21 – 27 March 2022, marks the first World Gaelic Week. It also marks the centenary of William Neill’s birth. William Neil, born in Prestwick but resident for most of his life in Crossmichael, was an exemplary poet in all three of Scotland’s languages, English, Scots and Gaelic. The first ever graduate with an Honours Degree in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University and winner of the Bardic Crown at the 1969 National Mod, Neill viewed Gaelic as a living, vibrant language worthy and completely deserving of national, widespread support, funding and teaching. Later this year, Drunk Muse Press will publish ‘The Leaves of All the Years’ responses to Willie’s work from a host of well known Scottish poets and writers.
“Commenting on his own writing, Willie Neill saw himself as ‘standing up for the small tongues against the big mouths’ – Scots and Gaelic being ‘the small tongues’ threatened by the ravenous maw of English. Map Makers exemplifies this all-consuming threat very well, illustrating the manner in which Gaelic place names were systematically erased from landscapes ‘where Gaelic names adorn(ed) both farm and mountain’, as he said elsewhere. Willie was clear that it was not just a matter of adornment: place names mark out what is important and significant to inhabitants of a community. The process of naming can be seen as a way of creating, explaining and making manifest the essence of a place. A landscape that has been endowed with names is one that has been domesticated and made intelligible within a particular culture. When anglicisation wiped out the original meanings, replacing them at times with what were essentially nonsense syllables, ‘the culture could not stand on solid ground’, as it became progressively and insidiously eroded.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Willie on a number of occasions in his later years after he contacted me to ask if we could give some time to having conversations in Gaelic, as he felt he was beginning to lose some of his vocabulary. At one such meeting, in a café in Castle Douglas, we were talking quite loudly in Gaelic as Willie’s hearing was deteriorating. I noticed a group of ‘ladies who lunch’ at a nearby table casting puzzled looks in our direction, and I then heard one of them say to the others: ‘Spanish.’ While Willie and I laughed about this, we went on to consider how – while it’s quite understandable that Gaelic can be unrecognisable if one has not been exposed to it – there seems to be widespread ignorance, and, at times, denial, of the extent not only of Galloway’s Gaelic history, but also that of wider Scotland. In his poem Scotia est divisa in voces tres, he wrote: All over Alba Gaelic shouts from the stones / to those who have ears to hear, though there’s Damn Few left / who can feel their heritage ache like rheumatic bones…
While Scots was Willie’s language of birth, his first tongue and the language of his heart, his assertive sense of self as Scottish also included Gaelic: I couldna see hou I culd possibly be a Scotsman an no ken Gaelic. He famously wrote in the three leids of Scots, Gaelic and English, alert to the tone, register and resonance of each. There continues to be contested terrain between these leids and Willie’s voice still rings out as a forthright and, at times, acerbic exponent of the affordances of ‘the small tongues.’ “
Here is the section written by Angus MacMillan, stressing the importance oF Gaelic in the literature of Scotland and the culture and history of Dumfries and Galloway, as illustrated by his poem ‘Map Makers’.
When Irongray grew out of Earran Reidh
the culture could not stand on solid ground.
Grey dominies of unmalleable will
invented newer legends of their own
to satisfy the blacksmith and his children.
After Cill Osbran closed up to Closeburn
more books were shut than Osbran’s psalter.
Seeking to baptise the new born name
the pedants hurried to the nearest water
which wasn’t even warm.
When Seann Bhaile swelled to Shambellie
the old steading became a glutton’s belch.
Every tourist pointed a magic finger
padding lean Fingal to a flabby Falstaff.
The cold men in the city
who circumscribe all latitude
wiped their bullseye glasses
laid down their stabbing pens
that had dealt the mortal wounds
slaying the history of a thousand years
in the hour between lunch and catching the evening train.
Earran Reidh: The level ground Cill Osbran: The Church of Osbran (or Osbern)
Seann Bhaile: The Old Steading.
These are all Gaelic place names in Southwest Scotland, where Gaelic survived until c.1700 (See Journal of Scottish Studies Vol17). Our modern map-makers have Anglicised and bastardized these, and many others.