Language and Largs
With the comforts of modern life and education has come a softening of the edges to many of humanity’s historic rivalries, its prejudices and tribalisms, though a Scottish UKIP seat, not to mention marching season, suggests perhaps that they may merely be lying dormant, stifled by societal trends. Throughout these days of relative tolerance, however, native cultures have remained open to public denigration, their belonging, historically at least, to those who disparage them perhaps deflecting any accusations of bigotry or prejudice from the perpetrators.
The most recent incidence – unsurprisingly concerning Gaelic – came last week via the Largs and Millport Weekly News, local paper to Ayrshire’s intellectual elites and one with a previous record of ignorant attacks on the language. Scenario: editor Drew Cochrane scrambles atop Knock Hill (definitely not a Gaelic name – move along now), hastily takes aim, and fires his blunderbuss in the general direction of North Ayrshire Council’s Gaelic language plan and the threats contained therewithin to Largs’ position in the modern world. Result: an article only slightly better than the last time, when ‘young journalist’ David Walker rampaged across the pages of historical linguistics with the cultural nous of Karl Pilkington lost in 19th century Mumbai.
Mr Cochrane’s main concern was that the plan – which, regardless of his assertions to the contrary, NAC are obliged to put in place – includes a suggestion to rebrand the council logo to incorporate Comhairle Shiorrachd Àir a Tuath, considers employment of a full-time Gaelic officer, and envisages the promotion of the language in local schools. It is designed not only to encourage the use of Gaelic, but to give it a status long denied.
It would be harsh, however, to lump Mr Cochrane in with some of the more well known offenders, because he does have a point: despite the historical spread of Gaelic in the county, there are but a handful of speakers now living in Ayrshire and, as he correctly points out, the response to North Ayrshire Council’s consultation on the plan was nothing short of feeble – thirty eight people via workshops, fourteen returning feedback online. Money spent on Gaelic in the area is then, undeniably, out of proportion to the number of speakers. Any Gaelic logos, be they on email headings or roadsigns, would be proven ludicrously out of place when one uses the square metre to Gael formula, the benchmark calculation beloved of sign post manufacturers and graphic designers.
It’s worth noting, however, that were Gaelic and its speakers actually facilitated for with a chunk of Scottish establishment money commensurate with their population decades ago, it would not only have received a far greater percentage, but the language would also currently be in far ruder health. The Gaelic of Arran (an island falling under NAC’s jurisdiction) ceased to be a spoken language only as late as the nineteen sixties, with recordings thankfully still available on the Tobar an Dualchais website and in print in The Gaelic of Arran by linguist Nils M. Homer. The thousands of Gaels who came to live in the area from other parts of the country during the Clearances would further have added to this population, and the site of Sainsbury’s in Saltcoats was once a church which held Gaelic-language services.
Undoubtedly, Arran Gaelic would have come under the same pressures currently bearing down on minority languages the world over regardless of state support, and whether intergenerational language transmission would have taken place amongst incomers on the mainland is open to debate. However, what is certain is that the death of Gaelic on Arran was aided and abetted by a school system which drove the language from the tongues of children (often with systematic violence) and by a lack of official recognition which confirmed the idea of its worthlessness to its speakers.
Mr Cochrane, then, begrudges a dying language vital support, despite this costing a mere fraction of the money used to extirpate it in the first place. The NAC budget for Gaelic currently stands at around seventy thousand pounds per annum, less than a week’s wages for some footballers, and is hardly a figure worthy of such childish hyperbole as farce, pot of gold, waste of money, and the all-time classic, political correctness gone mad. Mad, I tell thee, it’s just mad!
More worryingly, the thrust of his argument seemed to suggest that the anger was driven by more than cost, and that Gaelic would dare to be seen was a far greater issue, something which alludes to a more ominous side of his nature. At present, Gaelic is virtually invisible in Ayrshire unless one is acquainted with local toponymy or the series of adult learner classes. There is no danger of imminent takeover, and it won’t be forced on anyone, except possibility the primary school children.
Ultimately though, government policy dictates all aspects of what the state teaches us as children, and many things are forced upon us. Thankfully, the curriculum is not driven entirely by economics: what is of cultural relevance, what is of international and historical significance, what will inspire, what will prepare for the future and give a sense of place and belonging, are seen as of being of value. Although the introduction of compulsory Gaelic to schools would be an error, and probably counter-productive to the language, it is an outrageous situation that the vast majority of Scotland, a nation in which the most popular pastime per hour spent is apparently hillwalking, fails miserably to read the names on maps of the Highlands.
Perhaps, too, a Gaelic officer for a county with so few speakers could be seen as a step too far for many, and may even be something which could invite more aggressive resentment. Instead, North Ayrshire Council, and those which have a similar linguistic history, should look at the more neutral option of a general officer for Scottish culture. The Scots language has been sore neglected in its heartlands, and is at present still actively discriminated against in the education system and world of work, something which must be rectified. Surely only in the insular, troubled mind of Drew Cochrane is a dog warden army more important than an end to the continued social and mental damage inflicted on children, called stupid and chastised in front of their peers by teachers for speaking the language of Burns.
When a languages dies, it is gone forever, only the whistle of the wind through grass, the gurgle of the moor burn at night, left to answer its ghost. While the tongues of the Pirahã and Cherokee are of equal value in the mesmerising tapestry of world culture and language, only Scotland can save Gaelic.
It is currently, and undeniably, fading out of our story, and without a co-ordinated national plan which provides for and encourages speakers, one more step towards the grey concrete pragmatism of a monolingual world will inevitably be taken. How utterly sad that some would deem this progress, that such a thing as a letter heading would offend them.
One last look at the past before heading to an uncertain future: when King Haakon of Norway turned up at An Largaidh, The Slope, with his army from the islands in 1263, the language they spoke was Old Norse. His opponents, from that long list of heroes cut from that finest of Ayrshire cloth worn by Wallace and Bruce, spoke Gaelic. Just think, if not for the Scottish victory, all this fuss could have been avoided.