Over the past few years, the rise in support for an independent Scotland coupled with an increasingly reactionary approach to Scottish culture from hardline unionists has brought many deep rooted anti-Gaelic sentiments to light. These sentiments are often based on ideas that have been promoted historically which are grounded in an outdated, discredited narrative designed to undermine the role that Gaelic has had to play in the development and identity of the Scottish nation.
The antagonism towards Gaelic has, of late expressed itself in increasingly outrageous and fantastic ideas like Gaelic being a ploy created by the SNP to promote nationalist sentiment, but more often than not it expresses itself as complaints about the amount of money being spent on the language. My immediate response to this sentiment is always the rhetorical question ‘well where are all the Gaelic millionaires then’? There are plenty of English speakers who have made their fortune from public cash so why not Gaelic? Are we an inferior breed of people, unworthy of being successful?
It will require a lot more investment of public money if Gaelic is to be salvaged from the jaws of the global monoculture, and looking deeper, the argument is never really about the amount actually being spent, but whether Gaelic is worth saving or not. True, money has been spent unwisely in the past, but Gaelic encompasses a language, a culture and a people who are just starting to recover from several hundred years of suppression which has resulted in the death of the language in most parts of Scotland in which it was spoken naturally within the past few generations.
These areas include the better part of Alba (Scotland) stretching from Dùthaich ‘ic Aoidh (Sutherland) and parts of Caithness in the north to Argyllshire, much of Perthshire, Rosshire, Invernesshire, some of West Dunbartonshire and Stirlingshire, parts of Aberdeenshire; even Aryshire – Gaelic still having had a foothold in the isle of Arran until the 1970s. Not to mention the many urban Gaelic communities that developed as a direct result of the destruction of rural Gaelic Scotland and the subsequent migration of Gaels to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
One of the top grievances of the ‘it’s deid anyway’ brigade who seem to be able to have completely ignored the thriving and growing culture of the Gael in 21st century Scotland is that there are now so called ‘Gaelic roadsigns’. In some of the areas mentioned above it has been the policy of local governments for some years now to give place names in both Gaelic and in English and these signs appear with the Gaelic written in Celtic green, the authoritative English name being given in bold black.
Arguments against these bilingual signs have been numerous; from letters sent by angry motorists to newspapers complaining about ‘alphabet soup’ putting drivers off, to articles in respected Scottish newspapers by journalists who aught to know better which argue that these signs are a ‘waste of public money’. Having gone through most of my adult life dealing with the ignorance which stems from the linguistic triumphalism of monoglot British, English speakers; an ignorance which manifests itself in many guises, from online abuse to the ‘what’s the Gaelic for helicopter’ mantra I’m sure most Gaels have had to endure, these anti-Gaelic expressions regarding roadsigns come as no surprise.
Anti-Gaelic sentiment has its roots in a deep seated fear within Scottish and British society of the outsider Gael; the picture painted by John of Fordun and others from the medieval period onwards of bloodthirsty barbarians who perform bestiality and are without law or civility. These ideas are tied into the growth of the exclusively Anglo-Saxon speaking community in Scotland juxtaposing itself with the earlier, long established Gaelic one. This can be seen as an example of what is known in post colonial theory quite simply as ’othering’ and most cultures endemic to their landscape worldwide now fighting for survival have had to endure this same phenomenon.
The names given to places by those who have dwelt in them for millennia are deeply rooted in both the history and the cosmology of those people. Often they contain clues regarding the natural ecology of the land they describe ie. Ceann a’ Ghiùthsaich (Head of the pine forest; a reference to the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once covered much of the country) appearing in English as Kingussie. Sometimes place names reference our history and can tell us much about where we came from ie. Dun Breatann, Englished to Dumbarton meaning fort of the Britons, a reference to the Northern colonies of the Brythonic people who I believe flourished in Strathclyde following the building of the short lived Roman, Antonine wall. Gaelic place names like Caol Acain (the narrows of King Haakon), Englished to Kyleackin also incorporate the history of the Scandinavians who after holding the sway of power in much of the Hebrides eventually turned to the Gaelic language and culture of the land they had colonised.
More importantly Gaelic place names actually mean something. They describe the place in question usually very precisely and their sound, when heard is often similar to the English versions which generally came about as a result of monoglot English speakers, having been contemptuous and unwilling to attempt the Gaelic pronunciation corrupting them to their current, meaningless, soulless form. Sometimes the English place name will bear no resemblance to the Gaelic one whatsoever and can be a directly imposed change such as Fort Augustus (Cille Chuimein in Gaelic), renamed after the Duke of Cumberland who oversaw the slaughter of thousands of Gaels on the battlefield of Culloden.
The loss of indigenous place names throughout the globe helps to create the void we all now feel whether wittingly or unwittingly between us, our ancestors, our landscape and many other factors which enter into our understanding of our surroundings and our natural place within them. This trend can only be seen as having a negative effect on our society, promoting the triumphalism of the English speaking monoculture which still spreads across the globe obliterating the songs, stories, languages and ideas of those who peopled the sacred earth with love and respect since time immemorial.
With this in mind it makes great sense to turn the question often posed by the adversaries of the Gael on its head and ask ‘are English roadsigns a waste of public money?’
My home village, Baile Chaolais, which means the village of the narrows is Englished to Ballachulish. The English version of the name and others like it which sound strange to the non-Gaelic ear is often ridiculed with undertones of its natives being backward, after all, who would have lived in a place where even the name sounds completely ridiculous. To the outsider, Gaelic is a thing of the past here; It is as if my great grandfather, Seumas Uilleam Thòmais who according to my grandmother, couldn’t speak much English didn’t really exist and like the Highlanders depicted in Outlander, most probably think people here ran about the hills speaking English with Fife accents.
The nearest town is Fort William, known as Baile Mhàiri or An Gearasdan to a select few locals who have been fortunate enough to be exposed to the native culture of the area. As an English and latterly a British fort it was at one time, the epicentre of the suppression of the Gaels in the West Highlands and was named after none other than William of Orange, the victor in the struggle between kings which lead locally to the massacre of a whole community of those who had peopled Gleann a’ Comhann (Glencoe) for countless generations.
With this in mind isn’t the very existence of English versions of our place names downright offensive? Wouldn’t public money be spent far more effectively by helping to obliterate the use of this legacy of colonialism by getting rid of bilingual and English roadsigns? They are, after all a complete waste of public money and are a down right danger to the public.
The truth is that Gaelic roadsigns are a threat to those who wish to see the highlands remain a placid, subjugated region of North Britain with no evidence of the outlandish, foreign natives apart from the unpronounceable names of mountains; and even some of those are now popularly renamed amongst those outdoor enthusiasts who use them for leisure pursuits. God forbid a visitor or even a resident may have to actually attempt the pronunciation of a place name in the language of the land they are in, but then again these people probably think that Perth, Australia has always been called Perth or that Calgary, Canada has always been named thus.
Let’s keep the roadsigns Gaelic and get rid of these ridiculous Englished versions of our place names which mean absolutely nothing and have no value other than an enshrining of attitudes which saw a whole culture and people decimated by the same colonial attitudes which continue to destroy the indigenous cultures of our planet worldwide today.