North Bute Lit’s talk on island’s Gaelic speakers

Alec Mack spoke to members of North Bute Literary Society on the culture and language of the Gaelic speakers of Bute.
Alec Mack spoke to members of North Bute Literary Society on the culture and language of the Gaelic speakers of Bute.

Alec Mack’s interest in the culture and language of the Gaelic speakers of Bute underpinned his talk to North Bute Literary Society last week.

Including the economic and ideological influences of the Clearances he used the rise and fall of the cotton industry and the fishing industry to illustrate the changes to the numbers of Gaelic speakers on Bute.

The first cotton mill was built in Rothesay in 1779 but the big influx of workers only really arrived after Robert Thom had greatly improved the water supply in 1812. By about 1880 the cotton industry had ceased in Rothesay. At its height many Gaelic speakers had come from the North West of Scotland and a good indication is the number of Gaelic churches and services in Rothesay in the mid 19th century.

Turning to the fishing industry, Alec outlined the rapid rise from a Scottish output of 50,000 barrels per annum at the beginning of the 1800s to the Rothesay alone figure of 28,500 barrels from 450 boats in 1867. This was related to advances in equipment (ring netting) and new markets in Russia and Germany. Again this was followed by a fairly rapid decline in the industry. Between 1882 and 1888 the herring price halved. The same pattern of an influx of Gaelic speakers followed by a decline can be detected.

Alec’s opinion was that these people were always a transient population. Gaelic speakers came to Bute, learned English, moved on, to be replaced by further Gaelic speakers from the north. Learning English was seen as a way of improving your circumstances and job prospects. At the same time many Gaelic families ‘Anglicized’ their names e.g. MacKemies to MacHamish to Jamieson.

At the next meeting on February 10 our own intrepid traveller, Grace Strong, will describe her recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.