On Gaelic, Language and Identity

Scotland is evolving as a country, as a cultural entity, as a place that knows itself.
The contradictory and dividing myths we’ve told ourselves (and been told) are falling apart. One of the enduring mythologies is that of the “divided self” – from the “double and divided” Scottish self in literature including Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). But the country, as we have told ourselves, is divided also between catholic and protestant – industrial past (heroic-masculine) and post-industrial future (chaotic-dystopian). These binaries are outdated and inadequate, a series of false-dichotomies that have out-served their purpose.
This splitterdom of course gave birth to the term ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’, the idea that Scots can hold simultaneously the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity”, thought of as being typical for the Scottish psyche and literature.
Caledonian Antisyzygy was first coined by the literary critic G. Gregory Smith in response to the view espoused by figures such as T.S. Eliot – that there is no value in Scottish “provincial literature”, who noted an absence of coherence and an anchor in a single language. The idea is explored by Kirsten Stirling in her book Bella Caledonia: Woman, Nation, Text (New York, Rodopi, 2008)
Of course the other central myth that has been perpetuated alongside this is that of the highland-lowland divide. It is a trope that has been regurgitated down the years, presumably by the original ‘metropolitan elites’, by an embracing of “progress” that would assume anything rural or traditional to be backwards, and for a tendency to belittle or ignore your own cultural heritage unless it was wrapped safely in kitsch, tartan and Nessification.
But now Eliot’s idea that a singular unitary base for literature or language looks positively imperial.
This past week saw extraordinary explosion of interest in gaelic learning on Duolingo – the world’s largest language learning platform.
It has attracted about 65,000 learners in five days.
Ciaran Iòsaph MacAonghais – a Primary Teacher from Fort William and co-creator of the Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course told us:

“Previously, there were around 5,500 learning Gaelic in Scotland and we have already raised this number significantly and hopefully it will continue to rise in the coming weeks and months. There is no single solution that will save the Gaelic language. Much more needs to be done to support Native Speakers in Gaelic speaking communities, but having a high profile starting point for learning is still a powerful thing. In a small language community like this, every speaker makes a real difference.”
He continued:

“I am blown away by the reaction to the course. Feedback seems to be overwhelmingly positive, we have even had a professor of Gaelic comment on the quality of the course itself and the Gaelic you can hear in the audio recording. The course is currently in “Beta” which means we are working around the clock to respond to feedback and correct any errors and hope to get these ironed out as soon as possible. Once the course graduates from Beta, we are planning on expanding it significantly. My hope is to see the course used in schools and to see the number of people learning in Scotland and overseas grow and grow.”

opp. pg. 146

But the success is twofold. It is first that a small group of language activists managed to find agency and successfully lobby Duolingo – this is independent thinking in action. But it is secondly a blow to both the idea of binary, fundamentally split Scotland and the idea that the hatred of gaelic that oozes forth from the cracks of cultural self-hatred is a mainstream past-time.

The tiring re-tread of arguments about schooling, broadcasting or the cliché of road-signs that gets trundled out by the monoglot community stuffed with internalised antiGaelic stigma has been blown away by the Duolingo success.

And we know where some of this comes from.

The gaelic scholar Iain Mackinnon writes (‘Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind’):

“Michael Newton has also recently made available online some examples he has collected of texts written by Gaels that describe the culturally repressive role of education. In at least one school the ‘maide crochaidh’ – the ‘hanging’ or ‘punishment’ stick – was hung around the neck of any child overheard speaking Gàidhlig in school.“The idea was that the child heard speaking the language would have the stick placed around their neck and, when they heard another child speak the language, they would pass it on, and so on. At the end of the day the teacher called for the stick and began to systematically flog each child who had worn it during the day.”
The correspondence with Thiongo’s experience in Kenya is striking: although the actual terrorist device differs between Gĩkũyũ and Gàidhlig – a button rather than a stick – the process and intent are identical. In ‘Memories of Rannoch’, an autobiographical account published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society in 1981 but originally written in the 1920s, a man from Rannoch recounted a related form of psychological terror which had been used to try to destroy young Gaels’ connection to their language. He recalled an older neighbour telling him how children who spoke Gàidhlig in their school were treated by the schoolmaster.

It [the Gàidhlig language] seems to have been even more sternly discouraged in the early fifties [1850s], for an old man of eighty-eight, Duncan Cameron, now living next door to me here at Druimchruaidh, told me that when he was going to school at Camaghouran, any boy or girl caught speaking Gaelic during school hours was punished by having a human skull suspended round the head for the rest of the day.”
MacKinnon concludes:
“In my own family, when my maternal grandmother went to school on Skye in the early twentieth century she spoke only Gàidhlig. Although her teacher was a Gàidhlig speaker, he belted her and others in the class if he caught them speaking the language. Violence engendered a brokenness in our family’s relationship to Gàidhlig which has fractured into the present day. It seems possible that stories such as these are fairly common in families, but have been repressed, as has been the case in other colonial contexts.”
Now there’s two important caveats worth mentioning here. The first is that like gym membership and purchasing kitchen gadgets, online language courses are probably signed-up for with great enthusiasm but often abandoned in large numbers. Duolingo might be the spiraliser at the back of your cupboard by January.
Secondly, there is no substitute for growing and nurturing gaelic in the Gàidhealtachd. It’s not the same to have someone learning gaelic out of any located cultural context online, as it is to have people learning and re-learning their language in place.
But the vast numbers signed-up mean we can anticipate a huge drop-off and still have a magnificent growth in gaelic learners boosting the amount of people involved. And whilst gaelic needs housing and jobs in the western highlands as much as it needs digital practice, the two are not at odds and this is a significant cultural moment.
It is also liberating from Eliot’s notion of language and identity and worth. Instead we have a a multi-polar world where identity, Scottish identity can operate with several languages and an appropriately complex swirl of signifiers: Highlander, Gael, European, Anglo-Scot, Afro-Scot, Glaswegian, and on and on.
Declining cultural self-hatred is a long-term project, but it’s one that has taken significant advances in the past week. There are political ramifications of the process of de-colonisation and it doesn’t end it begins with language diversity.

Comments (21)

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  1. maxwell macleod says:

    Oh come away Mike, the polarisations are still there big time. In recent years I’ve had trouble getting ecumenical literature type set, listened to hour after hour of people talking rubbish about Celtic versus Rangers ( “I can tell if someones a Tim just by looking at him ” ) and I once offered a Glasgow charity the chance to lead an Edinburgh parade and they refused because they didn’t want to bum up Edinburgh. Yes it’s lessening but tribalism is still far too evident and we should fight it, just as you are doing so fair play to you.

    1. Ha ha! Yes its true we are still riven with divisions – but so is everywhere. I’m not arguing there are no polaristions just that they are not defining of us.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        For writers who have published for more than I ever will, you appear to be forgetting that words have meaning and we have ranges of words so that nuance can be expressed. “Polarisations are still there big time” and “riven”.

        Is there any society that does not have people whose views are polarised? Has there ever been one? Why are we Scots deemed exceptional in this regard?

        The continual harping on about the bad aspects of our society and then generalising these to all of us has been one of the weapons of the colonisation which Iain MacKinnon addressed in his two essays. It is the internalisation of this – and Mr MacKinnon described examples – which led to the ‘cringe’ and the sense of inferiority. More of us are aware of this ‘colonisation’ and have a fuller and more rounded ‘conceit of ourselves’.

        What sites like Bella have done is an example of what Paolo Freire called ‘conscientization’, where people are assisted to reflect upon their condition.

      2. Kate says:

        They seem to define more people than they don’t. I lived away for a couple of decades, then came back. That made it all too obvious, sadly. I’ve been told (by total strangers) that I look like a Fenian, tho I’m actually the spit of my Presbyterian granny. My maiden name has a Catholic spelling, apparently. It all adds up to a society just dying to point out how different you are, even when you are not. No wonder I sometimes wish I’d never come back. It’s petty and divisive. And bodes ill for the ‘different’ should a certain part of our society ever come to be in full control of the country. As for Gaelic, I never felt the need to learn it. I still don’t. I’ve already been told that makes me a fake Scot. I suspect I’m not the only one. And so the splintering continues.

        1. Steaphan / Steven says:

          Hi Kate. If the people who told you your maiden name had “a Catholic spelling” could speak Gaelic, the thought wouldn’t even cross their minds.
          This is what monolingualism does. Limits peoples’ outlook. The very act of learning a language is a positive thing which opens one’s mind to another way of thinking, communicating and being – taking people on a journey to other points of view, sources of knowledge, etc. that they would never have come across if they’d stayed in their monolingual anglocentric world (life).

    2. Robert Charles Ross says:

      Fair comment. Guid luck wi the Duolingo course, y’all. Subscribed

  2. George Gunn says:

    We are divided so we can be controlled. Colonialism is still the system in operation when it comes to Westminster’s view of Scotland. It was certainly the social function of Dounreay, for example. I am currently writing a play “The Fallen Angels of the Moine”, to be performed this Spring, where a character says, in homage of and to Thiongo,
    “Colonisation elevates the colonisers’ language
    and seeks to alienate indigenous children from their natural and social environment through colonial education practices. So we’ll be havin none of you eejits talkin that Gaelic heech-ma-hoch nor that Caithness gobshite lingo either. Oh no, no.”

  3. Welsh Sion says:

    You may be familiar with similar devices to the ‘maide crochaidh’ such as the ‘vache’ in Brittany, the ‘scoreen’ in Ireland and our own ‘Welsh Not’ in Wales. All of these were a form of linguicide perpetuated on the Celtic languages, and it’s a miracle that we are still here.


    New technology is to be embraced in preserving and promoting our languages – which are part and parcel of who we are. Regrettably, like many Celtic language speakers, but not all, I can only communicate with others sharing my mother tongue. If I have to speak to other Celts (although having basic Breton), I am obliged to speak the ‘imperial’ tongue of English or French. (Doesn’t stop me having a duet with a Breton in our respective national anthems, mind!)

    I maintain a professional interest in all the Celtic languages and am the sole registered English Welsh translator in the records of the worldwide register of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. I admire my compatriots who have gone to prison for our language (and continue to do so), they are far more courageous than me.

    We still have a lot to do in persuading the monoglots to join us – but know this, being bilingual or polyglot brings a whole load of health advantages as well as opening eyes and minds to other cultures and ways of thinking. Indeed, we often learn more about our own mother tongue from learning others, and I pity those who still feel it necessary to decry, depreciate and despise the Celtic (and other minority) languages.

    Yours in solidarity as a lawyer by training, a linguist by profession and a nationalist by conviction.


    1. Guidanculturtasibhgear says:

      I’m not versed in Scottish history but I’ve read that the picts spoke a totally different language to gaelic??? That it was more akin to Welsh. I’ve read that gaelic was brought to Scotland by the Gaels of Ulster. So gaelic originated in the home of the Gaels (imagine that), Ireland! Irishmen, Dirty Fenians!!! I can understand why we rarely hear an acknowledgement of this, given how shameful it is. So I wont be speaking Gaelic, reffering to myself as a Scot or my nationality as Scottish, I won’t be drinking anymore drams or praying to jesus. What did the Gaels ever do for us?

  4. Sandy Thomson says:

    ‘Declining cultural self-hatred is a long-term project’, but what an important one to get started on. In this depressing pre-election week, this article has given my spirits a lift.

  5. Richard Easson says:

    What could be more Jekyll and Hydean than the English who come up to retire where I live in Sutherland and are suddenly British ” because we all live in the same country”.

  6. Wul says:

    The cleverest trick of the colonialist is getting us to do it to each other. That is a very powerful “force multiplier”.

    The older I get, the more I realise that indigenous language and culture are the most powerful inoculations against outside exploitation. Which is, of course, the reason that the coloniser murders them as a matter of highest priority.

    It took me a very long time to realise this.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      “Force multiplier” – that’s a very good way of putting it.

  7. Tommy moore says:

    100%. This is cause for real positivity. I’m going to welcome aboard and reinforce the enthusiasm of anyone I meet who is undertaking this course.

  8. MBC says:

    Culture will be our weapon in the years ahead after the coming cataclysm of Friday 13th December. Tapadh leit Mhicheil.

  9. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    For those with any Canadian interest, I would direct attention to Michael Newton’s invaluable bilingual collection of, and commentary on, Gaelic heritage sources from Canada:

    ‘Seanchaidh na Coille/ Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada’, Edited by Michael Newton, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 2015.

    There is a full review on Bellacaledonia here:


    Related to the current thread, here are one or two quotes from Michael Newton’s commentary —

    “[R]ecent research has revealed that Scottish Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language at the time of (Canadian) Confederation. And yet today, apart from scattered homesteads in Nova Scotia, not only has the language receded from the immigrant communities that once spoke it, but it has practically disappeared from public memory. “

    “Unlike immigrant groups from beyond the British Isles, Scottish Gaels (like the Irish and Welsh) had a long-standing history of conflict with the anglophone world and had been represented as the ‘primitive Other’ in the venerated canon of anglophone literature and historiography. The dominance of Anglocentric perspectives in Canada as well as in the national institutions of their own homeland presented an extra dimension of difficulty for Gaels to maintain their language and culture. […] The common pattern in North America when immigrants enter into highly interconnected, urban settings is that the ancestral language is lost within three generations. This does not explain why or how the shift from Gaelic to English happened in the more substantial and cohesive rural settlements, such as in the Maritimes, however. Dòmhnall MacGill-Eain Sinclair, writing in 1950, described deliberate attempts to eradicate Gaelic in Nova Scotia through coercion: ‘… in Scotland it has suffered greatly by restrictive laws. In the Highlands, children whose mother tongue it was, were forbidden to speak it in school, and if caught speaking it, were punished. This strange idea came over to Nova Scotia. Dr. Chisholm of Bridgeville, Pictou County, told me that in his early days children who spoke Gaelic were accompanied home from school by others who were to report to the teacher if they heard Gaelic spoken. If caught they were punished, just as in Scotland. Thus in about one generation Gaelic was killed in Pictou County.’”

    Also regarding imported prejudices from Scotland:

    “These animosities were carried forward into Canada just as much as any common sense of ‘Scottishness’, especially when Highland immigrants did not conform to the ethnolinguistic norms and expectations of anglophones. In a survey of Gaelic traditions in Prince Edward Island conducted in 1987, for example, John Shaw remarked, ‘A small portion of Prince Edward Island Scots had come from the Scottish Lowlands and according to reports they demonstrated naked hostility to Gaelic—more so than any other ethnic group.”’
    – – – –
    And, if I might pick up on the “Jekyll & Hyde” illustration and theme of the present article….

    Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is unfortunately not available in Scottish Gaelic, but here is a link to a recent (2014) Irish language edition —

    Cás aduain an Dr Jekyll agus Mhr Hyde


  10. Iain Ross says:

    On the “culturally repressive role of education” in regard to Gaelic, an example from my own family:

    In 1950s Lewis, a child recently having started primary school (very little English) puts up her hand and says ‘Tha dileag agam’. The teacher tells the child that only English is permitted to be spoken in the school, the child does not have the words and is left to pee herself in front of all the others in the class.

    Disgusting is an understatement but the things that always gets me is that when I tell this to a monoglot English speaking Scot, 9 times out of 10, they are always completely unaware that things like this actually happened, and within living memory. That includes people who would have a Gaelic heritage only handful of generations back.

    So much damage done, and so many seeds to contempt for Gaelic sown. The education policy imposed from the 19th century until very recently has been a great success for the British state.

  11. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    It is no doubt worth mentioning on this thread a very significant Gaelic volume which has just been published in the last couple of months — a wee bit hefty in price (£30), but hefty also in weight (813 pages) —

    The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde
    An Anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature
    Lesser Used Languages of Europe Series
    Volume Ten
    Edited by Wilson McLeod and Michael Newton
    Francis Boutle Publishers 2019


    Back cover description:

    “The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde includes more than 200 texts from a wide range of genres of literature, including poems and songs of praise, devotion, love, work and war, folktales, medieval romances, short stories, novels and plays, from different corners of the Gaelic diaspora in addition to Scotland itself. English translations accompany the Scottish Gaelic originals. The volume also contextualises the position of Gaelic in Scotland across the ages with texts that reflect varying perceptions of the social role and significance of the language.”

    As for the origins and Scottish context of Gaelic alluded to earlier on this thread, the following extract from the book’s Introduction gives us the currently authoritative academic view —

    “Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) belongs to the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages and is closely related to Irish and Manx, although these three varieties are not mutually intelligible in any meaningful sense. […] The conventional view has been that the Gaelic language was brought to Scotland by settlers from Ireland in the early centuries of the common era, but it may actually be most appropriate ‘to imagine Ireland and Western Scotland as a single linguistic zone in which Gaelic evolved’ (Márkus 2017:79). It is not therefore entirely clear how and when Scottish Gaelic came to evolve separately from Irish. It was once thought that no significant distinctions between the two varieties emerged until c. 1300 but more recently, scholars have challenged this model, arguing that differentiation probably began as soon as Gaelic speakers began to settle in Scotland.

    “[…] Scotland in the first millennium was a land of many languages and ethnic groups. The Picts and Britons, dominant in the north and south of the country respectively, spoke Celtic language varieties that appear to be fairly closely related to each other, if rather more distant from Gaelic. Both languages had gone out of use by about AD 1100. From the seventh century, Germanic speakers became established in the southeast of the country, eventually becoming dominant in Scotland from the late Middle Ages onwards, when their language variety became known as ‘Scots’, distinct from its sister English, which developed as the language of the English kingdom. From the end of the eighth century, Scandinavian settlement began, concentrated in the far northeast and along the western seaboard, and Norse speech survived in Shetland until the eighteenth century. Gaelic was thus only one of several languages spoken in Scotland, and has never existed in isolation.

    “By the eleventh century, Gaelic had spread throughout almost all of what is now mainland Scotland and had become established as the language of the first unified Scottish monarchy, the kingdom of Alba that emerged from the ninth century onwards. Gaelic was briefly the dominant language in Scotland, the language of institutional power, but language shift in the south and east of the country during the late Middle Ages, driven by a range of political, social, and economic factors, meant that from the fourteenth century onwards Gaelic became largely confined to the mountainous north and west (the ‘Highlands’ or ‘Gàidhealtachd’). Beginning in the late 1300s, commentators from the Scots-speaking ‘Lowlands’ (or ‘Galltachd’) began to develop strongly negative attitudes towards Highlanders, whom they had come to consider backward, violent, even barbarous. These prejudices intensified in the later sixteenth century, when the Reformation transformed Lowland Scotland into a bastion of reformed Protestantism, and new ideologies of kingship and government gave new impetus to the imposition of ‘civility’ on the Gàidhealtachd. Increasingly repressive measures were adopted, notably the Statutes of Iona (1609), which placed strict controls upon the Highland clan chiefs and required them to educate their heirs in the Lowlands. Extracts given in this anthology from writers such as John of Fordun and King James VI, and from the Statutes of Iona (pp. 23 and 180-82), illustrate views of this knd. The vexed question of whether Gaelic should be understood as a national language of importance for all Scotland, as a regional language, or as the language of a quasi-ethnic minority within Scotland has been important ever since.”

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      Can I please clarify that the typo in my second last quoted sentence above (“knd” for “kind”) was my own discrepancy. It is not in the book, nor in any way representative of the excellently typeset book.

  12. Usedguns says:

    Looking forward to reading more. Great post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.

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