The haunting brilliance of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four was his insight that some ideas become literally unthinkable when we lose the language to express them. The point about the continuous redacting of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state, was to remove words so that people could no longer imagine certain possibilities of resistance and human freedom.
He wrote these words, as is well known, in an attic of the farmhouse at Barnhill in North Jura. A typewriter still sits at the desk where he worked, and from the window, there is a magnificent view east to Argyll across the water. He would have been well aware of the relevance of lost language to his crofting neighbours with whom he worked on the hay harvest. When you lose a language, you lose the world view that it encapsulates, and in the case of Gaelic, it is one which challenges some of the most deeply embedded assumptions of modernity such as capitalism and individualism.
Orwell would have known the importance of language and memory as sources of identity and resilience in the Gaelic island communities around him, but it’s not something the critics comment on; few Orwell scholars have much knowledge of Gaelic and the Scottish West Coast, and they have simply described Barnhill as remote and Orwell’s decision to move there as evidence of his eccentricity. They have missed the moments in Nineteen Eighty Four, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, when Gaelic culture must have been in Orwell’s mind.
The reason why I see this influence on Orwell, is down to the generous conversations on my visits to the Hebrides to research my book, Love of Country, when I spent many hours sitting in peoples’ houses hearing about the importance of Gaelic to them.
“Iain Crichton Smith poignantly wrote that the Gael is ‘ born inside a language.. it is not we who make the language, it is the language that makes us.. The imperialism of language is the most destructive of all. For the islander to lose his language.. would be to lose to great extent the meaning of his life, and to become a member of a sordid colony on the edge of the imperialist world.’”
I’m well aware of the wider political debates across Scotland about the cost of supporting a language only spoken by 1.1 per cent of the population; I’ve heard the bitter comments of those who think its absurd to have bilingual signposts in the Lowlands where Gaelic might not actually ever have been spoken. But what intrigued me was a different set of issues – and it goes to the heart of Orwell’s insight – about how Gaelic provides a language of resistance to capitalism; it is inherently counter cultural, challenging central concepts such as the notion of private property.
Take the word dùthchas. There is no succinct way to translate it because it incorporates a rich set of ideas. My Gaelic dictionary translates it as ‘place of origin’ or ‘homeland’. But in Lewis, I was told it means much more. It’s a collective claim on the land which is reinforced and lived out through the shared management of that land. It is a right which is grounded in daily habits and activities and it is bound up with relationships to others, and responsibilities. It gives rise to the idea, identified by the scholar Michael Newton, that ‘people belong to places rather than places belonging to people’. Gaelic turns notions of ownership on their head.
Curious about this subversive quality to the language, I looked up ‘belonging’ in an English dictionary; tellingly, the first definition was a matter of property as in ‘belongings’. The next definition was status as in ‘having the right personal and social qualities to be a member of a particular group’. A very English concept. But dig deeper and the word orginates in an Old English term ‘gelang’ which means ‘at hand, together with’. Buried in the etymology of the word is an understanding of touch, physical closeness and how that generates solidarity. The sentiment cropped up in a conversation with Agnes Rennie who has a croft on Lewis: ‘I couldn’t conceive of living on this land without getting my hands dirty. It keeps me connected to the place.’
These ideas of place and relationship were completely at odds with the idea that land could be bought and sold by strangers in lawyers’ offices in Edinburgh and London. The rest of course is history; at the time of the clearances, dùthchas had no legal significance, the term was reduced to meaning heritage. A similar process of corrupted translation was used in many colonies across Africa and Asia to expropriate land.
The Lewis poet Iain Crichton Smith poignantly wrote that the Gael is ‘ born inside a language.. it is not we who make the language, it is the language that makes us.. The imperialism of language is the most destructive of all. For the islander to lose his language.. would be to lose to great extent the meaning of his life, and to become a member of a sordid colony on the edge of the imperialist world.’
There are other Gaelic words which give a deep insight into a dramatically different world view embodied in the language. ‘Cliù’ is also hard to translate exactly because it incorporates reputation, but also ‘usefulness to the community’. It’s a term which conveys how identity is held in tightly knit small communities where everyone is intimately known. Crichton Smith described this as a sustaining force in which one is ‘held up in its buoyancy as a swimmer in water.’ Identity is not the individual project evident on Facebook, in which you must learn to sell and promote yourself with all the brittle narcissism that can entail.
Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement: the ideal is to maintain an equilibrium. A saying from South Uist expresses it beautifully: ‘Eat bread and weave grass, And then this year shall be as thou wast last year.’ It’s close to the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world.
It was precisely because Gaelic expressed a different world view, that for centuries it was scorned as the language of a backward people. Famously, Samuel Johnson described it as the ‘rude speech of a barbarous people’; James VI of Scotland referred to Gaels as ‘wolves and bears’. London and Edinburgh asserted notions of cultural superiority to legitimize their supremacy and their dismantling of the Gàidhealtachd. The Anglo-Irish poet Louis McNeice openly admitted in the first pages of his travel book, ‘I crossed the Minch’ that he didn’t know the islanders spoke a different language.
By then, Lewis and other parts of the Gàidhealtachd had already been involved for more than a generation in a bitter struggle to reassert their culture and identity. During my interview with Agnes Rennie, her husband Frank reached down a book to quote an astonishing confrontation between the millionaire businessman Lord Leverhulme and a crowd of islanders in 1919. Lord Leverhulme was promising jobs in his fish canning factories, new homes, electricity and railways, but what he was not prepared to do was give them land. He had almost won his audience over, when a crofter spoke up, ‘You have bought this island. But you have not bought us, and we refuse to be the bond slaves of any man. We want to live our lives in our own way, poor in material things it may be, but at least it will be clear of the fear of the factory bell; it will be free and independent.’
Famously, Lord Leverhulme could not persuade the islanders to his vision of economic progress. Frank Rennie’s point was that this spirit of resistance is evident today; this is not just a matter of history, but of how the islanders are increasingly confident about shaping their own future. Half of all the land in the Hebrides is now owned by community land trusts; two thirds of all Hebrideans live on community owned land. It’s an historic shift which goes some way towards easing the bitter past.
Part of that confidence also comes from winning two major battles to protect the Gaelic understanding of land and place in the last two decades. The first was the fight over the Harris superquarry which would have effectively removed an entire mountain. The Leicestershire-based quarrying company pursuing the application had come to Harris expressly because planning guidance for England and Wales had ruled out quarries of this size for fear of public opposition. Harris was seen as a remote periphery with a small local population, more amenable to cajoling and persuasion.
There was a fascinating contrast between the quarrying company’s approach and how the Harris residents mounted their opposition. The company used maps which removed all the Gaelic names and replaced them with numbers; they stripped the land of identity. Bizarrely they cited Sir Walter Scott’s impressions (from his boat) of the Harris skyline, (‘I have never seen anything more unpropitious,’) to argue for their lack of cultural significance. Words such as ‘wild’ ‘remote’ and ‘empty’ were used in a deeply political way to suggest the land had no value.
In contrast, Harris residents drew on words such as dùthchas and còraichean to express how the people belong to the land and how the land was richly associated with memory and thus their identity. One submission to the inquiry summed it up: ‘another reality prevails in Harris: language, religion, culture – the whole of everyday life – are embedded in tradition not in consumption. Tradition should not be confused with the past; it could better be described as the meaning of the past, distilled into the present and cared for, with a view to handing it on to further generations.’ Despite the tantalizing promise of local jobs from the project, the application was refused.
“Capitalism requires a placelessness to ensure the smooth flow of capital, people and resources to achieve economic efficiency. The critic John Berger wrote that ‘the historic role of capitalism itself is to destroy history, to sever any link with the past and to orientate all effort and imagination to what is about to occur.’ When Gaelic culture resisted this, it was belittled and dismissed. The radical sociologist Manuel Castells sums it up: ‘elites are cosmopolitan and people are local.’”
A decade later, Lewis’ Barabhas Moor was the subject to a massive wind farm application. It would have been the biggest in Europe with 234 proposed turbines, each had wings the size of a jumbo jet and needed huge concrete bases and connecting roads. Again, the language became charged with political significance; to the outside developers, the moor was ‘empty’ and represented economic opportunity. To the local protesters, the project would destroy a well known and richly storied landscape which also happened to have several national and international designations for environmental significance. The project provoked passionate controversy but was finally defeated and Lewis has gone on to develop smaller community owned wind farms.
Geographer Joseph Murphy, a professor at Glasgow University, walked 1200 miles along the Irish and Scottish coasts exploring the use of Gaelic to resist the imposition of big commercial developments in both countries. He recognizes that huge pressure can be brought to bear on these ‘resource peripheries’ as the dynamics of capitalism come up against profoundly different local cultures and precious natural environments.
The conflict is epitomised by how land is seen. Many developers depend on the Geographical Information System which combines huge databases with mapping and modeling. It is used to identify suitable sites for wind farm development by processing information on wind speeds, existing electricity installation and detectable noise levels. In contrast, Gaelic culture has a practice of dense naming of the landscape ‘even to areas the size of a spade’. They are both ways of knowing the land, one is about value extraction, the other is about memory, relationship and identity.
Capitalism requires a placelessness to ensure the smooth flow of capital, people and resources to achieve economic efficiency. The critic John Berger wrote that ‘the historic role of capitalism itself is to destroy history, to sever any link with the past and to orientate all effort and imagination to what is about to occur.’ When Gaelic culture resisted this, it was belittled and dismissed. The radical sociologist Manuel Castells sums it up: ‘elites are cosmopolitan and people are local.’
The success of the campaigns in Lewis and Harris was in my mind a year ago when I was reporting on the anti-fracking protests in my own home country in North Yorkshire. The campaign was energetic and determined in this picturesque rural area, but ultimately unsuccessful and the application was approved. It seemed to me that the local resistance was hobbled; either they were citing a catalogue of fine detail over disposal of waste and lorry movements, or they were warning of nightmare scenarios of earthquakes and pollution. What they struggled to articulate was a concept of custodianship of the land; the planning authorities insisted the national interest overrode local objections.
I visited the head offices of the company who won the fracking application – the first in the UK – in their offices in London. They had hired a few rooms in an anonymous office block, but they were about to move – everything was in boxes – it summed up this kind of capitalism. It is transient; it morphs into new corporate entities, it moves offices.
Only now are we beginning to grasp the implications of how this model of economic development with its unapologetic language of exploitation of resources. Perhaps that will bring new respect and consideration for the heritage of human intelligence and ingenuity represented by Gaelic.
Love of Country, A Hebridean Journey, by Madeleine Bunting is published in paperback by Granta in July 2017:
“The Hebrides hold a remarkable place in the imaginations of Scotland and England. Bunting considers the extent of the islands’ influence beyond their shores, finding that their history of dispossession and migration has been central to the British imperial past. Perhaps more significant still is how their landscapes have been repeatedly used to imagine the British nation. Love of Country shows how their history is a backdrop for contemporary debates about the relationship between our nations, how Britain was created, and what Britain has meant – for good and for ill.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sunday Herald. in 2016.