Our native language divvies us into staunch fors and impassioned dismissers. What relevance does Gaelic have in a contemporary Scotland? A Scotland where we took English, but made it ours. Are learners indulging in a quaint but pointless pastime? Are speakers futilely clinging to bow of their secret tongue as it slowly dips beneath the wash of ages?
I swirled a chipped garibaldi around my anaemic cuppa, trying to keep warm in the Aberfoyle memorial hall. While others shuffled in, I took a moment to consider the days ahead. Gaelic in the Landscape. It could mean anything. At the very least, a few days off on a pastoral jolly. A whimsical toe-dip into the mysteries of BBC Alba. Would it arm me with future did-you-knows? The stuff of pub quizzes and dinner party chatter. Would it be just another arms-length attempt to engage with that Scotland, in the safe company of other biophiles and diligent recyclers?
I was wrong. The next few days would not only start a linguistic journey, but one of reflection about our changing place in the world.
“Seilach” SHAY-luch – willow
“Cailleachag Ghorm” kal-yak-ak GORR-om – blue old woman – blue tit
The language itself is like traversing the landscape. A peak here, a gentle slope there. A dip – then a kick. Shapes we recognise, yet alien in our ear. We need to be shown how and where to step when tackling the unfamiliar route from consonant to vowel.
“Brog na cuthaig” – brog na COO-ig – cuckoo shoe – bluebell
Each word is a discovery. A combination of unfamiliar pops and clicks. They roll around your mouth, leaping off your teeth. Each sentence is a feat of glottal acrobatics. Lenition. Elision. Dipthongs. Tripthongs. Preaspirations and trills. It’s imbued with passion and beauty, before you even glance upon meaning.
“Lus nam Ban-sith” – Loos nam ban-shee – the plant of the bad fairies – foxglove
I viewed the materials with both curiosity. And then sadness. Each name proclaimed reverence of nature. Of an understanding and respect for all. It was a sharp reminder of our collective dismissal. We’re woeful stewards. We drown birds in oil; fill innocent bellies with plastic shards as we pump greenhouse gas into the sky and sewage into our water.
When did we switch? How could we let this happen?
I thought of my house. A pebbled-dashed semi squatting on loch bed we drank dry for urban sprawl. We took land that wasn’t ours, stripped it bare and consecrated it with concrete cubes and no-ball-games signs. We live in boxes. We work in boxes. We traverse the land in the safety of more boxes. As we’ve divorced ourselves from outside, we’ve lost our empathy. In an age of skyscrapers, Google Maps and Tesco, knowing the land isn’t necessary. We no longer need to orally map our world for others. The colloquial has no place in modernity. As we’ve developed, the landscape has morphed into a mere backdrop. It’s a secondary character – no need for a back story.
Except, we do need one. As we’ve nurtured our monoglot culture, we’ve stopped reading our spaces. We’ve stopped analysing them and critiquing them, and applying our language to more than aesthetic. We’ve detached. As we’ve detached we’ve lost our knowledge, our history, our pride and our sense of ownership. Outdoors has become the playground for the few. Have we forgotten it’s the nurturer of all?
I’d come on this course to expand my vocabulary. Expecting a glut of new words to add texture and to my writing about Scotland, I’d unconsciously appropriated them for the benefit of our single Scottish story. I hadn’t anticipated how they would settle in my bones as I lay in bed after each day. The words were forcing me to look again at a world I knew nothing about.
As I sat with Dwelly and translated each name on the map I saw places that spoke of refuge or famine. Places of danger, great beauty and sadness. Places that proclaim their importance, but when anglicised wilt into nothing more than a funny-sounding name for tourists to butcher.
I wandered through Gleann Fhionnghlais listening to stories of how tiny silverweed roots roasted on peat embers fed Highland Clearance diaspora. Of healers burned as witches, and sap fed to newborns. Every sgor, every sròn, every bealach is steeped in meaning and people.
It would easy to treat this as nothing more than an intellectual overlay. But this language underpins our geography. It paints pictures of the land before we pocked her with pylons, roads and cities.
I want to tell you the stories I heard. Of the salmon of knowledge. Or Fionn Mac Cumhail and Gráinne. Of a giant’s shot-put masquerading as a glacial erratic. Of rowan branches and dancing millers. But you’ll find so much more if you seek them yourself. There’s a mine of riches beneath the words. Caverns of social, cultural and geographical history. Go out and find them. Reconnect with the rock you’re standing on.
In the week that Creative Scotland released their long overdue Scots Leid Policie we should look a little further. On paper, we may be a nation of one language, but our heritage is steeped in technicolour truer than any tartan. Gaelic, Brythonic. Pictish. Scots. Norse. It’s in our sky. Our soils. Our corries. Our trees. In the crest of a bird.
Look beyond the names and you’ll find a thousand tales penned in bark and berries, carried on wings and chestnut burrs. In each story, you’ll find people. You’ll find humanity. And then, we just might think twice about taking it all for granted.