‘For many years, this was the reason why I stayed away from historical fiction altogether – I simply didn’t believe I could do it justice.’
Fir for Luck
By Barbara Henderson
Published by Cranachan
Portraying the languages of Scotland can be a challenge – I certainly struggled with the responsibility of portraying a Gaelic-speaking society in 1814 and 1841 in my Highland Clearances novel Fir for Luck.
I am not a Gaelic speaker. Did that preclude me from writing about a Gaelic speaking world?
I didn’t think it should provided I cared enough about the story to do it justice; in terms of characters, plot – and yes, of language too. After all, language forms a large part of our identity.
I was daunted. I am a big-picture person, not naturally meticulous. For many years, this was the reason why I stayed away from historical fiction altogether – I simply didn’t believe I could do it justice. But then I realised: Linguistic faithfulness is similar to historical accuracy. Too much and you risk alienating modern readers – child readers in my case. A sprinkling is enough, I was told – small details of life in the 19th century. but don’t overdo it, otherwise, you risk distracting the reader and lose momentum. The same, I was told, applied to the Gaelic language, or Scots for that matter.
Well, losing momentum was the last thing I wanted. A sprinkling it was.
I began by throwing in the odd Gaelic word to remind the reader where we were. Greetings, exclamations and other non-essentials, so the reader could skip over them and not lose momentum while taking in a flavour of the linguistic landscape in the world I am portraying.
It seemed to work.
By contrasting simple syntax and vocabulary with elaborate structures, I was also able to suggest the divide between villagers and their simple concerns, and the officials who are threatening them with eviction. It was important to me to picture the scenes of confrontation authentically, so I describe the delay of translation.
‘It’s on our way back that we see the notices: one outside the church and another one on the post along the road, one on the schoolhouse wall and two pasted to the walls of the outhouses on the path into Ceannabeinne:
A Public Meeting will be held on Thursday at three o’clock at Durine Square. In attendance will be the Sherriff of Sutherland: Mr Lumsden of Dornoch. Representatives of all Rispond townships must attend.
Between us, we manage to translate it word for word from the English, although I’m sure the Reverend would have done it quicker and better. Hugh nods thoughtfully and marches faster to catch up with Father.
Of course, I wish I was a fluent Gaelic speaker, and that I could write easily in Lowland Scots for my current work in progress. But it would be counterproductive to suggest that we can only portray these societies we are part of them. A little research, a well-directed question to those who know more than us is enough for a sprinkling of authenticity.
And thankfully, that is all that is needed.
Fir for Luck by Barbara Henderson is published by Cranachan, priced £6.99