This week at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies we hosted our last event of the academic year. At the event, some of the editors and contributors to Galloway: The Lost Province of Gaelic Scotland, an important recent volume on the extent and nature of Gaelic in Galloway, discussed the book’s main arguments and how it enables a better understanding of the language’s impact and enduring legacy.
We welcomed Michael Ansell, James Brown, Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich, Prof. Hector MacQueen, Prof. Richard Oram and Prof. Thomas Clancy, who chaired the discussion. The roundtable highlighted the importance that the contributions in the book, which was published in Autumn 2022, have made to the discussion of Galloway’s Gaelic heritage, which is often forgotten or explained away.
The contribution of Prof. Richard Oram, Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling, highlights the hybrid Gal-Gael influence on the development of systems of land assessments in mediaeval Galloway. Prof. Hector MacQueen, Emeritus Professor of Private Law at the University of Edinburgh with links to Galloway argues that the mediaeval laws of Galloway represent a Gaelic legal dynasty with military leadership.
Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich, Lecturer in Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, discusses the identification of Gaels in Galloway in the historical record from 1500-1700. Michael Ansell, an editor and major contributor to the volume, reinvestigates toponomy in Galloway, arguing that the names of many of the hills in the area are anglicised from Gaelic and reflect grazing and farming practices.
James Brown, a Galloway resident and local historian, argued that Gaelic lingered in the area up until the 18th century due to that fact that some women signed their names with the prefix ‘Nic’ rather than ‘Mc’. Prof. Thomas Clancy, Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow, also discusses the toponomy of Galloway, arguing that place names containing the element ‘kirk’ are not of Scandinavian origin, but originate from loanwords from Old English into Gaelic.
The first question posed to the panel concerned the importance of the book, asking what the biggest achievement of the book was.
Michael Ansell: The book raises awareness of Galloway as part of a Gaelic-speaking continuum. The local attitude is often that Gaelic wasn’t spoken down there, and is not discussed. The volume brings together a range of contributors to illuminate Galloway’s Gaelic heritage in a way not done before.
Prof. Hector MacQueen: The theme of the book was Gaelic being undiscovered in Galloway despite prevalence of Gaelic place names there. It presents a wealth of detail that hadn’t been there before, the many connections to be made.
Prof. Richard Oram: The volume challenges and breaks away from the tradition of ‘no Gaelic in Galloway’. The perception of the hybridity of cultures in Galloway has been gradually changing, and the volume identifies gaps in this field, with many of them coming together to fill these gaps.
Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich: The book shines a light on the area in a way that hasn’t been done before due to the sheer number of chapters it contains.
James Brown: The book will blow away a lot of misconceptions around Gaelic origin surnames in Galloway.
Prof. Thomas Clancy: The volume puts ballast under discussions of Gaelic in Galloway, with real attention being paid to who was speaking it, and what the Gaelic was like, showing that the moment of Gaelic was the late medieval period in Galloway.
The next question was as follows: What can we now say about the mediaeval Gaelic culture in Galloway that we couldn’t say before?
Michael Ansell: We can now discuss the hybridity of culture in Galloway, which was a cosmopolitan environment that Gaelic was flourishing in, with the local Scots variety being given a Gaelic flavour due to this.
The panel then discussed the difficulty of finding evidence for historical and modern Gaelic speech in many parts of Scotland, due to the fact that Gaelic community speech is often not reflected in written documents.
The next question concerned timing, asking: When did Gaelic arrive and leave? Do we now have a better sense of how long Gaelic lasted and how it disappeared?
Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich: We can see Gaelic nicknames fossilised in Scots, and can see Gaelic at a parish level up to the 17th century. It may not have persisted widely beyond that, but there may have been a few families. There are some arguments that Gaelic was present later, that may have been some continuity as late as 1805. Generally, Scots was omnipresent from the 16th century onward.
The next question discussed the connectedness of Galloway to other zones of Gaelic speech.
Prof. Richard Oram: There is the possibility of Irish speakers coming into the area around the 1800s and intermarrying into communities in Galloway.
Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich: There were Irish names used by the Agnews in Antrim, which may have become Gaelicised.
Michael Ansell: There was an exportation of Gaelic from Galloway – the Galloway uplands suffered from population reduction after the Little Ice Age, causing hill farmers to give up on their farming practices in the area. The area was later restocked with tenants from Ayrshire, but maintained a low population density. Population turnover like this can cause rapid cultural change and may have contributed to the language shift in the area.
Prof. Thomas Clancy: Ayrshire was a zone of interaction, particularly due to the fishing trade, with other Gaelic speakers being brought in from other areas.
The last question asked ‘where to next’: What is left to do on Gaelic in Galloway? What are the gaps?
Michael Ansell: Continuing with of place names of Galloway, and the Galloway Glens project. We need to extend this to make it a resource for the rest of Galloway.
Prof. Richard Oram: We still have some big collections of material, including the Kirkcudbright Council minute books. These are only available in original format, and need to be edited and published.
We at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies are looking forward to more work in the field of Gaelic in Galloway!