Chapter 2: Archaic Gaelic

In the rude ages, the wants of men are few, and their ideas limited: their language corresponds with their situation. James Robertson, Minister of Callander, Statistical Account, 1791.

All the languages of Europe retain archaic words but Scottish Gaelic is a particularly good source. This archaism shows itself in several different ways. Gaelic has many monosyllabic words. Its words commonly have multiple distinct meanings, a sign of internal evolution over a considerable period. It regularly produces a plausible etymology for European words and place-names. An impression of age is given by the many words connected with hunting, ambush sites, butchery and various aspects of fire and which tend to belong to extended families of related words.

Archaism is also shown by the way in which the meaning of some hunting terms has been completely lost. In the Bible the leannan-sìth or ‘fairy sweetheart’, the goddess in the form of a white deer, is used to mean ‘the power of bringing the spirit of a dead person into one’s presence’, a distorted and malevolent view of a word which originally meant ‘spouse, lover, concubine, sweetheart, beloved, pet, darling’. The taghairm, a fire lit to summon hunters, has been converted to a ritual of divination whereby the Devil was raised by the roasting of live cats.

Remoteness is of course typical of the more persistent and extreme rural dialects but Gaelic particularly reflects the archaic and unchanging survival routine, the life of hunting and herding that supported them so well and never changed because the land could not support them in any other way. It is to this remoteness that we owe the survival of these very primitive monosyllables in Gaelic. English also has its share.

The short words offer an etymological resource of some importance. I looked at one word at random: G. cuithe ‘cattle-fold, shelter’. It is the same word as E. cot, house, hut, hythe, Fr. housse ‘cover, shelter’ and It. casa ‘house’. This word is common to all the language zones of Western Europe which suggests that it was already in use in the Upper Palaeolithic to mean a shelter. But, though early, it was already a complex word. The first element is the Co or Cu ‘gathering’ root which has been examined elsewhere. G. ith in Perthshire means ‘to eat’. So it seems as if the Palaeolithic cuithe was a communal eating place, where hunters cooked and ate what they had caught and butchered. But this is only the start.

G. ith is an eroded aspirate, which is to say that it once began with a consonant such as B or C but has been aspirated twice to show possession or location and has lost its initial consonant. Double aspiration implies a lapse of time long enough for ith to become a word in its own right before it could be incorporated into cuithe as the name of a shelter where one can eat. One possible sequence leads from *mith to *fith and ith. Another involves G. teth ‘hot, warm, scalding’ and E. heat, hot, and seethe. All these words have the emphatic reduplication or double structure TT meaning 'hot-hot' or 'very hot'. The simple word exists as G. tè ‘thick, as soup’. Soup was made by seething bits of meat and any available vegetables with the bones in a communal pot. The original consonant might be C which would imply an aspirating series *cith, *hith, ith.

These postulated forms mith, fith, ith, cith and hith all exist with the right kind of meanings in Insular languages. English supplies meat, meet, fat, feed, eat, cook, heat, and eat. G. fiadh ‘deer’ was a ‘fat’ animal and its tallow was prized for lighting and heating. G. ith 'to eat' is also ‘fat, tallow’ and G. comaidh or comaith is ‘messing, eating together’. Further cognates are E. mess ‘a dish of food; a number of people who take their meals together, particularly in the fighting services’, and Du. mes ‘knife’.

G. mèith ‘oily, greasy’ is a different compound with G. mè ‘tender, fat’. The same word provides the first element in E. marrow, Latin medulla, Fr. miel ‘honey’. In other AHL compounds it is found as *smè: Gr. smegma 'soap', E. smear 'grease', and Danish smør ‘butter’. The terminal element in mèith is again ith but igh also exists and means 'the fat of any slaughtered quadruped; tallow'. A cuithe may have been a kitchen (Ger. küche) where meat was boiled to make soup and render down the fat from the bones. A different view comes from W. cyty ‘joint house’, in which the second element ty equates with G. taigh, suggesting that taigh might be the non-aspirated form of ithe. But taigh is again a compound, ta 'to close' + igh 'ring'..

There is no doubt more to learn but we have peeled this onion down far enough for the moment. The point is not whether or not any of these proposed links are correct - that is beyond proof - but that this or some similar evolution took place a long time ago, long enough to throw off several layers of secondary words with the most basic meanings: meat, fat, food, eat. The depth of lexical development in what appears to be a simple Gaelic word include its being coined to name a communal cooking or eating place, two aspirations which produced the eroded form ith and a parallel or earlier development which produced the compound mèith. E. meat, heat, eat show the same process.

Some intriguing if unfamiliar horizons now open up. These components represent a very old process but they are not rare. Many similar words exist, too many to make immediate sense of their genealogical relationships. G. ith and E. eat are cognate with Hittite etir ‘they ate’. These three words are equally old, they were not ‘derived from’ each other, and they are all double aspirates. Their origins are unimaginably ancient by some standards but by other standards there is plenty of time in prehistory for their evolution: when, after all, did men first begin to cook meat and eat it? The reduction of meat to feed and feed to eat, ith, and etir had already taken place before migration into Europe.

Such lexical arguments gain the necessary space when we move beyond the Neolithic, and then beyond the past forty or fifty thousand years of occupation in Europe to look far beyond Europe to the deeper levels of prehistory. Our species pursued an independent path from at least 500,000 years ago, when we separated from the group who eventually became Neanderthals, and this gives us as much time as we need for their common language to evolve into the language we find in Europe 40,000 years ago. The word ‘eat’ links Scotland with the Middle East and this is likely to be true of other small words in Gaelic, French, English, German and Russian. Before we can attempt to understand Hittite, or any evolved language, we need a better view of early Palaeolithic elements. The key to this lies in Scottish Gaelic. It has a truly remarkable ability to explain words in more evolved European languages.

Part and parcel of the survival of an archaic way of life is the survival of archaic language. The dialect used in a rural village is older, more localised, and more specialised than the variety of the same language heard in the streets of a large city. In Mesolithic Scotland I assembled evidence for the survival in Scotland, well into the eighteenth century, of an archaic lifestyle based on hunting, particularly in the form of deer-drives. At that date some of the Gaels still lived entirely on meat and milk and occasionally ate their meat raw. It was common practice to cook an animal in its own skin, using red-hot stones to heat the broth. Hunters wore shoes of raw deer-hide in winter, used sledges or hurdles drawn by horses, and built summer huts made of poles covered with hides, or basket-work covered with turf. Similar features were used by forest hunters in northern Europe, northern Asia and North America. This distribution and the very basic nature of these items suggests they belong to a common culture which spread through Asia to America in the late Upper Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic. L. Zaliznyak, Mesolithic Forest Hunters in Ukrainian Polessye, BAR International Series 659, 1997, 63.

There are equally cogent reasons for thinking that elements of a Mesolithic or Upper Palaeolithic language also survived in Scotland until recently. The archaic way of life survived only within the Gaelic-speaking communities in the more remote areas of Scotland, in the Hebrides and northern Perthshire. Continuity of language can be assumed in a preliterate community when there is continuity of population and culture. Perhaps archaic language may also have survived in these remote and unchanging populations.

This is not a novel suggestion. Nineteenth-century collectors frequently refer to an old and very obscure type of Gaelic. Campbell of Islay recorded a rare story from a very old man in Benbecula but found it difficult to understand because ‘some of the language is exceedingly difficult; some words none of us can make out; and MacPhie’s version, and most of his stories, were full of such language.’ J.F. Campbell, II, 229. This is exactly the context in which we might expect to find the last use of archaic language.

The language which will be demonstrated in the following chapters is defined for convenience as Archaic Gaelic (AG), since many of the words listed in the glossary are to be found in Dwelly. Sometimes they are shown as obsolete or existing only in a local dialect. If their dictionary meanings have no evident link with hunting the original sense must be approached indirectly, in other words, by informed guesswork. But most archaic words can be decoded without great difficulty from the Gaelic recorded in the modern dictionary. It is not of course probable that MacPhie's Gaelic was recorded by Dwelly. But even when the words exist in the modern dictionary, Archaic Gaelic is a dead language, unknown to Gaelic speakers, unrecognised by scholars, understood by no-one. This loss of identity and insight is predictable, being the result of the loss of oral learning which followed the decline of the clan system. It is also predictable that a language used since the Mesolithic or even the Palaeolithic by hunters would have diverged long ago from the daily vernacular of a people who gradually abandoned hunting in favour of herding, fishing and small-scale farming.

When working with an unknown language, it offers very evident advantages to deal with texts whose background is known. It helps in the rediscovery of AG that Gaelic was a purely oral language used by an isolated, non-literate, and entirely rural society and that in certain parts of the Highlands, hunting, land-use, place-names and Gaelic folk culture remained very largely congruent well into the eighteenth century. Once the probable survival of archaic language is accepted, it is comparatively easy to recognise its presence in the names of places and the folklore of such places. AG texts tend to be short and deal with a narrow range of subjects. Their English versions and often their Gaelic versions are almost entirely devoid of meaning – this is a diagnostic feature – but they are otherwise quite well preserved.

Much depends on puns. From what survives in Scotland – even if one goes no further than its place-names – it is evident that when the language of hunting lost its meaning it was replaced by words of similar sound or identical words with a more familiar sense. Hence the proliferation in Highland deer forests of names such as Ben Buidhe 'Yellow Ben' with buidhe ‘yellow’ in place of buidheann ‘troop of hunters’, Eagle Crag with iolaire ‘eagle’ in place of iolairig ‘deer trap’, and Ewe Rocks with uan ‘sheep’ in place of aodhan ‘fire’. These examples show that there has been not simply a slight change of meaning over the period since AG names were coined but a major lexical evolution affecting the names of colours, the names of birds, and the arrival of sheep.

An indispensable tool in the process of recovery is the Gaelic dictionary compiled by Edward Dwelly towards the end of the nineteenth century, which I have mentioned already. Much of the huge lexicon which Dwelly collected and painstakingly printed was already obsolete and remote from daily speech in his day. It is also free of all but a few modern terms and this gives his dictionary great value as a historical document. In many cases it provides the actual AG word, or an approximate meaning, or a number of related words from which we can deduce the common meaning. It simplifies the decoding of AG texts that they deal principally with concrete objects. Of archaic grammar I have nothing to say, nor does it seem possible to reconstruct this, since an obscure jingle naturally evolves by keeping the approximate sound of the old words while making grammatical sense of their new meaning.

How can we know that a Gaelic text is not to be taken literally but has a hidden meaning? The diagnostic sign is a lack of sense in the English translation. This rule is reliable. Whenever the English version of a Gaelic text dwells on the marvellous and the supernatural, or is complete gobbledegook we may be sure that this is not the original meaning (and is not some flight of poetic fancy) but an attempt to explain an obsolete Gaelic text in modern language. A typical example is this shinty dialogue, exchanged by the team leaders before the game, in which there is a pattern but only the first line makes sense.

Come to the game, the shinty game,
The new (or land) shinty, plough land,
Feather plough, raven’s feather,
The flesh raven, a man’s flesh,
The greedy man, a horse’s greed,
A sea-horse, a sea for fish.

In Gaelic folklore, literal anecdotes reflecting the real world, such as the tale of the starving hunters who chew on limpets while they wait for the return of the deer, are extremely rare. Almost always we are presented with the kind of fantastic nonsense familiar from nursery stories, fairy tales and other forms of traditional fiction, in which anything is possible. It is familiar but it is not the real world.

A second reliable pointer to an AG content in place-names and folklore is provided by certain regular mutations in meaning between AG and modern Gaelic. Such mutations often survive translation into English. One of them involves warfare. However they are treated, we can assume that any mention of soldiers, battles, fighting, or dead men in Gaelic folklore refers to hunting, specifically to a communal deer drive in which squads of foot soldiers drove deer towards an ambush manned by armed warriors. The dead men or dead enemies are stags and their heads were collected, not for barbaric display but because it was the easiest way of transporting antlers. The link between hunting and warfare has been lost in English but is still alive in Europe. Ger. Jäger ‘hunter’ is also ‘rifleman, fusilier, fighter pilot’. Fr. chasseur ‘hunter’ is a general word for ‘soldier’ in the French and Belgian armies. Les chasseurs à pied, literally ‘foot-hunters’, are light infantry and les chasseurs à cheval ‘mounted hunters’ are light cavalry. It. cacciatore ‘hunter’ is used in exactly the same way. This allows us to equate G. saighdear ‘soldier, brave man (literally: archer)’ with ‘hunter’.

In medieval Ireland and in Wales heroic images were adapted to serve political purposes and some late poetry may describe real confrontation with Danes or Normans in AG terms. But this was a learned or literate process which does not appear to have happened in Scotland.

Another regular mutation has affected the names of animals. It will be evident that words for different types of deer are earlier than words for domesticated animals and in practice we find that they often overlap. G. agh ‘hind, fawn’ can also mean ‘heifer, ox, bull’, G. damh is both ‘stag’ and ‘ox’, G. gamhainn may mean ‘yearling deer’ or ‘year-old calf, six-month-old cow, stirk, steer, young bullock’, and G. laogh means ‘fawn’ as well as ‘calf’. Since deer were known and named in great detail long before domesticated animals arrived in Britain, the Gaelic names now attached to domesticates were borrowed from the older language, in which they were used for comparable wild animals. Cattle of course were comparable wild animals, and were hunted, at least in Western Europe. Sheep are an exception to this rule. They were widely known as ‘animals guarded by fire’; hence the link between eun ‘lamb’ and aodhan ‘fire’, caora ‘ewe’ and caoir ‘firebrand, blaze’, and E. lamb and E. lamp.

This rule can be applied when we find a domesticated animal in an archaic text. G. gobhar ‘goat’ occurs quite often in AG texts. But goats arrived in the Highlands only in the Bronze Age and in AG gobhar means ‘deer’. We can check this by looking for related words which refer to deer or to hunting. G. gabh ‘spear, hook, gaff’, gabhail ‘seizure, capture, taking; spoil, booty’, gabhar ‘hawk’ and gamhainn ‘yearling deer’, already noted above, all relate to capturing prey. The probable root of all these words is gab or gob ‘mouth’ which in Gaelic does double duty as a deer trap, protected by sharp teeth. Further relatives include E. cup, E. gob ‘mouth’ and AmE cop ‘grab’. This kind of investigation is reliable and informative.

We can also look for tell-tale transformations of deer-hunters. They may appear as a variety of supernatural beings including fairies, ghosts, and dwarves. Gaelic ‘fairies’ vary enormously, from elf-like creatures dancing on the hills to large, old, grey-bearded men keeping warm round a fire. I have already discussed the link between hunters, the English fairy and the Gaelic equivalent. It reflects some slight but seminal contact with English fairy lore. Scottish fairy knolls are real places which were once used as signal stations. Gaelic fairy tales sometimes retain topographical details which repay close attention.

The origin of the ghost may represent the smoke of a fire in which bones were burned to liberate the souls of the dead. As for dwarves all I can say at the moment is that there is a link with hunting. It is possible that a dwarf was not a person but a hunt terrier - St Patrick kept a dwarf - but so far there is only one piece of evidence for this in MacDougall, who gives abhag 'dwarf' for a hunt terrier. J. MacDougall 1910, 246-7. Hunters are also described, and described themselves, as thieves or robbers because they were aware of robbing the goddess of her riches.

When the signs suggest that a text is a remnant of archaic Gaelic, it remains to understand what it means and find equivalents in English. This is helped by the fact that there are relatively few themes – the Lady, fire, the hunter, the ambush site, deer, and meat – though there is a great redundancy of terminology for poetic or practical reasons. Archaic Gaelic evidently had many strictly-defined terms for types of fire, types of signal, types of deer, and so on which gradually lost their specific definitions as hunting ceased to be the main focus of life. Eventually story-tellers and lexicographers inherited a wealth of synonyms which they no longer understood except in very general terms. Even where English offers a similar proliferation of words, as it does for ‘fire’ and ‘light’ it is now impossible to translate many words accurately. We are left with the basic concepts of deer, fire, beacon, ambush and trap, and if I vary them to avoid monotony, it does not necessarily reflect my understanding of the original.

The problem of translation is of course a common one. In translating a dead language or even a very remote living one, there is never any certainty that the words used are accurate. I have worked by the rule that that the correct sense is the most prosaic. Of course modern Gaelic is not a dead language and in many cases the root meaning is possible to deduce from the variety of meanings listed by Dwelly, though there is no guarantee that this is more than approximately correct. This approximation is possible because, in Gaelic as in English, the same word may have several different meanings. As far back as European languages can be traced, internal borrowing – the reuse of an existing word for a new purpose – has evidently been a common way of supplying a new name for a new object. Home, keyboard, mouse, screen and table are all old words with new meanings. In the case of Gaelic, repeated internal borrowings over a long period have by now often produced eight or ten different meanings for the same word. This provides clues to the most basic sense, since there is always a physical or metaphorical link in internal borrowing. It is assumed that the oldest meaning will have some direct relevance to hunting.

It is impossible to translate plays on words, and AG texts with multiple levels of meaning appear to be relatively common. In certain cases this punning is deliberate, as in Lara Pocan which is discussed in the next chapter, and it may be true of AG texts generally that they had a prosaic level and a coded descant which reflected a different meaning. However for the moment it has been enough to recover a single level of meaning.

A theory is more persuasive when it works in every case, not just on a few carefully-selected examples, and the reinterpretation of obscure or nonsensical Gaelic texts in terms of hunting has so far worked very well in a variety of circumstances. A theory should also produce consistent results, and we will see that the subject matter of these varied texts is remarkably similar, regardless of their original form or method of survival. It would also be useful if we had a plausible theory explaining how and why these odd fragments survived. This is also possible. We know that the native Gaelic hunting culture collapsed and disappeared quite rapidly and relatively recently. Over a short period, no more than two or three generations, the oral wisdom and tribal traditions which had sustained this way of life also vanished from one place after another, leaving only a few fragments. Their content allows us to suggest that in many cases they survived because they were understood to bring good luck, and so they were passed on by rote, even though their meaning was no longer understood. Being obscure, such remnants often gave rise to imaginary explanations, which survive as folk tales. This evolution has a general relevance to the origins of early fiction.

The most frequent mutation was the conversion of the obsolete words of the hunting text into a nonsense rhyme in modern Gaelic. Nonsense rhymes can survive without support among school-children or in similar contexts, as we will see, though they may always suffer further mutation. The nonsense phase was followed by story-creation. The mutations often served to give the original rhyme some kind of sense in the modern language and in their modern form they gave rise to speculation, and stories were created to explain them, using whatever materials were to hand or the collective imagination could supply.

An illuminating example of how stories evolved is given by the various stories about the fire on the fairy hill of Dun Burg or Builg (variously named). As will become evident, the fairies in question are hunters. There are several dissimilar stories, all ending with a similar phrase or verse. James MacDougall, minister of Duror, collected one in which a housewife gets rid of an unwanted fairy changeling by telling him that Torr-a-Bhuilg is on fire, whereupon he rushes out, crying ‘My hammers and my anvil and my bellows,’ and is never seen again.1 A different story published in Waifs and Strays is placed in Tiree. The housewife gets rid of a horde of unwanted fairy helpers, who are processing her yarn but at the same time eating her out of house and home, by shouting ‘Fire in Dùn Bhurg!’, a place on the opposite shore of Mull. On hearing this, the fairies rush out of her house, crying ‘My wife and little ones! My cheese and butter-keg! My sons and daughters!’ and so on for a long list which includes the hammers and anvil (discussed in the following chapter).2 Campbell of Islay published a third version in which the fairy hill was on the farm of Dunbhuilg in Craigneish. The fairies were helping a housewife with her spinning and weaving when an envious neighbour cried ‘Dunbhuilg on fire!’ and they immediately fled, exclaiming ‘My hammers and my anvil! My little children and my grown men!’3 Campbell noted that a similar story was found all over the Highlands. He had another version located on the Largie side of Kintyre, which had another version of the rhyme. It was also told in Benbecula and on Lewis (with obscene variations).

Campbell’s comment on this tale goes to the heart of the earliest story-making: ‘The versions which I have of this story vary in the telling as much as is possible, and each is evidently the production of a different mind, but the incidents are nearly the same in all, and the rhyme varies only in a few points.’ In fact the plot, such as it is, varies quite considerably. The three stories have only one significant thing in common: they are all an attempt to explain the same old fairy rhyme which was known over a wide area and which had become entirely obscure, though its words were recollected with more or less accuracy. But the cheese, the butter-crock, the wife and the children are approximate modern equivalents which were chosen because they sounded similar and made some kind of sense. When transposed back into archaic Gaelic, they take on new life. Several versions also retain a memory of unemployed hunters cluttering up the house, helping with the chores but eating all the oatcakes, until the shout goes round that the signal fire is burning, upon which they depart in a great hurry, reciting their good-luck prayers as they go.

These three stories are typical of the explanatory tales which evolved in the post-hunting period in a non-literate society which had fallen heir to fragments of obsolete oral lore which were known to have been of great importance at one time. The explanatory tales represent reasoned attempts to explain the rhyme and its context, including the fire and the hurried departure of the fairies. It is also possible that the original AG rhyme was modified at some time to disguise its pagan content or to poke irreverent fun at it.

The key phrase in a different story is Miadh mòr air cailleachan marbh, ‘Great value for dead old women!’4 This is evident nonsense but the plot works around it with some ingenuity. The dictionary suggests that miadh is not ‘value’ in terms of money but ‘honour, esteem, respect.’ This allows us to propose that there was, as always, only one old woman, that she was the Cailleach Marbh or ‘Death Hag’, and that the phrase Miadh mòr air cailleachan marbh means ‘Great honour to the Death Hag!’ and was once pronounced by pious hunters, hoping for the death of her deer. The expression survived in popular use but it either lost its sense and was converted to nonsense, or its meaning was disguised under Christian influence.

Comparable fictional anecdotes, some localised, some very widespread, were created to explain many relics of the old hunting lore. Their spontaneous local creation is shown by the variety of forms recorded, even in Highland Scotland, where development time in the post-hunting phase was limited, Gaelic society was under stress, and its oral tradition was increasingly impoverished. A similar if less visible process can be traced in other parts of Europe. The most notable development of post-hunting fiction was in Ireland, where Gaelic society survived the decline of hunting and the advent of Christianity, and went on for several centuries to resist the forces of English feudalism. The combined influences of literacy, imported learning, contact with Continental story-tellers, and well-preserved oral hunting narratives produced whole fields of fictional flowers. They latterly became entirely detached from reality but the extended fictional structures that were created in Ireland are based on the same old themes, though increasingly remote and difficult to detect. The less impressive tales and fragments recorded from Scotland have the attraction of the genuinely archaic, and often preserve archaic hunting lore more or less intact. It is ironic that such imaginary and irrational creations have been collected and studied as if they were themselves of great value while the older language has been completely overlooked.

Working rules for recognising and decoding AHL elements in fictional contexts.
The contribution made by hunting to the Gaelic lexicon was extensive and certain general categories can be recognised.

1.Names now used for many domesticated animals, though not for sheep, were originally used for wild animals, notably deer. It appears that sheep were always herded under the guard of a shepherd, while cattle, horses and goats ran wild, and were hunted or rounded up by the natives much like deer, hence the transfer of nomenclature.

2.The terminology of warfare, conflict, strife, battles, heroic endeavour, soldiers, warriors, champions, the enemy, and similar topics refer to communal deer drives. ‘Dead men’ or ‘the enemy’ or even ‘dead Picts’ in most contexts are dead deer, and death, manslaughter and the taking of heads also refer to deer. For example, G. casgairt retains the dual meanings of ‘slaughtering, butchering’ and ‘massacring, triumph, rejoicing’, all referring to hunting.

3.Ugly, venomous crones and sluttish, whorish or disgraceful women were once honorific names for the Lady, who was sometimes a Maiden but certainly no virgin. We may suspect deliberate interference by Christian Gaels, possibly medieval Irish clergy. By native Scots the Maiden was confused with the Virgin Mary – not without good reason. The Lady was generally seen as generous and benevolent.

4.Words referring to wealth, prosperity, joy, hospitality, and good fortune once referred to hunting. Words referring to pleasure, wealth and excellence originally referred to the feasting after a successful hunt, as do certain negative terms like gluttony and parsimony (the lower orders were never satisfied with their portions).

5.Robbery was a by-name for hunting.

6.In addition to robbery with violence, the lexical evidence collected by Dwelly accuses hunters of disrespect, lawlessness, noisy, unruly, licentious and obscene behaviour, prodigality, meanness, laziness, gluttony, ingratitude, and duplicity. In their own eyes, they were hospitable, generous, affable, kind, heroic, skilled, and brave. A few words such as ceatharnach and slaid (as noted) preserve both the original honorific image and the later view of dirty and uncivilised men.

7.Other standard descriptions of hunters include foolish and boastful talkers, gluttons, starvelings, champions, heroes, fairies, ghosts, and small people.

8.Kings, giants, and champions are beacon epithets.

This raises a question which goes to the root of belief in the supernatural. If, as has been claimed, our ancestors were rational people, where did their belief in fairies, dwarves, giants, ghosts, and other supernatural beings come from? If fairy lore is taken as a guide, belief in the supernatural can now be explained as a side-effect of their attempts to explain elements of hunting lore with the resources available in the post-hunting phase.

3929.

Edit and add?
Rules follow fact that the language of the Gaels was a remote rural language which reflected an archaic way of life which was based on hunting and herding. This way of life was capable of supporting a considerable population in Highland Scotland, far more than is found in Lowland Scotland in the eighteenth century, and it persisted because the land could not support them in any other way. When it was disturbed by the imposition of feudal patterns of land ownership or by more advanced notions of agriculture, it collapsed and the more archaic levels of Gaelic very rapidly became obsolete. All the languages of Europe retain archaic words but Scottish Gaelic is by far the most fruitful source. This can be attributed to the survival in parts of Highland Scotland into recent centuries of a native society which was still actively engaged in traditional deer-hunting and which in consequence preserved a body of oral learning of extreme age. The Scottish language was influenced, from the Reformation onwards, by literate Irish. A translation of the Bible into Irish circulated very widely in Scotland and the influence of Irish literacy can also be detected in a class of abstract nouns with prefixes such as ath ‘re-, again’, comh ‘con-, together’, droch ‘ill-, bad’, eadar ‘inter-, between’, and mi ‘un-, mis-, dis-’ which are modelled on Latin usage. However a great deal of archaic language survived in one form or another to be collected and published at the end of the nineteenth century.

The following areas of research have produced empirical evidence for archaism in Gaelic.

Appendix 1: The etymology of European languages, notably English and French and the meaning of place-names. Gaelic has an unparalleled ability to provide plausible etymologies for European place-names within the context of a hunting culture. One explanation for this is that it represents a widespread first-settler language which was used in the Mesolithic and which probably contains many Palaeolithic elements. For example, the widespread river name Don, found in Aberdeenshire, in Russia, and in India can be explained as G. don ‘water’. A study of English river names produced so much material that it was moved to a separate chapter (Chapter 13). It suggests that the ‘Celtic’ language of these obscure names survives to a large extent within Scottish Gaelic. [This is not Appendix 1 which is cuithe.

Appendix 2: A further sign of archaic survival is a class of monosyllabic words.

Appendix 3: The number of distinct meanings which now attach to many words in Gaelic is a sign of internal development over a considerable period.

Although the technical level of interpretation has been lost, not only from Gaelic but also from English, leaving us with a vast number of apparent synonyms, words which relate to hunting, such as names for wild animals, enclosing, trapping, enclosures, battles or hunts, slaughter, gatherings or musters, groups of men, names of warriors and champions, and admirable and heroic qualities, are perhaps the most numerous category in Gaelic. Words relating to cattle and dairy products are also important, while words for sheep and wool and arable farming are fewer, though there is a great variety of words relating to the various uses of ‘corn’ which now means oatmeal but which once meant wild grain. It is possible that the relatively large vocabulary now attached to fishing was adopted from the preceding hunting culture but this has not yet been explored. The age of words referring to hunting, deer, ambush sites, butchery and aspects of fire is confirmed by finding that they belong to extended families of related words. The original sense may have been lost from the modern language but a reliable way to identify the original root and its probably meaning is to look at such clusters of related words. Words such as Biblical terms and words imported from other languages tend to be lexically isolated.

Finally it is possible to detect archaism (and probable interference with hunting beliefs) in the way in which many hunting terms have been converted from a positive to a negative sense. The leannan-sìth or ‘fairy sweetheart’ is, in its most evolved sense, the goddess in the form of a deer. This phrase has been used in the Bible to mean ‘the power of bringing the spirit of a dead person into one’s presence’. This supernatural concept of raising the spirits of the dead is a corruption of the perfectly rational view of the goddess as representing or personifying the power inherent in nature to reincarnate deer killed in the chase. The Biblical usage of leannan-sìth with this sense is a gross abuse of a term which, as ‘spouse, lover, concubine, sweetheart, beloved, pet, darling’, expressed all that was most sacred and delightful in the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. This type of perversion is found so often that it is difficult to believe that it was the consequence of ignorance. The taghairm was known to be a gathering summons in the form of a large bonfire but this somehow became a method of divination whereby the Devil was raised by the roasting of live cats (cat = cath ‘hunt’).

These signs of archaism connected to a deer-hunting culture and the falsification of meaning which is so often found justify a degree of extrapolation and readjustment of meaning in order to recover the original sense. Many archaic words retain a post-hunting sense which is still close. In surviving oral texts many archaic words have been replaced by homophones or puns which make some kind of sense in the modern language. A search among phonetically-related words generally allows us to elucidate the original meaning.

Appendix 1: An etymological history for G. cuithe 'cattle-fold, shelter'.
G. cuithe ‘cattle-fold, shelter’ is comparable with E. cot, house, hut, hythe, Fr. housse ‘cover, shelter’ and It. casa ‘house’. A similar ‘house’ word is common to most of the languages of Western Europe which suggests that it was already in use to mean a shelter of some kind in the Upper Palaeolithic (their last common contact). Though early, cuithe is a complex word. The first element is the Co or Cu ‘gathering’ root and the second might be ith which in Perthshire Gaelic means ‘to eat’. We will suppose that the cuithe was a communal eating place, where hunters cooked and ate what they had caught and butchered. Right or wrong, the word certainly had some such meaning. But this is only the start.

G. ith is an eroded aspirate, which is to say that it once began with a consonant but has been aspirated twice to show possession or location and has lost its initial consonant. The sequence been from *mith to *fith to ith or it might involve G. teth ‘hot, warm, scalding’ which is a reduplicated ‘fire’ word (‘hot-hot’) cognate with E. heat, hot, and seethe. The simple word exists as G. tè ‘thick, as soup’, which will make sense to anyone who has ever experienced genuine Scotch broth. Broth was the main product when bits of meat and any available vegetables were seethed with the bones in a communal pot. Or the original consonant might be c which would imply an aspirating series (*cith, hith, ith) with a later compound cu-ithe. However it occurred, double aspiration implies a considerable lapse of time since ith had to become a word in its own right before it could be incorporated into cuithe as the name of a shelter where one can eat.

These postulated forms in fact exist with the right kind of meanings in E. meat, meet, fat, feed, eat and in E. cook, heat, eat. G. fiadh ‘deer’ was a ‘fat’ animal and its tallow was prized for lighting and heating. In Gaelic ith is also ‘fat, tallow’ and comaidh or comaith is ‘messing, eating together’. E. mess ‘a dish of food; a number of people who take their meals together, particularly in the fighting services’, and Du. mes ‘knife’ are further cognates. Many aspects of the fighting services can be traced to the organised troops of hunters typical of Highland Scotland up to 1745. G. mèith ‘oily, greasy’ is also related but may be a second independent compound since it contains G. mè ‘tender, fat’ which is cognate with G. ìm ‘butter’ and provides the first element in E. marrow, Latin medulla, Fr. miel ‘honey’. The element *smè is found in other AHL compounds including Gr. smegma, E. smear, and Danish smør ‘butter’. The terminal element is again ith. A cuithe may originally have been a place where meat was boiled to make soup and render down the fat from the bones. A diferent view comes from W. cyty ‘joint house’, in which the second element ty equates with G. taigh, suggesting that co-taigh might represent the non-aspirated form of cu-ithe.

There is no doubt more to learn of the cuithe but we have perhaps peeled this onion down as far as we can at the moment. The point is not whether or not any of these proposed links are correct but that this or some similar evolution certainly took place and a very long time ago, long enough to throw off several layers of secondary words. G. cuithe contains a great depth of lexical development, which probably included its formation as a word for a communal cooking place or ‘joint house’, two aspirations which produced the eroded form ith and a parallel or even earlier development which produced the compound mèith. E. meat, heat, eat show the same process.

Some intriguing if unfamiliar horizons now open up. It is certain that the component parts of cuithe emerged from some very old process, that the necessary building-blocks as well as the final word survive in Gaelic, and that many similar examples exist. G. ith and E. eat are cognate with Hittite etir ‘they ate’. These three words are equally old, not ‘derived from’ each other, and they are all double aspirates. Their origins are unimaginably ancient but there is plenty of room for them: when, after all, did men first begin to cook food and eat it?

Such lexical arguments gain a great deal of necessary space when we include not only the past 40,000 years in Europe but look beyond Europe to the deeper levels of prehistory. The reduction of meat to feed and feed to eat, ith, and etir had already taken place before migration into Europe. Our species pursued an independent path from at least 500,000 years ago, when we separated from the Neanderthal line, and this gives us all the time we need for the AHL to evolve to the language we can identify in Europe 40,000 years. The word ‘eat’ (a small word, but a very basic one) links Scotland and the Middle East and this is likely to be true of other small words in Gaelic, French, English, German and Russian. Before we can attempt to understand Hittite, or any evolved language, we need a better view of early Palaeolithic elements. The key to this lies in Scottish Gaelic. It has a truly remarkable ability to explain words in more evolved European languages.

Appendix 2: The list below contains monosyllables consisting of an initial consonant with a following vowel and a group of words consisting of a vowel followed by the initial consonant of a subsequent element. Most are probably eroded compounds but some may be inverted forms of genuine monosyllables, for ab is cognate with pa.

a ‘chariot, car, wagon (sledge?); ascent; hill promontory’.
ab ‘father, lord’. Hence G. ab ‘abbot’.
ab ‘water’
àbh ‘hand-net, hose-net, sock-net, landing-net; skill, dexterity; water’. G. abhainn ‘river’, E. wave, river name Avon, F. eau, E. bathe. Were the Avons fishing rivers?
ac ‘denial, refusal’. The negative sense is perhaps related to G. acaid ‘pain, hurt’, acais ‘poison’, acar ‘sharp, sour, bitter’, Latin ecuere ‘sharpen’, Gr. oxus ‘sharp’.
ac ‘son’: an eroded form of G. mac ‘son (hunter)’ by way of fachd ‘fight’.
ac ‘speech, tongue’. Found also in G. facal ‘word, solemn oath’.
ach ‘mound, bank’ (G. achadh ‘field, plain, meadow’). Fr. haie ‘hedge’, Frankish hagia ‘enclosure’, A-S gehæg ‘meadow’.
ach ‘skirmish (hunt)’. E. fight, G. fachd ‘fight’.
ad ‘water’; E. water, Gr. hudor.
ada ‘victory (successful hunt)’. E. death.
adh ‘law; heifer; hind’; G. fiadh ‘deer’.
ae ‘the liver’; Fr. foie.
agh ‘battle, conflict; joy, felicity, success, prosperity, good luck’;
agh ‘fear, astonishment’; E. awe, Gothic agis ‘fear’.
agh ‘heifer, hind; young fawn; rarely ox, cow, bull’; E. ox.
ai ‘controversy; region, territory; inheritance of land, possession; herd; cow’.
ai, oi ‘region, territory, inheritance, herd, cow (hunting forest, deer)’.
bà ‘good, honest, simple-minded’.
bè ‘life; wife, woman; night’.
beò ‘lifetime; the living; cattle’.
bì ‘be, exist’. E. be.
bó ‘cow, fawn’.
ca ‘house’. Lat. casa.
cè ‘cream’.
cé ‘earth, world’.
cé ‘night’.
cé ‘spouse’.
ci ‘animal, beast, hind, roe, stag, the leader, noble animal’. E. chief.
cì ‘lamentation’.
cia ‘cream’.
cia ‘man, husband’.
cu ‘champion, hero (hunter)’.
cù ‘dog’. E. hound.
cua ‘flesh’.
da ‘good’.
dà ‘two’.
dé ‘day’.
deò ‘breath, air, life, ray of light, vision’.
dia ‘god’; dée ‘gods’.
du ‘land, country, habitation’.
eid ‘word used on sighting any animal of prey’.
eigh ‘ice’.
eigh ‘roe’.
eit ‘cattle (deer)’.
eo ‘good, worthy’.
eo ‘peg, thorn, pin.’
eo ‘salmon’.
ess ‘death’.
ess ‘ship’.
fé ‘wild, furious’.
fi ‘anger’.
fi ‘bad, corrupt’.
fo ‘brink; king; honour; good’.
ga ‘dart, arrow, ray of light’.
gò ‘lie, deceit, wisdom’.
gò ‘sea’.
gò ‘spear’.
ma ‘breach, (deer trap)’.
mè ‘tender, fat’.
mi ‘I, me’.
mi ‘lack, evil, the worst’.
mì ‘month’.
mo ‘larger, largest’. E. more, most.
mo ‘man, male, servant, work’.
o ‘ear’.
òb ‘bay, harbour, pool’. E. hope.
ob ‘refuse, deny, (trap)’.
ob, ub ‘spell, charm, incantation’.
òg ‘youth, young man, (hunter)’.
pà ‘father’. E. pa, Fr. papa.
rà ‘going, moving’.
ra, ro ‘very much, too much’.
ré ‘the moon, time, season, duration, life-time’.
rù ‘secret, mystery, love, desire, affection’.
seo ‘substance’.
so ‘young’.
ta ‘water’.
te ‘hot’ (teine ‘fire’).
tè ‘rancid, fermented’. Chinese te ‘tea’.
tè ‘thick as gruel or soup’. E. thick.
té ‘woman, female one’.
teò ‘to warm, simmer’.
tì ‘any rational being; he or she’. E. it.
tì ‘design, intention, purpose, pursuit (hunt)’.
toi ‘silent, mute’.
tu ‘you’. E. thou, Fr. tu.
ur ‘child, person’.
ur ‘fire’. E. fire, Gr. pur ‘fire’.
ur ‘tail, harm, border (deer forest)’.

These words show us an archaic society speaking a very simple language and living by hunting deer, milking cattle or other animals, and fishing. Life focused on the defended tribal lands, within which law was administered by the father of the tribe. Hunting was equated with prosperity and happiness, a hunt was seen as a battle or conflict, and artificial barriers were created to contain or direct game. The language covers the concepts of good and bad, speech, fire, the lunar month, defended tribal lands, men, women, children and people generally, the dog, wild animals such as deer and cattle, hunting under a leader, transport, water or rivers, light signals, dairy products, and cooking, apparently by seething meat, spells and incantations, and the ship.

Appendix 3: Multiple meanings.

This makes it impossible to know if a phrase is simply the poet showing off his grasp of fine language or if the different words once had significantly different meanings. In the metamorphosis of Cú Chulainn we find the phrase: catha 7 comraic 7 comlaind, which we might translate poetically as ‘battle and contest and strife’, but which in semantic? terms is reduced to ‘hunting and hunting and hunting’. There is a comparable phrase in a Scottish folk-tale: crèadh s’ rooah s’ coinneach which might mean ‘plunder, hunting, and gathering’, but again there is no certain delineation of meaning.

Last edited 13 January 2010

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