The number of Gaelic learners throughout Scotland seems to have increased dramatically. In a 1994 report, the Gaelic language organisation Comunn na Gaidhlig reported that 15,000 people in Scotland were 'interested in learning Gaelic' (Comunn na Gaidhlig 1994, p.9) whereas their 1995 survey claimed that one million 'would like to
[learn Gaelic]' and, perhaps a little more substantively, that 8,000 adults were 'actively' doing so (Comunn na Gaidhlig 1996, p.9). The opportunities for children to learn Gaelic have also blossomed rather spectacularly. In 1986 there were thirty-two Gaelic playgroups in Scotland operating under the auspices of the Gaelic playgroups association, Comhairle nan Sgoiltean Araich, whereas ten years later there were over 150. Similarly, in 1985 there were only two Gaelic-medium primary school units; but a decade later there
were fifty. An important feature of all of these developments is that they are not just in the Highlands but are located as far afield as Edinburgh, where there has recently been controversy over the decision to cap the intake at the primary Gaelic unit at seventy-five. To take another example, the averageaudience for the Gaelic soap 'Machair' has been 451,000 - a number which, as Cormack notes, is 'massive compared with the 65,000 Gaelic speakers in the country' (Cormack 1994, p.125) (though we should note that 'Machair' is
sub-titled in English); and 'Speaking Our Language' had audiences averaging over 300,000 viewers (Rogerson and Gloyer 1995, p.50). There are also plenty of examples of what we might, following Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism, call everyday acts of 'flagging' (1995). For example, even as far South as the Border one can now find motorway service stations with menus and welcome signs in Gaelic as well as English; and even McDonalds has, at its Fort William outlet, conceded to bilingual signage and menus (though they refused that their name should also be Gaelicised).3 And at their Scottish conferences, all political parties now have slogans visibly displayed in Gaelic as well as English.
Clearly, something is going on. That something has, since the late 1980s - though borrowing on an earlier usage in relation to Gaelic poetry - been 2 See Cormack (1994) for an overview and discussion of the expansion of Gaelic media. 3 See Ross (1998) for a report. Of course, although taken as a sign par excellence of Americanisation and global cultural homogenisation, McDonalds has, at fairly superficial levels, often adapted itself to local markets (Ritzer 1993) and their use of Gaelic might be equally seen as their marketing success (especially in relation to tourists) as a triumph of local councillors who have also pressed for the use of Gaelic in the region. Those in mainstream education agree. Professor Eric Wilkinson, of Glasgow University, said: "I can only guess and say that most people send their children to the Gaelic school more for the Scottish pride and identity - celebration of culture is important for a child's education.
"But all the evidence does show that becoming bilingual at a very early age does make a child better a school. It's the perceived professional wisdom. I'm all for it."
Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language closely related to Irish and Manx Gaelic, once spoken in practically all of Scotland.
In the late 11th and 12th centuries, Glasgow and its surrounding areas were predominantly Gaelic speaking.
Gaelic is considered by many to be the oldest written language in Europe.
3086 young people are in Gaelic medium education in Scotland where pupils are taught in Gaelic.
A total of 3641 pupils take Gaelic as a subject in secondary education.
486,987 people visited BBC Scotland's Colin and Cumberland web page, where children and adults can learn Gaelic, in its first week.
Bord na Gaidhlig received grant-in-aid worth almost £10m between 2004 and 2007 which is being used largely to assist local authorities and other public bodies to bring in Gaelic language plans.
Most people with Gaelic language ability live in Na h-Eileanan Siar (18,420).
Scots Gaelic is an important and valued member of the family of modern European languages. It is officaly recognised as such by the EU Parliament. It is recognised by histroians as one of the oldest languages in existence in the world. And it's use once spread through out Scotland even as far south as Galloway. it's use can be traced in Scottish history to 500ad.
‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion…’
Article II, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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.
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.
A country is defined by it's language it's culture and it's people.
5. Gaeldom under attack
The polarisation between Gael and Anglo-Scot was increasing and leading not only to an open tension between the two, but an unwillingness to acknowledge that Gaelic laid the very foundation of Scotland. This is illustrated, for example, in the famous poetic flyting between Walter Kennedy, a Gaelic poet from Carrick, and the Lallans-Scots-speaking William Dunbar in 1508.12 Dunbar denigrates his foul Irish speech and manners, and boasts of Inglis superiority, while Kennedy claims that Gaelic is the true mother language of all Scotland.
Many of the most powerful in both England and Scotland by this time set their ambitions at wiping out differences between peoples within Britain in order to gain more power in a united kingdom. A letter from the English Privy Council in 1559 expressed the desire that this famous isle may be conjoined in heart as in continent, with uniformity of language, manners and conditions.13 Many of the Scottish nobility had already long been Anglicised: by the sixteenth century even Lowland Scots had long been, in the eyes of nearly all who used it, English and not Scots.
The Scotland which mattered politically and economically was consciously Anglo-Saxon, and would have indignantly repudiated the suggestion that it was anything else.14
Religion was a powerful means of changing society and expressing a whole spectrum of beliefs and values: politics and religion have always been closely related. The progressive clans adopted Protestantism soon after it was recognised by the Scottish parliament in 1560 (although we have no means of knowing how clan members reacted at this time). Although Protestantism fuelled a number of significant intellectual developments in the Gàidhealtachd - most notably the first printed book in Gaelic in 1567 (the first in any Celtic language) and the incentive for wide-spread literacy - it also opened a further channel for the propagation of English cultural and linguistic norms.15 Little wonder that Protestant ministers were among the most zealous Hanoverian (Pro-Union, anti-Jacobite) agents during the Jacobite Risings.
When James VI of Scotland became James I of the new United Kingdom in 1603, he immediately moved to London and set about unifying his kingdom by aggressively attacking non-English elements - the natural enemies of union would be lumped together as papists, Irish, Borderers and Highlanders.16 Expeditions to conquer and occupy the Highlands were planned, although the attempt to plant lowlanders in Lewis met with failure. Addressing Parliament in 1604, King James triumphantly declared that God had united these two Kingdomes
in Language, Religion and similitude of manners17 - despite the fact that Gaelic still covered about half of Scotlands land mass and population, and that religious orders in Scotland were vastly different to those of England.
In 1609 Ulster was ravaged and colonised by Protestant subjects, not only a loss to the Gaels of the province itself but also a breaking of a crucial link between Irish and Scottish Gaeldom.18 At the same time, a number of Highland chiefs were kidnapped and forced to agree to the Statutes of Iona, a set of laws designed to Anglicise Gaelic society and to bring it forcibly under control of central government. Among other things, it required all men of wealth to send their children to the lowlands to be educated in English, adopt and support the Protestant faith, abandon their weapons and a number of their specifically Gaelic institutions, such as poets. 19
An aggressive plan of establishing Protestant schools specifically designed to root out the Gaelic language and all signs of Popery was passed into law in 1616, 20 and this explicitly anti-Gaelic agenda of education has been continued right into the present:
Nothing can be more effectual for reducing these countries to order, and making them usefull to the Commonwealth than teaching them their duty to God, their King and countrey and rooting out their Irish language, and this has been the case of the Society so far as they could, ffor all the Schollars are taught in English. 21
and by reason of their barbarous language can have noe manner of Communication with others and are upon those two accounts altogethr as Incapable of being employed in husbandry, fishery, manufactories or handycrafts or of settleing in our foraigne plantations. 22
Pushed into a corner and knowing the recent plight of Ireland, at least one chief, Iain Mùideartach of Clan Ranald, made some emergency plans for retaliation, asking the Pope for support in 1626. Although his document is framed in religious terms, as was so often the case on the surface, it is clear that he is describing a cultural confrontation:
the darkness I mean of error, which the turbulent detested followers of the accursed faithless Calvin had introduced, through the violence and tyranny of the Council of Scotland, through lying pseudo-bishops and fraudulent ministers
It is certain and evident (since it is already known in the council of Scotland that we have received the true faith) that we shall be compelled to the renunciation of it or to the loss of temporal goods and life, or both, as has frequently happened, not only to Scots but also to many Irish
our country and islands
are far removed from the incursions and outrages of the English to whom we have never at all given obedience. All the Gaelic-speaking Scots and the greater part of the Irish chieftains joined to us by ties of friendship
Although a great many of the Statutes were ignored by many clan chiefs, who were in practical terms beyond easy access of central authorities, the effects of Anglicisation and a split of loyalties began to be felt in Gaeldom. By the middle 1600s clan chiefs were already being criticised by the poets --- spokespersons for the Gaelic community --- for being more interested in spending their clan fortunes on foreign fashions than in maintaining traditional Gaelic values and duties.
Just the magnetic pull of wealth and power on the Gaelic chieftains to join the British ascendancy --- by definition of Anglo-Centric --- was enough to cause some to change their cultural and linguistic allegiance, and thus to disown their Gaelic identity and join those who saw it as barbaric and a threat to British unity. In 1705 the Gaelic poet Maighstir Seathan MacGilleathain exalted the role of Gaelic in the formation of Scotland and the education of Europe, but lamented:
s tearc luchd a gàoil, b é sud an saóal fa seach
Thuit sann túr, maraon lehughdrich pfein
sna Flaithmbudh dú , ghabh do cumhdach speis
Reic iád san chúirt air cáint úir oNde
s do thréig le hair budh nár leo ngcámhain fein.
Few are those who love it. What a somersault the world has taken!
It has fallen from the Tower, together with its authors
And the princess who inherited it, who took an interest in defending it.
It has been sold in the court for a new speech dating from only yesterday
And scornfully abandoned: people were ashamed of their own language 24
6. The rebellious Scots to crush
The great conflict between the two cultures is symbolically embodied in the Jacobite Risings of 1717 and 1745, and in the cataclysmic end at Culloden in 1746. There were many different ingredients in these events, and as many different approaches for analysing the dynamics --- as an inter-dynastic struggle, as an internal Civil War with Scots on both sides, as a small act in a wider European religious conflict, or as an exploitive venture by an ambitious opportunist. From a broad British-European perspective, perhaps all of these and others are equally valid.
These various aspects, and the ethnic origins of the people employed on various sides of the struggle, have misled many modern historians and popular commentators into dismissing the significance of Culloden in the history of the Highlands and into projecting their own modern biases upon Highlanders of that time.25Many modern historians with arrogant hindsight dismiss the venture with pejoratives such as doomed and ill-fated, but contemporary Gaelic accounts display no such pessimism --- the prince was portrayed as the prophesied Messiah arriving to free his people from the oppression of a hostile foreign government.
Clans were indeed often torn between the sympathy and support of clansmen for the Prince and the fear of chieftains to gamble wealth and lives fighting against the forces of the central government. Little wonder that many abstained from the conflict, or even shrewdly chose to ally against the Jacobites. But one only needs to read the large corpus of Gaelic lore, songs and tales from that time to see that Gaelic tradition itself portrays the Rising as a cultural conflict between the forces of Gaels and the English, regardless of who was utilised to act it out:
the Rising of 1745 was the natural reaction of the Jacobite clans and their sympathisers in the Highlands against what had been since the coming of William of Orange in 1690 a calculated official genocide campaign against the religion of many and the language of all Highlanders, and that however inopportune the choice of the moment of the Rising may seem to have been, it must have appeared to many men and women as the last possible chance to throw off the Whig yoke. 26
The political orientation of these songs [from 1745] is overwhelmingly Jacobite and anti-Hanoverian
Indeed it is noteworthy that even in areas where the leaders were staunchly Hanoverian, such as Argyll and the Reay country, poets like Duncan Bàn Macintyre or Rob Donn Mackay followed an ambivalent or openly Jacobite line. 27
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat at Culloden in 1746, all Gaels were subjected to murder and plunder by the English forces regardless of their stance on Jacobitism. The social structure of Gaeldom was systematically dismantled. Estates were forfeited from clan chiefs known or suspected to be against the central government. Now, with a new carefully pruned élite in place in the Gàidhealtachd, it became much more common for Gaels to complain that their overlords and chieftains lacked Gaelic or in fact anything to enable them to understand their tenantry.
The defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden became burned into the collective memory of Gaelic speakers everywhere, irrespective of religion or political persuasion
Important as the battle was at the time in terms of human loss, it became even more important as a symbol --- the symbol of something like the end of independent Gaelic action. 28
This destruction of native Gaelic institutions allowed foreign elements and anti-Gaelic forces to gain more control and dominance in the Gàidhealtachd than ever before. Discussion of religion in the Highlands is difficult, as a number of different agendas are at play at different levels at different times and places. 29 At this juncture, however, the Church took on a role of unchallengable authority it could never previously have had, often acting as an agent of the Anglocentric state.
These institutions in Scotland need to be understood not just in religious terms but as political tools for social control. As contemporary parallels in the rest of Europe are not easily found, this role is not inherent in the religion of the Church itself but is specific to the English Imperial context. Although some exceptional ministers were keen Gaelic scholars and activists for their congregations, they had little power to mediate the tremendous forces against Gaeldom.
Meanwhile, having removed the final internal threat to English supremacy in Britain, having achieved significant victories abroad and profiting greatly from a burgeoning Empire, English nationalism was euphoric. It defined the Teutons (i.e., the Anglo-Saxons) as the master race, and the Celts and dark peoples as servile races. 30 This myth of racial inferiority was applied to the Irish and the Scottish Gaels, but what about the Scottish Lowlanders? The Scottish élite had long been self-consciously Anglo-Saxon and had been exerting pressure on Lowlanders to Anglicise their speech, manners and religion. By convincing the Lowlanders that they had been members of the master race all along and allowing them to wash their hands of their ancient relationship with the Gaels, they could be used as pawns in a game of divide and conquer.
Although it may seem at first ironic that Lowland Scots, themselves victims of English aggression, could be so successfully used against their Highland counterparts, it is a truism of Imperialism that existing rivalries should be exploited to keep factions from joining against a common enemy, and that the work of Imperialism is best done by rival factions and internal agents rather than by the authors of Imperialism itself. It is also a truism of human nature that oppressed groups often seek a group lower on the pecking order on which to take out their frustration.
Lowland Scots were reassured that as Teutons they were not mere helots of an English Empire, nor a subject colonial people, but a branch of the dominant race which rightly belonged at the imperial high table
Teutonism fostered British integration and enthusiasm for imperialism through identification with the greater Saxon mission. 31
The rise of Romanticism, the myth of the Noble Savage and the emotional Celt, gave an ideological rationale for pruning the obsolete and impractical Celt out of existence, as according to this myth, they could no longer exist in a world of inevitable Anglo-Saxon progress.
the Celtic revival, while sympathetic to Gaelic culture, merely reinforced its disconnection from the reality of industrialisation and empire. It relegated Celtic life to a protected reservation set apart from the main highways of modernity
Land in the Gàidhealtachd was no longer run as a subsistence-level, local economy but as a cash economy operating within an expanding English empire. Although small scale evictions and immigration occurred immediately after Culloden, large segments of the population were forcibly removed in the 1800s when land-owners discovered that sheep and deer were far more profitable than human tenants. Gaels were attached to the land of their ancestors in a most profound way, and their brutal removal is a trauma from which neither Gaeldom nor the now empty landscapes of the Highlands and Islands have yet recovered:
The language and lore of the Highlands being treated with despite has tended to crush their self-respect, and repress that self-reliance without which no people can advance. When a man was convinced that his language was a barbarism, his lore as filthy rags, and that the only good thing about him --- his land --- was, because of his general worthlessness, to go to a man of another race and another tongue, what remained
that he should fight for? 33
An agitation for land rights, with strong links with similar movements in Ireland,34eventually secured some rights for those Gaels who remained in 1886, but not until after they had been pushed off the best ground and into the worst. By this time a huge haemorrhage of people, talent and self-confidence had taken place, and an inferiority complex lodged firmly in the minds of Gaels.
Although social and psychological blows resulted from the Clearances, the anti-Gaelic stance of educational institutions reinforced the dogma of the inevitability and necessity of learning English to the exclusion of Gaelic. The 1872 Education Act required all children to attend school, but made no provision for Gaelic: education, English and achievement became synonymous. 35 The psychological conditioning of education has done more than anything else to alienate Gaels from their language and culture:
There is nothing worse than having the epithet "Heilant" hurled at one. That is one of the results of the Scottish educational system. There has always been some subtle insinuation that Highland and barbaric are synonymous
At present the only remedy seems to be to close every school in the Highlands for ten years and send Highland children to be educated in the Scandinavian countries, in Germany, France and Italy. If something of that nature were practicable, one thing is certain: there would be hell to pay if these children returned to Scotland after an absence of ten years as monoglot English speakers. As well as that they would learn to value language and nationality. They would return as very good Highlanders with a European outlook. 36
The authorities now did not need to do anything explicit to exterminate Gaelic - the social institutions which supported Gaelic had been eradicated, the society associated with poverty and backwardness, and all means of advancement required assimilation into an English world. Although individuals may have participated for their personal gain within an English Empire, their energies made little contribution to Gaeldom or Scotland generally, but to the expanding English world. Lacking opportunities within a Gaelic subculture and tired of being persecuted on account of their language, it is perhaps not surprising that many stopped transmitting the language, traditions and values of the old Gaelic world, accepted the myth that their culture was inferior and conformed to English requirements.
Even when Gaels where exiled overseas, they faced the same intolerant Anglo-centric prejudices which characterised the imperial dynamic wherever it went. The Gaelic-speaking communities, which were once very sizeable in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and other areas, have all but disappeared.
Lads and lasses in their teens
Wearing airs of kings and queens
Just the taste of Boston beans
Makes them lose their Gaelic.
They come back with finer clothes
Speaking Yankee through their nose
Thats the way the Gaelic goes.
Pop! Goes the Gaelic! 37
The census of 1881 in Scotland showed the effects of the many negative forces against Gaelic when 254,415 people or 6.84% of the population stated that they spoke the language. The 1901 census recorded 28,106 monoglots, but the decline post war was rapid. The disproportionate casualties of Scottish soldiers in two World Wars emptied many islands and glens of their youth, and harsh economic structures dictated by a distant, unsympathetic government caused many communities in the Gàidhealtachd to collapse. By 1961 80,978 people or 1.66% of Scotlands population said they spoke Gaelic.
Through the 1980s into the 1990s, Gaelic has enjoyed something of a revival, and in common with the other Celtic countries, is pushing the use of Gaelic medium education from nursery school onward, with Comann nan Sgoiltean Araich set up in 1982 to do this. At present there are over 75 such schools in Scotland, from a starting figure of four. This is complimented by the growth of Gaelic Medium Units (GMUs) in schools across Scotland. The first opened in 1988 in Inverness and there are presently over 50 such units, as well as playgroups, in several major Scottish cities.
It is interesting to note that, even into the twentieth century, Gaelic still covered most of the Highlands as delineated in the Middle Ages. (See map E). Today, however, despite the projects mentioned, Gaelic has fallen to a dangerously low level. It is ironic that although Celtic studies have recently attracted wider interest, Celtic culture has never been so close to total extermination in its history of more than 2,000 years.
Not only are the culture and language precariously poised, but the very population is being overwhelmed by incomers who have a large impact on the ethno-linguistic makeup. Between Scotlands feudal laws and global economics, fewer and fewer natives and more and more foreigners own and inhabit Gaeldoms final outpost. A 1996 discussion paper by the convention of Scottish Local Authorities confesses:
Almost half the country is owned by fewer than 500 people. Estates are bought and sold in secret, without those who live and work on the land having any say. The under-use, or misuse, of land is endemic and opportunities for the indigenous population are few. No other country in Europe has such an antiquated, unfair and unaccountable system of land ownership.
Even beyond the complication of its internalised inferiority complex, some very basic issues of self-determination need to be addressed in the Gàidhealtachd. A society governed by an alien people, dependent on an outside world for its sustenance and lacking the control over its own land, is a society which has no control over the future of its culture or language.
7. The Gaelic Oral Tradition
Gaels were among the earliest peoples in Europe to adopt the practice of writing, the first in Europe to write their vernacular literature. Gaelic culture as a whole, however, has always been a tradition based on the spoken word. The values, the history, the music, the sense of identity and rootedness, the very sense of being a Gael, have been articulated and transmitted by living tradition bearers through the Gaelic tongue.
From the earliest times, the poet has had a central role in Celtic society, filling a key political and religious function. Celtic societys leaders had to be validated by the bardic order, which in turn depended upon the social order for patronage. It is no wonder that the Romans attacked the druidic order to destroy the intellectual force that upheld and propagated Celtic values. Anglo-centric imperialism followed the same course, outlawing bards, destroying centres of learning and exterminating the language:
Opinions are formed in it, and consecrated by it; it constitutes, not only the vehicle of ideas, but almost the ideas themselves; and it will be in vain to change the current of thought and action in the Highlands, while [Gaelic] is allowed to remain. 38
Besides upholding the traditional values of Gaelic society, the bardic order has always been a bastion of the standards of the language itself, pushing its ability to express new ideas to the limit, keeping the vocabulary rich and flexible and providing a rich store of literature to draw from. Even when all other Gaelic social institutions had been destroyed, knowledge of the champions of the oral tradition, the bards, provided conceptual role models to Gaels:
Had it not been for the bards of the past centuries, we wouldnt have the Gaelic we have today
when you have an interest in those kind of men, you like to understand what theyve been singing or talking about. I think the bards keep the language going, and the day they go, goes our language, goes our heritage, goes our identity.39
There are a number of different genres within the Gaelic oral tradition: songs, tales, proverbs, riddles and so on. These different genres tend to express and encapsulate different kinds of experience and ideas: proverbs express the wit and wisdom of Gaelic culture; tales cover history, genealogical themes, promote role models and supply entertainment; songs provide the outlet for emotional expression of the community and the propagation of news; and so on.
A significant characteristic of the oral tradition, however, is the inter-dependency between different elements, and their relation with the language itself. Each of these elements appears in, and is dependent upon, the others. Proverbs can often be condensations of events or situations which require a long tale to explain. Songs often quote proverbs, and lines from songs become proverbs in their own right. Stories often accompany songs to explain who wrote them, when, why and how. Tales are frequently accompanied by or interspersed with song-like poems.
This is reflected in Gaelic tradition-bearers themselves, who tend to be well-versed in all genres even if specialising in a particular one. This was noted as early as the middle of the 1800s by the renowned folklore collector Iain Og Ile, John F. Campbell:
But though each prefers his own subject, the best Highland story-tellers know specimens of all kinds. Start them, and it seems as if they would never stop. 40
The language itself is densely entangled within this literary web. It has been noted all across Gaeldom that good Gaelic speakers use a high percentage of proverbs and literary allusions in their normal, daily speech.
Gaelic literature has always been consciously and deliberately cultivated to maintain a distinctively Gaelic cosmology, rather than one reliant upon a Classical world-view. When the Classical literary pantheon had long eclipsed the native symbols and traditions of most of the rest of Europe, Gaelic literature still held up its pre-Christian heroes and symbols as yardsticks of praise and models of excellence. This is not, as some believe, because they were really pagans, or because they were stuck in a backward cultural time-warp: they were thoroughly familiar with Classical literature and had translated much of it into Gaelic. This is simply an unequivocal statement of the self-confidence and worth which they felt about their own native literature and cultural symbols. Thus characters from literature, such as the Fianna, represent praiseworthy qualities, and all manner of plants and animals appear as metaphors in a rich symbolic vocabulary elaborated and reinforced in song and story.
Languages belonging to distinct cultures have different means of classifying and expressing experience. The classical example is that of colour, for not every language has the same mapping from words to sections of the colour spectrum. The Gaelic word gorm, for example, is often interpreted in English as blue,dark grey or green, but it is never used for the colour of grass or water (see Dwellys Dictionary). There are many examples of unique cultural structures or categories reflected in the language, such as the calendar, kin systems, degrees of ownership and possession, animal taxonomies implicit in nomenclature, and so on, which cannot be directly translated into another language because of the nuances they contain.
Words are not just independent, individual units, but are bundles of associations which operate according to the internal logic of the language and its cultural experience. For example, the term gorm can also mean hot, or great, illustrious. All good poetry and literature depend on the rich interplay and juxtaposition of the many semantic fields of words within themselves and between each other in the context of the phrase and larger literary setting. Puns, which are extremely language specific, are the most obvious example of this.
Not only words but phrases and expressions also carry the historical weight of their previous usages, and skilful speakers and writers will intentionally use phrases with a previous literary existence to invoke their associations. Newspaper writers frequently borrow and cleverly modify catch-phrases, proverbial expressions or lines from songs to convey an idea quickly, and in a similar fashion Gaelic literature frequently invokes phrases well known to the audience to conjure up a complex situation or feeling.
To underscore the importance of the language in the maintenance of the culture, we can observe the ferocity with which the language was attacked as a means of destroying the culture and the degree of success of the Anglicisation campaign by teaching the English language.
9. Gaelic, identity and the sense of place
A very strong and local sense of identity is an important part of the Gaelic cultural experience. The oral tradition taught people the names and deeds of their ancestors and the ideals and values of their society, instilled in them a sense of pride and belonging, and made them intimately aware of the landscape around them.
Because the entire community participated in the oral tradition, they adapted it to meet their own needs and to encapsulate the knowledge specific to their environment and experience. For example, village bards wrote songs about local events and characters, and used poetic forms for memorising weather indicators and geographical information specific to their locale.
Names are extremely important in all traditional societies. A Gael is identified by his or her sloinneadh, an enumeration of ancestors (usually patrilineal descent) and by a home village. The first two questions that any native Gael would traditionally a Gaelic-speaking stranger are Có leisthu? and Có ás a tha thu? Who do you belong to and Where do you come from, meaning not where your current residence is, but where you were born and raised. Typical phrases about locale are very interesting, as statements of origin translate in English, for example, as I belong to Glen Uig. People are conceptualised as belonging to places, not the other way round.
Gaels through the generations have given extremely dense concentration of placenames to the land on which they live. Every identifiable feature, every hill, pool, field, stream, lump, clump of trees or rock, has a name and a story behind it. This has the very practical function of being able to pin-point a location with a single name so that a location can be succinctly expressed. However, it also has the effect of giving a very keen and intimate sense of place, fully accessible from the inside of Gaelics world view.
The huge store of names of people and places, and the stories and identities which they symbolise, were known and used by all members of the community. Christina Shaw of Harris explains that these names and their meanings were within her lifetime being lost in the process of losing the Gaelic language:
I can go over to Bays and I can establish relationships on both my fathers and mothers side, as far as three generations. Donald wrote in a letter shortly before he died Do you remember when we used to go after sheep? and a list followed of names of hills, lochs and streams around Ardhasaig, Miavag and Bun Abhainn Eadarra
Every one. There wasnt the length of between here and the gate that we didnt have a name for, which is not the case nowadays. Every ben and every mound and every hill
I could name them all. 49
Gaelic literature and poetry resonate with this sense of place. Songs and stories can be highly localised, invoking place-names to evoke the relationship of land and people:
The native Gael who is instructed in this poetry carries in his imagination not so much a landscape, not a sense of geography alone, but a formal order of experience in which all these are merged. What is to a stranger an expanse of empty countryside - magnificent or drab according to prevailing notions - to the native sensibility can be a dynamic, perhaps even heroic, territory peopled with figures from history and legend. 50
Needless to say, the Gaelic oral tradition hinges upon the language itself to transmit these names, stories, songs and all of the values and collective cultural experience they embody. When the language is destroyed, so is a sense of continuity, a sense of place and belonging, and the Gaelic world-view gives way to a foreign one:
The names, places and traditions described here are only a small part of what was, only a few generations ago, everyday knowledge in Strathspey
many of the [place] names are known only to those brought up by Gaelic speakers. As the language dies out, it takes with it so much of the history, music and understanding of the place
This is true not only of Strathspey - all over the mainland of the Highlands, between the wars Gaelic gave way to English.51
In her study of Scottish Gaelic culture in exile in Newfoundland and its key tradition-bearer Allan MacArthur, Margaret Bennett observes:
There may well be few books written in the 1980s about the Scots overseas which do not mention the tartan as an identifiable part of Scottish tradition
The real identity was in the fabric of the people themselves: their language, their lore, their lifestyle, all woven into the very essence of their individuality. Most important of all to Allans generation was the mother tongue. They realised only too well that the Gaelic language had been the vehicle for carrying their Scottish traditions from one generation to the next. With its rapid decline, the traditions it upheld would be forced to follow. 52
10 Why does it matter?
Knowledge of Gaelic is essential for a complete and balanced understanding of Scottish history. It was, after all the Gaels who forged the Scottish nation and gave Scotland its name. Throughout most of Scotlands history, Gaels have occupied a great deal, if not the majority, of the land of Scotland, been a substantial percentage of the population, and played a key role in shaping the culture and creating its history.
Gaelic is the only language which has been spoken continuously in the area we now call Scotland from before the time of the Romans to the present day. It has left its trace in the form of place-names from Lothian to Galloway and Caithness, and in the form of personal names and surnames throughout the nation. It has influenced the customs and vernacular speech of people as far north as the Faroes.
And yet most Scots know very little about Gaelic. It is as if they have become aliens, even enemies, to their own ancestors in their own land. A knowledge of Gaelic provides access to Scotlands history from the Gaelic point of view. It allows a person to learn what the Gaels themselves felt about their history and their culture. It allows a person to recognise and understand the Gaelic place-names that exist throughout Scotland. By being cut off from Gaelic, Scots have become more vulnerable to the Anglo-centric and anti-Celtic re-writing of Scotlands history. The denial of the Gaelic roots of Scotland and the aggression against its oldest indigenous language and culture has contributed significantly to Scotlands torn personality and divisive politics:
Whereas in nineteenth century Germany and France Aryanism complemented nationalism, in Scotland Teutonic racism contributed to the transformation of Highland Celtic culture from a potent ideological resource into an embarrassing millstone of backwardness. Scotland was a nation paralysed by its confused sense of ethnic identity. 53
Familiarity with primary sources is particularly important since Celtic things have become fashionable and Scottish history is being exploited for profit. People can be easily confused about what is really Celtic, and what Gaelic culture is, and what really happened in Scottish history, if all they read are fanciful English translations, or if Hollywoods commercial ventures are their sole source of history. Anyone who has read Gaelic literature knows that it bears no resemblance to English literatures portrayal of the gloomy, sentimental, mist-shrouded Celt.
Scotland is currently in the midst of a deep identity crisis. After 300 or more years of propaganda, brainwashing Scots to believe that Gaels are inferior, many Scots are not willing to accept Scotlands Celtic origins, but neither are they willing to accept an English identity. Scotland could begin to resolve its cognitive dissonance and cultural trauma were Scots willing to confront these issues and learn to appreciate their own indigenous traditions, accepting Gaelic on equal terms with Lallans and English.
This could start to heal the divisions which have torn Scotland and helped to keep it powerless. It would bring esteem to the rich culture available within Scotland, a wealth which many people around the world would envy. It would renew the vigour of Scottish culture from within, and reinforce the sense of place and identity which has only recently been disrupted from its ancient roots in the Scottish landscape. It would change Scotland from being an also-ran on the periphery of an English cultural world to being at the centre of a Gaelic/Scottish cultural world. All of this together could help give Scotland the self-confidence necessary to seize control of its own future and reclaim its right to be a proud European nation among peers.
Gaelic culture is one of many of the worlds indigenous cultures. Understanding Gaelic culture gives us an insight into what it means to be native to a particular place and, by understanding another culture, we can better understand our own. Culture and languages are not just about looking back to our past, but also about choosing the visions and values that determine our direction for the future. The question is, simply put, will Scotland ignore the traditions and values of its own native peoples and defer to those who have conquered it in the past, or will Scotland appreciate and honour its own native culture enough to carry it forward as the basis for future generations?
In these days of global crises, we desperately need to understand culture so that we can shape it and mould it to better suit human needs and earthly resources. Native Americans have expressed the urgent need to re-integrate human, community and environmental values in culture, especially through the binding agent of language:
The bottom line expected of education today usually focuses on job skills. However, if the generally problematic condition of much of the environment, of the job market and of society today is an indication of this approach to education, it may be time to include aspects of the holistic approaches promoted by the First Nations. Business cannot be separated from the environment. The environment cannot be separated from government. Government cannot be separated from social and economic issues. People cannot be separated from all the above. Perhaps it is time to recognise this and make efforts to reinstate a whole-life perspective in education. Teaching First Nations languages would contribute to understanding such concepts given that that such holistic or whole-life values are embedded in them
While the experience of oppression by an empire is by no means unique to Gaels, Ireland and Scotland were often the testbed for colonial policies which were subsequently applied in British colonies. When we begin to understand some of the loss which humankind as a whole experienced in the Age of Imperialism, we have reason to treasure and nurture what remains of the diversity and richness of the worlds many native cultures.
"United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of
16 December 1966 entry into force 3 January 1976
1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virture of that right they freely determine their political status
and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development..."
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