Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gaelic in Nairnshire - when did the local dialect die?

According to the last census there were nearly 200 people that could speak Gaelic and another 100 who could understand or read the language but not speak it. Soon we will have the new census figures and it will be interesting to see how the recent growth in the number of learners in the town and the numbers of bairns attending the Millbank Gaelic unit has affected those figures. What will also be interesting will be to see how many people also recorded their abilities to speak, understand, read or write Scots in response to the other linguistic question on the census. But back to Gaelic just now. The term “linguistic relevance” was used recently in the Nairnshire. A loaded term perhaps that means many things to many people. If two people meet in the High Street and have their conversation in Gaelic does that have any less linguistic relevance that other people speaking English nearby or say visitors from Europe speaking a strong dialect of one of the continental Languages? Does a child’s answer to a teacher in Gaelic have any linguistic relevance than that of an monolingual pupil in a nearby class? Does the Gaelic tribute written on one of the wreaths at the war memorial on Sunday have any less linguistic relevance than other tributes in English?

In 1822 research by the Inverness Society for the Poor maintained that 62% of the population of Nairn were Gaelic speakers, 55% in Ard Clach and 75% in Cawdor. The Cawdor figure is significant if compared to a similar figure in the present day for the Back area in Lewis which is considered the strongest surviving community of Gaelic speakers in the remaining traditional areas. In 1854 500 residents of Nairn who wished to maintain Gaelic services in “the only language in which they could be edified” were over-ruled by the Church of Scotland. Gaelic had relevance to the punters in 1854 but the high heid yins were well into the English-speaking way of things. And then we can see the gradual decline of what remains of the Nairnshire Gaidhealtachd from the census figures of 1881 onwards. Those figures have since then always been topped up by Gaelic speakers moving to the area and as mentioned above we now have children in Nairn being educated in the language. One could perhaps safely claim that some Gaelic has been spoken in Nairnshire from the day it first established itself here.

But back to the question – when did the local dialect die? Information in the Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland published 1997 states that in November 1952 Fred MacAulay interviewed a Mrs Fraser in Cooperhill Darnaway. She was aged 90 and had been born in New Inn, Glenferness. Her father was also born in Glenferness but her mother was from Farr, Strathnairn. “When aged 2 Mrs Fraser moved from Glenferness to Terriemore where she was brought up among Gaelic speakers. Her father used to read the Gaelic bible to the family daily, though she feels her mother had better Gaelic.”

Another interesting interview was with Alexander James Johnstone of Easterton, Fisherton just over the Nairnshire border past Ardersier. He was aged 74 “born Easterton, parents Westerton. Fluent but has not spoken Gaelic for a long time apart from a few words with other local speakers in Fisherton.” Interviews took place over August-October 1953.

Within living memory local Gaelic dialects were spoken in this area then. Whatever your attitude towards Gaelic it’s impact on Nairnshire cannot be denied and it continues to exist in the town and with 40 children now being educated in the language its presence will continue in one shape or form for at least the lifetime of the present younger generation.