Sunday, 31 March 2013

Religious studies: The Roots of Christian Scotland


Donald E. Meek


Right at the outset, I would like to lay out my stall, so that there can be no misunderstanding of who I am or what I aim to achieve in what I want to say. Let me therefore say what I am not: I am not an ecclesiastical historian, I am not a secular historian, and I am not an expert on Britain or even ‘Scotland’ in the Dark Ages.   My talk therefore will not be a treatise on the latest research in the relevant areas.  I will not present any dazzlingly new theories or unearth some staggeringly fresh facts.  I can claim currently to be no more than a ‘Professor of Scottish and Gaelic Studies’, and before that I was ‘Professor of Celtic’ (i.e. Professor of Celtic languages and matters pertaining thereto).  That remit is broad enough in itself, but I would have to say that my research interests across the years have been largely modern, in the sense that much of my work has been concerned with Gaelic language and literature in the time-frame from the later Middle Ages (the Early Modern period, in some people’s jargon) to the present day.  Of course, I have strayed beyond these limits from time to time, partcularly in my reflections on the nature of how people arrive at certain views of the past.  My concern in The Quest for Celtic Christianity (published in 2000) was with the challenge of interpreting the past, and particularly the spiritual and ecclesiastical past, of Britain and Ireland.   As you may be aware, ‘Celtic Christianity’ was all the rage in the 1990s, and I was constantly being assailed with requests to support and validate the popular trend.   It was assumed that, because I was a Gaelic speaker, and therefore a ‘Celt’ in the eyes of some, I would be able to say ‘Amen’ to everything.  I offered my response in the book, and, to the absolute horror of some readers and to the delight of others, I took issue with many aspects of the movement.  I gave myself a crash course in philosophy and the principles of history, reflected on patterns of  interpretation, and came broadly to the conclusion that the ‘intellectual cutting edge’ of rational thought was being abandoned in the search for a comfortable historical validation of the problems of the present day.  That, to me, was no way to read or to interpret the past.

This morning, then, I want us tor reflect on how we tackle the question of ‘The Roots of Christian Scotland’, and to consider the best approaches to a complex problem.  I will lay out the principles, so to speak, and leave you to gather the evidence beyond what I say.   It is easy to ‘short-circuit’ debate or enquiry by ‘parcelling up’ everything into a neat package of prejudices and presuppositions.  We all do it in different areas.  So let me challenge myself, and challenge you, to consider how we should see the ‘Christian past’ in Scotland and especially the ‘roots of Christian Scotland’, by which we would mean the earliest ‘glimmers’ of Christianity in what is now our country.

One of the first things that we need to do at the very outset in considering ‘The Roots of Christian Scotland’ is to look at each word in the title of the talk.   Nowadays, we are aware of how very large, generalised concepts can be packed into individual words. Such words need to be ‘unpacked’.  Concepts like ‘roots’ and ‘Christian Scotland’ are immensely emotive, and carry a fair amount of ‘baggage’ which we have to put through an intellectual security check, to see what potentially misleading or even explosive material may be hidden inside.



Underlying the notion of ‘roots’ is the concept of an organic growth of some sort, be that a plant or a family.  It is easy to see how the idea that a family has ‘roots’ can develop, and why those of us who indulge in ancestor-hunts like to see how far back we can go with our own ‘roots’.  The further back, the better; it all seems to become much more respectable as we push into the mists of time, and we are also that bit more secure when we perceive a ‘root’ that runs through the centuries.  It tells us that ‘we have been here for a very long time’, and from that sense of ‘having been’ we may conclude optimistically that ‘we will be here for a long time in the future’.  A student of mine told me just the other day that she could trace her family line back to the thirteenth century, and that she was sure that her family represented the genuine chiefly kindred of a particular island.  I too was asked about my ancestors last week, and I had to confess humbly that the Meeks could not boast of any nobility at all.  Naturally, I am very upset about that.  We have traced our line back to that well-known cultural hot-spot of central Scotland – Whitburn! – and we can just about make it into the eighteenth century.  My people on the Meek side were originally weavers who diversified into trades and crafts in the course of the nineteenth century.  But then I was asked another question, ‘How did the Whitburn Meeks become Gaelic speakers?’, and I had to explain that one of the Meeks married a MacDonald from Tiree, and that the family later emigrated to Vancouver, leaving my father in Tiree, where he became a naturalised Gaelic speaker.  For that reason alone, I am extremely wary of being called a ‘Celt’, with all the contradictory and self-reinforcing baggage that the ‘C word’ carries.  On my father’s side, I have Lowland ‘roots’, but I am very much a Gael, in language and worldview – and these too have ‘roots’.

Roots, in short, are usually complex, and, in my experience at least, they do not lead back to one single ‘tidy’ origin.  So many shoots and runners intertwine.  Some grow, some survive, some die.  So it is with the Christian faith.   The story of Christianity in Scotland is not that of a simple, single organism that was washed up on the Scottish shoreline at the dawn of history.  It is much more complex and multi-faceted.   It is not a simple matter of growth from a single ‘Celtic’ source of eccelesiastical purity, back in the so-called Dark Ages.    Recently I was asked by a well-known ferry company to translate the phrase, ‘Iona, Cradle of Christianity’, into Gaelic, and I found the words sticking in my throat as I did so.  I thought of Whithorn (not Whitburn this time!), and wondered how Ninian was feeling, and then I remembered that some historians have even been bold enough to suggest that Ninian never existed – that he was a scribal error or misreading of a manuscript.  I felt my brain pulsating.   Slick sloganising it was, certainly, to dignify Iona in that way, but it was very poor history, resting on popular presuppositions.   The ‘roots of Christian Scotland’, whatever they are, are unlikely to begin with twelve men in a boat coming over from Ireland.  There are, in my view, numerous beginnings across the ages, and numerous possible metaphors of process.

Let’s try waves, for example.  When I was a schoolboy in Tiree, I read Matthew Arnold’s great poem, ‘Dover Beach’ for the first time, and I never forgot it.   I knew the sea and the waves at first hand, and I watched, and still watch, with delight and admiration, as the waves surged in from the cold Atlantic, burst on the island shore, and spread their white, creamy foam across the sand.  Then they pulled back, leaving clumps of bedraggled seaweed and a gloriously wet outline, which reflected the sunlight back into the heavens.   Arnold’s great poem was written from an English perspective, and caught the receding tide of faith in contemporary England.   Broadly, however, it is a metaphor that deserves a hearing; wave after wave coming in, breaking, and sinking back into the deep – the Sea of Faith.  So it has been with Christianity in Scotland.

I think too of the idea of a rope, with all its various strands or cords, woven together to give strength and power.  That is another emotive image.   Take the image into the modern day, and think, for example, of the Forth Road Bridge and its immense cables which hold the roadway in place.  Some are beginning to decay, we are told, and will require to be replaced.  The metaphor is transferrable to the Christian faith.  ‘Change and decay on every hand I see’, wrote the composer of the hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, and we must always remember that the various strands that make up our faith as an historical entity are subject to decay. They have come and gone across the years, and we do not have the full picture.   What does not, of course, decay is the Deity whose Being is the securing-block of these cables, the one who never changes, and is the same yesterday, today and forever. ‘O Thou who changest not, abide with me.’  And bridges can be built in all sorts of different ways – as the utterly magnificent cantilevers of the Forth Railway Bridge always bear witness, standing like a gigantic Meccano model, alongside its more modern ‘Airfix’ successor, constructed by engineers particularly skilled in working out the stresses and breaking points of metal rope rather than metal girders.  Change and decay affect both structures, of course. 

That point – variability and diversity – is perhaps more important than we think, for there is a very subtle danger in thinking of ‘Christian Scotland’ and its ‘roots’, stretching back in time; and it is that we suddenly begin to be ‘proud’ of ourselves.  We have long roots, supposedly; we have longer roots than most other countries; and so we have something to boast about.   We begin to boast, or quietly to take pride in, the wrong things, and we can arrive at a jingoistic position.   When the mania for ‘Celtic Christianity’ was sweeping Britain in the 1990s, I found myself asking why I should be happier to subscribe to ‘Celtic Christianity’ than to any other form of Christianity.  The concept of an ongoing form of ‘Celtic Christianity’, from Columba to Concord, so to speak, was alien to me; I did not know about it from my own Gaelic-speaking Tiree background, although I knew many, many little rhymes and sayings and invocations from ‘popular, demotic  Christianity’.  What was wrong with going back to ‘New Testament Christianity’ for some definitions?  Why did we have to move sideways so to speak, or exit left, in order to rejoin the motorway further down the track?   It all seemed nonsensical to me at the time, and it still does.

I suspected then, and I still suspect, that ‘agendas’ are at work when one style of Christianity, ‘Celtic’ or otherwise, is championed over another.  Over the years that I have reflected on Christianity in Scotland, I have found it fascinating to consider its many forms, its many likely origins, its many different shapes and expressions, meshing so often with the different forms of cultural expression in Scotland itself, from the scarf-wearing ‘hard men’ on the terraces of Glasgow, mouthing empty Protestantism or Catholicism, to the fishermen of the North-east of Scotland, with their strong sense of family identity and their deep and profound commitment to being ‘Brethren’ second and New Testament Christians, first and foremost; from the monks of Pluscarden in their white habits to the evangelical Presbyterians of Lewis and Harris, with their (stereotypically) dark suits and hats, and the Roman Catholics of South Uist and Barra, with their colourful variety of Holy Days and small chapels.  The ‘roots’ of Christianity in Scotland are both diverse and different.

Christian Scotland?

We must now ‘unpack’ the phrase, ‘Christian Scotland’.   It is a handy phrase, which seems to sum up the character of the nation, in much the same way as ‘Celtic Christianity’ sums up what some people believe to be a ‘Christian tradition’ of some kind.  Like ‘Celtic Christianity’, it seems valid on the surface, but was there ever a time when ‘Christian Scotland’ existed, in the sense that the nation was the home of Christianity from east to west and from north to south?   If so, when?  Scotland itself has changed with time, and we need to be careful about geographical and cultural definitions, to say nothing of the religious ones.   I do not doubt that there may have  been a Christian presence in Scotland since the time of the Romans, but I am not at all sure that that presence has been pervasive and fully national.   We have a ‘national church’ in the present day, but what does that mean?  It certainly does not mean that ‘the nation as a whole’ adheres to it.  The fact that there is a ‘national church’ does not mean that it is the sole ‘national church’ in the eyes of everyone, nor does it mean that there are not other churches.  ‘Christian Scotland’ is a mosaic of spiritual expression of different kinds, but the mosaic does not cover the entire landscape.

This was a problem that was more than evident to Professor Gordon Donaldson when he wrote his book, The Faith of the Scots, which offers a very useful overview of the many strands of Christianity in Scotland.  Professor Donaldson concluded with characteristic clarity:

Ever since the first conversions, Scotland has contained a Christian community, but whether or not that community has ever been co-extensive with the nation is simply not a realistic subject for debate, because there is such limited evidence about faith, which is largely imponderable…No doubt there have been periods which were more religious and periods which were less religious.

There are other phrases, much more questionable and ‘loaded’ than ‘Christian Scotland’, which show even more clearly that Scotland’s religious history can be compressed misleadingly.  One that springs to mind is ‘Bible-loving Scotland’, which is usually employed as a rebuke to modern secularism.

If we pick up Professor Donaldson’s point about the limited evidence of ‘faith’ and its imponderable nature, we can apply it even more strongly to the early stages of Christianity in Scotland.  ‘Imponderable’ indeed.  The problem is lack of firm evidence.  


Disentangling the ‘roots’

Nevertheless, let us turn to the question of ‘roots’ as some would see them, and try to see broadly what was happening in the early Middle Ages, with a modicum of reflection on more recent times.  As I have said, I prefer to think in metaphors other than ‘roots’, such as strands or cords in a rope.  

In trying to find answers, we must reject a number of assumptions emanating from the present day, besides the concept of ‘roots’ itself.  It is not, for instance, particularly helpful to think in ‘denominational’ terms when reflecting on the early Middle Ages in Scotland or elsewhere.  There were no ‘denominations’ of the kind we envisage today.  ‘Denominationalism’ is a post-Reformation phenomenon, and belongs principally to the Protestant side.  That is one of the reasons that I have to part company with the promoters of ‘Celtic Christianity’, who often assert that the ‘Celtic Church’ was a different entity from the ‘Roman Church’.  In what ways was it different?  Did it differ in major points of belief or practice?  The answer quite simply is, ‘No’.  There were, however, distinctive ways in which the Christian faith in the regions now called ‘Celtic’ expressed itself.  The buildings, for example, were different; the vernacular languages were different; the culture was therefore different too, and that was the key point of divergence.  There was, of course, a famous arithmetical dispute, which had to do with the date of the celebration of Easter – but it was a matter of arithmetic, and not of belief.  Wherever Christianity takes root, it adapts itself to the culture of the region concerned, and even when there is a lingua franca (like Latin) which is used by the church in its offices and services, the locally spoken languages encapsulate the names of saints, the locations of churches, the high days and ‘holidays’.  That does not mean that basic beliefs are jettisoned; what it means is that they are made meaningful to different people, or population groups, in different ways, through their individual cultures.

Nor is it always helpful to operate in terms of chronology (‘the early Middle Ages’, ‘the later Middle Ages,’ ‘the Reformation’ etc.) because this can disguise continuities and create false distinctions. 

There is no easy solution to the question of ‘roots’, and there is no point in a spiritual ‘ancestor-hunt’, given the arguable nature of the evidence.  For the moment, I will remain with ‘strands’ or ‘cords’, and offer you an approach based on culture and context. To my mind, the ‘strands’ are best expressed in terms of prevailing cultures – prevailing, that is, at particular times, and in particular parts of Scotland, and at periods of ‘domination’ by a religious group, which was often identified with a powerful secular authority.  Christian belief, of different shades, is ‘fed’ into these channels, if you like, and adopts and adapts them, to varying degrees.

Let me therefore list a few of the ‘strands’ that come to mind when I think of Christianity in Scotland in the early Middle Ages.  You may think of ‘roots’ if you like, and ‘roots’ of some sort may well be there, but I fight shy of the concept!

(1) The Latin strand:  I prefer this to ‘the Roman strand’, as the word ‘Roman’ can lead to all sorts of false distinctions.  I would suspect that the ‘Latin strand’ does go back to the time of the Roman presence in Britain, but that is not the same as a direct link with Rome in the ecclesiastical sense – and there was no Roman occupation of Scotland.   I think here of the early memorials in Scotland to religious officials, which are in Latin, and can be found on stones such as those at Kirkmadrine, with its sixth-century memorial to Viventius and Mavorius.  The Latin strand is also found in saints’ lives, like those of Kentigern and Columba, and through it the Scottish tradition of Christianity links into a broader European framework, with the Latin Vulgate of Jerome at its heart.  The use of Latin continued in certain churches well into our own time.

Unfortunately, the vitae of the saints were written considerably later than their deaths, and it is extremely difficult to extrapolate firm historical evidence from them for the period of the saints.

(2) The Gaelic strand: This is perhaps the strand that people will think of most readily, and associate in some way with ‘Celtic Christianity’.  It is found in the close connection between Ireland and the early Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, roughly coterminous with present-day Argyll, with its principal religious centre at Iona, made famous by Columba when he arrived from Ireland in 563 AD.   The Gaelic strand of Christianity in early Scotland can be appreciated in different ways, as it is still with us through the hymns attributed to Columba, but perhaps most noticeably in our early place-names, which often include dedications to saints.  The cella of the saint, which becomes ceall in Gaelic, and cill in its locative form (‘at the church’), is regularly followed by the name of the saint, as in Cill Mhearnaig (‘Kilmarnock’) and Cill Mo Naomhaig (‘Kilmonivaig’).  Church lands too are commemorated in Gaelic, as we can see in the Falkirk place-name, Bantaskin, which comes from Pett in tSoisgeil, ‘the portion of land set apart for the Gospel’.

The Gaelic dimension of Christianity has, of course, remained alive to the present, but that does not mean that it contains the same form of Christianity as Columba had in his time.  ‘Roots’ of many different kinds are to be found under the Gaelic cultural umbrella.  The ‘root’ that takes us back no further than the Geneva of Calvin and Knox is now well represented in Gaelic, as is the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation.  Culture and language, in short, disguise many different ‘roots’ and pull together numerous fresh starting-points.  Not all ‘roots’ are old ones, by any means, and we cannot assume continuities.

(3) The Anglo-Saxon strand: In the early Middle Ages, what we now know as Scotland had close connections with Anglo-Saxon England.  These connections existed mainly in the south of Scotland, which was, of course, hotly disputed territory, liable to incursions by the Anglo-Saxons.  When I was a student in Cambridge in the early 1970s, studying Anglo-Saxon, I was captivated by an Anglo-Saxon poem called ‘The Dream of the Rood’, which described Christ’s crucifixion, and especially his ascending of the cross.  One of the versions of that poem was inscribed on a beautiful stone cross which you can still see in the church at Ruthwell, Dumfries-shire.  It is a reminder of the fluidity of political boundaries, as it belongs, in all likelihood, to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.  That, in itself, is enough to silence the arguments of those who advocate wall-to-wall ‘Celtic Christianity’ in Scotland.  Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian (who wrote in Latin), gives us some our earliest accounts of Columba and Ninian.  Anglo-Saxon saints such as Cuthbert operated in the south of present-day Scotland.

(4) The Pictish strand:  Scotland, and particularly the eastern side of Scotland, has a rich heritage of Pictish symbol-stones, often carrying the cross, incised in relief on the stone.  The Picts are often regarded as mysterious people, but we do know that they were in contact with both the Gaels and the Anglo-Saxons.  The practices of the Anglo-Saxons influenced the Pictish forms of religious expression.

(5) The Norse strand: The presence of a substantial Norse population in the Hebrides is well attested.  After 1000 AD, Christianity began to take effect in Norse-occupied territory, and for a long period, from 1153 to c. 1350, the diocese of Sodor (the ‘southern isles’, meaning the Hebrides) and Man was placed under the metropolitan authority of Trondheim in Norway.  The Christian legacy of the Norse is just as evident in the Hebrides as that of the Gaels, and finds lasting expression in such place-names as Crossapol and Circinis in my native island of Tiree, in the southern Hebrides.

(6) The Continental strand: Following the Norman Conquest, Normans arrived in Scotland, and the country was also opened up to the monastic orders which were to be found in France and beyond.  Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians and numerous other orders came to Scotland, where they set up their monasteries and abbeys, with their rich farmlands and beautiful locations.   Here the vernacular culture would originally have been French, in many instances, though that strand too was doubtless adapted to the prevailing culture in the new location in Scotland.

As such orders came into Scotland, they often found themselves in conflict with existing practices, and reformation – in its twelfth-century guise – could be painful.  The older, ‘Gaelic’ models of monasteries were gradually phased out, and the Iona of Columba, for example, eventually became Benedictine.

So there we have six strands or cords in our rope.  Several of the ‘strands’ that I have identified ran in parallel or even intertwined, as in the case of Gaelic and Latin, and Gaelic and Norse.  It is therefore misleading to see ‘Celtic Christianity’ as the principal or pure ‘root’ of  ‘Christian Scotland’.  Some of the strands petered out in the course of time.  In truth, and if I may be permitted a rather obvious pun, there were various ‘routes’ by which Christianity came into Scotland. 


We could go on, but it may be best to stop before we reach the high Middle Ages. I hope I have said enough to convince you that a pure and simple search for ‘the roots of Christian Scotland’ is misguided, if we have a self-glorifying ancestor-hunt in mind.   A more ‘grown-up’ approach will look for interactions as well as co-existences, and it will avoid wishful thinking.  The truth appears to be that Christianity came to Scotland through different channels and conduits, some of them now obscure, some still clear (we think), and that it was reformed and revitalised at different times.  It is a complex story, and one needs patience as well as even-handedness when handling the surviving evidence fairly.

One final point, if I may.  For me, Christianity is not about some ancient root that we can trace back to a particular chronological point.  It is a religion of new beginnings, not old ones, as the faith is not kindled through history or culture.  The impulses may be transmitted through culture, but culture does not make Christianity, nor will the study of history or culture make one a Christian.  I am always wary when I hear that people have been forced to become ‘Christians’ by such and such a force, political or otherwise.  Yes, there may be contextual facilitation,  but what makes Christianity what it is, and what makes the Christian faith real, is that it takes root in the hearts of human beings.  It has done so across the ages, and it continues to do so.  That, as I see it, is the real root of the matter.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Gaelic proverbs and proverbial sayings from Tiree: Tiree Feis Lecture 1993


Donald E. Meek


My subject for this evening is one which has been close to my heart for many years, and has arisen quite naturally from my own connection with this island.  I was brought up on a croft –  'Coll View', Caolas – within a family which was predominantly Gaelic speaking: it was also a family which showed the age-imbalance which is a feature of Highland society more generally.  As I remember 'Coll View' first, it had no less than six older people within it – five of them siblings of the MacDonald family, whose patriarch was my great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, otherwise known as 'Eachann Bàn'.  The older folk – my great-aunts and great-uncles – were Eachann Bàn's children, and had been born in the 1870s.  These older folk, whom some of you will remember well, were:


Hector, who lived in the cottage down by the shore, where Archie Eglinton's house now stands.


Charles, who retired from Vancouver, Canada, in 1949, and went to live in Hector's cottage after Hector's death.  I will say quite a bit about Charlie later.


Annabel, who similarly retired from Vancouver in 1949, and went to live with her brother, Charles, in the cottage.  Previously, both had stayed in 'Coll View'.


Maggie, who lived on the 'Coll View' croft all her life.


Donald, who inherited the 'Coll View' croft from his father.  Donald married a MacLean from 'Càrnan': she was thus the only one of the older family who was not a MacDonald.


My father, Hector Meek, was the son of another member of the MacDonald family, Nancy, who had married James Meek from Falkirk.  After living in Falkirk for a few years, James and Nancy emigrated to Vancouver in the early years of this century, leaving my father behind in 'Coll View', in the expectation that he would follow the rest of the family but he never did.  My father learned Gaelic as a very young boy, and soon became completely Highland.


What has all that got to do with Gaelic proverbs?  Well, two things:


First, Gaelic proverbs and proverbial sayings were all around me as I grew up, and worked on the croft.  In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a culturally rich environment, still maintaining many of the older customs.  For example, I well remember attending the deireadh bhuana, 'the end of the reaping', when a splendid tea was prepared for the family and their helpers.  Among the most welcome guests was the maighdeann bhuana, 'the harvest maiden', which consisted of the last sheaf of corn which had been cut, suitably dressed up as a maiden. I was also given the rare privilege of hearing nineteenth-century Gaelic at first hand; by 1970, all of the older members of the family had passed on.


Looking back now, I am aware that much of crofting life and, indeed, much of the community life in the island, was surrounded by sayings and proverbs which underpinned the culture and the way of life, and that the one supported the other.  There were little sayings about most things, from shoeing the horse to reaping the harvest maiden.


However, the main point is that these proverbs were fixed in the conversation of the old folk in the house: they flowed out of their mouths.  My father had learned a lot of proverbs from his uncles and aunts.   They came out quite effortlessly, and it was only in later life that I became aware that these pithy little statements –  some offering an explanation of a particular event, some gentle comments to soothe anger, some very witty, some very biting and even quite sarcastic – were special sayings or 'proverbs'.  They were part of the natural life of the Gaelic culture of that time.  To give you a couple of examples:


One very calm morning, as I was leaving to go to Ruaig school, I noticed that there were a lot of seagulls well inland, in fact, right up on the inbye of the croft.  This I mentioned to my father, who replied -


Comharradh na gaillinn, eòin na mar' air an t-sliabh.

It is a sign of a storm when the seabirds are on the rough ground.


If I did not know what that saying meant when I set off for school, I certainly knew what it meant by the time I came back, for it was blowing a howling gale.


On another occasion, we were very busy at the harvest, making corn stooks.  We were so busy that we had hardly a moment to speak, and, of course, we were keeping an eye on the weather.  A neighbour came to help us – Niall Ailein from Aird Deas – and even he didn't have a moment to talk.  My father's comment was:

Is coimheach am fear am foghar
Harvest-time is a very stand-offish fellow


which meant, quite simply, that there was no time to stand talking when there was a lot of hard work to be done.


Or, to take another, instance.  One day I was with my father and we were about to launch a boat at the Port Ruadh.  We had the dinghy on a carrying pole, and held an end each.  Her bow was pointing due west, and I pushed hard to try to turn it anticlockwise.  My father stopped me, with the words


Deiseil air gach nì

Sunwise with everything


and promptly turned the boat round clockwise, in the direction of the sun!


My couple of illustrations of the natural use of proverbs in my family has become three, but permit me to make it four.  Proverbs were used to pass comment on different types of people, especially if they were doing odd things or going beyond themselves in some way.  My father had a bit of an aversion to people who imitated the managerial style, shall we say, when the real boss was absent. When he felt irritated by someone who was doing that, he would say –


Is mise fear an taighe nuair bhios m' athair anns an Ros.

I am the man of the house when my father is in the Ross of Mull.


You will be aware, I am sure, that, in the old days, the Tiree folk often went to the Ross of Mull for peat and timber, and that is what the proverb alludes to.  Proverbs often preserve the memory of old customs and traditions, as we will see.  I often chuckle at that saying –  it is so neatly phrased, and beautifully understated.


So that is the first point well illustrated, I hope.  Members of my family were brim-full of proverbs, and most families in Tiree, in the hey-day of Gaelic speech, would have been the same.  Proverbs and sayings were as natural as breathing.


Here, then, is my second point, to show how fond my people were of Gaelic proverbs, and how much they enjoyed them.  Not only did the 'Coll View' folk use proverbs - one of the family also recorded a great store of Tiree proverbs!  I have here tonight a collection of Gaelic proverbs made by my great-uncle, Charles MacDonald, whom I have mentioned already.  You will remember that I said that he lived with his sister, Annabel, in a small cottage where the Eglintons' house now stands.  Charlie, as he was known to many, was a very able man, who was very much the seanchaidh or traditional historian of the MacDonald family.  He was a joiner to trade, and was also a shipwright, having served his time in Glasgow in the yard later owned by Harland and Wolff.  He then went abroad, served as a joiner in South Africa, sailed as a ship’s carpenter during the First World War, moved later to Vancouver, Canada, where he was a fisherman – and then, as I said, retired to Caolas.  In my eyes, he was a very wonderful man – full of fun, stories, and songs.  He was always active, and even in his mid-eighties had the energy of a youngster.  I used to spend the weekends with Charlie and Annabel, and I felt always that they were at least as young as myself.  Very often during these weekends, Charlie would start to tell stories - about the Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay, or about Ailean nan Sop, or about Iain Garbh of Coll.  He died in 1961 - just before the School of Scottish Studies began to take a deep interest in Tiree traditions, although Hamish Henderson was able to record him in 1958.  I still miss him greatly.


It was only by chance that I discovered that he had made the collection of proverbs.  I was collecting Tiree proverbs myself in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and my father drew this collection to my attention.  It had lain in an outhouse for years, and came to light only because I asked my father if he knew of anyone who had made a collection of Tiree proverbs!  My father remembered, how, as a comparatively young boy, he had acted as Charlie's scribe, writing and re-writing the proverbs for him when he was home on holiday in Tiree.  Charlie could not write Gaelic very well; so he got my father to be his amanuensis, and between them they produced two notebooks, the one containing the rough versions, and the other a fair copy.


Now, this is quite a collection.  I reckon it must contain about 1,000 proverbs and sayings, including riddles and rhymes, collected in Tiree sometime before 1920.  Of these 1,000 sayings, I estimate that about 400 may well be peculiar to Tiree itself.  Every island and locality of the Scottish Highlands had its own store of local proverbs, as well as its share of the great floating corpus of proverbs which was the common stock of the whole of the Highland area.  I have been trying to edit this collection for some time, and I hope that I will be able to publish it as a little book in memory of Charles MacDonald and the 'Coll View' folk.


What I want to do tonight is to give you just a little taste of the richness of Tiree tradition, and specifically the east-end tradition, in the way of proverbs and sayings.  I am going to give you some samples from my own gathering, but I will be drawing a lot of material from Charlie's collection, which is so full of interesting examples.  The majority of the sayings I will use belong specifically to Tiree, and I am choosing them because they are not in other collections of proverbs or are found in distinctively different forms.


What strikes me whenever I look at Charlie's collection is how very rich Tiree tradition once was.  A large number of proverbs were gathered by the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, minister of Tiree in the second half of the nineteenth century, and these were incorporated by Sheriff Nicolson in his collection of Gaelic proverbs.  Even so, there are still about 400 in Charlie's collection not found in Nicolson's!


The best way to handle this large topic is to take it in small bites, according to different themes in the proverbs themselves: proverbs and sayings about people and places, about work on the land, work on the sea, the weather, and so on.  I will include some riddles, too, which will test your ingenuity.


1. People and places


I will begin with proverbs and sayings about people and places in Tiree itself.  This will prove to you very clearly that the island had its own set of sayings, although similar types of sayings can be found in other communities in the Highlands.


It is well known that people who share the same island or district like to differentiate one another in a humorous way.  Friendly rivalries and banter exist between different townships.   In the old days, special code-names or nick-names were often used; these were commonly the names of animals or birds.  Thus, at the east end of Tiree, there was a saying about the people of Ruaig:


Ròin Ruthaig a' tighinn 'nan dusain, 's chan urrainn dhaibh am bruthach a dhìreadh.

The seals of Ruaig are coming in their dozens, and they cannot climb the hill.


The Caolas people also had their characters delineated in a similar way.  They were


‘Tunnagan a' Chaolais’ – 'the ducks of Caolas' – and the saying continued ‘ithidh iad am maorach cho caol ris na feannagan’ –  'they will eat shellfish as bare as the crows [would eat it]' (?).


The people of Vaul were known as ‘Sgait Bhalla’, 'the skates of Vaul'.


These, of course, are names from the east end, and I would like to know whether the west end had a similar selection.  I think I have heard the people of Cornaig, for example, referred to as ‘eich Chòrnaig’, 'the horses of Cornaig'.


How were these sayings used?  I remember my father telling me that they were often used by schoolchildren as the prelude to an inter-township battle in the playground.  They were the words of insult, by which you challenged your opponents to a fight.


How did they come about?  I suspect that they reflect dominant features of the townships concerned: there were perhaps a lot of seals on the rocks of Ruaig, a lot of ducks in Caolas, and skate may have been a delicacy enjoyed by the folk of Vaul, or perhaps commonly fished by them.  Perhaps the people of Cornaig were good at breeding horses.  Somebody here will want to tell me after the meeting.


Some of the sayings were focused on particular families.  I will give you one example from my own family.  My great-grandfather, Eachann Bàn or Hector MacDonald, built 'Coll View' in 1891, and acquired the stone by blasting it from a quarry.  As a result, he was given a little saying about himself, which went -


Eachann Bàn, blastair, a' buachailleachd nam partan.

Fair Hector, the blaster, who shepherds the crabs.


This was used to summon my own family to a fight in the playground!  Wild people, the east-enders!  But were the people of the west end any better?  What did you call one another?


So much for the people.  What about places mentioned in Tiree proverbs?  My first example is fairly well known -


Stad e mu Ghot – 'He stopped about Gott'.  This is used when something is delayed in the process - or when someone does not turn up for rather dubious reasons.  There was once an inn or change-house in Gott, which was used as a staging-post by travellers in the island, and people were inclined to spend too much time in it, sampling the beverages.


Another about travelling in the island –


Rathad Hogh a Hoighnis gu Beinn Cheann a' Bhara  

The road from Hough to Hynish, up to (= via) the Hill of Ceann a' Bhara 


This was used of a round-about way, taking a detour rather than going straight from A to B.  I have heard variants of this saying, and some of you may have different versions.


Here is one which mentions the township of Kennovay –


Is trosg an Ceann a' Bhàigh e.

It is a cod in Kennovay.


How was that used?  According to my father, it was used when something was unattainable - hard to get.  If that is a correct explanation, it is obviously another east-end saying.


Now here is one which is quite definitely about the west end, and says something about the quality of the harvest in Balephuil -


Cha b'fhuilear dha a bhith seachdain air thodhar, bàrr odhar Bhail' a' Phuill

The dun-coloured crop of Balephuil would be the better of going on the bleach for a week.


The saying seems to imply that crops in Balephuil did not ripen well, and needed to be given more sunlight to take them to a natural colour. I wonder if anyone has a fuller explanation of that one?


Tiree people, of course, travelled well beyond the confines of their own island, for all sorts of reasons.  There are Tiree sayings about other islands and places on the mainland.  For example, about Barra -


Ge fada mach Barraigh, ruigear e.

Although Barra is far out, it can be reached.


One reason for the travels of the Tiree people was to find fuel, such as peat, and wood for building.  People on the other islands and the mainland were not always pleased to see them when they arrived.  I suspect that they may have travelled as far as mainland Argyll, and I know of one saying which may refer to a 'bad experience' in mainland Argyll:


Gearr-ghobaich gun mhodh, gun oilean, coillearan Mhucàrna.

The foresters of Muckairn are short-snouted, mannerless, boorish bunch.


The Tiree folk took more than wood and peat from the other islands.  I know of one little riddle that commemorates something else:


Gobhar iubhair adhair

A thug m' athair as an Ros;

Ged chuirte bheul fodha,

Cha tigeadh deur às.


A goat of yew and sky (???)

That my father brought from the Ross (of Mull);

Though it should be turned mouth downwards,

Not a drop would come out of it.


After a lot of head-scratching – and I am still scratching –  I was told that the answer to that teaser was 'a cow's udder', so there you are!  I think we may conclude that cows were transported from Mull to Tiree!  Not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is interesting to see the old 'trade routes' being commemorated in this way.


Now a rather nice one about a place called Achadh nan Tulach, which I am sure is not on the geographical map, but is certainly on the map of human experience:


Chan eil Achadh nan Tulach

nan cnocan buidhe, bòidheach,

nach eil latha gu subhach

is latha gu dubhach, brònach.


Achadh nan Tulach (lit. 'The Field of the Hills')

of the fair, yellow hills

 is not without its happy day

 and its day of sadness and gloom.


2. Boats and the sea


A few sayings now about boats and the sea.  My family had some memorable sayings in this group, which must be close to the heart of any true Tirisdeach.  Here was one used when circumstances altered:


Chan eil carraig air nach caochail sruth, ach carraig dhubh Liosmòir.

There is no headland which does not experience a change of current, except the black headland of Lismore.


I have heard the first part commonly in other parts and places, but the second part - 'ach carraig dhubh Liosmòir' –  I have heard only once beyond Tiree.  The tidal races at the western tip of Lismore are well known, and the resulting, ever-present whirlpool can be felt even on board the Lord of the Isles.


Another, applying to the seashore (and found in my uncle's collection) –


Ged as ionnan cladach, chan ionnan maorach.

Although the shoreline is the same, the shellfish are different.


This saying is used in other parts of the Highlands, and applied when there has been a change within a community.  It may look the same –  the same houses, the same lie of the land –  but the inhabitants, the 'shellfish' have changed.   This saying is often in my mind when I myself return to Tiree these days.


Here is one which I know only from my uncle's collection:


Chan fhacas long mhòr riamh gun gheòla bheag aice.

A big boat was never seen without its little boat.


The meaning of that is fairly obvious; even the biggest and strongest need to take precautions against loss.


And another from the same source:


Am fear a ghleidheas a long, gheibh e latha.

The man who preserves his ship will get a suitable day to sail.


This was evidently an exhortation to be patient, when the weather was bad.  Better to preserve the ship, and wait until the weather had improved.


3. Weather


A few now about the weather. Tiree people watched the weather, and liked to be able to forecast it or understand its patterns.


I remember well being at a funeral in Kirkapol some years ago, on a terrible day in July.  The day was so bad that you could hardly see Gott Pier.  As we came out of the church, an older Tirisdeach (Archibald MacArthur, Heylipol, Ailig Beag’s father) commented on the weather, and said:


Mar a theireadh na seann daoine, Trì làithean den Iuchair san Fhaoilteach, agus trì làithean den Fhaoilteach san Iuchair.

As the old folks would say, 'Three days of July weather in January, and there days of January weather in July'.


Strictly, the Faoilteach is not a month name, but a name for the angry weather at the turn of the year.  The Tiree folk had a saying about it -


Iomadh sgobadh na Faoiltich, caoilt' is gearan

The Faoilteach is a season of many snatches, starvation and discontent.


Here is one about spring-time from my uncle's collection -


Ceò earraich –  thig sneachd às a dhèidh cho cinnteach 's ged robh e glaiste 'sa chist' agad.

Mist in spring-time will be followed by snow, as surely as it would come if you had it locked in the chest.


And another which I used to hear from my father, but which is fairly common elsewhere, commenting on perverse weather, which goes against the pattern:


Chan uisg' ach uisg' on tuath, 's cha thuradh buan ach on deas.

No rain comes but from the north, and no lasting dry weather comes but from the south.


That, as you will be aware, was the opposite of the normal experience of people.  My father used to maintain that if you got rain from the north, it tended to last much longer, and if you got dry weather with a south wind, it could last similarly.  (I see that this proverb is noted in Nicolson's collection, and it is said to be of Tiree origin.  I know of one variant from the other islands.)


4. Work


Some sayings now about work on the land. Earlier in the lecture, I mentioned a Tiree saying about harvest, and here is another about work in general, which refers to the weather:


Is e an latha bagarrach a nì an obair thogarrach.

A lowering day makes the work go with a swing.


That is, people work more willingly to avoid bad weather.


Work such as fishing was very much dependent on the weather, and on the ups and downs of life.  Here is a saying about a fisherman:


An ceann seachd bliadhna innsidh an t-iasgair fhortan.

The fisherman will announce his fortune at the end of seven years.


That is the Tiree and Gaelic equivalent of 'not counting one's chickens before they are hatched'!


A nice one now, about making butter:


Cha dèan corrag mhilis ìm.

A sweet finger will not make butter.




5. People of different kinds: human behaviour


Some sayings now about different sorts of people, and especially their behaviour.  There are some nice ones here, using all sorts of images.


From my uncle's collection:


Cha b'fhiach an tràigh shìolag dol thuice an oidhche nach robh Ceit a-mach.

It wasn't worth going to the shore for sand-eels the night that Kate wasn't out there.


I presume that this was used of someone who never missed a chance.


Cha bu toigh leam a bhith 'nam each aig ceàrd.

I would not like to be a tinker's horse.


 possibly because tinkers tended to sell their horses frequently.


Cha dèan sinn feum le Lachainn, 's cha dèan sinn feum gun Lachainn.

We cannot manage with Lachie, and we cannot manage without Lachie.


That is, more than one helper is required, but he cannot be dispensed with, in spite of his inadequacies.


Here's one containg a wee laugh at the minister, and specifically about the sort of calf that was reared at the manse:


Fada caol, mar a bha laogh a' mhinisteir.

Long and thin, like the minister's calf.


This probably implies that the minister's calf was denied good milk.  The cream etc. went to the manse!


There are a lot of amusing sayings in this category, and I well remember how they would raise a wry smile when they were used.


Another now about the virtuous person, someone who is pure in heart -


An duine nach bi olc 'na chridhe, cha bhi olc air aire.

The man who is not evil in his heart will contemplate no evil.


Here is one which is a list of animals and people to be watched with care -


Cù gramach, each breabach, tè bheulach is fear sgeulach - bi 'nad earalas orra.

A snappy dog, a kicking horse, a plausible woman and a tale-telling man - be on your guard against them.




6. Animal images


Some proverbs now which refer ostensibly to animals, but which have an obvious human application -


Far am bi a' chaora, bidh an t-uan.

Where the sheep is, the lamb will be there too.


Gach uan nas gile na mhàthair, 's a mhàthair cho geal ris an t-sneachd.

Every lamb is whiter than its mother, and its mother is as white as snow.


This was doubtless used sarcastically!


Now a couple about the cat -


Is toigh leis a' chat a chomalladh.

The cat likes its own equivalent.




Cha chuir bainne cait mòran uachdair dheth.

A cat's milk will not produce much cream.


It doesn't get the chance to produce cream, because the cat drinks it so quickly.


One now about the brown fly that one used to see about the dunghills -


Is i chuileag ruadh as àirde srann nuair dh'èireas i.

The brown fly makes the greatest noise of all when it rises.


This was probably said of people who drew a lot of attention to themselves, but were really not very reputable.


One referring to a cow:


Am fear a th'air an aona mhart, tha a h-earball 'na dhòrn.

The man who has only one cow holds her tail in his fist.


Here's a saying referring to the horse:


Tha seana n-each an geall air searrach.

An old horse is very keen to get a foal.


I was told that this was sometimes applied to expectant grandparents!



7. Riddles


I would like to conclude tonight by giving you a few samples of the riddles which were once so common in Gaelic communities.  You see if you can crack these: the first person who gets them all right is the champion riddle-buster of Tiree, and deserves a special prize:


Craobh dhìoganach, ghàganach, ghuaganach,

A bun suas 's barr sìos,

'S i a' fàs mus-sun (= mar sin).


A thorny, bunchy, stumpy tree,

its roots at the top and its foliage at the bottom,

and it's growing like that.             (A cow's tail)


Muc dhubh, dhubh aig ceann taigh Fhearchair

Dithis 'na ceann is triùir 'na h-earball


A black, black pig at the end of Farquhar's house;

Two at its head and three at its tail.    (A pot)


And the last one -


Chì mi thall air àilleagan,

Air bharr na lice ruaidh,

Am mac a' tighinn bho mhàthair,

'S a mhàthair a' tighinn uaith'.


I see yonder, over the lovely plain (?),

on the top of the red slab of rock,

the son being born of his mother,

and his mother being born of him.                        (Sunrise)






That was only a small sample from a very large collection.  We would need a week to go through it all, and at least another week to discuss all the different forms of the proverbs.


I hope that you will feel that the evening has been worthwhile, and I hope even more that you will now go back to your own part of Tiree and think about all the proverbs and sayings that you know.  If you can find time, write them down, and we'll see how many more collections we'll have by this time next year!



Fèis Lecture, July 1993