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’N Linnet Mór: a 19th century Gaelic poem: a window on the language of an Easter Ross community

Seosamh Watson, University College Dublin, National University of Ireland

The village in the Nigg peninsula where the song under discussion was composed lies some 80 km to the north-west of Inverness. The abundant cornfields one passes through in summer to reach the Gaelic community of the coast present a picture at variance with many other regions – particularly in the west - where the language survived into modern times. There are other contrasts too: the staunch evangelical vein for which the natives have been celebrated since the 18th century, was found in a stronger measure in the local clergy and reinforced by the gentry of the place. This it was, by and large, which insulated the population from the vicissitudes accompanying Jacobite politics in that age, but it also prevented them from having a share in the prolific literature which characterised the era in question. In token of which, probably the best-known member of the local Gaelic community was the Rev. George Mackay, Free Church Minister of Fearn from 1909 till his death in 1944 and celebrated in Alasdair Phillips reminiscences, My Uncle George (Drew 1984). Mackay’s Gaelic sermons for which he was noted and in which, allegedly, he eschewed the local dialect do not appear to have survived, however.

In spite of the clergy’s efforts, the folk tradition was still thriving to a notable degree when I first arrived there approximately one generation after Mackay’s death. I was attracted to work with the declining Gaelic community of the area precisely because of its endangered status. The vast blank tracts on the map of Wagner’s Irish Gaelic Atlas, together with the lamentations of Dublin-based scholars of former generations distilling the linguistic extract from the city’s manuscript collections while, at the same time, bemoaning the obsolescence of our own peripheral dialects in Ireland, had made me determine to try and make a difference to the scene in Scotland – some attempt to flesh out the admirable skeleton of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland as far as the Easter Ross was concerned. And so it was, through the good offices of Dr John MacInnes, after a few trial bore-holes in the area of the Black Isle, that in the summer of 1967, I opted to do my major exploration work in the Seaboard Villages (Na trì port mor’) of Shandwick (Seannduaig), Balintore Bail’ ’n Todhair) and Hilton-of-Cadbol (Bail’ a’ Chnuinc).

It was here that Magne Oftedal had collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland in the first of these villages in 1958 and Terence McCaughey one year later in the neighbouring north-coast village of Inver (An Inbhir) (in which I also worked).

At the time of my own arrival there were, to my knowledge, no households in which Gaelic was still routinely spoken: only during the course of visits or casual encounters would neighbours, siblings and other relatives speak Gaelic – provided there were no non-Gaelic-speakers present. The folk memory, as mentioned, was lively, if limited and had numerous layers to it: stretching down as deeply as the period of the Norse invasions. The Picts, however, in the heart of whose ancient territory, as both the toponomy and archaeological record clearly indicate, the modern population are located, had been consigned to oblivion, their ancient monuments ascribed instead to the Scandinavian invader: a Norwegian king allegedly having set up the Shandwick stone to commemorate his sons who were treacherously slain in a vain attempt to avenge a sister’s honour. Apart from such myths and traditions anchored in place-names, most surviving folk material relates to the period of the last century and a half: despite the fact, for example, that we have it on no less an authority than Hugh Miller that the Hill of Nigg, now the scene of more mundane activities, was once the haunt of the Fianna, no recollection of these warriors’ activities is preserved among the local tradition-bearers. On the other hand, the fact that the forebears of various of today’s families arrived in the area from Sutherland – some as a result of the Clearances - was still recounted and memories of other cataclysmic events are similarly represented in the repertoire. The visitation of the cholera epidemic on the area, for example, is still commemorated in the stone in Nigg graveyard under which a captured physical manifestation of the plague was believed to have been interred. The effects of the influenza epidemic, in particular, which raged in the area early in the 20th century were brought home to me very forcefully since it was this pestilence which snatched away from my main informant in one fell swoop not only her young husband but also the elder of her two infant children. The second of the world wars was, by the time of my visits, the one more vividly recalled, with accounts of the destruction by enemy submarine action of the Natal while at anchor off Invergordon, and of the departure for the fleet of young men from the locality who were later to be lost on the troopship Jellicoe. Foreign evacuees who lived locally - and were also fortunate enough to receive instruction in the local dialect of English (though not in Gaelic!) - also figure in the oral record of the area. So, too, does the temporary presence in the area of an RAF base in which some local people, including my chief informant, succeeded in finding gainful employment – a case of an ill wind!

In addition to my initial visits to Easter Ross during 1967, during which I collected for most of the summer, I returned on extended field-trips during the summers of 1975 and 1977 and periodically revisited since that time until the mid-1980s, a point which marked the passing of the last of my Gaelic informants. The collection of oral texts assembled by me during that period – as a by-product of investigations into the dialect, I might point out – contains many items relating to various of the subjects just mentioned. There are, additionally, a very few international tale-types, numerous personal recollections, some descriptions of local characters and events, and accounts of the various occupations undertaken locally. Notable in this final category are anecdotes and memorates relating to the fishing industry in all its manifestations, including, in particular, material on village women engaged at the herring stations in Yarmouth, Lowestoft and elsewhere, as well as on the fishwives (na bana-mhoraichean) who travelled out to market their products throughout the length and breadth of their home area. Folk medicine too is represented in the collection to a degree but this, together with a very limited reflection of the existence of witchcraft, was presented, for reasons which have been alluded to, somewhat reluctantly and not always with an easy conscience.

The (still unpublished) collection of oral literature in question, amounting to something under 100 pp of text, along with a few hundred more proverbial and traditional sayings (recently published) constitutes all one might have expected by way of a literary heritage - albeit oral - from an area such as this which had always been, by every admission, a backwater of Gaelic culture. But to this we can add - one Gaelic tombstone. For in Nigg graveyard from the second half of the 19th century a single grave-slab is extant, constructed at the expense of a Tain pharmacist and eulogising a local minister in a form of Gaelic which is recognisably local.


  1. A Mhaighistir McAdam na h-àill’!
    Bu ghoirt am buill dhuinn do bhas
    Is iomadh neach do chloinn nan gras
  1. Rinn sud ro-chraiteach muladach
    Bha agad gibhtean aithnicht treun
    Is buadhan naduir bha d’an reir
    Ach thug thu m barrachd measg nan ceud
  1. An tuigse gheur, s am breithneachadh’
    Gun teagamh bheannaich Dia nan gras
    Gu saoibhir pailt do shaothair ghraidh
    Bidh iomradh oirr [?r]i fad ar la
  1. Is cluinnidh ’n t-al nach d’rugadh uimp

This material, in itself, would provide us with an interesting enough footnote to the corpus of Gaelic material from the area. But the story is a little bit grander than this. The record of Gaelic literature in Easter Ross changed forever when, in the storm-blown month of January 1843, a small vessel named the Linnet found itself in trouble on the rocks off the coast north of the village of Hilton. The fact that a number of local males (some of them married men) lost their lives in a vain bid to salvage the craft means that the event has retained an enduring place in local folk memory, with, however, varying degrees of clarity. The following are 2 brief versions translated from accounts given by Gaelic informants born in the early 1870s and the late 1880s respectively.

  1. Tháinig i gu tír seo is bha i air na cragan agus chaidh crew às an àite an seo bhàn is bha iad examinigeadh i. Fhuair iad caskachan is cheangail iad caskachan ri taoibh na soitheach is nuair thàinig an tìde steach, na caskacha – bha i air-tight, is leis na caskacha dh’éirich an siotheach do na cragan. Is chaidh iad air bòrd i is thàinig stoirm is thug i an soitheach air falbh is a’ chrew a bhuineadh do seo còmhla rithe. Agus mìltean air falbh bho seo chaill iad uile am beatha. Is bha aon balachan òg air bòrd ...
  2. [She came ashore here and went on the rocks and a crew went down from this place and they were examining it. They got casks and tied the casks to the vessel’s side and when the tide came in she was air-tight and with the casks the vessel rose from the rocks. They went on board her and a storm came and took the vessel away, and the crew that belonged to here with her. And miles away from here they all lost their lives. And there was one youngster on board ...]

  3. Se long mór a bha innte. Thàinig i bho pàirtean fad às an t-saoghal. (...) Chan eil fhios agam c’às a thàinig i. Ach nuair thàinig i – chuir iad fios, chaidh iad steach an àiteigin is chuir fios airson pilot às seo. (...) Agus chaidh am brogach òg so – cha robh e ach ’na (?)slùsach òg – chaidh èise còmhla ris am pilot airson chur an Linnet a-steach anns am port an sin shìos, Port Làirig. Fuirich thusa, nis. Nuair chaidh (...) mur’n do ruig iad Port Làirig, thàinig am muir a-steach air an long is (...) dh’fhàs an coirce nuair fhuair e an t-uisge. Fuirich thusa! Dh’at e mach. Dh’at e mach, am bheil thu faicinn, agus, nis, cha robh an còrr aca ach feuchainn an ruitheadh iad steach aig Port Làirig. Is cha dàinig iad steach Port Làirig. Cha do ruig iad – chaidh iad steach aig Cadbol...Chaill iad uile am beatha is cha b’urrainn leis an stoirm – cha b’urrainn do neach anns an t-àite so dhol a-mach. Cha robh sgoth fit a dhol a-mach. (...) Bha iad nis deis...Le stoirm ainchriosdail a bha ann – stoirm mór (...) chuir e steach a Chadbol nis i ann am mìrean, ’na creimeagan.

[She was a big ship. She came from distant parts of the world – I don’t know where she came from. But when she came they went in somewhere and they sent a pilot from here. And this young boy went – he was only a youngster. He went along with the pilot to bring the Linnet into port over there, Port Làirig. ... Before they reached Port Làirig the sea came in on top of the ship – the oats on board expanded when they took the water. ... It became swollen, do you see? Now the men couldn’t do anything else except try to run in at Port Làirig. They didn’t reach it – they went in at Cadbol. ... They all lost their lives and because of the storm nobody in this place could go out. There was no boat fit to go out. So they were all done for. ... Because of the fierce storm there was ... now it put her in to Cadbol in fragments, in bits.]

Surviving newspaper accounts of the tragedy, assuming they have not contributed to local memories of the event, serve to confirm, as well as to fill out, the traditional picture of what occurred. Here follows the report given in The Edinburgh Evening Courant of Thursday January 19, 1843, which expanded on a brief account of the previous week’s edition, both copying the Ross-shire Advertiser. The latter’s report would date the event to Wednesday 4 January 1843:

...A correspondent writes us as follows: - "The Linnet of Sunderland having been, by distress of weather, driven on the rocks below Cadboll House some time ago, the hulk or hull was purchased by two fishermen at Balintore, and by a farmer in partnership, with a view to repair and refit it for sea. Every means were resorted to that ingenuity could suggest, by empty casks, to get the ship off the rocks, but all proved fruitless. Then they tried to get the wreck up beyond the floodmark on the beach, in the same place, but were quite baffled in their attempt, the labour of one day being undone the next by the surf. Their next plan was to give the hulk a second deck. This was carried on speedily, and they succeeded in launching her to sea, with a view to drag her west by ropes to Balintore Bay; and about two o’clock in the afternoon of the 4th instant a considerable number of the friends of the purchasers gave their assistance to tow the hull by boats to said bay, and succeeded in dragging her the length of the front of the fishing village of Hilton of Cadboll. Here the dark and dismal stormy night having come on, they cast anchor where they were. Two small boats being alongside the wreck, they observed that the vessel was adrift, and hauled in the chain without the anchor, as unfortunately, the chain parted with it; but their imminent danger was not visible in the meantime. Two men, however, alive to their hazardous situation, jumped into one of the yawls alongside, and made towards the shore, anxious to get to land. At this crisis, the next yawl, and the only one remaining, was rowed ashore by [the] other two men, with a view to procure an anchor that was lying on the beach; and scarcely had either of the two boats reached the shore, when a tremendous hurricane commenced, when none could venture to put to sea, to go back to the wreck, and one of the owners with [an]other six men were lamentably left on it to be seen no more. The lives lost were four married men from the village of Balintore, and three from the village of Hilton. Of all the severe bereavements and lamentations in these villages, known by the oldest men living, such a scene of mourning and bitter lamentation as is in this village at present hs never been witnessed".

Accounts in The Inverness Courier of 11 and 18 January 1843 respectively are substantially similar in detail, except that the first speaks of a boat putting out in search of the lost men soon after and the second recounts the conclusion of the tragedy as follows:

... [N]o efforts were left untried to save them, but they were never seen more; and their fate is now, we fear, too apparent, the wreck having been driven, bottom up, upon the sands of Boyndie, near Banff, on Monday, last week, thus having, in three or four days, drifted across the mouth of the Moray Firth. Other rumours have reached us. It is said that a boat, despatched to the Moray shore, found the wreck near Burghead, with two handkerchiefs at the mast. Another states that the body of one of the men has been washed ashore in that quarter. Slender as the thread of hope is that any of the unfortunate men survive, it is eagerly clung to by their disconsolate families.

Though these accounts do not indicate the size of the vessel, the memory in the locality is that she was large (one local account claims 150-60 tons). There are, however, a number of Certificates of British Registry on record for the vessel which enables us to gain this as well as other information, including the fact that the unfortunate boat had already been in trouble on that same coast for she had been stranded at Macduff on 23 February 1836. The last certificate granted (No. 158, 30 December 1841 [BT 107 – 278]) lists her as 58 1690/3500 tons, with railway inspector, George Little of Monkswearmouth, Co Durham, as sole owner and John Bainbridge as master. The port of Sunderland is given as the yard of construction and the following description is appended from the Certificate of Registry (No. 253) granted on 22 June 1837: ‘1 deck, 2 masts, 52.9 ft long 16.2 ft breadth, 9.4 ft depth, schooner, rigged with standing bow-spit, square sterned, carvel built, no galleries, no figure head’. The details conclude by noting that the vessel was ‘lost per Annual list 1842. Vessel wrecked near Inverness per Lloyd’s List 2 November 1842’.

While the official records supply us with much missing detail, they are obviously misleading in regard to the actual date of the wreck and do not, of course, specify the nature of the lost cargo. The latter, as we note from the oral account given above, is recollected in the area as having been oats – or possibly barley. Since the vessel was shipping from a mining area of north-east England it would not seem unlikely that she would have been ferrying coal to north-east Scotland and transporting local produce, such as oats, south on the return journey, and one of my informants has a recollection of hearing that this was, indeed, the case . My main informant, moreover, recalls salvaging during World War I on her own account - and heavily pregnant at the time - fully a ton of coal which came ashore from the wreck of a steamer which went aground in much the same area as the Linnet. A great stir was evidently caused in the area by the Linnet’s going aground and the labour involved in attempting to re-float her. There are, for example, stories of local people, including at least one youngster, going on board the re-floated wreck ‘just for the fun of it’ and of a particular man who escaped drowning because he reputedly left on account of drinking that was going on on board. Others watched from the safe distance of the shore and the warning cry of one of these: ‘Tha i gluais’d!’ is still preserved. Items about the Linnet formed part of a commemorative project carried out in the villages in 1988 in the course of which a particular tradition concerning the wreck came to light. I cite an excerpt from a letter (4 May 1988) written to me by the daughter of my chief informant: A woman in Balintore took to the [exhibition] Hall a ring that was handed from the Linnet. This man Skinner saved the Capt. and he [the captain] took the ring from his finger and give it to Skinner. It has been handed down from one generation to another. I had not heard of it before. And nor had I, for my part, come across any mention of it among people I had interviewed.

Yet, in addition to the lasting impact the tragedy undoubtedly had on local families, there was one other major feature of the event which served to fix it in the minds and memories of the community for a local man was moved to compose an elegy on neighbours who were lost in the drowning. Fifty-six quatrains in length, it bears the title MARBH-RANN AIR DAONAIBH CHAIDH DHITH AIR BORD SOITHEACH BHRISTE A CHAIDH MACH AIR CLADACH CHATBOIL aig toiseach a bhliane (sic)1843 LE ARTAR ROSS ANN AN SGIRE NA MANACHAINN (‘Elegy on people lost on board a wrecked vessel which departed from Cadboll shore at the beginning of the year 1843 by Arthur Ross in the Parish of Fearn’). The song was composed in the manner of Peter Grant or Dugald Buchanan’s hymns, which appear to have been popular in the villages at one time and is said to have been sung to the same tune as Grant’s song Latha a’ bhreitheanais, though this is highly unlikely on account of the significant difference in meter between the two. As a work, it intersperses an account of how the tragic happenings unfolded together with reflections on the themes of divine judgment and mercy and the celestial reward in store for those whose lot was Christian salvation. I was able to recover only a few stray quatrains from the oral tradition of the villages, such as the following

’N Linnet mhór bha siubhal a’ chuan
thàinig i steach air oidhche ghruaim
tháinig i steach air oidhche ghruaim
is thilg an stoirm a Chabdail
(sic) i

[The great Linnet that was travelling the ocean
she went astray on a gloomy night,
she went astray on a gloomy night,
and the storm cast her in at Cadboll.

Seocan Mhorair, ’m meangan òg
thàinig dìreach bho ghlùin a mhàthair:

Có chreideadh am-miosg an sluagh
gu robh am bàs cho fagais air?

[Wee Jock Vorar, the young branch
who came straight from his mother’s knee:
who would believe among the people
that death was so close to him?]

Quatrains like the above collected from the oral tradition diverge notably from the printed version of which I obtained a number of copies and in some cases lines from different quatrains have been conflated in the oral version.

The poet of whose work this appears to be the only extant composition is recalled as having belonged to a family which lived in the Loans of Hilton and one informant recalls a tradition describing his brother, David, as an outstanding elder in the local congregation. The tradition in question is supported by the census records of 1851 which show the latter, aged 55 as a farmer with 20 acres in the Loans. He is head of a household comprising, among others, sister Elspet aged 57, and their brother Arthur, aged 53. (The David Ross in question is not unlikely to have been the elder at whose meeting of 30 August 1882 three baptisms are registered in the Free Church Session Book.).

As a poem, The Linnet probably circulated in written form – and to some degree orally – until a woman from the neighbouring village of Rockfield (Tarail Bheag) had a printing done [n.d.] by the Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company of Inverness, possibly around the middle of the last century. Certainly, copies had become sufficiently scarce by the time the Gaelic scholar, the Rev. Thomas M. Murchison, demonstrated interest in the song in 1962, for him laboriously to type out a copy of the whole song, with multiple carbon copies, from this source and insert accents afterwards in ink. The publication by two local women in 1971 of a study of traditional life, Down to the sea: an account of life in the fishing villages of Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick, undoubtedly helped to re-focus attention on the Linnet episode, which would have become less significant as, more and more, Gaelic-speaking began to decline in the community, making it probable that it was in this, or the following, decade that a non-local Gaelic-speaker produced an English translation of the entire song.

The fact that Ross named in the song five local males who perished will have ensured, in the context of the wide-ranging kinship ties within the villages, that, for as long as Gaelic speech flourished here, the tradition of singing it would continue and this appears to have lasted until about the period of Murchison’s typescript. Significantly, the last person who is reputed to have sung the Linnet was a member of one of the families who lost members in the drowning. Her family name, Mhorair (< Mormhar, gen. Mhormhair), is the same as that given in the song, where three members of this particular kin-group, Iain, Domhal and Alidh are recorded. Bearers of the name Mhorair, which is not used locally as an independent surname, are clearly recognised, according to the Hilton tradition, as being Mackenzies and if we can identify some of the Mhorair deceased correctly on the basis of census returns they may well be members of the same Mackenzie household which seem to have lost not only Donald, the head of the household, for his wife, Christy (1841 Christian), is listed as a widow in the 1851 Hilton returns. Also absent from the latter are sons Alex (aged 4 in 1841) and John (2 years in 1841). (Iain Mhorair is usually called by the pet-name Seocan in oral versions of the song and in traditions relating to this.) Identification seems fairly certain also in the case of the one individual of the surname Tarail, Iain, (the only one of this surname mentioned in the song) who is referred to as ’n gasan ùr, and whom village tradition recalls as a younger teenager, perhaps not yet fourteen, for one John Tarrell of Hilton (recorded at age 10 in the 1841 Census) disappears from the family group according to the census record of 1851. One - or two, if my own identification is correct - of the Hilton victims, therefore, who are commemorated by the song do not feature in press accounts. Unlike the name Mhorair which was not inscribed in the Census returns, the Tarail name although strongly linked to the surname Macdonald locally, has a number of entries in the official record. In the case of the third surname attributed by the poet to individuals lost on board, namely Tàlach, there exists a similar problem to that of Mhorair, namely that it does not exist as an independent surname in the census records, in addition to which Hilton tradition fails to preserve any details which could illuminate the case for us. One Shandwick source suggests the family name in question to have been Skinner and there are a number of strong local traditions, as, for example, the one cited earlier, which connect people of this name with the Linnet, including the claim that some of them were drowned but I have failed so far to locate a Finlay Skinner who disappears from the census record between 1841 and 1851. As to the question why Arthur Ross should single out these particular individuals for mention, it would seem at least possible, in view of the religious nature of the song that he felt some special connection to these families through the Church.

The song, in addition to its value as local socio-historical document, is an illuminating linguistic source also. There is no doubt, in addition to the devotional hymns already referred to and other prose items of a spiritual nature, that the Gaelic work most read in the villages in Ross’s time would have been the Gaelic Bible and the literary influence of such works is clearly visible at a number of levels. In the orthography forms such as choidil 38; and fein 107 and feud 38, 197 surface; while in the substantive morphology we note the historical genitive Dhe 63 as against Dhia 189, together with plural forms in –a: tonna 50 , ceuma 100; and, following the prep. an, instances of dat. pls in –ibh: cragaibh 17; piantaibh 38; tuiltibh 121; aimh’ntibh 166, as well as air daonaibh in the title of the work. Similarly affected is pronominal morphology where we note cha shnamh se 184, 2. sg prepositional forms in –it: dhuit 78,84; uait 63. The 3 pl. form dhoibh 21, 50, 121 is likewise notable, as are 1 pl. poss. adj. ar (doigh) 1, the dissyllabic future dep. form d’thabhair 160 and items of vocabulary such as pill 78, cia 38 (‘although’) and, possibly suas 78, in the sense of ‘up’ and siubhal 13 meaning ‘travel’. With regard to those traits which betray local speech. though one cannot, of course, be absolutely certain that a few of those now presented might not have been features of the dialect of Hilton village a few generations earlier than that noted during my own investigation, there are a number of linguistic items characteristic of the latter which are clearly represented in the mid-nineteenth century text as we have it, as confirmed either by the orthography, which is - thankfully – extremely liberal in its use of the apostrophe, or else by the meter of the song where we have end-rhyme between a and b, as well as imperfect aicill (assonance) between the final of c and an internal syllable in d.

A notable feature of the twentieth century dialect is the tendency for inherited short unstressed vowels to be lost in a number of positions, both through aphaeresis, final apocope and also as a result of internal syncope. These are features which are clearly reflected in the Linnet text: final apocope (exclusive of line-final position where it may be employed as a metrical device) is indicated in the following:

cuirs’ 38, brist’, 17 breitheamhs’ 121, thus, chot 107, sláint’ 117, dhas’ 187 ait’ 217 ac’ 50, pòsd 201. That it was not confined to positions following voiceless consonants seems indicated by: teachdar 63, trocair 195 and uin 107, ùin 197, while leath’ 26 uath 26 and rius’ most likely indicate its appearance after inherited hiatus.

Indications that aphaeresis was already a feature of the poet’s dialect are abundant. This phenomenon (which, owing to the nature of the Gaelic language mainly affects adverbial forms and proclitics) is demonstrated in the following: ’N Linnet 13, Iad steach 56, an siud measg 62, Deigh dhol dhuit 80, ’N coinnidh 90, la an fhoghar ’g eiridh 183, etc; together with the related phenomenon of elision in interconsonantal position of schwa as (initial of) preposition, relative particle, possessive adjective, and so on: cia dòruinneach bha 41, a dh’fheudas chuir 46, ’N uair chaidh 47, spot ’n do 111, a shaighead [an] sas 148, ni ghlanadh leis 156, rud rinn dion 169, dorus trocair ’bhaile dhian 193. Internal Syncope is likewise represented in a number of examples: gun ghluas’d 17, nach b’urrt’ [urrainn d-] 125, cliuth’chadh 139 and chuid’cheas 150. As far as the the epenthetic vowel is concerned, realised in the modern dialect as schwa or /i/, depending on the phonological environment, this is not indicated in the orthography and the poet clearly recognises svarabhakti forms for he rhymes these together, including mairbh (modern /mari/): dh’fhalbh 211-12, save in the single instance dh’fhalbh: bheairn 217-18, where there is a rhyme with a lengthened historical short vowel. Loss of palatalised /r¢ /, as in the modern dialect, is clearly detectable in the following instances: furach 28, treor 34, cuirs’ 38, teachtar Dhe 66, lasar 184, a chobhar 220, 221; as well as the falling together of lenited palatalised and non-palatalised n indicated in the orthography by forms such as cathain 149, baile dhian, 190, bhaile dhion 195 (though these may, equally, be cases of an uninflected genitive case. The non-palatalised l in gleann: do ghlan is attested in the twentieth-century dialect; and vocalisation of final –adh is shown in: tuireadh’n aite 2, and chliuth’chadh’n Ti 139 and the pronunciation as /u/ of the morpheme in question and, indeed, of –amh is confirmed by the orthography in bu sheasadh cruaidh 32, and, indeed, by the first example cited. The familiar modern rounding of high back vowel before a historical voiced labial fricative is confirmed by the rhyme for taobh (:chlius’) 87-8 and chraobh: ùr 105-06. With regard to verbal morphology we note the short form of the past tense thàinig: thàn’ an uair 31 and the pronunciation of 2 pl. ipv –ibh as /i/, familiar in the 20th century dialect, is apparent in the orthography of iarraidh sibhs’ 157. Loss of genitive forms in nouns (where they are not adopted as nominatives, cf. modern undifferentiated sgs. leas[a],meal[a], salainn ), as likewise in adjs and the article is a noteworthy characteristic of the last native-speakers of the area and this feature is also strongly represented in the text: toiseach a’ bhliane(sic, in the poem’s title)’n aite ceòl 2, tonna (thonnaibh 57), chuan 54, uair a bhreitheanas 56, ’g iarraidh ’n t-ullachadh 94, Bioball Dhia 189, a mhealtainn sith is sonas buan 138, na doirionn [doineann] ud 148, a ghabhail tamh 223. The forms glun do mhathair 110 and la an fhoghar may either betray this feature in the poet’s dialect (or that of a subsequent local scribe) or else simply the loss of palatalised /r¢ /, while in the case of thus’ bu thairis gnuis 98 it is impossible to say whether this is simply final apocope or an example of the loss of the comparative form commonly found in later speech. In the category of syntax one notable feature of the latter is the placing of a noun as object of a verbal noun after the latter in other cases than in constructions with ag and an example of this from the text would appear to be neart chum seinn a chliu gu h-ard 158.

In general, therefore, while the poet has striven, as far as possible, to adhere to literary norms insofar as they were known to him – to which the multitude of historical genitive forms and other traditional morphological features found throughout the text testifies – he appears willingly to adopt features of his own dialect when these prove useful to metrical ends. Other strategies also are employed for this purpose, such as the familiar inversion of subject and object or other adverbial phrase, e.g. cha ruig fa dheoigh e 180 and chaidh gu leir iad 127, 222. One case in which such a procedure seems to have come unstuck is Do’m Criosd na bhunait slaint’ 142 which appears to be an inversion of d’am bunait’ slàinte Crìosd into which has been inserted ’na from the alternative substantive verb phrase with bha: d’an robh C. na bhunait slaint’, while ged air bith might, in view of the use of cia for ged noted above, be the result of some type of hypercorrection. The substitution of ump’ for dhoibh in the phrase nach b’urrt’ ump’ uil’ 125 is one problem for which I currently have no solution.

As far as vocabulary is concerned, the text, disappointingly, if understandably enough, demonstrates no instances of that rich and varied category, namely loan-words from Scots with which Gaelic in the area stood at a fascinating interface, instances of which are so numerous in the speech of my modern informants: coup ‘mud’, lorne ‘shoe’, slope ‘shirt’, peadaran ‘sweet’, stob ‘stick’, tobha ‘rope’ tommy ‘loaf’, and so on. All I can cite here is a mere reproduction of the biblical calque toirt air falbh (cf. John 1: 29) ‘take away’: An Tighearn’ a thug, sa ghabh air falbh 215.

This final cursory but revealing look at the language of the song forces one, though without the same note of censure, to the same conclusion as that expressed by the reverend commentator in the virtually contemporary New Statistical Account, namely, that ‘the Gaelic of the parish is not classical, though it cannot be said to be bad’. Our gratitude is due, therefore, to a village poet, thankfully in this case not anonymous, for opening to us a window which throws light not only on the language of his community over a century and a half ago but also on aspects of a particular tragedy which overtook them, even to the extent of presenting us with solid information which assists us in identifying some of those caught up in the event and determining which memories in the folk record have a reasonably secure basis in the historical record.


Copyright © Seosamh Watson 2001


Last updated 23 August 2010.