‘”You seem a very intelligent man, and can speak English. What is it you want to tell us?”: Gaels and Government Inquiries in the Nineteenth Century’

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On 17 March 2015, the Centre welcomed Dr Sheila Kidd to discuss ‘”You seem a very intelligent man, and can speak English. What is it you want to tell us?”: Gaels and Government Inquiries in the Nineteenth Century’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Napier Commission in 1883, a public inquiry into the conditions of crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Isles of Scotland, has attained ‘iconic status’ within the historiography. For Dr Kidd, both the Napier Commission and the later Deer Forest Commission provide insight into the complex linguistic and cultural interactions between Gaels and the government.

The Napier Commission was led by 6 commissioners, 4 of whom could speak Gaelic: Alexander Nicolson, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie of Gairloch, Donald MacKinnon, and Charles Fraser-Mackintosh. The other 2 – Donald Cameron of Lochiel and Lord Napier himself – could only speak English.

The high proportion of Gaelic speakers in a government inquiry of this nature marked a sea-change in engagement with the Highlands and Isles. The Napier Commission was also incredibly comprehensive, totaling at over 3,000 pages. Nevertheless, it has been accused of under-representing the crofters’ interests. Problematically for historians and linguists, it failed to record if the respondents delivered their testimony in Gaelic or English.

The Napier Commission
The Napier Commission

Another inquiry followed in 1892, the Deer Forest Commission, and in many places in the Highlands and Isles it was anticipated with a great sense of optimism, as reflected in contemporary poetry:

Thèid frìthean chur nan smìud,
‘S bithidh an grunnd air àiteach,
Tionndaidh gach neach gu gnìomh,
Le crann ‘s cliath mar b’ àbhairt,

The deer forests will be set ablaze,
And the land will be cultivated,
Everyone will turn to work,
With plough and creel as they used to.

Although the Deer Forest Commission had a smaller proportion of Gaelic speaking Commissioners (3/8 to Napier’s 4/6) and was smaller in scale, it still broke new ground by consistently recording when contributors spoke in Gaelic with an interpreter. However, the quality of the interpretation from Gaelic-to-English could be inconsistent (the difference between Gaels being described as ‘wild animals’ by one interpreter and ‘noxious vermin’ by another). The language still lacked official status in the commissions – it had a ‘shadowy presence’ according to Dr Kidd – and so misunderstandings or misinterpretations were fairly common.

Using statistics generated from the Deer Forest Commission, Dr Kidd demonstrated that in areas with high bilingualism (like Sutherland at 67.5%) the respondents overwhelming gave their testimonies in English, perhaps suggesting a high proficiency in the language. However, the Gaelic language also saw a sharp decline in these areas within a generation.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our series continues with The First Annual John Durkan Memorial Lecture, which will take place on Tuesday 24 March 2015, at 5.30pm. Dr Jamie Reid Baxter will speak on ‘Polity and Poetry: King James VI, Mr James Melville and the Kingship of Christ’.

The lecture will be preceded by tea/coffee, and followed by a wine reception. Please sign up at: https://eventbrite.co.uk/event/16034931913/ 

If you would like to attend, and if you have any queries please contact: steven.reid@glasgow.ac.uk

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