Day 16, Gaelic history, language & cultural devastation; keeping culture alive – spinning and natural dyes

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4 July 2013

The road from South Uist north to Benbecula and North Uist crosses a series of causeways, some short and others long fingers edged with giant rocks, uncurling across the water. The wind is howling across the country, and here on the Western Isles there is nothing to slow its terrible rush to land from the Atlantic. My little car judders and swerves and the rain, when it comes, slashes sideways across the windscreen. But no sooner does it start than it is blown away and the sun appears, dancing on the wet bog cotton that pulls taught against its thin green stem.

I am on my way to visit Flora MacDonald in North Uist. But before I reach Flora, I drop in to visit Tommy, at his bicycle hire and repair outlet in Howmore.

Tommy brings me up to date on much of the history of the area. He says there is a lot they weren’t taught in school. The Lordship of the Isles which lasted 300 -400 years was just ignored at school, he says. I, myself, remember hearing nothing of the Lordship of the Isles when I was at school.

Here is some of Tommy’s conversation:

‘During the era of the Lordship of the Isles the MacDonald dynasty controlled the west coast and islands; the clans were united and lived in harmony. There was a council that made decisions and it was by no means a dictatorship. The people enjoyed peace and prosperity. But this came to an end in the 1400s.

The Lordship was not part of the feudal system. They probably considered themselves kings in their own right. So the Scottish government dissolved this system in the 1400’s, and inter-clan feuds came about as a result of the loss of the strong leadership.

The clans became a thorn in the flesh of the Scottish Government and The Statutes of Iona were introduced, aimed at reducing the power of the clan chiefs. Under the Statutes, the chiefs’ children had to be educated on the lowlands and were distanced from their clan members.

So, says Tommy, the early 1600’s, was the start of the downfall of the Gaelic culture.

The next blow came after the Acts of Union, the defeat at Culloden and the measures taken against the highlanders by the British troops, with the banning of the tartan, their disarming, the massacre of the wounded and the burning of highlander homes, with their cattle driven away.

The British government wanted to destroy the basis of Highland life, and they made it possible, for the first time, for the money economy to enter Highland society. The Anglicisation of the ruling Highland class led to the drop in the numbers of Gaelic speaking lairds. The chief became a feudal landlord for the first time and began to spend more and more time in the manner of London and the south.

So came about the continued devastation of the Gaelic culture, and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Highland estates with large tenant populations were changed to more profitable sheep farming, and the surplus tenants were cleared. There were mass migrations to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as a result.

The Education Act of 1872 also led to generations of Gaels being forbidden to speak their native language in the classroom.

Tommy mentions The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. The Gaelic language was seen as the cause of the barbarism of the people. It was believed that if they could root out the language they could make the people more civilised and children were punished for speaking Gaelic in the schools.

Consequently a couple of generations were not taught to read and write Gaelic and could not help their children with the language.

This continued up until the Gaelic medium schools were introduced to remedy the situation in the last 25 or 30 years.

By 2008, Highland councillors were being presented with a report outlining the high demand for Gaelic medium schools. In 2013 the Scottish Government outlined a plan for Gaelic to be taught in every primary school in Scotland.

The children I have talked to on the islands are very proud of their cultural heritage and those I met who have not been brought up speaking Gaelic in the home wish that they had. They learn Gaelic at school and say they will bring their children up to speak Gaelic at home.

70% of the population of the Outer Hebrides have Gaelic as their first language. Perhaps in generations to come this number will be even greater.

As I leave Tommy and continue the drive north to Flora, I ponder the history, the influences of the English on the Scots, and the importance of the reversal of the cultural devastation. I remember my own experiences when, not with Gaelic but with a Scottish accent, I went for a job interview in the 1980’s to Pilkington Glass, in the south of England. I was told straight away I would not get the job because of my Scottish accent. I left without objecting. But I never forgot. Is telling the internet some form of redress?!

Aged seventy-six, Flora lives in a stone and thatch, one-roomed cottage in North Uist. Her bed in one corner is pulled over with a woollen blanket, a peat fire burns and her old spinning wheel sits beside the fire. Under a small window, set deep in the stone wall, she has a small table covered in a white cloth for her kitchen, and a little portable gas stove to supplement the griddle on top of her fire.

Flora dyes her wools with the plants around her sheiling. She explains to me about black crotal, used by the Harris Tweed people for distinctive orange/browns in many shades; and trefoil, used for the greens and yellows of the tartans. The green, she tells me, can be made using the water in the ditch, in which the trefoil grows, as it is high in iron. Another favourite of Flora’s is the Iris, which she uses with peaty water for the greens. The roots are pink and the seedpods also give an aubergine colour.

Flora spins at her wheel, sketches and writes poetry. She grew up, she tells me, in a remote and inaccessible part of the east coast of North Uist, And after living in Glasgow, as so many Gaels do, she returned here to the simple life. But it is hard she concedes. The wind is incessant and everything is a battle against the wind.

She serves me pancakes cooked on her griddle on the fire, and tea from the big kettle, and she sings me a spinning song; one of the thousands of songs that went with any activity of the day.

On my way back to Daliburgh, I stop off at Kildonan Museum where a wonderful display shows more on the plants and their uses.

I learn, amongst other things, that the name of the old Black House, taigh dubh, which I had thought originated from the open peat fire on an earth floor, tarring the walls black, in fact perhaps originates from the Gaelic taigh tughaidh, meaning house of turf and stone, but has simply been misunderstood as taigh dubh (black house).

There is so much to learn here and so little time.

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