A is for Applecross: A Gaelic Alphabet

  08 Dec '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Alistair Moffat’s In Search of Angels: Travels to the Edge of the World is his own journey in the footsteps of the Irish saints who brought Christianity to Scotland’s western shores in the early centuries AD. He travels to the Garvellachs in search of Brendan, Lismore in the footsteps of Moluag, contemplates Columba’s Iona in its broader context, and travels to the sanctuary of Applecross on the mainland. The sanctuary of Applecross was founded by Maelrubha, of whom little is known aside from the traditions and superstitions that surround places named for him, such as Eilean Ma Ruibhe (Inchmaree). In this extract, Moffat reflects on how Gaelic, which he has been learning for more than three decades, helped him unlock some of the story.

From In Search of Angels, by Alistair Moffat

I woke to a pink dawn. As the sun climbed unseen behind, Meall Gorm and Beinn Bhan, the mountains to the east, it caught the serrated ridge of the Cuillin not with yellow but a delicate, pale pink light. Both Skye and the sky above it glowed. Pulling on a jumper and taking out a mug of tea, I sat down in the half-dark in the tiny garden in front of the cottage. On the drystane dyke, puffing out his red breast, a robin sang his autumn song and all that accompanied him was the lapping of the incoming morning tide. The bay is so sheltered that there were no waves – only gentle ripples. To sit and gaze, thoughtless, over Creation was a pure experience of unqualified, transcendent beauty.

The name of Applecross has nothing to do with apples even though, on that morning, it looked like the Garden of Eden. It comes from Apur Crossan. The latter is the little river that flows into the bay near the site of Maelrubha’s monastery. The first element, according to Watson, means a confluence. In Gaelic and restored on many signs and booklets, I read that Applecross is known as A’ Chomraich, ‘the Sanctuary’, perhaps a place of refuge. Watson adds the gloss of ‘a girth’, meaning the circumference of the monastic precinct where the unseen frontier between the spiritual and temporal girdled the land. He reckoned it extended for a radius of six miles and was marked with stone crosses. This is a huge area and if tradition reflects reality, the monks owned virtually all of the good land in Applecross. The girth extended north and south of the monastery along virtually the whole shoreline of the peninsula that faces Raasay and Skye. Almost all of the small townships would have been inside the bounds of the Sanctuary.

Gaelic had been brought to Argyll from Ireland by the Dalriadan colonists and their kings and its spread further north was spearheaded by white martyrs such as Brendan, Moluag, Columba and Maelrubha as they rowed their curraghs deep into Western Pictland, moved up the Great Glen and brought the Word of God to the North Sea coastlands. When Maelrubha and his companions came to Applecross in 673, they entered a world that almost certainly understood itself in Pictish. As speakers of seventh-century Irish Gaelic, they may have grasped the basics of the native language sufficiently well to communicate but, over time, Gaelic supplanted Pictish to the point of extinction and it came to describe the landscape we see on the Ordnance Survey and that fired the imagination of Sorley MacLean. Its lexicon and usage are firmly planted in the natural world. Never developing into an urban language or much used in commerce, Gaelic is at its most powerful, precise and lyrical when it articulates the rhythms of the seasons, the changing land and ocean, the animals and plants. Trees are more than metaphor in MacLean’s poem ‘Hallaig’ and their lore and characteristics form part of the core of Canan Mor nan Gaidheal, ‘Precious language of the Gael’.

When English-speaking children recite the alphabet, they attach words to each one – A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat and so on. In the Gaelic orthography, there are only eighteen letters compared to the twenty-six of English. J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y, Z are absent from the Gaelic alphabet and when children recite it they name the trees of the woods. Here it is:

  • A is for Ailm or Elm
  • B is for Beith or Birch
  • C is for Coll or Hazel
  • D is for Dair or Oak
  • E is for Eadha or Aspen
  • F is for Feàrn or Alder
  • G is for Gort or Ivy
  • H is for Uath or Hawthorn
  • I is for Iogh or Yew
  • L is for Luis or Rowan
  • M is for Muin or Vine
  • N is for Nuin or Ash
  • O is for Onn or Gorse
  • P is for Peith bhog or Downy Birch
  • R is for Ruis or Elder
  • S is for Suil or Willow
  • T is for Teine or Furze
  • U is for Ur also Heather

Gaelic speakers also invented a tree alphabet. Ogham was written with a series of blade-like runes, but its straight-cut lines were arranged like the branches of a tree on either side or through the trunk. Arising in the fourth century in Ireland and spreading to the west of Britain, it was probably used as a means of marking boundaries and asserting ownership of land. Ogham inscriptions were carved on trees but those that survive were, of course, cut in stone.

So little remains of these Irish saints and their missions that Gaelic has become a vital link, a linguistic thread that can lead us back into the blindness and darkness of the past. Maelrubha and his monks may have prayed and sung psalms in Latin, but they described Creation to each other in Gaelic. But that ancient habit, that link, will soon be severed.

After the calculations on the last census in 2011 had been completed, it turned out that the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers had slowed. In 2001, 59,000 people described themselves as speakers and that had dropped to 58,000 ten years later. But a very recent report has shown that in the last decade the size of the native speech community has plummeted. The heartlands of the Western Isles, Skye and Tiree now have only 11,000 who use Gaelic regularly, perhaps even as a first language. Formerly an important stronghold, Skye has now only one parish where the majority have Gaelic. It is most predominant in Barvas on the Isle of Lewis, where 64 per cent or 2,037 people can speak the language. In essence, Gaelic is dying fast as the numbers who live their lives in it are shrinking dramatically.

Increasing numbers of learners like myself may stave off extinction but our first language will always be English. We live our lives in English, think in English and constantly develop and change the ways in which we use it. If the native speech community disappears, then no one will think in Gaelic and its vitality will drain away, regional variations and dialects will no longer be used and may indeed be forgotten. Rather than being a living language, Gaelic will become an accomplishment.

This means that a historical circle will soon close. Maelrubha and the other saints brought a language and new way of understanding the world to northern and western Scotland more than a thousand years ago. The window will soon be nailed and boarded through which we can see the west.

Beyond the community filling station, the shoreline sweeps around the bay towards Applecross House and Clachan, the site of Maelrubha’s monastery. A path took me off the road and through a long plantation of monumental, white-barked beech trees. Very striking and clearly with a good grip on the sloping ground, resilient in the face of winter storms that blow straight off the bay below, these trees seemed to be loved, even revered. Further along the path, an information board shed some light, telling the story of the Four Trees of Applecross. New plantings commemorate four long-lived sweet chestnuts that originally stood at each corner of a square approximately a hundred yards across. They were said to remember a clearly fictitious but intriguing yarn about the claiming of land at Applecross, one that is mirrored on Lismore. There, Moluag and Columba were apparently in a race to claim the island and the former won because he cut off his little finger and threw it ashore so that his ‘blood and flesh’ landed first. In the contest for Applecross, the competitors are not named but the winner cut off his arm, or perhaps his hand or his belt and threw that ashore.

What caught my attention was this quote from the information board: ”Significantly the Four Trees were universally respected in Applecross. Such was their reputation (or the superstition surrounding them) that no one would remove the first tree to fall, or indeed the others and they were all allowed to fall and rot away naturally.”

Walking the shore path, I wondered about the reverence for trees, its role in the pagan past and its long continuity from the holy places of early Christianity to the observations on the information board. Iova, Iona, Yew Tree Island, the tree language of Ogham, the trees of the Gaelic alphabet, the oak studded with coins on Eilean Ma Ruibhe and much else. Yews in particular live to a great age. At Fortingall in Perthshire, an ancient tree in the churchyard may be four thousand years old. Often found around churches and in graveyards, yews seem like religious metaphors, their topmost branches reaching for the heavens and down amongst their roots bodies are buried and rot to dust. They seem to stand between spheres. The respect for the Four Trees of Applecross is not superstition but an unwillingness to interfere with the long life of these majestic plants and their slow death as they themselves sink into the soil and turn to dust.

At the Heritage Centre behind the manse at Clachan Church I did come across a welcome and living link with the coming of the Irish monks to Applecross in 673. When I paid for two booklets that looked most likely to be helpful, I asked the lady at the desk in Gaelic if she had Gaelic. After the disappointments on Lismore, I expected the usual blank look, but instead was cheered and surprised when she said, in English, that she did and was also a native of Applecross who had been raised in Gaelic. Like the Lewisman I had encountered earlier, she was nevertheless reluctant to speak to me in her native tongue – ‘I will have to think before I can say anything.’ But slowly and with much deliberation, almost whispering, she switched and began to tell me that at school she had not only been scolded for speaking Gaelic but the teacher also criticised the way in which she made herself understood in English. As a little girl, she had been translating in her head and producing sentences with a Gaelic word order. Instead of saying ‘I am thirsty’ she came out with ‘Th ere is a thirst on me.’

Concentrating, becoming increasingly comfortable and more clearly audible, this lady began to talk of her early life in Applecross, remembering the CalMac ferry lying off the slip at Milltown and the coal boats in the bay. Determined to be precise, her Gaelic was also very different and much more mellifluous than mine. I lack vocabulary, and if I cannot think of the Gaelic word for something, I shove in the English equivalent without hesitation or much shame. As we talked quietly, the Heritage Centre suddenly began to fill with people, probably from a bus party on a tour, and I became aware of someone behind me. ‘Excuse me! Excuse ME!’ barked a lady, clearly irked not only that she was waiting but also that she could not understand what transaction was taking place between me and the lady behind the desk. That irritable intervention immediately shut down what had been a brief but quiet and very pleasant encounter, and as I retreated the impatient lady glared at me.

More than many practical things, such attitudes are damaging Gaelic. With the early death of Pictish, it is the first language of the Highlands and Islands, one that describes the north more completely than any other and the last thing its use should inspire is exasperation. The lady visitor cannot have been in a hurry. She had just arrived. What annoyed her was that she could not understand. That, in turn, fosters suspicion. She knew that we both spoke English but why had we chosen to speak to each other in Gaelic? What were we hiding? It will never have occurred to her that the mouth-filling syllables of this most beautiful of languages are worth uttering because they describe Applecross more precisely and appropriately than English ever could. Such deep-seated suspicion may be a consequence of history, an insular society ill at ease with multilingualism. But that did not persuade me to excuse this woman and with the sentence ‘Bha e uamhasach math d’fhaicinn’, I told the lady behind the desk that it had been very good to see her. I walked out into the sunshine and sat down on a bench to look over the Inner Sound to the Cuillin ridge.

Click for more information about In Search of Angels

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