Gaelic and historical consciousness
I am going to begin back in the summer of 1968 when my family went on holiday to Islay. Western Ferries had just introduced a roll on roll off car ferry to serve the island which made it lot easier to get to. We stayed at the Bowmore hotel and my parents quickly became friends with the owners Mr and Mrs Mottram which led to many return visits. Mr Mottram was from Glasgow but his wife Johanna was a Gaelic speaker from Lewis
Back then, according to 1971 census figures 50% of the island’s population were Gaelic speakers. I remember hearing Gaelic spoken in the hotel kitchen, in the shops and on the streets. It was as all pervasive as the scent of peat smoke which drifted around Bowmore and across the island.
This encounter with the language inspired my mother to attend evening classes in Gaelic taught by William Neill. At the same time Mr Neill was my history teacher at Castle Douglas High School where he tried to teach me Gaelic on Friday afternoons, though with little success.
Sadly, the 2011 census has revealed that only 20% of Islay’s population are Gaelic speakers. It was against this background of decline that the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 was passed by the Scottish Parliament to secure the future for this vital part of Scotland’s heritage. A key section of the 2005 Act was a requirement for all local authorities in Scotland to introduce Gaelic Language Plans.
This year Dumfries and Galloway Council have produced their Gaelic Language Plan.
What caught my eye as local historian was a short, 250 word section in Dumfries and Galloway’s Language Plan on the history of Gaelic in our region. I was not impressed. It seemed a rather grudging admission that yes, once upon a time Gaelic was spoken here. I wondered if other local authorities in the south-west had been more positive.
The Language Plans I looked at from Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire. These areas had all once been Gaelic speaking and had been part of a region called ‘Greater Galloway’ in the twelfth century.
Unfortunately, apart from a reference to the survival of Gaelic on Arran to ‘within living memory’ in the North Ayrshire Gaelic Language Plan and a reference to twelfth century Gaelic speakers in South Lanarkshire, there are no references to historic use of Gaelic in these other Gaelic Language Plans. Even with South Ayrshire, where Gaelic is reputed to have survived into the eighteenth century, the past does not speak.
As it stands then, this section from the Dumfries and Galloway Draft Gaelic Language Plan provides the most detail on the history of Gaelic in Dumfries and Galloway and south-west Scotland.
The history of Gaelic in Dumfries and Galloway dates from circa the 9th century. Dumfries and Galloway lay in territory where people spoke a Celtic language thought to be similar to that which has survived in Wales today.
Celtic languages are described as belonging to one of two groups known as “P” or “Q”. The “P” group includes Pictish, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and the “Q” group Gaelic, Irish and Manx. The languages in each group are related but were sufficiently different even in the 6th century for an interpreter to be required when St Columba met the Pictish King Bruide.
Evidence of the Gaelic in the region comprises places names evidence from everywhere west of the River Annan and a disputed song said to have been written in this area and which mentions Dalry, Carsphairn and Lochinvar. The name Galloway refers to the area’s mixed population of Gaelic-speaking and Norse peoples.
Gaelic may have survived as a spoken language in Dumfries and Galloway into the 17th century but was gradually superseded by Scots, particularly in the east of the region. We can see from the survival of many more Gaelic place-names that most of these were coined in more recent centuries. Indeed, there are a great many Gaelic topographical elements in the West of the council area for example Balmaghie and Balmaclellan and Auchencairn and Auchenmalg.
Gaelic suffered a progressive decline in Dumfries and Galloway, in common with most of the lowland counties of Scotland.
As my contribution to public consultation on the Plan, I proposed this ‘sexed-up’ version as an alternative.
The strongest evidence for Gaelic’s status as a national rather than regional language is the existence for 700 years of a ‘southern Gaeltacht’ in Dumfries and Galloway.
During the seventh century, Old English speakers from the kingdom of Northumbria extended their influence across most of southern Scotland.
Then, in the ninth century Dublin based Vikings disrupted Northumbrian power in south-west Scotland and weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The recently discovered ‘Galloway Viking Hoard’ illustrates the significance of this period.
The Viking impact opened the way for the settlement of south-west Scotland by the Gall-Ghàidheil, a Gaelic speaking people of Viking descent. The Gall-Ghàidheil probably originated in Argyll before moving east and south. They gave their name and Gaelic language to a ‘greater’ Galloway which extended across south-west Scotland by the end of the tenth century.
In the twelfth century, beginning with King David I’s grant of Annandale to Robert de Brus in 1124, Scottish kings extended their influence over south-west Scotland. This led to the decline of Gaelic, apart from in Galloway, where Gaelic survived into the sixteenth century.
The survival of Gaelic in Galloway is closely linked to the Wars of Scottish Independence. Through his mother Dearbhfhorghaill (Devorgilla), King John Balliol and his son Edward Balliol inherited the Gaelic Lordship of Galloway and the loyalty of Galloway’s Gaelic kindreds or clans. Support for Edward Balliol and his claim to the Scottish Crown lasted in Galloway until Edward’s death in 1365. Archibald ‘the Grim’ Douglas then gained control of Galloway and declared himself its new Lord.
Archibald and his successors were Scots speakers, but Gaelic persisted in the Lordship of Galloway. It was only after James II brought the Lordship to an end in 1455 that the Scots language finally gained the upper hand. By 1500, Gaelic speakers were probably in the minority.
By the time John Knox preached the Reformation to the ‘common people of Galloway and Nithsdale’ in 1562 he was able to do so in Scots and English. Gaelic is therefore likely to have given way to Scots in Dumfries and Galloway during the sixteenth century.
However, after 700 years, Gaelic had become firmly embedded in the landscape of Dumfries and Galloway. Edward Johnson- Ferguson published ‘The Place Names of Dumfriesshire’ in 1935 and noted that 45.8% overall were Gaelic rising to 60% in Nithsdale. Herbert Maxwell’s ‘The Place Names of Galloway’ was published in 1930. Of the 8000 place names Maxwell listed, 7500 are Gaelic.
In my covering letter to the Council I pointed out that-
It would appear from recent reports in the Dumfries and Galloway Standard ( 31 March) and Galloway News (1 April) that the local and national importance of Gaelic and its history in Dumfries and Galloway is not widely known. This lack of awareness helps explain some of the more negative reactions to the Gaelic Language Plan.
My hope is that by strengthening the ‘Gaelic in Dumfries and Galloway’ section of the Language Plan, the historical depth and importance of the region’s Gaelic past will be better understood and that this in turn will encourage positive responses to the Plan.
There is a complicating factor though. The focus of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 is on encouraging and promoting the contemporary use of Gaelic. It could therefore be argued that the historical use of Gaelic in south-west Scotland is not directly relevant to the Language Plan.
I believe such an approach would be very short sighted. Connecting the past and present use of Gaelic in Dumfries and Galloway is a way to develop a greater sense of historical consciousness. Historical consciousness adds depth to the present by including the fourth dimension of time to our experience of the world. Without historical consciousness we can never really know or understand the world we live in.
This is particularly important in a rural area like Dumfries and Galloway where the pace of change is slower than in more urban areas. In urban areas, the process of ’creative destruction’ is continually breaking up the past as old buildings are demolished and new ones constructed. In the city, everything is temporary.
In rural areas it can easily be assumed that what exists today has always existed, that the patterns of the present are the patterns of the past. But add the dimension of time, add historical consciousness and the perspective shifts. The familiar becomes strange and the ‘otherness’ of the past becomes a disconcerting presence.
However, wrapped up as most of us are in the immediacy of the present, it is not often that we are disturbed by the presence of the past. It is even rarer for presence of the past to appear in a formal, institutional context. And yet it now has, tucked away in Dumfries and Galloway’s Gaelic Language Plan 2016-2021.
As reports in the local press showed, the very idea that Gaelic should be granted public recognition as one of Scotland’s national languages has disturbed a few councillors and members of the public.
The difficulty is that the absence of historical consciousness at national and local level includes ignorance of our region’s Gaelic heritage. That this ignorance has economic and political implications is illustrated by these quotations from Professor James Kellas book ‘The Scottish Political System’ first published in 1973. The quotations are from a chapter on ‘The Highland Periphery’.
Much of the sympathy for the Highlands is based on the feeling that if its way of life were to perish, Scottish nationality itself would be in danger. This accounts for the adoption of pseudo-Highland ways in the Lowlands, and support given for public expenditure to prop up the Highland economy.
The Borders are to some extent a second Scottish periphery…The area is closer to population centres than the Highlands and there is no crofting economy. The Gaelic culture is absent, so that cultural cleavages with the rest of Scotland are much less marked.
There is an irony here. Since moving back to Dumfries and Galloway from London 20 years ago, I have lost count of the number of times local politicians have complained that as part of Kellas’ second periphery, Dumfries and Galloway receives less public expenditure to support our economy than the Highlands do.
For example, as part of her recent election campaign, Joan McAlpine proposed that Dumfries should be given city status. As Ms McAlpine explained
Dumfries and Galloway faces very similar economic challenges to the Highlands and the Borders, both of which are now set to benefit from substantial investment in economic development that our region is excluded from accessing. I have been thinking about this for some time but it’s come to a head with the new City Region deals being pushed by George Osborne. Dumfries has always been the regional capital – hence its Queen of the South title – but it is not treated as such. This isn’t a new thing, it goes back decades. I will work with anyone to raise ambition and secure the investment the whole region needs.
In her less successful election campaign, Aileen McLeod said that if elected she would lobby to have the recently discovered Galloway Viking Hoard to be given a home in the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery.
Unfortunately the new political map of Scotland which emerged after last week’s elections may make it more difficult to achieve city status for Dumfries and make it more difficult to mobilise support for the Viking Hoard to be given a home in Kirkcudbright.
There may also be difficulties for the Dumfries and Galloway Gaelic Language Plan. Back in March, Councillor Finlay Carson objected to the Plan, complaining that ’It is another example of ideological nonsense being forced on us by central government.’ Mr Carson now represents Galloway and West Dumfries in the Scottish Parliament.
Yet if Dumfries was to become a city and if the Viking Hoard did come to Kirkcudbright, these moves would have significant economic benefits. Most importantly, along with the Gaelic Language Plan they would also stimulate awareness of our past and help to connect us with the places we inhabit today which we have inherited from those who lived here before.
Unfortunately without an already existing historical consciousness, rather than attracting the popular support necessary to overcome institutional opposition, these bold ideas are likely to peter-out in collective apathy and indifference.
One of the roots of our local indifference to the past may lie in the physical loss of the historic landscape of Dumfries and Galloway in the late eighteenth century agricultural revolution. This revolution rationalised the medieval farmed landscape out of existence. But, apart from the brief opposition of the Galloway Levellers in 1724, unlike the Highland Clearances, the Lowland Clearances were a silent and unopposed revolution. Quite why the transformation of a whole traditional way of life was carried through so easily has never really been explained.
I wonder if the underlying reason is that a more profound break with the landscape and heritage of the past had already occurred. It had occurred with the loss of the Gaelic language here. So long as the language survived, the Gaelic names of farms, rivers, woods, hills and wildlife along with now lost stories and songs were part of a centuries old historical consciousness. When the language died here, so did those intimate connections between people and place.
It is possible that the enthusiasm for the Reformation, which became deeply embedded in the south-west, was a response to the loss of the Gaelic language and culture. Religion became a psychological substitute for what was being lost. If it did, that goes some way to explaining why the people of the south-west, of what had been greater Galloway, put up such a determined defence of their new religion during the seventeenth century. When the Galloway Levellers uprising broke out in 1724, the Levellers armed wing was drawn from a group of still militant covenanters called the Hebronites.
But by the end of the eighteenth century, the passions of the past had faded. Although the Gaelic names of about 2000 farms in Dumfries and Galloway survived, the traditional farm buildings and the irregular pattern of the fields which had surrounded them were all swept away. The past had irreversibly and literally become another country. The economic triumph of capitalist farming marked the final stage of the alienation of the people from the land.
In Dumfries and Galloway, unlike in the Highlands, the alienation of people from the land was long drawn-out rather than rapid and immediate. It is easy to forget, as many do, that Gaelic was once the language of the people here and remains embedded in the names those Gaelic speakers gave to the hills and rivers, farms and villages, glens and lochs of Dumfries and Galloway.
This forgetting has more than historical and cultural significance. I suggest that it feeds into a sense of economic and political alienation which sees our region as isolated from the rest of Scotland.
It is therefore a great achievement that the whole of Scotland, including Dumfries and Galloway, will soon be covered by Gaelic language plans, which will help to overcome the linguistic and cultural divide between Highland and Lowland Scotland.
But this symbolic unification of Scotland must be matched by practical policies which promote the economic and social inclusion of rural areas, including the rural south, into the body politic of the nation. Until then we will remain strangers in a strange land which was once our home.