Of the peoples of the isles and their languages

I always knew English was not the only nor the oldest language in the Isles as we called it. English was a relative newcomer. A few centuries ago French and Latin were much more important. The dialects spoken in Scotland still show a strong French influence.

Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) is pronounced “Gallic”; my grandfather who was born in the Scottish Highlands in 1886 often referred to his native language as Highland Scots (as opposed to Lallans or Lowland Scots). He said it was a dialect of Irish Gaelic (pronounced Gael-ic) and many people called Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) “ERSE “(Irish) when he was young but he never did. 

He never considered “Erse” to be denigrating. Most Highlanders consider themselves to be Gaels and to have racial ties to Irish Gaels as well as the Cymric (Welsh/British people). 

My grandfather often said “the Scots and the Irish are the same people except half of them don’t know it and the other half don’t want to know!.” He was referring to the attitude of so many who wanted to outEnglish to the English and hide their Irish/Celtic roots. That was a very common attitude in the late Victorian or Edwardian period inBritain.

My people by the way always considered themselves Islanders or Highlanders and referred to Ireland and Scotland as “the Isles”. Their homeland was their native place (Cioch Mhor) or the Gaidhealteachd (Highlands) and sometimes they spoke of “Alba” (the land of the mountains white) as Scotland. They also called it Scotia and Caledonia but those were poetic usages I think.

Auld Pop had nicknames for everyone. Taffies were Welshmen. Sassenach of course were Englishmen but also South ‘O’ The Dyke laddies or lassies. Irishmen were “micks”. The Indian troops were “Dins”. The Italians were, of course, “Tallies”. The Germans were “Jairmens” or the “Huns” . Turks were Turks (that was considered insult enough). Americans were Yanks of course. Highlanders were often called Teuchters (Tough Ones or Hicks). There may have been derogatory words for other groups He called the Jews “Hebrews”. He used the expression “Negro gentleman” (circa 1959 or 1961″ or “pairson of Colour” . If he knew derogatory words he never said them to me. I seem to recall the Germans had the most nicknames. But I do remember he said, Na Japs or Na Seanpanaich. So I suppose some of his expressions would be considered derogatory today, certainly old-fashioned. I never heard him use the word “racism” in my entire life. To Auld Pop races were nationalities. He used to say “we are all of us Jock Tamsen’s Bairns” (we are all God’s children) and all of the races or man were but one. He lived in close quarters with Indian and African soldiers and got alone quite well with all of them. I never once heard him tell me that I should be proud of being of the so-called “White Race.” He said I was the first of my race and line (meaning my clan lineage) to be American born and so the first of the American race. Certainly we are more American than ever as we have the blood of three or four continents (including Native American peoples of Latin America). The melting pot bubbles on.

When the Highlander spoke of “his race and line” he was saying he was , for example a Munro, Fraser, MacKenzie and MacFarlane on his father’s side and a McQueen, Sweeney, Dorian and O’Rourke on the mother’s side. He always called women by their maiden names as was the Gaelic custom. Mrs. Tracey was always “Kitty Scally” and many people called my grandmother and her sisters “Sweeney” even though the all had different married names Mrs. Quigley, Mrs. Dorian and so on. In our language Dark Mary Sweeney the wife at Big Munro the Soldier (for example). There is no verb for possession in Gaelic all things are “at you” temporarily” you cannot possess a spouse or a house or money PERMANENTLY. It is all “at you” ephemerally. Nicknames were very big and I cannot even begin to remember all of them such as “Buntie” (Little Button) , “Jos”, “Nelsie”, Auld Port (Captain Porteous), “American Johnny” , Canadian Bill, Taibailt Tommy (Strong Tommy), Torquil the Taibhse or Phinneas the faileas (phantom), or Morag or Sine Bhan (blonde Jean) or Mairi-mor (Big Mary) or Dark Effy (Eighrig dubh)Ruairidh mor or beag (big or little). Peter “Dall” (Dall/blind), , Wee Chairle (Charlie) Frankie (Frenchman), Hector the Hero, Willie Buidhe (Yellow Willie-cowardly Willie also called a Corry-Fisted Sullivan (Big One Eyed Lefty) or Willie Ruadh (Red Willie). This was a real person “William” Willie Gallacher the first Scottish Communist MP of the Red Clyde. He had been a close friend of my grandfather’s prior to 1914 (before the war and before he became a full blown Communist and anti-war activist. People like my grandparents thought he was a traitor and a coward. And he was the main reason my family left Scotland in the 1920’s. Auld Pop followed the advice of his (Scottish) American and Scottish Canadian friends and so came to work here.

My people  rarely if ever, quite innocently, referred to themselves as “British” because to them British people were their WELSH cousins and they themselves were not Welsh.

They never, it hardly needs to be said, spoke of themselves as English or Europeans. They were Highlanders, Islanders or Gaels. People who lived on the Continent or An Roinn Eorpa were the other though of course it seemed to me my grandfather was aware of his kinship to the Gauls of old. He often called his kilt the “Garb of Auld Gaul.”

The English (or Sassunachs) and the Europeans were the other. MyAuld Pop referred to English women, for example, as “South o’ the Dyke Lassies” and routinely called English “Saxon.” As a joke he usedto say anyone who married French women or Italians or Spanish were marrying lassies ‘very much to South o’ the Dyke’ but aye closer to Rome. As a boy most of the priests in my grandfather’s region were educated at the Scots College in Rome or the Scots College of Valladolid (Spain); some were Irish Franciscans. He had a very strong sense of belonging to Christendom and believing in the unity of Christendom inway many Calvinists did not. Of course, many people in my family intermarried with Irish people in Glasgow and later of course into Latin American families. I know there were a lot of Tallies (Scottish born Italians) in my grandfather’s parish in Govan. Glasgow has long been a very cosmopolitan town not unlike Brooklyn or London.


The Scots language was always called Beurla Albannach (Anglo-Scottish or Scots). “Gnath-bheurla na H-Eireann” was (Anglo-Irish). His language he always called ‘the Gallic” or “Highland Scots.”

The habit of calling Irish Gaelic “Irish” seems to be a modern one from the dates of the Free State. It is a simple fact that “Irish” and “Ireland” are not Irish words! Gaeilge is the Irish Gaelic word for Irish Gaelic. 

Today I think it clear that Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are two languages as separate as say Portuguese and Spanish but they are also very closely related. I have heard many Irish scholars say that Scottish Gaelic is (or was) a dialect of Irish Gaelic. I can read Irish Gaelic and there is some mutual intelligibility. But Irish grammar is more sophisticated and follows different spelling rules.

As a final note my grandfather always called many city girls “paltry women”. “They wadna survive a Highland winter until Easter.” Auld Pop  was of the opinion that healthy, strong and beautiful women were well-rounded and solidly built. Like my grandmother, Mrs. Munro who was about 5’6: 175. She was very strong. She made her own butter and cheese and spun and wove wool (clo mor/tweed). She went to church (Mass) seven days a week and always carried her rosary which she called paidirean (wee pater beads)

To him the ideal woman was a woman with womanly, matronly look and who excelled at housewivery. I suppose our ideals of beauty have been shaped by the childless or nearly so Hollywood ideal. If we honored motherhood more we would not put the figures of childless teenagers as the ideal.


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