The language of Crieff and Strathearn in the 1790s and how a concerted effort was made in the 18th Century to remove Gaelic as the spoken language of the people
Like many Scots , I have a thoroughly mixed pedigree .I do believe that this factor , perhaps more than any other , allows one to analyse and appreciate one’s genetic heritage without the innate prejudice that all too frequently mars true objectivity in Scottish discussions especially those concerning politics and religion ! My maternal great grand parents Archibald and Mary McFarlane were born and raised in the delightful Kintyre village of Clachan some miles south of the fishing port of Tarbert on Loch Fyne in the County of Argyll – the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada . They were first cousins – their fathers Duncan and Archibald McFarlane being brothers. Archibald was some eleven years older than Mary and was a widower at the time of their marriage in Campbeltown in 1864 . Both were native Gaelic speakers and were educated at the small village school in Clachan . Family anecdotes passed down through the generations tell us that the only non Gaelic speaking person in the school at the time was the teacher ! This somewhat bizarre situation was not to uncommon in Highland Scotland in the 18th and early 19th Centuries . Clachan school was run by an organisation known as the SSPCK or to give it its full “ handle” – The Society in Scotland for the Propagation Of Christian Knowledge . It was formed by Royal Charter in 1709 for the purpose of founding schools and they proudly proclaimed “where religion and virtue might be taught to young and old in the Scottish Highlands and other uncivilised areas of the country.”
Their schools were part of a programme by the Established Church of Scotland – known as the “ Kirk “ to extend its influence throughout the country and to include those parts of Scotland known in Gaelic as a' ghàidhealtachd or those parts of Scotland where Gaelic was spoken as the dominant and first language by the local population. This ,remember, was still in the aftermath period of the Jacobite rising and the Presbyterian Kirk was somewhat paranoiac about those who espoused the old faiths – the Episcopalians and the Catholics . Many of the Highland Clans still adhered to these traditional Christian forms of worship but to those of Calvinistic disposition they were now an anathema in Scotland amongst the established Presbyterian society . The fact that Kirk had already started to fragment with the first Secession in 1733 is perhaps indicative of its failure to appreciate the importance of other viewpoints in those far off days .
The Kirk was already working with support from a tax on landowners to provide a school in every parish. The SSPCK had 5 schools by 1711, 25 by 1715, 176 by 1758 and 189 by 1808 with 13,000 pupils attending. Initially the SSPCK avoided using Gaelic with the result that pupils learned by rote without understanding what they read. My great grandparents experience appears not to have been that unusual in Highland Scotland . In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the attitude of most Lowland Scots towards the Highlanders was one of disdain and contempt for both their language and their way of life .
Indeed the following is an extract from the published Statistical Account of the Parish of Kilcalmonell in which Clachan was situated .
“ Language : The Gaelic is the vernacular language of the parishioners but the English is displacing it and the sooner it overmasters it the better “
One can examine the written words contained within the Statistical Accounts of Scotland produced for every parish in the country in the 1790s and the 1830s .
The two Statistical Accounts of Scotland, covering the 1790s and the 1830s, are among the best contemporary reports of life during the agricultural and industrial revolutions in Europe.
Based largely on information supplied by each parish church minister Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide a rich record of a wide variety of topics: wealth, class and poverty; climate, agriculture, fishing and wildlife; population, schools, and the moral health of the people. ( University of Leicester )
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet one can access them all on the Edina ( Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow ) web site
Go to “ For non subscribers “ and click on the “ browse scanned pages “ . You then enter the Parish ( or County ) name in the appropriate box .
What then were conditions like in Strathearn and particular in the town of Crieff situated right on the border between Highland and lowland Scotland ?The following extracts from the aforementioned Statistical Accounts written in the 1790s is self explicit regarding the prevailing attitude in some quarters towards Gaelic and its culture .
The people speak the English language in the best Scotch dialect ; although Gaelic be commonly spoken at a distance of three miles north , or four miles west of Crieff , yet no adult natives of the Lowland part of the Parish can speak or understand it .They have not even contracted the peculiar tone of that language by their intercourse with the numerous Highland families now residing in the town . Many of these indeed understand no other language but the Gaelic , and their children born in Crieff speak that alone as their mother tongue . The great number of these Highland families , their general poverty , their frequent ignorance in the grand subjects of revelation , their incapacity of deriving benefit from the public religious service performed in the English language , the happy effects to themselves and society that may result from a proper regard to their interest and comfort , are all such , as justify to merit the humane attention and friendly aid of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. A small annuity allotted to a prudent man qualified to instruct and catechise these people on Sundays , would be an act of piety and beneficence .
Character and Language
Like the generality of the common Highlanders , the lower ranks here are here modest , peaceable and very obliging .There are few law suits among them and there have been none for these 10 years , except about legacies , multures and marches , They are frugal , moderate and industrious , and except at merry meetings are not much addicted to drinking – the common language of the people is Gaelic . All the natives understand it , but many , especially of the old , do not understand English well .All the young people can speak English , but in order to acquire it , they must go to service in the Low Country. The Gaelic is not spoken in its purity, neither here , or in the bordering parishes ,
The inhabitants of the northern half of the Parish use among themselves the Gaelic tongue ; all of them can however speak English which is the only language spoken or understood on the south side of the hill .
This parish being situated on the borders of the Highlands , and having much intercourse and connection with the natives , we need not be surprised to find that Gaelic is spoken in the back part of it , and the old Scotch dialect in the fore part , spoken with the Gaelic tone and accent . There are , however , very few persons in the whole Parish who do not speak or understand Gaelic . Most of the names of places are evidently derived from that language and are expressive of their local situation .
The Society in Scotland for the Propagation Of Christian Knowledge .
The expansion of the Society was only possible by the generous and sometimes large accessions of capital particularly from its wealthy Presbyterian supporters in Lowland
Edinburgh . In the second charter by George II of 1738 the Society was empowered over and above the purposes of the original patent “to instruct pupils in husbandry, housewifery, trading, manufacturing or manual occupations”. The Society main ambition would appear to have been the establishment of charity schools throughout the Highlands . Their attitude towards the Gaelic language and its culture went a long way to destroying an already vulnerable but established way of life . A ban on teaching Gaelic literacy was not lifted until the 1760s and is generally regarded as part of their overall strategy to attempt to destroy the language “ in the hopes of producing a greater civilisation in the Highlands”
Today when I leave Crieff for a day out to enjoy the beauties of Strathearn , I am conscious that the vast majority of the hills , mountains and lochs shown on my map are still named in the language of our fore fathers . For that we should be deeply thankful How sad that not enough was done to maintain our very old and rich heritage and that so much has been lost .