Know your place – Gaelic and Elements of the Left

By Angus MacLeod – Born in Inverness, Angus is a writer and PhD researcher in Gaelic literature at the University of Glasgow.

There is a pernicious view abroad amongst elements of the Scottish Left that Gaelic, its promotion and the promotion of equality for Gaels, are linked to essentialism, to blood-and-soil irrationality, in short to the politics of reaction. This was encapsulated a while ago in a blog post which appeared on the Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway blog, and was promoted on the RIC Facebook page, equating Network Rail’s Gaelic signage policy with mythologizing and racism. Or as George Galloway recently asked in reference to the language “What is this Alba? […] Most highlanders speak English. 99% of Scots are not highlanders. This madness is going too far”. A summary of his comments can be seen on a post at An Sionnach Fionn’s blog ‘Galloway to the Gaels: You are a nonpeople’. This is not to blame the Left in general for the efforts of a few, but it is necessary to confront this stream of thought and to show how redundant it really is. Likewise the Radical Independence Convention does great work, but that makes the idiotic contributions of a few even more regrettable.

On one level it is surprising that these views emerge at all – a language whose traditional areas are now characterised by depopulation and economic marginalisation under attack for being associated with the “romantic Right”. But Gaelic outside of these areas, so the story goes, is a language choice of the middle classes; Gaelic is the hobby of those independistas who got a bit too caught up with Braveheart and the petite-bourgeoisie who would like their kids to go to private schools but can’t afford the fees. And as the RIC Dumfries and Galloway article shows, it is the language of those who would like to see Scotland as a mono-ethnic independent nation state.

Gaelic itself uses the word Gael as a marker of linguistic ability, not of ethnicity, nor of heritage, nor place of birth. The mono-ethnic fallacy denies the fact that Gaels are perfectly aware that we are all immigrants. A Gaelic lullaby from Dunvegan reminded the MacLeods that their ancestors came from Scandinavia. MacDonalds and Campbells both claimed descent from mythological Irishmen; thus agreeing on something, and on it goes. Therefore when a Gael speaks of the Gaels, they are describing a linguistic community, with all that goes with it, as opposed to an exclusive ethnicity.

Much of the rhetoric deployed by the language’s accusers is based on an effort to split the language equality movement into a Scots camp and a Gaelic camp. But Gaelic’s increasing prominence strikes a blow against the unthinking monolingualism of much of Scottish society. Language learning is not a zero sum gain, as the efforts of Gaelic language activists opens doors for Scots language activists and visa versa. Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid knew this. The organisers of the International Languages of Scotland Conferences knew this. And modern activists know this too.

It’s a sign of this blow against a monolingual orthodoxy that folk are shoggled when they see Gaelic in an unexpected place: in the RIC blogpost it was Lockerbie train station. Getting people to think about language and its history should only be a good thing, if people would welcome minority languages rather than wishing for their speakers to literally know their place. In Gaeldom’s case, this place is generally rural areas in the Highlands and Islands, the further North and West the better, though best if you avoid Caithness.

Confronted with a minority language the folk in question suddenly fall back on the “Ah, but all my forebears and those of the surrounding community were Scots speakers, you see.” You can also insert Pictish, Brythonic or Norse too, if you please. This does of course bring us back to the question of “Who is it that’s linking language with blood and soil?” Of course such critics are rarely if ever Scots speakers or activists themselves; Scots is just their chosen tool to promote monolingualism outside of the literary realm. As I’ve highlighted, this divide and rule approach denies the role of Gaels and Scots-speakers in promoting each other’s languages — just look at the Tobar an Dualchais/ Kist o’ Riches project.

The Gaelic Act, which aims to afford Gaelic equality of esteem with English throughout Scotland, challenges the monolingualism of the newly emerging Scottish state, inherited from the British state, enforced by the education system after 1872. Gaels should not be confined to the Highlands and Islands nor to the cultural realm, and the logical consequence of this is that Gaelic becomes more visible outside of its traditional areas. There is a bizarre myth that Gaelic’s increasing prominence is solely due to the SNP government. Unfounded on reality, this ignores that the SNP have generally continued the approach of the Lib-Lab administration, endorsed by the Parliament as a whole. This myth stems more from the effort of social scientists, both academic and armchair, to characterise the Scottish Independence movement in the terms of a traditional nationalist movement, as opposed to looking at it in its unprecedented reality.

Amongst the metropolitan Left Gaelic is at best an irrelevance. What is the point in learning or using a language with 58,000 speakers when capitalism is destabilising the Middle East and destroying the environment. Life is too short. And yet the majority of the most endangered cultures are in those areas of the world which are the most exploited economically. Language activists from minorities work with one another, sharing best practice and sending their solidarity and support to their counterparts overseas. The economic processes which exploited the Gàidhealtachd, consolidated the power of the landowners and still sends its young people to the cities for work, housing and opportunity is the same process wreaking havoc elsewhere. If you want to get an understanding of the experience of those marginalised by economic exploitation, then a genuine engagement with an exploited culture close to home, is in terms of sheer practicality, a good place to start.

The role of Gaels in left-wing culture and the emergence of the home rule movement and Labour movement is also a reason for engaging with the language. In Sorley MacLean’s work you see the choices faced by socialists during the Spanish Civil War; the commitment to the fight against Fascism in World War II and his disillusionment with Stalinism after the Warsaw Uprising. MacLean’s views were by no means anomalous amongst later Gaelic writers. Another example is Duncan Livingstone who wrote a multilingual poem from a grieving widow’s perspective on the Sharpeville Massacre in Apartheid South Africa. Urban Gaels and their descendants were to be found at the heart of the radical movements in the major cities and their tradition of radicalism in rural areas remains an inspiration, to those who are aware of it.

Gaeldom is not without its own faults. Efforts to remain “apolitical”, as if that were possible, or to raise the language’s status, led to forelock-tugging recognition-chasing by Gaelic bodies in the past. Whilst this is regrettable it is a consequence of the marginalisation of the culture and the language. To criticise modern Gaelic promotion for that is like criticising the Gaelic language for the Highland regiments and ignoring the role of the state and private capital in exploiting Highland communities; or like criticising Gaelic culture for being parochial, because elements of it were appropriated, commoditised and utilised for the political goals of others.

And that brings us back to the Braveheart crowd, the fact that some self-styled Ultra-Nationalists occasionally attempt to associate themselves with the language, is certainly not the fault of the Gaelic language and its community. Whilst it would appear that some of this crowd see themselves as post-colonialists, they are certainly nowhere to be seen in Gaelic life in general, thankfully. For them the language is a feather for their oxygen-restricting bonnet, at best.

It was the Tory knight of the realm Hugh Trevor-Roper who asserted the inauthenticity of much of Gaelic culture, in the aftermath of the 1979 devolution referendum: ideas which have spread far outside of academic circles. The choice faced by the minority culture is often to strive for authenticity and be labelled parochial; or to remediate their traditions and be labelled inauthentic. That, surely, reveals some of the power relations at work between a majority and minority culture. Gaelic has made it into the 21st Century, despite the best efforts of its high-placed opponents. That in itself is a testimony to the long struggle of the Gaels against prejudice and inequality. Let us all celebrate it, along with Scots, and all of Scotland’s languages by engaging with them in whatever capacity we can and working together for a more equal future for Scotland’s linguistic communities.

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2 thoughts on “Know your place – Gaelic and Elements of the Left

  1. The Gaelic language contains Gaelic culture and represents and contains a way of life, a history and a people. My book of the month for Waterstones Scotland is a novel reflecting how Gaelic stories contain oral history otherwise lost to us.
    Scotland needs to protect and cherish Gaelic culture or it will imitate the Empire that gave maps to St Kildan children with no St Kilda on the map. See Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

  2. You’re picking a fight with the wrong man, Angus. I don’t disagree with any of your substantive points (and if you read my essay again you’ll see that I don’t). If you make the argument that public signage and documents in Scotland should be translated into the languages of Scotland, then I agree with you. All I’m arguing is that no one of them – neither English nor Scots nor Gaelic – should be seen as more authentic than another.

    However, I would add this: Lockerbie is an Anglian (or Scots) placename, just as Inbhir Nis is a Gaelic placename. Placenames are part of the historical record. Making up new versions of names in the orthography of other languages is at best ignorant, at worst hegemonic. It would be a much more meaningful assertion of the role of Gaelic in Scotland’s future to translate roadsigns and public notices than to invent new spellings of place names.

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