A complex and difficult word, Sasainn

We recently returned from a weekend trip to Stornoway and, staying in Sandwick, one of our priority ports of call was the memorial to the men lost on HMY Iolaire, which went down nearby on 1 January 1919 in the process of bringing home some of those from Lewis who had survived the First World War.

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the loss involved. This remains one of Britain’s worst maritime disasters: in peacetime for the rest of the UK; while war memorials on Lewis and Harris are the only ones to list the dates of the First World War as between 1914 and 1919 so as to encompass the loss of HMY Iolaire. Nearly 200 islanders perished on it, on top of the 1,000 men who had died (out of 6,000 called up: one in two Lewis men, of whom one in six never made it home) during the War itself. Yet, few outside the islands know of the tragedy. We might surmise some of the reasons for that, but these would include a shameful desire to hush things up in the interests of morale among the wider public, not least amidst the substantially reticent results of the Naval Court of Inquiry run by the Admiralty in private and which were not released into the public domain until 1970 (there was also a public inquiry, whose outcomes did have greater impact, held in Stornoway). Despite the tragedy taking place just yards from the shore, the bodies of some 64 of those who died – nearly one in three – were never found: heavy naval uniforms and a surging swell, and a lack of life-saving equipment due to the boat being vastly overcrowded, being among the factors of blame. It is also impossible not to be both touched by the scale of the tragedy and angry about these things as well as that the loss of the Iolaire is not more widely known.

Erected in 1960, and in spite of some local opposition, the memorial overlooking the site of the wreck is a fairly simple granite affair, added to which there is a stone cairn; the impact of both being undermined – of course temporarily – on our visit by the construction of a new DDA-compliant access path and, more long-term, by a line of small-scale wind turbines located perhaps rather too close at hand. And, indeed, by those who, on the day, had somewhat thoughtlessly chosen that spot from which to attempt to fish (the campaign to have the site of the wreck of HMY Iolaire designated as a war grave seems long overdue).

In the centre of Stornoway itself, there is also a recently-constructed tribute designed by students of the Nicolson Institute whose touching idea it was to collect stones from each of the home villages of those who were lost – and including, therefore, some from typical port and naval towns both in mainland Scotland and from England since the crew of the yacht, which had been commandeered into naval service during the war, were substantially English (but also included some men from Cardiff). The last three stones were collected by Angus MacNeil MP from the Thames, representing men from London (and nearby) who were lost and are among the 18 on the south face of the cairn (adjacent to the left on this view) listed as from ‘Sasainn’.

IMG_20180708_122922 (Custom)

I should be absolutely clear at this point that ‘Sasainn’ is simply the word which is commonly used today in Gàidhlig (and, indeed, similarly in Irish) for ‘England’. There is no attempt to denigrate – this is, not least, a memorial; and high school students have been closely involved.

Yet the word itself is complex, and difficult: most people will know of the term ‘Sassenach’ (used pejoratively to denote the English); while the derivation of the term itself is originally a very broad way of denoting anyone who came from outside Gàidhlig-speaking areas (and thus includes lowland Scots) and where, in some respects, it might be seen as the counterpart of the similarly pejorative ‘teuchter’, the lowland word for those from such areas (= ‘bumpkin’ or ‘yokel’). ‘Sasainn’ itself originally referred to ‘Saxon’. Perhaps oddly, ‘Sasainn’ also bears absolutely no relation to the Gàidhlig for the English language (= ‘Beurla’).

There is thus something of the concept of ‘outsider’ contained in the continued use of ‘Sasainn’ to mean ‘England’, which is problematic both in itself as well as in the context of the islands (and the language) opening up to outside influence. This is not at all a criticism of islanders themselves (at least, the large majority of them who are outside the influence of the shockingly rabid right-wing irrelevancies of the type set out here by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) – and, indeed, I did visit the still pristinely-painted mosque in the centre of Stornoway. The islanders I’ve met have been without exception warm, open and hugely welcoming – and which in itself says quite a bit about the ways in which language can change meaning over time and used as it evolves without regard to the historical precedents. And, perhaps, it ultimately says more about my perceptions of myself as an English-origin outsider than about others’ perceptions of me.

But I do wonder whether Gàidhlig needs another word for ‘England’ which conveys, at least to this outsider, a rather less apparently loaded set of meanings.

10 thoughts on “A complex and difficult word, Sasainn

  1. Hi Calvin

    When I was learning Gaelic in primary school we were taught that, rather than being English, a sassenach was a stranger to the Highlands, and the term is still used on Skye at least to mean lowland Scots as much as it does English. Indeed, we were taught that although some people use Sassain for England, it is actually a contraction of Sassainabhain (I’m not sure of the spelling!), meaning the land of strangers on the logic that lowlanders had SOME knowledge of the Highlands while the English had none.

    But then, just because I was taught that doesn’t mean it’s true, but it’s always ‘felt’ true to me…!




    1. Thanks Malcolm – is that ‘some people use Sasainn’ as in ‘there is also another word that other people use’; or as in ‘some people use Sasainn and some Sasainnabhain’? I’d be very interested to hear if there was an alternative!

      Over here, we use ‘tir’ for ‘land’; and my dictionary gives me ‘fearann’ for ‘land’. That looks a bit like Gaelige unless you use that on Skye too (maybe some connections between that and how you wrote Sassainabhain?)


      1. OK, I’ve done a bit more digging!

        What I hadn’t picked up properly was that the term I’ve heard but never seen written is “Sassain ann”, as picked up when I was at Runrig’s “Last Dance” on Saturday. It’s used in their song “An Toll Dubh”, so I asked one of the schoolfriends I met at the concert (a native speaker) and they suggested that “Sassain ann” can be translated as “the south” (though obviously not literally, more in usage), That’s partly why I was raised with the knowledge that a sassenach was anyone who wasn’t a Highlander, rather than someone who is English.

        I haven’t checked any of this in my Dwelly’s, but I trust my source that it’s reasonable in terms of usage.


      2. Cheers Malcolm for the additional research – one of the benefits of attending gigs is the liberation of stilled thought processes!

        Geographically, the use of the term for all non-Gaelic speakers – thus encompassing lowland Scots – would definitely have meant those outside the Gaedhealtachd (and therefore in the south of Scotland) and I wonder (as I mention below) whether it is the Cambric word for ‘foreigner’ – and thus Saxon rather than Angle – that might have been adopted in Gaelic-speaking areas to describe the same, and encompassing all those from outside the Highlands including lowlanders.

        Quite coincidentally, An Toll Dubh was the first Runrig song I became aware of. And I hope you enjoyed The Last Dance: it must be an emotionally shattering thing for audience and band alike to know (and not just suspect) that this is the last time for each song.


  2. Saesneg is the Welsh word for the English, so there is clearly an common thread through both families of the celtic languages derived it seems from Saxon. interestingly of course England takes its name from a different tribe of invaders the Angles, who settled and created the kingdoms that would coalesce into Northumbria which at one point reached the Forth. The Saxons settled further south creating kingdoms that in time gave us the English regions of Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex and Essex, and along the Welsh border up to Shropshire. It’s no surprise then that Welsh (itself a saxon term) word for English reflects a Saxon origin, less so that Gaelic does, as the initial contacts between the celtic speaking populations of the north would most likely have been Angles, indeed it was an Angle army from Northumbria that the Picts defeated at Nechtansmere in 685, effectively saving the Lothians, Fife and Angus from occupation. Personally I don’t have a problem with either, the Welsh or Gaelic words though being from Yorkshire means i’m likely more Angle that Saxon. Language is a fascinating thing – Richard


    1. Aha! Thanks Richard – agreed. It’s really interesting and I think helpful that the word is so similar in Welsh.

      Cambric was of course the language spoken in southern Scotland as far as the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth up to the 11th century and this had much in common with Welsh. Given the interface with Saxon tribes in Wessex, extending up the Welsh border as England unified under Wessex influence in the 9th century, this might well account for why ‘Saxon’ became how ‘those not from round here’ (a healthy reminder that England is a country of immigration) began to be described in Scotland as in Wales. It’s possible that the increasing spread of Gaelic southwards and eastwards saw Saesneg simply Gaelicised to identify the same, i.e. those who did not speak Gaelic but Cambric, and which would explain why lowland Scots are also encompassed within the Gaelic term.

      Given the derivation of ‘English’ from the tribe of invading Angles, and the clear military interface with northern England, I also wondered how this had not crossed over. The prevailing use of Cambric might well provide the key.


  3. So adding some complexity and indicating it’s a slow week in the office, I did a bit more digging.

    The terms for English as in the people not the language in Manx, which of course is of the Goidelic branch of celtic is Sostnagh, whilst the English language is Baarlagh, I think there are clear similarities there to the words that you highlighted in your initial post “sasainn” and “beurla”.

    In the Brythonic branch the words for English (people) and English (language) are not different in Breton the are Saozneg for the language and Saoz or Saozon for and English person, and in Cornish the language is Sowsnek and a person is a Sows.

    Whilst Cornish is problematic as it’s a revived language the Manx and Breton examples are of interest in that clearly there is a different approach to English as a language in English as a person in the Goidelic branch as opposed to the use of a similar word to denote both in the Brythonic branch. Malcolm and I once discussed in the office the historical view that Pictish was a Brythonic rather than Goidelic form of celtic, (so Sassenach, may just be a linguistic holdover from that lost language), just as I’ve heard shepherds counting in Cumbric in the Yorkshire Dales in my lifetime….yann, tan, thethera


    1. It’s absolutely fascinating that the words for English seem to share common roots regardess of branch (and putting aside the split in how each branch terms the language). This commonality is surely likely to reflect migration and trade (or, perhaps more likely, religion-linked) traffic routes. I wondered for a while whether there was a Viking link, given the battles for control of a disunited England with Saxon tribes and given the strong Viking influence on the Highlands and islands; but German, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish all refer to ‘Angles’ in their words for English rather than Saxon.

      Perhaps the point of reference is simply that Saxons were eventually successful in uniting England, and were thus an issue for concern for Welsh, Irish and Scottish (and Manx); or else alternatively that Anglo-Saxon began to be adopted a term to distinguish between continental-based Saxons and English-based Saxons (and hence the eventual predominance of ‘Angles’ in English with the ‘Saxon’ half simply being dropped), whereas the Celtic languages simply did not pursue such a distinction.

      That must have been some office discussion, by the way 🙂


  4. it was a believe prompted by a comment about just how many River Rivers there are in the UK….i’m reminded of a passage in a book about why a mountain was called Mount Your Finger You Fool (it may have been Pratchett I can’t recall)….Saxon invader – “whats the name of that thing”, Celtic native – “err its a river you daft bastard”, Saxon invader – “Right lads this is the River Avon,,,,on we go, it must be a very big river it goes everywhere”


    1. 🙂 Reminds me also of the phenomenon of Naan bread. Wonder how many people in other languages do that – if Germans for example, wander into an Indian restaurant and order Naan Brot?


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