.
Overall, it’s both more and less different than I was expecting. It was different in ways I didn’t expect, and the same in some ways I thought were different. Culturally – or, rather, I should clarify that I mean musically – it’s a little different. I sang Is Gàidheal Mi at the concert, and someone said to me afterwards, “That sounded so exotic!” It’s a sort of key that’s fairly familiar to people who know Gaelic music (although a bit more unusual than, for example, Òran na Maighdinn Mhara or Taladh ar Shlanuighear) but apparently something that isn’t there in Irish musical tradition.
There are very few words which are completely different between Ireland and Scotland. Most of the time, if it seems like a different word, it’s probably there, but just less-used or with a different meaning. For example, in Gaelic, “learning” is ag ionnsachadh. In Irish, that means “attacking” (one person said it was awfully poetic that in Gaelic, you “attacked” knowledge), while the Irish word for “learning”, foghlam, is used primarily for “education” in Scotland. Another example is teanga, the Irish word for “language”. Gaelic prefers canan, but teanga exists, for example in the verb ag eadartheangachadh, or “translating” (literally “between-language-ing”). In Gaelic, “walking” is a’ coiseachd, a word which isn’t used in Irish but is understood, as it is literally “foot-ing”. In Ireland, it’s siul, which exists in Scotland as siubhail, but means something more like “stroll”.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve experienced some level of racism from Irish people, so I was a bit worried about that, but aside from one incident on the first night (who decided a political/historical lecture by a local university professor was a good idea? NEVER talk about politics and/or English people around someone from Ireland) I got on quite well with everyone and they accepted me well enough. A number of people were very interested in Gaelic –
“I’ve never met a Scottish Gaelic speaker before! I’ve always wondered about the language.” (A few people said words to that effect, but seriously? There are about 75 000 of us in the world, 1500 in Australia, and I’ve seen TG4 documentaries on YouTube so why haven’t you seen something in Gaelic?)
And then, “It’s like looking into the history of Irish!” (Yup, that’s what happens when you put all the letters back in. That was said to me by someone looking at a song book I had with me. But that said, we did read a poem in class in “Ye Olde Irishe”, and that was much easier for me as it had most of the letters I expected… although no Hs, since it was from back when they were a dot on top of the letter).
I really don’t think it’s justified to call Irish and Gaelic separate languages, particularly after having met a few Donegal Irish speakers. It’s an accent and a few figures of speech, that’s all. Oh, and a couple of spelling reforms. As far as I’m concerned, if I can be an Australian and understand someone from Ireland speaking English, Irish-speakers should be able to understand me speaking Gaelic. That’s the level of difference there is.
Oh, and if anyone can fill in any of the gaps on those tables, it would be much appreciated.
Huh? Why? Why would you do that?
When I first started learning Gaelic, that was the reaction from speakers and people with some connection to the language alike. “It’s a dead language. There are too many dialects, you won’t be able to talk to anyone, whichever you learn. It’s not a real language. It’s useless, there’s no point to it. Everyone speaks English – that’s a good language. Gaelic’s dying. It’s not fit for the modern world.”
Okay, probably you don’t care about that, and I never got all of those arguments from the same person at one time. But Loving Languages posted today about endangered languages, about why we don’t care about them, not really, and about a Bashkir woman he met who is resigned to the language not being passed on. He also linked two articles others have written about why we should just let languages die quietly.
In Malik’s post, in the very first paragraph, he said:
“When Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man in 1974, he also took the ancient Manx language to the grave.”
What’s interesting to me about that statement is that, by the time Ned Madrell died, there were already significant numbers of non-native speakers and in fact, just ten months after Malik wrote that article in late 2000, the Manx-medium primary school was opened, and today there are around a hundred children and young people who are regarded as native speakers.
Both of the articles seemed to be saying, “Well the culture argument is defunct because keeping a language alive artificially doesn’t preserve the culture – the closest thing is going to be the culture of similar groups.”
Richard’s point, on the other hand, is not necessarily that the culture is preserved pristinely by learning a language, but that one’s view of the world is widened by knowing these languages, and one’s ability to connect with others is the likewise expanded.
The idea of keeping “Gaelic culture” intact as if it were pre-Clearances is clearly ridiculous. The world isn’t the same as it was in the 17th century – and the fact that there are words in Gaelic for “global warming” and “spoilers” doesn’t mean that “Gaelic culture” is dead – quite the opposite, in fact.
Actually, there are neopagans who try to “revive” “Gaelic culture” from ancient texts and remnant traditions, and it gets a bit strange when you consider that they’re trying to revive a religion that hasn’t been practiced for 1500 years, sometimes without much care for the living culture. But more on that later.
But knowing the language can change how I see things. As an English-speaker, you have clear ideas about colours. There’s blue and there’s green. There’s red and there’s pink, there’s orange and yellow. In Gaelic, it’s different. There’s blue-green, and green-grey; pink doesn’t exist, because it’s obviously just “light red”, and orange and yellow are the same colour. There’s a word for orange-red, as well.
One can understand how the Gaels of the past saw the world, because of what there is in the language. There are a couple of ways of saying “I hope”, but none are quite so clear-cut. My favourite, and the main one used in parts of Ireland, is “le cobhar Dè” – “with the help of God”. In Gaelic, you don’t have a “lightbulb moment”, you have a “mionaid rathad Dhamascuis”, a “Damascus Road moment”. Wednesday and Friday aren’t just sounds to denote days, they’re “the first fast” and “the fast”, and Thursday is “the day between the fast”, because Christian observance pervaded the culture for so many years.
Languages aren’t something you speak, to a Gael, they’re something you have – inasmuch as a Gael ever “has” anything, considering the closest he can come is to have something at him, or with him, or to him. An older Gael I know, let’s call her Sìne, replied once when someone asked her, “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (“Do you speak Gaelic?”; or rather, “Is Gaelic at you?”), “Chan eil – is Gàidhlig a th’ unnam”. No, the Gaelic is in her. To her, the language is deeper than just something she speaks, it’s in her and part of her. The phrase she used to describe the language is the same phrase used to describe nationality or life calling.
“Why would you learn Gaelic? It’s a pointless language.”
Sìne sometimes shares memories of her childhood, with Gaelic pervading everything. But at the same time, she also recalls how she had to speak English at school, from the moment she started at the age of four without a word of it. Gaelic was frowned-upon. It wasn’t until after she graduated that it became an option as a Highers subject, but it still wasn’t to be spoken in any of the other classes.
There’s an elderly man, let’s call him Donnchadh, who rang in while I was presenting a programme for Scottish Radio, very excited about hearing me speaking some Gaelic on-air. “Cha do chuala mi a’ Ghàidhlig ‘o chionn fhad’ – ‘o chionn ‘s marbh mo mhathair!” He hadn’t heard Gaelic in such a long time, since his mother died. “Tha mi an dòchas gun cluinnidh mi mòran Gàidhlig ‘n uair a bhitheas tu ann,” he told me earnestly, before clamming up. He was reluctant to speak any more Gaelic with me, because he didn’t think he knew it well enough. His parents were foster-parents when he was a child, and the government had paid them extra to not use Gaelic in the house, let they taint the foster children, who had come from the Lowlands.
I think it’s probably rare for languages to just die by chance. Perhaps there are some out there that where honestly let go by their speakers because they preferred another. Majority languages can be pushy, offer a better life, and the speakers of those majority languages don’t do it maliciously.
In the case of Gaelic, that wasn’t the case. I’m more proficient in it now than I was when I got those comments with which I opened the post, and my ability to speak Gaelic isn’t so obviously a decision (you must bear in mind that it’s a language with a lot of native partial-speakers, so not being fluent doesn’t preclude having spoken it from childhood). The reactions I get now are different. The older Gaels I meet are usually sort of pleased that someone young speaks the language, particularly as it’s so rare for that to be the case outside Scotland.
But I still get a lot of “But how? But why?” The older native demographic have a very hard time understanding why anyone would learn a language they were conditioned from their childhood to believe was backwards and dying… even if it’s so deeply a part of them and they love it for the memories in it.
Things are swinging around now. The language hasn’t been actively suppressed for several generations. My parents’ generation are ambivalent. They aren’t against the language, as so many in my grandparents’ generation are. They just don’t really care. It doesn’t affect them. Their parents spoke it – they don’t. My father remembers hearing it from children at the village school, but the response he heard when it was mentioned was, “Oh, that? No, it’s a dying language.” It’s not as important as French or German.
And now, the government is supporting the language. People are for it. Not everyone – there’s still a lot of the anti-Gaelic sentiment going around, as those conversations when I first started learning the language will show. But, by and large, it isn’t a dying language, it isn’t a useless language, it’s part of us, and we can bring it with us into the modern world.
Not all endangered languages have that support, or even that mentality. It’s sad that Aboriginal languages are dead, you see, but they’re stone age languages (even if we won’t say that out loud) – they can’t cope with the modern world. Better for the Aboriginals to learn English. – That’s the rhetoric we have, unspoken, in our heads, anyway.
Well, that’s the same sort of rhetoric that went down about Gaelic not so long ago. Actually, I’ve been interested recently in an article I found from Scotland in the 1850s about Gaels and “the slovenly and stupid Celtic race” and how everyone would be better off without them. What struck me was that, if “Celt” and “Gael” had been replaced by “Aborigine” and “Black”, it could so easily have been published in Australia at the same time.
“Bashkir is a village language”, I imagine the woman Richard spoke to thinking. “It’s dying anyway. It’s my language, but I speak Russian – what do I care if my children speak only Russian and not Bashkir? That’s just the way things are.”
Maybe. Should we care if languages die? Languages die all the time, and we can’t do much to stop it. Great and mighty languages have died – Demotic, Phoenecian, Latin. If we can’t stop languages so big as those dying, why should we care about the village languages? It would probably make things easier if everyone spoke the same language, anyway.
I could go on about how diversity is good – that seems to be a word bandied about a lot. We’re enriched by the sum of our parts, and all that. I’ve already said that different languages have different ways of seeing the world. I could have proved that with a major language, like German perhaps. But when it comes down to it… why?
Why would you do that? Why would you learn Gaelic?
Why would you learn any endangered or dying language?
Sometimes there’s no sensible answer. I never really had a sensible reason for learning Gaelic. I still don’t, not really. Paul from LangFocus talks about being “bitten by a love for a language” and I suppose that’s the best explanation I have.
No language doesn’t mean something to someone. And no language has nothing to offer.