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Deeside Tales
Note II


AT the last census there were 198 Gaelic speakers in Braemar and Crathie out of a population of 145a, 48 in Glenmuick, Tullich, and Glengaim, and 19 in Strathdon. As a living language in daily use Gaelic may be said to be extinct east of the Castleton.

Sir Sam. Forbes in his Description of Aberdeen (about 1715) states that the natives of Braemar speak two languages. If this implies that bi-lingualism was the rule even at that date, it is an over-statement, for forty years later at the trial of a Braemar man in Edinburgh we find a large number of the local witnesses, more especially the common people, giving their evidence through an interpreter. But probably he means no more than that enough English was known by the bigger tenants to enable them to conduct their business in the low country. The ordinary tongue was Gaelic, and continued to be so over both upper parishes for more than a hundred years after. Forbes classes the people of Crathie and Glenmuick with their neighbours to the west as “ speaking two languages,” so that the inability of the people on the south side of die Dee, about Gimock, to speak Gaelic, which was the case about 1840, may not have been of long standing. We may say that it was spoken or understood everywhere above Culbleen during the 18th century.

When was it spoken further east, in Cromar, Aboyne, Kincardine and on middle Deeside generally ? The question is interesting, but hard to solve if an exact date is wanted for any particular locality. We know, of course, from the Book

of Deer and otherwise that the Celtic language was the speech of Aberdeenshire from Buchanness to Ben Muic Dhui as late as iioo and probably later, but the evidence for determining its disappearance and gradual retreat to the west is extremely scanty. It is generally supposed to have given place to English in the lowlands of the country by about 1300.

The introduction of the new language was owing in the first instance to the victory of Anglo-Norman influences at Court. This movement began in the reign of Malcolm (1057-1093), and continued under his successors, till the aristocracy and the church in this part of the country were in the course of two or three centuries transformed and the southern language and ways of life firmly established We shall have a word or two to say presently as to the methods by which this was effected; we here merely note the fact that about 1300 the Celtic language was everywhere in the northeast of Scotland retreating towards the hills. The old Celtic mormaers and toiseachs had become Anglicised Earls and Thanes, and new immigrant families received grants of land from the Crown and spread the new language among their vassals and the dependent population. The new comers were strongly represented on Deeside at an early date. By the 14th century we have Durwards, Irvines, Bissets, Burnetts, Frasers, and Gordons, whose presence meant the triumph of the new feudal ideas over Celtic tribalism, and under whose leadership the natives gradually adopted the Teutonic language.

The chief reminder that Celtic had ever been spoken is to be found in the place-names, and from an examination of them it is possible to form a rough estimate of the date when Gaelic ceased to be understood. The line of argument will be seen from an example or two. Tracing back the name Gartly for instance, we find it in old documents in its present form till the 15th century. About that time, however, it begins to appear as Gamtuly and Garintuly. This is gdradk an tulaichy “ hill town.” We know that the dominical lands of Gartly were called Hilltown in English. The argument therefore is that about the time mentioned the meaning of the Gaelic was known in the district.

Camphill in Lumphanan at first sight seems merely the Saxon “camp” and “hill,” but the local pronunciation “Camfel” suggests that the real original is lying obscured under phonetic corruption. In 1696 it is written Camfield, which is one stage nearer the Gaelic, but is still unintelligible. The form of 1480, however, Camquhyle, becomes clear. It sounds exactly cdm choille, “ sloping wood.”

In 1390 die Bishop of Aberdeen and Forbes of Forbes had a dispute concerning a certain piece of land in Tullynessle called Lurgyndaspok. The meaning of the word was understood at the time, for it is cogently urged on behalf of the Bishop that as it means in Gaelic “Bishop’s leg” or shank the land would not bear that name unless it were his.

These examples are taken from the two books on Place-Names by the late James Macdonald, where many others of the same kind can be found. The labours of this cautious and painstaking investigator in this field led him to consider the question of the extinction of Gaelic, and in this connection he points out that in the upper parts of Dee and Don the names have changed but little, and for the most part are easily explained, but that in the central districts corruptions are more numerous, and that it is often not till the forms of four or five centuries back are recovered that the meaning can be made out He was of opinion that Gaelic may have been still spoken in the middle parts of the country in the 16th century, not perhaps everywhere, but in the remoter and less accessible quarters. It must be remembered that all the documentary remains which have survived from these times were written by English speakers, and that the old language might have survived for many years in a place without leaving a trace on the records. For instance, Taylor, the Cockney “ Water poet,” who made an adventurous dash into Scotland in 1618, and penetrated as far as Braemar, incidentally mentions that he lay one night at an Irish [Erse] house in Glenesk in Forfarshire where the people could speak scarcely any English. But for this accidental gleam of fight, it would be quite unknown that Gaelic was alive in this quarter, so near the lowlands, at so late a date.

Besides the evidence of place-names, some facts of another kind can be adduced which seem to have a bearing on the

question. We happen to know the names of six tenants of the lands of Tolly in the parish of Clatt in 15n. They are Anguson, Wilson, Anderson, Adamson, Georgeson, and Duncanson. It is pretty certain that these are not true surnames, but examples of the Celtic method of naming by patronymic, and we can say with some confidence that, if these men were not Gaelic speakers themselves, Gaelic was not very far away.

For the same year a list of tenants in Birse has been preserved, in which, though there are examples of true surnames, and some of these of a lowland character, the patronymic or Celtic type is well represented. Thus “ Duncan son of Robert, Malcolm son of William, Richard son of Finlay, John son of Duncan,” &c, appear to have the same significance as in the case of Tolly in Clatt, namely that Celticism was either still alive in the district or not long extinct

Further west, in Cromar, there are some names on record at the end of the 16th century which are worth notice. At that time English was*certainly well established there; perhaps Gaelic was altogether disused. But if so, it probably had not been for long. The names we refer to are those of certain women who were tried for witchcraft in 1597, during one of the periodical outbreaks of the witch-burning mania. Ferusche was one of those who suffered. This is now Ferries or Ferris, and is meant for (Mac)Fear(gh)uis. The pronunciation represented by the old spelling is a close approximation to the Gaelic sound. Spaldairg was another. The first part of her name is doubtful, but the second can hardly be other than dearg^ red Trachak shows the Gael, diminutive ending -ag, seen for example in Slnnag formed from Sine, Jane. Beak is Gael. Beathag, in English Sophia. The cast of these names is Gaelic, and it is worth notice too that they belong to the common people who would no doubt ding longest to the old speech. One of the elders who tried the witches was called Auchan Glas, his Christian name being Gael. Eachann, in English Hector.

The probability is, as far as a condusion can be arrived at from the meagre data, that Gaelic ceased to be spoken east of Culbleen sometime between 1500 and 1600. Thus the

moor of Dinnet, which is to-day popularly regarded as the boundary between Lowlands and Highlands, has served that purpose for a longer period than is sometimes supposed. In the 17th century the Privy Council occasionally used the expression “above Culbleen” as equivalent to the Aberdeenshire Highlands, a lawless region where their writs received neither the respect nor the obedience which the Councillors looked for as a matter of course from the English-speaking regions below it When Pennant, the traveller, visited the district in 1769, he found, coming down from Braemar, that Cromar was regarded as the entrance into the low countries, and was told that the Erse language had been disused in it “for many ages,” though it was spoken six miles west in Glengaim.

It may be noticed that in the above remarks we have spoken throughout of “ the disappearance of Gaelic ” rather than “the disappearance of the Gael” It is true that the latter expression, or at least the theory implied in it, is more commonly current, but there are insuperable difficulties in the way of accepting the view that the change of language meant a change of race or that the lowlands of Aberdeenshire are inhabited by a people of different blood from their Highland neighbours. There is a vague idea floating about that powerful bands of Scandinavian or Teutonic invaders made good their footing at some time on the sea-board and then gradually drove back the aboriginal Celts to the hills. A somewhat modified theory represents the new comers, not as exactly extinguishing or expelling the natives, but as “ absorbing ” them. In either case the change of language is taken to imply that the lowland population may be correctly described as “Anglo-Saxon,” “Teutonic,” “Germanic,” and the like. “ Aberdeenshire,” says one authority, “ is one of the purest lowland counties, and its people—as may be inferred from their language and physical characteristics—is overwhelmingly of Saxo-Scandinavian origin,” and similar statements could be quoted from most of the histories.

It is curious that such a theory, which contradicts at many points the facts of history and human nature, should have won so wide an acceptance. It has of late, however, been subjected to damaging criticism, and the trend of recent

opinion is away from it and towards the essential Celticism of the population, not of Aberdeenshire only, but of Scotland as a whole. The invasion theory in its extreme form is at once pulled up by the certain fact that in the 12th century, as already noticed, Aberdeenshire was occupied everywhere, except possibly in the town of Aberdeen itself by a Gaelicspeaking people. The Scandinavian raiders, who effected permanent settlements elsewhere in Scotland, had no success in this quarter. The 12th century is well within historical times, and no great movement of this character could have taken place without our knowing it Believers in the “ Anglo-Saxon” theory are therefore obliged to look to the 13th and 14th centuries for the period when the Celts were driven to the wall, absorbed, or expelled. Now it is certainly true that in this part of Scotland the Celtic system of society failed to withstand the new forces which attacked it in those centuries, but the precise character of the hostile forces is not always correctly represented. The phenomenon was really the triumph of a new political and social type of civilisation. From the Celtic point of view the Kings of Scotland had become quite denationalised: the feudal system was the ideal which they favoured, and they turned to England and the south for the men to carry out the changes in church and state which they steadily aimed at English barons received grants of land as opportunity offered, English churchmen filled the highest offices and remodelled the old native ecclesiastical organisation, English and foreign traders were encouraged to settle in the towns. But the revolution which was gradually accomplished under the leadership of these Anglo-Normans was, with a few sporadic exceptions, a peaceful revolution. To think of the strangers as a foreign army, organised to despoil and destroy the natives, seems altogether a misconception. They were there as individuals, under the patronage of the rulers of the land, and no doubt chiefly with an eye to their own fortune. The disappearance or dispossession of the original inhabitants was no part of the plan. Of what use would tracts of land have been to the Anglo-Norman potentate without the people who made them profitable ? He would bring with him his group of personal followers who supported him and were favoured by him in turn, but the bulk of the people remained undisturbed.

The numbers of the alien have probably been much exaggerated, the idea doubtless being that nothing short of great numerical preponderance would be adequate to account for so striking a phenomenon as the total disappearance of the old language. Here again, however, some essential facts seem to be neglected, the chief of which is that the new language was the tongue of the upper classes. In the 13th century, as in the 20th, when a language becomes unfashionable its doom is sealed. The great lords and their retinues spoke no Gaelic, nor did the clergy in whose hands the care of education lay, nor the merchants and traders of the towns. In course of time their influence would prove irresistible, and the lower classes would gradually acquire the speech of their betters. Languages are sensitive to other forces than mere numbers. The same process can be seen going on to-day in the Highlands and Ireland as we may suppose went on in Aberdeenshire in those distant centuries. The Gaelicspeaking area is constantly diminishing, not by any invasion of English speakers, but under the attractive force of the more useful language. Similarly in the North-East of Scotland the alien was able to impose his language on the people because he represented a more highly developed civilisation, and not because of his numbers, which according to the best historical evidence were never very great.

The distinction therefore of Highlander and Lowlander is more a distinction of language than of race, and the probability is that the people of Aberdeenshire as a whole are in the main descended from the Gaelic-speaking Celts whom we find inhabiting it at the beginning of authentic history.

The old language has left considerable traces on the vocabulary of Lowland Scots, and, as might be expected, these are more marked as the Gaelic-speaking line is approached. In the upper parts of Deeside, where Scots is spoken, a good many Gaelic words are in use. Most of these will be found in Jamieson’s Dictionary or in Wright’s Dialect Dictionary, but there are some which seem to have escaped both these collections. In West Aberdeenshire one hears, or heard till lately, the tit-lark called “ snatack.” This is the Gael, snddaig. “ Stramlach,” a long trailing

slender thing, is G. striamlach. “ Amulan more,” which is sometimes applied to the big yoke to either end of which the swingle-trees are attached, is formed from amal m&r. “Gluricb,” impudent, is probably G. gleadhrach. “Mugg-anach,” a defeat, seems to be connected with or based on mdg, gloom. “ Grenock,” a small bit of anything, is G. gr&ineag. “ Kerrach,” a small bit of peat, is in the primary part the same as G. caoran, of the same meaning. Words like “ frenock,” a small piece, “rootack,” a long pipe, “ perlack,” a blow, and many others of the same type, show a free use of the Gael diminative -ag> characteristic of a time when Gaelic was being forgotten but when Gaelic twists were given to English words, as one hears “ boy-an ” for little boy, etc., in Easter Ross to-day.

A careful examination of the vocabulary and phonetics of the dialect of West Aberdeenshire would probably reveal considerable Gaelic influence. Has it been noticed, for example, that “whatever” is very commonly used as an adverb, like the “ whateffer ” of the North and West Highlands ?


 


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