Candide

catholic by birth; scientist by choice; sinner by merit. gaidhlig-speaking neuroscience student at oxford. likes to question everything! @di_macd

Scotland's Rebels

In today’s Financial Times:

This is the Our Islands: Our Future campaign, which seeks greater autonomy for the islands of Scotland. It’s in the same spirit as Land Reform and Community Buyouts, so that people living in resource-rich rural areas control their own destiny, rather than having their soils and seas exploited by distant governments who care little for their socioeconomic and cultural well-being. Key demands include:

There is due to be a conference in Orkney on this campaign in a few months. I remember when Tavish Scott was demanding independence for the Northern Isles I was initially skeptical as I saw it as Unionist posturing, but to see the local councils creating this campaign on their own initiative is just so exciting. The late great Father Calum MacLennan of Eriskay, instrumental in setting up the first Western Isles council, used to talk about creating "a wee Gaelic empire" in the west, where the islands and the future of the islands belonged to and was under the control of the islanders themselves.

Island autonomy, whether within an independent Scotland or a United Kingdom, is the next logical step in the road of Local Government and Land Reform we have been travelling for the past fifty years.

The 2011 Scottish Census was released today. The Western Isles population increased by ~1500, a 5.6% rise. The Highland population increased by ~23,000, an 11% rise. Compare this to the 4.6% rise recorded for Scotland as a whole, and you get a crude indication that the image of a dying periphery isn’t as accurate as the naysayers would hope.

The Isle of the Foreigner

agreatbigbagofdicks:

candide94:

guess-he-had-nothing-to-say:

Freedom.  The concept has been hammered into me by my parents ever since I can remember, ‘Sian, you have an enormous amount of freedom.’  And isn’t it such a brilliant word?  It is the word that instantly rouses any individual, crowd or nation.  It is the word that to everyone conjures romanticised images of open roads, walls being torn asunder or a collection of people rising together.  Until now I’ve never really understood what freedom is and that I am in possession of it.  

 

I have been born and raised on a remote island –North Uist - in the Outer Hebrides, my little Alcatraz.  You can choose between a two or three hour ferry or a highly expensive plane to ‘civilisation’.  But even then, not really as if it is the city you crave, that’s another five or so hours away in a bus or car.  So yes, living here is isolated and escape isn’t easy.  Growing up I have always felt a sense of being trapped and that I was missing out on what’s going on ‘out there’.  My thoughts went as far as a ‘streets-paved-with-gold’ image, though in my case gold means interesting people and buzzing avant-garde life.  In addition, despite living every second of my life on this island, I am a foreigner.  My parents are English and Dutch so my accent is ill defined and from this I am regularly told that I am not Scottish; Never mind that I am a Catholic living in Presbyterian North Uist with my house situated next-door to the Free Church of Scotland.

 

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I think it’s interesting to compare what we both wrote on this same topic. Yours being from a ‘neocolonialist(!)’ and mine from an ‘indigenous(!)’ perspective. 

The Real Tìr nan Òg?

The ever-present sea-breeze on our backs, buffeting us forward – we clattered and stumbled over the half-made road. This mass of people, the largest I’d ever seen, marched on laughing, like a conquering army, across the brand-new causeway to Uist; from dear little Eriskay to what I thought of then as the big wide world. The flash of cameras followed us: the last community in the Western Isles to be linked to the rest of the western civilization. We watched the rocks tumbling with our past into the sea. And I, six-year old wannabe spaceman, took my own one small step to Uist, no longer a giant leap over the Sound. My brother and I, breaking free of Granaidh’s grip, running ahead of the crowd, inexorably into the future, running away from my island, running away from home…

               Eriskay, the Island of Youth, the island of my youth, was connected to Uist on November 27th 2000. This bare rock, home to just some six-score souls, most of them old, godly but grumpy, has been my playground, my paradise, my prison. I remember the day when I first realized the sheer tininess of this Hebridean pebble: Dad dragging me up to the top of the hill; a watchful crag from where I looked out to see nothing but sea. Perpetual, endless sea. Stretching – curving – beyond the borders of my world.

               And then I looked down upon Eriskay, and was surprised to find the people like dolls, their houses like toys, so small compared to that carpet of blue. I appreciated at last that these three square-miles of Lewisian Gneiss were our fastness, our only sanctuary from the sea’s storms – it was truly our island paradise. Yet even then I felt a creeping sense of entrapment, suffocation, that one day the baleful ocean might swallow us up, scarcely a pip. Though I felt big and grown-up, like an astronaut, like Edmund Hilary after he conquered Everest, I also knew that I was indeed a little boy.

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It seems to me that you both have different perspectives on island life based around your family. You both seem to have found your place here and I find that strange. Even though both my parents are from the islands, I’ve never felt connected here. You both mentioned feeling trapped at some point. I’ve felt like that almost as long as I can remember. 

Of course, I fondly remember being a child and feeling happy about the freedom to travel where I wanted. But that never lasted long. I always knew that there was a much larger world out there and I was a little scared that I would never get to see it. I’ve had a list of all the places I want to visit in my head since I could read a map.

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I think we all have to be careful about letting stereotypes dictate our opinions. I mean, yeah, its easy to see alcoholic old bodaich with their sheep and football as stupid. But what I think you have to appreciate is that many of the men I know (and respect) really aren’t comfortable chatting away to us in English - they don’t know what to say, so they talk about the weather. But if you engage with them, and ask in Gaidhlig about crofting, or local history, or place names, or songs, or their experience at sea, or fishing you’d be surprised at how knowledgeable and interesting these guys can be. This is why (despite my moaning) I do enjoy Historical Society. I mean, there’s one old bodach who took me and my brother up the hill to this boggy moor and started showing us all these old roundhouses. He was explaining how there had been battle between the Norse and the Celtic inhabitants in the early 900s, and he knew because of songs that had been passed down for 1000s of years. He could tell us what the rocks and archaelogical remains meant as good as any proffessional.

I hate to sound judgemental, but maybe if you did use Gaidhlig you’d learn a lot more… but its your choice. No one forces it on anyone. Think about it - the onus is always on the Gaidhlig speaker to speak English. They always defer to English…

SianD, you’re into travelling… has it ever occured to you that most of the men on Uist were in the merchant navy. They’ve travelled the world - when I was doing raffle for morroco, one guy spent half an hour telling me about his adventures in Morroco when his ship was at port for a week. He was just 16 - they’ve led exciting lives. This guy had been to Brazil, Agentina, Singapore, Zanzibar, The falklands, Hong Kong, New York … all over the world.

While I completely understand feelings of entrapment, I can’t help but feel we are all (including me) being rather patronizing and condescending to the folk we meet in Uist. It’s easy to dismiss them as an uncultred crofters. If you make the effort, and ask them about their lives, you’ll hear some of the best storytellers in the world. Storytelling was for them a valued skill. They’re often just a bit embarassed, I find… they’re modest men.

On another note, lots of the bodaich I know are amazingly well-read. There was usually little else to do when they off their shift, so they would read from the library. One guy (who died of liver poisoning the other year) was still borrowing Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and stuff from the Eriskay library, decades after he’d left the navy. Another guy I know is really into physics books, and is also a great photographer, plus he runs the histroical society.

Finally, on the gossip issue - we do a shitload of that too! Humans are social animals. Everyone likes a good gossip! 

(via thepubertaddamsfund)

The Isle of the Foreigner

guess-he-had-nothing-to-say:

Freedom.  The concept has been hammered into me by my parents ever since I can remember, ‘Sian, you have an enormous amount of freedom.’  And isn’t it such a brilliant word?  It is the word that instantly rouses any individual, crowd or nation.  It is the word that to everyone conjures romanticised images of open roads, walls being torn asunder or a collection of people rising together.  Until now I’ve never really understood what freedom is and that I am in possession of it.  

 

I have been born and raised on a remote island –North Uist - in the Outer Hebrides, my little Alcatraz.  You can choose between a two or three hour ferry or a highly expensive plane to ‘civilisation’.  But even then, not really as if it is the city you crave, that’s another five or so hours away in a bus or car.  So yes, living here is isolated and escape isn’t easy.  Growing up I have always felt a sense of being trapped and that I was missing out on what’s going on ‘out there’.  My thoughts went as far as a ‘streets-paved-with-gold’ image, though in my case gold means interesting people and buzzing avant-garde life.  In addition, despite living every second of my life on this island, I am a foreigner.  My parents are English and Dutch so my accent is ill defined and from this I am regularly told that I am not Scottish; Never mind that I am a Catholic living in Presbyterian North Uist with my house situated next-door to the Free Church of Scotland.

 

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I think it’s interesting to compare what we both wrote on this same topic. Yours being from a ‘neocolonialist(!)’ and mine from an ‘indigenous(!)’ perspective. 

The Real Tìr nan Òg?

The ever-present sea-breeze on our backs, buffeting us forward – we clattered and stumbled over the half-made road. This mass of people, the largest I’d ever seen, marched on laughing, like a conquering army, across the brand-new causeway to Uist; from dear little Eriskay to what I thought of then as the big wide world. The flash of cameras followed us: the last community in the Western Isles to be linked to the rest of the western civilization. We watched the rocks tumbling with our past into the sea. And I, six-year old wannabe spaceman, took my own one small step to Uist, no longer a giant leap over the Sound. My brother and I, breaking free of Granaidh’s grip, running ahead of the crowd, inexorably into the future, running away from my island, running away from home…

               Eriskay, the Island of Youth, the island of my youth, was connected to Uist on November 27th 2000. This bare rock, home to just some six-score souls, most of them old, godly but grumpy, has been my playground, my paradise, my prison. I remember the day when I first realized the sheer tininess of this Hebridean pebble: Dad dragging me up to the top of the hill; a watchful crag from where I looked out to see nothing but sea. Perpetual, endless sea. Stretching – curving – beyond the borders of my world.

               And then I looked down upon Eriskay, and was surprised to find the people like dolls, their houses like toys, so small compared to that carpet of blue. I appreciated at last that these three square-miles of Lewisian Gneiss were our fastness, our only sanctuary from the sea’s storms – it was truly our island paradise. Yet even then I felt a creeping sense of entrapment, suffocation, that one day the baleful ocean might swallow us up, scarcely a pip. Though I felt big and grown-up, like an astronaut, like Edmund Hilary after he conquered Everest, I also knew that I was indeed a little boy.

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Of Scotland’s annual education budget, which amounts to a whooping £7.9 billion, only £5.6 million are spent on things related to the promotion and teaching of the Gaelic language.

selchieproductions:

candide94:

selchieproductions:

The money Dr Alasdair Allan is spending in his new post as Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages on forcing an obligatory Scottish text on every Higher English pupil (just after we all having been forced to study a Scottish topic in history), and on inventing some daft new course called ‘Scottish Studies’, would be better spent on making it more rewarding for young Gaels to go into teaching as opposed to the media, or on supporting Gaidhlig classes throughout the country, or maybe on giving important companies in his own constituency the right to benefit from RET…

A long sentence I know, but a proper commitment from the Scottish government on improving the status of Gaidhlig has to be explicity tied into improving the Western Isles economy. Our last gaidhealtachd will die between being denied fishing rights in our own waters and having our only forward-looking industry (namely, Arnish renewable technologies) gathering dust despite the Scots gov’s supposed desire to become green! 

Turning Gaidhlig into a toy language to be studied (i.e. learning ‘ciamar a tha thu’) as part of some vapid Scottish studies Int 2 course is the road to extinction. Isn’t the SNP’s attempts to Scottishize the curriculum reminscent of Michael Gove’s attempts in England to turn History GSCSE into ‘Our-National-Story Indoctrinating’ class…

…I love Scotland, I’ll vote YES in the referendum, but the way the SNP gov is treating Gaidhlig and the Western Isles makes me worry we’ll be worse off post indepedence…

I am reblogging this, because you’re saying exactly what I am thinking.

While I don’t think making Gaelic mandatory is wrong per se, but not if what mandatory Gaelic amounts to is ‘ciamar a tha thu’ and nothing else. We have two examples of how to barely save a dying language and how to successfully save a dying language on our own doorstep; in Ireland Irish has become politicised to a point where Gaelic is what is spoken in European courts but not in the homes of Irish citizens, whereas 21.4% of all people living in Welsh could speak Welsh according to the last census. Compare that to the state Gaelic’s in; 1.793% of all Scots speak Scottish Gaelic and of the 6 million people living in Ireland, the government claims that 1,7 million speak Gaelic, when the reality is that Irish Gaelic is in an even worse state than its Scottish sister, with perhaps less than 30,000 native speakers (numbers range from 20-60,000 native speakers at the most). And the difference between the numbers are down to exactly what Dòmhnall is pointing out: turning a language into a subject, rather than a culture, a toy, rather than a tool is a certain way of killing it. 

A change might be on its way though. When talking to CLÌ Gàidhlig earlier this week, I was informed that ‘substantially more funding will be made available for teaching the language next year’ and it seems like people are starting to realise the importance of an intergenerational transmission of the language which takes place outside of a strict class room. Worth noting here though is that neither CLÌ, nor the people who are currently starting Gaelic toddlers’ groups are funded by the state (well, CLI gets some support from the Highland Council so while it’s a charity it’s perhaps not an NGO …)

And as for the Scottish Studies course and the introduction of Scottish literature and history in our schools, I do not think this is going to cost as much as he is claiming it will. To exchange e.g. Virginia Woolf for Meg Bateman, or Rudyard Kipling for Iàin Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown or perhaps Hugh McDiarmid is not actually going to create more fuss than just keeping what ‘we’ve always studied’.

I think it is paramount that the people of a nation is taught its own history, languages and literature and I do not think that introducing a subject called Scottish Studies is a bad thing. On the contrary, if it is created in a way which distances itself from a tartanised version of Scotland, I think it has the potential to be a good thing.

What is bothering me though is the complete and utter lack of any mentioning of Gaelic in the documents the government has published so far about the independence referendum; I’m smelling a Scottish 1872 Education Act all over again, sans perhaps the actual physical abuse of Gaelic students …

I didn’t know the Irish were in such a bad state. If what you say is true, then I have been sucked in by their propaganda… do you have any references?

Oh I know it won’t cost very much, but I’m just a bit annoyed at Alasdair Allan atm. There is generally a lot of bitterness in the islands about Dr Allan and Angus Brendan’s cowardice. The SNP are a political machine, and our MP and MSP don’t have the balls to stand up to the Party when they try and bring in policies that are very damaging to the island… Qinetic, SNH, RET… 

And also, doesn’t in say a lot about how much the SNP values ‘minority languages’, ‘education’ and ‘science’ if they’re all lumped into one minor ministerial post!!?

Ah, regarding Scottish Studies, my worry is that it will be exactly that - tartanized propaganda. They are introducing it to craft a national consciousness of scottish history and literature, just as Gove wants to do in England. A critical look at Scottish history would be beneficial, but it isn’t that - the Higher Scottish topic is for the sources paper, so no essays are written, you just spew out facts to show that the source hasn’t fully explained something. (its very dull)

The Scottish topics are Wars of Independence, Reformation, treaty of Union, Migration and Empire. Irritatingly, these are topics everyone has studied at least once before in the lower school…

Its a general problem with teaching history. I’ve done three or four topics on 20th century Germany, some repeated. Teachers want to stick to what they know, what’s easy, and not what’ll challenge people…

In English, I don’t see anything wrong with teaching ICS or Edwin Morgan or whatever, but if this was done at the expense of doing, say, at least one Shakespeare play in school, then I’d feel the kids were missing out on something important for ideological reasons…

…Anyway, to return to Gaidhlig and independence. Isn’t it interesting how the anti-Gaidhlig tabloids like the Daily Record condemn Gaidhlig using the exact same reasoning the English Daily Mail condemns Scotland. Gaels are criticized as subsidy junkies, keeping their dead language alive and getting privileges like tv and school at the expense of the good lowland taxpayer. Similarly, Scots are criticized as scroungers paying for their benefits like free prescriptions with English hand-outs…

I remember my Gaidhlig teacher telling me when I was in S1 that we Gaels ought to be careful what we wished for - independence might just make things worse.

Tbh I don’t know what would be worse - the gov completely disregarding Gaidhlig or the gov completely politicizing Gaidhlig. I just think we need to try and have Gaidhlig thriving naturally in a healthy Highlands and Islands. I often feel like the Western Isles play second fiddle in terms of funding to the mainland - e.g. why the hell is there no Gaidhlig school on Lewis? May be they coulda made the new Nicholson into a Gaidhlig school???

Anonymous said: Tell me about Scottish history! (In particular, your favourite parts of the parts that you think more people should know).

There is no such thing as Scotland.

Historically, at least, Scotland is a mish-mash of different peoples, languages and even governments, fused together by necessity.

I provided a nice long answer, but I’ve had to simplify alot, so apologies to any history experts who think its a little cartoonish.

 In 1138, David I ‘King of Scots’ fought the English at the Battle of the Standard leading an army made up of “Normans, Germans, English, Northumbrians and Cumbrians, men of Teviotdale and Lothian, Galwegians and Scots.” This battle was in Yorkshire, and it was as a result of the King of Scots desire to rule over the north of England. He had Cumbria already and wanted Northumbria too, so he just invaded whilst the English were in the middle of a civil war. We were beaten, but that’s not why I bring it up. That eyewitness account of the composition of the King of Scots’ forces is helpful in showing the disparate people that have created Scotland.

We’ll start with the last on the list – Scots. Historians think ‘Scot’ comes from a Latin word meaning pirate, which was used to refer to the Irish raiders who attacked the west coasts of Britain during the AD 500s and 600s. (Indeed, the Romans called Ireland Scotia!) These pirates were Celts and they spoke a language called Old Gaelic, which is the ancestor of the language I speak ‘gaidhlig.’ During the Dark Ages, these Scots settled all over the Western Seaboard of Britain, but especially in Argyll. They called it Dalriada, named after their home in Ireland. In the 700s the Kings of Dalriada shifted from Ireland to their new territory in Scotland, which had been colonized by thousands of these Old Gaelic speakers. At that time the north of Scotland was under the control of a mysterious people called the Picts, who we only know from stone engravings, their language having been lost. In 843AD King Kenneth MacAlpin of Dalriada is supposed to have conquered these Picts and hence became the first King of Alba, or King of Scots. No one knows if the Picts were killed in genocide, or by plagure, or if (I think more likely) they were just absorbed into the Scots’ population. So, at MacAlpins’ death Scotland consisted of a Kingdom, north of the River Forth, uniting the Gaelic-speaking Scots (henceforth, we’ll call ‘em Gaels) and the unknown-speaking Picts.

I’ll sketch where everyone else was at that time, working back the way on our list from Scots. First – Galwegians. They were settlers of Norse origin living on the south coast of Scotland, who picked up the Gaelic language from the Scots and came to be know as Gall-Gaels, or ‘Foreign Gaels.’ The intermixing of Gael and Gall (i.e. Norseman) happened all the time in medieval Scotland. For instance, the Gaelic for Hebrides is Innse Gall (‘Foreign Isles’) because in the middle ages this now most Gaelic of places was brimming with Norsemen. The clan MacDonald is descended from Norse-Gaelic warrior called Somerled – he wrested control of the north-west coast of Scotland as well as the Hebrides from the Earl of Orkney (a Norwegian – this is confusing isn’t it?!) and set up the Lordship of the Isles. The Lordship of the Isles persisted as in independent state (or thorn in the side) to the King of Scots until well into 15th century and indeed, was the only truly Gaelic state in Scotland, because as we shall see the King of Scots was quick to abandon his Gaelic roots during the Middle Ages…

So, carrying on, our men of Teviotdale and Lothian, as well as our English and Germans, and Northumbrians, are representatives of the Anglo-Saxon speaking people that lived in the south-east of Scotland when MacAlpin united the kingdom. They weren’t under his rule yet though. King Malcolm the second grabbed them in the 1000s, and they were added to the Kingdom of Scots. However, they had a far higher population than the Gaels, and being on the east-coast were richer as they had better trade links with Europe. Their language – a variety of Anglo-Saxon – came to dominate urban life and Gaelic was gradually relegated to the countryside, and then to the wild Highlands, and then just to the islands. The Anglo-Saxons’ language came to be called Scots as most Scots spoke it, while Gaelic was disparaged as Erse (‘Irish!’). It’s interesting to note that this Anglo-Saxon language is not a dialect of English – English and Scots in fact share a common ancestor in Old German: they divided apart while still in Europe and came to Britain with different tribes.

The Cumbrians mentioned refer to the Britons (Welsh-speaking Celts) who lived in the south of Scotland during the Dark Ages. Their most important kingdom was Strathclyde, built around the River Clyde, but they were quickly absorbed the new Scots kingdom, and their language was wiped out, so they don’t much concern us here.

The Normans, however, are the same Normans who conquered England in 1066. They carried on to Scotland and made the king swear an oath to recognize Wiliam as his overlord – this was the basis all the subsequent English claims to the Scottish throne. Even after the armies withdrew, many Norman knights stayed in Scotland, and became the feudal aristocracy. Other Norman and Breton knights were induced to move there later thanks to generous offers from the King of Scots. Under Queen Margaret and these knights, Scotland was slowly Francophied, and it abandoned Gaelic. The last Gaelic king of Scots was old macBeth. After that, Anglo-Normans dominated. Even William Wallace was of Norman stock!

And speaking of Wallace, historians agree that these multifarious peoples I detailed above created for themselves a united national identity during the Wars of Independence. At Stirling Bridge the spearmen most definitely did not shout “FREEDOM!” – Gaelic, Scots, French and Norse would have been heard; none of which, however, were the universal language. There was no united Scottish culture when the English invaded at the end of the 13th century – there was no such thing as Scotland.  Anthropologist Anthony Cohen says that Scottish identity did not arise from a unifying Scottish language but from the certainty that whoever the Scots were they were most definitely “not-English.” Thus, the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s birth certificate, conceived national identity as ultimately that which was distinct from England. 

We started off with the Battle of the Standard, but that was the personal ambition of a feudal king - it wasn’t enough to create a nation.

But in 1314 at Bannockburn, under Robert the Bruce, a descendant of norman knights, we have Normans, and Anglo-Saxons (Scots?), and Gall-Gaels, and Norse, and Gaels fighting. And with that battle, and the many others, the lowland Scots become a nation. They become the Scots. And we have a Scotland…

But, interestingly, it’s from this century – the 14th century – that the Scots turn against the Lordship of the Isles, and against the Gaels. And from then on the Highland Line becomes a chasm and we have two Scotlands – Highland and Lowland.

But that I think is a story for another day.

Father Allan MacDonald of Eriskay

This was written for a historical society exhibition. It’s basically a short essay from which we took out good captions for photos etc. It’s far more breezy than my usual style, and lacking in any historical analysis. I had to write for an audience - namely, the religious and fact(as opposed to analysis)-loving average Eriskay person… 

(WARNING: You will notice I assume religious faith is a good thing. Again this is called ‘selling-out’ and is sometimes necessary when writing with someone else in mind)

Who was Father Allan, the man? Allan MacDonald - priest, poet, and folklorist - was born on the 25th October 1859 in the luxurious surroundings of Fort William Hotel. Despite having indeed been fortunate enough to obtain a room at the proverbial inn, from a young age his dream was to serve Christ as a member of the priesthood. At first, he studied at Blairs College, Aberdeenshire, and thence to Vallodolid in Spain where he undertook most of his training in the San Ambrosio College. 

Following ordination he was sent Oban as assistant priest. The people were fond of this young and popular priest yet, in 1884, he was transferred to Daliburgh parish which, at the time, was the poorest parish in the poorest diocese in all of Scotland. The people depended on him as an educated person to represent them in matters temporal as well as religious.  He laboured for ten happy but hardworking years in South Uist. However, A School in South Uist tells us it was always his desire to minister to and then die with “the simple fisher folk of Eriskay,” When, due to exhaustion, the Bishop relieved him of the burden of the St Peters, he crossed the sound to the island of Eriskay. An island he loved despite it being “bare of  barley!”

The impact he had on this little island at the edge of nowhere can hardly be exaggerated. But Fr Allan’s greatest legacy )of many) is - of course - the church, which stands imposingly alone atop the hill known as Cnoc na Sgrath.

Prior to Fr Allan’s arrival on the island, the people of Eriskay worshipped in a damp and smoky blackhouse, situated where the statue of Our Lady is now. The roof was full of holes and the visiting priest literally did have to walk on water in order to say mass. There were no seats, therefore the congregation all stood in cramped and crowded conditions. It was obvious to Fr Allan a new building was required, for how could he minister to his flock if the Chapel wasn’t even a worthy home for sheep?

Funds were needed and fast. This was mostly raised from subscriptions paid by Fr Allan’s rich friends plus, most importantly, the pious fisherman donated the takings from one catch a week to the appeal. On the designated day, the people gathered to pray for fruitful fishing, and it is claimed that these Church catches were far larger than the rest of the week’s. The faith of the Eriskay congregation was such that the construction of the church became a community endeavour, with sand being carried by the schoolchildren during their break and the men giving up their time to shift the large stones up the Rubha Ban.

The Church’s positioning on Cnoc na Sgrath was inspired in that it can be seen from all corners (of the populous part) of the island, as if it were a kind of beacon to the people, a physical focal point for the isle and also as a lighthouse shining to the sailors in the sound. Although some might argue it could just as easily be called a watchtower surveying the island!

As well as the Church, Fr Allan’s legacy to Eriskay includes the bringing of the telegraph line, which in turn led to telephone and electricity lines. He also led the people in the construction of a road out to Bun a’ Mhuilinn. This was the first road in Eriskay; “An Rathad Ard,” and it is still used today by walkers. With one road, people demanded more, a desire eventually manifesting itself in the causeway, built in 2000.  One could argue Fr Allan, in building the first road, sent us down the road of crossing the sound by causeway. I imagine he would be very pleased to see cars driving across the causeway, thinking of the days he spent by the fire at Taobh a’ Chaolais awaiting a boat to ferry him over to say mass.

Fr Allan was a community leader who loved his community. He loved their Gaidhlig language and his book, Gaelic Words And Expressions From South Uist, demonstrates the meticulous detail with which he recorded the fading Hebridean culture. His notebooks are a treasure trove of observations of the distinctive Eriskay way of life. As a priest he wanted his congregation to understand the message of God and, therefore, years before Vatican II, he decided to translate the mass into Gaidhlig. He composed many hymns which are still heard at mass to this day. 

As a collector of folklore Fr Allan was renowned throughout Scotland. However, being a generous man, when Anna Goodrich Freer visited him he quite happily gave her free-reign with his note-books. Years later she published his work under her own name. Fr Allan’s many friends were angered. Fr Allan was upset that people were arguing and, to the loss of Gaidhlig scholarship, he ceased collating folklore for fear of causing more controversy.

Fr Allan is easily the most celebrated person every to call themselves an Eirisgeach His impact is such that it would be remarkably difficult to find someone living on the island today who wasn’t aware who Fr Allan was, even if they were aware only that he built the Church. In his time, Fr Allan was regarded as a kind of father to the isle, ministering to all the needs of the people, be they spiritual, medical or social. But the nature of his work wore him out before his time. Fr Allan died of Acute Pneumonia in October 1905 when he was only 46 years old. In his short life he did more for the people of Eriskay than anyone ever had or will. Despite more than one hundred years having passed since his death, he lives on in St Michael’s his pride and joy, in the hymns sung and mass said every Sunday, and in the great Celtic Cross (erected by the people) which guards his grave. Finally, every summer the boats are blessed in Acarsaid Mhor, a tradition began by Fr Allan for which he received a special papal dispensation. The priest blesses the fishermen’s boats so they will have a safe year at sea, and Fr Allan, that lover of the “simple fisherfolk of Eriskay”, himself a great fisher of men, would be very proud to see that this unique tradition has continued for more than a century. A fitting legacy for a man who braved howling winds to cross the sound every Sunday to say mass.

Translation of Camhanaich by Sorley MacLean


DAWNING 


You were dawn on the mountain,

And daylight dancing over the water,

A sun on her elbow in the gold-stream

And a white rose breaking the horizon.


Glittering sails on a sunlit kyle

The blue depths and bronzed sky

Morning is young in your hair,

And in your cheeks, bright, beautiful.


My jewel of night and daybreak -

your face, your love and kindness,

Though the arrows of misfortune

Marr this morning of our youth.



NOTE: Both Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith have translated this poem too. This translation is my own, inadequate, work. I have deRassified and simplified the poem to make it more English-friendly. In Gaidhlig the first line “Bu tu camhanaich air a’ Chuilthionn” has an almost Biblical feel in the majesty MacLean sees in Eimhir, but the Cuilthionn means little to non-Highlanders, so I just generalized it to mountains. Gaelic words like ‘og-mhadainn’ have no real English equivalents either, so I just gave up and made up something similar. I hope you enjoy my translation.

Science and Gaidhlig

In this post, I want to explore the relationship between science and Gaidhlig - a minority language from Scotland - especially within the domains of education, culture and religion.

The fact of the matter is that Gaidhlig culture is pre-scientific. Remember up til the 1800s most scientific work was conducted through the medium of Latin – Principia Mathematica etc. So ‘English’ science only got started in the 19th century, by which time, of course, Gaidhlig had lost any form of political or educational power in Scotland. Therefore, famous Scottish scientists like Kelvin weren’t Gaels, and Gaidhlig never acquired a scientific vocabulary.

The Education Act in 1871 made English the official language of school, so there was never any need to create Gaidhlig scientific words. Before that there had indeed been Gaidhlig schools in the Highlands, but these were run by the Church, and so focussed on the classics and Hebrew. Even during the 20th century, the great high schools of the Highlands (Portree, Fort William) were notoriously bad for their science provision due to a simple lack of funds. Moreover, southern Hebrides islanders went to seminary for their high school education – these Catholic institutions didn’t have labs, so the kids never had a chance to do proper science. These impediments to gaining a scientific education meant that in the 20th century very very few Gaels ever became scientists, preferring to do classics, or Celtic, or English, so there is no work of original Gaidhlig science writing to be found.

Nonetheless, Derick Thompson did translate a biology textbook to Gaidhlig, saying it was only the shadow of our history that stopped us expressing these scientific concepts in Gaidhlig. And today, in the Glasgow Gaidhlig school, science is taught through the medium of Gaidhlig, as is maths. There is nothing stopping us speaking about science in Gaidhlig – we just have to make the effort. Many teachers say its just too hard – but its only hard for them, as they are unaccustomed to discussing, say, chemistry in Gaidhlig; children who have been doing it all their school career lap it up. In GME primary schools, science is often done in Gaidhlig and a 2009 report concluded that this had no detrimental effect on performance:

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/273488/0081708.pdf 

Incidentally, one of my aims in life is to produce a popular science book in Gaidhlig and maybe present (or help make) a Gaidhlig documentary on science, writing the material straight in Gaidhlig, not translating. This would be a first, I think!

There is an argument that there is no utilitarian value in teaching kids science in Gaidhlig. I did Maths up to age 8 in Gaidhlig, then the teacher gave up saying I’d be doing it in English the rest of my life anyway. She was pretty justified. In countries like Denmark, no advanced-level physics textbooks are written in Danish as it would be too small a print run – they are in English instead. If you want your papers read you have to write in English – it’s the universal language of science, as Latin was in Newton’s time. This doesn’t preclude teaching kids basic biology (life cycles, food webs etc) in Gaidhlig though – in fact, this would be beneficial as it would provide an outlet for using the Gaidhlig words for flora and fauna, seldom used in urban Gaeldom.

When talking about science and Gaidhlig we can’t ignore the religious side to things. The islands are often called Britain’s Bible Belt, and judging by some exchanges in the West Highland Free Press a few years ago, there are many Christians in Lewis, Skye and Uist who are committed young earth creationists. On the other hand, from my own experience, many Gaidhlig clergy are very close to nature, and in fishing and walking the isles, know the true age of the universe. Remember Lewisian Gneiss is the oldest rock in the world!

Island Gaels certainly are very close to nature, and there is a Gaidhlig taxonomy of all life-forms encountered in the isles. There is also a lot of folk-science - tide-tables, husbandry, crofting techniques, meteorology – showing that daft claims that the Celt is more prone to mysticism than the rational Saxon are just that: daft. On the other hand, we do have a myriad of pagan traditions, such as second sight, orbs floating in the sky, and the magic of going clockwise. On my own island Eriskay, at the end of the 19th century, lots of ‘scientists’ came to investigate the phenomenon of second sight, trying to see if they could utilize it to predict things. The Gaels believed in second sight, and told stories of it – this willingness to embrace the non-Churchlinked supernatural persists to this day, even in a priest I know, and stems I think from the fact we live in a place where it still gets dark!

Finally, the historical Gaidhlig atheism movement is not scientific at all – it is based on poetry and the emotions, a reaction against the cold bite of Calvinism. Sorley MacLean said that he hated the clinical penetrating mind of the scientist: maybe scientific literalism was too similar in tone to soul-crushing Calvinist literalism for MacLean’s liking. I do get the feeling sometimes that Gaels revere nature in a way that isn’t scientific, but more an acceptance that this is a harsh life and we just have to fear nature. In poetry, at least, Gaels seem to celebrate the musical imagination rather than the scientific one. Here is a translation of a poem by Donald MacAulay, an atheist poet from Lewis:


"The fleet is shattered,

The mercernaries of the emperor,

Slaughtered, both red and white.

 

Euclid’s paraphernalia

Circle, pyramid and sphere

Are sent flying

With all his might

Along Einstein’s curved paths

And bashed against table legs,

Illustrious fame unheeded;

Getting lost in the darkness below it

An apple (of Newton’s)

Gnawed to its seed.

 

No tame order will withstand

This giant –

Striving to be two years old.”


It’s seems to be about the victory of childlike imagination against science. Though the poet himself claims its about the infinite potential of the child beating the stifling rules of the community. The clear references to Newton and Einstein give him away, and we see how science is equated with the Lewis community: namely, Calvinism. For me at least, that’s quite depressing! Why would you see the wonder and beauty of science as similar to the whining Wee Frees?!

Anonymous said: Can you put up a pronunciation guide with the corresponding numbers for us Scots transplants? Thanks!

I don’t know how to use the proper pronounciation notation, so I’ll just use crude English equivalents. Here are the first ten ordinal numbers. I have to go to work right now, but I’ll do a proper post tonight, and try and explain Gaidhlig pronounciations and stuff.

1. aon = oon (sort of a cross between ew and oo)

2. dha = cross between hard th and d, followed by a long ‘a’ as in ‘ahhhh!’

3. tri = tree (the ‘r’ is harder than in English, you need to roll it)

4. ceithir = kay-ith

5. coig = koh-ick (an ‘o’ as in coal, and the ‘ck’ is halfway between ‘ck’ and ‘g’.

6. sia = shee-ah 

7. seachd = shehchd (the ‘chd’ is like the ‘ch’ in loch followed by a hard ‘g.’

8. ochd = as above, but with ‘o’ as in rock.

9. naoi = nuh-ee 

10. deich = jay-chy (‘ch’ as in loch followed by a ‘y’ as in yacht)