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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, April 09, 2018

Gaelic, Women and the Reformation in Galloway

Is there a danger that relying on historical sources written in Scots and English by men of property and status leads to the passing over in silence of Galloway’s Gaelic voices and in particular of women who were Gaelic speakers?

This is a very important point. If Gaelic had become the language of the remoter countryside, mainly spoken by women, would it have been noticed by Scots speaking men of property? If there was a bilingual aspect, a Scots/ Gaelic diglossia, the country people/ women would have spoken Scots to their social superiors but Gaelic among themselves.

How long could this situation have lasted? As I suggest below, probably until the Reformation, that is the 1560s. Even then, the difficulty of extending the reformers work into the more remote districts led to the creation of new parishes - New Luce and Carsphairn- in the 1640s.

What I have done in this post is go through a range of local sources looking at the language used and for references to women and another group often missing from the historical record, the cottars. Unfortunately, most of the accessible sources are from the seventeenth century, but I did find evidence from pre-Reformation church records for Gaelic being spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway in 1487.

Nearly two hundred years later, Andrew Symson compiled his ’Large Description of Galloway’ in 1684. It is  the most detailed description of Galloway until the Statistical Accounts of the 1790s, but makes no reference to ’Irish’ (Gaelic) being spoken or having been recently spoken in Galloway.

In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, where Gaelic was still the language of the majority, the reformers took special measures to get the word of god across. They employed Gaelic speakers and translations of religious texts to do so. The first book printed in Scottish Gaelic was a Protestant text in 1567- Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh, see

These efforts by the reformers in Gaelic speaking Scotland are well documented. However, none of the sources used by Jane Dawson in her chapter 'Calvinism and the Gaidhealtachd in Scotland'  in ‘Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620’ (Cambridge, 1996) mention Galloway as district where the survival of Gaelic was an obstacle to the work of reformation and she  makes no reference to the region.

Dawson does discuss a significant social group she calls ‘the Gaelic learned orders’.

The Gaelic learned orders, with their carefully graded hierarchies, provided the professional skills for the rest of their society in the fields of literature, law, music, medicine and some of the specialist crafts such as armourer. They were drawn from hereditary families who were given special status and privilege within Gaelic society. The orders placed great emphasis upon oral transmission and memorisation.   

I have found research by John Bannerman which connects a Gaelic harper Martinus MacBhreatnaich who played for kings James III and IV to Kirkinner parish in Galloway. Bannerman found three generations of the family who were harpers, with the last, Roland aka Lachlann MacBhreatnaich, probably being killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513. As McBraitneys there were still 8 members of the family in Wigtownshire in 1684.

Exchequer Rolls 1471

Unfortunately it is not known if the MacBhreatnaich family were native to Galloway. The 1471 entry in the Exchequer Rolls -see above-  is the first time the family appear in a Galloway context. If they had an earlier connection with Galloway, they would have provided a link between Galloway and the Gaelic learned orders of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. Bannerman notes that Lachlann MacBhreatnaich visited the Western Isles in 1503.

The importance of the Gaelic connections across the North Channel is discussed in a paper by Martin MacGregor. However, although the route from Kintyre to Antrim features in MacGrgeor’s paper as part of a ’cultural connection which stretched serenely from Kerry to Cape Wrath for 500 years’, links to Galloway are absent.

Aonghas MacCoinnich ‘Where and how was Gaelic written?’ includes this map based on Ronald Black’s work which shows the areas where classical written Gaelic was used. Carrick (south Ayrshire) is shown as an area where ‘ordinary’ Gaelic survived into the sixteenth century but not Galloway.
From http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/4940/1/MacCoinnich4940.pdf

Women were not part of the Gaelic learned orders, but poems and songs were composed in Gaelic by women. Some of the poems were written down and many of the songs became part of Gaelic oral tradition, surviving to the present as a living part of Gaelic culture.  If Gaelic had survived into the eighteenth century in Galloway, the region’s romantic antiquarians would have collected such songs. See

What we have are records which provide a information on Galloway’s property owning men and a few women for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These start to include women and non-property owning men in the seventeenth century. The records are in Latin, Scots and English but by the time the voices of Galloway’s ’common people’ are heard, they are speaking Scots.

 The ‘Wigtownshire Charters’ (Edinburgh, 1960) edited by Robert Reid contains 358 documents from between 1408 and 1560. Most were originally written in Latin, but there are several in Scots. They are a record of the affairs of men of status- as landowners or as leading figures in the pre-Reformation church. The only women in these documents are  their wives and daughters and occasionally widows who were land owners.

The Wigtown Burgh Court Book 1513-1536 has survived, but again has very few references to women in it. In 2004 Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (formerly Bugaj) of Glasgow University published an analysis of the language used in the Wigtown Burgh Court Book 1512-1536. In her book ’Middle Scots inflectional system in the south-west of Scotland’ Dr Kopaczyk noted that the Wigtown Burgh Court Book

has no passages written in Gaelic or translated into or from Gaelic. There is no mention of interpreters needed for trials or for documents, therefore one may infer that Scots was a well-established means of communication, at least at the administrative level of the burgh…Gaelic could have been used mostly in the speech of the rural population, while Scots was employed in writing and probably also in oral communication among members of the higher social classes. There could have been a degree of bilingualism at the higher levels of social stratification. [pages 79-80]

 In her conclusion, Dr Kopacyzk states

As for the morphology of the south-western dialect, it cannot be said to exhibit Gaelic influence. All the morphological markers which construct the core of  Middle Scots grammar are also present in the variety used in the Wigtown Court Book… The inflectional process of the Northern Present Tense Rule, typical of dialects of Scots and northern Middle English dialects is applied to verbs in the records as well. Therefore the status of a Middle Scots dialect for the south-western variety should not be questioned. [page 172]

In 1438, the findings of an inquest [‘Wigtownshire Charters’, 1960, page 23, no. 7] held by the prior of Whithorn into the ownership of a croft and flock of geese were written in Scots, supporting Dr Kopacyzk’s suggestion that Scots was ‘a well established means of communication’ in the Wigtownshire Machars by 1512.

The records of Kirkcudbright burgh only survive from 1575. They are also written in Scots. It is likely that as with Wigtown and Whithorn, Scots was well established there by that time. Stranraer did not become a burgh until 1595.

Moving on to the seventeenth century there are a wider range of local sources. These are;

Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds 1623-1674 (Edinburgh, 1939)
Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds 1675-1700 (Edinburgh, 1950)
Minute Book of the War-Committee of the Covenanters in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright 1640-41 (Kirkcudbright, 1855)
Register of the Synod of Galloway from October 1664 to April 1671 (Kirkcudbright, 1856)
Large Description of Galloway by Andrew Symson (Edinburgh 1824)

The Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds provide the most comprehensive record of everyday life in seventeenth century Galloway. Ordinary women are represented in the Deeds, as this example shows.

Entry 2842 Assignation by Anna Campbell, late servatrix to John Johnston, merchant in Drumfries, narrating that she is owing him a certain sum, therefore assigns to him £5 owing to her by James Morrison, tenant in Grange, as her harvest fee for the last harvest and 4 shillings, the price of ‘ane heuk’ (sickle) promised her by the said James at the said time, which sums are equivalent to her debt. At Drumfries 10 August 1697; witnesses Edward Newell shoemaker there, and William Gordon, writer there. 

Another group of people missing from the historical record are the cottars, even though about 1/3 of the population of Scotland’s rural lowlands were cottars. However, several of the farm tacks (leases) in the Kirkcudbright Deeds give us the names of the cottars on the farms. From these it can be seen that some of the cottars were women.

It was from the ranks of poor, cottar, women that Galloway’s witches were drawn. With Scots as the language of Reformed Christianity and Gaelic in decline, an old cottar women muttering to herself on Gaelic might have become associated with witchcraft. However, Gaelic does not feature in the accounts and trials of Galloway’s seventeenth century witches. An eighteenth century  witch called Lucky Grier who lived at Hannaston in Kells is alleged to have cursed in Gaelic, but this detail is not found in the earliest account of her activities (Robert Trotter, Lowran Castle, Dumfries 1822, p. 144). The Gaelic cursing episode first features in the version of the  Lucky Grier story in Alan Temperley’s  Tales of Galloway (1979).

The Minute Book of the 1640-41 War Committee it is not very useful, but it does show that even the ‘yeoman- farmers’, that is owner-occupier farmers who were the key supporters of the revolutionary Covenanters were Scots speakers. There are no Gaelic words in the glossary provided by editor and publisher John Nicholson. Could any of them, or their wives, have been Gaelic speakers as well? Possibly.

The ‘Register of the Synod of Galloway 1664-1671’ was also published by Nicholson. Andrew Symson, minister of Kirkinner parish was the secretary and the language of the Register is English not Scots. Symson along with his fellow ministers was an Episcopalian brought in to replace the Presbyterian ministers dismissed from their parishes in 1663. Many of the former ministers remained in Galloway, preaching at conventicles, carrying out baptisms and marriages and holding communion services- as the Register reveals. The Register includes lists of named Roman Catholics [Register pages 65 and 93] and one Quaker, a woman called Hutcheson who lived in Portpatrick parish [Register page 94]. A male ‘charmer‘ (enchanter) who lived in Penningham parish is also named.

Altogether, Symson spent twenty years as minister of Kirkinner parish. His work for the Synod of Galloway required him to travel within the region as well, for example visiting New Galloway in May 1668. [Register, pages 108-110 and 120] As a result, Symson’s ‘Large Description of Galloway’, which he began compiling in 1682, is a comprehensive account of the region.

Symson does make any reference to Gaelic (or Irish as he called it) being spoken in any of the parishes of Galloway, nor of Gaelic formerly being spoken in any of the parishes. However, the following four excerpts from his ‘Large Description of Galloway’ do contain references to Gaelic words, the Irish language and peculiarities of the local Scots dialect.

This first excerpt mentions ‘connach’ the name of a cattle disease which is originally from Gaelic. The Dictionary of the Scots Language gives its etymology as Old Scots connawche, murrain, c.1420; connoche, connogh, some kind of disease, a.1585 (D.O.S.T.); obsolete Gaelic conach, murrain in cattle (Maeleod and Dewar).  If connoch had been part of Scots since 1420, its local use may have come via Scots rather than directly from Gaelic.

In this parish of Bootle, about a mile from the kirk, towards the north, is a well, called the Rumbling Well, frequented by a multitude of sick people…There is also another well, about a quarter of a mile distant from the former, towards the east. This well is made use of by the countrey people, when their cattell are troubled with a disease, called by them the Connoch. This water they carry in vessells to many parts, and wash their beasts with it, and give it them to drink. It is too rememb’red, that at both the wells they leave behind them something by way of a thank-offering. At the first, they leave either money or cloathes; at the second, they leave the bands and shacles wherewith beasts are usually bound. [Large Description page 16] 

Excerpt two follows on from a lengthy section about the Reverend Patrick Makelwian, minister of Lesbury in Northumberland who claimed in 1657 to have been born at Whithorn in 1546. This excerpt is significant since it shows that Symson had to get expert advice on the Irish (Gaelic) language from ‘an ingenuous man’ to reconstruct the ‘true orthography’ of common Galloway surnames which had become garbled after Scots had replaced Gaelic in Galloway.

There is one of his relations for the present serving the Laird of Barnbarroch, in the parish of Kirkinner. The name they are call’d by in Galloway is Micklewayen, which, according to the true Irish orthographie, should be Macgillwian; for surnames that, in Galloway, begin with, or are commonly pronounced, Mal, or Makel, or Mackle, or Mickle, (all which severall ways they are oftimes both written and pronounced,) should, as I am informed by an ingenuous man that exactly understands the Irish language, be writen Mac-gill, as Mac-gill mein, M'Gill-roy, M'Gill-raith, names frequent in Galloway, and commonly pronounced Malmein, Malroy, or Mickleroy, or Mickleraith, &c. [Large Description page 49]

The third excerpt shows that a Gaelic word ‘leana’ , meaning a marshy meadow had survived in Galloway’s Scots dialect as ‘lene’. However, it was in the process of becoming ‘lane’, a Galloway dialect word for a (usually) slow flowing stream. Altogether there are about 80 water courses in Galloway called ‘lanes’.

the true osmunda regalis, or filia florida, many horse-loads whereof are growing in the Caumfoord, neer the Loch of Longcastle, in this parish of Kirkinner; this plant the countrey people call the lane-onion, or, as they pronounce it, the lene onion; the word lene, in their dialect, importing a soft, grassie meadow ground; they call this plant also by the name of stifling-grasse, and they make much use of it for the consolidating of broken bones or straines, ether in man or beast, by steeping the root thereof in water, till it become like to glue-water or size, wherewith they wash the place affected with very good success. [Large Description page 78]

The final excerpt shows how closely Symson was listening to how the ordinary- the ‘country’ - people of Galloway spoke.

Some of the countrey people, especialy those of the elder sort, do very often omit the letter h after t, as ting for thing; tree for three; tacht for thatch ; wit for with ; fait for faith; mout for mouth. So also, quite contrary to some north countrey people, (who pronounce v for w, as voe for woe ; volves for wolves,) they oftentimes pronounce w for v, as serwant for servant; wery for very : and so they call the months of February, March, and April, the ware quarter, w for v, from ver. [ver = Scots for spring see
http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/vere_n_1 ]  Hence their common proverb, speaking of the stormes in February, Winter never comes till ware comes ; and this is almost to the same purpose with the English saying, When the days beginne to lengthen, the cold beginnes to strengthen. [Large Description pages 98-99]

Symson’s failure to report the persistence of Gaelic in Galloway or its recent demise does not on its own mean that Gaelic had not survived into the seventeenth century. Bilingual diglossia may have masked the presence of Gaelic.
In the classic diglossic situation, two varieties of a language, such as standard French and Haitian creole French, exist alongside each other in a single society. Each variety has its own fixed functions—one a 'high,' prestigious variety, and one a 'low,' or colloquial, one. Using the wrong variety in the wrong situation would be socially inappropriate, almost on the level of delivering the BBC's nightly news in broad Scots.
Children learn the low variety as a native language; in diglossic cultures, it is the language of home, the family, the streets and marketplaces, friendship, and solidarity. By contrast, the high variety is spoken by few or none as a first language. It must be taught in school. The high variety is used for public speaking, formal lectures and higher education, television broadcasts, sermons, liturgies, and writing. Often the low variety has no written form. [Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011, quoted here https://www.thoughtco.com/diglossia-language-varieties-1690392 

Diglossia is present in Galloway today. Many children learn to speak Scots at home and then learn to read, write and speak Standard Scots English at school. Outside of the classroom or similar formal situations in later life, they still speak Scots.

We can see the beginnings of this diglossia in the seventeenth century where university educated Andrew Symson writes in Standard Scots English while the language of the War Committee Minute Book and of the Kirkcudbright Deeds is the Scots spoken by the Covenanting farmers and the rest of Galloway’s people.

Going further back there is a complication. In medieval Galloway, Latin was the high status language of the Church and of legal documents. Most people would have spoken Gaelic and a few would have spoken Scots as well. Legal texts written in Scots rather than Latin appear from 1380 onwards but Latin remained the language of the church until the Reformation 180 years later.

 In Kirkcolm parish in the Rhins of Galloway, Gaelic was still the language of the population in 1487 when Robert Campbell of Corsewall complained that John Brown, vicar of Kirkcolm  “who has for divers years held the said vicarage, does not understand and cannot speak intelligibly the language (ydioma) of the place in which it is situate, to the detriment of souls…”
From  British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-papal-registers/brit-ie/vol14/pp187-193

Yet, as discussed above, at Whithorn 50 years earlier Scots was already the language of the burgh court and used for public proclamations. The co-existence of Gaelic and Scots is found in Penninghame parish in 1506-7 when what are now the farms of Meikle and Little Eldrig  were recorded as first as Meikle Elrik and Little Eldrik then as Helirikmore and Neilrigbeg.  Meikle = Gaelic mór and little = Gaelic beag. [John McQueen, ‘Place-Names of the Wigtownshire Moors and Machars’, Stranraer, 2008, page 128]

A Scots/ Gaelic bilingual diglossia would have been present in fifteenth century Galloway. As quoted above ‘Children learn the low variety [in this case Gaelic] as a native language; in diglossic cultures, it is the language of home, the family, the streets and marketplaces, friendship, and solidarity.’  Yet by the seventeenth century Galloway had become a monolingual society.

 What cultural and social changes might have influenced the shift from Gaelic to Scots as the ‘language of home, the family, the streets and marketplaces, friendship and solidarity’ ?

The end of the Douglas lordship of Galloway in 1455 had a destabilising effect. This can be seen in the many tower houses which dot the landscape. These were built after the end of Douglas rule as the lesser landowning families- the Adairs and Agnews, McDowalls, McCullochs and McLellans, Maxwells, Gordons and Kennedys fought and feuded with each other. [See Andrew McCulloch ’Galloway’, Edinburgh, 2000, pages 256-260].

However, Gaelic had survived the turmoil of the fourteenth century. See previous post

Something closer to a cultural revolution must have occurred for a language so deeply rooted in Galloway to become extinct. The Reformation is the most likely candidate. The Calvinist nature of the reformation in Scotland is significant. As developed in Geneva, where John Knox spent several years, Calvinism

meant a serious attempt to control human behaviour in all its variety. I t meant that  the church had a responsibility  not only to present true Christian doctrine but also to shape true Christian behaviour. And this responsibility, Calvinists believed, could not be left to individuals or to governments. It had to be assumed, to as  great a degree as possible, by the church… it became a remarkably intrusive institution, penetrating every aspect of Genevan life. [Robert Kingdon, in ‘Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620’, Cambridge 1996, page 22]

In Geneva, the intrusion of the church into every aspect of life involved women, including the elderly and illiterate, as well as men, having to answer questions on their religious beliefs. Although many of the women were able to recite Latin prayers which they had learned by rote, they did not understand the meaning of the prayers. The new regime insisted as a minimum that everyone should be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles Creed ‘in their maternal language’.

In Lowland Scotland, Scots was the ‘maternal language’. In the Highlands and Islands it was Gaelic. As Jane Dawson’s chapter in ’Calvinism in Europe’ (pages 231-253) ’Calvinism in the Gaedhealtachd  in Scotland’, the Scottish Calvinists used Gaelic where Gaelic was the ’maternal language’. Much thought went into the creation of Gaelic Calvinism and the process is documented.

In Galloway, no similar special measures were deployed. The Calvinist Reformers appear to have experienced no linguistic difficulties in Galloway. This does not necessarily mean that Gaelic was already extinct by 1560, but it does imply that the Gaelic speakers were bilingual.

As the new religion extended its influence, it would have extended the reach of Scots. The intrusion of Calvinism into every facet of Galloway’s society meant that the occupants of even  the most remote and the poorest households would have been examined and tested on their knowledge of ‘true Christian doctrine’-in Scots.

Since even children were expected to learn the basic tenets of the Calvinist faith, the transmission of Gaelic as the first language acquired by children in the home would have been disrupted by the need to know Scots from an early age.

Summary and conclusion

In 1360, Gaelic was widely spoken across Galloway and Scots was a minority language. By 1460 Scots had become the language of the Galloway burghs- Whithorn, Wigtown and Kirkcudbright- and of the areas influenced by Dumfries and Ayr. The influence of the burghs, of the Scottish state, which Galloway was now fully part of, and the Church, as the Kirkcolm evidence shows, had led to the development of a Scots/ Gaelic diglossia. Scots was the higher status language and Gaelic the lower status one.

By 1560 Scots had become the main language used and many, probably most, Scots speakers were monolingual. In the more remote communities Gaelic may still have been the first language children learned and the language used by women working together. However, this was a very fragile situation for Gaelic. Marriages to monolingual Scots speakers and  changes of tenancy could tip the linguistic balance in these small communities.

The intrusion of a new form of religion- Calvinism- into Galloway increased the pressure on the surviving pockets of Gaelic. If there had been a significant population of monolingual Gaelic speakers in any of the Galloway parishes, Gaelic speaking ministers would have been recruited as they were in the Highlands and Islands.  The absence of any similar measures in Galloway strongly suggests that Scots was understood throughout the region.

Calvinism was a revolutionary religion which sought to shape and direct human behaviour to create a Godly people. Its teachings were therefore intruded via Scots and Bible English into the domestic sphere, into the homes of even the poorest people and the most remote farms and crofts.

Reaching the most remote districts was difficult however. In 1645, the parish of Glenluce was divided into New Luce and Old Luce. The church at Glenluce was 12 miles from the northern boundary of the medieval parish. A new church was built at New Luce 5 miles above Glenluce  to serve the upland portion of the original parish.

Another new parish, Carsphairn, was formed in the Glenkens. Here a church was built in 1627 but it was not until 1645 that the new parish was officially approved. A Supplication to the Church of Scotland in 1638 described how the 500 souls living in the district included ’a number of barbarous ignorant people’ living without the knowledge of god , with their children unbaptised and their dead unburied.’ This last point was clarified in 1645. The dead were buried, but in fields rather than in a proper churchyard.

From 'War Committee of the Covenanters'

In 1487, Kirkcolm parish was distant from the existing burghs. In 1595 a burgh -Stranraer- was erected on it doorstep. Michael Hathorn (1565-67) was the first Calvinist minister in Kirkcolm followed by Alexander Hunter (1568-1587) and John Watson (1588-1599).  Kirkcolm has an area of 20 square miles compared with the 45 square miles of new Luce and the 88 square miles of Carsphairn.

If the Reformation had the effect of displacing Gaelic where it still survived as the ‘maternal language’ of the home, it would have been able to do so more effectively and rapidly in a small lowland parish like Kirkcolm than in the large upland parishes.

My next post will therefore look at where Gaelic might have survived in the Galloway Highlands into the seventeenth century.

     There is also a puzzle. Although Gaelic did not survive the Reformation in Galloway, Roman Catholicism did.


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