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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter VI.—Language and Dress


DISTINCTIONS between different races, which depend on varieties of character, customs, or means of livelihood, require discriminating study for their apprehension. But a different language and an unusual dress are marks which present themselves to all observers—the one to the ear and the other to the eye—even on the briefest scrutiny. The inhabitants of Gairloch have still a language entirely different to that of the lowland Scotch, and they used not long ago to wear a dress only known in the Highlands.

To this day the Gaelic language is universal among the people of Gairloch, and they cling to it with the utmost affection. In it are embalmed all the traditions, and stories of the days that are gone, and the songs and* poems of the bards both past and present.

Gaelic, which in the old books is called "Erse" or "Irish," has many dialects. The language of the natives of the west coast of Ireland is not materially different from that of the Scottish Highlanders. The Gaelic of Gairloch is considered tolerably pure, though William Ross, the Gairloch bard, who studied the subject closely, thought the Gaelic of the Lews par excellence the purest form of the language.

In the Old Statistical Account the Rev. Daniel Mackintosh stated that Gaelic was in his time the prevailing language in Gairloch.

Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, in his "General Survey," expressed the opinion that Gaelic was dying out; but the Rev. Donald M'Rae, minister of Poolewe, in his paper on the parish of Gairloch in the New Statistical Account, stated that the language then (1836) generally spoken was the Gaelic, and added, "lam not aware that it has lost ground within the last forty years." Mr M'Rae's remarks on the admixture by young men of English or Scotch words with their Gaelic, and on the purity in other respects of the language as spoken in Gairloch, will be found in Appendix E.

The Gaelic language is as prevalent in Gairloch to-day as it was when Mr M'Rae wrote his paper nearly fifty years ago, notwithstanding the near approach of the railway (within five miles of the parish boundary), and the greatly increased communication by steamers, which has taken place during the interval. The religious services of the people are conducted in Gaelic (though short English services are often added); there are scarcely any houses where English is spoken round the table or by the fire-side, though comparatively few are able to read Gaelic. At the same time the knowledge of the English language is undoubtedly on the increase, and the schools are taught in that language. Nevertheless even children fresh from school seldom speak English when playing together.

Some ten years ago there was a great agitation for the restoration of Gaelic teaching in the Highland schools, and the movement has recently been revived, with the result that the Government are about to sanction instruction in Gaelic as part of the curriculum, or at least as an " extra subject." It was stated during the early stage of this agitation that in many places Highland children learnt English only as a parrot would, and did not understand its meaning. I took the trouble to see how this was in Gairloch schools, and I can only say that the imputation did not apply to the children I examined, for not only did many of them read English remarkably well, but searching cross-examination proved that they thoroughly understood the meaning of what they read.

There are still many of the older people who are unable to speak English fluently, and some who do not understand it at all. The English spoken by the young people as well as by most of the older natives who speak it is a particularly pure form, untarnished by provincialism or Scottish brogue. The smattering of Scotch occasionally to be met with is confined to those who come in contact with persons from the Lowlands. Occasionally a curious phrase occurs, the result of a literal translation of some Gaelic expression. For instance, wondering whether a grouse which flew behind a hill was the worse of a shot that had been fired at it, I asked a stout young gillie, whose position enabled him to see further round the hill, whether the bird had come down. He replied, " When she went out of my sight she had no word of settling."

Gaelic literature has been well represented in Gairloch. John Mackenzie, the author of the " Beauties of Gaelic Poetry," and many other works in Gaelic (Part II., chap, xxii.), was a native of Gairloch ; and Mr Alexander Mackenzie, the editor of the Celtic Magazine, and the author of many valuable works (some containing Gaelic pieces), is also a Gairloch man. The Gaelic books especially pertaining to Gairloch are the poems of William Ross, the Gairloch bard, edited by the late John Mackenzie, and the poems of Duncan Mackenzie, the Kenlochewe bard, edited by Mr Alexander Mackenzie.

There has been much diversity of opinion upon the question whether it would not be better that the Gaelic language should be discouraged and be assisted to die out. I believe some few of the Highlanders themselves have adopted this unpatriotic view, but the contrary opinion, so ably advocated by Professor Blackie, now appears to be gaining ground. It seems quite possible that the Highlander may not only have a thorough command of English, but may also retain his own expressive language with its ennobling traditions. No doubt a knowledge of the language which is the medium through which most of the business of the kingdom is conducted has its importance; but surely the retention of their own tongue by Highlanders must tend in great measure to foster a patriotic feeling, which should lead them to do credit in their lives and conduct to their native glens.

There is no separate record of the dress anciently worn by the natives of Gairloch, but it was unquestionably the same as that of all the other inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland, viz., the Breacan an Fheilidh, or .belted or kilted plaid. In the Celtic Magazine, Vol. VIIL, is a treatise on the "Antiquity of the Kilt," by Mr J. G. Mackay. One curious, fact he mentions is, that the Norwegian king Magnus, in his expedition to the Western Isles of Scotland in 1093,. adopted the costume then in use in the western lands, which no* doubt included the parish of Gairloch; so that we may if we please picture our prince of the Isle Maree tragedy as wearing the Highland dress. From this notice of King Magnus, and more particularly from the account given by John Taylor (Part IV., chap, xviii.) of the deer hunting at Braemar, we learn that the Highlanders in old days expected all who came among them to adopt their peculiar garb.

Sometimes the belted plaid was worn along with the "triubhais," or "truis," or trews, a prolongation upwards of the tartan hose, fitting tightly to the skin and fastened below the knees with buckles. These trews were very different in appearance and make from the tartan trousers worn by some Highland regiments in the present day. Oddly enough the only representation extant of a Gairloch man of the old days, viz., Donald Odhar, exhibits him in the tartan trews. This representation is in the Mackenzie coat-of-arms on the Sabhal Geal at Flowerdale. It was doubtless executed by a southern sculptor, long after Donald Odhar lived and fought. But unquestionably the most usual—almost universal-^form.of the Highland dress was the tartan plaid gathered into pleats round the waist, where a belt kept it in position (thus forming the kilt), the rest of the plaid being brought over the shoulder. The name of the dress thus formed (Breacan an Fheilidh) means the plaid of the kilt.

The present form of the Highland dress, in which the kilt—sometimes called "philabeg"—is made up as a separate garment, has given rise to much controversy. The strife is said to have originated in a letter in the Scots Magazine in 1798; it was stated that about 1728 one Parkinson, an Englishman, who was superintendent of works in Lochaber, finding his Highland labourers encumbered with their belted plaids, taught them to separate the plaid from the kilt and sew the kilt in its present form. Others say that the inventor of the kilt was Thomas Rawlinson, of the Glengarry ironworks, who about the same date and for the same reason introduced the supposed new dress.

Mr J. G. Mackay, in the treatise already referred to, proves in-contestably that the separate form of the kilt is very ancient, and cannot have been the subject of a comparatively modern invention. The truth seems to be that, whilst the belted plaid was most generally worn, as requiring no tailoring, the separate kilt is of equal or greater antiquity, and was at all times occasionally used on account of its superior convenience, especially in those localities where the tailor's art was practised. An incidental corroboration of Mr Mackay's view is to be seen in a plan of Aberdeen, dated 1661, preserved in the municipal buildings, of that city. In a corner of the plan three figures are represented, two of them in the lowland costume of the seventeenth century, and the third, a young man, dressed in a kilt and short coat without plaid, being exactly the form of the Highland dress as now generally worn. The Highland figure was probably introduced to record the then semi-Highland character of Aberdeen.

In order to repress the Highland esprit, an act (20th George II., cap. 51) was passed after the battle of Culloden, which rendered it illegal for any man or boy after 1st August 1747 to wear the Highland dress. The effect of this law was various. In some parts it was rigidly enforced, and the kilt was generally abandoned, whilst those few who persisted in wearing it were severely punished. In other places evasions of the act were winked at by the authorities; men who procured the legal breeches would hang them over their shoulders during journeys; others used the artifice of sewing up the centre of the kilt between the legs; whilst others again substituted for the tartan kilt a piece of blue, green, or red cloth wrapped round the waist, and hanging down to the knees, but not pleated.

In the Old Statistical Account (1792) there are many references to the Highland dress and to the effect of the passing of this act. In the account of the parish of Petty, Inverness-shire, we read, "The Highland dress is still retained in a great measure. The plaid is almost totally laid aside; but the small blue bonnet, the short coat, the tartan kilt and hose, and the Highland brogue, are still the ordinary dress of the men. The women in like manner retain the Highland dress of their sex, but have adopted more of that of their low country neighbours than the men."

The Old Statistical Account tells us nothing of the dress of the inhabitants of Gairloch; but in the notice given of the neighbouring parish of Kincardine, in the same county, is the following:—"The act 1746, discharging the Highland dress, had the worst of consequences. Prior to that period the Highland women were remarked for their skill and success in spinning and dying wool, and clothing themselves and their households, each according to her fancy, in tartans, fine, beautiful, and durable. Deprived of the pleasure of seeing their husbands, sons, and favourites in that elegant drapery, emulation died, and they became contented with manufacturing their wool in the coarsest and clumsiest manner, perhaps thinking that since they must appear like the neighbouring lowlanders, the less they shone in the ornaments of the lowland dress they would be the more in character. Their favourite employment thus failing them, rather than allow their girls to be idle they made them take to the spinning of linen yarn, in which, few are yet so improved as to earn threepence per diem, and much, if not the most of the small earnings of these spinners, is laid out upon flimsy articles of dress; whilst that conscious pride, which formerly aspired at distinction from merit and industry, is converted into the most ridiculous and pernicious vanity."

The act forbidding the kilt was repealed in 1772. It had in many parts done its work, and though its repeal was in some places hailed with joy and celebrated by the bards, the Highland garb does not appear to have generally regained its former position as the ordinary dress of the people.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, as James Mackenzie and others inform me, the kilt was still the dress of many men in Gairloch, who never put on the trews until old age came, and in some cases not even then. As an instance, he says he remembers seeing Hugh M'Phail, a Gairloch man then living at the head of Loch Broom, measuring out herrings from his boat on a cold day in a hard winter, with four inches of snow on the ground and thick ice. Hugh wore only his shirt and kilt; he had put off his jacket for the work. He and his two brothers always wore the kilt; they were all fine men, and two of them were elders of the church of Loch Broom, under the Rev. Dr Ross. Other incidental references to the Highland dress of Gairloch men will be found in James Mackenzie's stories in Part II., chap. xxv.

Up to the present generation the kilt was still occasionally worn in Gairloch, especially at festive gatherings. That it had become infrequent, yet was not altogether abandoned, may be inferred from the following advice given upon dress in his " Hints" by the late Sir Francis Mackenzie, Bart.:—" The nature of this must depend upon your local situation, since it is evident that what is fitted for our mountains would be ill suited to the wants of the fisherman. As an inland labourer or shepherd, the ancient costume of the country, the kilt, hose, plaid, and bonnet, with a warm stout cloth short jacket, will be found the most serviceable, since it admits of a pliancy in the limbs admirably adapted either for labour or climbing our bare and heathery hills. No danger can possibly arise from exposing the limbs to the wet and cold, whilst the loins and back are protected by the thick folds of a kilt and plaid from severity of weather. I may too, without being liable to the charge of national vanity, say, that however much the dress of our ancestors has been lately laid aside, it gives a manly and graceful appearance at all times to the wearer. I have witnessed its attractions amongst the sons and daughters of peace in every country of Europe, and it has marked our bravery in battle wherever a plaid has appeared. It has the sanction of antiquity in its favour; it is associated with the virtues and triumphs of Roman citizens; and I should regret its being laid aside, because I am decidedly of opinion that national dress is everywhere a strong incentive to the wearer not to disgrace trie region which he proudly claims as the country of his birth."

The Highland dress is now only worn in Gairloch by a few gentlemen, pipers, keepers, and some of the better-to-do schoolboys. Its disappearance from among a people who cling so tenaciously to the Highland tongue is passing strange. By some it has been attributed to the inferior hardiness of the modern Highlander,, a reason which is perhaps suggested by the following remark in the "General Survey" of Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1810):— "The first indications of the introduction of luxury appeared not many years ago, in the young men relinquishing the philabeg and bonnet, which are now almost rarities."

The Gairloch company of rifle volunteers originally wore the kilt, but about the year 1878, in common with the majority of the battalion to which they are attached, they agreed to substitute Mackenzie tartan trousers. The change was made partly on the ground of economy. After the review of the Scottish volunteers at Edinburgh on 25 th August 1881, which was attended by the Ross-shire battalion, including the Gairloch company, a general wish was expressed that the example of the volunteer battalions of the adjoining counties should be followed, and the kilt resumed. The Gairloch company unanimously petitioned their gallant colonel to restore the kilt.

The ordinary dress of most Gairloch men is now the same as in the lowlands, except that some of those engaged as shepherds, keepers, and gillies wear knickerbockers, which display the hose; some men still carry plaids and don the blue bonnet.

Gairloch is justly celebrated for its hose, which are knitted in immense variety of pattern and colour, some being in imitation of old forms of tartan. In the old days the hose worn with the Highland costume were cut from the same web as the tartan of which other parts of the dress were made, but now all hose are knitted. The " diced " patterns are relics of the old tartans.

The Dowager Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch writes as follows regarding the Gairloch hose:—"At my first visit to Gairloch, in 1837, I employed a lady from Skye who was staying at Kerrysdale to instruct twelve young women in knitting nice stockings with dice and other fancy patterns. When I came to act as trustee, and to live constantly at Flowerdale, I started the manufacture of the Gairloch stockings in earnest, having spinners, dyers, and knitters, all taught and superintended during the ten years I resided there; on my leaving and going abroad, Sir Kenneth gave the concern into the hands of the head gamekeeper, Mr George Ross. Now, dozens of pairs are brought by the women to the hotels and steamers, and large quantities go to Inverness, Edinburgh, and London; 100 worth has been sold in one shop."

The dress of the women of Gairloch scarcely varies from that of the country women in any other part of the kingdom. The principal distinction is to be seen in the retention by some women of the mutch, or mob-cap (see illustration), which they still wear, and make up with considerable taste.

Maidens until the last few years never wore caps, bonnets, or other headgear, only a ribbon or snood to keep the hair in place. Any other headdress was considered a disgrace. Even yet a few girls go to church without bonnets; and within the last dozen years this was almost universal. Now, however, the majority of the young women try even to surpass their sisters in towns in following the fashions of the day; some girls appear on Sundays with almost a flower-garden on their heads. The Rev. Donald M'Rae truly remarked, in his statement in the New Statistical Account fifty years ago (and it is still true), that " when a girl dresses in her best attire, her very habiliments, in some instances, would be sufficient to purchase a better dwelling-house than that from which she has just issued."

Dr Mackenzie writes on this point as follows:—"In my early days about six or eight bonnets would be the number on Sunday in , our west coast (Gairloch) church in a five or six. hundred congregation, and these only worn by the wives of the upper-crust tenantry. The other wives wore beautiful white 'mutches/ i.e. caps, the insides of which were made up with broad pretty ribbons, which shewed themselves through the outside muslin. Oh! what a descent from them to modern bonnets! The unmarried women always had their hair dressed as if going to court, and were quite a sight, charming to see, compared with their present abominable hats and gumflowers. But when a visitor at Tigh Dige (Flowerdale) expressed wonder how they contrived to have such beautiful glossy heads of hair, set up as by a hairdresser, every Sunday, my father would say, 'No thanks, the jades stealing the bark of my young elms !' It seems a decoction of elm bark cleans and polishes hair marvellously; which accounted for many a young elm of my father's planting having a strip of bark, afoot long by say six inches wide, removed from the least visible side of the tree, as an always as an welcome present from a 'jade's ' sweetheart on a Saturday. I don't believe they ever used oil or grease on their shining heads. So universally were mutches worn by all in the north of the working classes who were married, that when we settled in Edinburgh in 1827, my widowed nurse was drawn there by a well-doing son to keep house for him, and my mother having given her a very quiet bonnet to prevent her being stared at in Princes Street when wearing her mutch and visiting us, on her first appearance in a bonnet the dear old soul declared she nearly dropped in the street, for everybody was just staring at her for her pride in wearing a bonnet as if she was a lady!"


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