Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Gaelic names

It's a small world. Ruth's mother's cousin was married to the second cousin of Fred (i.e. they shared a great grandparent), the person who built An Caladh (the house we live in). This means that Ruth is sort-of connected to most of the residents of Berneray. Though not by blood - or perhaps she is, as she has apparently relatives in the Ballalan area of Lewis, her great-grandparents were crofters from Armadale in Skye and there is a family house, also with long ancestry on the Inner Hebridean island of Easdale.

It's amusing to see TV programmes such as "Who do you think you are?", where nice, simple vertical family trees are depicted, like tall trees with very few branches. Visual representations of family trees of Hebridean people, of which I've seen a few, tend to be an extremely complex network (opening up interesting applications in the field of graph theory), unfathomable to most non-Hebrideans. I've heard complaints from locals that much commercial genealogy software tends to be inadequate for capturing, viewing and analysing their ancestral information.

This lineage and ancestry is extremely important in the Outer Hebrides - to the extent that, to a Hebridean, your family history literally forms part of your Gaelic name. Some of the components, and structures, of names are obviously influenced by the several centuries of enlightened Norse occupation of these islands.

For example, back to Fred. In the english language, his name is Fred MacLeod. In Gaelic, his name is: mac Dhomhnaill Thormoid Dhomhnaill Mhoir.

Mac means "son of". Beag means "small", and Mhoir means "big". So Fred's name translates as: Fred, son of Donald, son of Norman, son of big Donald. Therefore, encapsulated in his name is the generational history of Fred going back to a great-grandparent, and including an adjective to differentiate the great-grandparent from other Donalds of the time.

Thus, when two people of Outer Hebridean lineage meet, one may say "To whom do you belong?" (basically, the same as "What is your name?"). The answer, as the Gaelic name, can often provide enough detail for the listener to work out where, in the ancestoral network, the person is connected.

We have two phone books here. The BT one, which is practically useless, as it covers an enormous geographic area; it takes most of the day to travel to the other side of its coverage.

Of more use is the Outer Hebrides phonebook. Names are in English, but addresses are in Gaelic. To make it slightly more complicated, Berneray is omitted from local addresses, so our address is An-Caladh, Backhill, Uibhist A Tuath (this last bit being "North Uist").

(Thanks to Fred for patiently explaining this to me shortly after we moved here).

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