For all fifteen years of its existence I have been a loyal customer of The Book Collector, a Sacramento used-book shop owned by Richard and Rachel Hansen, a married couple. This summer Richard spent nearly three months in Scotland caring for his mother while she underwent chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. While he was gone, I and several other friends of the Hansen family volunteered to run the shop whenever Rachel’s other duties (she’s a midwife as well as the mother of a young daughter) made it impossible for her to do it herself. I’ve known for years that Richard was of Scottish descent. He and I have spent many hours discussing the works of “Rabbie” Burns, a writer we’re both a bit obsessed with. But until I began working at the shop, I didn’t realize just how much Scottish literature thronged its shelves. Richard doesn’t have a special section for Scottish literature (although he does have one for Scottish history), but he appears to have never turned down a used book written by a Scot. The Book Collector is a small and somewhat sleepy enterprise located on a side street (24th) that is bracketed by two of downtown Sacramento’s busiest Streets, J and K. Not only is it miniscule in comparison with giant chain bookstores such as Border’s and Barnes & Noble, it is small even in comparison with other serious local used bookstores. But within its cozy confines, Richard has sneakily sprinkled more Scottish titles than you are likely to find at any other bookstore in town. Some of these are well-known, such as Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair, the popular multi-volume historical novels of Nigel Tranter (The Bruce Trilogy, The Stewart Trilogy, The James V Trilogy, etc.), the fairy tales of George MacDonald, and of course the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. But elsewhere in the stacks are many lesser known Caledonian titles. During idle moments at the shop, I came across such books as Morning For Mr. Prothero by Scotland native Jane Oliver (a pseudonym, I believe). Originally published in 1951, it is the story, according to its promotional copy, of “Thomas Prothero…an eminent London Surgeon suffering from a terminal illness. One moment, he is angered by hearing his colleagues give him up as a lost case. The next moment, he is being soothed by his old Nanny in her cottage in Scotland, a place that he has always loved. In this familiar setting he believes he has made a miraculous recovery…The reader is aware that the good doctor has ‘crossed over the border,’ from the physical to a spiritual plane. But Prothero is a man of science, and will not believe in anything not subject to physical proof. The fact that the sun never sets, that he doesn’t require food or rest, and that he is able to travel from place to place in an instant, he stubbornly attributes to lingering after-effects of his illness.” I was intrigued enough by that description to purchase the book and take it home with me.
Another curious Caledonian text I came across at the Book Collector is Of Scottish Ways, a light-hearted and conversational introduction to Scotland by Eve Begley. It is filled with amusing observations on all things Scottish:
“Now we come to the big question. When a man wears the kilt, what does he wear under it? Scotsmen all over the world may never forgive this disclosure. The truth is that most of them do wear something under the kilt – a small pair of matching tartan shorts, called trews. But if you’re in the army, that’s a different story. You don’t wear a thing under the kilt except yourself. And just in case you put on a pair of underpants by mistake, an officer with a cane lifts up the kilt to check at inspection time. Or so the old story goes…”
“The fact must be faced that not everyone appreciates the music of the bagpipes. To the uninitiated, the sound they make approaches the wailing of banshees. But a good piper playing outdoors makes music to gladden the heart of every Gael and stir any drop of Scots blood that might flow through the veins of a ‘furriner.’”
From a linguistic perspective, the most interesting literary works I encountered while working at the Book Collector were the multiple memoirs of Finlay J. MacDonald, a Scot by birth, and Lillian Beckwith, a transplant from England. MacDonald’s three memoirs – Crowdie and Cream, Crotal and White, and The Corncrake and the Lysander – describe his childhood and youth on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris (renowned for its Harris Tweeds) in the years between the World Wars. One of MacDonald’s main subjects is his struggle to learn English. He was raised in a home where only Gaelic was spoken (although his father was an avid reader of books in English). But at a young age he began attending a local school where the schoolmistress, Miss Martin, permitted only English to be spoken. Although Miss’s Martin’s methods were rough, the results, in MacDonald’s case at least, appear to have justified the means. His memoirs are full of moving and evocative writing. Here is how he begins Chapter Twelve of Crowdie and Cream:
“Time as it is lived doesn’t slide into neat compartments, least of all in the long memory. The diarist or the historian or the biographer may be forced to define his parameters and affix his tags of time and date, and by doing so achieve an accuracy which is a different thing altogether from the truth, just as the photographer, freezing his bits of landscape, can only hope to capture a view while letting the scenery escape. And so, even if I were of a mind to do so, I could not hope to catalogue the building of the village stone by stone, because it wasn’t of stones alone that it was built, but of moments, of moods, of happenings that were sometimes long and sometimes short and frequently overlapping; most indefinably of all, it was built on tears and laughter.”
To increase her students’ English vocabulary, Miss Martin created a learning method she called “The Word Game.” The rules of the game required each student to learn one new English word each evening, memorize its spelling and its meaning, and then come to school the next day prepared to use it in a sentence. At the end of each session of the Word Game, a vote was held among the students to determine which new word was the best of the day. Miss Martin would affix a red star inside the notebook of the winning student. At the end of the term, a prize would be awarded to the student with the most stars. MacDonald and his best friend Gillespie were two of the Word Game’s best competitors and a heated rivalry developed between them. Each night they would flip through whatever English books they could find in their homes – Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, etc. – in search of increasingly more complex English words. Here’s MacDonald describing the competition.
“I don’t know what kind of technique Gillespie used, but I discovered fairly quickly that there was a surpassing rich goldmine of highly unusual and exotic words among the Xs, Ys and Zs, and I became expert at regaling the school with dissertations on Vertigo and Xylophone and Yapok. Come to think of it, I’m probably one of the few people around who know what a yapok is, unless some contemporary in Scarista Public School remembers the difficulty I had in convincing Miss Martin that if yapok were rendered inadmissible just because the animal didn’t abound in Harris, then, by that token, elephant and camel would have to be disallowed too. She conceded the point with some reluctance, but indicated that she, personally, would be inclined to cast her vote in future for words that might, conceivably, crop up in the occasional conversation in some part of the British Isles. Looking back on it, the whole project was fraught with danger, and the miracle of it was that the teacher didn’t get her comeuppance long before that fateful morning.”
The “fateful morning” MacDonald refers to is the one on which a linguistic faux pas caused Miss Martin to cancel the Word Game for good. As MacDonald recalls it, the day began like any other.
“Living next door as we did, Gillespie and I invariably walked to school together, and, if we hadn’t picked up any family secrets to divulge to each other, the conversation would come around to the Word Game, which was always the first item on the agenda after Prayers. There was no point in being secretive with each other. We would never dream of stealing each other’s words. There was no need to: there were no points to be scored since each person had to define and talk about his own word anyway. On that particular morning I was rather pleased with the word I had found, and, without prompting, informed Gillespie rather pompously that it was a sure-fire winner. It was, in fact, ‘Uxorious,’ and it meant (and presumably still means) ‘excessively fond of one’s wife.’ His reaction was predictable.
“‘How many letters?’
“‘Eight,’ I was able to tell him, at the same time secretly wishing that I had plumbed the dictionary a little further, since eight was pretty average for a good word, and Gillespie and I had frequently scored ten in our own private contests, despite the fact that the teacher went to constant trouble to stress that the usefulness of a word was not always commensurate with its length. I couldn’t decide whether or not I had scored a hit. Gillespie went silent, and for the life of me I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was his smug or his sulky expression that he was wearing.
“‘What’s your word?’ I asked.
“‘I won’t tell you. It’s better than yours!’
“‘Did your father not know one?’ I knew that would sting.
“‘I didn’t ask my father. We’ve got a dictionary too, as you know fine.’
“We walked for a while in silence.
“‘I won’t tell you the word, but I’ll tell you what it means. It’s a big kind of piano that they play in churches in the town when they’re singing. My father says he saw one in Portsmouth when he was in the navy. So there’s such a thing, see?’
“That was good enough for me, and I wished that I had consulted my own father who had a vast vocabulary of big words culled from Gibbon and Lord Macaulay. But it was too late now, and by the time we reached school I was convinced that Gillespie must have a word of inordinate length that would knock the teacher for six. Only part of my conviction was to be realized.”
That morning’s session of Prayers dragged on interminably for MacDonald, who was convinced that he was going to be drubbed in the Word Game by Gillespie and was eager to get the humiliation over with. What the teacher called “Prayers” was actually a forty-five minute long Catechism lesson that involved readings from the Old Testament, a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and various scholarly exercises in religion. When at last the Prayer session ended, Miss Martin pointed to a student in the front row and instructed her to begin the Word Game. MacDonald and Gillespie sat in the back of the schoolroom and, therefore, were always the last two participants in the Word Game. Because of the position of his desk, MacDonald was always the last participant in the Word Game. Gillespie was always the second to last participant. As the game progressed, MacDonald found himself wishing that some miracle would occur that would prevent him from having to deliver a word in today’s contest. In the end, he got his wish.
“‘Gillespie,’ said the teacher, ‘stand up and let’s hear your word.’
“Gillespie shot me a quick ‘wait-till-you-hear-this’ kind of look and stood up. I braced myself for some multi-syllabled semanteme which would make my ‘uxorious’ sound like an infant’s burble and totally demolish my hopes of a red star.
“‘Pennies,’ said Gillespie as crisply as his thick Highland accent would allow.
“I couldn’t believe my ears. Gillespie knew as well as I did that plurals weren’t allowed, and when the teacher had made the rule, she had seized her chance to explain to us what a plural was. Her brow puckered.
“‘You know I only allow one, Gillespie,’ she said.
“‘It is one, Miss, it’s not “pennies” money.’ Gillespie was almost pert in his self-confidence.
“‘Well, it’s new to me then, Gillespie,’ she said, and later she must have thanked the Lord that there were no irreverent adults present to hear her. ‘Tell the class what it means.’
“‘It’s an organ, Miss,’ said Gillespie.
“There is such a thing as total innocence.
“‘P-E-N-I-S,’ enunciated Gillespie triumphantly, and I breathed with relief as I counted only five letters.
“Underneath the calm exterior which she normally presented in front of the school, the teacher was a very nervous person. The sudden appearance of a stranger at the door would bring a flush of red to her neck, and under any sustained emotion the red flush would suffuse her face…That day her blush could not be appropriately described as red. The exact word for it was vermilion, the very word with which I had unhappily lost a round of the Word Game a few days earlier because I had accidentally put two Ls in it! She looked at the class, rustled some papers on her desk, glanced at her watch, and went through the whole classic gamut of reaction of somebody striving to regain composure. ‘Thank you, Gillespie,’ she said. ‘Dear me, I’m afraid we’ve taken longer than usual. That’s all we’ve time for today.’ And she called the morning interval [“recess,” in America] without as much as asking Gillespie for his sentence.
“Needless to say, the interval was devoted to a lengthy discussion of the incident. Nobody could quite understand what had gone wrong although it was plain something had gone drastically amiss. And then, one of the older boys had a flash of inspiration.
“‘It was all your fault,’ he said, rounding on Gillespie. ‘You shouldn’t have used that word. You know fine the teacher belongs to the Free Presbyterian Church and they think it’s a sin to use an organ with the psalms!’ And that was that.
“It was also the end of the Word Game. And, in all those years, neither in writing nor in conversation have I found a chance to use the word ‘uxorious’ till now.”
Even after the disastrous downfall of the Word Game, however, Miss Martin continued to use competitions to develop her students’ learning skills. The winners of these games got red stars and praise, and the losers received the scorn of their classmates, a practice MacDonald heartily endorses.
“There is an old Gaelic proverb which says that ‘rivalry turns a township’s best furrow,’ and it means, I suppose, that no ploughman wants to be seen to be worse at his craft than his neighbor. And rivalry, rather than any goadings or threats, was the means favored by Miss Martin to spur us on towards an education. Nowadays, in the general frenzy to level life down rather than up, it is not considered good educational policy to create stars, lest the fellow at the tail of the class, be he lout or laggard, develops one of the fashionable complexes of which, it seems, more are being discovered every day. Occasionally our sense of competition was fanned by the promise of some small reward or other; usually it was enough to bask in the approval of the teacher. She may not have been outstandingly successful in her efforts to turn us into well-groomed and manicured little ladies and gentlemen fit to grace a garden party, but she was, slowly and steadily, wearing down the contempt for education which had been inculcated in us by her predecessor.”
The Word Game eventually was replaced by an activity Miss Martin called “Conversation,” in which the students were encouraged to learn various facts about the life of their small town by reading newspapers, listening to their parents’ dinnertime conversations, and so forth. Then, in class each day, Miss Martin would initiate a conversation in which everyone was required to contribute some piece of news or other verbal tidbit germane to the topic under discussion. Unfortunately, this game too became problematic when the students began revealing intimate details about the lives of their parents and neighbors. MacDonald was horrified when he learned that his mother was pregnant not from one of his parents but during a game of Conversation. He never forgave his mother for revealing her pregnancy to a neighbor before revealing it to her own son and therefore allowing the neighbor’s daughter to disclose the news in a game of Conversation and render MacDonald speechless for the duration of the game.
Miss Martin isn’t the only one in MacDonald’s memoirs who finds herself shocked by a bit of verbal confusion. Consider the case of a crofter named Murdo Mor and Dr. MacBeth, an outsider who is viewed with suspicion by his neighbors because of his general ignorance of Hebridean ways and the Gaelic tongue. Murdo’s wife found herself pregnant for the first time at 44, and Murdo was worried about what it would do to her health.
“Disbelief [among the community] at his impending fatherhood had quickly given way to inevitable ribaldry, but that had, in turn, died down rapidly when it became known that his wife was suffering the problems that can be attendant on first pregnancies in middle age. Emotionally, the villages rallied round the couple as communities do everywhere under such circumstances, and Murdo’s own conduct gained him much sympathy and support as he went quietly about his croft work and, dutifully, every Sunday paid his morning and evening visits to the little exclusive fundamentalist kirk of which he was an elder in another township…At last the great day came. Murdo had graciously refused all but the minimum of help from the township women who, under the circumstances, were even more willing than usual to give of their time and effort. He argued that the extra work around the house helped to keep his mind off his worry. And all the women who called on him came away full of admiration for the way in which he had made preparation for what could be the happiest or the saddest day of his life. House, bed, layette…everything was in apple-pie order, and, on the evening before the due day he had killed and dressed a big, fat Rhode Island Red rooster so that there would be a nourishing meal ready for his wife after her ordeal. What seemed to impress the ladies more than anything else was that he had remembered to lay in rice and onions for the chicken soup, and, in universal wifely fashion, they made comparisons from which their own husbands emerged very poorly indeed.
“In the event all went well, and Dr. MacBeth, with the nurse in attendance, delivered Murdo’s wife of a lusty baby boy.
“Over the weeks, thanks to Murdo Mor’s faithful reportage, Dr. MacBeth’s reputation had taken a turn for the better. Apparently he had not only been diligent in his attendance – which the village had witnessed for itself – but, by the bedside, he had been courteous and comforting and exuding medical expertise. On the day itself, according to the two local women who were present, the doctor had been completely self-assured and had made light of everybody’s fears. He had twinkled at them over his half-moon spectacles, making little jokes and coaxing them to teach him a word or two of Gaelic. He had turned Murdo a further shade of pale by asking him what the Gaelic was for ‘twins.’ And after it was all over and he had washed his hands, he had been positively expansive over a couple of very large whiskies. But the bubble burst when he was on the doorstep saying his farewells. He was bending down to put on his galoshes when Murdo sidled up to him and, apologizing for getting back to business again, said, ‘Doctor – when do you think I can let her have a bit of the cock?’
“The doctor shot upright – in the words of one of the women ‘leaving his chin where it was.’ But when he got control of it again it was to give Murdo a short sharp tongue-lashing of which the most wounding phrase to an elder of the kirk was ‘disgusting old man.’ The two women, who had only a modest command of basic English, couldn’t for the lives of them see what was so dramatically wrong with offering an invalid chicken. The young nurse, who had been trained in a Glasgow hospital, did understand but she couldn’t find words to intervene quickly enough without letting her own modesty slip. Before anybody could do anything Dr. MacBeth was on his bicycle and away, leaving his Gladstone bag behind in his fluster.”
Not only does MacDonald fill his books with amusing linguistic tales, he also fills them with euphonious words that are generally far more common in Scotland than America. He says “timeous” rather than “timely.” He uses the word “kenspeckle” rather than the term “easily recognized,” as in “The Prince of Wales is kenspeckle from television…” He employs “glisk” rather than “glimpse” or “glimmer” (“…a glisk of colour when the world was grey…”). At one point he uses a Scottishism so obscure that even Google can’t find any incident of its use on the internet. The word is “bialbangaid,” a Gaelic term that translates literally into English as ‘birthday mouth” and refers to someone who pretends to show up by chance at houses where a birthday or wedding some other event is being celebrated in the hope of being offered a free nip of whiskey. In the tale of Murdo Mor’s wife, MacDonald employs an obscure but useful English word – “primiparous,” which Microsoft’s spelling checker doesn’t recognize, but which refers to a woman’s first pregnancy, as in “The doctor liked to be present on primiparous occasions.”
Lillian Beckwith is another Hebridean writer whose works are fraught with amusing linguistic observations. Born in 1916, Beckwith published seven volumes of memoirs between 1959 and 1978. Although based on her own experiences, the books (according to information gleaned from the internet) are somewhat fictionalized accounts of her life. After leaving England with her husband, Ted, in 1942, Beckwith (real name: Lillian Comber) lived first on the Isle of Skye and later on the nearby isle known as Soay. She and her husband and their children moved to the Isle of Man in 1962. The Isle of Man is a self-governing dependency of the British crown and not a part of the Hebrides, although it shares many cultural and geographical traits with the Scottish isles. In her “memoirs,” Beckwith combines the isles of Skye, Soay, and Man into a single fictionalized Hebridean island called Bruach. In some ways Beckwith is the additive inverse of MacDonald. Whereas MacDonald was a native Scot whose books chronicled his days as a Hebridean schoolboy, Beckwith was an English schoolteacher who, for health reasons, moved to the Hebrides, where she occasionally filled in as a substitute teacher. Just as MacDonald writes about a Gaelic-speaking boy’s difficulties with an English-speaking teacher, Beckwith writes about her own difficulties as an English-speaking teacher trying to instruct students who speak mainly Gaelic. In The Sea For Breakfast, the second of her Bruach books, she relates the following incident involving two sisters, Flora and Murdina, whom Beckwith has privately dubbed Giggle and Sniggle:
“When lessons began again the sun had moved round full on the schoolhouse windows. The fire had been left to go out but the classroom became increasingly torrid. The discarded chunks of staff under the desks became decidedly odiferous and the classroom began to give off the musty, sour smell of sweating children mingled with that of sunlight on dust-impregnated wood and cloth. The children were taking it in turns to read aloud from a book of fairy stories I had [brought to class] because there were none in the school library. I had to remind myself constantly that they were naturally Gaelic speakers with English only as an acquired language. Giggle’s turn came at the end of the story and she faltered along, stabbing at the odd words she knew with expressionless indifference and shaping her mouth experimentally over the syllables of the rest. ‘And…the…prin…
cess…mar…married…the…d…duck…’ There was a burst of tittering from the class which I quelled with a look. I told her to read it through again but she still persisted on pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck.’ Suppressed titters came again…
“‘Flora,’ I reasoned with her, ‘a princess wouldn’t marry a duck, would she?’ Flora stared at me with unblinking stupidity. I insisted she try again, telling her to use her common sense. It was of no avail. She was still determined to marry the princess to a duck.
“Impatiently I turned to Sniggle, whose eyes were bright with contempt for her sister. ‘Murdina,’ I said, ‘would you tell your sister what a princess would be likely to marry?’
“Murdina’s hand shot up eagerly. ‘Yes, Miss. Please, Miss, it would have to be a drake.’ The whole room dissolved into laughter…”
Linguistic commentary abounds in Beckwith’s books. In The Sea For Breakfast, she writes that, while leading her students in a recital of the Lord’s Prayer one day, “I noticed they rendered the third line of the prayer as ‘Thou will be done on earth’ and thought irreverently that from what I had seen of the behaviour of some of the little scamps out of school hours the substitution of the personal pronoun for the possessive was not inapt.”
It isn’t just the schoolchildren who receive Beckwith’s gentle chiding. Her own inability to grasp the meanings of the Gaelic speakers around her is also a source of much amusement. Although the real-life Lillian Comber was married when she moved to the Hebrides, the fictionalized Lillian Beckwith is a spinster who, upon arriving in Bruach, lodges with a Hebridean native woman named Morag. The constant inability of Beckwith and Morag to communicate efficiently, is a recurring theme in the books, as in this scene from The Hills Is Lonely, the first of the Bruach series:
“‘If I’m spared,’ remarked Morag one hazy morning in early spring, ‘I’ll be after puttin’ the stirk [a heifer or bullock] to the sale on Friday. Will you be comin’ with me?’
“‘I will,’ I replied promptly as I spooned thick yellow cream on to my steaming porridge. ‘But where is the sale and how do we get there?’
“Morag poured out two cups of tea from the pot and taking one for herself sat down on the edge of the sofa.
“‘The cattle float will be takin’ him on Thursday evenin’,’ she explained, ‘and we’ll folly by bus on Friday mornin’.’
“I was infinitely relieved that the few shreds of dignity I had managed to retain were sufficient to prevent there being any suggestion that I might occupy a spare stall in the cattle float.
“‘But I thought you had only one stirk and surely you said that was a female?’ I said.
“‘So I did,’ elucidated Morag, ‘and so he will be when she’s older, you understand?’
“I nodded wisely, accepting the fact that it was not nature but the Gaelic language which was responsible for the beast’s being temporarily a hermaphrodite.”
Apparently, in Gaelic, all cattle, when they are young, are referred to with a masculine pronoun; the females acquire a feminine pronoun only when they reach maturity.
In the books of both MacDonald and Beckwith, Hebrideans frequently find their native tongues at odds with the official language of the British Empire. In The Hills Is Lonely, Beckwith relates an incident in which a visiting English artist asks for permission to paint a Hebridean workingman. Misunderstanding the artist’s intent, the workingman responds, “Wee mannie, if you dare to lay a brush on me I’ll kick the pants off you.” Elsewhere in the same book, Morag, commenting on a neighbor who has begun to go senile, tells Beckwith, “I would sooner lose my hearin’ or my sight than I would my sanitation. I believe to lose one’s sanitation would be the end of everythin’.” In another chapter of the book, Beckwith learns from Morag that Morag’s brother Ruari is “takin’ a great lump of them jolly gees to the hills and then he’ll be after collectin’ some cattle from Rhuna and he’s sayin’ you’ll get with them if you’ve a mind.’ (Morag always expressed quantity in ‘lumps,’ whether she was speaking of manure, cheese or humanity.) Messages from Ruari reached me via his sister, for, though my company was not despised, it was beneath the male dignity to issue invitations to non-Gaelic-speaking females. I accepted with alacrity even though, as I told Morag, I had no idea what ‘jolly gees’ might be.
“‘Jolly gees? Why, they’re yon fellows who hammer little bits off the hills and then fancy they can tell the Lord Himself how the earth was made,’ Morag replied.
“‘Geologists!’ I exclaimed. She nodded.”
When an Islander tells Beckwith of a man who jumped on a sheep that carried him all around the world, Beckwith mistakenly believes she is about to hear a fairy tale. But the tale turns out to be a fairly prosaic one, about a man who became a sailor and traveled the world on an ocean-going vessel (a “ship,” not a “sheep”).
Not only does Beckwith have a difficult time understanding her Hebridean neighbors, they have difficulty understanding her as well. When she innocently says to a neighboring mother and daughter, “I suppose you have lots and lots of books here,” the mother “drew herself up haughtily” and responded, “No indeed. None at all…Forty-five years I’ve lived in this house and never a bug did I see in it yet.” At which point Beckwith apologizes profusely, “mortified that they should think I would repay their generosity by making such an aspersion.”
In Crowdie and Cream, MacDonald writes of his own grandfather, “In his youth the old man had sailed as a deck hand on rich men’s yachts, and he had acquired a good working knowledge when the mood came over him, of conversational English which he was inclined to flourish by slinging into a Gaelic conversation phrases which could sometimes be slightly off-beat like ‘When in Rome, do as the Roumanians do,’ nobody would ever dream of correcting him.” (The off-beat syntax of that sentence tends to indicate that there was a lot of the old man in Finlay J. MacDonald as well.)
In The Hills Is Lonely, Beckwith provides this amusing linguistic anecdote involving a doctor who is a native of the Hebrides:
“His sense of humor was puckish, and his contempt for the English, despite the fact that he had married an Englishwoman, permeated much of his conversation; before I had been acquainted with him for half an hour, he had embarked on a story of his student days in which he claimed to have gotten the better of a supercilious Englishman.
“It was during the university vacation, he told me, and the doctor was roaming the hills herding his father’s cattle, when two tourists, a man and a woman, approached him. The doctor was barefooted and bareheaded and was clad, as he himself put it, ‘in a well-ventilated pair of breeks and a shirt with more front than back in it.’
“‘Hello, young fellow!’ said the Englishman condescendingly.
“‘Good afternoon,’ answered the doctor politely.
“‘And do you live around here?’ asked the man archly.
“‘I do,’ replied the doctor.
“‘And do you go to school?’
“‘Sometimes I go,’ the doctor admitted.
“‘I see you have a book under your arm. Can you read?’
“‘A little,’ said the doctor hesitantly, though the book happened to be an advanced medical textbook.
“‘Ah!’ The man turned and conferred in low tones with his companion and then addressed the doctor once more. ‘And can you count?’ he asked.
“‘Er, yes,’ faltered the doctor.
“‘Very good!’ exclaimed the man. ‘How much can you count?’
“The doctor looked puzzled.
“‘Tell me, my boy, how many people there are here just at this moment. You, myself and my wife. How many is that?’
“‘One hundred,’ answered the doctor after a struggle.
“The man and his wife laughed derisively. ‘Come, come, my boy. How do you make that out?’ he remonstrated.
“‘Well, explained the doctor,’ turning to go, ‘there’s myself, that’s one.’
“‘Yes?’ the couple waited in amused expectancy.
“‘And there’s yourself and your wife – you’re the two nothings. Good day to you both.’
“Never before or since, it seemed, had the hill been so strangely quiet as it was in the following moments. Whether or not the story was true I cannot say, but I do know that the doctor possessed an enviable gift for disconcerting people whom he regarded as being impudent, and I am forced to admit that my countrymen seem to regard themselves as having the right to interrogate the Islanders much as a policeman might interrogate a suspicious character.”
Despite her criticism of English condescension towards the Islanders, Beckwith isn’t entirely free of this fault herself. Occasionally she makes sweeping generalizations about Gaels that come across as snobbish, or worse:
“[T]he Gael’s inability to co-operate is congenital and his loquaciousness is, if anything, increased by peril or panic.”
“[T]he geniality of the Gael, despite its lack of sincerity, is an endearing trait.”
According to Wikipedia, some of Beckwith’s island neighbors took offense at her books’ portrayals of the Hebrides and its people, finding them cartoonish and demeaning, which may account for her eventual move to the non-Hebridean Island of Man. MacDonald’s portraits of his fellow Gaels may be more sympathetic and realistic than Beckwith’s, but her account remains valuable as an example of how language difficulties often serve to keep immigrants to a foreign community feeling like outsiders long after they have adapted to all the other cultural differences. The books of both Finlay J. MacDonald and Lillian Beckwith are filled with edifying and entertaining stories about the clash of the English and Gaelic tongues. I heartily recommend them to word-lovers everywhere. I’ll close this essay with one more excerpt from The Hills Is Lonely, in which Beckwith discusses her difficulties with the Gaelic tongue:
“The acquisition of the Gaelic is, I believe, a necessity for those who wish to lead a full life in the Hebrides, and accordingly I purchased a Gaelic grammar and set myself the task of mastering the idiosyncrasies of that much-exalted tongue. Languages have never been my strong point but having the advantage of actually residing and conversing with natural Gaelic speakers, I estimated that by the end of three months I should have achieved a reasonable degree of fluency.
“‘It’s quite easy to learn,’ encouraged one of the accepted scholars of the village when he heard of my intention. ‘The Gaelic is pronounced exactly as it is spelled so you will not find it half so difficult as other languages.’
“I was enormously cheered by his words and was tempted to cut my estimate to six weeks, but the discovery that ‘Cnoc’ was pronounced ‘Crock,’ ‘Dubh’ as ‘Doo’ and ‘Ceilidh’ as ‘cayley’ convinced me that his statement had been somewhat misleading. When I found that a simple phrase like ‘I have a cat’ is in the Gaelic distorted to ‘A cat is at me’ I felt that I must double my original estimate and, even so, doubted whether I should ever realize that to say ‘The dog is at me’ indicated possession and not attack.
“Previous to commencing the study of Gaelic I had noticed that the inhabitants always seemed to be slightly nonplussed by my formal English greeting of ‘Good morning’ or “Good evening!’ Naturally I used ‘Good morning’ as a salutation, not as an observation on weather conditions, and I was not to know then that in such matters the Gael believes in being specific. In my anxiety to say the right thing I asked Morag to tell me the Gaelic way of wishing people ‘Good day.’ She, taking me literally, taught me to say ‘He Breeah,’ a phrase which, I later learned to my dismay, meant “It is a good day,’ in the sense that ‘the weather is fine,’ and it was singularly unfortunate that for practically the whole of that season there were no days when ‘He Breeah’ could have been called a suitable greeting. Through rain and cold, through wind, hail and snow, ‘He Breeah!’ I called gaily, and received in reply politely bewildered ‘He Breeahs’ from dejected figures whose boots squelched wetly and from whose sou’westers the rain streamed steadily. ‘He Breeah!’ I greeted the embittered roadman as he sheltered in his inadequate little hut from the merciless flurries of sleet which swept incessantly up the valley. ‘He Breeah!’ I hailed startled milkmaids as, blue-fingered and red-nosed, they huddled miserably under the cows’ bellies, seeking refuge from the torrential rain.
“The villagers accepted my misuse of the phrase with amused tolerance and were unfailingly complaisant, as is their way, but my suspicions were at last aroused when one old soul, battling homeward against a fierce north-westerly gale, her sodden cape billowing wildly in spite of her effort to restrain it, returned my ‘He Breeah’ promptly and then added conscientiously, ‘But there’s a fearful lot of wet along with it now, isn’t there?’ That night I learned to say ‘He fluke’ (it is wet) and ‘He fooar’ (it is cold) and by so doing ensured the finest spell of warm dry weather that the Island had experienced for some years.
“Though my Gaelic studies were not conspicuously successful they did at least help me to understand the propensity of my new friends for investing anything and everything with the masculine or feminine gender, for, like French, the language has no neuter. A shoe for instance is a ‘she,’ while a coat is a ‘he.’ The professions are all masculine, though the noun ‘work’ is feminine. (It is easy to understand the significance of this when one has lived in the Hebrides for a short time.) The circumstance that an object might be feminine in the English language yet masculine in the Gaelic added to the confusion, as did the complications of the soft and hard consonants and shortened vowels; and when I heard of cows with calves at foot being referred to as ‘he’ I began to doubt very much whether anyone among the Bruachites was capable of classifying sex with any certainty.
“This use of either the masculine or the feminine gender persisted among the crofters even when speaking English, and I was frequently considerably agitated on hearing remarks which seemed to suggest all manner of nefarious or ludicrous practices.
“‘When he’s done barking, Ruari’s going to hang him on the clothes line for an hour or so,’ I overheard Bella telling Morag one day, and was greatly relieved to discover that ‘he’ was nothing more animate than a fishing net. For one like myself, possessing only a limited capacity for controlling my countenance, there were agonizing moments such as the occasion when I met an old crofter and his wife stumping morosely along the road. The weather, which earlier had looked promising, had turned treacherously to rain and as we paused to commiserate with one another on this fact the woman bent down to tie her bootlace. Her husband studied her bent back, a lugubrious expression on his lined face. ‘Yes,’ he grumbled disconsolately, ‘and I did think we’d have got to the peats today, but it’s no use now she’s gone and turned wet on me.’ I need hardly point out that in this case the weather was the ‘she.’”