4. Answers to the East Lothian Question
The reception was held in two large marquees pitched in Moray Place Gardens. After his own wedding to Janice, a second marriage that his son had found difficult to accept at first but to which he had eventually become resigned, Gordon had moved to a house in Gullane. This is pronounced “Gillan,” on the basis of the Gaelic etymology of the word, a matter which divides the population of the East of Scotland into warring factions every bit as much as heresies divided the population of early Christian Europe. Those early heresies had led to bloodshed, and so had the issue of the correct pronunciation of Gullane (which is, as has been said above, “Gillan”). In late 1973 a fight had broken out in the neighbouring town of North Berwick when a passing motorist had stepped out of his car and, innocent of the controversy, had asked the way to Gullane, giving the u an i value. The response of the person asked had been to punch the motorist squarely in the face, breaking his nose and a small bone below the right eye. The motorist had then hit his assailant with a golf club that he had extracted from the back of his car.
This unseemly incident had resulted in the appearance of both parties in Haddington Sheriff Court, where they were charged with assault and breach of the peace. In the course of his judgment, the sheriff, an erudite man, had commented on the casus belli, pointing out that arguments over place names were inevitable, but that they should never deteriorate into physical violence. That was a perfectly normal thing for a sheriff to say when dealing with immoderate behaviour, but he went further.
“The place name Gullane,” he pronounced, “is, as we all know, shrouded in obscurity, and indeed controversy, as this unfortunate incident reminds us. The name comes from the Gaelic word gollan, meaning a small loch, or possibly from another Gaelic word, meaning the shoulder of a hill. If the derivation is from gollan then, in one view, the pronunciation should be o rather than u or i. However, it is likely, in my view, that if indeed the name comes from gollan then, for the sake of clarity, popular usage would have sought to differentiate the place name from the geographical feature word (small loch), and this differentiation would most naturally have been ‘gill’ – rather than ‘gull’ – the former being easier on the tongue. I myself have never doubted that the correct pronunciation is ‘Gillan’ rather than ‘Gullane.’ There are many reasons for this, one of which I have already animadverted to, but a particularly persuasive reason is that that is the way I have heard it pronounced by the Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learny, GCVO, WS. If there is a greater authority on names in Scotland, then let him step forward.” None did.
This is the only time that a Scottish court has ruled on the matter. Some have pointed out, of course, that the sheriff’s remarks were obiter, and therefore not binding, but, in the absence of any more authoritative ruling, others have argued that we must accept ourselves as being bound by what was said in Haddington Sheriff Court. It may be, they say, that the Court of Session itself will rule on the matter – and indeed that would be helpful – but until the court does, those who have insisted on a u value should have the good grace to recognise that they are wrong.
When Matthew’s father had moved to Gullane, he had discovered that the pronunciation of the town’s name appeared to be determined by the side of an economic and social fault-line on which one dwelled. Those who lived in the large houses on the hill, great villas favoured by the Edinburgh haute-bourgeoisie, would never have said anything but Gillan, while those who lived on the other side of the High Street would choke rather than use that pronunciation.
Gordon considered the matter to be one of extreme unimportance. He had no time for such pettiness and for the verbal signals by which people set out to demonstrate that they belonged to this or that segment of society. What did it matter if one said table napkin or serviette? It mattered not at all, not in the slightest, although the correct word, of course, is napkin. But everybody knows what is meant by serviette, and that is the important thing, rather than the issue of getting it right and saying napkin.
Although they spent much of their time in their house in Gullane, Gordon and Janice kept a flat in Moray Place, which they used when they had something on at night and when it would have been tiresome or inconvenient to drive out to East Lothian.
This flat was on the north side, looking out over the Dean Valley towards the Firth of Forth and the hills of Fife, a city view of incomparable beauty; or, if comparisons were to be attempted, they would have to be with the views enjoyed by those with the good fortune to live on the Grand Canal in Venice or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Gordon was not sure how far Janice appreciated the aesthetic pleasure of living in the classical New Town; she was not one to spend much time in the admiration of beauty, and when they had inspected the flat before buying it he had noticed her indifferent expression when he had first commented on the astragals. She had been more interested in the kitchen and in what would be required to bring it up to a satisfactory standard.
“Everything must go,” she said. “We’ll have to get rid of everything and start from scratch.”
“Everything?” Gordon had been surprised. Had she not noticed the lovely old Belfast sink? Had she not appreciated the ancient meat safe, half recessed into the wall? Janice had been adamant, though, and in due course men came round to take everything out.
“An awful pity,” said one of the men. “This good stuff. This lovely old sink.”
Gordon had looked away, ashamed. I’ve married beneath me, he suddenly thought. It was an odd thought, the sort of thought that people now would never admit to thinking. And yet there were occasions on which people married beneath them – not in social terms – but in terms of intelligence or sensitivity. Why deny that such unions took place?
And this dispiriting judgment was later to be confirmed, when Janice dropped a hint about a present for her forthcoming birthday. Had he heard correctly? Had she really said: “I’d love something like that picture of the people dancing on the beach. You know the one I mean?”