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

 

Über den Séis oder: Weshalb ein gälischer Predigtgesang Gründe gegen die schottische Unabhängigkeit liefert.

In Schottland steht die Volksabstimmung für oder gegen eine Unabhängigkeit vom Rest des Vereinigten Königreichs unmittelbar bevor. Am 18. September 2014 ist es soweit. Ich habe eine klare, vielleicht zu klare Meinung in dieser Angelegenheit: Das Streben nach der Unabhängigkeit Schottlands ist ein ungleichzeitiger Nachzügler des Nationalismus‘ des 20. Jahrhunderts und als solches reichlich überflüssig. Wie komme ich zu dieser pointierten Meinung?

Es sind nicht vorrangig die wirtschaftlichen und konstitutionellen Gründe, die in vielen Kommentaren genannt werden, die mich bewegen, gegen Schottlands Unabhängigkeit zu sein. Ich glaube auch, dass sich viele Menschen nicht von diesen eminent wichtigen, letztlich aber reichlich kühlen und rationalen Gründen von einem Streben nach Unabhängigkeit abbringen lassen. Vielmehr sind es kulturelle Gründe, welche am kommenden Donnerstag über das „Yes“ und das „No, thanks“ entscheiden werden: eine jahrelang Aversion gegen „den“ reichen Süden; eine sozialdemokratische Grundgesinnung vieler Schotten gegenüber des (süd-)englischen Standesbewusstseins; die puritanische Grundsignatur in weiten Teilen der schottischen Gesellschaft.

Diese kulturellen Gründe, die sich hervorragend emotionalisieren und politisieren lassen, müssten bei Lichte betrachtet aber auch nicht zur Unabhängigkeit bewegen. Denn Großbritannien ist mittlerweile kein Land mehr unterschiedlicher Nationen, sondern ein Land unterschiedlicher Regionen. Nordengland steht dem Süden Schottlands näher als dem Süden Englands. Und die schottische Hauptstadt Edinburgh hat kulturell mehr mit einer beliebigen Großstadt in England gemein als mit den Orkney-Inseln.

Eine ganz und gar eigene Region im ganzen Vereinigten Königreich sind die Äußeren Hebriden bzw. Western Isles. Es sind vor allem zwei Punkte, in welchen sich – aus meiner Sicht – die Äußeren Hebriden vom Rest der Insel unterscheiden: das häufige Vorkommen der gälischen Sprache und die Prädominanz der „Wee Frees“ – der kleinen und kleinsten puritanischen Freikirchen. Gälische Sprache und strenger Puritanismus verbinden sich zu einer mitunter – aus der Sicht eines Außenseiters – exotisch anmutenden kulturellen Melange. Zum Beispiel begegnete mir auf den Äußeren Hebriden (genauer gesagt auf der Insel Lewis, die den gälischen Namen Leodhas trägt) ein Phänomen, das mir sonst nirgends in Schottland begegnet ist: der séis.

Beim séis (wörtlich: „Luft“) handelt es sich um eine bestimmte liturgische Intonation des Predigers, die in puritanischen Gottesdiensten gälischer Sprache vorzufinden ist und dessen Zeuge ich selber des Öfteren wurde. Vor einigen Jahren schrieb ich in einem Artikel für die kleine schottische Heimatzeitschrift Criomagan folgenden Abschnitt über dieses Phänomen:

„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).“

Weshalb schreibe ich über ein so obskures Phänomen wie den séis, wenn doch viel gewichtigere Gründe dafür sprechen, dass Schottland auch weiterhin ein Teil des Vereinigten Königreichs sein sollte? Weil dieses Phänomen eben auf für mich einleuchtende Weise herausstellt, dass die kulturellen Unterschiede in Großbritannien nicht nationaler, sondern regionaler Natur sind. Der séis (wie auch das ebenso distinkte gälische Singen der Psalmen) ist mir nur auf den Äußeren Hebriden begegnet und nicht anderswo, was auch daran liegt, dass bis auf wenige Ausnahmen nur auf den Äußeren Hebriden Gottesdienste in gälischer Sprache gefeiert werden. Einem lowland-Schotten in Edinburgh oder Glasgow wird der séis genau so fremd anmuten wie einem Engländer aus Surrey oder Cornwall.

Es sind solche religiösen, sprachlichen und kulturellen Gründe, welche den unterschiedlichen Regionen Großbritanniens ihre Eigenart geben. Aber eben nicht einer politischen, ’nationalen‘ Einheit wie Schottland (oder Wales oder Nordirland) als solchem. Wohl auch deshalb haben sich die schottischen Inseln der Shetlands, Orkneys und Äußeren Hebriden im Falle einer Unabhängigkeit eine größere Autonomie vom schottischen Festland versprechen lassen. Nach einem eigenen Staat hat dort aber noch keiner ernsthaft gerufen.

Eine schottische Anekdote zur Europawahl und der kurze Versuch einer Erklärung

Eine Anekdote, die Auszählung der Stimmen zur Europawahl betreffend:

„The result from Scotland was delayed because the Western Isles local authority does not count votes on a Sunday.“ (Quelle: Independent vom Montag, den 26. Mai 2014)

Der kurze Versuch einer Erklärung:

Die Äußeren Hebriden bzw. Western Isles sind im Gegensatz zum Rest von Großbritannien bis heute sehr religiös geprägt. Der dort vorherrschende evangelikale Puritanismus trägt dazu bei, dass die religiöse Prägung – wenn auch langsam abnehmend – das individuelle und gesellschaftliche Leben stark bestimmt.

Die puritanische „innerweltliche Askese“ (Max Weber) schlägt sich phänomenologisch unter anderem auf eine strikte Sonntagsruhe – auf den zweisprachigen Äußeren Hebriden als sàbaid (gälisch) bzw. Sabbath (engl.) bezeichnet – nieder. In manchen Gegenden der Äußeren Hebriden gibt es Sonntags keinerlei Veranstaltungen oder Aktivtäten öffentlicher und privater Art, die nicht ein Gottesdienst oder eine Andacht sind.

Vielen Menschen auf den Western Isles kann zudem, mit aller Vorsicht, eine gewisse „endzeitliche“ Grundstimmung zugesprochen werden. Diese drückt sich in der häufigen Grabsteininschrift cus am bris an las (gäl.) – „bis daß der Tag anbricht“ aus, wie auch in der bei Gesprächen oft verwendeten sprachlichen Interpolation „so Gott will“ in der Rede von Plänen, welche die Zukunft betreffen.

Man kann sich fragen, wie sich diese innerweltliche Askese und „Endzeitstimmung“ auf die gesellschaftliche Beziehungen mit dem britischen Festland niederschlagen. Lässt sich eine spezifische Haltung der Bewohner der Äußeren Hebriden zur Politik feststellen?

Die gelassene Herangehensweise bei der Auszählung der Stimmen nach der Wahl zum EU-Parlament ist eine sehr praktische Antwort auf diese Frage. Schon allein in dieser Gelassenheit zeigt sich eine gehörige innere Opposition der Western Isles gegen die politische Kakophonie südlich der englisch-schottischen Grenze.