GIVING STICK TO THE MINISTER:
Aspects of Lexical and Idiomatic Interaction between Gaelic and Scots
Donald E. Meek
Over the last few years, prior to relinquishing my post at the University of Edinburgh, I was persuaded (against my better judgement, I fear) to give some thought to words and phrases which appeared to be common to both Scots and Gaelic. My first excursion or safari into this dangerous jungle was signalled by the publication of a study of the verb skail in Scots and sgaoil in Gaelic. This study demonstrated some core correspondences in meaning and use between the two languages, but it also showed that there were a number of significant differences. My second excursion, which can be fairly called such, as it owed a lot to the steamship, looked at the way in which a verb form in Scots, namely steamin’, used of a well-known human condition, created a corresponding idiom in Gaelic, by means of the noun smùid, ‘haze, steam’, which came to mean ‘drunken stupor, spree’. As I argued, the Industrial Revolution had generated this usage in Scots, through the convention of sailing on steamships on the Clyde (presumably), and making the most of the refreshments down below. As Gaels met Scots and doubtless participated in the delights of steamship travel, the Gaels were exposed, not only to an expanding drinks cabinet, but also to a process of ‘semantic nudging’ through contact with Scots. As a result, Gaelic had extended the use of one of its nouns, which it deployed with such verbs as gabh and thog to give the desired nuance. In the case of skail and sgaoil, we (or at least I) could see a verb which was used in similar forms in both languages, and which seemed to share a semantic frontier from an early stage. In the case of steamin’ and smùid, it was more a matter of idiomatic transfer, at a comparatively late date, with a good splash of humour as well as aqua vitae.
The third example of ‘linguistic cross-over’ between Scots and Gaelic which I want to discuss in a very preliminary way today is also in the field of idiom, and, like the use of smùid in the sense of ‘inebriation’, it has a dash of humour, and tends to exist most commonly in an oral context, that is to say, generally outside polite dictionaries, fine prose and good conversation (in every sense). My own feeling is that it is the result of humorous interplay and quite probably some deliberate ‘misunderstanding’ between Scots and Gaelic in a particular contact-zone and at a particular level. In my time, Gaelic speakers were known to take English phrases and give them them a new and slightly ironic ‘spin’ in their transferred Gaelic forms (e.g. ‘Bòrd a’ Chongested’, for English ‘Congested Districts Board’, and ‘Job a’ Chreation’ for English ‘Job Creation Scheme’). I suspect this process has a long history, but that it may have had a rather fragile existence, with phrases being pulled across to both sides of the Scots/Gaelic linguistic boundary in a bilingual context to match the mood of the moment. Some of these phrases, however, entered more robust currency, and have survived to the present, because they have matched a particular context, and are still ‘apt’ within that context (as in the case of smùid).
The two parallel phrases which I want to consider today are Scots ‘stickit minister’ and Gaelic ‘ministear maide’, the latter meaning, at face value, ‘minister of wood, wooden minister’. Face-value meaning is not, of course, the only meaning of any word, and I would like to consider the Gaelic phrase ‘ministear maide’ first, before turning to look at ‘stickit minister’.
I first encountered the phrase ‘ministear maide’ when I was a very innocent secondary pupil in my first year of trying to come to terms with the wild youngsters at the other end of my native island, Tiree. I had only recently moved from my former ‘secure unit’ in the primary school in Ruaig, where we were held in captivity by an extremely volatile and tawse-loving teacher with no Gaelic, and I had gone to Cornaigmore Junior Secondary School (now Tiree High School). After the horrors of the concentration camp at Ruaig, it was a thoroughly liberating experience, with plenty of opportunities to use Gaelic in the classroom and in the playground. I can now see in retrospect that playgrounds, in the old days when there were no child-minders or spoil-sport assistants of various sorts, were excellent places for extending one’s vocabulary in all sorts of ways. I heard words on the playground, in both Gaelic and English, which were not normally in my parents’ vocabulary, and I soon learned not to check their meaning when I returned home. At a very early stage in my career, therefore, I was familiar with that fine principle of historical lexicography, namely to accumulate examples, and to deduce meaning from these, if only because a sound thrashing awaited me if I ever mentioned that word at home. Anyway, on this particular day, a slightly older pupil from Cornaig engaged me in a Gaelic slanging-match. As he was the grandson of the local miller, some things were said by the upstart from Caolas about short measure at the mill. My flyting-partner then replied that I wouldn’t know about these things anyway, as I was the son of a ‘ministear maide’. Touche! As it happened, my father was a Baptist minister, and, in addition to maintaining the family croft in Tiree, he acted as minister for the local Baptist congregation during a period of extended vacancy. I had normally heard my father mentioned with great respect, and this was something of a shock. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I knew that it had nothing to do with the fact that my father had a fine pair of hands and was also known for his knacky boat-building.
I knew enough to tell me that the term ‘ministear maide’ was derogatory. I remembered the phrase because of its clever alliteration, and I thought of the various kinds of ‘maide’ that we had around the house. We had ‘maide buntàta’ (‘potato stick’), which was like the oversized leg of a bed, and which I used regularly to clean the potatoes in a bucket of water. The potatoes were swirled round in the water by a vigorous application of the ‘maide buntàta’. I then thought of ‘each maide’, the Gaelic for a wooden horse, and normally used when I would take hold of a big piece of wood, and go stride-legs across it, as if it were a horse. This was not the same as having a posh and shiny wooden horse, of the kind that sits serenely in big lounge windows nowadays. ‘Maide’, in short was not a well-shaped piece of wood – it was rough and ready, on the whole. ‘Maide tarsaing’ (‘a cross-beam’) was used of the rafters, and ‘ceanna-mhaidean’ (‘head beams’) for the roof-beams of a house. The usually generic term for wood in Gaelic was ‘fiodh’ (which orginally meant ‘forest’ too), and the normal term for a stick was ‘bata’. A small stick for the fire was ‘bioran’. So the word ‘maide’ had a nuance which favoured its use in ‘ministear maide’, in addition to its alliteration with ‘ministear’. It seemed to me to match the use of the English word ‘wooden’, as used of a sluggish performance or of someone who was perceived to be a bit of a blockhead.
Gradually, as I grew up and gained admission to closer and more intimate levels of conversation, I heard the phrase ‘ministear maide’ being used of other ministers, besides my father – which was not very reassuring, I have to say. Most of the time, it was applied to ministers who were poor preachers, and whose preaching was generally not of the spontaneous, evangelical kind favoured by most Gaelic people in Protestant areas. When I went to Glasgow University in the late 1960s, I came across the phrase in a collection of Gaelic proverbs which I was editing as my Honours project – subsequently published as The Campbell Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Proverb or saying 122 in that collection is as follows:
B’ annsa leam ministear-maide na madadh ministeir.
I would prefer a ‘wooden minister’ to a hound of a minister.
The phrase, ‘madadh ministeir’, ‘hound of a minister’ employing ‘madadh’ (a less than polite word for ‘dog’) as its first element had been coined cleverly on the basis of ‘minstear maide’ itself, and so one could see that this phrase had aided the creation of what might be termed a ‘reverse parallel phrase’.
The original compiler of the proverb collection, the Rev. Duncan M. Campbell, who was the minister for a period of Cumlodden Parish Church in Argyll, wrote a note to explain the proverb, and there is touch of glee in his clarification:
‘After the Secession of 1843,’ he wrote, ‘the ministers of the Church of Scotland were called ‘ministearn-maide’ (‘wooden ministers’). This was the observation of a ploughman who served first with a parish minister, and then with a Free Church minister.’
The latter was, of course, the ‘madadh ministeir’, the ‘hound of a minister’, who was evidently even less palatable than the ‘ministear maide’.
I suspect that the Rev. Duncan Campbell was rather sensitive about these matters, as he himself was doubtless well known as the perfect example – if such were needed – of the ‘ministear maide’. After some drink-related incidents which befell him in Cumlodden, and which included a break-in to his own church, he had to leave his charge at the end of the nineteenth century. According to the propaganda disseminated at the time, he went to Germany and gained a PhD at the University of Bonn. When I researched his life, I bombarded Germany with enquiries about Campbell and his alleged PhD, but there was no evidence that he had ever acquired the degree in Bonn, or anywhere else for that matter. Nevertheless, he was credited with the doctorate, and arrived in Grimsay, North Uist, as a schoolmaster, where he was feared for his rather ferocious discipline. Perhaps, in his case, both ‘ministear maide’ and ‘madadh ministear’ came together in an unhappy harmony. When in Grimsay, he helped Edward Dwelly with the compilation of his monumental Illustrated Dictionary, and Dwelly has the above proverb tucked coyly into his magnum opus, under ministear, translated and glossed with Campbell’s explanation, but without giving any other examples of the phrase ‘ministear maide’. Remarkably too, the source of the phrase, which we can be certain was the aforesaid ‘Doctor’ [sic] Duncan Campbell, is not noted or given the standard abbreviaton ‘DC’ which indicated Campbell’s contributions to other parts of the dictionary. Clearly there were sensitivities about this submission, and that is hardly surprising, given the unsavoury reputation of the source.
We may note here too that none of the printed Gaelic dictionaries known to me includes ministear maide as a head-word, and I am sure that few, if any other than Dwelly, actually cite the phrase. I have not yet checked the slips in the Archive of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, but I suspect that the evidence in that collection will not be any more extensive. The term has generally existed, as I have said, in speech, and in particular contexts which were not consistent with the drawing-room. It is also quite rare in literary sources. Given the high profile of ministers in the making of these literary sources, that should not surprise us too much either.
And now to the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots. It seems to me more than self-evident that the Gaelic phrase ‘ministear maide’ is a reflex of the Scots ‘stickit minister’, but with the deft use of ‘maide’ (‘beam of wood’) rather than ‘bata’ (‘stick’). Of course, if you consult SND you will soon discover that the word ‘stickit’ has little to do with the noun ‘stick’ or with wood of any kind, but everything to do with the verb ‘stick’. A perusal of the very helpful selection of entries in SND shows that the past participle ‘stickit’ was used in religious and pedagogic contexts (as well as more generally) from at least 1700. It was applied to dominies, ministers or ministerial candidates who ‘stuck’ in one way or another (or who, in today’s jargon, had ‘come unstuck’ at a critical moment, or had failed to make the grade in their chosen career).
Thus, SND defines the relevant uses of ‘stick’ as (5) ‘To come to a premature halt in (whatever one is doing)…’ or in the case of the past participle, when used of people, ‘halted in their trade or profession, failed, insufficiently qualified, unsuccessful’. Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815) tells of a clergyman who ‘became totally incapable of proceeding in his intended discourse, and was ever afterwards designated as a “stickit minister”. Hogg (1820) speaks of a ‘sticket shopkeeper’, and Chambers’ Journal (1838) of a ‘sticket precentor’. William Alexander in Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk (1871) has a ‘sticket doctor’. The ‘stickit minister’ appears in the Kailyard writings of Crockett in the 1890s, while as recently as 1950, L. J. Saunders stated in his Scottish Democracy,
‘The “stickit minister” who could not get a charge was not indeed a completely legendary figure’.
And to that one can only say ‘Amen’, on the basis of the one ministerial career to which we have alluded in this talk.
Whether he stuck in the middle of his sermon, or in the middle of his career, the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots earned a place in Scots literature, but I suspect that he existed much more fully, like the Gaelic ‘ministear maide’, in oral discourse. It is highly likely that it was through such oral discourse that the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots was transferred across the linguistic boundary, and given a ‘make-over’ as the ‘ministear maide’ of Gaelic. The principal criterion in the making of the Gaelic ‘ministear maide’ was his failure to satisfy, not necessarily the standards of university or divinity hall, but the evangelical standards which became the hallmark of many Highland parishes in the course of the nineteenth century, particularly after the Disruption. It is a supreme irony that the very man who seemingly provided Edward Dwelly with his unique citiation of the ‘ministear maide’, namely Duncan Campbell, the defrocked minister of Cumlodden Parish Church and thereafter schoolmaster in Grimsay, North Uist, was an outstanding example of this unfortunate group. In his eyes, it was doubtless gratifying to feel that a ‘madadh ministeir’ was indeed worse than a ‘ministear maide’, though many in the Highlands and Islands might disagree.
In conclusion, therefore, we can say that the relationship between Gaelic ‘ministear maide’ and Scots ‘stickit minister’ confirms that the languages did indeed exchange idioms. In this case, we can be fairly sure that the phrase originated in Scots, and that it was recast cleverly when it crossed the linguistic boundary into Gaelic. In attempting to pinpoint such a transactional context, I have frequently wondered who might have been the first to use the Gaelic term, and by what means it passed into popular currency. We might also wonder where the first exchange occurred. Was it in the context of exiled Gaels in the Lowlands who encountered non-evangelical ministers in certain contexts, picked up the phrase ‘stickit minister’, translated it into Gaelic, and exported it to the Highlands and Islands? Certainly a context that is both bilingual and religiously nuanced is required to explain this interesting transaction. And we might add that humour, of a rather barbed kind, was another ingredient in the exchange. All of this raises interesting questions, and adds a colourful dimension to the ‘mairch an’ mell o’ Scots an’ Gaelic’.