Cecil County and Gaelic

Note: This was originally written around 2005, when I had just finished 5 years of weekly Scots Gaelic lessons, and my mom, Helen McKinney was living. I have amended it just a tad bit to bring it up to date.

With my mother Helen McKinney, who was regular at the Cecil County Historical Society, I worked for many years on the family history and genealogy of the McKinney family of Cecil Co. This enterprise really began for me during my time at North East High School (NEHS). For US History I had Mrs. Nellie Miller, a widow who came to NEHS to teach in the 60’s. I was not a popular fellow, being too smart for most people's liking, and Mrs. Miller, finding no conceit in me, took a liking to me. Her acceptance anchored my high school career, proved that some adult could approve of me, and I am perpetually grateful. She assigned us to look up what we could about our family. I interviewed my great uncle Harry. That became the start of what is turning out to be a lifelong sojourn into McKinney genealogy and Cecil County history.

The description of one other of my perennial habits is necessary before continuing on this topic. I have learned to love the study of languages. Mr. John Kelly, my science and Latin teacher at NEHS impressed me with his knowledge, particularly of Latin, German, and more languages than I can remember. I had two years of Latin from Mr. Kelly, two of Spanish from Mr. Floyd Price, and I minored in German at University. It was thus natural, when presented with the chance, I signed up in California for once a week classes in Scots Gaelic, or Gadhlig. This study lasted five years, and has been a source of never-ending satisfaction about McKinneys and the county.

Let me say at the outset, I am not fluent. I can read most anything with a dictionary in hand, and know enough grammar and words to recognize a Gadhlig derived word or name. But, enough preliminaries, let’s get to the good stuff. Specifics about McKinney family history will be covered in a later work, and McKinney genealogists will have to wait. This is about language.

According to oral history, and rent roll evidence, the first person in my line on the Eastern Shore was Iohn Meconik who landed on Kent Island about 1650. He is in Peden’s books in many places with many different spellings of his name. I have picked out the one spelling that speaks volumes across the centuries to me because of my Gadhlig training. By the way, pronounce that, Gall ick’ with a semi-hard glottal noise on the “k.” If you look for the most likely derivation of my family patronymic you find most people statistically should come from the great clan Mac Coinnich which the English (and some social climbing clan chiefs) unfortunately morphed into Mac Kenzie. Mirabile dictu, as Mr. Kelly liked to say, that is exactly how to phonetically say Meconik. Our FOB guy served on juries in Kent County, and the clerk of the court, when the name was not common to a respectable English speaker used phonetics. The same thing for the spelling Iohn. Iain in Gadhlig is John. Say ee ine with long e and long i. So, just by knowing the Gadhlig speech, I have a good idea about his language, culture, and possible place of origin. It helps, of course, to know that the most common name by far in our family that was given before the naming traditions died out was John.

Now let's tie in local geography. As you all know the name of Beacon Hill between North East and Elkton causes a lot of confusion. Is it a peak mentioned on John Smith’s logs? Is it just that in England, Scotland and Ireland, signal fires were often lit on the tops of hills, hence a beacon? And lastly why do all the local Sisal (Sorry, Cecil) Countians call it bacon hill? Gadhlig study allows us to definitively settle the last point. For background, we must learn how to say whisky in Gadhlig. The Scots call distilled spirits, like in Latin, aqua vita, the water of life. In Gadhlig, this became uisge beatha. Say “oosh ka bay a.” It is now easy to see how a Gadhlig speaking person would say beacon. He/she would say bacon. Remember that 350 years ago Gadhlig, and the Irish tongue of Gailge were the same speech. So almost all Cecil Countians of Celtic origin—and there were plenty--would pronounce it the same way.

Names of farms on the original land patents are the most fun for me. I include two for your consideration. Geofarison had me going in circles before my Gadhlig study. I looked through place name books from Ireland and Scotland looking for the name, posted it on bulletin boards in Ireland and the UK, and pestered professors in European universities. Finally, one day it struck me, and it was straightforward. A colonial person would not say “Geo” like we would in, say Geography. He would say “Joe” like in George. Only a handful of Gadhlig adjectives are used before the noun. One is “deugh,” meaning good, and pronounced ”Joe.” D before E is pronounced J, but that is another article. Deugh is a sneaky adjective though, it changes the word after it, a Gadhlig grammatical thing called lenition. So pearson, which means person in Gadhlig, gets a ph in front just like our pheasant in English, and is pronounced ferson. So, we have Geofarison as the English-speaking clerk writing out the land patent’s name when the Gadhlig speaking patenter said his land should be called literally, “good person,” or more colloquially, ‘Fine Fellow.”

My second example kept me going a little longer. “Drum Greena” really baffled me. Druim (droo im) is Gadhlig for back, but it can also mean a ridge of land. Greena is surely “gruine” (gru in ye) which means pretty. So, John McKinley whose land patent is next to my families’ in Elk Neck, named his place “Pretty Ridge,” and the English-speaking clerk likely hadn’t the foggiest notice what he was saying. It turns out that a likely descendent of this John McKinley in West VA has the exact same Y chromosome that I do, which indicates the clerk didn’t get the name correct either. DNA stuff will have to wait for a future missive also.

By now, some readers are likely saying to themselves, “OK smarty-pants, how do you know your ancestors really spoke Gadhlig? My certain answer came from Walter Drummond, an older gentleman who lived in Warwick. He and I share a great great grandfather and a grandfather who were brothers, Thomas B. and Joseph McKinney of Elk Neck. He asked me during my and my mom's interview with him why his grandfather always said that old folks in the family would not say Yes or No, but answer with the verb. For example, if you would ask, “Can you milk the cow in the morning?” the answer would be “Can milk,” or “Cannot milk.” This is exactly the Gadhlig usage as there are no explicit words for Yes or No in the Gadhlig language. Needless to say, that moment was one of the high points of my genealogical research in the county.

Wayne R. McKinney 2 August 2019