Sunrise The Quiraing on Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo: Shutterstock

A' mairsinn beò: why I'm learning Scottish Gaelic

Its speakers number in the tens of thousands. There are no monolingual speakers left alive. So why learn Gaelic?
June 19, 2018

The first time I try to learn Gaelic, I go with my mum. We enrol on a week-long immersion course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye. Beginners I, our course is called, and it assumes no knowledge.

We start from the very beginning: consulting notes at every corner, fearing the spotlight, feeling every syllable strange in our mouths. The teacher stands to write a question on the board and we regard it solemnly. “Dè an t-ainm a th’ort?” Together we pick the sentence apart and put it together again, wondering at its strangeness: what is the name that is on you?

I learn to put the names on us, with a certain amount of panache. “Is mise Cal,” I wobble, earning appreciative nods from around the room. “Agus seo Fiona. Tha i na—” I explain, with a confidential air, “—mo mhàthair.”

We’ve never been the sort of family in which I address my parents by their first names, but it feels nice to be suddenly peers: sitting beside each other in class and sleeping in twin beds. Together we rattle through the basics. “It is windy,” we inform each other in halting syllables. Or: “I have one sister.” Sometimes these statements are true; more often they aren’t—the facts manipulated to generate the simplest or most adventurous language. “I don’t like soup,” I announce to the class on Friday. “But I like making soup.” “Liar,” says Mum, out of the corner of her mouth, as the teacher observes us good-humouredly from the front of the room. When not teaching immersion courses, he tells us, he is the Gaelic voice of Daddy Pig on BBC Alba’s version of Peppa Pig.

In the evenings, over dinner in the hall, we practice our conjugations. Sometimes we walk to the rocky beach on the other side of the headland to watch for otters, and on the way we talk about Mum’s childhood on the island. A traditional Highland upbringing in many ways—but an Anglophone one, in an increasingly Anglophone world. “Isn’t it awful,” her father said once, after she and her siblings were grown, “that none of you speak any Gaelic.” But he didn’t teach it to us, says Mum. They often didn’t, that generation.

Another phrase from class: “A bheil Beurla agad?” I write it carefully in my jotter. Gaelic spelling in black, a phonetic approximation in green below (“a vail byurla akit”), then the English in blue: “Do you [speak] English?” Revising my work that evening, I wonder afresh at the construction of it, the effort of my careful transcription. What was the point?

If there’s ever a thread a Gaelic learner shouldn’t tug upon, it’s this one. Learning any language requires a certain amount of redundancy, it’s true: the statement “I am bald,” which I also learnt that morning, was not true and, if it had been, would have been self-evident. But there was a deeper anxiety underwriting this particular question: I already know the answer to it, in every possible application. They all speak English, every one of them. There are no monolingual Gaels left. If there’s no point in asking if someone can speak English, why should I bother to learn the language at all?


A’ chainnt bhorb

(The rude speech) Gaelic is not a dead language, but it might be described as dying. The number of speakers has been steadily in decline since at least the turn of the 20th century; at last count there were only 57,000 native speakers; that is just 1 per cent of all Scots, and they are largely concentrated in the Outer Hebrides and Skye, probably the only places where you will still hear it spoken in the street.

The other Celtic languages of the British Isles have been afflicted by a similar drop-off, but to differing degrees. In its census of world languages, Unesco classes Manx and Cornish as “critically endangered” (although this is a victory of sorts, both having previously been declared extinct). Irish Gaelic—which is similar, but separate, to Scottish Gaelic, their relationship akin to that of Spanish and Portuguese—is taught in school across the Republic, and yet used on a daily basis by fewer than 100,000 of a population of 4.7m and thought “definitely endangered” by the UN body. Welsh has been most buoyant—with 19 per cent of the population able to speak the “vulnerable” language.

In all of these places, the withering of Celtic tongues has not come about by accident. Scots Gaelic has endured centuries of pressure from the south; “the south” in this instance encompassing England and—just as significantly—lowland Scotland too. After the Union of Crowns in 1603, James VI—James I in England—sought to unite his subjects under one language, and encouraged clan chiefs to send their eldest child to English-language public schools in the lowlands. Following the 1707 Act of Union, religious schools, which served the wider community, embraced the aim of anglicising the “uncivilised” provinces, instructing in English even where the pupils previously spoke only Gaelic, and punishing the use of their native tongue. Samuel Johnson, who toured the Highlands in 1773, reflected—and entrenched—English attitudes when he dismissed “the rude speech of barbarous people,” and wrongly reported that the local language had never been written down. Such prejudice was codified in education policy when this came to be standardised—the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act specifically excluded Gaelic from classrooms.


Na tha e a’ ciallachadh a bhith nad Albannach

(What it means to be Scottish) Education law had been modified in 1918, with a formal requirement for “provision” for Gaelic areas, yet in practice low-level persecution of Gaelic speakers continued to hasten its demise over most of the 20th century. “My grandfather was made to wear a wooden block around his neck for speaking Gaelic in class. My father was belted for speaking Gaelic in the playground,” recalls the author Donald S Murray. Murray spoke Gaelic at home in rural Lewis, but at school in Stornoway he too was mocked by his teachers. “They called us ‘maws,’” he says “and to some extent there’s still a residue of that attitude around today, though less so now that people see there can be money in it.”Even so, at the end of the 19th century, Gaelic remained the dominant language of the Highlands and Hebrides. But a cultural shift had taken hold, a changing in status of the language in the eyes of the speakers themselves. The values of the lowlands were being absorbed by the Highland public. English came to be seen as the way forward—the language of learning, of bettering one’s lot. Gaelic, and the Gaelic way of life, was for those who looked backwards, to the past. By the time my mother was a child in the 1950s, it was a language on the brink—fewer than 100,000 still spoke it.

There is: in recent decades a minor industry has grown up around the language, and a professionalisation of its usage. Gaelic-medium education began to be offered in the 1980s, and later there was a boom in Gaelic-language media. Since devolution in 1999, successive Holyrood governments have embraced its preservation: the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition legislated in 2005 to make it an official language. The current SNP administration has pledged to return the falling number of speakers back to 2001 levels as part of its efforts, it says, to recognise the language’s cultural, economic and social value. Gaelic, it explains, is “an integral part of Scotland’s heritage.”

And yet the reception to these efforts have been mixed, at best. Startlingly virulent opposition bubbles up from odd quarters and at regular intervals. There has been vocal criticism over the resources devoted to Gaelic-language broadcasting, and persistent (though false) rumours that Gaelic-medium education—whose pupils, like most bilinguals, show above-average attainment—unfairly receives extra funding. Most notably, there is an ongoing fracas over bilingual road signs, which flares up every few months.

These signs, critics claim, are inauthentic, dangerous and expensive; sneering tweets and newspaper articles poke fun and hype up the cost. The most bandied-around figure is £26m. In reality, the budget for upgrading road signs—bilingual or not—is £2.5m over five years and will only take place as old signs come up for renewal. At less than 50p a Scot, this is hardly lavish. But, as has been the case in many recent political debates, the detail is not as important as the underlying resentments these arguments represent.

Gaelic campaigners face a trickier time than those who successfully championed Welsh in the 1960s and 70s because the latter enjoyed a clear base—the political heartland of Welsh nationalism in the north and west of the principality, and the cultural heartland of the Welsh language were one and the same. But there’s not, and never has been, a one-to-one relationship between Gaelic enthusiasm and Scottish nationalism. To many in the Outer Hebrides,  Holyrood looks just as remote as Westminster.

The bickering over signposts is a proxy war; a symptom of something that will not be said outright. What’s at stake is the question of Scottish identity—what it means to be “Scottish” and to whom.  The task of rallying the nation to Gaelic is further complicated by parallel heritage efforts to preserve the traditional Scots tongue of the lowlands, a close cousin of English. Some rail against what feels like the imposition of Gaelic culture upon them. The journalist Ian Jack, for example, on spotting a dual-language sign in his native Cardonald (“Cair Dhòmhnaill”), near Glasgow, wrote of the “sadness” it aroused in him. A Gaelic identity was being constructed for a place in which Gaelic may never have been spoken, he argued—and in so doing rewrote both history and his own memory of the place.


Iomallachadh cultarach

(Cultural alienation) But this dispute over the identity of the nation is only the first aspect of resentment against any Gaelic revival. There is another, with deeper roots, which I have only begun to appreciate more recently. During the research for my book Thicker Than Water—a true story of frontier violence during the settlement of Australia—I began to think more about what it means when a minority and its language is absorbed into a more dominant culture. There, of the original 250 Aboriginal languages (600 if one includes dialects) only 18 are still in common use—a result of the efforts by missionaries to eradicate these languages in the name of “progress,” many going so far as to rechristen the Aboriginal adults as well as children with names that might have been taken from the pages of a Jane Austen novel.

Aboriginal culture clung on in the fringes: in private conversation and in the unaudited bush; as a symbol of disobedience. Elsewhere, millennia-old cultures were hounded to extinction, dying out with the elders, the last keepers of knowledge. Some cultures vanished before their existence was documented. Then, after the worst of the violence was over, a new insidious force took hold. Many of the survivors became ashamed of their roots, and shrugged their own culture off like a cloak. They refused to speak the old tongue, or to teach it—they spoke the new language and worshipped the new God. And yet they were left in a strange limbo: though they might absorb British ways, they would never be British. Like expats who have lived abroad for years, many found they felt they did not belong anywhere.

This alienation has a profound effect, which we’re only now coming to appreciate. Cultural programmes are now viewed in Australia as an aspect of public health; cultural identity is connected to self-worth and—indirectly—to social and physical resilience. In Gippsland, Victoria, I met Doris Paton: a member of the Gunaikurnai people who held adult learner classes in her traditional language, which has survived in only the most fragmentary form. “They want the knowledge and connection to country,” she told me. “Language defines who people are.”

article body image

Doris’s tireless work to regenerate an almost entirely lost language made me rethink my careless attitude towards Gaelic. Although I’d hesitate to describe what happened to its speakers in the same terms as the brutalised Aboriginal Australians, it is true that the Gaels of the Highlands and islands were “culturally conquered” in the 18th and 19th centuries by the rampantly expansive English-speaking, capitalist society of the south.

As the ancient clan system of the Highlands dissolved, many of its residents were uprooted to make way for sheep-farming during the Clearances, when an estimated 500,000 people left the Highlands, often under duress. Of all Scotland’s poor in those days, the Gaels were by far the most pitiable: many pitched up in Edinburgh or Glasgow starving, dressed in rags and speaking not a word of English. Even now, Scottish money and power remains heavily concentrated in the lowlands, and it remains an uncomfortable truth that big landowning families in the Highlands tend to speak with English accents.

When I lived in England and abroad, people would regularly ask me if I spoke Gaelic and I would have to admit that, no, I didn’t, although—and here I would lean in conspiratorially—no one really did. This wasn’t totally true, and I knew it. Two schoolfriends had, in the early 1990s, gone to Gaelic primaries; I myself had once appeared in the television show Dè a-nis? (diving joyfully into the swimming pool in Inverness with my class, for reasons I had not fully understood). From the age of 12, I had the opportunity to study it as my “modern language,” instead of French. This choice I had rejected immediately: why learn a language that diminished my horizons, instead of expanding them?

More fool me, then, that in adulthood a knowledge of Gaelic would have translated into paid work in my chosen career. While I photocopied and fetched coffee in London, often for no money, my Gaelic-medium educated friend Derek was presenting programmes and appearing on quiz shows on BBC Alba.

But at that age, the choices we make about which subjects to study are symbolic. They reflect how we imagine ourselves, or the people we might like to become. The fact I had no particular intention to move to France was besides the point. The point was: I didn’t want to be defined as “only” a Highlander. Now, having left and returned, I think that maybe I do. As John Muir wrote in another context: going out, I found, was really going in.


*** The second time I try to learn Gaelic, I sign up for a term of council-run evening classes near my new home in Edinburgh. I take my English boyfriend Richard and our Welsh friend Luke, which I half-expect to prompt surprise, but when we get to the first lesson I find we’re no more unusual than anyone else. There is the married couple who refuse to sit together, the linguist who asks circumlocutive questions, the girl with lilac hair and tattoos like stained glass up both arms, who constantly rolls cigarettes during each two-hour session. Sandra, our teacher, is from the Hebrides and believes firmly in rote learning. There is a lot of call and response: “Dearg,” she shouts, and we chorus it back: “jar-ag,” looking at the word and visualising the colour red, willing ourselves to form triangular associations between sound and spelling and sensation.

Our homework is to find the BBC television series Can Seo online. It was made in the 1970s and Sandra feels is yet to be surpassed. In it, instruction is interspersed with skits in which phrases we’ve learned are put into context. They have a surreal, Beckettian quality: actors stand in featureless white expanses and scold each other over perceived slights and humorous Hebridean misunderstandings. “O, tartan, tartan!” as Catriona exclaims during a disagreement over tea cosies. “Nothing but tartan!”

The chanting is fine but it’s the grammar that gets us going. Verb-subject-object, as in—the linguist informs us—Hebrew and Arabic. The opening verb’s form indicates both the tense and whether it’s a statement, negative statement or question. This requires planning ahead; long pregnant pauses as we string together sentences from back to front. Then there are those relational quirks. “Tha an t-acras orm!” we tell each other dramatically, rolling our Rs. The hunger is upon me!

It’s fascinating, and challenging. More than that, there is a whole world in it, one that I can only catch glimpses of. As Murray, the author, explains: “In another language you think in another way. You experience the world in a different way too.” Gaelic divides the colour spectrum differently, for one thing: while there are many words for brown—as anyone who has traversed Scotland’s northern peatlands will understand—but a single word, gorm can describe either the blue of the sky or the green of grass. (Another word, uaine, is commonly translated as green, but indicates a vivid, artificial shade that rarely applies to the natural world.)

It used to be said that the Ancient Greeks—who lacked a simple word for blue—were in fact unable to see it. In Homer, the sky is often “iron” or “bronze,” the sea “wine-dark” or even “pansy-like.” We know now they had the same cone and rod cells in his retinas as we do; but it has also been shown that terminology can affect perception, the experience of colour. Those who speak two languages see the world through two sets of eyes.


A’ mairsinn beò

(Staying alive) Every language has grown organically, over many centuries: local custom, history and landscape are encoded in its DNA. In America—another postcolonial land, where many indigenous languages were stamped out—the nature writer Barry Lopez has written movingly of how language can fit against its native land “like another kind of air…” In Alaska, he said, he studied a map crowded with Dena’ini names and descriptions, for which there were only 10 or so English equivalents. When we lose a language we may also lose the ability to describe the landscape it lives in. The land becomes less readily characterised, less gradated, more difficult to read. And so do we: what it means to be a Highlander, for example, becomes diffuse when there is no language to mark you apart.

So then: Gaelic class. This can be my contribution. But, it’s difficult. The irregularities of the language soon come to frustrate me. Why are the starts of nouns pronounced in a certain way when there are one or two, but not if there are more? Why do I shout for my father “Athair!” but for my mother “A Mhàthair!”? My Gaelic teacher is frustrated too. I’m a native speaker, she says. I don’t know why. It just does.

I am not a native speaker, and never will be. After term is over the seeming hopelessness hits me afresh. Without practice, my Gaelic starts to decay. And there are so few places to practice. When I do hear Gaelic speakers on the street, I am too shy to address them. I take out my notes alone, at home, but wrestle with feelings of being a fraud. Who am I kidding? What am I doing this for? My vocabulary shrivels, my amnesia becomes a source of guilt. It’s been months now since my last class.

But still, this burning desire. Perhaps I’ll never speak it fluently, or even well. But I might hope to read the greats of Gaelic literature—Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, Mary MacPherson, Ewan Robertson, Angus Peter Campbell—in the original. Perhaps even one day try my hand at translation: contribute to their literary survival, even in another form.

If Gaelic really is dying, then the people who still speak it today are something like living fossils. We are lucky to have them. But I’d rather it stayed alive, a breathing, flourishing creature. For my part, I can only promise to keep trying.