A Sense of Place

Loch Arklet - Photo credit: Simon SwalesVonny Moyes kicks off her weekly column with an exploration of our divided selves in culture, landscape and language.

Our native language divvies us into staunch fors and impassioned dismissers. What relevance does Gaelic have in a contemporary Scotland? A Scotland where we took English, but made it ours. Are learners indulging in a quaint but pointless pastime? Are speakers futilely clinging to bow of their secret tongue as it slowly dips beneath the wash of ages?

I swirled a chipped garibaldi around my anaemic cuppa, trying to keep warm in the Aberfoyle memorial hall. While others shuffled in, I took a moment to consider the days ahead. Gaelic in the Landscape. It could mean anything. At the very least, a few days off on a pastoral jolly. A whimsical toe-dip into the mysteries of BBC Alba. Would it arm me with future did-you-knows? The stuff of pub quizzes and dinner party chatter. Would it be just another arms-length attempt to engage with that Scotland, in the safe company of other biophiles and diligent recyclers?

I was wrong. The next few days would not only start a linguistic journey, but one of reflection about our changing place in the world.

“Seilach” SHAY-luch – willow

“Cailleachag Ghorm” kal-yak-ak GORR-om – blue old woman – blue tit

“Brog na cuthaig” – brog na COO-ig – cuckoo shoe – bluebell

Each word is a discovery. A combination of unfamiliar pops and clicks. They roll around your mouth, leaping off your teeth. Each sentence is a feat of glottal acrobatics. Lenition. Elision. Dipthongs. Tripthongs. Preaspirations and trills. It’s imbued with passion and beauty, before you even glance upon meaning.

“Lus nam Ban-sith” – Loos nam ban-shee – the plant of the bad fairies – foxglove

I viewed the materials with both curiosity. And then sadness. Each name proclaimed reverence of nature. Of an understanding and respect for all. It was a sharp reminder of our collective dismissal. We’re woeful stewards. We drown birds in oil; fill innocent bellies with plastic shards as we pump greenhouse gas into the sky and sewage into our water.

When did we switch? How could we let this happen?

I thought of my house. A pebbled-dashed semi squatting on loch bed we drank dry for urban sprawl. We took land that wasn’t ours, stripped it bare and consecrated it with concrete cubes and no-ball-games signs. We live in boxes. We work in boxes. We traverse the land in the safety of more boxes. As we’ve divorced ourselves from outside, we’ve lost our empathy. In an age of skyscrapers, Google Maps and Tesco, knowing the land isn’t necessary. We no longer need to orally map our world for others. The colloquial has no place in modernity. As we’ve developed, the landscape has morphed into a mere backdrop. It’s a secondary character – no need for a back story.

Except, we do need one. As we’ve nurtured our monoglot culture, we’ve stopped reading our spaces. We’ve stopped analysing them and critiquing them, and applying our language to more than aesthetic. We’ve detached. As we’ve detached we’ve lost our knowledge, our history, our pride and our sense of ownership. Outdoors has become the playground for the few. Have we forgotten it’s the nurturer of all?

I’d come on this course to expand my vocabulary. Expecting a glut of new words to add texture and to my writing about Scotland, I’d unconsciously appropriated them for the benefit of our single Scottish story. I hadn’t anticipated how they would settle in my bones as I lay in bed after each day. The words were forcing me to look again at a world I knew nothing about.

As I sat with Dwelly and translated each name on the map I saw places that spoke of refuge or famine. Places of danger, great beauty and sadness. Places that proclaim their importance, but when anglicised wilt into nothing more than a funny-sounding name for tourists to butcher.

I wandered through Gleann Fhionnghlais listening to stories of how tiny silverweed roots roasted on peat embers fed Highland Clearance diaspora. Of healers burned as witches, and sap fed to newborns. Every sgor, every sròn, every bealach is steeped in meaning and people.

It would easy to treat this as nothing more than an intellectual overlay. But this language underpins our geography. It paints pictures of the land before we pocked her with pylons, roads and cities.

I want to tell you the stories I heard. Of the salmon of knowledge. Or Fionn Mac Cumhail and Gráinne. Of a giant’s shot-put masquerading as a glacial erratic. Of rowan branches and dancing millers. But you’ll find so much more if you seek them yourself. There’s a mine of riches beneath the words. Caverns of social, cultural and geographical history. Go out and find them. Reconnect with the rock you’re standing on.

In the week that Creative Scotland released their long overdue Scots Leid Policie we should look a little further. On paper, we may be a nation of one language, but our heritage is steeped in technicolour truer than any tartan. Gaelic, Brythonic. Pictish. Scots. Norse. It’s in our sky. Our soils. Our corries. Our trees. In the crest of a bird.

Look beyond the names and you’ll find a thousand tales penned in bark and berries, carried on wings and chestnut burrs. In each story, you’ll find people. You’ll find humanity. And then, we just might think twice about taking it all for granted.

 

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Comments (34)

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  1. john young says:

    Vonny Moyes have you read “Message from the Kogi” if not you should,put so beautifully as only those in love with/for our mother earth can.

  2. John Page says:

    Thank you. Beautiful.

  3. James Coleman says:

    “I swirled a chipped garibaldi around my anaemic cuppa, trying to keep warm in the Aberfoyle memorial hall. ”

    Why oh why do Scots writers always talk doom and gloom. Couldn’t they once in a while use upbeat language when they talk about Scotland.

    1. Vonny Moyes says:

      I do use upbeat language – but this wasn’t a puff piece.

      Also, it really was crappy tea.

      1. James Coleman says:

        You could have lied.

    2. Domhnall MacCoinnich says:

      A bit harsh don’t you think? An article that is full of enthusiasm about language, its beauty, and what it can tell us about our world and ourselves and you have picked up on a sentence about having weak tea in a cold hall! It is called juxtaposition where the mundane is juxtaposed with an unexpected experience that has filled the writer with delight and a burning new fresh insight. It gives us a before and after….

      ….or, were you joking!?

      1. James Coleman says:

        “you have picked up on a sentence about having weak tea in a cold hall!”

        I picked on it because it was a scene setting sentence at the beginning of the piece. It certainly turned me off the remainder. And no I wasn’t joking. I’m fed up with Scots writers thinking that showing Scotland to be a dry, driech, cold place shows that they have a ‘heart’. My Scotland is not like that.

        1. Green says:

          I don’t think the article did show “Scotland to be a dry, driech, cold place”. I thought it showed quite the opposite. It might describe having a cup of tea in Aberfoyle Memorial Hall, but this seemed specifically juxtaposed by a Scotland that explicitly wasn’t like that but that we have been conditioned to perceive like that as a result, in part, of failings in the dominant language.

          More like this article, please.

          1. Morag M says:

            I personally found that sentence quite poetic and lyrical in an odd sort of way – and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it may be more in the “interpretation” than the text. Really enjoyed the article Vonny – I hope to see more. I’d love to see a book on our relationship with the landscape through language, as a sort of extension of the thoughts in The Spell of the Sensuous which is all about how language has taken us away from our human/ sensory relationship with the natural world.

        2. Domhnall MacCoinnich says:

          Are you suggesting that Scottish halls are never cold and you never get a weak tea in one? My Scotland has cold halls where weak tea is served (so do lots of other countries) but also where the warmth and richness of our culture can be shared. As I said before it is a juxtaposition. Between the mundane and the definitely not mundane that surrounds us if you look beyond the obvious. That is the scene setting as I see it. Not that Scotland is a driech, cold place at all. I definitely didn’t see this as the author trying to tell us she ‘has a heart’. It is about the beauty of language and what that can give us. I have experienced feelings like this looking at and getting involved in other aspects of Gaelic and other Scottish culture. I don’t think it is about being self congratulatory at all but trying to share a positive experience with others. To try and give them an insight into the feelings that came to them in their discovery of something new.
          I suggest you are letting those other authors, you hinted at, colour what you see in this article. I suppose we all see something different but I can’t see why an opening scene about a morning in a cold hall would automatically make anyone assume it was some kind of metaphor for Scotland as a whole (maybe I have just not read the same books). All it did for me was put me in the position, we have all been in, where you are waiting to learn about something without a clue as to how it will pan out (maybe with not that high expectations etc.). That is why it is not self congratulatory. It is the information she then gets introduced to that then moves her. Not some great insight she has made on her own.

  4. Gordon Cutler says:

    A descendent of the Scots diaspora, I spent 16 of the most important years of my life in the Highlands. But I totally missed out on Gaelic as not one of the Scots I knew or have ever known spoke it. All I can say is, Wow! I’ve reread your piece three times in the last three hours and haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else. Thank you! I hope you pursue this further. I know I will be.

  5. Gill Steele says:

    I agree, learning Gaelic starts to deepen your understanding of place. My kids are learning and I am too, slowly. I have the ambition to be able to learn enough to read Sorley MacLeans work.

  6. Marianne Gibson says:

    My last Gaelic lesson focused on a poem by Uilleam Caimbeul, entitled ‘Na Rothan Gaoithe’ – The WInd Turbines. While you are absolutely right that Gaelic is important historically and culturally, I think it is really vital to also make the point that Gaelic is a living language, as not to do so allows the narrative to be set by those who seem to conveniently forget this fact.

  7. Coinneach Albannach says:

    Tha mi ionnsaich cuideachd.

  8. Tocasaid says:

    Tha a’ Ghàidhlig fhathast beo, cuimnhich ged nach eil fhios aig cuid de na Gaidheil. Cleachd i no caill i. Cho furasta sin.

  9. Morvern McMath says:

    To know where you are going, you need to know where you came from! If you don”t know how you got to the bus stop, it”s unlikely you know where you’re next stop will be.

    When looking at the glens of Scotland through out the whole off the last century and before we saw depopulated desolation on a vast country wide scale. However with community buy outs and people wishing to escape the city we are seeing a reversal of rural depopulation.

    This reversal has taken place under Scotland finding its feet and voice as we head towards the last stop prior to the end of union. There are songs, smiles and children in the glens.

    As new people return, people of all ages will be more aware of where they came from looking at their amazing environment. This new knowledge will ensure we don”t slip back to the dark days of union and labour / tory rule and that we know how to navigate our way in world with the transport available.

  10. Ariel says:

    Beautifully articulate article…wonderful to see such reaction and insight as we work our new Gaelic Rap LP Dàna-Thursan an Tillidh. Thank you..

  11. Roland Stiven says:

    Very good

  12. Brian MacIver says:

    Thank you, insightful to a world we almost lost.

    Oisean: Wise words on #Scotland
    Remember those you came from.

  13. Dana says:

    A lovely piece which has inspired me! I especially enjoyed the way Vonny sets the scene for the surprise of the colourful journey of discovery and enlightenment that follows with her preceding ‘grey’ description of the cuppa and hall! Love it!

  14. Gordon cuthbertson says:

    Spot on gives a great sense of all that language means and what we miss out on if we lose a language

  15. Jamie Purves says:

    What an excellent piece and how true!. My Edinburgh education denied me any knowledge of gaelic let alone Scots. We need it now more than ever. The language still lies on the landscape!

  16. Edison Ortega says:

    Excellent, thought provoking and moving piece. I’m writing this feed back from the Isle of Barra where me and my wife have been for a week’s break from Edinburgh.
    As you can probably tell from my name I’m not a “local” and having been to many parts in Scotland in the 37 yrs I’ve lived here, nowhere else have I felt the depth of sadness and empathy with the plight of the people who lived here and were forced out of their land and way of life in the name of “progress”. (Not to mention religious persecution).
    My skeptical self tells me there’s nothing new here if we look at the histories of the conquered everywhere in the world -including current events in the Middle East and elsewhere. My faith in the human condition gets badly dented and I find it hard to avert the idea that we are the destructive mega egotistical ape who in pursuit of self aggrandisement will subjugate others, exploit the environment to destruction and abandon fundamental values and moral restraints.
    But reading this piece and the subsequent comments attached to it give me hope that we are the many and that change is possible.
    It’s been particularly rewarding eavesdropping into locals speaking Gaelic with deserved confidence, kids attending school and playing in their beautiful surroundings. No doubt despite the brutal experiences of their ancestors those who remained behind along with newcomers are working hard to develop their communities. I have no idea about their stand on independence but I hope that they are on board with it because sure as hell our current masters in London don’t give a fig or know where Barra is.

  17. Fran says:

    What a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing. Sad that a couple of generations have left me only with a little Gaelic. It’s so true that a people’s language is much more than words.

  18. Muscleguy says:

    That glacial erratic is not masquerading as anything. It can be both that is the key to it. You do not have to deny the one to accept the other, they are just different aspects of the same thing.

    Back in Southern NZ there are the Moeraki boulders, spherical huge rocks that erode out of sand dunes onto a beach. Geology says they are accretions, minerals accumulating around a seed, that’s why they are spherical. Maori legend says they are the kumera (sweet potatoes) from Maui’s waka (canoe). The South Island of NZ is te Waka a Maui, Maui (Mauw – e) is a legendary Polynesian hero. The North Island is a fish he pulled from the depths, and Stewart Island sitting at the stern of the waka is his anchor stone. Note this was a pre-literate society who made no maps but they knew the shapes of the landmasses they lived on and the North Island, te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui) does look like a fish. That one fin is a giant volcano twin to Fuji in Japan, doesn’t stop that.

  19. Chris Griffiths says:

    So pleased about the revival of Gaelic in the Highlands and Hebrides, but what of the roots in the landscape of the P-Celtic Brythonic language of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) and the Caithness, Orkney and the Shetland norn. The Scots language is not badly spoken English. Was it not the language of the Angles and Saxons of Bernicia that the people of Scotland made their own? And do not these linguistic roots also too have a place in the culture and landscape of Scotland?

    1. Jim Fleming says:

      Chris, although I am very enthusiastic for Gaelic, like you I am equally interested and concerned about the present state and future of Scots. I grew up in a Scots speaking family – my grandparents, who were born in the 19th century, could not have spoken anything else. It grieves me that in my lifetime (over 70 years certainly), so Scots many words and even the pronunciation of some words are no longer in use. Just a couple of examples – the young folk where I live near Loch Lomond speak about “the lock” and have completely lost the old Scots “wh” sound, so that there is no difference between the words “whales” and “Wales”, quite apart from “were”, “wen” and “wy” being normal pronunciations for “where”, “when”, and “why”.

  20. Jim Fleming says:

    A beautiful piece. One of the most interesting aspects for me is that the course was apparently held in Aberfoyle – only 20 miles from where I live in Stirling. It’s a reminder of the fact that Gaelic was a living language in West Perthshire and parts of West Stirlingshire well into the 19th century – the last native speakers survived into the late 20th century. I wonder, Vinny, if you know the book “Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid” – “From the Clyde to Callander”. It’s a collection of the Gaelic traditions, songs and poetry from the whole area of Lennox and Menteith, which includes parts of West Dunbartonshire, West Stirlingshire and West Perthshire. Its author is Michael Newton and I beleive a paperback edition was published in 2010. Well worth a read!

  21. Fiona MacInnes says:

    Encapsulates what I feel much better than I could say.

  22. Grumble Mcgrumble says:

    I think Gaelic is great! I am more than happy to pay my taxes to support it in the any way the Gaels want. But I not hugely interested in turning it into a central belt affectation.

    Here’s a descriptive English word Magniloquence.

  23. Ramstam says:

    Guid tae see sae muckle enthusiasm for Gaelic. Tho I’m maistly a Scots speiker I can Juist aboot unnerstaun the Gaelic on an OS map. It wad be an orra an shamefu thing tae loss the Gaelic.
    Mair bairns needs tae lairn Scots an Gaelic an we need tae see signs in Scots tae.

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  25. Maeve BW says:

    What an eloquent and poetic call to rediscover the land and it’s culture simultaneously.
    Thanks 🙂

  26. Susan Campbell says:

    In the Isle of Islay we did a Gaelic place-name recording project with SNH. Over only 6 weeks, six people collected more than 400 place-names used in the island, none of which were shown on OS maps. When older local people, the native Gàidhlig speakers, are no longer with us, the memory of these very local place-names will die with them. All the names hold island history and stories, and it would be sad if they were lost.
    The name of the booklet produced by SNH is “Gaelic in the Landscape; Place-names in Islay and Jura” and is available on SNH website.

    PS: Ban-sith means ‘white/fair fairy’, not a bad fairy 🙂

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