Minor Placenames of Rathlin

The following account about the collection Minor Placenames of Rathlin was written by Brian Mac Lochlainn in August 2018.

Alex Morrison's Story

Alex Morrison was born in 1915 in Greenock in the west of Scotland. His mother died when Alex was three years old. His father was a deep-sea sailor, and so Alex was sent back to Rathlin to be raised by his father's aunt, whom he called "granny". She spoke Gaelic in the house, although Alex's father did not speak it. But Alex was an intelligent boy and before long understood everything that was being said.

I met him in a remarkable way: My brother-in-law was teaching Irish in Belfast, in 1978. One day a pupil came in and said "sir my granny's a real Irish speaker and she comes from Rathlin island". I thought that I had to meet this woman and I found her living on the outskirts of Belfast. She was a kind, courteous lady, approaching 90 years of age. She had left Rathlin at the age of 13 with her sister and never was back. She was known as "Mrs McKenna", but on the island as "Bella John Roe" (daughter of John Roe).

Bella found employment in Belfast, and her sister went to be a nun. She was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and never returned. Bella had only fragments of broken Gaelic, but her Gaelic had been ruined by going to Irish classes in Belfast, where people told her that her pronunciation was not correct. I told her that I would go to Rathlin and bring her back a photograph of the house she was born in.

Some time later I went with my wife to Rathlin to to look for Bella's house in a place called Upper Claggan. As we walked up the road we asked a man standing at a gate with a dog at his feet "where is Upper Claggan?" He answered "you are in it". It turned out he was Bella's first cousin once removed, and living in the house where she was born. It was Alex Morrison.

I subsequently wrote to Alex, asking if I could come back and talk to him about placenames and he readily agreed. He had an extensive farm on the island and he took us on a tour of his land, explaining the name of every field, rock, hill peak and lough as we went. He kindly agreed to let me keep a tape-recorder running.

When I came home I saw that I had 150 placenames, almost all Gaelic. I also found out that Alex had done an interview with a Scotsman three years previously, a man who was doing a survey of Scottish Gaelic dialects, but who had not left a contact address. I guessed that it would be the School of Scottish Studies. I wrote to them and they sent me the tapes, two cassettes of sentences and vocabulary that Alex had given them. I also found out that Alex had been an informant of Professor Nils Holmer, a Swede, who had studied the dialects of Antrim, Rathlin, Kintyre and Arran (Scotland) in the 1930s. Holmer published "Rathlin Gaelic" (RIA 1939), in which he compiled a comprehensive grammar of Rathlin Gaelic. He also published books on the other locations where he had done research.

Some years later Alex and his family came to live on the mainland in Ballycastle, and it was easy for me to bring him to our house. At first, I asked him to come and put the names he had given me onto a map. When he came he ignored my list, but started to go methodically through the map, and by the time he had finished I had almost 400 names. The map itself was not very good, but with nothing else available we had to make the best of the situation. But some time after that I got aerial photographs of the island, which showed every field and house in sharp focus. Alex spent many Sundays with me, working on them, and consequently the placenames are firmly identified with their locations.

Alex was an exceptionally generous, noble-minded person. He lived a long hard life working on the farm, and combining that with being a sailor on the Clyde puffers, plying between Glasgow and the Hebrides. He also worked in the road service and spent some time as a lighthouse keeper. He knew every inch of his native island.

He departed this life in 2012. I read him out his placenames on his deathbed. He is buried in the Church of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ballycastle.

Audio recording

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