Whether or not Gaelic was the language spoken in those blissful days before the Fall it seemed essential in my new supernatural thriller The Witching Ground that some was spoken in the 1590s. The story involves the reconnection between Heather Bruce, a present day Archaeology lecturer from New York, and her ancestor, Jean Paterson, who was burnt as a witch. In so many ways the women are the same character, but I wanted to hint at the divide of time, culture, even language, that separates them.
So it was natural that some words are uttered in Scots Gaelic. Not all – within a novel it would be laborious to follow every line of dialogue with a translation – but enough to give a flavour of the mental soundtrack.
For this I am massively grateful to Ann Paterson. I first met Ann when she was working for Historic Scotland and I was asked to film some dramas at Edinburgh Castle, set in the time of Mary Queen of Scots, and acted in Gaelic by the children of Tollcross Primary School in Edinburgh.
But back to the dialogue, and at this point another issue raised its head. I am not a Gaelic speaker, so it made sense to write the lines in English and have them translated. But what if a Gael wouldn’t have said things that way in the first place? To try to get the flavour of the way speech is constructed in Gaelic I asked Ann to come up with a translation which felt natural to her, then translate it literally back into English. I couldn’t use this literal translation directly because it led to some ambiguity, but I adopted a fair bit of the word order. Here’s a brief sample from the prologue:
A cat rises from its snug near the hearth and curls around her legs. Apart from the child, she seems to live alone. The baby starts to cry in earnest. Jean picks it up out of its wooden cradle and puts it to her breast. Outside, the cow continues to bellow.
The door opens. An old woman enters.
Jean greets her. ‘Se boireannach math a th’annad, a Mhàiri.’ – It is a good woman which is in you, Mary.
‘Tha thusa air mo chuideachadh tric gu leòr’ – You’re after helping me often enough.
Jean breaks the suction with her finger and passes the protesting baby to the old woman, who swaddles it snug in her shawl and places it to her shoulder, patting its back until the whimpering dies down.
I hope that the divide that between Jean and her descendant Heather is emphasised by this approach. I’m sure you’ll let me know when the book is published!
And one final thought. I’ve just noticed another cross-over – a phrase which has come from Gaelic and now appears in English. When Jean uses the words ‘gu leòr’ to mean ‘often enough’ or ‘plenty’ we can see the origin of a word more familiar to English speakers.
Whisky Galore anybody?