Siol nan Gaidheal
Up With the Gaelic... Suas Leis a' Ghaidhlig
A contribution from the National Organiser, USA Chapter, this was penned in the light of recent debates on the forum with regards to the future of the language, and its use in an independent Scotland. It is also in line with our aims and principles:
14. Linguistic nationalism - or the promotion of Gaidhlig as our national language, recognising the legitimate historical footing of Lowland "Scots" and Standard English - is also a fundamental tenet of our political ethos. The proper relevance of this question to our national identity and consciousness needs to be considered outside the Unionist and utilitarian agendas set for us by the media, academic and state apparatus, amongst others.
Up With the Gaelic... Suas Leis a' Ghaidhlig
Some things are cyclical. Not unlike the phenomenon of the 17-year locusts or the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano, there is an outbreak of Gadelphilia every so often. Sometimes it takes on the gentle suggestion that speaking the old language is a good thing for all of us to do, like the old advertisements for DIAL soap which asked: "Aren't you glad you use DIAL? Don't you wish that everyone did?" The more militant stance is more like that of the former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who once said that no one could properly call himself a Jew unless he lives in Israel (no matter that so much of the cost for maintaining that chaos-ridden strip of arid real estate is under-written by Jews who live in other lands). There are many people who hold that to properly be able to call oneself a Scot, he/she should speak Gaelic. Well, to return to the first and more gentle suggestion, yes, I am glad that I speak Gaelic, but no, I am not really sure that everyone should. I need make no excuses for never having learned the ancestral tongue, since I do speak it, read it and write it; sometimes think in it and usually pray in it, and I can flatly state that there is no language under God's Heaven which can be found to be better suited for cursing and screaming horrible epithets at fence-breaking cows than our own language of heroes, hunters, poets and saints. Even in its most 'earthy' state, Gaelic is nothing at all if it is not poetic! When my sons were boys, I heard them on one fine day, up in the barn, and were they not yelling terrible obscenities at one another…and in the Ghaidlig? (they were). I would have done my paternal office and have sorted them out, but half way to the barn I stopped when the thought came to me: "But isn't it grand that they are at least cursing in Gaelic!" A bit later, I mentioned the incident to my wife, who turned a face of stone in my direction and asked, "Now, where do you suppose that they learned such foul language?" I did speak to the boys later and told them to watch their mouths.
I do not remember having thought too much about it as I was growing up. There were always older people peppering their English with Gaelic words and phrases, or perhaps employing the odd proverb. Instead of saying, "six in one, half a dozen in the other" we would hear, "Ma cha n'e Bran, tha e a bhrathair" (if it isn't Bran, it's his brother). In a way, I think that Gaelic was a way of our having a mooring, an anchor; serving to tie us to our past, and as a tie also with something very deep inside of us. We sang a lot. I recall a time when two men from a University about two hours away by car, came to our farm, equipped with notebooks and a recording device. They were met by my wife and mentioned to her that they had been told that a man lived on the place who could sing in the Gaelic. When she had affirmed what they had heard, they asked her if the man could be persuaded to sing a folksong or two. She later told me about it and said that she had suggested to them that if they really wanted to hear Gaelic being sung that they would do better to quietly follow a person and take him when he was doing some tedious task, such as hoeing in the garden. Well, she may indeed have had a good point, because even songs sung at ceilidh are apt to be a bit 'staged'; not quite as genuine somehow. Certainly too, there are reasons why the ancestors have come up with so much in the way of 'rowing songs', boat songs, 'waulking songs' and such. Our love songs are beautifully sad, and our drinking songs are no match for the stein-thumping sort of thing for which the Germans are so well known.
For my own part,I never learned to read and write in Gaelic until I was taught to do so by an Irish scholar in my days as a sailor. Not since my great, great grandfather had anyone in the family had any knowledge of the written language. He had been a poet of sorts, and some say that he had made some beautiful contributions, but what had been left by him in written form may as well have been left to us in Old Slavonic as far as his children were concerned. His written words had no sense to them at all for people who had been brought up to a system of English phonetics, nor am I all that certain that that his own spelling was as consistent as one might wish it to have been. Yet, if there have been families which spoke the language and yet were unacquainted with the written word, so were there also generations of scholars who could translate the Book of the Dean of Lismore with no trouble at all, yet who at the same time could not give voice to simple greetings with others, unless their words were in English, French, or possibly even Latin!
What then, is the answer for those among us who want to " restore " Scotland's ancient tongue to the position of first language of the land? It does appear to be an excellent idea that Scotland should have her own tongue. At the same time, we must not forget that Strathclyde was anciently a Cymric or Welsh-speaking country. Can we overlook the fact that Scots has been the lingua franca of the south of Scotland for at least five centuries, or that Doric has been the great tradition of the North East? What about the folk of Fife who "sing" their sentences? Of course, we Gaels think of ourselves as the 'true' Scots, the Highlanders. I must confess however, that I always saw Wallace or Burns to be equal in their claim to be called Scots… despite the fact that they were born much closer to the English border. On the other hand, I have met folk who have questioned my own credentials on that score due to our never having had Burns' Suppers or because we have no knowledge of Scottish Country Dancing. As heirs of a Highland, ie. 'Gaelic' culture, many of us had never heard of either until fairly recently. One of the truly amazing things about Scotland is that for a relatively small and even a comparatively poor nation, she has produced such a rich diversity of art, music, speech and customs within her rocky coasts, and all of these being markedly "Scottish"; quite distinct from the rest of the Western world. Even within Gaeldom there are many dialects and distinct regional cultures… and isn't it ironic that as a result of an attempt to "standardise" Gaelic for Scottish classrooms, many children are coming home from school, unable to communicate with their own grandparents! It is a dilemma, sure enough. There are never any easy solutions.
For my own part, I dearly love the Gaelic, its sounds, its imagery and expressions. Dear to me are the place-names and their descriptive qualities; their historical value. It would be good if all Scots knew at least enough of the old language to allow for a full appreciation of such names. Gaelic has a vocabulary which has nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of words which can be found in English, and yet there are sentiments and ideas which, through a clever usage of the words at hand, can be conveyed in Gaelic that have no voice in English. To be 'fluent' in Gaelic is to have the soul and ingenuity of a poet. For that reason, few folk whom we may meet will profess to have that 'fluency'. It does not however, appear to be a language which I would recommend to an economist or for the teaching of Physics to students on a graduate or even an under-graduate level. Gaelic seems to deal best with the more philosophical side of mankind… and this it does very well. It is the language of the artist as well, born as it is from that ancient love of intricacy and rich ornamentation worked on whatever material is at hand, whether the material is vellum, leather, stone, woven fabric or gold. It is equivalent to taking a pipe chanter with its nine notes and through skilful employment of those few, create sounds and rhythms within sounds and rhythms, grips, doublings and grace-notes forming piobaireachd that is as beautiful as it is baffling. Yet, because I do love the Gaelic, I would not wish to see it pushed on others; not by law, not by peer pressure and certainly not as a kind of 'yuppie' fashion statement. I would not wish to see future generations of Scots look with resentment on a language which was not of their forebears' choosing.
Suas leis a' Ghaidhlig indeed. Yes, "Up with the Gaelic"… for those who want it, for those who wish to honour it, but never at the expense of national unity, and certainly not at the expense of even one of Scotland's many other treasures.
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