AT five years old, American Cassie Smith-Christmas’ favourite song was a waulking song – and her early interest in the Gaelic language has led her to the Isle of Lewis and the undertaking of an exciting new project to discover more about the minority language and its travels around the world.
“I studied linguistics and did a PHD in Celtic and Gaelic at Glasgow University and fell in love with minority languages,” Cassie said.
Writing her thesis on the subject of Gaelic migration, she lived with a Skye family; with three generations of Gaelic speakers. And from the tutor notes made on her paper, she has now turned to explore the migration of the language through those who were boarded-out or evacuated during World War II; as well as more recent migrants and those who have made the Gaelic speaking islands their home.
“Writing my thesis about the history of Gaelic was very sad, it was depressing to see the decline in the language, especially after the Second World War,” she explained.
“A note that my tutor made caught my interest – he said there was decline ‘except for people who were evacuated and learnt Gaelic in their new home’. That’s lead to the project I’m working on now.”
A research fellow with Lews Castle College, Cassie’s work forms part of new research network ‘Soillse’ – a collaboration between the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities aimed to produce a world-class research outlet.
And as part of the project she is seeking to talk to people about their experiences of the Gaelic language when they were boarded-out or evacuated as a child.
She said: “There’s a wealth of information out there. It’s fascinating to find out what Skye or the Western Isles were like in the 1940s and 50s, especially through the eyes of a child who had just arrived there.
“One man I spoke to on Skye was evacuated there from Glasgow and although he had a little Gaelic from his home, he really learnt the language in Skye. He now teaches Gaelic at RASMD.”
Cassie has also found interviews in Gaelic archives which tell of another man evacuated from Glasgow – he learnt Gaelic from the family’s daughter and she learnt English from him.
Yet, she is keen to speak to more people, as she said: “It’s hard to find people. I spoke with a woman in England about her experiences and she knew of three others like her, but sadly they’ve all passed away now.
“I feel that if I don’t record these people’s stories now, I’ll never get them.”
And as her subject matter includes boarded-out children – a practise often undertaken when there were problems with the family home – Cassie assures that it is only language experiences she wants to discuss.
She said: “I’m interested in the language aspect only. I don’t want to and I won’t be asking people about the personal reasons for them being there. People don’t need to worry about that when they talk to me.”
If you think that you can help Cassie, or know of someone who might wish to talk to her, then she can be contacted by email Cassie.SmithChristmas@uhi.ac.uk or on the phone: 01851 770370.