Gaelic Revival – What Gaelic Revival?

IMG_0387

With the 2011 Census results nervously awaited, even Bòrd na Gàidhlig agrees that the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers will continue. Surely there is now a need to completely re-evaluate the way we approach the problem of language-shift in Scotland.

In this essay I want to address the question of whether it is possible for organisations constituted on the current top-down model to really achieve anything in reversing language loss in Scotland. I have explored some of these issues before, in Gaelic, in a paper presented to 2009’s “Cleachdadh na Gàidhlig” conference, available here.

Firstly, the Gaelic revival organisations seem to be in deliberate denial about the reality of language death in the former Gaelic heartlands, where whole islands, along with vast areas of the North and West mainland, have now lost their last ageing native speakers. It seems likely for example that Alick George MacKay, who passed away last year, was the last surviving native speaker of MacKay Country Sutherland Gaelic, the Gaelic of Rob Donn, although no-one seems to know for sure.

Yet this has not led to any sense of urgency creeping into the discourses of the Gaelic organisations, discourses which often seem to have completely parted company with reality.

For years it was fatally easy for all of us living in the North and West, and faced with language death on our doorsteps, to kid ourselves that the language was still holding its own over there, on the next island … but the Shawbost Report of 2011 -(http://www.gaidhlig.org.uk/Downloads/The%20state%20of%20Gaelic%20in%20Shawbost.pdf) – scotched any such comforting wishful thinking. Gaelic is not holding its own anywhere.

What Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s position is on this ongoing disaster would be difficult to say; their annual report of that year (2011-12) briefly cited the Shawbost report in a self-congratulatory way, as “a significant community language research project …” commissioned by the Bòrd, without mentioning that the report’s main conclusion was: “The passing of Gaelic from one generation to the next – intergenerational transmission – has all but ended in Shawbost”. The Bòrd’s official publications are relentlessly self-congratulatory in tone, a tactic mirrored by all top-down initiatives where the language is routinely described in such terms as “vibrant”, “thriving” and “forward-looking”.

In 2008, when Gaelic was in the process of being downgraded from “vulnerable” to “definitely endangered” (definition: children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home) by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Bòrd’s acting chairperson, Arthur Cormack, stated in the annual report: “… it was a good year for Gaelic”.

Concomitant with this disconnect is estrangement from the language as still spoken by native speakers. The subtle, infinitely-nuanced Gaelic of the dying traditional language communities is being replaced, in the usage of the revival organisations, by a clunky, impoverished construct based on English idiom. As so few speak the language in Scotland today, and those in the surviving traditional communities tend to have low levels of Gaelic literacy due to past education policies (a problem which Gaelic organisations have done little if anything to rectify) and so have little contact with the output of those organisations, this linguistic colonization goes largely unremarked.

Secondly, the avoidance of use of the language as a means of communication is widespread and entrenched, in a wide range of domains from cultural events which are “Gaelic” only in the most shamelessly tokenistic way, to the proceedings of the organisations who claim most to be promoting its use. Chief among the offenders are Bòrd na Gàidhlig themselves, again, whose annual reports are all too obviously written in English and then translated into an unreadable, mistake-ridden form of the language which has no existence in the real world, as if the Bòrd thinks that no-one would ever want to read the Gaelic versions.

This is language-revival suicide. What kind of message is it giving out to the dwindling Gaelic-speaking world, and the wider English-speaking world? And how can the Bòrd possibly expect us to take its plans for a Gaelic Language Academy seriously?

Thirdly, Gaelic medium education (GME) – is it as great a success story as the Gaelic lobby claim, taking into account that overall provision is tiny (a total of 2,418 primary pupils in 2011-12)? The few studies to be carried out agree that GME primary pupils are not speaking the language outside the classroom, and anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that the Gaelic linguistic abilities of the majority of GME pupils are extremely limited.

It was impossible to find evidence for this essay that GME is growing as its proponents say it is. Figures are hard to obtain, and the only evidence in the public domain suggests that numbers entering primary one have remained pretty static since 2007-08 (387 in that year, 406 in 2011-12). In its latest five-year plan, the Bòrd has set itself the fairly modest target of doubling the current annual intake into primary one to 800 by 2017. (A previous over-optimistic target of 4,000, specified in the 2007 five-year plan, has long since been quietly dropped). Even if met, and assuming that pupils in GME primary education (from where transition into secondary education varies from patchy to non-existent) can be classed as speakers, this target will not reach the replacement level necessary to achieve stability for the language as older speakers pass away.

And where is the evidence that GME is producing long-term and committed speakers of the language in any numbers? Again, research is totally lacking.

Fourthly, and perhaps most profoundly, the Gaelic revival industry suffers under the persistent delusion that government money is all-important, and that language revival can be planned like a soviet-style command economy, complete with five-year plans (and with similar results).

A look at those results reveals over half a million wasted on the Bòrd’s devoid-of-content social networking site mygaelic.com, since quietly scrapped, and over £700,000 spent on the Ùlpan language learning system for adults on the basis of no evidence that it actually works (and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary).

These numbers are meagre in the greater scheme of things, but it is hard to avoid the impression of dysfunctionality when we learn from the annual report that in 2012-13 over 25% of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s expenditure was spent on the Bòrd itself, on salaries, pensions, running costs etc.

When you are dealing with something as subtle, close to the heart, and as close to an individual’s sense of identity as the language people speak, top-down interventions involving government agencies simply cannot be effective in reversing language shift, no matter how well-intentioned. This has long been uncontroversial in the field of sociolinguistics. Why are we still putting our faith into this discredited model in Scotland, when we should be taking grass-roots, collective action?

 

Comments (45)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I’m glad to say there are at least 2 surviving MacKay Country Gaels from Durness alive and well as I write this. I’m working with one of them to record his blas and the peculiar Durness words and expressions he learned from his parents.

    1. DROITSEACH is one team of Gaelic revivalists who are working extremely hard at preserving and facilitating the uptake of specific dialects, and we don’t cost the taxpayer a penny.

      1. Neil McRae says:

        Sounds good – good luck.

  2. Tocasaid says:

    Quote – What kind of message is it giving out to the dwindling Gaelic-speaking world, and the wider English-speaking world?

    Obh obh… oh dear. For a start – it is very disappointing that Bella chooses to actually print an article promoting the negative and increasingly irritating viewpoint of Neil MacRae.

    While I have never knowlingly met this individual, his name has cropped up on various forums. Indeed, I understand that he was even banned from a forum of grass-roots Gaelic activists. He seems to have little or no knowledge of current Gaelic-medium education but even registered on the Times Ed forums for a day in order to belittle a positive article they printed. Mention his name to many Gaelic activists – academics, learners, teachers and parents – then eyebrows are raised. Many of these people have worked tirelessly for decades for the cause of Gaelic – even when it was neither ‘acceptable’ nor desirable in terms of earning a living to do so. Some were involved in campaigns of dubious legality to promote the indigenous Scottish tongue in the face of a massive Anglo-American onslaught of ignorance and bigotry. To put it bluntly, Neil is a pain in the fkn arse.

    Sure, not all the points he makes are wrong. Sure, Gaelic is still in a precarious situation. But by constantly attacking the many good people in Gaeldom – some learners, some native speakers – who work for the good of Gaelic, he puts himself firmly on the ‘lunatic fringe’. I wonder how Neil would welcome such an approach to his own work as a vet? His rantings are grist to the mill for the bigots of the Scotsmans and Daily Mail columms and forums who decry any money spent on Gaelic.

    If Neil wishes to have an idea of how much better the situation of Gaelic is he need only speak to those Gaels who until the 1970s were punished for speaking their family and community tongue. He need only visit a Gaelic school to see the wonderful resources that exist – sure, we should have this decades ago but moaning about the past won’t help the present.

    What next from Bella – a piece by Evening News stalwart John Gibson?

    1. Thanks for such a pithy reply to Mr. MacRae! As a Canadian learning Gàidhlig, I am very concerned with the state of the language in the Old Country. Gaelic at one time was nearly the third official language of Canada, and was spoken by the majority of those who drafted our Constitution. The process of linguicide was a deliberate political strategy here as much as in Scotland, and knowing this has strengthened my resolve to become fluent in Gàidhlig no matter how long it takes! There is a palpable sense of urgency, and while Neil may have some points about the tactics currently used in education, to bewail the inevitable loss of our birthright is to my kind completely contrary to the Gaelic spirit, which like the language itself belongs to all of us freely!

      1. The inevitable loss of our birthright (your words not mine) will only happen if we carry on the way we are, putting our faith in the great and good, their annual reports and five-year plans. Nothing inevitable about that.

        “… this has strengthened my resolve to become fluent in Gàidhlig no matter how long it takes! ” Good luck, that’s exactly what I feel myself

    2. Mac an t-Sagart says:

      Tocasaid – I’m fairly sure that everything that Neil says in this article is factually correct. In the next few months, we are going to see the results of a couple of studies into the effectiveness of GME which are going to be just as sobering as the Shawbost survey (I won’t spoil the surprise here). It is clear that the top-down, committee-driven model of Gaelic revitalisation is failing miserably. This is not because the people working for the Gaelic agencies are not good people, working hard to save the language. It is because you cannot save a language with five year plans. The entire institutional structure of Gaelic language policy needs to be rethought, from the grassroots upwards. Otherwise, in 20 years time the only people left speaking Gaelic will be professional Gaelic development workers.

      One man’s ‘pain in the fkn arse’ is another man’s whistleblower.

    3. Neil McRae says:

      Still hiding behind that ridiculous moniker, you old feartie?

      All abuse-free comments will be replied to, when I get the time.

      1. Whoops! That was aimed at Toc còir.

      2. Tocasaid says:

        There are trolls and there are anonymous trolls. You’re in the former category.

        You wonder why some older Gaels do not pass on the language? It’s because of generations of repression which has bred an inferiority complex. Nowhere in your antagonistic communications with many forums and groups have you addressed this. Being ‘realistic’ or a ‘whistleblower’ will not change this. We NEED positivity about Gaelic as much as we need Gaelic medium jobs. Both are provided by the initiatives, groups and ideas that you disparage.

        And, the existence of a Gaelic ‘establishment’ does not exclude a ‘grass roots’ effort. We need both.

        Lastly, and more importantly, I still don’t see you offer any solutions or alternatives. Talking about the need for a ‘roots up’ approach is all very well. How will it come about? How are YOU bringing it about? And, why has it not happened?

        If native Gaels older than 50 who still suffer ‘the cringe’ after decades of being told their language is useless, backward and dying are not speaking the language to their kids, then how will YOU change that? What a language like Gaelic needs is visibility and prestige as much as useage. Your constant and irritating denigration of this approach and the people involved in it are a hindrance not a help.

        Finally – how do you intend to ‘save’ Gaelic on your own terms if almost everybody in the Gaelic world – either offical groups or activist campaigns – has either rejected you or been rejected by you?

        As to ‘abuse’ – there’s more than enough of it on your blog. If you can’t take it, don’t give it.

  3. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    Language issues are emotive and divisive. Even with only a little Gaelic I acknowledge that were the language to die a part of me would die too. I shudder when Scots, even pro-independence and nationalist Scots disparage or haughtily dismiss Gaelic culture. It is certain that the language in its peripheral “heartland” is slipping away. If it is anything like the language that passes as everyday Welsh it will be “mongrelised” with English lexis, syntax etc underlying a fair percentage of utterances; creolization in process. Despite S4C the standard of written and spoken Welsh remains low. The style employed in Welsh officialese and broadcasting can be too elevated for general comprehension leading to subtitling in English being switched on for the newyddion/news. All high-minded processes of language revival have down-to-earth “reality” examples such as these. Questions of which register, which dialect, lexical purism are some of the themes that language revivers and planners also face; and extremely importantly, the political status of the community using the medium. Gaelic is truly at the bottom of the heap on that one. Subsisting on the perceived “wild margins” of the country it is veritably marginalized. As a people we are no longer culturally rural. Cities are the present and the future. A metropolitan Gaelic, is that possible? A metro-Gaelic that draws strength and inspiration from the surviving remnant and the reams of high academic gatherings of literary texts and oral recordings to become the sophisticated and natural medium for communication in 21st century Scotland.
    And therein lies the great “if”. If we care earnestly about and have the political will and drive to restore and renew our neglected cultural patrimony in post-independence Scotland then anything is possible. If, however, we continue in the utilitarian and quasi-philistine mode that has been the abiding, damaging mark of Unionism on the national consciousness and simply submit to the easy access, largely mediocre, entertainment driven tsunami of anglo-americana then our in-dependence will be cosmetic. True this is not a bread and butter issue, it is about the very quality of the air we breath as a free nation.

    1. Douglas says:

      Alisdair, the Basques have done it, we can do it, provided there is enough political will and money and it is taken seriously at the highest level. And it is divisive, I agree, you really need the political will, there are winners and losers in this. But to lose Gaelic? That would the greatest cultural loss Scotland has ever endured, a tremendous blow and a national disgrace.

      I agree that the number of nationalists who fail to take Gaelic seriously makes the blood run cold, let alone the attitude in other political parties. You get this attitude which is “Look, the case for Scottish independence does not rest on the linguistic issue” and you say, “well, all right, but that doesn’t mean it is not of vital interest to Scottish culture”.

      And I would also say that you are not going to get a Gaelic revival if you leave it to the universities, even places like S.M.O who, notwithstanding the tremendous work they do, are in the business of handing out bits of paper in return for sums of money and in fact, will not deviate from that money for paper philosophy for a minute.

      There is still a lot of Scots spoken in the Lowlands, even if it is not codified, but again, you have certain sections of the Scottish literati who confuse linguistic purity with a recognized and widely available standard form (as if writers had never written against standard literary form, as if Joyce had never written Finnegan’s Wake, to take the most extreme example). It;s naive to think that Scots will last much longer at this rate either, and if you were a linguist in Bulgaria, say, where would you learn basic Scots? How would you go about it.

      Again, you have to ask yourself why Creative Scotland are spending millions of pounds so that every child in Scotland is given the chance to learn a musical instrument, instead of spending that money on ensuring that the same children have universal access to Gaelic and Scots. The Creative Scotland model is a total disaster, it’s a model dreamt up by bureaucrats and the very last thing we needed.

      I think we go back to the question of a National Language and Literature Academy, which would defend both Gaelic and Scots. For all the dangers involved in the Academy idea, which is common in many European countries, it would provide an articulate political voice to engage with these questions, pressurise the politicians and bureaucrats and try to find creative ideas to reverse decline in both Gaelic and Scots.

      I

      1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        As a “continental” I see little problem with the academy idea. Latin cultures took to the science of language formation more readily than the Germanic. We are a rich mix. It is rather unBritish though. The laissez-aller/laissez-faire attitude is deeply engrained in the Unionist worldview. Not in mine and I hope not in the future dispensation. Culture needs mentoring. It does not develop or move into the “high end” of sophistication without a shove or two. We also may need a very powerful ministry of culture and national education. Much repair needs to be done. Nanny state but nannying for the greater good.

        1. Douglas says:

          Alasdair,

          I think the Academy could be a political and cultural force which would make any Scottish government, whatever the political colour, uncomfortable enough from time to time to be worth all the drawbacks that go with the idea of an Academy.

          As it is, Scotland’s cultural voices are far too fragmented, they need to be joined up to acquire something like critical mass and make progress on issues like Gaelic decline, and an Academy would give a centre of gravity to all these issues and could offer a coherent voice to countervail the official arts policy of the government of the day.

          Creative Scotland is the antithesis of the Academy idea, and offers no political voice at all. It is an organization run by bureaucrats for people who think like bureaucrats, and I wouldn’t set foot in the door.

          We need the Academy, that’s my view.

      2. Níall Beag says:

        “provided there is enough political will and money”

        Will and money is not enough — it has to be properly thought out. In fact, “will” is often the problem, not the solution. Far too often I’ve seen community groups derailed when disagreement over methods is taken to be disagreement with intentions. If I disagree with the building of a particular monument or building where I live, this does not necessarily mean I am against economic development… perhaps I genuinely believe it to be a white elephant that will offer no benefits, but empty the community coffers, thereby robbing us of later opportunities to invest in genuine economic growth.

        At the moment there’s a lot of will, but a heck of a lot of misdirected energy.

        Current philosophy seems to exhalt adult learners way above our station. You see us all the time on TV, propagating our English-led grammatical errors, speaking in our rubbishy accents. We don’t get non-native speakers reporting from Paisley for Scotland Today — why should it be any different for An Là?

        Bòrd na Gàidhlig has all but given up on actual genuine native speakers, instead focusing on learners, who will NEVER be anywhere near equivalent to natives.

      3. Tocasaid says:

        Niall Beag – most speakers of English are non-natives and I see them on television daily from Al Jazeera to Russia Today and on occasion, on the BBC – Gaels included.

        Some non-natives even become teachers. Shocking?

        Or a reality of where we are?

        As to exhalted status – this is often, wrongly, conferred by natives on learners because of the aforementioned cringe. Most native Gaels still have a deep respect (perhaps unhealthily) for authority. Giving Gaelic prestige is an important step.

  4. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    Douglas. the perception of the rôle of culture in modern post-indie Scotland will be dependent on educational formation and worldview. we are emerging from a nightmare for which we are in no small measure responsible. in our history we seem perversely to have taken the route leading to our own damnation.( have we finally come to our senses?) that has left its mark. whether politics or culture we urgently require root and branch renewal. shedding the old and familiar will for many be difficult. however, if independence is to have any existentially authentic meaning, the “continental” mindset emerging!, the thorny question of our cultural identity must be tackled. scottish national rebirth is more than oil revenue, important though that is. the creative scotland concept is a mere shadow of what is actually needed. culture is not a comfy chair.

  5. Steaphan says:

    Aside from the hard facts and figures, which don’t lie (except the ones manipulated by civil servants), there also seems to be differing viewpoints about what constitutes a revival. When the Gaelic public bodies talk about “revival”, what they are really talking about is revitalisation in certain fields or spheres of culture. This is the “ath-bheothachadh” that people talk about – Gaelic’s use in the media, literature, government, signage. It’s something that has happened and IS happening, albeit very slowly. It has had positive knock-on effects on the views of the public towards Gaelic, which should then, theoretically, have a positive effect on Gaelic speakers views of themselves, whether subconsciously or not.

    However, the older generations continue to speak English to the younger generations in their families (yes, it’s the fluent older generation’s “fault” that their children are not as fluent as them!), and the younger generations speak English amongst themselves too, with the odd Gaelic word thrown in. The pressures on them all, Gaelic speaking parents, non-Gaelic speaking parents and their English-speaking children, to use English in every sphere except in education, including the primary schools and nurseries. You can only understand this pressure if you have lived in these communities and tried to lead as much of your life as possible in Gaelic.

    Investment in the Highlands usually means a continuous wave each year of English monolinguals to take up some of the new jobs, and the intermarriage between Gaels and non-Gaels is the main reason for the numbers of native, first-language Gaelic speakers continuing to fall. This is, I believe, why the demand for Gaelic education is high, to counteract the loss of Gaelic as a first language amongst the younger generations. With one Gaelic speaking parent, and one non-Gaelic parent, then English is the language of the home. With education, the feeling seems to be “Well at least they’ll speak Gaelic as a second language. This is not a bad thing, it is better than none at all.

    With the growth in education, some grandchildren are learning Gaelic as a first language from their grandparents, but their own parents’ are part of the lost generation before Gaelic primary school education kicked off.

    What Gaelic needs in its communities is an “aiseirigh”, the same word used in the bible for Jesus’s resurrection. “Ath-bheothachadh” is a gradual thing that we can dream will move from a few small sparks into a great big raging aiseirigh. …that was the hope in the 1970s, and in the early part of the 20th century when what was left of the Highland (Gaelic) people in the Highlands were finally granted a kind of half-hearted security of tenure on crofts. The dream of a Gaelic aiseirigh has been around since at least the time of the clearances..

    1. Steaphan – “With education, the feeling seems to be “Well at least they’ll speak Gaelic as a second language’. This is not a bad thing, it is better than none at all.”

      Good point, I agree.

  6. Aside from the hard facts and figures, which don’t lie (except the ones manipulated by civil servants), there also seems to be differing viewpoints about what constitutes a revival. When the Gaelic public bodies talk about “revival”, what they are really talking about is revitalisation in certain fields or spheres of culture. This is the “ath-bheothachadh” that people talk about – Gaelic’s use in the media, literature, government, signage. It’s something that has happened and IS happening, albeit very slowly. It has had positive knock-on effects on the views of the public towards Gaelic, which should then, theoretically, have a positive effect on Gaelic speakers views of themselves, whether subconsciously or not.

    However, the older generations continue to speak English to the younger generations in their families (yes, it’s the fluent older generation’s “fault” that their children are not as fluent as them!), and the younger generations speak English amongst themselves too, with the odd Gaelic word thrown in. The pressures on them all, Gaelic speaking parents, non-Gaelic speaking parents and their English-speaking children, to use English in every sphere except in education, including the primary schools and nurseries. You can only understand this pressure if you have lived in these communities and tried to lead as much of your life as possible in Gaelic.

    Investment in the Highlands usually means a continuous wave each year of English monolinguals to take up some of the new jobs, and the intermarriage between Gaels and non-Gaels is the main reason for the numbers of native, first-language Gaelic speakers continuing to fall. This is, I believe, why the demand for Gaelic education is high, to counteract the loss of Gaelic as a first language amongst the younger generations. With one Gaelic speaking parent, and one non-Gaelic parent, then English is the language of the home. With education, the feeling seems to be “Well at least they’ll speak Gaelic as a second language. This is not a bad thing, it is better than none at all.

    With the growth in education, some grandchildren are learning Gaelic as a first language from their grandparents, but their own parents’ are part of the lost generation before Gaelic primary school education kicked off.

    What Gaelic needs in its communities is an “aiseirigh”, the same word used in the bible for Jesus’s resurrection. “Ath-bheothachadh” is a gradual thing that we can dream will move from a few small sparks into a great big raging aiseirigh. …that was the hope in the 1970s, and in the early part of the 20th century when what was left of the Highland (Gaelic) people in the Highlands were finally granted a kind of half-hearted security of tenure on crofts. The dream of a Gaelic aiseirigh has been around since at least the time of the clearances….

    1. Alasdair Fre-Bell says:

      The reconnexion with our “patrimoine nationale”, in French the term sounds less arcane and awkward than “national patrimony” does is English, is what independence ought logically to initiate. Political will, in truck loads, is required if the national renewal many regard as the purpose of the whole venture is to be made flesh. As the Irish long before us found the imagination must be linked to the practical or things gang aglay. In a truly democratic entity which I trust a sovereign Alba/Scotland will be, coercion and compulsion is out of the question. We must be authoritative, coherent, galvanizing and imaginative with the rhetorical and persuasive skills of latter-day Ciceros. All this within the context of a society with the standard British symptoms of weary indifference to matters cultural.
      With regard to Gaelic the future lies outside the Gàidhealtachd. Corralling our languages to the rural will only hasten their decline. Cities are where the energy lies. Gaelic and Scottis must connect with that. This also assumes we bin convention and open our minds to the creative, experimental and new; renewal/renouveau indeed.

  7. Graham Rae says:

    Very few people today care about Gaelic, and why should they? Like a great many languages before it, Gaelic is an anachronism spoken by very, very few people. Preserve it by all means, for future cultural reference for the interested, but don’t try to revive it. It’s a quaint link to a now-dying-cum-dead past, and, personally, I don’t know anybody who speaks it, and it doesn’t impact negatively on our lives at all. Why should it? English, which has now been superseded by Americanized English, is the lingua franca of the modern business and communications world in the west, but even that is beaten at a ration of 3:1 by Mandarin. Times change, tongues twist, dalects combust and tiredly sputter out and turn to linguistics ash. Always been this way, always will be. Sad (to a very small number of people) but true. I genuinely don’t mean to be disrespectful, but this is such a minority issue that it’s scarcely even worth talking about.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_extinct_languages

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_extinct_languages

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gaelic#Number_of_speakers

    1. Douglas says:

      Graham,

      Obviously there are countless languages which have died out, but that doesn’t amount to an argument for letting Gaelic die out too – which it is not going to do any time soon anyway. If you applied that same principle to medicine, the sick and what was common practice in the past, and what would that make you?

      But the threat in the long term is real, and if Gaelic dies out, a huge part of Scottish literary, folk, musical and linguistic tradition dies with it, Scotland is impoverished further, it amounts to a cultural catastrophe.

      Sorley MacLean, the last Scottish poet who was in serious contention for the Nobel Prize for Literature described the Gaelic repertoire as the single most important Scottish contribution to world culture, bar none. How many people in Scotland are familiar with that repertoire? Not nearly as many as should be the case. Why are Scottish school children not even offered a glimpse of it during their education?

      Why would you not try to foster that culture, foment it spread it, and seek to revive it? This is a resource which, even at the most utilitarian level, could create lots of jobs, wealth and add to Scotland’s rich cultural tapestry much more than it does at present. A nation which lets a language die – which starves a language to death more like – is a nation I find difficult to respect. Languages contains knowledge, ways of thinking, folk wisdom and represents our own link to the past and in the case of Gaelic, to nature too. In the words of George Steiner in “After Babel”:

      “Each tongue – and there are no “small” or “lesser” languages – constitutes a set of possible worlds and geographies of remembrance. It is the past tenses, in their bewildering variations, which constitute history….when a language dies, a possible world dies with it. There is here no survival of the fittest. Even when it is spoken by a handful, by the damned remnants of destroyed communities, a language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery, or recompositions of reality, of articulate dreams….”

      We could do with a recomposition of reality in Scotland, we could do with some articulate dreams, and I envisage Gaelic as indispensable to things like respect for the environment, clean energy, land reform and cultural renewal.

    2. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

      Following this logic to conclusion there would be no high-culture at all for it is all by nature “minority”. The rare versus the run of the mill and common-place. True, since the WW2 Anglo-American has become the vehicle for global communication. Par excellence it services the masses with the opium of easy, ephemeral entertainment. It sells globalization, conformity, mediocrity and a politically WASP-ish worldview. It is now the tired lavish dispenser of hackneyed philosophical/existential attitudes and political “insights” that reek of the cultural hubris of neo-colonialism. Minority language revival strikes directly at the heart of such systems. Whether Catalan in Spain or Uighur in China systems hate difference. Indeed speaking another language (other than English) engages the mind in an alternative universe of thought. You very soon realise that language in its many manifestations is complex and unique. Thoughts conceived in one do not easily transfer into another. Translators, the skilled ones, know that. Needless to say bad translation is very common. Mediocrity requires little effort and sadly few can spot the difference or what is worse, even care.
      One man Eliezer Ben-Yehuda almost single-handedly restored the Hebrew language as a refined vehicle for modern communication. Compared to the mountain he had to climb the “Gaelic question” is a mole-hill. He, however, had the vision, the resolve, the will.
      By the way English was almost obliterated by Norman French. An object lesson there I think.

    3. Sgiobair Òg says:

      I’m curious to know why this argument exists.

      First off, you miss or ignore the fact that Gaelic didn’t die out, Gaelic was killed off for the express purpose of conquering Scotland. Gaelic was a unifying language and culture that gave the Scottish common ground against invaders. For someone to now say, well Gaelic is a thing of the past and English is the language of the day is some sort of linguistic Stockholm Syndrome.

      Second, I see no indication of the same feeling towards French, German, Russian, Mandarin, Persian, Polish, Spanish, or any of the hundreds of other languages alive and well in this world. I see the French teaching their children their home language and then teaching them English so that they can communicate with the business world, the same happens in Japan, and Germany. As a matter of fact, many English speakers learn Japanese to communicate with the technology business world. Why then is Gaelic alone dismissed as a useless relic? Is there something special you dislike about it?

      Gaelic is not just a language, Gaelic is a culture that the UK presently makes money on. If the language dies then Gaelic music dies with it. Without understanding the language artists merge sounds in way that leads to gibberish and the loss of any sort of story in the songs. Gaelic is a historical reference; there are parts of Scotland’s history that would be lost without the language.

      Most importantly, to me in any case, Gaelic is a family tie to a community. Even as a new learner of the language, I was able to access friendship and stories, on a learning trip to Cape Breton, that the English speaking tourists will never see.

      Presenting the list of extinct languages as some sort of reason Gaelic should be allowed to die is a befuddling prospect to me. That’s not a list of tongues we just move on from with no loss that is a list of culture, history, technology, philosophy and humanity that we killed off likely in the pursuit of power or money.

      If you genuinely don’t mean to be disrespectful then I have to ask if you genuinely understand what language is because, if you do understand, then your post can be nothing more than blatant disrespect.

    4. Graham Rae –

      “Very few people today care about Gaelic, and why should they? ”

      Here’s the best reply I know of:

      Because “The loss of one language equates to a bomb dropped on the Louvre” – Mark Abley

      Because neither American English, nor even Mandarin, can contain the sum of human knowledge.

  8. Trish MacNeil says:

    I felt I should read the Shawbost report you’ve included as evidence of Gaelic dying. I found it interesting reading.

    “Analysis showed that if a parent had been brought up by parents who spoke Gaelic and english equally in their childhood home, when they themselves became parents they were likely to use mainly or only english with their own children, and three quarters of them sent their children to english medium education.
    However, today’s parents who were brought up in a mainly or only Gaelic speaking household were more
    likely to speak mainly or only Gaelic to their children, and to send their children to Gaelic medium
    education: virtually every parent in this situation chose Gaelic Medium Education. ”

    I’m curious why you choose to ignore this sort of finding. It’s without question that Gaelic has not been efficiently passed on by the older generation and there are generally accepted reasons for that, including that indicated by the above quote – that children were sent to mainly English education. However, parents of TODAY from mainly Gaelic speaking households, when asked if they would send their children to English or Gaelic medium education, “virtually every parent in this situation chose Gaelic Medium Education.”

    I communicate in American Sign Language better than I do in Gaelic at this point but the situation with my Deaf friends is similar. They were told to sit on their hands in school and forced to speak and to learn a Signed English in English word order so that they would assimilate better into a “hearing” culture. No such thing as a Deaf culture. Well, things have certainly changed. Today, ASL is a recognized language of instruction in my province and nobody would dream of telling a Deaf child to sit on their hands or ridicule them for learning sign language. Deaf culture and ASL has overcome that and it’s a vibrant language, one I quite enjoy communicating in. Only the very ignorant or the more well-meaning but misguided of parents would suggest that Signed English or forcing a Deaf child to speak is the preferred choice.

    Gaelic speakers in Canada and, I understand, in Scotland were ridiculed for speaking the Gaelic and told not to. A generation or two of linguistic genocide. We have a generation, or two, of damage to undo. However, there is a determination on the descendants of Gaels to undo this damage and a willingness to make the effort to ensure Gaelic language and culture survives.

    Neil, if you find some of these efforts lacking in effectiveness, fair enough. However, I got to the end of your post and was waiting for the section on what you DO suggest….and there was nothing. Just an article trying to suggest that Gaelic is dying because the efforts of some could be more effective. The Gaelic language’s Chicken Little.

    The language is NOT dying. It’s struggling but it’s rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes and there is a steadily increasing amount of hands reaching out to help. More and more parents will educate their children in Gaelic, more descendants of Gaels will learn the language and use it in place of English as much as we can, various groups will become more cohesive and learn how to work together more effectively, the diaspora will continue to play an increasing role in the survival of the language and will work together more effectively with our partners in our heritage land, more will become known on what works and what doesn’t and delivery of Gaelic learning will only continue to improve…and I will look forward to a time in the future when I can shove your statement up your arse.

    1. Neil McRae says:

      Whoa! You were going well there, but then at the end you went and revealed your true colours! – Neil

      1. Trish MacNeil says:

        Revealed the depth of my anger at your focus on only the negative to the exclusion of the positive and the damage your negativity has the potential to inflict on efforts to revitalize Gaelic language and culture – and my occasional weakness at responding in the midst of that anger rather than waiting for it to cool.

  9. Trish MacNeil says:

    Quoted from the Shawbost report that you included:

    “Gaelic in Shawbost is definitely alive. But having a high percentage of fluent speakers and positive attitudes
    towards Gaelic in Shawbost are not enough: Gaelic needs to be spoken in the family home and in the
    community, if it is to continue.
    5.2. What can be done?
    1. Community members need to encourage universal bilingualism among all residents in Shawbost.
    Without this, uni-directional bilingualism will result in English monolingualism in Shawbost.
    2. This can be achieved by a number of language development initiatives
    ¤ introducing bilingual education for all children
    ¤ giving support to all parents in achieving bilingual households
    ¤ introducing greater opportunities to learn or relearn Gaelic
    ¤ encouraging Gaelic in the workplace through training opportunities and the valuing of Gaelic language
    skills in the workplace.
    3. Agencies also must play their part in working with Shawbost residents on a day-to-day basis,
    promoting local Gaelic development schemes in the home and the workplace.
    4. Language development workers and community volunteers are needed to work directly with
    individuals and families in the community. The team of four questionnaire visitors and one researcher had a
    tiny but significant impact, as one Shawbost resident remarked:
    “now look, you have four people going round this village. it’s already giving people a boost.
    those four and others would have to be here all the time”. ”

    I do thank you for including this report. It’s very enlightening and highlights the challenges for survival of the Gaelic language. I do not at all find it as negative as you seem to find it. I do see that there are huge challenges but also see that there is a willingness on the part of the younger generation for themselves and their children to embrace Gaelic. If the current generation of families were apathetic, that would be definite cause for concern. However, not only are they NOT apathetic, they have a more favourable attitude toward Gaelic education for their children than their own parents did. How you cannot see that as hopeful, I don’t know.The report identifies steps that can be taken to support the desire to embrace the Gaelic language and help it survive. Will everything be done correctly? Will some money get wasted along the way? Likely. You can get caught up in the paralysis of analysis and do absolutely nothing until you have the perfect solution while the wringing of hands and the moaning continues over the fate of Gaelic…or you can do your best, learn from your mistakes along the way and continue to move forward a step at a time. I’m quite sure you didn’t get to where you are in your veterinary practice without making some mistakes along the way but there you are, just the same.

    Is immersion realistic? Well, when I was in grade school in here in Ontario, French immersion in our largely English speaking area didn’t exist. By the time my children got to grade school, French immersion programs were so popular that that demand exceeded supply. At the same time, in the province of Quebec, a recognition of the need to take some drastic measures to ensure the preservation of French language and culture had been taking hold for some time to the point where some would say the pendulum has swung too far the other way, however a continuous effort towards increasing the level of French language spoken in all facets of daily life has taken hold over time.

    You do seem to care about the survival of Gaelic, Neil Macrae. I seriously question your methods by continually shouting “Gaelic is dying!” and how you see that as helping. I have to ask what you are DOING to promote the language and what you think CAN be done to ensure the survival of the Gaelic language and culture? My favourite boss never let anyone come into her office with a complaint without also having thought of some possible solutions. Do you have any?

  10. Douglas says:

    Tocasaid, I agree, Neil’s piece is far too negative. Things are bad for Gaelic, but at the same time they haven’t been this good in 100 years.

    I am not a Gaelic language activist or a language planner, but here are a few suggestions I would throw out.

    1) 100% tax rebate for expenses incurred by individuals on Gaelic education services or Gaelic language materials.
    2) Real funding for Gaelic grassroots organisations so that native speakers have more of an incentive to share their knowledge, which is to say, they should be paid something to run Gaelic workshops, conversation circles etc.
    3) All children in Scotland should have access to learning Gaelic during their schooling if they want it.
    4) All children in Scotland should be taught something about Gaelic culture in their schooling, albeit in English.
    5) Positive discrimination for Gaelic speakers in the strategic industries of the Highlands and Islands, esp, renewable energy, forestry and tourism and crofting.
    6) A national day of memory to mark the Highland Clearances and denounce the Clearances as the barbarity it was, the great betrayal it was.
    7) Land reform, land reform, land reform. For Gaelic culture to thrive, we need to let people to come back and live in the land, we need to address the issues as raised by people like Andy Wightman and many others.

    1. Neil McRae says:

      “Tocasaid, I agree, Neil’s piece is far too negative. Things are bad for Gaelic, but at the same time they haven’t been this good in 100 years.”

      Sorry, rose-tinted spectacle-wearing just doesn’t do it for me

      1. Douglas says:

        So what “does it for you” Neil? Why keep the revival of Gaelic in Scotland to yourself? I must be about the sixth person on this thread to ask you what it is you want to see happen…?

  11. Abulhaq says:

    Gaelic and Scots are our cultural property. English, except by default, is not. If we do not maintain our house we will continue to be truculent and surly guests in another’s. Put simply. If we don’t give a damn neither will the world; and what price independence? tìr gun anam?

  12. Gràisg says:

    I think Neil has points of view that we need to hear. His style might be considered provocative by some but there are others out there that agree with him too.

    Perhaps someone can tell me how a quango (an arm of government) can truely represent community? It just won’t work from the top down.

    1. Tocasaid says:

      Perhaps someone can tell me how a quango (an arm of government) can truely represent community? It just won’t work from the top down.

      – If members of a community are actually involved in a quango then surely the community has an input? BnG has places open to members of the community on a fairly regular basis. I understand Neil was invited by a member of another forum to take part but declined.

  13. If I may, as a Gaelic-learning Englishman removed from the emotion of this debate, it seesm to me that there is a certain amount of anger in those bemoaning the activism and funds spent on Gaelic’s eventual revival.

    I think this anger stems from guilt.

    From my viewpoint, the author of this article, and their like, are Gaels who have not fought to keep their language over the last few decades. I expect many of them were children who did not have the language passed onto them by parents who could not see the language’s value.

    These children have grown up resentful, rather than joining in the effort to spread what they themselves were deprived. I expect they curse at every road sign on which Gaelic supersedes English. They don’t seek to promote Gaelic but bury it. Hence, the touch of glee in this article when the author announces the death of a particular accent/dialect.

    I’m learning Gaelic because I want to demonstrate that I wish the United Kingdom to endure. While I respect Salmond’s political skill, I hope Scotland chooses to remain with England, as I hope London will – in time – issue an apology for its role in all but annihilating a great people whose language I so admire.

    I believe that a United Kingdom without Gaelic would be very much the poorer for it. I wish Neil Macrae could see that … it is not too late for him, but the least he could do is make sure his children are brought up bilingually. They would thank him for it.

    1. Neil McRae says:

      Lawrence Smallman –

      “From my viewpoint, the author of this article, and their like, are Gaels who have not fought to keep their language over the last few decades”.

      In what sense do you think that I am not fighting to keep the language, which I started learning 15 years ago, alive?

  14. Seon Caimbeul says:

    Strange that so few people are able to respond to what Neil actually says or to understand what he is doing.

    He is talking about official bodies and he is trying to move the debate on from the ‘should we versus shouldn’t we’ hole where it is stuck now, where it has been stuck for many, many years and where it will stay if more people don’t start accepting that we need to move on. it is happening right now, there is a Gaelic Language Act, there are official bodies with responsibility for Gaelic and what they say and what they do will be very, very important for the language.

    Thank goodness for Gràisg and a few others who have taken the time to read this article and to respond appropriately. The rest seem to be stuck in some sort of romantic wonderland or to have some sort of religious feeling about Gaelic such that anybody who questions the existence of a real revival must therefore be insulting their god.

    How horrible to see that some people even attack Neil at a personal level, although they admit that they have never even met him.

    That’s not on. It’s doubly stupid. Not only do you disrepect the purpose of this forum, which is to comment on published texts, not attack the authors, you also run the risk of drawing attention to yourself when you do that sort of thing. Since you come across as childish in the worst way, like some adults who have never really left school, I would imagine that you must be too brittle to endure the more robust response that your comments might deserve.

    So, should we question the effectiveness of official intervention? Should we question the value of official provision? Should we question the quality of goods and services?

    Everbody knows that there is only one reasonable answer. Of course we should. Its what we do with all government policies, all government controlled agencies. Gaelic surely deserves at least equal parity of esteem with English. It would be unreasonable to expect less.

    Or are you frightened that people asking basic questions about effectiveness and value might upset some of your Facebook chums?

    Imaginary friends seem to be part of the pattern of delusion associated with unquestioning belief in the power of Gaelic promoting bodies.

  15. James Maclean Mcrae says:

    Very interesting essay by Neil.. This is the first time I’ve ever read an article which perhaps captures my own unease about the current state of affairs..Here are the facts from where I and many others stand – Big salaries, pensions, expenses bills etc – funded by taxpayers – are being paid to senior staff members at Sal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye.. Yet many times I have shopped in the nearby Broadford Co-op and been dismayed to hear ‘Sal Mor’ tee-shirt/sweatshirt clad students chatting away in various dialects of ENGLISH!!! Never once a word of Gaelic.. Something very fundamental has gone wrong here.. Neil is on to something. I concur with an earlier statement that ‘one man’s pain in the backside is another man’s whistle blower’… I’m saddened by the vitriol and personal attacks written about Neil here.. Perhaps those concerned are angry and fearful because his viewpoint has the potential to hurt them where it always hurts the most – in the pocket! More power to your elbow sir! Direach Sgoinneil!

  16. James Maclean Mcrae says:

    ‘Land reform, land reform, land reform. For Gaelic culture to thrive, we need to let people come back and live in the land, we need to address the issues as raised by people like Andy Wightman and many others.’

  17. Hi there, You’ve done an incredible job. I will
    certainly digg it and personally suggest to my friends.

    I am sure they will be benefited from this site.

Keep our Journalism Independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address to subscribe for free here and receive Bella direct to your inbox.

 
Bella Caledonia