Speaking Doric in New York

We always love a guest post here at BrooklynAncestry.com, and the following post written by Sally Sheridan is a great genealogical success story, and a very interesting look at the Doric language.

Speaking Doric in New York; My Mitchells come to America

By Sally Sheridan

My mother’s father was a character. I have spent the last ten years researching him and his complicated family. At first it was the task of finding the family that he abandoned to marry my grandmother in 1911. In 2003 I found them using Genealogy.com., and in 2011, one hundred years after the fact, I met the grandson of the woman my grandfather abandoned in 1911. But that is not the story I am telling here.

Among the many odd things I have learned about my grandfather was that he declared on my mother’s birth certificate, in 1913, that he was born in Ireland when was actually born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My mother always said he was a great storyteller who could electrify a room with his entertaining stories. And one of his stories was that he was Irish. The truth is that his father was born in Huntly, Scotland and his mother in Illinois.

I have done a great deal of research into his Scottish grandparents and I have spent several weeks in the village of Huntly, situated in the northeast of Scotland between Aberdeen and Inverness, where my Great Grandfather John Charles Mitchell, Jr. was born in September 1845. I have visited the nearby hamlet of Gartly where his father was born and have stood in the kitchen of the farm house near Clatt, Scotland where his mother Isabella Laing was born. All these place names are within a few miles of one another. Walking distance, really.

My 2nd Great Grandmother Isabelle Laing Mitchell in 1883 30 years after arrival in America

When Isabella Laing married John Charles Mitchell in the early 1840s, it was the Laings who had the wealth, not the Mitchells. Her family had deep roots in the area and were related to the Gordon Clan. Her family had lived on the same property since 1777. Mitchell, on the other hand, was a stone-dyker (the original spelling on the birth register), an itinerant worker who built with stones. They were not allowed to join unions of masons. They were day-workers. In addition, Isabella had five brothers. She was never going to own land. By 1853, the family now of five could no longer survive in Scotland.

It was a Thursday in July. The twenty-first of the month, 1853. Hot and muggy, no doubt, but after three weeks in steerage with her husband and three little children, Isabelle or Isabella Mitchell as the passenger manifest read, was ready for fresh air.

Captain and Master George W. Robinson signed the manifest top and bottom and took responsibility for delivering the ship Edward Hunly with himself and 592 others from their departure from Liverpool, England to the arrival and presentation to the office of Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. Of the 593 individuals on board, the majority, by far, were from Scotland and Ireland with a sprinkle of English. The other nationalities aboard were as follows: 42 Germans; 14 Dutch (listed as being from Holland); 6 Russians, all males; and 3 Americans.

Before I caught genealogy fever, around 2003, my profession was teaching English as a second language to elementary students, Mexican professional people who needed to learn English and even prisoners at the Arizona State Prison. As a language specialist, I look at the above passenger manifest and wonder, what was the language environment on the ship? Obviously, the majority of language speakers spoke English. As I analyze the other language groups represented, I see the next largest language group were Germans, 42 of them. I would expect that some if not all of the Dutch passengers also spoke some German. The Russians were a distinct language minority.

I now believe that although my Mitchell ancestors were counted among the 528 presumably English-speaking individuals on board, they very well may have been linguistically isolated even from the other Scottish, and almost certainly from the English and Irish. Only six years ago I would have found it absurd indeed to say my Scottish ancestors arrived in America not speaking English but that was before we spent a week in Huntly.

*What language do you hear me speaking?

With my daughter at the grave of my 6th great grandparents Thomas Laing (d.1765) and Isobel Neill Laing (d.1758) Near Rhynie, Scotland

In July 2007, my husband took me on the genealogy trip of lifetime: a week in the lovely village of Huntly, exploring the villages, farms and, of course cemeteries occupied by my own ancestors, since 1680 (documented). Huntly, at present, has a population of about 4,400. Its original name was Milton (mill town) of Strathbogie. One of its claims to fame is that it is the historic home of the Gordon Highlanders. It is also historically tied to the Blackwatch regiments, which you might think is a good thing. But in my family of Jacobites, supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Blackwatch were the local traitors the British hired to keep the Clans from rising again after they (the British) massacred us at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Not that we are still bitter, of course.

The first evening we were having dinner with our daughter, Jill and our son-in-law, Scot Stacy, in the dining room of the Gordon Arms Hotel in Huntly, Scotland. Scot was the last to join us at the table. He sat down and said the oddest thing. Shaking his head slowly, as if slightly confused, he said, “Up until now, I always thought I spoke English, but apparently I don’t.”

He explained that coming downstairs to dinner, he had met a local man who said something to him. Scot said something back and they had this back and forth exchange, neither being able to understand the other and yet each speaking English. Thus was our son-in-law shaking his head and briefly wondering what language was coming out of his mouth.

There are at least three explanations for Scot’s confusion. The first may be that the man on the stair may have been speaking English with a very thick Scottish brogue. The second explanation may be that the man was speaking Scottish English, a recognized variety close to English. The third possibility is that the man was speaking Doric.

Doric is a dialect that is even further removed from English. There are an estimated several hundred thousand Doric speakers in Scotland, and Rhynie, the area where our family is from, is the center of the Doric speaking world according to recent articles in The Scotsman newspaper.

To illustrate the difference between English and Doric, here is a portion of a children’s folk tale told first in English and then in Doric:

THE THREE GIFTS (in English)

​​Where the Royal Oak [pub] is today, there was once an oak tree. And in the shadow of the oak tree was a cottage. In the cottage lived a young woman called Margaret, together with her husband Donald, and their little baby Angus. And if you asked Margaret which of the two –Donald or Angus– she loved the most, she would find it very hard to say.

Margaret had been born with three gifts: a light hand for the baking; a light foot for the dancing; and a light heart that could see her through the day.

Donald was a drover, sometimes away for weeks. One beautiful day in the late summer, during one of these absences, Margaret decided to go for a picnic. She took a bottle of milk and some sandwiches, and set off up the road with the baby. In the early afternoon they stopped by a grassy knoll to rest. Margaret had unpacked the sandwiches and taken out the milk when she noticed a cloud of dust coming up the road towards her. As the cloud got closer she saw inside it a little old man with a long white beard. He looked worn and weary, and the dust of the road was on him.


Faar the Royal Oak [pub] is noo-a-days, there wis eence an oak tree. An in the shadda o the oak tree wis a hoosie. In the hoosie there bade a young wife ca’ed Marget, wi her man Donal, an their wee baby Angus. An if ye speirt at Marget which o the twa –Donal or Angus– she loo’ed the maist, she wid hae been hard pitten til’t ti say.

Marget hid been born wi three gifts: a licht han for the bakin; a licht fit for the dancin; and a licht hert ti mak the day ging by.

Donal wis a drover, sometimes awa for weeks at a time. Ae bonnie day in the late Simmer, durin ane o the times fin he wisawa, Marget took it intil her heid ti ging an see foo the peats war dryin on the peat moss on the hill. She took a bottle o milkan a piece, and an gid awa up the road wi the bairnie rowed in her plaid. In the early efternoon she stoppet by a grassy knowe for a rest. She took oot her piece an hid ta’en oot the bottle o the milk, fin she notice’t a clood of dust comin up the road in her direction. As the clood got closer she saw inside it a littleaal man with a lang fite beard. He looket trachet an sair-come-at, and the dust o the lang fite road lay thick upon him. ​​

(From the small book Secret Doorways and Strange Worlds: A Storywalk Through Huntly. It is available at www.deveron-arts.com)

My son-in-law is in good company. No less than Queen Victoria herself had difficulty communicating with the Huntly folks. This story comes from the book Widow Smith of Spence’s Bridge, by Jessie Ann Smith. Both Jessie Ann Smith and her husband John were born in Gartly in the early 1850s. She tells some delightful stories about life in the area of Huntly. This is the story:

Queen Victoria was our ruling sovereign. Her Majesty liked to journey by railway because she found it pleasant and soothing. While on one of her frequent trips she visited the Highlands of Scotland incognito. While distributing packages of tea among the crofters, a practice often performed by gentle ladies of the district for tea was considered a great luxury and a rare treat.[sic] Her Majesty fell into conversation with one of the few women able to speak English. It was actually a dialect, for Gaelic was her native tongue. [The woman was speaking Doric, but it is close enough to English that the Queen was able to understand her satisfactorily.] The odour of the magic concoction, “Kale,” in the crofter’s hut made the Queen hungry, for she had often heard about the Kale under its better known name of Scotch Broth. The hostess, renowned for her hospitality to travelers, handed the visitor a bowl and spoon and told her to help herself.

​The simple, humble fare offered with such a good heart, was very acceptable to the Queen. “How do you manage to make such good broth and what do you put in it to give it that wonderful flavor?” asked Her Majesty.

​“Oh,” replied the crofter, “It’s quite aisy. I aye hae plenty o’ beef, then I put barley intult, peas intult, cabbage intult, parsley intult, turnip and carrot and leeks intult. After that Isaison it.”

“But what is ‘intult’?” asked the Queen naively, thinking this was some new ingredient of which she had never heard.

​“But amn’t I telling ye what’s intult?” said the crofter. “There’s beef intult, barley intult, peas intult, cabbage intult, parsley intult, and turnip and carrot and leeks intult.”

At last the Queen realized that ‘intult’ just meant ’into it’.

​The Queen enjoyed this joke immensely but particularly the homely, rustic way the Highland woman took so much for granted, never, for one moment thinking she was addressing Queen Victoria, ruler of the British Empire.

This became one of Her Majesty’s favorite stories and it was not long before it was known from Land’s End to John O’ Groats.

*What Language Do You Hear Me Speaking? is an excerpt from the unpublished book, Grandfather’s Secret Family, by Sally Sheridan

5 thoughts on “Speaking Doric in New York”

  1. I am truly jealous of your discoveries. I took A trip to Moray, but only because I know at some point my family took the name of that area, but I have not gotten that line back to Scotland yet.

  2. What’s it like to see your ancestors immortalized in print and shared with the world? Wouldn’t they be astonished and, we would hope, pleased that we care about their sacrifices and honor them so many years later? (Roy H. Mitchell is my cousin descended from my grandfather’s first marriage, the family I searched for and found.)

  3. I was very lucky that a great deal of my Scottish information was given to me unsolicited in the 1960s by an elderly sister of my grandfather. It turned out to be very accurate when I was later able to visit the area and verify it. Sometimes it just falls into our lap, sometimes it never comes.

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