Our lost heritage

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 ,

Fowlis Wester

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 .



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