Gaelic, Gaelic, and more Gaelic

Jonathan Bortinger '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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John McPhee describes his visit to the Island of Colonsay in a mixture of word paintings and narrative descriptions. He stresses to readers how insiders view outsiders and the ways language can be a barrier between populations. Because the population on Colonsay is such a tight group, McPhee uses a description of their language to show how long words remain in their traditional form based on generations of experience on the island. McPhee illustrates how important the sound of a language is to a specific place.

Their eye for minor landmarks became acute -- Murach Mor (the Big Bent-Covered Hillock), Aodann Mor Thurnigil (the Big Rock Face at Twisting Gully), Tean ga na Dubhaird (the Tongue of the Black Cape). [p 54]

1. McPhee uses this long passage of Gaelic names for different places to illustrate how integral traditional forms of life are on Colonsay. Is this an effective technique because McPhee already used traditional Gaelic words with their English translations before this long passage?

2. How did McPhee gain access to all these terms? Did he just read them from the laird's uncles book? More importantly, how does an outsider gain access to the language of a people, even if someone like McPhee descends from the residents of Colonsay?

3. Two pages later McPhee describes the nicknames of people from these Scottish Islands in a similar style. Is it tiring for the reader to encounter such long repetitive passages in such succession or is it a successful attempt at showing the importance of local terminology to life on contemporary Colonsay?

4. Does McPhee feel like he can identify with these terms or is he only listing them as a tourist would list the names of national parks in a journal? How much does this passage contribute to our understanding of McPhee as a travel-writer?

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Last modified 10 November 2003