Learning Gaelic, Learning Scotland: Normalising Language
I’m sitting in an entirely empty train carriage at Glasgow Queen Street Station on my way to Mallaig. Two older ladies board and start speaking to each other in Gaelic, believing they won’t be understood. They are discussing how I am sitting in one of their booked seats and how young people these days have no respect or regard for the rules. I politely reply, in Gaelic, that they could have their booked seat and I was just trying to find a better view for the journey. I said that I was more than happy to move and I hoped that they would enjoy their trip.
I often tell people this story and say that the reaction on the ladies faces when they realised I had understood every word made learning Gaelic worthwhile. However, this is only the start of a large list of experiences that have made learning Gaelic one of the best things I have ever done.
I started my degree at the University of Glasgow in 2010 and chose Gaelic as my third subject. Coming from Stirlingshire there was no opportunity to learn Gaelic in my Primary or Secondary School and so attending the University was my first chance. I think I could just about stumble through a ciamar a tha thu and maybe even a slàinte, but that was pretty much it. It became clear to me very quickly that I was going to stay in the Gaelic department for the rest of my time at the University and it soon became my priority.
My decision to learn Gaelic came from many years travelling in the Outer Hebrides with my parents and attending the Hebridean Celtic Festival. It is hard to imagine now, but I remember a time when our family would be the only people camping on Horgabost beach on Harris. It always seemed strange to me that I had no understanding of a language that was so commonly used in parts of my own country. I still find this strange. Only recently at Murrayfield watching Scotland play rugby did it occur to me how many patriotic Scots, while singing along to Runrig’s Loch Lomond, fall silent when it comes to Ho, ho mo leannan, ho mo leannan bhòidheach. Is even this too much of a stretch?
Glasgow University has a Gaelic Initiative which creates opportunities for Gaelic speakers to use it daily on campus. It also, as I discovered, helps introduce learners to the fluent speakers and the culture of Gaelic in Glasgow. We had ceilidhs and events and weekly meet ups and I quickly got to know all the Gaelic speakers in the department and realised that, dare I say it, Gaelic was… cool? Vibrant? No, just normal. A completely normal part of these young Scots’ day to day lives.’
I have had so many different opportunities since strolling into the Celtic and Gaelic Department back in 2010. Performing Gaelic songs at Celtic Connections gigs with fellow students, attending the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college in Skye for workshops and summer schools, appearing on television shows filmed in Glasgow and in Skye, doing interviews on Radio nan Gàidheal and recently taking part in some extra work for the 4th series of Outlander. All of this is in addition to teaching Gaelic classes to adults and children and also my current job.
I work for the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic (dasg.ac.uk) and we currently have a team of 15 people. We speak Gaelic to each other every single day. In meetings, during our lunch breaks, organising work schedules, and in the pub on a Friday evening, Gaelic is our language of communication. I am part of the Glasgow Gaelic Choir where, again, Gaelic is used commonly. It is normal. For this reason the recent negativity in the press and on social media goes over my head, as it is so far removed from my own experiences that, if it wasn’t so concerning, would be laughable.
When people say nobody speaks Gaelic, I say, I speak it every day. My best friends speak it. My work colleagues speak it. My bosses speak it. Those two ladies on the train slagged me off in it. I text in it. I write Facebook messages in it. To say that nobody speaks it is untrue, and nothing but ignorance. Of course people speak Gaelic.
I have heard it claimed (mostly by monoglot English speakers) that Gaelic is insular and restrictive. Again, this is not something that I recognise to be true. I have met people with not only a tolerance of but huge interest in other cultures. This could be down to the understanding of speaking a minority language and being regarded as ‘other’, even in a country that you call home. Mine is not the place to lecture on the benefits of bilingualism, but only to observe the skill and talent with language of my Gaelic speaking friends.
As an adult learner of Gaelic I am in the position to remember my life without it. To say that Gaelic opens up your country to you feels cliché but it’s what I’ve found to be the case. Place names are an obvious example. I think there is sometimes an acceptance among non-Gaelic speakers in Scotland that place names just are what they are without questioning why. Before learning, I didn’t think much about them. Now I see them as descriptions of the land and sometimes what the land was used for. They shape my vision of place and many Scots are missing out on this, which is a massive shame.
It is an absolute privilege to be able to consider myself even a small part of the Gaelic community. I put down my love of Gaelic not only to the language itself, but down to the wonderful people I have met along the way, fluent speakers and learners alike who have been nothing but welcoming and supportive.
If you are even considering giving Gaelic a go, siuthad! Do not underestimate the opportunities and richness of culture that will open up to you once you begin. You don’t need to become fully fluent to gain a better understanding of the culture and language that surrounds us in (all areas of) Scotland. The next time I’m at Murrayfield, I hope to hear you singing as well…
Ho, ho mo leannan, ho mo leannan bhòidheach.