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Iain Maciver: Do not come to the Western Isles just to see unspoiled beauty, come to hear it too

Seilebost Beach, Isle of Harris
Seilebost Beach, Isle of Harris

When you live in a place like the Western Isles, which is such a magnet for global nosey parkers, er, I mean tourists, you have to sort of fit in with what they have read.

They are drawn by the miles of unspoiled golden beaches, which is true, the slow pace of life and the nice but dim islanders who warm their thatched blackhouses with peat cut with their own blistered hands. Well, who are we to argue with the findings which appeared a while ago on a website called The Quaintest European Places to Visit 2018.

Iain Maciver

Quaint? That sounds as if we all serve tea on tablecloths of white lace. We are more black lace people. Ooh la la.

Yes, the beaches here in the Hebrides are pretty much unspoiled. Our thatched houses are visitor attractions and holiday lets and peat is only cut by very rich people for the exercise. You may scoff but a couple told me last year that was the only reason they still went out onto the Achmore moor each year to slice the mud. Makes a change from the exercise bike and the treadmill in the west wing, I suppose.

Our people are also fixated by Brexit. Is it going to make our products unaffordable in the rest of the world and is it the best thing to happen to the fishing industry since chips and tartare sauce were invented? Is it going to kill the tourist industry or give it a shot in the arm?

Which reminds me that Stornoway has its problems too. Like other wee Caledonian toons, the administration capital of Stornoway has a seedy side.  Oh yes, Stornoway has it all. In this here town you will find Robert Doig the optician, Kenny Froggan’s the chemist and Stag Bakery. Specs, drugs and sausage roll.

Then there’s our language. Gaelic is often described as too complicated because it needs 10 words to describe something that is shorter in English. Not so now. A plane was a bata-adhar, a ship of the sky, but now it is often just plèana, which sounds just like plane. All of which reminds me to ask you what do you call a Thomas Cook flight going backwards? A receding airline.

Coming back down to earth, our ancient lingo is not the easiest to grasp properly but part of the reason for that is because in Gaelic we have words for which there’s no English equivalent. It takes lots of boring English words to explain that oh-so-welcome moment when it finally stops raining. In Gaelic that is the turadh. It is also a word with in-built flexibility. It can also mean longer dry spells, depending on the context. We do waffle on about weather and water quite a bit.

Once you have mastered the pronunciation, Gaelic can become very easy. Just as Julius Caesar’s famous words I Came, I Saw, I Conquered are easy to remember in Latin as Veni, Vidi, Vici, so too do similar sounds make Gaelic a breeze. For instance, I have a particle accelerator, you have a particle accelerator, you lot have particle accelerators. That’s tha particle accelerator agam, tha particle accelerator agad and tha particle acceleratoran agaibh. Tha gaol agam ort, tha gaol agad orm. I love you and you love me. That could almost be the lyrics of a song. I think someone’s beaten me to it already.

Of these, the handiest phrase for women is based on agad. Great word. Very flexible. Tha airgiod agad is a bold statement – you have money. Put a question mark after it and it becomes a strong demand when asked by herself when she’s about to depart for the supermarket. If not answered quickly, it becomes a threat. She knows you have money and you are not handing it over. Someone is going to starve and it could be you because you just don’t love her. Chaneil gaol agad oir. Agad. It is you and yours. Agad. Your responsibility, your blame, your disaster.

As everybody knows, water is uisge, as in uisge beatha, the water of life, which is sometimes also known here as whisky. Yet for water, as in the non-alcoholic stuff from the tap, some people say bùrn (pron. boorn). When someone says that word, it is like doing a DNA test. They absolutely are, or were, from Lewis stock. Only in Lewis do we say bùrn.

Another contentious word is rhubarb. Some dictionaries say it should be ruibab. Not Leodhasachs. We say ruprup, which we say like rooproop. Not sure if it is correct, which makes life difficult as we have a wee patch of rhubarb at the back. The crop has not been great so I have been asking more-experienced people for tips. One told me to try horse manure on it. It’s interesting but I think I still prefer custard.

We lend our language to many other cultures, no matter what colour of lace they prefer. Gaelic turns up everywhere.

Knock, knock.

“Who’s there?”


“Agad who?”

“Push pineapple shake the tree.”