Siol nan Gaidheal

The Gaelic Language

Had there never been the Gaelic language, there would never have been a country called Scotland or a people calling themselves Scots. This basic premise cannot be overlooked by all those who wish to see the restoration of independent national sovereignty for Scotland. A clear recognition of our indigenous cultural identity and a thorough understanding of the historical processes behind its alienation must surely form, as it does in other countries, the bedrock of any viable nationalist ideology. Scots shall reaffirm their political independence not only because their country is a deserving economic cause, but also through the reawakening of its cultural identity—of which Gaelic is, undoubtedly the keystone. Understanding our cultural and linguistic history is the first step in understanding our political history and it is therefore essential that nationalists view the ethnicity of the Scottish nation not as some controversial liability but on the contrary as a natural asset to the cause of freedom. What, fundamentally, makes us Scots—is it economic and fiscal victimisation or a national identity based on a thousand and more years of Gaelic/Celtic language and culture?

There is little doubt that Scotland’s culture has changed over the centuries and that, as in other countries, cultural influences from neighbouring lands have played their part in shaping our historical national identity. It is significant however that the most salient and distinctive feature of our nationality—the Gaelic language—has been progressively marginalised over the centuries.

From its pre-eminent position as the national language of Alba as a whole in the 11th century (witness the Gaelic place-names throughout lowland Scotland from the North East to Galloway) to its present situation as the mother tongue of some 80,000 people living in the Western Isles and in exiled pockets in the cities, Gaelic has undergone a decline which, though not terminal, has been nevertheless tragic in terms of its loss of revelance to modern-day cultural aspirations.

The establishment of English (whether of the standard or dialect variety; "Scots/Lallans") as the everyday language of Scotland has been a long historical process and in many ways reflects the gradual subordination to outside (ie - English) interests of our nation’s cultural and political life. Dynastic marriages, English courtiers, the establishment of Royal Burghs along the East coast and Lowland areas in the early Middle Ages gave the English language its first foothold in Celtic, Gaelic-speaking Scotland and provided bridgeheads from which it would strengthen its takeover from Gaelic as the tongue of royalty and commerce.

Political imperatives during the following centuries forced the prime-movers and rulers of feudal Scotland to change the name of their recently acquired language from "Inglis" (the language of the enemy over the border) to "Scottis", a wholly more patriotic term. Thus Gaelic, the Scottish language, was displaced politically as the language of those"wild and barbaric people" who had clung on tenaciously to their non-metropolitan ways—their tongue was now termed disparagingly "Erse" or "Irish".

It would be over-simplifying however to postulate that this linguistic division reflected deeper and more wide-ranging conflicts of interest between Highland and Lowland Scotland. In reality pre-Union Scotland displayed a remarkable consistency throughout the country in terms of societal, economic and cultural values. Those values that most differed—religion and language—did not undermine the common cement of Scottish nationhood which all Albannaich shared, and in an age where imperialist English armies threatened Scotland on an almost constant basis, the unitary nature of the state was a priority to all.

The 18th century and the upheaval of the Union changed Scotland’s political landscape as no other period had done before and the culture of the country was radically altered. Internecine and feudal conflicts, the Reformation and dynastic intrigue through the centuries were as nothing compared to the Union and its institutionalised destruction of the Scottish national identity. An almost totally anglified ruling caste proceeded in implementing a policy of systematic anglicisation, strengthening a shift in values that had already been initiated with previous Scottish monarchs. Gaelic suffered as it had never suffered before. Divide-and-conquer politics enabled the English government to secure the support of key Lowland interests in their campaign to root out dissent in those areas of Scotland, especially the Highlands, still culturally and therefore politically antagonistic to pan-English rule. "Improving", "enlightened" and in the end, traitorous Scottish aristocrats saw to the implementation of such policies notably after the last Jacobite Rising of 1745-1746.

Culloden marked the end of traditional Gaelic society in Scotland and what genocide could not complete, ethnocide and the "Clearances", encouraged by SSPCK and other religious interests, finished off. As Scotland grew more industrialised, rural migration to the cities became a way of life. Landlords in the Highlands saw to it that sheep and sporting estates replaced the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. Displaced, cleared and emigrant Scots now viewed their Gaelic language as an impediment to their "improvement". A demoralised people, more often than not, turn against their own culture and this most definitely occurred with Highlanders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. "You’ll not get anywhere with that Gaelic tongue in your head" became an educational stick-literally-with which to beat any lingering cultural dissent out of Highland Scottish minds.

Gaelic suffered immeasurably at the hands of Scoto-British education, and this destructive process, though relenting, has by no means disappeared. The establishment of a compulsory, national education system, determined ultimately by British imperatives at Westminster, introduced in effect an anti-Scottish institution in the heart of Scottish life. In schools throughout Scotland, emphasis was and still is on Anglo-British culture, English history, English literature and the English imperial world-view.

Gaelic in this context, along with Scottish literature and history, has been at best ignored and at worse repressed. Inferiorisation of all aspects of Scotland’s Celtic identity has been ruthlessly pursued by anglicised educationalists loyal to Britain and its vested cultural interests.

Scotland, in this respect, has been no different to other colonised societies. As Scots, we have had to endure British/English propaganda in education and the media distorting our history and culture, dismissing its most salient and distinctive features and promoting, on the other hand, colourful kitsch and couthiness, making Scots the world over a cultural laughing stock.

We have in Gaelic a true expression of Scottishness, one that is communicative and outward looking, based on the unique experience and environment of this country and its people.

Language is of course not only a means of communication, it is also the expression of a nation’s consciousness. The colonising of Scottish thought by English values, linguistic and social, has meant that many Scots regard Gaelic as foreign to their identity. Our Nation’s consciousness and sense of itself is tragically divorced from what makes us so different from, say, our closest English neighbours in Northumbria. Yet our place names and family names, even in Lowland Scotland it must be stressed, bear testimony to an indigenous language and culture which we must now recognise as central to our aspirations.

Many Scots are only three or four generations removed from Gaelic-speaking ancestors, and many others are related to those Scots still fortunate enough to speak our ancient language, in the Highlands and Islands. In an independent Scotland, these Scots must be given opportunity to explore their heritage through an education system that relates their identity to language—not only English but also Gaelic.

A bilingual future for our children is no more a pipe dream than independence itself—both are possible given the political will. A bilingual population, versed in a unique culture and with the linguistic skills to apprehend the languages and cultures of our European neighbours could only be an asset to an independent Scotland. As a menaced language with very few truly native speakers left, Gaelic must be valued at an official level. It must be given official status alongside English and must be promoted in a co-ordinated fashion. Bodies such as An Comunn Gaidhealach, CNAG, CLI, the Gaelic Books Council, Comhairle nan Sgoiltean Araich etc. are doing laudable work at present in favour of the language, but they remain pressure groups with little or no political back-up. An independent Scottish government with a commitment to Scottish culture in general and our indigenous language in particular would need to create a national committee structure with the remit of spreading the use and encouraging the teaching of Gaelic in every sphere of Scottish life. A ministry devoted to Gaelic working in concert with other government agencies would provide the infrastructure for regenerating the language.

Promotion of the language in education must be implemented in a constructive, positive manner—avoiding the counter-productive example of compulsory Gaelic in the Republic of Ireland’s schools. The Welsh experience, especially in the field of broadcasting, provides a useful example of how a language with official status, encouraged and promoted in imaginative ways, can prove an attractive proposition to people with no prior knowledge of it.

Pride in one’s history and culture, in that which is unique is not a thing to be ashamed of, Scotland and its people have an abundance of each. The great pity therefore is that the vast majority of our young people know almost nothing about the culture which defined our past. The world press reported recently that after a showing of the film "Braveheart" people in cinemas across Scotland went wild, screaming the name of the hero William Wallace, and "Freedom for Scotland". It was apparent that the vast majority of Scots who watched this film had in fact little prior knowledge of who "Wallace" was or what role he had played in Scotland's history. This is a prime example of the English/British suppression of all things Scottish. It has to be wondered in this instance just how many who watched this film, understood the few Gaelic phrases used in it... a language the quasi-totality of the Scottish army of the time would have spoken on a daily basis.

Gaelic is part of our make-up, without it we cease to be Scots in the truest possible sense. We must all strive to restore it to the centre of our aspirations. Bilingualism is a forward-looking, humanist philosophy which challenges the bland Anglo-American culture that we, as Scots, are force-fed daily. The Gaelic cause is the cause of Scotland. The struggle for a healthy Gaelic language has been and is a difficult one, fought in the face of overwhelming imperialist odds, but it will undoubtedly help to create a New Scotland, becoming a living symbol of a people at last confident and proud of their unique indentity.

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A Language for Freedom

The greatest enemy of our Cultural Struggle is contained within the body of our Nation. Conquer it and with the strength that this will give us, we can reconquer Scotland with ease. That enemy is our lack of National confidence. It causes us to remain silent when our conscience tells us that we should speak out. It forces us to acquiesce when we should disagree. It compels us not to lift a finger when we should resist. It is a malignant trait that we must learn to recognise and exorcise.

This unacceptable sense of shame is responsible for the divide between English and Gaidhlig speakers. It also persuades those who have not tried to learn Gaidhlig not to bother.

This sneak thief within us is one which prevents us using the correct, traditional form of our names. It is that which stops so many people, whose instinct is true, from joining in with more active Nationalists and doing their part to free their native land from foreign (and native) tyranny.

The "Daily Record", (the tabloid of "truth, democracy and Labour bullshit") once printed a letter which provoked a minor furore. Its writer said that, as many tourists English and other foreigners had difficulty pronouncing the word "Loch" in Scottish place names, this should be dropped and the English term "Lake" used instead in official signposts and brochures. Correspondents replied to this, unmindful of the date it had been published (April 1st), unaware, apparently of the irony inherent in their stance. Here were Anglicised Scots being bated for indulging in a protest against a force in Scottish life i.e. Anglicisation, that they were a compliant product of. Their names showed this most pointedly: Mary MacDonald, Isobel MacKay, John MacDonald and Duncan MacIntyre. For all their defence of the Gaidhlig "Loch", they had not a Gaidhlig form of name amongst them. How ironic ! Perhaps this defence of Gaidhlig was an isolated thing and these correspondents had amongst their number one who was otherwise a good North Brit, with a fine "progressive" anti-Gaidhlig language attitude. Perhaps so, perhaps not. At the very best their Anglicised names did not separate them from those whom one writer described as saying "our language is our shame, an ancient disgrace, as we strive to imitate the Master Race".

Anglicisation has been going on, however, with the active assistance of the "Scottish" bourgeoisie for centuries. These people saw their future as the sidekicks of England's Empire and believed that the Gaidhlig speaking people of Scotland possessed a cultural distinctiveness that would obstruct their Imperial absorption as was the case with so many other "native" peoples in the British/English Empire to come.

Every attempt was made to force the Gaidheal to accept Anglicisation, from the sporadically violent to the use of persistent denigration. Government officials and other servants of the British/English State used English exclusively and refused to recognise the existence of Gaidhlig. English was the sole official language. In its pettiest form this meant a refusal to spell Gaidhlig names in their correct forms, the imposition of various Anglicised equivalents or the insistance on them using English names instead.

Gaidhlig speakers who remained faithful to their own language were faced with the contempt of pro-British Imperialist English speakers intolerant of those who would not "progress". Government officials not only imposed equivalents but helped enact repressive legislation e.g. the total proscription of the name "MacGregor" or in Gaidhlig "MacGriogair".

Gaidhlig, not tartans, kilts or pipe bands must be the cement that binds our cultural struggle together. It must be the essential cement upon which our very struggle is built. For had there been no Gaidhlig, there would exist no country calling itself Scotland today. There might have been a land of another name, most likely an extended England. For centuries the "Scot" and the "Gaidheal" were synonymous.

If Gaidhlig is not placed in the vanguard of our aspirations, then Scotland's historical identity will be lost completely. We must ensure that Nationalists defend Gaidhlig, demanding its rightful place in Education, as well as in the Media. This is the paramount duty of all Scottish Nationalists, regardless of whether or not they themselves are Gaidhlig speakers. Despite the suspicion and ignorance that still sets English and Gaidhlig speakers apart, we must work together, for only in victorious struggle for National Liberation can all things Scottish rise free.

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