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07 August 2011

Gaelic in Scotland, renewal and growth

Having recently returned from a holiday in Oban, I thought it would be appropriate to comment on the state of Gaelic having been involved in promoting the language for over 10 years while I lived in Scotland - a fuller biography is at the end of the article.

To be honest, I'm worried about the state of Gaelic today. Very worried. I see Gaelic disappearing from use in Scotland largely due to apathy and to some extent misguided opposition and prejudice from a small vocal minority. You only have to view the comments here to see the prejudice that Gaelic has to put up with, the sort of comments that would be banned if we were talking about Blacks, Muslims or other ethnic groups.

I don't want Gaelic to disappear from Scotland the same way it died out in the Carolinas (early 20th century), Isle of Man (1974) and is on the precipice in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia has less than 1,000 speakers left despite it being the most common mother tongue amongst the fathers of the Canadian federation and once spoken by 200,000 in Canada in the 1850s. Gaelic culture generates $23.5m annually for the Canadian economy. The comparable figure for Scotland is £41m (Scottish Parliament figures). Besides the economic loss, the cultural loss would be immense.

From my own point of view growing up in Dunblane, Perthshire, I had to contend with Gaelic apathy as recently as the 1980's. The nearest hill to my house was "uamh bheag". Incomprehensible and even unpronounceable without Gaelic. We had the Mod Bardic crown winner as a teacher in our school; Alasdair MacInnes of Glencoe (sadly passed away in 2009) yet despite his requests to teach Gaelic so that we could understand and even pronounce local placenames, the local education authority kept blocking him saying there was "no demand". Yet, we were never actually asked as pupils if we wanted to learn Gaelic. Instead the schools ran classes in Russian and Latin, both of which had 4 pupils. Apparently there was enough demand in a school of over 700 pupils to run those classes, so why not Gaelic?

Legislation is necessary, but is not enough. What is necessary for Gaelic to be revived is to counter not only the blocks such as the ones above, but also the wider lack of confidence, enthusiasm and patriotism in Gaelic  amongst both Gaelic speakers and non-Gaelic speakers in Scotland. We need to encourage Gaelic speakers to use the language more readily and confidently rather than defaulting to English and so that non-Gaelic speakers don't put up narrow minded blocks towards the revival of Gaelic. Gaelic speakers no matter their quantity should be as confident and willing to use Gaelic as the Welsh are with theirs.

All too often we see the letters columns of papers that should know better filled with the type of hostile remarks about the amount of money spent on Gaelic and Gaelic being spent on signs "where no one has spoken Gaelic for centuries" and similar arguments as referred to here. These are of course the same vacuous arguments put forward by the English Defence League and the National Front - people afraid of change. Devolution had never been a part of Scottish history. We embraced it in 1999. Voting for independence minded politicians had never been a part of Scottish history. We did so to elect an independence minded government in 2007 and by a landslide in 2011. Internet culture didn't exist at all less than a generation ago and now it is part of the everyday life of a majority. The argument of whether something has been the historic part of a community or not is the cowardly argument of those resistant to change and has too many echoes of the English Defence League and the British National Party for my liking. In the broader context, when I travel around London, I see advertisements in Polish only, signs in Chinese only, no hesitation or problem with people from all over the world using their languages without question and none of the "that language hasn't been spoken here traditionally" that Scots use as an excuse for putting down Gaelic. Supporting Gaelic in Scotland should not be a problem, compare that to Southwark in London - when I managed the website redesign for that London borough I learned that there were 170 languages spoken in the borough including an Irish population almost the size of Oban. Multilingualism is much more an everyday way of life in London than it is in the Highlands.

I find it frustrating that many Bed and Breakfasts are keen to embrace Gaelic placenames to attract tourists, "Ceol na mara" "Ben More" etc, many Scots keen to embrace Gaelic (Highland) dress, Gaelic (Highland) bagpipes, yet are ambivalent or even hostile to the language itself. This vocal minority needs to be put in context with repeated surveys showing that the majority of Scots throughout Scotland are supportive of Gaelic as a national language and not just one for the Highlands and Islands. We need to build wider enthusiasm and support for Gaelic so that it can enjoy the same growth that Welsh is enjoying (over 20% of the Welsh population) and Modern Hebrew enjoyed when it went from almost nothing to 7 million speakers in a century. A language needs to be supported by legislation, but more than that there needs to be a positive attitude amongst both speakers of the language and non-speakers who share the same country.  People should be asking questions like "why is it easier for me to pick up Radio1 and Radio2 in the Highlands rather than Radio nan Gàidheal?", "Why does Radio nan Gàidheal change to broadcasting on Radio Scotland English for much of the time?" "Why is the link to BBC Alba hard to find on the BBC Scotland news page and when I do find it, Google Chrome offers to translate it from Irish?!"

I fought for the ban on smoking in public places. We now have legislation to enforce the ban. However, even before the ban we had places voluntarily banning smoking. It was commonplace to ban it on airlines, cinemas, many restaurants and even some pub chains had non smoking areas in all their pubs in the pre-ban days. The same is true of supporting Gaelic. Legal support for Gaelic is necessary, at least comparable to that in Wales, but prior to that we need people to take the initiative without legislation to support the language, legal support or otherwise in much the same way that we did with "smoke free". This support needs to extend beyond the 3Cs of core support - the local Coisir, An Comunn and Croileagan to the wider community, Gaelic speakers or otherwise. 7% of people in Argyll and Bute speak Gaelic according to the Scotland 2001 Census Report. But less than 7% of The Oban Times is in Gaelic - Why? Why are the signs informing me of the smoking ban in English only? A Gaelic translation would not be illegal so why not make one? Where you see English only, ask "why is there no Gaelic translation for this - you wouldn't break any laws and you would support the local culture". A simple "Just Translate It" attitude should apply. Behave as if a law has been passed and put Gaelic up alongside official notices. A few token street signs and bank names is not enough. There are plenty other things that could be translated at little or no cost and would significantly add to the presence of Gaelic so that Gaelic leaps off the street sign and onto the street, How about Gaelic translations of menus? Some communities have their own local currency to promote their community, perhaps a Gaelic currency with "Tha Gàidhlig agam" on it would work (with appropriate discounts for using it). There are lots of initiatives that don't require legislation to get people to get behind Gaelic, speakers or otherwise.

Google+ has gone from nothing to over 25 million users in a month. If Gaelic added 25,000 "users" in 10 years it would be a major leap forward. People started using G+ because it was interesting, they could talk to their friends and it was cool. It is uncool for young people not to be on social media. If only Gaelic had the same coolness factor as social media! If being against Gaelic or not using Gaelic had an "uncool" factor then Gaelic would be in an entirely different place. Runrig and Capercaillie led the way, but where is the Gaelic Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga or Susan Boyle for Gaelic to not only be cool but to take it to the masses in wide numbers as Clannad did when they got to #1 in 1982 singing in Irish? Who is joining Manran in making Gaelic attractive for youth culture?

Nova Scotia was once Gaelic speaking. Now for every Gaelic speaker there are 90 French speakers. The French put down the foot and said "non" to English. Will the world of Gaelic be saying "Chan eil" as we move forward?

The Gaelic national plan 2012-2017 is being compiled, your comments are welcome.

Craig Cockburn, August 2011. Written on a Sunday - I don't believe in being constrained by past attitudes.
The author is writing in a personal capacity, and was a director of the Gaelic learners' association 1992-1998, a moderator of the Gaelic discussion list Gaelic-L in the 1990s, sang in national and local mods with choirs and as a soloist in the fluent category and has written about Gaelic song. He wrote the first online guide to Scotland, a guide to Gaelic events in London, worked for many years for the Scottish Tourist Board, was editor of the Gaelic community group newsletter and helped to relaunch the Edinburgh Mod.
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