Like many Gaelic speakers, this week I was left reeling with the title of the new book by Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and aghast at the spin put on it by the mainstream print and online media. The news even travelled so far as CNN. When have they shown any interest whatsoever in our minoritised community? Perhaps now the world is prepared to listen to Gaeldom. It is certainly watching.
For those of us on the inside, this has severe implications, as Ó Giollagáin’s article for the Herald spells out. But for the majority of this minority, this isn’t new news. Misneachd’s radical plan detailed much of this is no uncertain terms already. A recent PhD thesis by Dr Joni Buchanan built on previous studies, such as the Bòrd na Gàidhlig-commissioned Soillse Siabost report, so we know the Bòrd know already.
The hope is that, finally, knowledge will be power. For many Hebridean Gaels, I understand this represents a long-hoped-for opportunity. It is perhaps the most extensive analysis to date, which, in the right hands, might compel and propel the rightful demands of Gaelic speakers in the region, seeking much needed redress for the dearth of provision and status offered by the regrettably weak Gaelic Language Act. In short, the study will be leverage and the first sign of its power is its ability to shock. It’s second will be in whether it is sufficient to make those that hold the reigns face facts. But it will be a bitter pill to swallow, not least for those who are tasked with drawing together an action plan. To this end, we the people now expect that community representatives and groups and academics will converge with ministers, Comhairle nan Eileanan Siar, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Gaelic-interest groups involved in community and language development in the region.
There is going to be a lot to digest and a lot to debate, but if we’re going to properly address the reasons why Gaelic development has had certain successes, but other failures, it will be pertinent to address the fact that the current infrastructure of organisations has, for years, been a merry-go-round for grey-haired straight men from the same background. Whilst steps have been made to be more inclusive of women, BAME and LGBTQ people, the same individuals have held held sway for a very long time. But it’s those from other minoritised communities who bring expertise and best practice to the movement. And whilst commitment to the cause must be acknowledged, reports suggest to me, in part, that we need to look keenly at efficacy. Whether the reversal of language shift, which is the ultimate aim of these paid roles, should become part of their appraisal, going forward. Interestingly, the majority of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s former ceannards have been pretty silent on this new book.
With Gaeldom, it’s about concentric circles emanating from the Western and Inner Isles. In urban centres with Gaelic-speaking populations, despite not being the focus of this study, Ó Giollagáin’s volume has served to catalyse debate around Gaelic in general. But it has also trained our focus back on the Western Isles and this was not before time. It is absolutely imperative that we now understand Gaelic within a range of issues, which include and are not limited to land ownership, housing, local industry, social services, tourism and – for me, the most important of all these – young people, their needs and hopes for the future. Gaelic is not adjunct to all this. It is the seam that runs through it all and the basis for any debate around regeneration, must now be built on this. Gaelic is the foundation stone of the Western Isles. Gabh rithe.
We can’t deny that we’ve seen this debate around the publication extend even beyond the speech community, too, before the vast majority have even had chance to pick up a copy of the book. Here, and only here, the question remains, as ever, however, if the most vociferous of Gaeldom’s detractors will get past the paragraph, if they care to read? Perhaps it isn’t meant for them, anyway. But in many ways the explosive title and key beats, delivered without any of the nuance the analysis is hoped to contain, appears, to some, to have finally given convenient academic credence to the anti-Gaelic tropes that the maintream media have been peddling, in one form or another, for far too long. It was particularly reckless of Ó Giollagáin to cosy up to the xenophobic hacks who have no problem in stoking up prejudice against the subjects of his study. When has the Daily Mail ever demonstrate magnanimity to the Gael?
Indeed, the professors burgeoning media profile now serves to put their favourite ‘death narrative’ into further currency, something which has been evidenced on having direct, negative impact on speakers’ language use. It’s also a narrative which hampers Gaelic camapaigners and organisations’ fight for recognition and enhanced provision, facing the naysayers at the top. “Why should we fund something that’s dying?” they will say. Let me reiterate, it is time to play a different tune.
The dregs of social media responded in kind, the same articles resurrected from the annals, the same abuse framed as opinion, often targeted pointedly at individual speakers once again. To refute is to stoke, and many are once-bitten-twice-shy. Instead, the positive affirmations flourished. #DèAntAinmAThOrt went live as an #IsMiseGàidhlig reboot. We surfed on the crest of a wave, with online engagement grown in the last twelve months, thanks to Duolingo. Now the Gaelic-learning community outnumbers the Gaelic-speaking community, though how many will attain the holy grail is yet to be revealed. We’re thankful, though, to hear their positive, affirming, life-changing experiences in harmony with our own. Admiration and commonalities of experience were shared and Gaeldom once again showed it’s glowing heart, beating with creativity and generosity.
I was relieved at this. With so much media scrutiny on the young people who had been respondents to the study, it was extremely important that this nation-wide online groundwell might be visible to them via one of their primary means of communication. I listened to the soundbites from BBC Alba and Radio nan Gàidheal and gulped. For many, this will be their first engagement with academic research into their language and culture – something which will likely go on to be an intermittent feature of their lives to come. So where was the duty of care here from our media outlets?
Young people, who have opened up about their lives, now find those lives held up as emblematic of language death. I thought of young Gaelic-speakers under twenty-five that I know, some from the region, others not, but all so committed and enthusiastic and keen to contribute a diverse skillset and unique range of talents to the Gaelic linguistic and cultural landscape. To bring these forth for the future of their language.
If you’re a young person reading, my first question for you is “dè ur cor?” I listened and wondered if you might be sitting there wondering if all you do was enough. Maybe even if your lives are enough. Because, of course, behind each digit in the demographics is a face. We’ll, I want you to know someone was thinking about you and is willing to stick up for you:
Is leòr sibh, tha sibh sgoinneil. Tha gach rud a tha sibh a’ dèanamh ceart. Tha tuilleadh is aon dòigh Gàidhlig a chleachdadh. ’S e tha a dhìth dìreach beagan den leithid a bharrachd, is dòcha, mas urrainn, agus – an rud as cudromaiche – gun lean sibh oirbh. Cha sibhse bàs a’ chànain ach a dhòchas. Tha fios againn gur dleastanas mòr a tha seo, ach bha sinne ann roimhe.
For many Gaelic raconteurs, all this has delivered a mildly inconvenient chink in the armour, however. The upshot – and it is an extremely painful one to countenance – is that the good news story that is our heartland, is a little tarnished. This is where I wish, and I have said this to him personally, that Ó Giollagáin had taken a leaf out of Gaeldom’s creatives’ books, looked to a bit of PR, and set the academic on the hard-sell aside, before going into the bear pit. Because crises can be averted and Gaeldom’s commitment to doing so could have been communicated alongisde the other albeit necessary messages.
It is inaccurate and unfair to suppose that you, na Gàidheil Òga, there and the wider-we are prepared to succumb to the prophecy. And it cannot be overstated, that this is what it is. It may be evidenced by contemporary trends, read between lines of data, but the conclusions are only hypotheses. So the crisis bit may be accurate, but the death bit is not a foregone conclusion, by any stretch of the imagination. The cautionary tale for Ó Giollagáin from a fellow writer is as follows: don’t lie down with dogs, if you aren’t prepared to play a role in getting rid of the subsequent fleas, and sweeten bitter tea with a bit of honey. This will certainly make it palatable and easy to digest. We are still waiting for a statement condemning the bile and in the press and online that this has catalysed. Dall oirbh!
We categorically do not have to take any more nonsense from anti-Gaelic commentators. This is xenophobia. So many young people came out for Black Lives Matter and Pride, despite the lockdown, often having the gumption to stand up against inequalities for others in our communities. It’s time to look closely at these movements and select aspects of their models which work for us. The Bracadale Report suggested we might be protected by current equalities legislation, so whilst we enter into consultation surrounding this legislation and more, concerning Hate Crime. We must stand our ground on this. Chan eil e ceart agus chan fheumar bhith cleachdte ris.
This week,I’m one of many who has been self-examining, flicking through the mind’s diary. Whatever I’m told, I know these are, rich, valid experiences, worthy of respect from the non-Gaelic speaking majority. I did not benefit from a childhood at the Mòd, Gaelic-learner education in school or Gaelic-medium education, which my Scottish peers and subsequent generations have benefitted from. This is even more richness for young people, who are using Gaelic, whatever the study says. It is undeniable that opportunities have multiplied.
This is all part of digesting the revelations, but it has also catalysed retropection. Ó Giollagáin’s opus serves to make me re-examine that – dare I say it? – complacency.
Maybe young people – and others, I’m still young in someone’s esteem – haven’t, or aren’t speaking it enough, or enough for the academics, who, like us, are hugely invested and just want the same result as the rest of us. Fine, I’ll fess up, I’m writing this in English. In Gaelic, let’s start asking those questions and badgering the ceannardan and cathraicheam and writing to ministers.
It’s here that, perhaps, the bar is set in a place that’s completely removed from contemporary youth experience. From working in schools, it makes me think this is the case and, if so, what are those who have the power doing to engage with our young people in helping them to refresh their own zeal for Gaelic development?
When we read this book together, lets ask about social media, if singing in the language scores less points than speaking it? How many completely natural codeswitches are admissable for an utterance to be purely Gaelic? The Corona-crisis has seen our young people come to the fore, with local Mòds moving online, sessions and sing-alongs recorded, curated and shared across borders. Young people have studied their Gaelic-medium and Gaelic-learner curriculum at home, many without Gaelic-speaking parents to support them. They have missed their exams, their proms, their graduations, but still looked to the future, applying for an ever-growing range of further education and career-entry opportunities across the islands, Highlands and urban centres.
This is your Gaelic life-world, a Ghàidheala Òga, so you need to ask what’s being done to bridge the gap between contemporary youth culture and the language. It looks pretty trendy to me in the mouths of the young, despite the myopic press being convinced it is ancient and cloaked in mist.
Let’s start reinvisaging that as a smoke machine. When we’re set free, we’ll have a cèilidh and then we can sit down with you and ask you what you need to facilitate you speaking your language. My opinion is if we’re going to expect our young people to do carry the burden of taking this language into the end of the twenty-first century and beyond, academics, policy-makers and minsters need to have a crystal-clear picture of what young people want for the language and what you need to make it happen. So I’m listening and, if Ó Giollagáin is reading this too, I’ll do my bit to make sure he and those that listen to him, will be listening too. This is a new day for Gaelic. What you have to say is important.