Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Embo Gaelic and the Ross Family Television

Golspie had been great, even if we had left with the feeling that no-one was likely to keep up the Gaelic there. The incredible challenge that people face once they become the last handful amongst a vast and naturally ignorant English-speaking population must be intimidating to the point of desperation. Far easier to forget the Gaelic and assuage the shame. And who could blame anyone for that?

But just across the water was a village which people had considered non-Gaelic back in the 60s, despite a sizeable proportion of the inhabitants still speaking the tongue as a first language and in each other's company as a matter of choice. In fact, some of the people at that time would still refuse to alter their speech even when a non-Gaelic speaker was present. These noble souls were in the minority however and by 2010, there were only three people in the fishing settlement of Embo who could still converse fluently in Gaelic, and even then, lack of practice had made it that bit harder again for me to enjoy any sustained conversation with them. Most of the people -like the ones mentioned in the short clip below- were now incomers and even when resident in Embo full-time, had little awareness that the gulls, drizzle and fresh sea breeze that swept up the narrow streets had once vied for ascendency over the airwaves not with the television, but with Gaelic. This was a Scottish patois which retained many beautiful but unusual forms that were long thought of as almost eccentric to Gaels from elsewhere. And yet it had gone gradually, quietly, and almost without a trace.

Before we reached Caithness on our way north, Eilidh and I had arranged to call in on the Ross sisters, two ladies who had endeared so many of us to them in Mar a Chunnaic Mise -the story of Nancy Dorian's sterling work on Brora, Golspie and Embo Gaelic in the 1960s. It had literally floored me. Myself and my friend Seumas especially -who had sent me the link to the film and who had strong North-west and East Sutherland roots on his father's side- were deeply affected by the beauty of the dialect and the feeling of absolute helplessness as we watched a very neatly presented account of its death. And this in our own era, just a couple of hundred miles to the north, while plenty of people must have watched and thought: "There goes another relic, but of what real use is it anyway?"

It has always irked me that culture is seen as 'unnecessary' in the world we have inherited. Wherever you are in fact, as long as you are buying into the capitalist sham, cultures can be treated the same as many of our old people are: they can have lip-service paid to them and can be wheeled out for weddings, before going back to the vault to rot. Neither old people nor culture are in their natural forms viable business commodities. Unless celebrity or developed product, they are seen by the openly utilitarian Western world as dead-ends.

However, if something saleable can be identified, suddenly people are encouraged to indulge in their culture. Drink the whisky, wear the kilt, attend the cringe-makingly staged bash.... oh and wheel out Sean Connery if he's still alive. All the while the actual culture -that which is lived and breathed unconsciously by people who are steeped in it by the very fact of having been raised both in it and by it- slips out the back, under cover of the synthesized mist, never to be seen again.

So there we were in the Ross sisters big porch in Embo, feeling instantly welcome, not to mention tea and scones well to the fore, and talking about Gaelic and the effect of the television. Not only had I first seen the Ross sisters on a television programme, but they had just turned off the T.V. before we got there. What always affects me and what will continue to do so until the day I die, is the grace and warmth of people, whatever their culture, but at the same time, I couldn't avoid that feeling of helplessness taking over again as I realised that the sisters' fluency in their native tongue had slipped even in the time since the film was made five years earlier. It was happening in front of my eyes and I knew I could do nothing about it.

Eilidh made a valiant effort to capture us, but would take a couple of days to calm her hand and relax with the camera! :)

My feeling has always been that the T.V. is an incredible tool, like radio or steam-power, but that the technology has fallen into the wrong hands. Used correctly -as we tried to do ourselves with the little camera on our trip- it is irreplacable as a documentary tool. But it has become a ruthless medium for the absolute lowest common denominator, driven by the worst of our instincts, instead of something which could showcase the very best of what our culture has to offer. I genuinely cannot remember the last time I sat down in front of the box just for the sake of seeing what it had in store. It would be a completely useless gesture, as finding a good programme is like trying to find a Corncrake in Carntyne, or maybe even harder!

It must be incredibly easy to believe that what you see displayed on the screen is 'normal', even if only subconsciously. For the last 300 years, 'normal' in Scotland has been portrayed by those who wield the power as English, middle-class and in a state of accelerated evolution, where culture no longer has any value or meaning. The ubiquitous nature of the television has gradually brought this 'normality' over to a slightly altered position. Now it is English, mass-produced and in a state of accelerated devolution. T.V. is mob-rule, and the mob are certainly not Gaelic-speaking Scots from small fishing villages. Those particular individuals were left with little but the feeling that they must change and conform or be awkward and parochial.

The oracle that is the T.V. has now come to embody the aspirations of a culturally unaware majority, meaning that it would be incredibly difficult to ever convince a large section of the population that the most precious things they could conceivably hope to find could well be two doors down, ignominiously fading away with host into the frailness of age, instead of this seemingly widely-held belief that happiness is to be found anywhere but where you are right now.

And yet, the T.V. still remains a fantastic tool. It is something that like any other piece of technology has become defined by the history of its usage, and has acquired a notoriety through it, but that could still prove a medium for change. In the Ross family home, the damage has been done, the tele had chewed voraciously through the entire fabric of their existence, but had Wilma and Jessie not appeared on it, they would have been known and their story understood only by a tiny handful of academics and language enthusiasts. And so I find myself feeling thankful for a half hour -and many subsequent re-watchings- in front of the television substitute that is my computer monitor. 'Irony' just doesn't quite cover it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hecky's Bell and the Gaelic of Golspie

So there was no Gaelic left in Caithness? Maybe not. Maybe though, the person I met who I suspected had been holding out on me -as was their right- was in fact one of two people I had heard still spoke a smattering of it. They were -for reasons that are not within my right to discuss- not willing to enter into a dialogue about it and so I had to let it go. However my inquisitive side begged and pleaded with me to be disrespectful and turn on the CIA interrogation lamp to get the Gaelic out of them. I'm very glad I didn't.

But what I did know, was that there was at least one fluent speaker of Golspie Gaelic still with us, and it was Hayley and I's intention to track them down. No matter the miles between Golspie in East Sutherland and Berriedale, almost at the South-western corner of Caithness and the relatively sparse contact between the two places, the Gaelic would not have been particularly different. A cursory look at the 'Survey of Scottish Gaelic Dialects' published by the Dublin Institute shows this to be correct.

Arriving in Golspie randomly though, we would have to rely on sheer luck to get a hold of anyone. Our first two contacts turned out to be busy or unable to converse in Gaelic, but our third was a gem. Once again, Nancy Dorian had come through with the goods. She had sent me over from Maine a signed first edition copy of her book 'East Sutherland Gaelic' as reward for bringing my children up with Gaelic. A heroine, if ever there was one. I had spent the two weeks leading up to the trip reading it and learning the International Phonetic Alphabet by the seat of my pants to try and make myself understood to 'Northerners' by mastering some of the typical variations in speech!

And so we were received by Donald MacDonald. Here we have me trying to alter my Argyllisms to make myself understood and Hayley doing a grand job with the camera. Notice I hadn't quite realised the linguistic continuun from Lewis to Caithness with the word 'dè?' (what?) Throughout the northern quarter of Scotland, this is pronounced just like the English word 'day'.

It was great to meet Donald and his lovely wife and to come away with such a gem of cultural heritage.

The only question though? Who is taking up the mantle to learn Golspie Gaelic and prevent it's fossilization? Will it be just a relic of our culturally rich past, or a living badge of our identity as Scots and other people who love Scotland?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gaelic in Caithness

The Western half of Caithness was in many ways just an extension of Sutherland. The fact that there was a county border was culturally meaningless. The elder Scottish tongue was spoken until relatively recently as the first language of indigenous inhabitants and the evidence of this is remarkably easy to find online, or in print.

Not only that, but in looking for evidence of Gaelic in the area I myself had something of an advantage: I had oral tradition about Gaelic which had been passed to me with great vigour and pride by my grandmother. "All of our people had Gaelic Adam, but in those days, it was infradig to be heard speaking it in 'polite company'. My father's parents never spoke it to him and so he could only give a greeting or a toast... madainn mhath, oidhche mhath or slàinte mhath. But we should speak it still, it's terrible what happened to the Gaelic". When checking with the indefatigable and most accomodating Nancy Dorian -of East Sutherland Gaelic fame- I found that my grandmother's pronounciation of oidhche was absolutely bang-on. Inter-generational transmission alive and well. OK fine, so it was only one word....

But so it was, that when I discovered the lengths that some fools were willing to go to to obscure the Gaelic language's legacy, my daughter and myself set out up to Caithness and Sutherland to find out what we could from the old folk there.... and also whether there was any truth to the myth of the remaining native speakers.

I had heard an old man from North-west Sutherland talk about hearing the strange way the Caithness folk from his youth spoke Gaelic and I had heard the School of Scottish Studies' recording of James Sutherland, the Braemore crofter and my cousin's tale of Jasper Sutherland speaking only in Gaelic to his dog, from the 1950s. David Clement had regaled me with his fruitless wild goose chase for a reputed living speaker in the 70s and I had heard a rumour about a small family of isolated speakers in Canisbay -which some people believe is a part of Norway. I had heard tell of fishermen in Latheronwheel with Gaelic right up to the 1980s not to mention the rumour about the Gaelic-speaking Gunn sisters, alive in Dunbeath, in the late 90s, or even early this century.

It was 2010 and I had to find out if there was anything left. Purely, entirely and unadulteratedly for my own satisfaction and the cultural enrichment of my very soul. Allright, fine, it wasn't. I wanted to get one over on the small gaggle of anti-Gaelic muppets of course. There was that small detail to consider and it had to be dealt with.

Unfortunately -despite some close encounters with good candidates, we found neither the Gunn sisters, nor Gaelic speakers of Caithness birth, but we did get some sterling information and enough tea, cakes and drams to redefine hospitality for all time.

And just for the record? We didn't meet a single Caithnessian who was anti-Gaelic, not a one!

Here is a sound clip taken by my daughter Eilidh Ní Bhroin from our visit to a crofthouse that had changed little since the Gaelic was spoken within its walls and the great character who lives there and remembers the language only too well.

My warmest thanks to John Angus Miller for inviting us into his house on an incredibly windy day in spring, in a beautiful part of the world where my ancestors once scraped a living from sea and soil, *gu tric nan casarmachd, as they might have said themselves!

*often in their bare feet

Àdhamh Ó Broin

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Culture Vulture is all about

Our mission is to aid global cultural preservation in the face of the commercialist white-washing that is sweeping the planet by attempting to assist in halting the fossilisation of Scotland's incredibly rich cultural pastiche.   

We will seek out what still lives of our country's indigenous heritage in the hearts and minds of Scotland's people. We will knock on doors, traipse moors and drive miles with little but what we find to keep us going. We will do it in Gàidhlig, Lallan Scots and English. But we wont do it without help. Scotland's character, languages, and oral history are slipping out of being because of neglect -we need everyone who cares to get on board.

Where should we go? To whom should we speak? Where can we find Scotland still alive, behind the tat and the tourist shops, the faceless corporate brands and the integrity-less celebrity?

If you know of a place we should see, someone we should visit, or a something that may just cease to exist in the not-so-distant future, we want you to get in touch here and tell us all about it.

Even better, we'd love it if you went out there yourself and took a video or a soundclip of something precious and posted it up at the page (please ask permission of the people involved!).

But MOST IMPORTANTLY! Don't just record it! Re-internalise it, learn it, absorb it and pass it on to your children or there will cease to be a Scotland which is recognisable by virtue of its own character!

International Culture Vulturing warmly welcomed! Let's SHARE! :)