I started to write this article in Gaelic, with a view to bolstering Bella’s already excellent corpus of Gaelic-language articles, but I realised that in doing so, I would be shutting off the very people who need to read it from its key messages. Indeed, I don’t need to preach to the Gaelic-speaking community about prejudice against our language, our culture and its speakers, ourselves. We live that daily.
So I’m writing in English and, in doing so, I’m writing to you, the English and Scots speakers of Scotland.
On 24th April an article appeared on the BBC News website announcing the development of a new Gaelic-language dictionary. Similar articles regarding the same featured on the websites of the Times, the Scotsman and the Express. The article, to my mind, wasn’t that incendiary. Simply, a piecemeal £2.5 million had been granted to Bòrd na Gàidhlig, in consortium with the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, to fund a thirty-year project aiming to furnish our community with a dictionary akin to that of the Collins or Merriam Webster. Given the long life of the project, the people it will enable to make a livelihood through the project and the long-lasting benefits it will bestow on the community, I considered this to be value for money. Indeed, given that Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland since the first centuries AD, you might call such an initiative long overdue.
Personally, in reading the reports, I was overjoyed. As a Gaelic writer, this will be a supremely useful resource to me, if I’m still alive and writing in 2043, as it will be to speakers, and writers yet to publish, across Scotland.
Naturally, the comments sections were left open, as is often the case and in just four hours, wherever the articles featured, they had turned into cesspits of prejudice and one-up-manship.
On this note, I was far from surprised. Every single time a new Gaelic intitiative is heralded in the press, the good news is met by a barrage of the same worn out rhetoric, not only deriding the initiative, but, albeit indirectly or cynically, deriding our community as well.
“Gaelic is a totem used by the SNP to further its nationalist agenda. Gaelic is a waste of money whilst the NHS is in dire need of resources. Gaelic is a toolfor division, used by its speakers to isolate and intimidate the majority who don’t speak it. Gaelic is useless language and our Gaelic-speaking children and other learners of the language would be better advised to turn their attention to Mandarin. Gaelic roadsigns are a risk to non-Gaelic speaking drivers. Nobody speaks Gaelic here. Gaelic was never spoken here.”
I’m so bored of reading this nonsense.
I’d go so far as to call it bullshit. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t restricted to the misinformed grumblings of the Scottish proletariat in the comments sections and social media. It also fills column inches in our dailies, both broadsheets and tabloids.
Last week a brand-new school was opened in Portree. Mike Wade of the Times, instead of congratulating the parents and wider community who campaigned for the school for years, if not decades, chose to frame the news as a ‘cause of equality’. Plus ça change.
But the grenades weren’t just thrown by those beyond the barricade. On the inside, John Finlayson, in the West Highland Free Press, echoed these sentiments, with a double-dose of ‘whataboutery’. Apparently the hand that gives a new school to Gaelic-speaking children, takes away from the English-speaking majority, despite the fact that excellent mainstream education continues to flourish on the island.
Finlayson, a former headmaster of a school, with a Gaelic unit, in Portree, clearly spent too much time in the office and hobnobbing with the high heid yins he now holds court with, instead of interacting with the Gaelic-speaking children he claimed to support, as part of the election campaign which led to his change in career as a local counsellor. I’ve worked in Gaelic-medium education, too, both in the Gaelic-unit of a mainstream school in the Greater Glasgow area, and a standalone Gaelic school in the Highlands. Part of that role was to be out in all weathers encouraging the children to use the language in social settings outwith the classroom. It was hard enough in the latter institution, given the disconnection between youth culture and the Gaelic tradition (a cause for thought which could be the stuff of a future article) but in the former institution the challenge was far greater. We constantly tread a tightrope between integrating those children with their monoglot peers and demonstrating that Gaelic, for them, need not solely be the language of instruction, but something relevant to all aspects of their lives. Finlayson, didn’t seem very cognisant of that conundrum and the benefits of maintaining a singularly Gaelic-speaking environment for children who have been placed in Gaelic-medium education by their parents, for the sole purpose of learning the language through immersion.
As the Skye poetess Màiri Mhòr nan Òran said herself: ‘tha mi sgìth de luchd na Beurla’ (‘I am tired of English-speaking monoglots.’) Finlayson should know, as a Gaelic-speaker himself, that if there is just one English-speaker amongst ten speakers of Gaelic, the conversation will inevitably switch to English. If this happens in adult company, it will happen in the playground. This is the power of the colonised mind.
As the Skye poetess Màiri Mhòr nan Òran said herself: ‘tha mi sgìth de luchd na Beurla’ (‘I am tired of English-speaking monoglots.’)
He needn’t just take my word for it, though. One of his former pupils, on Facebook, had some choice words for him as well. Countering accusations of exclusivity and elitism, she was more than confident in the fact that Gaelic-medium education was anything but a barrier to her own social inclusion with English-speaking monoglot peers. Indeed, the testimonies of successful former students like her repeatedly elucidate an appreciation of other cultures and an openness to people from other cultural backgrounds, which simply adds to the many benefits of bilingual education expounded by academics across Scotland.
Sadly, the words of a young Gaelic-speaking woman don’t carry as far as those of greying male professionals, like councillors and journalists, with the power of a local authority or a broadsheet behind them. This makes me wonder if it’s time to take the debate out of the columns and into the streets, or perhaps to bring the streets to the debate.
To that end, instead of repeating the facts and the statistics, as commentators like Arthur Cormack and academics like Wilson McLeod and Rob Dunbar do, with champion regularity, here’s a few anecdotal pearls from an April in Gaeldom.
Last week, following the Culloden commemorations, a friend contacted me. In attendance with her children, both Gaelic-speakers, she overheard a member of the throng deriding a singer, contributing to the proceedings with a Gaelic psalm. Ebullient, he then proceeded to laugh through the performance. Whilst the apologists might claim that the criticism was simply of the musical genre, or the performance itself, the woman and her children were upset by the experience, which they took as micro-aggression on the language, its culture and their community. The irony was somewhat lost on this individual, seemingly unaware that Culloden is one of the tragedies that sounded the death knell for the Gaelic language.
Enough of history, let’s look to the future. Today, another friend contacted me. She is a Gaelic teacher in a High School outwith that which we call the ‘Gaelic Heartland’; the kind of area where Gaelic was supposedly ‘never spoken.’ Whilst usually enthusiastic, if not dynamic, in her attempts to demonstrate that Gaelic is a living, vibrant language, and a viable medium for communication in contemporary Scotland, today she is exhausted and feels like giving up. Whilst supported by her colleagues, she’s sick of being the butt of taunts from pupils outwith her class, questioning why she is there and why Gaelic is taught in the school. Of course, normally, she’s mature and robust enough to fettle a few rambunctious adolescents, but at times, yes, the patience does wear a bit thin.
But there was a glimmer of hope. One of her S3 pupils had written a piece for the school blog, the sentiments which, their youthful expression notwithstanding, would not be out of place in the responses of Messrs Cormack, McLeod ad Dunbar.
Yet here we have three children who are acutely aware of their ‘otherness’ as Gaelic speakers in Scotland, of the fact that they live in a country where there are people who believe their language and culture are not worthy of state support, if not worthless entirely. I think it’s time to let that sink in for a bit, because it’s evidence – albeit anecdotal – that the bile from the likes of Mike Wade, which Gaelic speakers read weekly in the papers, is travelling down the food-chain and into the mouths of babes. It’s these babes which may grow to bash Gaelic for future generations. As we say in Gaelic: ‘an t-ionnsachadh òg, an t-ionnsachadh bòidheach’ (‘youthful formation is the most bueaitful’.)
The last time I had a conversation about this was on Twitter. Another user, in response to proposals of extending Gaelic-medium High School education in Edinburgh, remarked on existing provision in the city, suggesting that someone should set fire to Bunsgoil Taobh na Pàirce – the standalone Gaelic primary school in the city – whilst the children were in it. Members within and outwith the Gaelic community, on the platform, immediately piled in to demonstrate their disgust, as they rightly should. The attention of Police Scotland was drawn to the matter. I am yet to hear if there was an investigation.
When I read comments like this, whether it’s in the press or online, I am minded of a former participant in the BBC’s The Apprentice programme. I need not add to her notoriety by naming her, though we all know that she likes to take pot-shots at minority communities in the UK. Thankfully, whilst Gaeldom remains far beyond the Watford Gap, we are positioned beyond her sphere of influence and interest, though our time may come. I presume she reads the papers, too.
I see no difference in tone between the regular comments of that individual and the sentiments detailed here. Perhaps the journalists tread a little more lightly than the Twitter bigot with ambitions of arson, but the fact remains that the words of Gaelic’s regular detractors like Alan Roden and Scott Begbie have power. The sentiments they express have currency in our communities. Misinformation and poor research do not seem to be an issue for such raconteurs, who repeatedly masquerade their hatred for the language and its speakers with feigned concern for the economy, the NHS, or the slighted monoglot population of Scotland. Their editors do nothing to check them.
Following the last Gaelic cross-party meeting held at the parliament, I had a conversation with Kate Forbes MSP, the meeting’s chair and general Gaelic heroine, via email. I mentioned to her, amongst similar concerns, the comments made regarding Taobh na Pàirce, of which she was already aware. The upshot is that it is more than likely that the police are unable to do anything about such hate speech, because the law does not, in fact, regard it as hate speech. Whilst legislation like the Equality Act is in place to protect and maintain the rights and safety of women and members of the BAME and LGBT communities, our minoritised language communities do not feature in its wording. Unlike in the Book of Dear, Gaelic doesn’t even feature in the margins.
At another event at the Parliament I met with an expert in BSL from one of Edinburgh’s universities. Those of us who speak and move for our minorities are used to sharing best practice with our peers and he bemoaned the fact that that those working for BSL don’t have the support of a quango like Bòrd na Gàidhlig to fight their corner. He considered him lucky in other ways, though. Indeed, would any journalist dare write to deride BSL in the same way they do about Gaelic? We were both doubtful. Thankfully society has moved on to the extent that we don’t tolerate the demonization of people with disabilities, and even though BSL is a language like any other, regardless of who has it, human decency does prevail, and to a certain extent, safeguards efforts to promote it from undue criticism.
Not so, when it comes to Gaelic, though, and I want to know why this is. After all, on paper, we all agree that bigotry faced by any minority, simply because of the fact they are different, has no place in Scotland in 2018. However, politicians and commentators of all hues fall completely silent, when it comes to sticking up for us. We are the last minority it is still seen as politically correct to abuse, whether its in print, online or in person.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote of my own, which, whilst it dates back some ten years to my days as an undergraduate in Aberdeen, has remained with me ever since. Whilst walking down School Hill talking in Gaelic my best friend, a native speaker from Uist, away from the Blue Lamp, where Gaelic speakers would regularly meet to use the language, we were confronted by a man in his thirties. To the best of my knowledge he was not intoxicated or in any way otherwise impeded. Hearing the language on the street, he cornered us and got in my friend’s face – a young woman in her twenties – and what he was shouting was that we should stop speaking Gaelic in the Granite City. His aggression left us both gobsmacked. It was the first time I’d ever encountered anything like it in the flesh.
Thankfully he left us both unscathed by the incident. We spoke in Gaelic on the phone last week. But, on that night, as we carried on our way, that man had succeeded in making us switch to English, because we were frightened. On that day, at least, one of Gaelic detractors won.
Ten years later I think it’s time to call out this outright xenophobia for what it is. I am sick to the back teeth of it and I know the Gaelic speakers reading this are too. Time and time again, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, our Gaelic cultural ambassadors and civic leaders respond with such politeness and magnanimity that it almost reads, at times, like an apology for our existence. Those that criticise Gaelic with such flagrancy don’t listen to facts; they don’t like them. They get in the way of their prejudices. They see a road sign and conveniently forget the thousands of people behind it.
But as I write this I’m not frightened of that man in Aberdeen, and those like him, any more and I know the only way to combat prejudice is to fight it head on. As if we weren’t acutely aware of the fact, and as we are reminded daily, we represent only 1% of the population. We need the rest of Scotland behind us and unanimous in your support.