Am Bratach No. 200
June 2008
editor@bratach.co.uk


Gallaibh nan Gàidheal ’s nan Gall
Caithness of the Gael and the Lowlander`

by Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, University of Edinburgh and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

 

Introduction
Recently we’ve all been hearing and reading rather a lot of opinions, not all of them particularly well-informed, about the question of Caithness’s Gaelic heritage. Several people, some of them holding prominent public positions, have gone so far as to deny that such a thing as Caithness Gaelic ever existed. This article makes no claims to be the definitive guide to the history of Gaelic in Caithness. Rather, in drawing upon some historical sources and some scholarly works, I hope to contribute to this debate by offering what might be a different perspective. The most important point I would make to start with, however, is that we need further research on this fascinating topic by the people of Caithness themselves.

Caithness Gaelic in the eighteenth century
The earliest description we have of the relative extent of Gaelic and English-speaking areas of Caithness dates from 1706, an era when a whole series of local descriptive accounts was being compiled across Scotland. Many of these were written by local ministers, with the focus firmly upon their own parish. This particular account lists where Gaelic was preached within the bounds of Presbytery of Caithness:

There are Seven parishes in [the Presbytery of] Caithness where the Irish language is used, viz. Thurso, Halkrig [Halkirk], Rhae [Reay], Lathrone [Latheron], Ffar [Farr], Week [Wick], Duirness [Durness]. But the people of Week understand English also.

When considering such evidence, we should remember that the population of the county was much more evenly distributed than it is today, and that the larger western parishes were not so thinly populated then as they are now. We should note the implication that, unlike bilingual Wick (the county town), Thurso parish was populated mainly by monoglot Gaels. Another rather interesting statement from the same time suggests just where the linguistic boundary lay:

[I]f ye suppose a Parallel to the hypotenuse drawn from Week to Thurso, these on the Eastside of it speak most part English, and those on the Westside Irish; and the last have Ministers to preach to them in both languages.

In other words, although the word "parallel" is slightly ambiguous, the frontier may well have roughly followed the present-day railway line between the two towns.

These snapshots of the geography of Caithness's languages in the early eighteenth century certainly don't record a fixed and static state of affairs. Caithness may be one of the more unusual areas in the Highlands in that the Gaelic language was in definite retreat from a fairly early stage. It should be stressed that this process was not merely a question of people turning to a "more useful" language of trade and business. An incident in the parish of Watten in 1659 suggests that in some districts at least the transition from Gaelic to English was actively promoted by the authorities, if necessary by force. There, some ninety Gaelic monoglots were removed from the parish by the heritors and elders after they made a protest about the appointment of James Dunbar, a non-Gaelic speaker, as their minister.

Caithness Gaelic certainly experienced further decline during the eighteenth century. By the 1720s the previously bilingual parish of Wick was now apparently monoglot English. Aneas Bayne's "Short Geographical Survey of the County of Caithness," compiled around 1735, states that Gaelic was spoken in four Caithness parishes — doubtless Reay, Thurso, Halkirk, and Latheron — while English was spoken in a rather peculiarly ambiguous "five or six". Alexander MacBain's memorial of the Highlands from the early 1750s puts the languages at five parishes apiece — maybe Watten was the extra parish. Both these accounts state that Caithness English was also spoken in the parishes where Gaelic was preached: indeed, MacBain states that "the English is daily gaining ground."

By the end of the eighteenth century, the linguistic balance was beginning to shift in favour of what had previously been an English-speaking minority. Among the reasons for this must be the growth of trade centred around Wick and Thurso, agricultural development, and the major emigration from the parishes of Watten, Latheron, and Halkirk occasioned by harvest failure and famine in 1782. The writer of the description of Wick parish in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland states that Gaelic was still used to preach in four parishes, as it had been earlier on in the century. The minister of Halkirk writes that "the great number" of parishioners speak and understand both the languages of the parish equally well, but "of late years, the English is making great progress at the expense of the Earse [Gaelic]", while the minister of Reay notes that in his parish bilingualism is becoming more common.

Caithness Gaelic in the 19th and 20th centuries
The Caithness sections of the New Statistical Account compiled around forty years later give a further, rather more detailed description of linguistic change. Agricultural improvement was now in full swing: tenants were no longer having their leases renewed, while farmers from the south were becoming increasingly numerous. Large-scale Clearances had taken place in the western Gaelic-speaking parishes. The fishing and quarrying industries were flourishing, and better communications were binding Caithness ever more closely to the world outside.

In Halkirk, "[a] considerable majority of the old people speak the Gaelic, though there are not many of the young who cannot speak the Scotch, which, it is acknowledged, prevails more than it did thirty or forty years ago." The minister of Reay offers a similar picture: Gaelic was still spoken, "but has greatly lost ground within these last twenty years." In Thurso parish, Gaelic was in terminal decline, "spoken by a few, but it is yearly losing ground." Only in Latheron was the language still in general use throughout the parish, although the Presbytery of Caithness had recently decided to discontinue preaching in the eastern district served by the mission of Bruan. Nevertheless, English was becoming more widespread even in Latheron, although the advent of "several colonies of Highlanders from the heights of Kildonan and other parts of Sutherlandshire", refugees from the Clearances, slowed down the pattern of linguistic change transforming the other Gaelic parishes of Caithness.

Statistics provide further evidence of the decline of Caithness Gaelic. Using figures from the first national census of 1801 combined with the list of Highland parishes in which Gaelic was preached compiled by Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, in 1806, Charles Withers has suggested that Caithness was still, just, a mainly Gaelic-speaking county at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with 50.1% of its 22,609 inhabitants. It should be noted, however, that speakers of both languages lived on either side of the linguistic frontier, while knowledge of English was becoming increasingly widespread among the younger generation of Gaels at the time. Indeed, we might qualify Professor Withers' statement by saying that there may well have been more native speakers of Gaelic than native speakers of English in Caithness at the time, but that English had already become the more widely understood language throughout the county.

When we look at the figures from the censuses at the end of the nineteenth century, the first ones to include questions about Gaelic, we can see how dramatic the decline of the language has been in the interim, as well as the remarkable rise in the number of English speakers in the county. By 1891 the population of Caithness had grown to 37,177, but the number of Gaelic speakers there had decreased to 4,068. Nevertheless, a number of monoglot Gaels remained, most notably the sixty-one recorded in the parish of Latheron. But Caithness Gaelic was in terminal decline. As Kurt Duwe notes, by this time the language was no longer being handed down to young people. In 1931 only 633 speakers were recorded, while over the last fifty years: The temporal evolution of events in Caithness since World War II can be described in simple terms: There was virtually none. Census results between 1951 and 2001 across the board reported almost negligible numbers of Gaidhlig speakers in Gallaibh (Caithness). No locality had any number of speakers worth mentioning.

Why the hostility?
This brief study suggests that the language border in Caithness was shifting west and south for some considerable time before Gaelic went into steep decline in the nineteenth century. We should therefore treat with a grain of salt the oft repeated statements of nineteenth-century ministers and others that the linguistic frontier has been marked since time immemorial by Forss Water to the north and the burn of East Clyth to the south. Earlier evidence suggests that Gaelic-speaking Caithness stretched right up to Wick, and possibly beyond Thurso, areas where not just the language but even its very memory has been erased. As we have seen, it appears that Gaels were in a majority in Caithness right up until the early nineteenth century, although, of course, there was always a significant English-speaking minority in its north-east corner.

Although the figures are fascinating, I feel that there is danger that a debate purely on these terms might degenerate into a sterile numbers game, reducing the question of language and culture in Caithness to a matter of dry, abstract statistics. Having ascertained that there was indeed such a people as native Caithness Gaels, and indeed that Gaelic was rather more widespread in the county than many believe, we might then proceed to what may well be a more interesting and valuable question: why there is still so much hostility towards Gaelic felt by some individuals in Caithness, and what might be done to overcome it?

The answer surely has to do with the fact that Caithness is again a rather unusual part of the country in that much of its history was shaped by a centuries-long feud between families on either side of the linguistic border, namely the Sinclair Earls of Caithness and the Mackays of Strathnaver. Perhaps to a greater extent than almost any other locality in Scotland, language and culture were caught up in political affairs. To return to an earlier example, the hostility of the kirk session and landholders in Watten parish towards Gaelic in the late 1650s must have been coloured by the series of cattle raids carried out by the Mackays of Strathnaver during that decade. Such enmity was doubtless further whetted by the attempts, including armed invasion, made by the Campbells of Breadalbane to take over the earldom in the late seventeenth century. The ascendancy of the ideology of agricultural improvement in the early nineteenth century sealed the association of English with progress and civilisation. The Gaelic element of Caithness's heritage was something to be cast off and discarded, even denied. So total was this process of forgetting that even in the nineteenth century, let alone today, it seemed impossible that Gaelic was ever spoken beyond Forss Water and East Clyth.

Perhaps it might be time to lay this ancient enmity to rest. Maybe the beginning of the twenty-first century is no time to be prosecuting a medieval feud. Caithness is one of those privileged areas of Scotland where the inhabitants can boast of a share in both of Scotland's languages and cultures: the marvellous riches both of English or Scots on the one hand, and of Scottish Gaelic on the other. The recent decisions to open a Gaelic-medium unit in Thurso, and to put Gaelic place-names on some road signs in the county, are surely developments which should be welcomed by all who care about the fascinating history and cultures of Caithness. Gaelic is a hidden heritage belonging to all the people of the county. Life is more interesting with it than without it.

This article is especially indebted to the work of Charles Withers, Gaelic in Scotland 1698 to 1891: The Geographical History of a Language, and the volume relating to Gaelic in East Sutherland and Caithness in Kurt Duwe's important series of studies at www.linguae-celticae.org. The interpretation of the evidence they have collected is my own. I would also like to thank Roddy Maclean, Micheal Klevenhaus, Wilson McLeod, Marsaili MacLeod, Alasdair MacLeod, and Raybell Scot for their kind help.

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