Gaelic for Rebels

Learning Gaelic is a bit controversial.

Often I hear, ‘They only speak that in the Islands’ or, ‘It’s never been the only language in Scotland’ or, ‘It was only ever spoken in the West of Scotland’ or ‘It came from Ireland, its not really Scottish’.

Other than being meant as slightly disparaging, the one thing these comments focus on is geography, which is often how we think about languages, that they are of a place, not a people.

This becomes problematic with Gaelic when you read headlines like ‘Gaelic about to die out.’ Because instead of getting all our beautiful Scottish brains together to look at solving the issues involved we start thinking about place. 

So lets start there.

Below is a map, showing place names in Scotland that contain BAL, which is either from the Scottish Gaelic baile or bealach meaning village or pass, farmstead, town or home. The map gives you an idea of Gaelic settlement in Scotland. (Shetland is not included, the place names there are influenced by Scandinavian languages like Norn).

It’s quite widespread, right? So lets stop thinking about Gaelic only existing in one part of Scotland, just for a moment.

Lets think about time. 

It seems unlikely that all these places would have been built and named all at the same time. It would’ve happened more gradually and over a time period where multiple languages were being used in Scotland.

Celtic languages: Gaelic; Brittonic and Pictish. Scandinavian and Germanic languages: Norn; Scots and Scottish English. Even a bit of Norman French and Ancient Greek. Scotland has always been multicultural.

The languages that have survived are the ones that evolved with the people, the communities and culture of Scotland. They are the ones people used parallel to one another. Academics in language studies call this parallel-lingualism.

That means being able to use different languages alongside each other, for business or pleasure! Its way of pooling understanding, which is kind of what we do now, most Scottish people can pronounce Gaelic place names, if not because of an understanding of Gaelic pronunciations then certainly because they’ve heard the names being spoken.

And that’s it! This is the best technique to ensure survival of a language.  To use it.

For this to work effectively, the use of these languages must be supported by the folk in power and used alongside English in official documents, giving people a choice and better opportunities for mutual understanding without compromising cultural heritage or identity. 

This needs to be maintained at Government level and also from ‘cradle to grave’. If your prospects for succeeding or competing in business, arts, education, etc, is dependent on being able to speak English and only English, why would you keep your Gaelic or Scots tongue past primary school?

This sounds tough and it won’t happen overnight, but its called language planning and it helped Norway save Norwegian after they gained independence from Denmark in 1814.

What might be harder is breaking the conditioning that somehow Gaelic or Scots or Scots English is somehow lesser or, with the case of Scots, that it’s slang (it isn’t slang, it’s a language, it has dialects).

We need to use what we know of these languages as much as possible to keep these languages evolving with us. They are already a part of our physical landscape.

To that end, here is a free pdf that might help you understand a wee bit of Gaelic or find resources to help you learn Scots.

*DISCLAIMER: PDF contains adult language. Please do not download if easily offended.

Still thinking about time, maybe we could look to the future. Currently, the highest number of Gaelic learners can be found in central Scottish cities, outnumbering the native speakers in the Islands.

Very soon we could be looking at the return of the extinct Glasgow Gaelic dialect, or at the very least the development of a new one.

S’ math sin!

Eileen Budd is a writer, researcher and illustrator currently working on an ancient Scottish saga.  You can find her on instagram: @eileenbudd