Gaelic Language and Puritan Religion on the Outer Hebrides

Ich dokumentiere hier einen Text, der im Mai 2003 in der Zeitschrift „Criomagan“ der Comunn Eachdraidh Nis/Ness Historical Society erschienen ist. Sprachliche Eigenheiten, die ich damals nutzte – teils aus Unwissen, teils aus Eitelkeit – habe ich nicht angepasst.

Coming to Nis, a community on the Isle of Lewis, from the mainland of Europe means crossing various borders. There is not only the official border between France and the UK and the semi-official one between England and Scotland. Leaving the Lowlands and entering the Highlands is, for the observant traveller, like crossing another frontier. The same is true for taking the ship over Cuan Sgìth: crossing borders without border control, beyond the invisible barrier a different country altogether is waiting. It might sound odd in the ears of some Nisaich that they should be something different to their fellow-Scots in Stirling or Inverness. An outsider like myself, however, does witness striking variations that seem to make Inverness rather look like some place at the South Coast than Nis. On the occasion of my latest visit to Nis in spring of this year, I tried to look deeper into the matter of the special traits of the Nisaich, traits they may well be attributed to folk all over Leòdhas and na Hearadh. When talking to people, I was focusing on the relationship between the Gaelic and evangelical religion, both, like also crofting, being special features of the place. I wondered whether there was any link to be made between the language and the religion, and although I did not delve into any elaborate scientific undertaking, I was quite surprised as to how much can be stated towards such a link. And, on a more thoughtful note, both Gaelic and evangelical religion in Nis and beyond seem to share also a common downward trend where people do not feel the need to keep their mother tongue alive and in the same way are less committed to a life based on personal piety and church worship.

 In the following, I would like to present some of the results of my wee ‘field trip’. They are taken out of an essay for university and have been reworked for Criomagan. I shall leave out all the historical bits, as they are to general in nature as to relate specifically to Nis. They are well covered in V. E. Durkacz: The Decline of the Celtic Languages, Edinburgh, 1983. Two editorial comments: Firstly, in my research, I focused on the local Free Church. Not that I excluded the other churches on purpose, the short visit, though, asked for some limitation. Secondly, I want to note that I received the worst mark ever in my lifetime as a student for the essay.  The professor commented that it had less to do with science than with impressionistic snapshots. I hope, therefore, that it will proof a good read!

 „There are still people often leading ordinary lives for whom Gaelic is fully alive and healthy, a finely honed instrument for the portrayal of a particular kind of Christian experience.“ (in: Derick Thomson 1980: Gaelic in Scotland: assessment and Prognosis, in: Haugen/McClure/Thomson (eds.): Minority Languages Today, Edinburgh, pp. 10-20) Spending a couple of days in the area of Nis, speaking with and listening to folks there, attending mid-week prayer meetings, it is right to say that the 1980 Thomson quote is a fair representation of my experience as well even some twenty years later. Both these elements, a’ Ghaidhlig and evangelical Presbyterianism, bestow the Nisaich as a local community and as individuals with a truly idiosyncratic character. It is quite true that the churches on the Western Isles do not regard themselves as keeper of a linguistic heritage as they will use whatever language suits best their purpose of spreading the Christian message. „One must remember that no matter how important a language may be, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation of never dying souls is more important“ was the comment of one person I interviewed. Similar statements I often heard when speaking to people in Nis. It is, however, equally true that those locals who define Gaelic as their mother-tongue, are far from happy to see ‘the Gaelic’ slowly withdraw out of church life and, moreover, ascribe some specific, if vague, attributes to a’ Ghaidhlig as a spiritual medium that English seems not to have. Remarks like ‘there is something special to Gaelic in church’ or ‘there is more reference in Gaelic than in English’ are common. There seems to be the notion that the loss of Gaelic would concomitantly result in the loss also of aspects of religious culture.

One hint towards such parallel decline is the gradual degradation of family worship which constitutes of a Scripture reading, prayers and possibly singing of a psalm or a laoidh. These daily occasions very much fostered a sympathy towards Gaelic in the past, and in particular towards Gaelic as a spiritual medium. Apparently, Gaelic is not replaced by English in these meetings but the meetings as such are discontinued. Another, though negative hint comes from the critical statement of one person outwith the Nis area who had left the church at some point in the past. This informant said in conversation that he/she would not mind the Gaelic to disappear as it would be an oppressive language; all, people would have had to read in the 19th century were religious texts, and Gaelic was nothing more but a medium of church oppression. In comparison, also those people may be found that state that there is no intrinsic difference between a’ Ghaidhlig and Beurla in church life and that notions of reference, etc. very much come out of the language preferences of the individual due to upbringing. 

Following this last statement, there would also be no major difference between the Gaelic and the English services in churches in the Nis-area, except for the fact that the latter one be attended more by the younger people. (This, however, is not quite true as we will see in a moment.) The churches in Nis then have to provide for altogether three groups (not including those who do not attend church): first those who prefer Gaelic services. Most of them are bilingual, but I was told that there are still some older people in the community that have difficulties with following an English service. As regards pondering on matters of theology or praying, bilingual Nisaich refer to Gaelic, or as one local emphatically put it: ”I speak to my God in Gaelic!” Second those who prefer English services. These services tend to be better attended and the congregation is generally of a younger complexion. It has to be stated, though, that some people may attend the English service on a Sunday mainly for the reason that, in Cros, it is in the evening and allows for a lie-in. And third the children who do not attend church but Sabbath school. Some decades ago, Sabbath school was a purely English-speaking gathering, reflecting the then still prevailing negative attitudes towards a’ Ghaidhlig. Today, with more children visiting Gaelic Medium Schools and generally an increased awareness for the Gaelic language, the Sabbath school in Cros is being held both in English and Gaelic, using for example the catechism in the latter language. The overall trend, however, is an increased use of English in church where in former times only Gaelic was spoken and heard. The first ever English sermon in an Eaglais Mhor was preached in May 1877 but regular services in the language were introduced only in the latter part of the 20th century. Today, one of the two Sunday services is in English whereas the Wednesday evening prayer meetings are mostly in Gaelic and the Thursday lunch time meeting is entirely Gaelic. Having a midday prayer meeting these days is rare if not unique. With some twenty people attending, it proofs to be  popular  for people staying and/or working locally. Referring to the increased use of English in church, one person was compelled to asked ”whether the anglicisation of worship has gone too far. Is their now too much English and not enough Gaelic taking in account of the significant number of youngsters coming through Gaelic Medium Education?”

To the outsider, prayer meetings and services very much look the same. Both will last for up to ninety minutes. Around a sermon of 30 to 45 minutes, prayers and psalm singing are clustered in addition to one Scripture reading, the basis for the sermon. With prayers during the prayer-meetings, the minister will ask any man who he deems suitable in leading. With the psalm singing, there are differences between a Gaelic and an English service. Whereas in a Gaelic service, a precentor, standing in front of the congregation, will sing the first line of a verse and the congregation will repeat it, in an English service the congregation will join the precentor as soon as he has offered the initial note, a line will be sung only once. To the outsider also the quality of the singing is markedly different. Whereas in English, words and some of the tunes may be familiar, the Gaelic psalm singing is bound to have a lasting effect on the listener, if only by the strangeness of its words and tunes. With CDs being produced and each biobull being provided with a specially edited section for psalm singing, each psalm gently modified so that it rhymes, Gaelic psalm singing is certainly one of the marked cultural features of a’ Ghaidhealtachd and widely practised throughout Nis. Also with the sermon, the style of presentation of a Gaelic sermon might differ considerably to its English equivalent, partly due to a rich and specialised lexicon and an elaborate grammatical structure that provide a challenge even for the more prolific speakers of a’ Ghaidhlig; and partly due to the séis. On the spiritual side, people refer to the séis as the work of the Holy Spirit in the preacher. On a more linguistic note, one might characterise it as a gradual rising and compressing of the pitch which focuses the full attention of the congregation towards the preacher speaking with the séis. The person employing it would treat the subject of his sermon in a rather circular manner, repeating whole sentences, leaving an issue unfinished and coming back to it again at a later stage. Important words or word-clusters would be elongated and considerable pauses implemented. Although the séis was more used in older days, maybe also because of regular outside gatherings, it may still be heard today, and is exclusively used in Gaelic services. It also seems to have some influence on how people pray publicly during the service, esp. in Gaelic but in parts also in English. Writing about the prayers of late Angus Morrisson, a local of Dail bho Thuath, one author asserts that he ”had a remarkable gift of prayer. (…) His prayers were often passionate pleadings, in which his face bore a tense expression, sometimes outpourings of gratitude, when his face shone. (…) The passion that swept through them, the rich vocabulary that expressed them, and the freedom with which they came pouring forth gave them an air of wonder. Every word was as clear as if fresh-minted, and withal he carried the congregation up to the gates of Heaven.” (N. MacFarlane: The “Men” of the Lews, Stornoway, 1924: 179f)

 I have mentioned just a few issues and phenomena which came up during my visit in Nis. The trend of gradual withdrawal of a’ Ghaidhlig in church is obvious and coincides with the contraction of Gaelic in the society at large. Certain features of Gaelic religious culture, like the séis, the special style of psalm singing and family worship seem to withdraw together with the linguistic terrain they used to flourish in. But whereas the contraction of Gaelic is often referred to in conversation with the Nisaich, issues of religious decline are more often described in terms of moral disintegration of Highland and Island life. The church and its people might feel engulfed in a sea of secularisation, referring to their own community as ‘a bhos – this side’ and to the outside world as ‘air falbh – away’, but such statements refer more to questions of morale and personal commitment to the Christian message and do not necessarily translate into a consciousness of what is being lost in terms of religious culture. It might well be true that the elements mentioned above provide only for a tenuous connection between the Gaelic language and the religious culture expressed in it and that, for the church, the spread of the Gospel in whatever language is of paramount importance. But it is equally true that in the past not much thought has given to the aspects of church life that might disappear together with a’ Ghaidhlig and the effects this might have on the individual and the community. Nevertheless, as more and more children come through Gaelic Medium Education and might expect to live out their religious life in a Gaelic milieu and as this milieu tends to be more traditional and devout in its religious life, it might proof essential to the Highland church to maintain a certain ‘Gaelicness’ in order not to loose its distinctive character and spirituality. At least to some degree, the fate of the church in Nis and a’ Ghaidhealtachd seems to be bound to the fate of language it is using.

                                                                                              Burkhard Conrad, August 2002


2 Gedanken zu “Gaelic Language and Puritan Religion on the Outer Hebrides

  1. Es gibt heute Phänomene die weltweit stattfinden, die Äusseren Hebriden mögen dabei ein besonders dramatisches Beispiel sein, da sie keinen nennenswerten Tourismus anbieten, der alte Sprachen attraktiv erscheinen lassen, beispielsweise in Songs und Vorführungen. Interessant wäre zum Vergleich eine Studie über alte Sprachen im Alpenraum, beispielsweise das Rätoromanische das in der Schweiz unterschiedlich ist je nach Tal. Früher war die Mobilität gering in schwer zugänglichen Gebieten.
    Die heutige Wirtschaft und Bildung erfordert Sprachen die in weiten Teilen verständlich sind. Auch in Österreich gibt es Dialekte die von Wienern nicht verstanden werden, z,B. die Vorarlberger.
    Oder Tiroler die verschiedene Mundarten in verschiedenen Tälern sprechen, (Zillertaler meinen dass Lechtaler keine echten Tiroler sind), aber alle können sich gut mit uns und mit Touristen verständigen.
    Ein weiterer Einfluss ist die Verstädterung und die Landflucht, jemand der in einer Hauptstadt studiert hat findet in der alten Heimat keinen Job.

    • Vielen Dank für diesen Kommentar!
      Sie nennen einige Gründe, weshalb „kleine“ Sprachen in Gefahr kommen: Mobilität, Wunsch nach Verständlichkeit und Kommunikation, Landflucht. Im Fall des Gälischen kommt noch hinzu – aber auch das trifft auf viele kleinen Sprachen zu – die bewusste soziale Stigmatisierung einer Sprache. Aus der Sicht der Personen, die die „Standard“-Sprache Englisch oder Scots beherrschten, wurden die Gälisch-sprechenden Menschen im Nordwesten Schottland bis in die zweite Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts gesellschaftlich herabgesetzt. Gälisch-sprachiges Radio, Fernsehen, entsprechenden Unterricht in den Schulen etc. sind erst spät aufgekommen.
      B. Conrad

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