A Lesson in Self-Hatred

7297679366_192d774b46_hHot on the heels of Lord Robertson’s claim that we are a cultural void-space comes Allan Massie claiming that we are bereft of language too. Massie, who campaigned unsuccessfully against devolution, seems to be joining the growing meme for denying your own culture as part of some sort of spasm of unionist backlash.

He writes:

I suspect that even today, despite the pro-Gaelic propaganda to which we are subjected, and despite, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of signs in Gaelic, a majority of Lowland Scots would agree with him, believing that public money spent on Gaelic might be better spent elsewhere – or, of course, not spent at all.

I’m not sure what, exactly, he means about ‘gaelic propaganda’ but he is of course quite wrong about ‘Lowland Scots’. In fact only two years ago a poll by TMS-BMRB showed 81% of Scots believe that it is important that Scotland does not lose its Gaelic language traditions, and 78% stated that the language was an important part of Scottish culture.  70% of respondents said that there ought to be more opportunities to learn the language. See “Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language” here.

For a writer of ‘historical novels’ his history is poor. He writes “The decline has been inexorable. By 1755, 23 per cent of Scots were Gaelic speakers, in 1901 4.5 per cent” – facts which, without context of social history, are indecipherable and meaningless.

Clearly a man who nurses a grudge, Massie is pissed off about people rating a gaelic poet: “The hypocrisy goes a long way back. Thirty or forty years ago I used to be irritated by friends who assured me that Sorley MacLean was the greatest living Scottish poet.”

Yes indeed, having read the recently departed Seamus Heaney on MacLean who’d have thought that we could produce a poet. Massie will of course no better than Heaney on such matters. But of course it’s the ‘we’ that he really hates.

But he is now in full flow, writing: “…the hypocrisy is officially encouraged. Successive Scottish governments, eager to emphasise our distinct national identity, have made Gaelic a key feature of our difference from England, and have fostered the pretence that we are a bilingual nation.”

I’m not sure I can think of anyone who pretends for an instant that we are a bilingual nation. He knows it too. What he is expressing is the barely contained rage at any form of distinct expression or investment in Scottish culture. But he is right I think that successive governments have had the temerity to begin to explore a distinct national identity.

Culture and language are indistinguishable. We have a rich and diverse past and a rich and diverse future. You could in response to this cant and dishonesty support the Tobar an Dualchais (‘Well of Heritage’) – also known as Kist o Riches here.

Or celebrate the Mod in Paisley reconnecting with the diaspora here.

He ends this dreary diatribe of sustained ignorance with a familiar heckle against those treacherous road signs:

You may put up road signs in Gaelic all over the country, but if you have a warning to deliver about road conditions, the word you will use is “Danger”, because it‘s a word that every Scot can understand, whereas only a tiny number will know the Gaelic for it.

That knowing something (anything) about an aspect of your own culture is such a threat to the establishment Scotland is very telling. Where is the danger? What is it that threatens them? I could safely use the word gloic to describe Massie, because presumably, as a Lowlander he wouldn’t know what it meant.

Comments (31)

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  1. Morag Eyrie says:

    Good piece. Be interested to hear Gerry Hassan’s take on this.

  2. Douglas says:

    Alan Massie should read the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages which his beloved London government is signatory to, and whose aim is to offer some protection for the rights of millions of minority language users the length and breadth of the Europe.

    And which, notwithstanding his own prejudiced, uninformed and bigoted opinion, actually obliges the State to spend monies on their minority languages to safeguard Europe’s cultural heritage. .


    A writer writing against a language is a writer whose writing should never be trusted…

    1. Neil says:

      Excellently put Douglas.

  3. bellacaledonia says:

    Why Gerry in particular Morag?

  4. Aye well that lesson of divide and conquer still holds true or maybe its the money that some might lose ?A very good piece

  5. Helpmaboab says:

    When I was young and naive I read two of Massie’s historical novels: ‘Augustus’ and ‘Tiberius’.

    I wish that I could recall my opinions of either of them but I can’t. They were far too dreary.

    I never got round to reading the third part of the trilogy.

  6. I’d commented on Massie’s appalling article before I saw this:

    That Gaelic’s decline has slowed is to be applauded. Linguist Ken Hale got it right when he said “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, The Louvre.”

    This article seems, like many, to be based around erecting a straw man argument that there are those who are attempting to portray Scotland as a bi or trilingual nation and proceeding to knock down these non-existent straw men. I’ve never met anyone in Scottish officialdom or indeed in cultural or academic Gaeldom who holds or promotes the view that all of Scotland is or should become a bilingual nation.

    For an alleged member of the Historical Literati who aspires to be regarded as a Scottish chronicler to whine about BBC Alba, whose output is available to all, is subtitled in English and frequently beats the pants off the offerings on BBC 1 and 2, or to proudly boast that he couldn’t bother himself to learn to read Sorley MacLean in Gaelic and who felt he could write a chronicle of the Stewarts without the viewpoint of Gaeldom’s take on their rise to power strikes me as either a sad testament to the Scottish Cringe writ large.

    The Hoostmon doesn’t allow editing of comments. I’d deleted the “or …” without deleting the either. It’s probably best that I leave the “…” unsaid.

    1. James Coleman says:

      If you consider Scots to be a language (and many linguists do) it could well be claimed that Scotland IS bi-lingual since there are many, many people in Scotland for whom Scots is the day to day language in the street and at home.

    2. Jim McNeill says:

      Thank you. Said it so much better than I could about Massie’s astounding ignorance and the poverty of the “intellectual” circles he moves in.

  7. Abulhaq says:

    No surprise there as Massie is an admirer of that Scottish enlightenment icon David Hume, a self-styled North Briton and anglicizer. The spirit of cultural Unionism requires self-loathing. Explains much about the dour “Scotch psyche”.

    1. braco says:

      Haw come on there Abulhaq! Leave David Hume out of this. The man is/was a philosophical giant and a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. The fact that Massie feels the need to acknowledge that truth is neither here nor there.

  8. Alisdair says:

    Dear Mr Massie,
    Due to sucsessive UK (English) governments policy towards the Gaelic language and culture I can’t speak the language that my Grandmother used and had caned out of her and her siblings. Her lesson was very well learned, although my Mother and Aunt have a little knowledge of their essence they are to all intents English Monoglots. I am also. You Sir have no comprehension of how angry that makes me. I suspect that you and others like you tend to believe that as English is the current ‘lingua franca’ (see what I did there?) that you have some form of cultural superiority? I would if I were you start night classes in Mandarin, ken what I mean?


  9. Ken MacColl says:

    Massie, a regular contributor to The Scotsman, The Sunday Times (Scotland) and the Scottish Daily Mail, has for long been a standard bearer for far Right Unionism, a critic of Devolution and a disgruntled commentator on anything done by the Scottish Parliament.
    How he must hate being described as a Scottish novelist.
    He brings to mind the response of James Boswell on being challenged on his nationality. ” It is true, Sir, that I am a Scotchman -but I cannot help it!”

  10. Jim McNeill says:

    An interesting example of the typical, monoglot, blindspot of the UK intellectual. My Indian pals speak at least 8 languages each; when I tell them there’s two native languages in Scotland and I can speak only one of them, they look at me as if I’m an absolute cretin. They’re right.

    They would look at Massie’s outburst against a proud language with a history and a community and just sigh in disbelief. That’s probably the best response any of us can give.

  11. Tocasaid says:

    Good piece. Massie’s grudge is to be expected. Lard Roberston though is puzzling. How an Ileach – for a man who comes from an island with 8 distilleries, peat banks, Gaelic medium education and a population that is still 25% Gaelic speaking to say that we have ‘no culture or language’ is staggering. Woods and trees?

  12. Wullie says:

    Last time I looked Massie was wearing a cravat, says it all really. 🙂

  13. Theuniondivvie says:

    It looks like the sides in the debate are hardening up. I did have hopes for both Massie Sr & Jr, in that they both seemed certain of their Scottish identity if ambivalent about its relationship to their Britishness. However it looks like they’ve both made their decision. I believe Allan Massie is a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott; he might consider that regardless of Walt’s Unionism, he would never have been capable of such ungenerous girning, or have been so dismissive of parts of his culture.

  14. Open for less than a year and already producing this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01jtn08

    Whether you are a Gaelic speaker, learner or have none at all, anyone who thinks money spent turning out kids who can do this is wasted should take themselves down to Leith Docks, wrap themselves in a union jack and jump in, preferably while clutching something heavy.

  15. Peter A Bell says:

    What a magnificently pointless rant that was from Alan Massie! I can only assume that he felt a pressing need to lance the boil of his curmudgeonly indignation. Quite why he should think others might benefit from witnessing this operation remains a mystery. But then, I’ve never understood the urge that drives people to flaunt their gross physical abnormalities in front of the TV cameras for an audience whose motives I find no less incomprehensible.

    Don’t get me wrong! I can do the grumpy old man thing along with the best of them. Get me started on the subject of dogs and dog-owners and you’ll soon discover the truth of that. But I prefer to put my energies into railing against the injustices of the things people are denied or deprived of rather than the the things that enrich the lives of individuals and add something to our society.

    I don’t see anybody trying to pretend that Scotland is a bi-lingual nation. All I see is an important part of our culture being given the kind of prominence it needs in order to survive. If there is a cost to this then I, for one, am happy to pay what cannot be more than my infinitesimal share. I do not speak Gaelic, and have no particular personal interest in the language. By the same token, I do not play a musical instrument or enjoy the ballet, but I am content that public money should be spent supporting the teaching of music and the performance of ballet because I recognise that our culture is enhanced thereby and that it would necessarily be diminished were support for these things to be withdrawn.

    It all comes down to ones concept of society. Whether one sees it as something external to you as an individual. Something which can only be added to by subtracting from the individual. Or whether one sees society as something that we are all part of. Something which connects us all such that, if one part gains, we all do.

    I suspect Mr Massie tends to the former perspective. But I don’t think that explains his issue with the way Gaelic is treated in Scotland. The clue to what really troubles him is to be found in his remarks about “national identity”. While the semantics suggest an acknowledgement of “our distinct national identity”, the tone clearly indicates resentment of the fact that this distinctiveness is more than merely acknowledged.

    The tone is redolent of that narrow, jealous, supercilious British nationalism which perceives in the tokens and symbols of other national identities only a threat to its own integrity. A chauvinistic and exceptionalistic nationalism that is offended by the sight of the Saltire.

    Gaelic is fine, so long as it knows its place. Just as Scotland is OK so long as it does not exhibit any pretension to be other than totally subsumed in a British identity.

  16. Iain says:

    I suppose Mr Robertson needs to support the union at all costs so that he can hold on to his job, whatever that is. Also, if Scotland had been independent at the zenith of Mr Robertson’s political career, is it likely that he would have risen to the dizzy heights he did. That’s an achievement a lowly laddie could only attain in the United Kingdom, and I’m sure the world would be a poorer place without Mr Robertson’s unforgettable tenure at the helm of NATO. Another powerful argument for the No/Better Together party.

  17. James Coleman says:

    Short bio Alan Massie (plastic Nigel): “… before going on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge where he read history…”

    Obviously didn’t ‘read’ it very well.That says all you need to know about him.

  18. For those of us that lost a language especialy within living memory, we are the equivalant of linguistic amputees..we can learn thereby attaching a prosthetic but its not the same as having the language in your psyche from birth and the cultural continuity of generations…

  19. fionamacinnes says:

    For those of us that lost a language especially within living memory we are like linguistic amputees. We can learn thereby attaching a prosthetic, but its not the same as having it in your psyche from birth and the cultural continuity of generations.

    1. Douglas says:

      Good on you Fiona, keep the heid up and grow back that limb…

      Alan Massie is the typical blinded Anglo-Scot literati prick who has been trying to exterminate Gaelic for centuries because he doesn’t happen to speak it, or any other language most probably.

      That he chooses to write that article the same week as the Mod is not to be ignored or forgiven. He could have told us about how little he knew about Gaelic culture and how interested he was in learning about it even – that’s a joke obviously – instead of dismissing it.

      The fact is that most Lowland people know S.F.A about Gaelic culture and if they’re members of the Royal Society of Literature, you can discount then knowing anything at all. .

      In Massie’s case, he has chosen the more elegant route of contempt and disinterest than straight-forward extermination which doesn’t look so good these day.

      But it is a British habit alive and well in Scotland though, and I would say a growth industry here among certain idiots paid to wield a pen who happen to catch a train in the morning – it’s funny, it’s almost always about them and their day and their particular way of getting work.

      A lot of them are journalists, or what passes for that these days, and most of them can’t string a sentence together in any language, let alone Gaelic.. They think that they can write because somebody gives them a cheque once a month…

      Massie is an admirer of Scott, whose texts are choc-a-bloc with pidgin Gaelic, half-arsed sentences he couldn’t be bothered checking because he wanted to write for Lowland ears, for English ears as a matter of fact. A man who treated the Gaels as romantic fools to offset against British rationality and savoir faire. And there is the biggest statue of a writer that exists in any city in the world devoted to that man in Edinburgh.

      That is not a coincidence.

      Massie belittles the language without which so much of Scottish English would simply not exist.
      There are hundreds of words in Scottish English from Gaelic, and many Scottish writers whose English is absolutely Gaelic inflected.

      Neil Gunn is the most obvious example of that, a man who wrote in Gaelic in his mind and English on the page.

      In short, I have never read Massie, I prefer Marguerite Yourcener when it comes to my Roman Emperors (“Memoirse de Hadrian”) by a long chalk, but I certainly won’t be doing so now….

  20. Douglas says:

    I would say more, and this is far too much of minority interest for a comment here probably, but that “le difference” of Scottish English which would leave behind any idea of a doubt of what is Scottish English compared to English English is an engagement with Gaelic, even at quite an unsophisticated level, which is to so say, a pretty elementary level of Gaelic such as mine.

    When in “The Silver Darlings”, the mother dies – cannae mind her name – and young Finn asks “When did the change take place?” Gunn is making a direct translation of the Gaelic expression of the verb to die, which is also to change – any Gaelic experts out there correct me if I’m wrong – but in the context there is no need for an explanation. It sounds poetic, beautiful… (though Gunn is too lyrical for me in general I confess)

    Gaelic is an incredible culture of itself, but also one waiting to be raided by Scottish writers who engage with it; but not by those who spend their lives looking SOUTH, like Massie. Most modern Scottish writers have been looking NORTH since MacDiarmid, at least.

  21. David Grant says:

    Well put, Mike. Thanks for posting this.

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