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Chronicals of Stratheden
Language and Literature in a Highland Parish of To-Day


LOOKING at the matter from the sentimental side—influenced, that is to say, by our affection for the language, founded on fond associations and memories of the days of yore—we were glad to see it stated recently that to-day even, in Scotland, there are three hundred thousand people that speak Gaelic; though, to those that know anything of the Highlands of to-day, it did not require the newspaper correspondence this announcement called forth to explain that it would be absurd to add the little word "only" to the words "that speak Gaelic" in the foregoing sentence. At this moment there are in Scotland something like one hundred and seventy what may be called Highland parishes — places where Gaelic used to be largely spoken and regularly preached, and representing about two hundred and fifty thousand of a population ; but, taking Stratheden as an instance—and it is fairly representative—the most enthusiastic admirer of Gaelic would find it difficult indeed, in all these parishes, to discover one hundred and twenty-five thousand —that is, one-half of the aggregate population—that habitually use the Gaelic language. There may be instances in which the proportion of Gaelic-speaking ones—those speaking it habitually, we mean—is larger, but there are at least as many where it is smaller; and, taking a public school in the average Highland parish of to-day, and hearing the children talking on the playground, it will be found that English is the prevailing language; nor would it be easy, in the case of some Highland schools, with, say, sixty scholars, to find twenty, or one-third, able to speak Gaelic. This latter fact is suggestive enough, and indicates more clearly than many will care to think, how surely, if slowly, Gaelic as a spoken language is disappearing. All honour, all the same, to Professor Blackie—a good man and true—for his laborious and persevering efforts to preserve the Gaelic language by establishing a Celtic Chair. Every true Highlander must appreciate with a sort of affectionate respect the learned and witty Professor's endeavours in this direction. But, with all his enthusiasm, he is too wise to aim at preserving Gaelic as a spoken language. Professor Blackie has no such dream in his mind's eye. The S.G.C.C. (Solicitor-General for the Celtic Chair), as we think he called himself at one time, and C.G.S.I. (Chief of the Gaelic Society of Inverness), which position, and very deservedly, he occupied not long ago, is no visionary. In his witty, brilliant way, he is a far-seeing discerner of the signs of the times, and knows as well as any, and, doubtless, regrets as fondly as most, that while the Gaelic language, for philological and historical purposes generally, deserves to be preserved, the days of Gaelic-speaking must not very long hence cease to be. All honour, likewise, to the Gaelic Society of Inverness, `The Celtic Magazine,' 'The, Gael,' and `The Highlander,' for their efforts in the same direction. And there are others whom the admirers of the Gaelic language will think of with grateful recollections,—the "bard" of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (Mary M'Kellar, an ardent and clever supporter of Gaelic) ; Sheriff Nicolson of Kirkcudbright, an eloquent writer, in prose and verse, on Celtic themes; the Rev. Dr Clerk, parish minister of Kilmalie, an accomplished Gaelic scholar; the Rev. Dr M'LauchIan, Free Church minister Edinburgh, a very able Gaelic scholar, and an eloquent writer on Celtic themes generally. There are others that might he mentioned equally enthusiastic in matters affecting the welfare of the Highland people and the Gaelic language, but here we must rest content with enumerating a few of those that take a more prominent part. The matter of Gaelic-speaking has recently been receiving no small attention, on account of the remarkably successful efforts, already referred to, towards founding a Celtic Chair in Scotland, and partly on account of efforts—not, however, quite so successful, though equally enthusiastic—for encouraging the teaching of Gaelic in Highland schools.

The Celtic Chair proposal somewhat perplexed some of the less learned in Stratheden and other Highland parishes—the use of the word "chair" causing especial wonderment. At the time the Chair agitation was at its height, the matter was discussed one evening in one of the Stratheden shops. "What is that Chair they're speakin' aboot just now for the Gaelic?" observed Hugh Mackay, a person of over fifty years of age, and one of the few in the parish that speak Gaelic oftener than English. "What hess a chair to do with our good language?" "Perhaps," replied Donald Morison, another of the party, "it's a praesant o' a chair they're going to give to that cluvvur great scholar Professor Blackie, because he's awful good at keeping up the Gaelic." "Nonsense!" exclaimed the shopkeeper, who had been reading about the matter; "the Gaelic Chair" (the wider designation Celtic is not in common use) "means that there's to be a professor to be teaching Gaelic, like the way they'll be teaching the Greek and the Layteen." "Oh, well, well," observed Donald Morison, "am no wundering at that at all, because it's a grawnd language the Gaelic, and oor forefathers waas speaking it, and every person should learn it. I hope they'll get a man that's very good at the Gaelic to make the scholars learn it smairt and right." "Who's to be making the scholars learn the Gaelic?" inquired George Macrae,—in common with some others present, rather at sea on the Chair question: "they couldna do better nor take old Sandy Macgillivray at Cnoc-abartach, and put him in a chair, and they'll get plenty Gaelic, and very good Gaelic, and the best Gaelic, am sure. I think that myself whatevvur." "All very well," observed David Macdonald, an intelligent crofter in the parish, "but the Gaelic is going out of fashion; indeed I think it is going to die out altogether. It doesna pay that's the long and short of it. People doesna need it for places and situations and the like o' that, although it's a good fine language, and many excellent people before us had no language but the Gaelic." These latter observations of Macdonald rather displeased another crofter present, who was somewhat of an enthusiast on the side of Gaelic. "What hairum, am sure," said Hugh Maclean, the enthusiast alluded to, "can the Gaelic do for situations and places? Many's the good, cluvvur man in splendid situations that hess plenty Gaelic, and it's no hairum to him." Macdonald was not wishful to prolong the discussion, and this was well. Like many others discussing the same theme, the one viewed the matter from a sentimental point of view, and the other from a utilitarian standpoint, which, of course, rendered agreement very improbable, if not impossible.

Some thirty years ago all the inhabitants of our Highland parishes, with very few exceptions, could speak Gaelic. School-children could then whisper to each other across the school-benches in that language; and they spoke it, and it chiefly, on the playground, a fact that never seemed seriously to interfere with the progress of their English education. At the time indicated, Gaelic was spoken, as often, at least, as English, in most Highland homes, while in some families it was the language exclusively used. It was preached in all Highland churches, and in not a few it alone was preached. All this is now changed. Except in certain districts of the Outer Hebrides, with solitudes unbroken by the whistle of a railway train, few school-children in a Highland parish of to-day whisper Gaelic across the school-benches, or utter it loudly on the playground. In some parishes where, twenty years ago, three hundred persons might be found able to speak Gaelic only, it will to-day be difficult to find twenty unable to speak English. But the most significant feature of the changed days of Gaelic is its growing disuse among the rising generation—a fact already alluded to. Nor is it void of significance that some of the older people that yet use Gaelic find it necessary occasionally to interpolate an English word, and that in some districts of the Highlands not a few people to-day speak a Gaelic largely mixed with English words, although, for the English words so used, any one desiring to know Gaelic might easily find a Gaelic equivalent.

Gaelic prospects in Stratheden share the altered fortunes of the language. Some, no doubt, among the older natives speak Gaelic habitually, rarely speaking English---though most of them can speak it—but these form a rapidly diminishing number. There are some in the parish—one or two of the "big fairmers," a shepherd or two, a gamekeeper, and a gardener—that have no Gaelic; and this, in its way, is an accession to the wave that goes to sweep away the language as a spoken tongue. With these exceptions, most of the inhabitants know Gaelic, but they also know English, and their children in the greater number of instances know the latter language better and speak it oftener; nor should it be forgot, as being especially significant in regard to this matter, that in many Highland parishes of today there are not a few of the rising generation ignorant of Gaelic.

The English spoken by the average native resident in a Highland parish of to-day is scarcely of the kind some would wish us to believe. In the miscellaneous columns of some provincial newspapers, and in a few publications far more ambitious, there are now and then specimens of English, as spoken in the Highlands, ordinarily unknown to actual fact. Those that supply such specimens seem to think it right to speak of flossing for nothing, goot for good, and like metamorphoses of look and sound, as if it was the English ordinarily spoken in these districts; but such style of pronunciation, in the average Highland parish is to-day rare. Not that the English spoken in Highland parishes is always void of Gaelic flavour, but the number of those in the average Highland parish of to-day that for nothing give nossinrg, that avoid good and bad alike, electing to say goot and paad, is comparatively small, and undoubtedly diminishing. The school, the railway, and the newspaper, are causing these and like peculiarities of pronunciation to disappear ; and if, which we are inclined to doubt, in any Highland parish to-day these peculiarities have anything like a marked existence, it must be because such parish is not, or has not Iong been, sharing the improving influences of the agencies specified.

And now for the kind of literature usually patronised in the average Highland parish. Few Gaelic books of any kind are read. Not only is the number of Gaelic books available small, but there are many Gaelic-speaking persons quite unable to read Gaelic. This latter fact accounts for the lingering custom of "reading the line" in psalm-singing where Gaelic is preached. This reference to psalm-singing reminds us that among a large proportion of Highlanders there is a strange prejudice against anything else than psalms being sung in church. They virtually discard paraphrases; and as for hymns, they would shudder at the thought of singing them. Some years ago a minister in a Highland parish "gave out" a paraphrase in church, and had scarcely done so when an old elder of the congregation, greatly moved by the dreadful innovation, said, loud enough to be heard by all in church, "I wonder is the psalms o' Dauvid all done?"!

Few Gaelic books are read, we said. Those that are read, as a rule, are the works of Bunyan, Baxter, and Boston, comprising the well-known `Pilgrim's Progress,' Baxter's `Saints' Rest,' and Boston's 'Fourfold State,' all these translations having long enjoyed considerable popularity in the Highlands. Of works originally composed in Gaelic, the Hymns of Dugald Buchanan and Peter Grant in the golden age of Gaelic-speaking were very popular with many; but, as is true of all other Gaelic books, those that to-day read them are few compared with twenty years ago. `Ossian,' of course, holds an honoured, a revered place in every Highland home where there is the least effort after a library; but `Ossian,' even, is to-day rarely read in Gaelic. 'Caraid Nan Gaidheal' ('The Highlander's Friend'), a Gaelic work by the Rev. Dr Macleod, an eloquent Gaelic scholar and genuine Highlander, father of the late deeply lamented excellent man and eloquent preacher, Norman Macleod of Glasgow, has long been popular in various districts of the Highlands. It includes dialogues, many of them very clever and highly amusing, short essays of an instructive kind, and sermons betokening a clear head and large heart.

Gaelic song-books are not in large demand, and it is a pretty significant fact that there are many Highland parishes where a Gaelic song is to-day rarely heard. Here, again, the railway, the newspaper, and the spread of schools are telling powerfully. Although the poetry of an ideal Highland parish would not be reckoned anything like complete without Gaelic songs, sung at even by the milkmaid, and in the family circle in the long winter evenings, Gaelic songs are yielding to the general change. The love-songs, the martial airs, and the laments that, in days of yore, spoke to Highland hearts in the familiar accents of the Gaelic tongue, though their sentiment will long endure, must tend towards having an existence only in the fond recollection of those that have once heard them.

Besides those enumerated, there are other Gaelic publications known in the Highlands, some original, but most of them translations; but in respect of the limited and still diminishing reading of Gaelic, these latter publications need not be spoken of at any length. Some of them are religious songs, many of them are of the so-called sentimental order, while a few are of the martial kind, and others are laments. Various of these are well composed, by genuine Celts, good men and true; but even the best of such works are being read by a diminishing number,—a fact caused by a tide, the advance of which it were vain to try to check. So much for Gaelic books and Gaelic reading. Now for the English element in the literature in ordinary use in the average Highland parish of to-day.

A remarkable change of recent years is the now large and growing use of the newspaper. Some thirty years ago, though the population was then as large as now, not more than half-a-dozen newspapers came to Stratheden. To-day nearly thirty times that number come weekly to the parish, all eagerly waited for. No doubt the half-dozen of other days did duty for many readers, as those that got them, ordinarily the parsons, the "big fairmers," and the schoolmaster, gave a reading of the paper to one or more neighbours. At the same time, for every newspaper reader of thirty years ago in Stratheden, there are to-day at least fifteen readers. The `Inverness Courier,' lately grown into a triweekly from being a weekly paper, was then, as to-day, popular. Wisely moderate in its political attitude, and in every way respectably and judiciously conducted, the `Courier' still holds its ground, and notwithstanding the growing circulation of daily papers in the Highlands, by means of which much of the news given in weekly, bi-weekly, or even tri-weekly papers is anticipated, in very many homes in Highland parishes the `Courier' is to-day cordially welcomed. Another paper, the 'Northern Chronicle,' established apparently for the purpose of advocating moderate Conservative views, has recently appeared in Inverness. Its prudently mild tone and general "get up" promise well. The Weekly Scotsman' and 'People's Journal,' the latter also a weekly, are the papers having the largest circulation in Stratheden. Some six dozen of each arrive every Friday evening for regular subscribers. The former is very popular, on account of the great variety of its news, its well-arranged summaries, and its minute detailing of events of exciting interest. The 'People's Journal' is also popular in Stratheden, and that very much because of its stories or tales, of a kind leaning towards the sensational but generally speaking, with a healthy bettering tendency. Ploughmen and farm-servants generally read the `People's Journal.' It gives considerable space to subjects affecting their interests, and its appreciation of the general circumstances of this class seems intelligent and reasonable. The `Northern Ensign,' a weekly paper, published in Wick, is also read in Stratheden. It is smartly conducted, showing great variety, but devoting special attention to matters affecting the agricultural and fish-in, populations. Then there is 'The Highlander,' a paper started some dozen years ago in Inverness, with the special view of supporting the claims of the Gaelic language, and of awakening a practical interest in matters affecting Highland crofters. Though, however, its name and professed objects would lead to the belief that it meets with general acceptance in the Highlands, the circulation of 'The Highlander' is by no means large. The fact that, with one exception, the other papers referred to were established before `The Highlander's' day began, will partly account for this; and the special attention given to the Gaelic language in 'The Highlander,' much though some may appreciate it, will not, we suspect, increase its circulation, for reasons we have already indicated when discussing the prospects of Gaelic as a spoken language. It may be added that, although the interests of the crofter receive special attention in `The Highlander,' there are other papers circulated in the Highlands, papers of older standing than `The Highlander,' that discuss this matter in its various aspects, generally in a calm and unprejudiced manner, so that the former cannot be said to have a monopoly of the subject.

Such are the newspapers ordinarily read in Stratheden. Their general circulation began with the extension of the railway to the parish some fifteen years ago. One or two of the shopkeepers receive parcels of the newspapers weekly, and for an hour or two after their arrival the shops are crowded with persons longing to get their paper. Some in the parish—the two parsons, the "big fairmers," and a few others—get a daily paper. There is no Highland "daily." Nor can this be felt to be a serious want. The Scotch dailies, such as the `Scotsman,' `Courant,' Review,' and `Glasgow Herald,' may be had in the greater number of Highland parishes on the evening of the day of publication, and in some of them early in the afternoon. Of course there are many parishes in the West and North Highlands not yet thus favourably situated; but telegraphic communication is now becoming so general, that, in specialty exciting times, there is a compensating element for the absence of an early arrival of the daily newspaper.

Speaking of newspapers, there are others than those mentioned that are circulated in certain districts of the Highlands—namely, two Aberdeen dailies, the `Inverness Advertiser,' the `John O'Groat Journal,' the `Oban Times,' the `Ross-shire JournaI,' `Perthshire Advertiser,' and the `Invergordon Times;' but it is not necessary here to do more than allude to these.

It is a remarkable and melancholy fact that books, and indeed literature in almost every form, were virtually forbidden by some of the Highland clergy of about forty years ago, and an even later period. The reason for this is not clear, though there seems to be ground for the unpleasant suspicion that the clergy, finding the ignorance of the people enabled them to perpetuate their clerical sway and foster general intolerance, dreaded the revolution of enlightenment which reading habits might bring about. Strange to say, an occasional survival of the effects of this dark tyranny may even to-day be met with. There is a crofter in a Highland parish, not thirty miles from Stratheden, who is understood to doubt the propriety of perusing literature generally, and especially newspapers, on the plea that the latter are "awful worldly." The reader will not be surprised to hear, marvellous though the question is, that this crofter is said to have lately inquired of a neighbour whether the Pope belonged to the Free or the Established Church ! It would be interesting to know what his Holiness of the Vatican would think of this Highland crofter's very limited acquaintance with ecclesiastical distinctions.

Newspapers constitute the chief reading of the great bulk of the people of Stratheden, and this is true of many Highland parishes. Libraries are rare, because reading habits, though decidedly growing, are not yet prevalent. Besides newspapers some read such books as `The PiIgrim's Progress,' `Tales of a Grandfather,' books of sacred and secular songs, `The Celtic Magazine,' a very well conducted monthly published in Inverness ; and the cheap literature, in the form of novels, biographies, and narratives of travel in foreign lands, is also, in the average Highland parish, beginning to be largely used. Of course in some Highland parishes—those having more or less important villages—there is a good library, and no small number of readers. With the extended educational machinery of to-day, and the additional enlightenment caused by travel, reading habits must grow; and though, as in other places, some in Highland parishes will have an appetite for literature not elevating or in any way healthy, the general result must be to promote liberal-mindedness and Christian charity,—qualities not hitherto so prominent in certain quarters of the Northern Highlands as the friends of true progress could have wished.


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