Only forward

Group of people outide William ‘Lairdie’ Finlayson’s house in Cromarty. Image via An Bhaile.

In the autumn of 2012, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away, and with him went a little piece of Scottish culture. Hogg was the last native speaker of a Scots dialect spoken by the fisherfolk of the isolated Cromarty community, the only other native speaker having been his brother, Gordon, who had passed away a year previous. Fortunately,  researcher Janine Donald of online cultural archive Am Baile recorded the two brothers chatting in the language and used the sessions to compile a dictionary of their phrases and fables. You can read the booklet here, while the site also has transcripts of recordings of the brothers speaking in the dialect. You can hear two of the Hogg family singing a traditional song here. The dialect is believed to have been handed down from Norse and Dutch fishermen who settled in the area in the 16th century, and while elements of the language remain in the everyday speech used in Cromarty, the passing of the Hogg brothers saw the end of the language being used in its natural, organic state. Here are a few samples:

Ah ken the cutyach ye belang taeI – I know where you’re from (derogatory)

At a grandeur! – What a show off!

At now kucka? – A friendly greeting

Blussing o tattas – A large amount of potatoes

Boors n boors – Lots and lots

E rose from his mate lik a potye – He got up from his meal like a pig

Ee’s a boshach-skeyter – Contemptuous expression for a miserable, mishapen creature

E’s as prood as Bubba – He’s as proud as the devil

Gaen clean tae the tootrach – Away with the fairies, or having become disreputable through drink

Holl toll – Very drunk

Whelp o’ darkness – An individual who was prone to anti-social behaviour

Part of the reason the dialect survived as long as it did is because of where the tiny village of Cromarty is located – perched on the northern tip of the Black Isle in the Highlands, with little of note about it apart from the dialect and the fact they owned Britain’s smallest vehicle ferry, the Cromarty Rose, which ran across the forth to Nigg.

However, the community isn’t quite as isolated as you would think, as the Black Isle isn’t actually an island. One of the peculiarities of Scots gaelic is that there is no differentiation between peninsula and island; perhaps they just got tired of keeping track of which is which – after all, they do have 790 actual islands and a coastline that looks like shattered glass. Perhaps they just felt that The Black Peninsula sounded less dramatic.

The Black Isle also happens to be home to Glen Ord, a Diageo distillery that makes malt for the Johnnie Walker and Singleton brands. Frankly, looking at a map you would struggle to say the distillery is actually on the Black Isle, given that it is at the absolute opposite end from Cromarty, but as it sits in the Muir Of Ord, it can thus can make the claim.

The older I get, the more I like the whiskey’s temporal dimension – beyond the core ingredients of barley, teast, and water, or even transformative elements like copper and wood, it is time that ultimately defines whiskey. Ingredients and vessels give it nature, but is time that nurtures it. It rolls of the stills as new make spirit, with a unique personality of its own, but it is nothing until you add three years in a cask. Add more years and its value increases. Time stops when you rip it from the cask and put it in a bottle, placed into cryosleep, only to finally fulfil its destiny once you pour it into a glass and consume it. I am at the upper limit for aged whiskey – 43 – I am finally starting to understand just how finite my time is. The end of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect is a reminder that time devours everything, no matter how we fight it.  

Cadenhead are the oldest independent bottler in Scotland. They have a lovely website where you can read their storied history, find out what they do, and ultimately not purchase anything, as they don’t do online shopping. Even when you go into their Edinburgh store, your purchases are worked out with a pen, paper and a calculator. If they could fit an abacus on the desk, they probably would. For a store that deals in capsules filled with time, they are adamant that they won’t march to its merciless beat.

I bought a ten-year-old Glen Ord, a Kilkerran 12, an unnamed Islay eight-year-old and a Teaninch. The Ord came on the recommendation of staff, who pushed it over another, older bottling from the same distillery. So what of this entry-level whiskey from the last distillery standing on the Black Isle: On the nose it is waxy, with green apple, a pleasing whiff of gasoline, pepper, but with sweetness, spun sugar, wine gums, brown sugar cubes. On the palate there is that waxy feel, with a little aniseed, and a fresh zesty element that sizzles on the tongue. It’s smooth, with the right depth for a whisky this age, but just lacks that little something odd that I was hoping for. The finish doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves traces of pear drops and marmalade. Overall a solid purchase, and a handy reminder that one day we will all be dead, but then I would say that as I am a whelp o’ darkness.

Edinburgh, festival, Dublin, ruin

Indo col 69

The Scottish art historian Murdo Macdonald describes Edinburgh as a city that forces you to think about what a city should be. It is an extraordinary place – on one side sits Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Athens of the north, which looks like it was picked up by a vengeful god and flung down the side of a volcano. Its medieval street plan and reformation-era buildings give the feeling of being trapped in an MC Escher etching, as its streets double back and loop across each other, a city upon a city, a baroque game of snakes and ladders. Edinburgh is, as native son Robert Louis Stevenson said, what Paris ought to be. I’ve spent the best part of two decades visiting the city, trying to solve the puzzle that is the Old Town; this is partly thanks to its labyrinthine layout, partly due to its beauty, and partly due to being hammered, because Edinburgh is both a city of thinkers and a city of drinkers. Once a year these two worlds collide as the city’s Dionysian festival of festivals erupts into life.

Walking the Royal Mile – the Old Town’s main thoroughfare – during the festival is an incredible experience, as every would-be starlet, comedian and artist tries to get you to attend their festival show. Up and down the Mile flybills float on the wind, stages are set up for impromptu performances, and every two steps you are confronted with someone else’s dreams of stardom – would you like to see a Disney themed burlesque show? Would you like to see a troupe of stand-up comedians who used to be secondary school teachers? Would you like to see a kids’ musical about Brexit? The Royal Mile has them all: Singers who can’t sing, actors who can’t act, unfunny comedians and all the other stars of tomorrow, watched over by the sour bronze gaze of Adam Smith, the original Inequality Bae.

Of course, to get to the city this year I had to confront another city that forces you to think about what a city should be – Dublin. Our odyssey to Dublin Airport was hampered by roadworks on the M7, but the real treat was seeing the M50 in inaction, lane upon lane of unmoving traffic as far as the eye could see. The time I spent living in Dublin was pre-boom and bust, having upped sticks and moved back to the actual sticks in 2003, so it is a rare occasion that I get to see just how coagulated the city becomes at rush hour. It was so bad that I asked the bus driver if there was an accident; no, he replied, it’s the M50, in much the same as if he was saying forget it Jack, it’s Chinatown. There have been times when I have wondered if I should have stayed in the city, but each time I return I am convinced I did the right thing by leaving; Dublin feels like it is slowly smothering itself. Beyond all the questions about what gives a city soul, or the fact that the city brings to mind Joan Didion’s description of New York – a city of the very rich and the very poor – Dublin feels broken.

Clearly there are similar problems in other cities – any Cork person will tell you about the horror of the Jack Lynch Tunnel at rush hour, being trapped like the rabbits of Watership Down as their warren was collapsed in on them, going thairn at the Dunkettle Interchange. Edinburgh, despite its remarkable beauty, is also far from perfect, but it was once far worse, and it took a six-story tenement building collapsing in 1751 to focus energies on how to improve the city. At that stage the Old Town was the town in its entirety, and it was in reaction to its poverty and decay that a plan was created to build the New Town, a visionary document which noted: “Wealth is only to be obtained by trade and commerce, and these are only carried on to advantage in populous cities. There also we find the chief objects of pleasure and ambition, and there consequently all those will flock whose circumstances can afford it.” The New Town, built in seven stages, is mostly Georgian and neoclassical in style, and has a remarkable blend of form and function – beautiful buildings, wide open thoroughfares, and a sense of cohesion that any urban space would rival. Edinburgh as a whole has the usual urban problems – poverty, homelessness, rising property prices, rocketing rents, congestion – but it still allows you to see what a city could be, while our capital makes you realise what a city needs to become, and to ask just how bad it needs to get before action is taken to address it.