Sutherland and the Reay Country Rev. Adam Gunn M.A. and John Mackay

Sutherland and the Reay Country Rev. Adam Gunn M.A. and John Mackay

Sutherland and the Reay Country – Rev. Adam Gunn M.A. and John Mackay




THE natives of Sutherland and the Reay Country are bilingual. English is spoken very well all over the county; and strangers give us credit for a more pleasing accent than our Teutonic neighbours in Caithness. A Sutherlandshire youth finds less difficulty in adapting his tongue to English sounds than his cousins of Wester Ross and Lewis; while the natives of Sutherland proper are not prepared to yield the palm, even to Inverness, in the purity of their English diction.

So much, however, cannot be advanced in behalf of our Gaelic. It is by no means so pure as our geographical position might lead one to suppose. Every year sees the foreign element in it on the increase, and the area in which it is habitually spoken becoming more and more limited. Assynt alone can claim to hold its own in regard to purity and even there, corruption has set in. Such a greeting as "Tha’n latha beautiful," is common all over the Highlands; and various reasons may be assigned for the greater amount of foreign material in the dialect of Sutherland.

(1) The Norse occupation, from 900 - 1200, is accountable for a good deal of this foreign element. Of course all the Gaelic - speaking area of Scotland, with the exception of Perthshire, and the heights of Inverness, came more or

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less under this influence; but a deeper impression has been made upon Sutherland by them, than upon any other Highland county. The topographical record makes it very manifest that the whole county was over - run by them; and weight of numbers alone prevented Sutherland from being an English - speaking county like its neighbour, Caithness. As it is, the Norse influence is very marked in the dialect, and quite a host of words, in every day use as Gaelic, owe their introduction to the Norse occupation.

(2) The near proximity of Caithness, where the Scandinavian came to stay, explains in some measure, the number of Teutonic words in use in our dialect. This is more evident on the east and north coasts, where the intercourse between Teuton and Celt was close and continuous. It is true that hostile feelings between the two races existed until recent times; but the proximity was bound to tell on the purity of the Gaelic speech.

(3) Two more recent causes may also be mentioned as contributing to this result. The army was the natural destination of Sutherland youths in the good old times; and every encouragement was given to enlist in one or other of the Highland Regiments, the Reay Fencibles, and latterly in the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. After long service, and mixing with English speaking peoples, these men found their way back to their native glens, and brought with them a knowledge of English. In this way, such words as

"Kisseag" for pòg (kiss) and comrad from comrade, which are now looked upon as pure Gaelic, came into use. The economic changes which took place in the early years of this century also had some share in this deteriorating process. Large tracts of land were placed under the management of English

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speaking farmers, who brought their shepherds from the borders; so that in the very heart of Sutherlandshire, where a hundred years ago not a word of English was spoken, there is to-day a congregation of worshippers so entirely English, that the native language is but rarely used in the pulpit.

There are two main dialects of Scottish Gaelic, a northern and a southern; and it used to be matter of keen debate in Celtic Societies - where was the best Gaelic spoken, at Inverness or Inveraray. Probably no solution satisfactory to both parties was ever offered to this problem. But from a variety of causes, which need not be enumerated here, Argyleshire, or the southern dialect, came to be recognised as a sort of standard to which the literary efforts of northern authors must conform when they venture into print. In this way, there is no good specimen of the northern dialect to be seen in print; and the labours of such poets as Rob Donn suffer immensely from a well-meaning desire on the part of editors and publishers to conform his dialect to a supposed literary standard. The dialect of the Reay Country bard was far too pronounced to admit of this accommodating process; and the consequence is that his songs have lost in print a great deal of the smoothness and rhythm which they possess in their native garb. It is too late in the day to alter matters now, for the rendering of the Bible into the southern dialect has stereotyped the standard, and Argyllshire peculiarities must be borne with, notwithstanding the fact that a considerable portion of them is not of native, but of Irish origin. As a set off to this hardship, the north countryman has the advantage of knowing the southern dialect in print; he has, therefore, no difficulty in understanding the southern; while a native of Argyll will

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find it next to impossible to follow with intelligence the conversation of north countrymen.

There are three test-sounds by means of which we classify Gaelic dialects into northern and southern-one main and two subordinate.

(1) The main peculiarity of the northern district is a change of eu into ia; thus beul, ceud, breug, meud, deug, feur of the south becomes bial, ciad, miad, diag, fiar of the northern counties. It should be observed, however, that, to begin with, this eu is long by compensation; ceud compensates for a lost n by lengthening the vowel (compare Lat. centum). This divergence does not take place in the case of eu when it is not arrived at by compensation; it stands eu in the north and south, and is pronounced similarly, except perhaps in half – a - dozen monosyllables, which have become - ia in the north by the force of analogy.

(2) The northern dialect dislikes a long vowel, preferring the use of the dipthongs. Thus, Argyllshire trom, heavy, becomes Sutherland troum. Professor Rhys calls this habit diphthongisation, and thinks it is due to a more musical ear.

(3) The diphthong ao is opener in the south; the saoghal of Argyllshire is quite different from the attenuated seevil of the north. By one or other of these test -sounds, the question of a Highlander's residence on either side the Grampians is easily settled.

Sutherlandshire Gaelic belongs of course to the northern dialect. But with regard to the main test, eu into ia, the Reay country proves an exception. It agrees rather with the south, or more properly speaking, introduces a new diphthong. Thus, eu, which ought to become ia, becomes ea; and the following scheme shows how we stand comparatively:-

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I. In words where the dipthong is not flanked by l, as the above examples, we follow the southern dialect: breug, feur, meud, is pronounced in Sutherland exactly as in Argyle, with the exception of Assynt and the south-east.

II. Another peculiarity of our dialect is our partiality for the broad a. Southern o becomes a in numberless instances. Of course it must be remembered that o appears in print often in deference to Irish orthography, where it is never used, even in Argyle; thus, focal, cos, is nowhere on Scottish soil so pronounced ; they are facal, cas. Sutherlandshire Gaelic, however, changes southern o into a in the great majority of instances:


lorglargfoot - print.




But in a few cases we refuse to accept southern a, and change it into o - falt, bainne, trasgadh, become folt, boinne, trosgadh.

III. The most marked peculiarity of Sutherland Gaelic is, perhaps, its fondness for the u sound. We make all our participles (adh, amh) end in u; bagradh, deaenamh, becomes bagru, dean-u; dol, obair, domhail, drola, tobar, are pronounced as dul, ubair, dumhail, drula, tubar.

IV. When we cease to compare ourselves with the south, we find three well - defined sub - dialects in Sutherland:

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1. The dialect of Sutherland proper - Cataobh.

2. The Reay country dialect - Duthaich - 'ic - aoidh.

3. The Assynt dialect.

These are the main sub-dialects; but a keen ear may easily distinguish differences in tone between natives of different parts of the same parish. The "twang" of a Portskerra man is quite different from that of Melvich, which is not half-a-mile distant.

Comparing these three sub-dialects then, it will be granted that the language of the people of Machair - Chat, as the low - lying east coast of Sutherland is called, is less pure than that of the Reay Country; and the dialect of the latter is less pure than that of Assynt. We may except one or two fishing communities from this comparison; for example, Embo, and Brora, whose natives can express themselves in fairly good idiomatic Gaelic. The language of Assynt or "na lamnhan shuas" as it is distinguished from the North and East, has preserved a good deal of its pristine purity. They are easily distinguished by a tendency to eclipsis; and resemble Lewis in this respect. An duine, the man, is pronounced an nuine, n of the article eclipsing d. As already mentioned, they conform to the Northern dialect in the case of the ia sound, and thus differ from the Reay Country: and on the whole, their command of the language is greater, both as regards vocabulary, idioms, and inflections.

The North coast or Reay Country man is easily distinguished by his preference for the broad a. To such an extent has he carried this tendency that in some districts sin is pronounced san; teine, teana. We shall by and bye account for this preference of a by a greater mixture of Norse blood in his veins the element which evolved into broad Scotch

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in the English speaking counties of the north. Another peculiarity of this district is the number of words which have taken on permanently the prosthetic f. Eagal, acain, rabhadh, easgain, etc., become feagal, fraghaidh, feasgainn. Even aithne, command, is sometimes faithne, although there is danger of confounding it with fainne, a ring. The reason of so much confusion in our dialects regarding initial f is, that it disappears when aspirated; it is not sounded in oblique cases; thus fear is in gen. sing. fhir, where fh is silent. Consequently, as it disappears in oblique cases, it was also dropped in the nom. in many instances.

Inflections, or case endings, may be said to be disregarded. The old people, it is true, speak of ceann na circe; but the rising generation are quite satisfied with ceann na cearc. "Tha e tional na caorich" is oftener heard than the grammatically correct "tha e tional nan caorach." A Reay Countryman has little regard for case - endings, with the exception of the dative plural ibh, which he has converted into u.

A very striking feature of the dialect of Sutherland is the extent to which it is permeated by foreign material. We have mentioned some of the causes that led to this, and ascribed a double share to the influence of the Norwegian stranger in our midst.

The influence of Norse on Scottish Gaelic is recognised on all hands. Both north and south have borrowed from it a good many terms connected with the sea. The Celts were not experts in navigation when the Vikings appeared upon the scene. It is not likely that they had advanced much beyond the coracle of St. Columba. Here, then, was quite a new vocabulary to them; and we find that they made

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good use of their opportunities; they borrowed freely such terms as bata, boat, barc, bark, seol, sail, sgiob, crew, and the names for the different parts of a ship. Again, through the influence of Norse, the letter t has slipped in between s r in strath, stron, strann, straid. This much is admitted as Norse influence on the southern and northern dialects. But when we come to the far north, it will be found that the Scandinavian has left deeper footprints behind him. This is true not only of Sutherland, but also of Lewis. The writer recently saw a list of provincial words collected by a student, a native of Lewis, in the district of Ness and neighbourhood-words which do not appear in any Gaelic Dictionary, but most of which could be explained with the help of Cleasby's "Icelandic Dictionary," and are undoubtedly remnants of the Norse occupation. The same is true of north Sutherland. The effects of the Norwegian occupation may be classified as follows:

1. The preference for the broad a sound already referred to, so characteristic of the north coast. The English of Caithness is very broad, and is due to the same influence.

2. The habit of giving their Teutonic value to the letters c, d, r. The deep guttural chd sound of c in mac, is quite unknown in Sutherland. Again, bard is pronounced exactly as in English; whereas in the south d has a broader sound, by flattening the tongue between the teeth and roof of the mouth.

3. A very large number of loan - words, which we are unjustly accused of borrowing from modern English, but which we have really borrowed from Norse; examples are, susdan, thousand, N. thusund; preisteadh, preaching, N. priestr; tùrn for cuis, deilig (dealing), bocaidh, hobgoblin,

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N. bokki, barnaigeadh (inviting to a feast), etc. These and a host like them have been in use in Sutherland long before modern English had any influence upon the language of the people.

4. What may be called the vituperative vocabulary is decidedly Norse. Uilbh is one of the most opprobrious terms in use, and comes from Norse ulf, a wolf. Slaucar is another, for an "awkward fellow," and sgammal, all of which may be found in Norse. This points to a period in our history when the Norse lorded it over the Celtic bondi, and applied to him such epithets in his wrath. They were carefully picked up, and being new, were preserved to the present day.

5. The nomenclature of peat - cutting is also Norse. One of the Earls of Caithness was called Torf - Einar, turfcutter, being the first, no doubt, to point out the use of peats as a substitute for wood. Thus bac (N. bakki), bank, storag, bassag, torra-sgian (its first half) are all Norse.

(6) A few agricultural terms may also be mentioned, and words connected therewith. When a Sutherland herd calls a bull, he says "tuadhi, tuadhi." The Icelandic for a bull is tuddi, the usual changes being made on the loan - word, viz., diphthongisation and aspiration. The dairymaid's call is huskus, huskus; in Iceland it is kuskus, kuskus (root seen in Scotch qu-ey). The borrowing was not all on one side. The Norsemen who left Scotland on the fall of the Norwegian power at Largs, and went to Iceland, brought with them some Gaelic words, such as calman, a dove, and tarf, a bull. In driving away cattle by the dog a Reay Country herd makes use of a vocable which phonetically spells trrrhi. This is the word for driving off cattle in Iceland to the present day.

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7. The last class we shall mention is the names for the different kinds of fish. A good many are Norse. Lang, ling, cilig, cod (N. Keila), geddag, grilse, etc. There is a Celtic word for cod, viz., trosg, in Assynt and the south; but the Reay Countryman uses trosg only as applied to an awkward fellow.

The following words are more or less peculiar to the county

Lopan, a soft muddy place.

I, or uidh, a small stream with green patches on either side. It enters very largely into place-names, and is almost as common as:

Rhidhe, or rhidhean, a sloping declivity with a burn at bottom. We have an innumerable number of place-names beginning with Rhi.

Riasgan, green patches on a hill-side: hence the place - name Riasg.

Rabhan, remains of a full tide on the sea shore or banks of a river.

Uar, a tempest, a waterspout, confluence of waters.

Baghan, churchyard.

Molldair, the miller's share;

Bunndaist, the weaver's share.

Bruthas, broth; romag, Athole brose; a' bhuaicneach is for small-pox; na cnuimhean, for toothache; an t-siatag, for rheumatism; trom - altan, a cold; an cneatan, and trollaidh in some parts.

Foit, an expression used when one is suddenly burnt. It is an old term, occurring on the margin of one of the Gospels in a Continental monastery as "oit mo chrob;" we have preserved it with prosthetic f. Probably this writer of

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the middle ages hailed from Ireland or Scotland, and had burnt his finger in snuffing the candle!

Troll, pronounced troull, awkward fellow Norse, troll, hence Traligill. Norse, Troll's gill.

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