Canada, Folklife, Modern, Scotland

Gaelic Ribaldry



I’m happy to report the release of another book on Scottish Gaelic tradition, this time of a much more jovial nature: The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic, a title suggested by my lovely wife, which I forgot to acknowledge in the book itself. (Oops… Who’s naughty now?)

This is a collection of Gaelic terms, idioms and creative expressions related to swearing, cursing, smoking, drinking and sex – all of the stuff you wanted to ask your Gaelic teacher, but didn’t. I tapped a very wide range of sources of this, from the oral tradition of friends in Scotland and Nova Scotia, and from various printed articles and books going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. It was fun to produce and the artist Arden Powell did a fantastic job creating illustrations that are clever, funny and visually evocative of medieval Celtic art. I’m very proud of the results.

Although this is mostly for fun – the kind of light-hearted, adult humour that has seldom made it into Gaelic curricular materials – I do have one serious aim in this, which is to further liberate Gaelic culture from another layer of shackles, the shackles of puritanical religion and morality, which was actually fairly late in arriving in the Gaelic world. There are a number of reasons for this self-imposed censorship: the self-consciousness of being cast as less civilized and refined than the anglophone metropole, the inward focus of religion rejecting the secular world with which it could no longer effectively engage, etc. For whatever reasons this happened, it has cut many Gaels (or at least Gaelic learners) off from an important aspect of their humanity, or thrust others too deeply into it (a topic I discuss in a previous blog entry on alcoholism).

These are complex and treacherous waters, so I won’t go any further than to relate a bawdy Gaelic anecdote that I did not include in the book, as it requires too much explanation. There are numerous variants of this, and I heard it several times (for example, in the excellent BBC Radio nan Gàidheal series Fear Beag a’ Chridhe Mhóir) before I realized that it actually was a bawdy bit of humour, at least originally.

The main character in the anecdote is Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, an extremely important and influential Scottish Gaelic poet of the mid-18th century who actually did compose bawdy poetry that went through several generations of censorship. He visited the poet Iain MacCodruim three times while he was in North Uist (and stole some of his poetry).

Alasdair needs to cross the flood-plain that separates North Uist from Benbecula and encounters a woman at the crossing point. In some versions of the anecdote, this woman is an t-Aigeannach, a poetess with whom he certainly did exchange heated verses. The woman is carrying under her arm a cock (commonly called a “rooster” in North America to avoid evoking the universal sexual connotations of this bird).

When Alasdair sees her, he attempts to provoke her with the question: “Dé a’ phrìs, dé an uair, dé an doimhneachd?” (“What price, what time, how deep?”) The innocent interpretation of the question is that he is simply about the price of the “cock,” the time for low tide (when it is safe to cross), and how deep the water will be. If you are an adult, you can figure out the more raunchy interpretation of the question.

However, without missing a beat, she answered, “Tha e an déidh a h-ochd gu ruig an naoidh, doimhneachd na goibhlean, is ochd sgillinn deug.” (“It is after eight going on nine, as deep as the crotch, 18 shillings.”) It is understood implicitly that her quick and clever response made her the winner of that round.

This reminds me of a note in the booklet I used for much of the sexually explicit material. Gaels did not consider the words for genitalia to be inherently shameful, and a young maiden could exclaim “Bod ort!” (“A penis for you!”) in surprise without self-consciousness or fear of being judged as morally loose by her community. What does it mean for a culture to lose its own moral compass by feeling compelled to adopt that of another, or fear being labelled as lacking in moral virtue and civilization if it doesn’t?


4 thoughts on “Gaelic Ribaldry”

  1. I believe it is a time-honoured tradition amongst Sabhal Mòr Ostaig students to secretively transmit and use illicit Gaelic swear words and phrases. I certainly found it amusing when I was there. What is particularly fascinating to me is the number of times I’ve heard in Nova Scotia that Gaelic is a “clean” language without swear words or bawdry. That impression no doubt comes in part because the words we deem inappropriate change over time whereas Nova Scotia Gaelic speakers have not necessarily had opportunities to hear or develop “new” swear words, innuendo, or other “inappropriate” language. But is it healthy for a language to be “clean”? Doesn’t that mean that Gaelic speakers lack the language and images to express a full range of human emotions, reactions, and humour?

    Meal do naidheachd air an leabhar — bidh mi toilichte a leughadh.

  2. Ho-ho! Math fhèin! Bha làn thìde againn air seo.

    Tha a’ Ghàidhlig – no mar a tha i air a riochdachadh – air a bhith fada ro ‘shnog’ is ‘modhail’. Air an làimh eile, nuair a bhruidhneas tu ri Gaidheil ann an taigh-seinnse no air raon-chluich, ball-coise is eile, gheibh thu sàr bhrithrachas de ghuidheachdan.

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