Know Your Place – Gaelic and Elements of the Left

Scotland-map-web2There is a pernicious view abroad amongst elements of the Scottish Left that Gaelic, its promotion and the promotion of equality for Gaels, are linked to essentialism, to blood-and-soil irrationality, in short to the politics of reaction. This was encapsulated a while ago in a blog post which appeared on the Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway blog, and was promoted on the RIC Facebook page, equating Network Rail’s Gaelic signage policy with mythologizing and racism. Or as George Galloway recently asked in reference to the language “What is this Alba? […] Most highlanders speak English. 99% of Scots are not highlanders. This madness is going too far”. A summary of his comments can be seen on a post at An Sionnach Fionn’s blog ‘Galloway to the Gaels: You are a nonpeople’. This is not to blame the Left in general for the efforts of a few, but it is necessary to confront this stream of thought and to show how redundant it really is. Likewise the Radical Independence Convention does great work, but that makes the idiotic contributions of a few even more regrettable.

On one level it is surprising that these views emerge at all – a language whose traditional areas are now characterised by depopulation and economic marginalisation under attack for being associated with the “romantic Right”. But Gaelic outside of these areas, so the story goes, is a language choice of the middle classes; Gaelic is the hobby of those independistas who got a bit too caught up with Braveheart and the petite-bourgeoisie who would like their kids to go to private schools but can’t afford the fees. And as the RIC Dumfries and Galloway article shows, it is the language of those who would like to see Scotland as a mono-ethnic independent nation state.

Gaelic itself uses the word Gael as a marker of linguistic ability, not of ethnicity, nor of heritage, nor place of birth. The mono-ethnic fallacy denies the fact that Gaels are perfectly aware that we are all immigrants. A Gaelic lullaby from Dunvegan reminded the MacLeods that their ancestors came from Scandinavia. MacDonalds and Campbells both claimed descent from mythological Irishmen; thus agreeing on something, and on it goes. Therefore when a Gael speaks of the Gaels, they are describing a linguistic community, with all that goes with it, as opposed to an exclusive ethnicity.

Much of the rhetoric deployed by the language’s accusers is based on an effort to split the language equality movement into a Scots camp and a Gaelic camp. But Gaelic’s increasing prominence strikes a blow against the unthinking monolingualism of much of Scottish society. Language learning is not a zero sum gain, as the efforts of Gaelic language activists opens doors for Scots language activists and visa versa. Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid knew this. The organisers of the International Languages of Scotland Conferences knew this. And modern activists know this too.

It’s a sign of this blow against a monolingual orthodoxy that folk are shoggled when they see Gaelic in an unexpected place: in the RIC blogpost it was Lockerbie train station. Getting people to think about language and its history should only be a good thing, if people would welcome minority languages rather than wishing for their speakers to literally know their place. In Gaeldom’s case, this place is generally rural areas in the Highlands and Islands, the further North and West the better, though best if you avoid Caithness.

Confronted with a minority language the folk in question suddenly fall back on the “Ah, but all my forebears and those of the surrounding community were Scots speakers, you see.” You can also insert Pictish, Brythonic or Norse too, if you please. This does of course bring us back to the question of “Who is it that’s linking language with blood and soil?” Of course such critics are rarely if ever Scots speakers or activists themselves; Scots is just their chosen tool to promote monolingualism outside of the literary realm. As I’ve highlighted, this divide and rule approach denies the role of Gaels and Scots-speakers in promoting each other’s languages — just look at the Tobar an Dualchais/ Kist o’ Riches project.

The Gaelic Act, which aims to afford Gaelic equality of esteem with English throughout Scotland, challenges the monolingualism of the newly emerging Scottish state, inherited from the British state, enforced by the education system after 1872. Gaels should not be confined to the Highlands and Islands nor to the cultural realm, and the logical consequence of this is that Gaelic becomes more visible outside of its traditional areas. There is a bizarre myth that Gaelic’s increasing prominence is solely due to the SNP government. Unfounded on reality, this ignores that the SNP have generally continued the approach of the Lib-Lab administration, endorsed by the Parliament as a whole. This myth stems more from the effort of social scientists, both academic and armchair, to characterise the Scottish Independence movement in the terms of a traditional nationalist movement, as opposed to looking at it in its unprecedented reality.

Amongst the metropolitan Left Gaelic is at best an irrelevance. What is the point in learning or using a language with 58,000 speakers when capitalism is destabilising the Middle East and destroying the environment. Life is too short. And yet the majority of the most endangered cultures are in those areas of the world which are the most exploited economically. Language activists from minorities work with one another, sharing best practice and sending their solidarity and support to their counterparts overseas. The economic processes which exploited the Gàidhealtachd, consolidated the power of the landowners and still sends its young people to the cities for work, housing and opportunity is the same process wreaking havoc elsewhere. If you want to get an understanding of the experience of those marginalised by economic exploitation, then a genuine engagement with an exploited culture close to home, is in terms of sheer practicality, a good place to start.

The role of Gaels in left-wing culture and the emergence of the home rule movement and Labour movement is also a reason for engaging with the language. In Sorley MacLean’s work you see the choices faced by socialists during the Spanish Civil War; the commitment to the fight against Fascism in World War II and his disillusionment with Stalinism after the Warsaw Uprising. MacLean’s views were by no means anomalous amongst later Gaelic writers. Another example is Duncan Livingstone who wrote a multilingual poem from a grieving widow’s perspective on the Sharpeville Massacre in Apartheid South Africa. Urban Gaels and their descendants were to be found at the heart of the radical movements in the major cities and their tradition of radicalism in rural areas remains an inspiration, to those who are aware of it.

Gaeldom is not without its own faults. Efforts to remain “apolitical”, as if that were possible, or to raise the language’s status, led to forelock-tugging recognition-chasing by Gaelic bodies in the past. Whilst this is regrettable it is a consequence of the marginalisation of the culture and the language. To criticise modern Gaelic promotion for that is like criticising the Gaelic language for the Highland regiments and ignoring the role of the state and private capital in exploiting Highland communities; or like criticising Gaelic culture for being parochial, because elements of it were appropriated, commoditised and utilised for the political goals of others.

And that brings us back to the Braveheart crowd, the fact that some self-styled Ultra-Nationalists occasionally attempt to associate themselves with the language, is certainly not the fault of the Gaelic language and its community. Whilst it would appear that some of this crowd see themselves as post-colonialists, they are certainly nowhere to be seen in Gaelic life in general, thankfully. For them the language is a feather for their oxygen-restricting bonnet, at best.

It was the Tory knight of the realm Hugh Trevor-Roper who asserted the inauthenticity of much of Gaelic culture, in the aftermath of the 1979 devolution referendum: ideas which have spread far outside of academic circles. The choice faced by the minority culture is often to strive for authenticity and be labelled parochial; or to remediate their traditions and be labelled inauthentic. That, surely, reveals some of the power relations at work between a majority and minority culture. Gaelic has made it into the 21st Century, despite the best efforts of its high-placed opponents. That in itself is a testimony to the long struggle of the Gaels against prejudice and inequality. Let us all celebrate it, along with Scots, and all of Scotland’s languages by engaging with them in whatever capacity we can and working together for a more equal future for Scotland’s linguistic communities.

This post was first published on Scotland Unhinged.

Comments (29)

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  1. Tocasaid says:

    Things get especially tiresome when you hear about anti-Gaelic predjudice from German ‘leftists’ – albeit a strange sect who seem to oppose foreigners learning and using German in their country. For more info, go to Oi Polloi’s Facebook page where there is a series of posts going back ten days or so in which they at first express their incredulation at being banned by a youth-centre in eastern Germany. It took the centre a week to offer some kind of explanation.

    Relevant blogs on the issue here and a page from the centre’s website.

  2. ‘Confronted with a minority language the folk in question suddenly fall back on the “Ah, but all my forebears and those of the surrounding community were Scots speakers, you see.” You can also insert Pictish, Brythonic or Norse too, if you please.’

    Or Shaetlan fur dat mettir. If I was to say I’d never med down sic a gaet myself I’d be tellin nae mair truth tae mesel as ta ony iddir een. It seems dat bit mair convoluted here i da Wast o Scotland whaar some eens is happier a pliss-nem belang ta some theoretical an lang awa or iddirwise population fae whaarivvir iddir i da Celtic tide as ta accept at Gaelic spaekkirs as med dis country, an da toons an da traivils athin hit, whit hit is.

    A’m prood o Gaelic, fuivvir tenuous a connection I micht hae tae hit. Mi ain wye a spaekin’s fine by me an mair an aa, an ony iddir body’s. Da mair da merrier. Whit unites wis isna at wir aa da sam – it’s at wi aa hay different cairds ta takk tae da sam table.

    Dir gems wi can aa win, an da graet gift o Scotland da New o 2014 is ta gie wis da spaes ta focus on whit wir good at, whit wi hae in wir favour, an whit wi can offer. Nuts an bolts mettir, but ta hae wan speereet an mony tongues is da aaldist new trick i da book. Scotland didna stop dat in 1707, or in 1603. An hit winna.

    Sing aa wis, ay fur Alba den – fur aa at keep her sailin on. Dis da best chance wir hed tae be World Champions since 1967.

    Allez-Bleu! Allez-Rouge! Allez-Vert!

  3. John Simmons says:

    Excellent piece !

    Speakers of Scots and Gaidhlig aren’t in competition with each other – or at least they shouldn’t be. As a person who was belted at school for speaking Scots and denied the opportunity to learn Gaidhlig, I know where you are coming from.

    Cum a’dol!

  4. Turinsday says:

    I love Gaelic and constantly try to learn new words and phrases. For me, it has a very close connection to the land and geology it’s something that I intimately associate with the natural state of Scotland and is something I hope independence will bring proudly to the forefront for public life, along with Scots and English.

  5. DougtheDug says:

    I put this reply up on on the Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway blog but it’s still in moderation:

    “what I see as the misty-eyed romantic right: the idea that there is an authentic culture of Scotland, a true ethnicity: and that that culture, that ethnicity, is Gaelic.”

    Set up a straw man and then knock it down. Classic. I know of no-one who who has any belief in a “true ethnicity” or culture of Scotland or that Gaelic is is the “authentic culture of Scotland”.

    Perhaps a few references or quotes might not go amiss when claiming there is a “misty-eyed romantic right”.

    As a matter of interest the the Gall Ghàidhil, who gave their name to Galloway, first make an appearance in 852-3 when they fought Aed, king of Ailech near Derry. I make no claim that Gaelic was ever the primary or only language of Galloway but it’s been there a lot longer than you make out.

    “Galloway (and Scotland) is not and never was a Gaelic province. It is not and never was Welsh or English or French or Norwegian or Syrian or Nubian. It was and is a glorious mixture of all these things and more, and we should celebrate that. This is no time for misty eyed, ill informed romantic myth making, and it’s no time for racism.”

    Very good. Have a go at your straw man again with phrases like, “it’s no time for racism”.

    Strangely enough for someone who celebrates diversity you seem to have particular dislike of one of the historical languages of Galloway and the language that gave Galloway its name appearing on road and rail signs in the county.

    1. Simon Brooke says:

      No contemporary source links the Gall Ghàidhil with Galloway. They came from Argyle. The association of ‘Gall Ghàidhil’ with ‘Galloway’ was first made by misty-eyed Victorians and is exactly the sort of romantic rewriting of history I object to. There is no documented source for the etymology of the name Galloway, but it is more probably a development of the older placename ‘Caleddon’.

      1. DougtheDug says:

        “No contemporary source links the Gall Ghàidhil with Galloway. They came from Argyle.”

        Argyll is just north of Galloway and for a sea-faring people it would be a lot closer to them than any other part of Scotland. Just look at a map and consider the sea not a barrier but a highway.

        All sources I’ve seen place the Gall Ghàidhil not only in Argyll but all around that area of the Irish Sea from Galloway south across the English border across to Ulster.

        What sources do you use that place them only in Argyll?

        Perhaps I shouldn’t have placed the Gall-Ghàidhil in my comment as it allowed you to avoid answering the other much more important points in it.

  6. Zen Broon says:

    The elephant in this particular room is not inherent anti-Gaelic prejudice, but Scots.

    Some Gaels have been as dismissive and patronising to Scots as any reactionary monoglot English-speaker (see for example The Census figures now showing *more than twenty times* the number Scots than Gaelic speakers challenges both the Gaels’ outdated ‘bilingual’ vision and the hugely disproportionate funding, legal status and visibility between the Scotland’s two indigenous languages.

    Given that Scots is seen as a working class variety and the seeming army of Gaelic activists are largely middle-class, there is further potential for tension. For example Gaelic schools – as Angus MacLeod admits seen by many as elitist – are vigorously promoted in traditionally Scots speaking areas with no reference whatsoever to the living language traditions of the communities in which they are hosted.

    Personally I think the Gaelic activists have blundered badly in showing such little sensitivity in what some have described as a ‘linguistic land grab’, ironically mimicking the condescending and arrogant attitudes of the people that used to oppress their language. In doing so they have often stirred up a sometimes incoherent and unfocused but still genuine reaction to Gaelic being ‘imposed’, the very thing they surely wanted to avoid. The tendency to dismiss any reaction whatsoever, to mere anti-Gaelic prejudice simply compounds the problem.

    1. Andrew Watson says:

      I’m not entirely sure that you can really argue Gaelic schools are vigourously promoted in traditionally Scots speaking areas given that as far as I’m aware there are only two Gaelic medium secondary schools outside the Highlands. One in Glasgow, and one newly opened up in Edinburgh. Given the present need for many people to leave rural areas and move into these two cities for work these are really important if we genuinely want to reverse the decline in Gaelic speakers, since otherwise it would give the children of these economic migrants very little opportunity or reason to use the language outside the home. And if these schools are popular well then well clearly the demand is there, and in a democracy the government does what the people want.

      I think “linguistic land-grab” is a pretty hysterical way to describe the desire of speakers of one of the official languages of Scotland to see their language represented across the country- even leaving aside the issue that even as a Borderer it’s clear it was spoken pretty much all over the country at some point or another, and that some tradionally Scots speaking areas were traditionally Gaelic speaking areas if we go but slightly further back (I’m thinking Galloway and particularly the North-East, arguably the present bastion of broad Scots).

      Gaelic has more funding because it’s more clearly recognised as a seperate language because…well just listen to it! Furhermore it’s in a much more obviously critical state. A lot more work has to be done educating people of the validity of Scots as a “language” at all before anyone will start to recognise it as a dying language.

      But the fact here is that Gaelic and Scots cannot be in competition. Scots needs a strong lobby and its supporters should take some inspiration from the limited successes of the Gaelic language movement because the reason Scots is in danger is not because of any attempted Gaelic revival, but from the same forces, and the same feelings of cultural inferiority that have eroded the Gaelic over the centuries.

      1. Ian Vallance says:

        I would argue that while <1% of Scotland can even pretend to understand Gaelic most outside the middle class still use actually "Scots" to some extent and virtually all of us (almost) fully understand whats left of Scots (otherwise we couldnt laugh at Still game etc) . In saying this I deliberately dont mean the largely artificial feeling academic stuff found associated with Scots these days). Scots is not a minority language it is easy to argue that what is left of Scots is still the living language of much of the Scottish working class. But here in lies the issue most of Scotland middle class would rather eat a piece on sh**e" than utter a sentence in the vernacular (or worse have their children do so). So instead they fetishise Gaelic as a largely faux route to assert their Scottishness without having to associate with what they mostly view as the language of the great unwashed. Not for them the modern idea of language continuums and code switching which would indeed be an easy and cheap way to revive Scots simply through use. No need certainly not initially for any formal teaching or Schools in the language's "heartland". its heartland is in fact already virtually everywhere in the most populated parts of Scotland but just not among its middle class.

    2. Tocasaid says:

      Moi? Dismissive to Scots?

      Not really. I just see it as part of the Anglo ’empire’ which took over Celtic Scotland. Inglis/Scots simply preceded ‘standard’ English. According to Newsnet Scotland’s series on Scotland languages, it was a ‘Scots’ speaking government that enacted the Statutes of Iona – the first piece of aggressive anti-Gaelic legislation. This came shortly after Scottish was renamed Gaelic/Erse and Inglis/Anglo-Saxon renamed as Scots in a tidy bit of linguistic airbrushing that still affects us today.

      I have no problem with Scots English receiving funding or recognition as long as it is recognised as part of the Anglo-Saxon assault on Celtic Scotland. I do see the saving of Gaelic as a priority though. Anglo-Saxon does not seem to be under threat in Scotland and if the Scottish version is under threat then so is the ‘Standard’ dialect as taught in schools.

      Not a fashionable opinion, I admit but hell, if the short and dark Picts of the Shetlands can honour the people who massacred their ancestors then we Celtcs can love the Sasannaich and both their tongues!

      1. Ian Vallance says:

        Celtic Scotland is surely in large part a myth both Inglis and Gaelic were the language of invaders. Picts were most likely not Celts but the decendents of the folk who built Scara brae and there language died out as the result of a Gaelic take over of their lands north of the Forth Clyde ismuth. And its only a matter of historic chance that much of Scotland doesnt still speak another Germanic language i.e. something developed from Norse. (Southerland is not the result Anglo-Saxon involvement in the far North of Scotland). And the renaming of “Inglis”, largely a development from Northhumbrian, to Scots was hardly airbrushing anything but a recognition that Scotland had become the country’s name and its main language was by then very different from the vernacular speech of most regions of England. And where the language of government and the ruling calls was of course still French/Anglo Norman until 1399). And sadly perhaps for the “revivalist” experience from around the world suggests this is not within the gift of even committed governments and public (nevermind a largely indifferent public). e.g. Ireland has tried for nearly a century from a higher starting point, with notionally more public support and yet has essentially failed to halt decline.

  7. alistairliv says:

    In response to Doug the Dug’s comment – the most recent and comprehensive study of the Gall-Ghàidheil and Galloway is by Thomas Owen Clancy, Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University, ‘The Gall-Ghàidheil and Galloway’ published in the Journal of Scottish Name Studies, Volume 2, 2008, pp. 19-50.

    For a slightly more user friendly history of Gaelic in Galloway, I have written two articles in the Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society 2011 and 2012 volumes. The articles are also online at


    In the second part I argue that Gaelic formed a central pillar of Galloway’s independent indigenous culture until 1388 when Archibald the Grim became earl of Douglas as well as lord of Galloway. This shifted the balance of power in Galloway away from the Gaelic kindreds- the McDowalls, McLellans and McCullochs- and towards the Scots speaking incomers. The loss of Gaelic followed this power shift so by 1455 when the lands of the Lordship of Galloway were forfeited to James II, both the Scots language and an acceptance of Scottish identity were firmly established in the once proudly independent kingdom of Gallwoay.

    1. Simon Brooke says:

      With respect, Alistair, if Gaelic was the ‘indigenous culture’ of Galloway prior to the wars of independence, there would be large numbers of Gaelic placenames – a preponderance of Gaelic over Welsh or Anglian. But the opposite is the case. Gaelic placenames are extremely rare, and confined almost entirely to the Rhinns, until after the war.

      1. Tocasaid says:

        Indigenous? Well, Celtic Cumbric preceded the Gaelic, but placename evidence, such as ‘sliabh’, would suggest Gaelic speaking populations from the 5thC. If Margaret Murray from Carrick/Carraig (inside the old boundaries of GallGaidhealaibh) in 1780 was indeed the last Galwegian Gaelic speaker then that makes around 1200 years of Gaelic influence.

        Certainly, the last Gaelic speakers on Arran, recorded by the School of Scottish Studies, still referred to Galloway and Ayrshire as the ‘Gaidhealtachd’.

  8. DougtheDug says:

    Zen Broon:

    ” dismissive and patronising”

    “the Gaels’ outdated ‘bilingual’ vision”

    “army of Gaelic activists ”

    “vigorously promoted in traditionally Scots speaking areas”

    “Gaelic activists have blundered badly in showing such little sensitivity”

    “linguistic land grab”

    “mimicking the condescending and arrogant attitudes of the people that used to oppress their language”

    Was this comment written with the Daily Mail primer for comments open by your side?

    Perhaps some evidence for your assertions would be useful.

    From the Education Scotland webpage on Gaelic:

    “Gaelic-medium education, like all education provision in Scotland, is determined by demand for the service balanced with the educational and economic viability of each educational unit.”

    In other words no Gaelic school is “imposed” it’s always driven by demand.

    I think that Scots should be taught in all Scottish Schools so that Scots can survive as a living language and as a by-product that Scots can fully appreciate the poetry of Burns but why the parlous state of Scots should be used as a stick to beat the parlous state of Gaelic is beyond me.

  9. Lucy Broon says:

    Hi, I’m an organiser at RIC D&G and can only apologise for the offence caused by the blog post. I am not the author of the article so won’t comment on it specifically but I would stress that everybody involved in our group has an account with the blog: it is just a blog, not a statement on behalf of the group – the views represented on the blog are personal views, not those of RIC D&G and by extension in no way reflective of the wider Radical Independence Campaign. We oppose bigotry and discrimination in all its forms and are grateful for being alerted to the fact there is content on our blog contrary to this.

  10. Mark says:

    According to mainstream leftwing ideology, minority language activism is incompatible with international socialism. However, many Gaelic language activists self-identify as ‘left-wing’. Maybe, this perceived paradox at least partially arises from the meaninglessness of the term ‘left-wing’ in contemporary Scotland — where it is a feature of the prevailing political culture that centrist and centre-right middle class people describe themselves as ‘left-wing’.

  11. Simon Brooke says:

    You’re picking a fight with the wrong man, Angus. I don’t disagree with any of your substantive points (and if you read my essay again you’ll see that I don’t). If you make the argument that public signage and documents in Scotland should be translated into the languages of Scotland, then I agree with you. All I’m arguing is that no one of them – neither English nor Scots nor Gaelic – should be seen as more authentic than another.

    However, I would add this: Lockerbie is an Anglian (or Scots) placename, just as Inbhir Nis is a Gaelic placename. Placenames are part of the historical record. Making up new versions of names in the orthography of other languages is at best ignorant, at worst hegemonic. It would be a much meaningful assertion of the role of Gaelic in Scotland’s future to translate roadsigns and public notices than to invent new spellings of place names.

    1. Mark says:

      If we can trust Wikipedia in this case, the name Lockerbie is of Old Norse origin, rather than Anglian. If one is allowed to Anglicise the original ‘Lokardebi’ to ‘Lockerbie’, then there is no reason why it can’t be Gaelicised to ‘Locarbaidh’, seeing as the Old Norse language left as strong an imprint on Scots Gaelic as on Scots English. I’m unclear as to how recognising all of our heritages (rather than just one) on a railway station sign could be considered ‘hegemonic’.

  12. Tocasaid says:

    Slightly off-topic but the excellent Film G is well worth a look. Especially this year as YesAlba has an entry to vote for.

  13. A says:

    How many people in Scotland believe Scots is a language, as opposed to a variant of Old English?
    This is the elephant in the room, it seems to me. It’s obvious, especially if you speak another Celtic language, that Gaelic is a distinct language. It *isn’t* obvious that Scots is a completely different language than English.
    Scots declined in social status after the Union of 1707. One gets the impression that Scots was perceived as merely a dialect of English, not dissimilar to regional dialects in England, like Geordie, Cumbrian, etc.

    1. Ian Vallance says:

      There was no one Old English for Scots to be a variant of, Scots was a development of Northhumbrian one of the Anglo-Saxon dialects/languages of pre-1000AD Britian. And as I pointed out already a language is what people want it to be. E.g. Norwegian isn’t that different from Swedish but I suspect Norwegians are not going to happy with a description as a dialect of proper Swedish. Its not about whether people believe something is a “proper” language that makes it one but the willingness of sufficient folk to use them for written and spoken communication that gives it validity and currency so making it more than a dying language form a matter for serious academic study . As it stands neither Gaelic or Scots have sufficient numbers of willing users to prevent their continuing decline. And as Ireland admirably demonstrates no amount of Government support can prevent this.
      My initial points were only that Scots has a broader and stronger base to build on than Gaelic if you wanted to try and revive it, and that middle class social prejudice, not total incomprehension was was one main barriers to successful wider use in Scotland.

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