Out of the bog and onto the Cuillin – Shifting the Gaelic Debate Forward

10646908_10203182127418683_1234887004413027111_nThis isn’t a “the place of Gaelic in modern Scotland” article, or a even “why Gaelic is relevant” one. I’ve read enough of those, and written a fair few. I doubt I’ll bother with one of them again. If you’re advocating the extinction of a language, due to utility, expense or whatever else, then you can go join the irrationality club with advocates of pre-Copernican astronomy and Galenic anatomy. On you go. Let the rest of us have a meaningful conversation on how to support and revitalise minority languages; retain the languages of our immigrant populations and strengthen Scotland as a multilingual country.

For all its technocratic jargon, best practice language policy is fairly simple: encourage one generation to speak Gaelic to the next generation, and to their peers. This is a fundamentally empowering statement: if you want to help secure the future for the language the first step you can take is to speak it, pass it on or learn it if you haven’t already. There’s no need for a Gaelic messiah, nor do we need government and its quangos to provide all the answers – but seeing as we pay them splendidly, they should certainly provide a few.

This guiding principle of intergenerational transmission helps to tackle the fairly intricate webs of competing ideas and interests that make up the Gaelic world. If we invested nearly as much in community work, and supporting Gaelic in the family, as we did in broadcasting then the language would be in much finer shape. In Northern Ireland one of the strengths of their language movement is the use of community groups which provide tuition or coaching to young people in whatever they express an interest in, via the medium of Irish. After the Giro d’Italia had its initial stage in Belfast one of the groups set up an Irish-language cycling club who are flourishing on the back of the interest from young Gaeilgeóiri occasioned by the event. That’s decidedly not to say that getting a funding board of 50-year-olds, or even 30-year-olds, to decide what young people want and then providing it in the medium of Gaelic will benefit the language. If you want young people to use the language, ask them what they want, and use the language to provide it for them.

To be fair, Comunn na Gàidhlig and other groups have been promoting Gaelic outwith the classroom, but not with the level of support or recognition that grassroots work deserves, nor with a focus on the intergenerational, community aspect. If we get the older generation involved too – even passing on traditional skills and knowledge – then we’re reducing isolation for the old folk and broadening the linguistic abilities of our youngsters. This isn’t a return-to-the-golden age fantasy – many youngsters on the West Coast go to sea or make a livelihood from fishing or aquaculture. Others make their living from the Highland landscape as tour guides or conservationists. In either case you have over a millennium’s worth of knowledge in the language waiting to be passed on. Give me a network of youth and intergenerational groups up and down the West Coast, ahead of another £2million in Gaelic broadcasting any day of the week.

I say Gaelic broadcasting, but it is ironic that one of the few organisations without a discernable Gaelic policy, at least for its output, is the Gaelic broadcaster MG Alba. The campaign that’s been calling for improvements in this regard is led by some of the most important Gaelic cultural figures – including Aonghas MacNeacail, Ailean Dòmhnullach, Lisa Storey and Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul. Some programmes are 80% in English – which I’ve only heard justified using a misunderstanding of the 80-20 rule. Such an all-encompassing amount of the majority language on a minority language channel has been defended in terms of viewing figures – in which case they’d be as well to invest the channel’s budget in rights for the next series of Game of Thrones, show that once a week and be done with it. The money is invested to secure Gaelic as a community language for the future. If the programme makers can’t justify their use of burnt-on English subtitles; 50 minutes of English interviews topped and tailed with subtitled Gaelic and much more besides, then they would be as well to give the money back. There are no experts in language policy in the world who have backed BBC Alba’s current model. It is clear that just because you’ve been involved in broadcasting for 30-odd year, you can’t be expected to be up to speed on language revitalisation… and why would you be? BBC Alba should be a Gaelic public sphere for discourse and reflection. At the moment it is nothing of the sort.

If we keep our eyes on the prize of a secure future for Gaelic as a community language then we automatically prioritise that which leads it to that end. Arts and broadcasting, my own field of literature, I’d happily see them all take a step back in terms of the fairly restricted public funding, if we invested in the linguistic abilities of the next generation of Gaels. We know from the Fèis movement how successful and attractive Gaelic language activities can be – and if we take a lead from the young people themselves, providing the activities they want in the medium of Gaelic, we develop and secure the language’s place outside of the classroom and the pupil-teacher relationship. If you are interested, as many quite rightly are, in Gaelic music then you can be fairly well catered for. But outside that, and the voluntary provision of hard-pressed teachers, the opportunities to use the language outside the classroom remain limited.

In arguing for more community development, and more funding if necessary, let’s get used to Gaels using the language of rights and equality as is common for minority languages throughout the world. There are three-year-olds being brought up with the Gaelic language as their first language; as a country I think we are mature enough to agree that that child has a right not to see their native tongue disappear off the face of the earth as a community language during their lifetime. The more Gaels assert and demand they have a right to exist, and to continue to exist, and see their language supported and developed, the more the language question will be recognised as a fundamentally moral issue. Let’s leave the circular “use it or lose it” minority-blaming hokum to the hacks and put forward a clear case of justice for one of our minority communities.

It’s clear that a rights-based approach is fast becoming the most feasible option for public sector reform. With an appropriate deadline of, say, 2021, there is no reason that every Scottish public body should not recognise our national languages. At the moment, with the constant stream of Gaelic plans under the 2005 Act we are converting every car in the street one by one, instead of bringing in new emissions regulations for the manufacturers.

We must support our other national languages and our immigrant languages too. It is surely common sense that all parents whether via the health visitor, the nursery nurse or national information campaigns, are told of the benefits of bilingualism. Scotland’s delightful linguistic diversity does not need to disappear once an immigrant community reaches its third generation. A desire to integrate should not lead to a rush to the monolingual bottom – and the state should advocate the benefits of having New Scots being brought up fluent in the languages of our immigrant communities. This approach would benefit the Gaelic community too: too often there are households where there is one fluent parent who isn’t encouraged to pass on the language, and the child misses out. That’s a missed opportunity for the entire nation – whatever the language.

Gaelic funding is not an either/ or, given the levels are hardly extravagant at the moment. But it is surely self-evident, that if you want Gaelic to survive as a community language it has to be supported, fundamentally, as a language of community use. By focusing on usage and intergenerational transmission we create a virtuous cycle, of young people with increased confidence in the language, who won’t need a Gaelic degree to have developed their language skills ready for the world of work. It also would strengthen the language as a peer group language.

Let’s keep focussed on the fundamentals then, and let the flat-earth society advocates of a one language Scotland whinge away into irrelevance. The next generation will find it odd indeed that Gaels felt the need to continually “argue the case” for Gaelic. Odder still that this was still occurring, post-referendum, in the second decade of the 21st Century. Perhaps most bemusing of all, looking back, they will discover that the there was a cluster of indignant articles written in early September 2015, in response to the ill-founded, anti-Gaelic rhetoric of a pro-independence website.

Comments (29)

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  1. Douglas says:

    Agreed, Angus, good article…

  2. Neil McRae says:

    Chòrd seo rium, ach … “… nor do we need government and its quangos to provide all the answers – but seeing as we pay them splendidly, they should certainly provide a few.”

    There’s NO chance of that!

  3. Des says:

    I feel that it is a scandal that cash intended for Gaelic is being used to create so much English language content. Why are Bòrd na Gàidhlig silent?

    1. Neil McRae says:

      I don’t know, Des, could it be because the chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig runs two of the TV companies most responsible for churning out those mainly-English-language ‘Gaelic’ programmes?

  4. R W A Duff says:

    In Eire Gaelic is mandatory in Schools up to and including Secondary third year. After this time it is up to the pupil to take it forward or not.I think this is a great idea and we in Scotand should adopt this practice.
    One of my regrets is not being able to speak my native tongue.

    1. Don says:

      Irish is compulsary up to the end of Secondary level(Sixth year), but it’s not a great idea and has proven to be a complete failure in Ireland. I’d say 90% of people leave school without any real fluency in the language – you can’t learn a language from books, you have to coversationally speak it everyday.

      The Gaeltachts of Ireland are in their death throes and will be almost gone within a decade – emigration because of a lack of work or a desire to live in the more affluent towns and cities is a major contributor, the big influx of English speakers(often English goodlife retiree or hippy/artist types) is another.

      Most of the younger generations of these areas are more proficient in English now anyway – no wonder when you consider that all state services are in English, the use of English in nearly all workplaces and the pervasiveness of Anglo American popular culture in general.

      The only hope for Irish is in the Gaelscoils but even they produce only pidgin Irish speakers who pepper their speech with “Kind of like” “you know” “sort of” “Well” etc etc.

      1. Axel Koehler says:

        Aye, Don, I know that all too well – I’ve been familiar with the Irish Gaeltacht(aí) for many years now, including TG4 and its young people’s programmes. Thus, I can add another example:

        “Just fág é!” (heard on Ros na Rún)

        My Irish colleague at Marburg University, Dónall MacPháidín (Co. Mhaigh Eo agus Cappel in aice le Marburg, Hessen, An Ghearmán), and I regularly have our amused shots at “an drochest Gaeilge a chuala tú riamh” 😉 – but admittedly, that doesn’t make the problem any better.

        Mo chreach, mo chreach ‘s mo nàire buaidh Ghalltachd Mhòr Aimearagaidh air òigridh Ghàidhealach na h-Éireann ‘s na h-Albann!!

        Ach ciod a ghabhas a dhèanamh a chum feabhas a thoirt air sin?

  5. seon says:

    Good article but the problems run deep. I know of one Gaelic medium teacher who doesn’t speak G to her kids on account of her non-G speaking husband. This, despite her promoting bi-lingualism in her work. I recently read of a G teacher on Islay who does the same. What can you do in the face of such… wilful resolve not to speak to your kids the language that’s been in your family for 1000 years or so?

    BBC Alba is going the wrong way with too much English. The whole Gaelic ‘art’ scene with the exception of writing, seems to be one of superficiality. Music in particular where for decades, all we are fed is a succession of young, and talented, women mostly parroting the same old songs. Very little new material is composed and even less is composed outwith the ‘trad’ genre. It’s boring as fuck.

    There are positives though. FilmG if developed further could act as a bridge between communties and schools/ colleges. Some of the educational material produced is every bit as good as that in English. New literature is being produced.

    The fact is, we have to grow a pair. And to the person who can succeed where others have failed in giving a people a backbone will be worth some reward.

  6. Saor Alba says:

    Thanks so much for this article.
    My own adventures with learning the Gaelic language are in their infancy as yet, but progress is visibly being made.

    I have an English friend (in Romford, Essex) who is learning it too and loves the language, defending its relevance. The way to keep it alive is to use it. My English friend can put many Scots (and Brits) to shame.

    Your article was very welcome Angus and I have forwarded it to my friend in Essex and I know he will be very pleased.

    1. Geography Police says:

      Romford is in London, not Essex.

  7. K.A.Mylchreest says:

    The problem with seeing Gàidhlig and other minority languages in terms of ‘human rights’ is that they are usually defined in terms of individual rights, and the whole community aspect is somehow missed. So good to see it brought to the fore here.

    In additional to the central need to maintain traditional language communities, wouldn’t it be a good idea to help ‘new speakers’ find their way into some sort of community, by for instance providing Gàidhlig priority spaces where the language can be used outside the classroom. Basically there are three requirements for the language to flourish :
    1. Competence
    2. Commitment
    3. Community

    Without (1), ability in the language, nothing can happen. But even if you know the language you still have to be motivated to actually use it (2). But even then if you’re out of touch with other speakers, lack (3) what can you do with your Competence and Commitment. I could speak Gàidhlig all day to the cat and the canary, but little would it benefit the continuation of the language. I might as well never have troubled to learn it, apart from my own intellectual satisfaction. But more to the point, without the possibility of using the language socially, most ‘normal’ folk will never bother to learn it in the first place.

    So how do you square this vicious circle?

  8. Darby O'Gill says:

    What is the purpose of language? If it is to communicate with as many others as possible then surely we should be encouraging people to learn to speak in Spanish, Mandarin, Urdu, Arabic, French, etc.

    1. Douglas says:


    2. Axel Koehler says:

      Troll alarm! Troll alarm! Troll alarm! Man the guns! Staff the emergency dept.!

      And once and for all to all mono-cellular brained trolls: nope! Language is not just for communication – it is the vehicle for culture, ideas, thoughts, even music! But then, it must be hard to get all that knowledge into one cell…

      1. Broadbield says:

        If all those things you mention aren’t mediated by communication I don’t know how they get there. Oops, just set off the Troll alarm!! Excuse me, while a see if I can get another brain cell online.

        There’s a dangerous tendency on this site for some people denouncing to those who have a different point of view. First it comes in juvenile sarcasm and insults in the original article and then it’s the posters doing the same. Hardly conducive to democratic discussion.

        1. Michael says:

          Why are they mutually exclusive? The initial question above seemed to suggest that if one encouraged learning of Gaelic other languages wouldn’t be learnt. But surely if we had a culture of bilingualism (never mind the sort of trilingualism or more you see in places like Belgium and the Netherlands) rather than the monolingualism that is predominant, then we would see people learning French, German, Arabic, Mandarin etc. There’s a strange attitude in many anglophone countries (wonderfully commented on by Eddie Izzard) that no one can possibily hold more than one language in their head.

  9. Natalie Solent says:

    “I think we are mature enough to agree that that child has a right not to see their native tongue disappear off the face of the earth as a community language during their lifetime. ”

    I don’t think such a right can exist. Put it this way, if you replaced the words referring to language with words referring to other communal cultural activities which might be declining – e.g. traditional costume, or marriage customs, or a community’s traditional religion – would you still agree with the sentiment? It may make that child very sad to see their language disappear, but for them to have a *right* not to see that happen would be equivalent to them imposing a duty on *other people* to keep the language going.

    I very much hope all the Celtic tongues will survive and grow. But no one can demand that as of right.

    1. Isobel says:

      Natalie Solent, they have a right to respect. Do you have the right to live your life the way you want? Yes, you do, as long as you do not harm others. Why are you so narrow minded – sorry, but you are. If you don’t believe me, what is your solution? That everyone speaks English? That is imposing a viewpoint on someone.

  10. Lawrie says:

    Excellent article and great to move on from the usual endless same old. Speaking extra languages seems to be a problem for english speaking peoples. The first time i tried it was French in Africa, I was 19 and working with French speaking Africans. I had a book to learn, i could sometimes understand bits and pieces when my colleagues were very patiently speaking to me slowly but i could not speak, completely tongue tied and embarrassed. Eventually one of my African colleagues suggested, half jokingly, that I was suffering from colonial mentality “you don’t want to look stupid in front of a foreigner, you think you are superior, so you don’t want to speak anything but English?”. Thought about that a lot over the years. How to find an explanation for people with higher/A level in French German or Spanish visiting abroad who struggle to order a coffee? or expat ghettoes of english speaking people who have absolute minimum contact with local people. Maybe something of this in the bizarre statement “feeling like uncultured aliens in their own land” in the Wings article? I’m not sure, but what i always have done since my colleague’s criticism is never ever be afraid to try and say something, normally people are helpful and correct my mistakes – and some times they laugh their heads off (in a good way – learning Portuguese in Brasil:)). Learned a few languages over the years and enjoyed all of it, its an amazing window into other worlds and ways of thinking. I think also that a multilingual society, those different ways of thinking, have positive effects for the economy. Nice to see Angela Merkel visiting Bern last week and saying thank you at a reception in all 4 official languages, one of which Rumantsch is spoken by 0.9% of the Swiss population. Btw For Gaelic learners i would recommend Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, breakthrough in Gaelic for me there, fantastic teachers – recommend it. Also recommend Fèis, I took my German/English/Czech speaking kids to a Fèis this year – it was great and interesting to see that they came out after the week with a smattering of Gaelic phrases and words + a Gaelic song they are still singing and some very excellent tunes.

  11. 1314 says:

    After the war their were many Polish men in Scotland. I had two Polish uncles (and school friends with Polish fathers ). They both had Scottish wives. None of their offspring speak Polish nor did I hear my uncles speaking Polish.

    Now, I hear Polish spoken in my local shops on regular basis with both adults and bairns fluent. Why the difference ? One obvious answer is that the new generation is completely different – they come with friends, partners and bairns and they just Speak Polish – everywhere.

    There’s no doubt (nae doot ?) a whole lot of psychology to unpack here but the essence of it is this – bairns have no problems with speaking two, or more, languages – it’s adults who have the problem, and it starts in the teen years. So you need to tackle the parent – I (or my partner) won’t understand them, as opposed to isn’t this a great opportunity for my kids and maybe me too – problem, and the teenage conformist – is this cool ? – problem.

    And on hearing the spoken language – in many, many journeys North I have never heard anybody speaking Gaelic. In my one time in North Wales I heard Welsh spoken frequently. In particular in the tourist office where the staff, phoning to find a B&B, would speak in Welsh or English depending on who answered the phone – but Welsh first.

    1. seon says:

      Many folk are ashamed to speak Gaelic in front of others. True that many native speakers aged 50 and over were punished for speaking it but you’d think that this cringe would die off eventually.

      I greatly admire the Welsh for their attitude and its one we should adopt. If they can’t accept other people speaking our oldest tongue, then frankly, Get Tae Falkirk.

      1. 1314 says:

        Not Freuchie ? (that’s Fruchy not Froochy).

  12. Calum McLean says:

    Difficult to imagine a debate in any other country where the discussion focuses on whether or not ‘some’ of the population should continue or be encouraged to speak their own national language.

    I would start from the position, if nothing innovative, brave and inclusive is embarked upon, Gaelic will die a painful and lingering demise. Currently there is no champion for Gaelic, possible exception being Alasdair Allan. What it needs is a high visibility champion with charisma who can convince some of the sceptics as to Gaelic’s benefit to all of Scotland.

    The old dark grey faceless figures who have steered the language to where it is need to be replaced by energetic colourful young folk. Folk who can reach out to others and reverse the decline. If you can convince the mainstream of the benefits, you will have an open door to push through.

  13. Mealer says:

    It’s like most other things.Give bairns a bit of it when they’re little and it will be so much easier to develop or rediscover that skill later on in life,Should they choose to.And they’re much more likely to choose to if it comes easier to them.

  14. Peter Clive says:

    Good article … bruidhinn sa Ghaidhlig – “simples” …

    I would advocate support for Gaelic Medium Workplaces … see here


  15. Peter Clive says:

    Some thoughts on recent census returns …


  16. Kendo says:

    I believe what is key for passing Gaelic on (or any language) is for at least one parent to speak to their child in that language from day 1 – I mean literally the day the child is born. Trying to switch 6 months later or 12 months when the child is starting to use his/her own words is difficult.

    This is particularly important where the parents communicate in English (if e.g. only one parent is a Gaelic speaker) and they are effectively introducing a new language into the family, which might seem quite weird at first.

    I have witnessed many families not passing on Gaelic to their children because one of the parents doesn’t speak it, so English becomes the default language of the home, with Gaelic rarely being heard, even in traditional strongholds such as the Western Isles.

    What can be done to encourage families to use Gaelic immediately? Parents need to be offered support and encouragement before their first child is born!

  17. James Dow A voice from the diaspora says:

    Anybody that has had the pleasure of hearing Gaelic sung would surely become an instant convert to the language and promote its expansion.

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