Sunday, April 19, 2009

Which way is it to Obar Dheathain?

Spring has arrived in the Highlands. The fields are green. The geese have left and the ospreys are back. The snow is fast disappearing and the salmon are running nicely in the meltwater. All of this brings tourists flocking to Inverness Airport.

Now then, leaving with the rental car do they head for Inbhir Nis or Obar Dheathain?

Well of course translations are helpfully provided, but the arrival of Gaelic signage is a guaranteed topic of conversation at Highland dinner tables ("What the hell is the point? No-one understands Gaelic!").

So I though I'd put in my two pennyworth...

We've had a few tussles with the French but so far as I know have never tried to re-christen Paris as 'Paree' or Marseilles as 'Marsay'. And so why did Inbhir Nis have to become 'Inverness' - a poor phonetical rendering of a perfectly good Gaelic name? Of course French is a far better established language than Gaelic, but you get the point: 'Inverness' is not a 'real word' in any language. At least the USA retained the correct spelling of Orléans, even if they can't pronounce it!

Most mountains, like Glencoe's Buachaille Etive Mhor, (the big Shepherd of Etive), have retained their Gaelic integrity. And there are placenames, like 'Fort Augustus', that are pure English. No problem there. Its the large grey area in the middle...

So what's it all about?

The problem is that Gaelic is currently spoken by only about 60,000 people. If it reaches the stage of being nursed along by a few academics and enthusiasts, it will be dead in all but name. This matters because it was Scotland's principal language from the sixth to the sixteenth century and the vast majority of long established placenames are from the Gaelic. From these names we understand more of both our culture and our countryside. Let Gaelic go and we lose not just an impressive body of literature and song, but slice of social history.

The heavy responsibility of saving the language lies with Bòrd na Gàidhlig and their focus is of course on Gaelic medium schooling. But increasing awareness of Gaelic names is an important part of the process. Hence the road signs.

I see that Historic Scotland has recently restored the original Gaelic name of the Calanais Stones (previously anglicised as Callanish). It all helps.

Tapadh Leat airson leabadgh seo!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Harthill Castle

Each time I go down the A93 to Aberdeen, my eye is taken by the pink walls of Harthill Castle near Oyne - four stories and a garret, its bartizans tower above the surrounding trees. Today, for the first time, I arranged to take a couple of photos. It's a stunning place. Strange to think that for three hundred years it was a noble ruin.

The castle was built by John Leith of Harthill in the early years of the seventeenth century; his son was Patrick Leith, a passionate Royalist in those difficult civil war times. So passionate that he was executed aged 25, having first torched his own castle to stop the wretched Covenanters getting their dirty hands on it! (Charles II seemed to have a string of eccentric Scottish lairds in his entourage - Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty fought with him at Worcester, was taken prisoner, did a translation of Rabelais' bawdy stories and later died laughing when Charles became king).

Like many other fine restored Scottish castles, it is now a private residence, having been beautifully restored in the 1970s using the traditional harled exterior. (I don't suppose anyone knows if it was originally pink).

And so ironically it has probably been occupied about as long since it was restored as it was when built in the 17th century.