Donald E Meek

A Phonetical Matter

Dialect studies in any language are not usually accessible or indeed of particular interest to the general reader, if only for the fact that the bulk of information they contain is normally presented in phonetic script. Dr Seumas Grannd posseses all the skills of the professional dialectologist and brings them to bear on his study of the Gaelic of Islay, but he handles his linguistic materials in an unusually open and user-friendly fashion. This in fact reflects his method of work in the field. His questionnaire took a long time to complete, as he tells us, because his informants would often talk at length, expanding on matters that his questions suggested to them and to curtail such discussions would have been counterproductive. Dr Grannd adds: ‘It was also very enlightening because all my informants displayed a great knowledge of Gaelic culture and Highland history.’

The result is an engrossing study which centres on the Gaelic of Islay but refers throughout to a wide hinterland of other dialects. This is a book which will give immense pleasure to all those who are interested in Gaelic, whether they read it consecutively or just dip into it from time to time.

Education is the subject of Vol.11 of Scottish Life and Society, the Tuckwell Press series on Scottish Ethnology under the general editorship of Professor Alexander Fenton. Gaelic gets a number of mentions and an entire chapter contributed by Professor Charles Withers. This is a characteristically careful and lucid account: a synoptic view of the position of the language in Scottish education from the seventeenth century to the present day.

The last two volumes of Scottish Gaelic Studies contain between them twenty-eight articles, three in Gaelic, the remainder in English. With such an embarrassment of riches, one can only comment on a few of these, taken more or less at random. For those who read Gaelic, Michelle Nic Leoid’spaper on the poetry of Derick Thomson opens up new perspectives. William Gillies writes at length on Alexander Carmichael’s collection of tales and legends about the Mac Vurichs, that extraordinarily long-lived literary dynasty who were professional poets and historians to the Lords of the Isles and later to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. There are in Gaelic no terms for ‘Highlands’ and ‘Lowlands’; the perspective is cultural rather than geographical. Wilson MacLeod discusses this and more in his paper on the subject. The late Reverend William Matheson had in his possession the ‘lost’ collection of songs taken down in Eriskay in 1905 by the American musicologist Amy Murray. The collection is now in the National Library. Nancy McGuire’s article gives a list of the melodies, which are accompanied by titles or first line of text. A number of Gaelic words contain a root lu, with the basic idea of ‘movement’. Colin O Baoill analyses these, some of which are technical terms in piping. Anja Gunderloch suggests that Duncan Macintyre’s song on the Battle of Falkirk (1746) draws in a variety of ways on the popular Fenian ballad ‘The Lay of the Smithy’, and in places strikes a humorous, anti-heroic pose in opposition to the conventions of the ballad.

While the royal court of Scotland was Gaelic-speaking, patronage of poets, historians and men of art was guaranteed. Yet almost everything they wrote has been lost. Thomas Owen Clancy has now discovered a quatrain, hitherto overlooked, that is only preserved in a tract on metrical faults (one of the textbooks used in schools of poetry and rhetoric). Clancy dates it c. 1113, in the reign of Alexander I, and translates: ‘[It is] evil, what Mael Coluim’s son has done, / disadvantaging us in the eyes of Alexander, / he effects, along with every king’s son before now, / the plundering of stable Alba.’ The ‘king’s son’, which he explains in its technical sense of ‘warleader’, is demonstrably Earl David, later King David I.

Although only a fragment, this quatrain bears witness to the continuing presence and status of Gaelic at the court of Scotland in the twelfth century. Clancy’s discovery and his exegesis of the stanza are enormously important.

The Gaelic of Islay: A Comparative Study by Seamus Grannd, Department of Celtic, University of Aberdeen (Scottish Gaelic Studies Monograph Series 2), 2000. ISBN 0 95239 11 4 7.

Scottish Life and Society: Institutions of Scotland: Education edited by Heather Holmes, Tuckwell Press in association with The European Ethnological Research Centre. ISBN 1 86232 186 2.

Scottish Gaelic Studies edited by Donald E Meek with the assistance of Colm O Baoill, University of Aberdeen, Vol. XIX 1999 and Vol. XX 2000.

Copyright John MacInnes 2005.