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Arran of the Bens, The Glens and the Brave
Chapter X. The Language of Arran

The original speech of Arran was, of course, Gaelic, which was the common language of conversation amongst the natives till some thirty or forty years ago. That it is now dying out, though still, of course, understood and spoken, is greatly to be regretted, nay, it is sad and shameful. Of course, until the action of the Highland and Scottish Societies of Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, and the Colonies nothing was done for its encouragement, but it has, after a long agitation, now been placed by the Education Department on the same footing as French, or Welsh, or any other language. It remains for the Highland people themselves to insist upon it being properly taught to their children in the elementary schools.

The excuse for neglecting itóthe most precious gift the Highlander has received from his cultured ancestors of early Christian timesówas that it interfered with the teaching of subjects of commercial value. This supposition has been utterly disproved by many years of actual experience of Welsh teaching, in which it has been shown, as admitted by inspectors, that, so far from the bi-lingual children being behind the others, theyare invariably more intelligent, more alert, more advanced generally. And, of course, it is easy to see that it must be so, for the English language is far less opulent, less complex than the Keltic tongues, which are more capable, therefore, of expressing fine shades of thought and meaning.

The vocabulary of the English peasant has been estimated to contain about 400 to 600 words. On the other hand a German philologist, Dr. Finck, some years ago made a study of the language of the Aran islanders on the spot. Dr. Finck took down no less than 4000 words which he found occurring in the daily speech of the inhabitants of that remote Irish island. Dr. Douglas Hyde, commenting on these investigations, wrote at the time: "Is the Board so ignorant of its own business that it does not know that thought is conditioned by language, and that they act and react upon one another so intimately that a boy with a vocabulary of 4000 words will have many times more numerous and more subtle ideas at his command than a boy with only 500?"

It would be a sad disaster if the Gaelic tongue were allowed to die out in Arran, but this will certainly happen if the people of the island, especially the younger men and women, do not see that it is taught to their children in the schools and used by themselves at home and abroad on every possible occasion.

The people of Argyll, of Inverness-shire, of Ross, and other Highland counties, have long been working in the same direction, but, so far as I am aware, nothing has as yet been done in Arran. In Argyllshire, close by, great things are being accomplished for its advancement by the London Argyllshire Association and other societies, and the Duke of Argyll, the late MacLaine of Lochbuie, Mrs. Burnley-Campbell of Ormidale, and many others, have given their hearty sympathy and help in this duty, so important intellectually and so patriotic. There is no landmark of our fathers, no cairn, or fort, or tower, or church, deep though its interest may be, which is as important, none which has so completely caught the mould of their thoughts, their hopes, their aspirations, and which can, therefore, be so sacred to their sons and daughters as the language in which they expressed their hearts.


Shaw, the compiler of the first dictionary of the Gaelic language, was born at Clachaig, in Kilmory parish, in 1749. He was sent to school at Ayr, and was a graduate of Glasgow. He went as tutor to London and there met Dr. Johnson and other literary lights. When he told Johnson of his great scheme for making a collection of Gaelic words, the old doctor heartily approved and actually drew up part of the "Proposals" or prospectus. The Highland people, however, did not respond, and Shaw raised from £200 to £300 from his own property and started for the Highlands. The parting words of Johnson were wholehearted, appreciative, and encouraging. "Sir," he said, "if you give the world a vocabulary of that language, while the island of Great Britain stands in the Atlantic Ocean your name will be mentioned."

This was in 1778; in the year following Shaw entered the ministry. He, however, had the dictionary at heart, and travelled three thousand miles in Scotland and Ireland in his efforts to make it complete. In 1780 his great work actually appeared in two volumes. Owing to the unwillingness of the Scottish peasants a considerable portion of the words were collected in Ireland, where the compiler was more generously received, so that both Scots and Irish may remember his name with gratitude. He also published his valuable Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and later, among other things, Suggestions respecting a Plan of National Education, and An Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian. Of the reply to the critics of this work Dr. Johnson wrote a part. Shaw died at Chelvey, Somerset, in 1831.


Arran does not boast many literary men amongst her sons, but she does boast one of the most famous of publishers in Daniel MacMillan, founder of the great firm of MacMillan of London, who was born at High Corrie in 1813. He was the son of Duncan MacMillan and his wife Katherine Crawford, also an Arran woman. His grandfather, Malcolm MacMillan, was Tacksman of the Cock Farm, and was allied, we are told, to the MacMillans of Sanquhar and Arndarroch, Kirkcudbrightshire, though the names, like Malcolm, Duncan, Neil, Donald, and Daniel (which in the Highlands is generally a bad attempt to Anglicise the name Donald), suggest the Argyllshire MacMillans. The family were in Corrie and in North and Mid Sannox in 1776. They intermarried with the Kelsos, Crawfords, MacKenzies, and others in Sannox, once a populous district.

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