Thursday 31 December 2020

Welcome to our Gaelic Brigadoon


When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was no Gaelic TV, there were no Gaelic road signs and there was no Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, but there were a lot more Gaelic speakers than now. Since then huge amounts of time, money and effort has been spent on keeping ever fewer Gaelic speakers. But the result of fifty years of effort is that the vernacular Gaelic speaking community has fallen to just 11,000 people. At what point do those responsible for all the initiatives taken and all the money spent take responsibility for this failure?

It’s all very well blaming the Statutes of Iona 1609, which required Highland chiefs to send their sons to be educated in English. Firstly, this was a long time ago, secondly it was a Scottish statute and thirdly lots of other European languages went through far greater difficulties than Scottish Gaelic.

If Polish could survive the loss of Poland plus attempts by the Prussians, the Russians and the Austrians to eradicate it, why couldn’t Scottish mothers pass on their language to their children? The Church in Poland took on the task of teaching children Polish, but the Church of Scotland preferred to preach to the Gaels with an English Bible not least because it disliked the Catholicism of the Highlands.

Even when Greece was gobbled up by the Ottoman Empire the Greeks kept teaching their children Greek. Even when no one could point to Latvia on the map and when the Soviet Union enforced the teaching of Russian, it didn’t stop Latvians from keeping their language.

The problem with Gaelic is that it’s easier to blame someone else for the failure to teach your children Gaelic than it is to accept the responsibility for doing so. Times were tough after the Jacobite Rebellion and the Church of Scotland did ban the use of Gaelic in the 1750s, but the authorities in the Russian Empire discouraged the use of Latvian, Ukrainian and Estonian, but you don’t hear these people blaming something that happened long ago for the loss of their language, because they kept it.

The Gaelic establishment in Scotland has a nice little earner. If you speak Gaelic, you have an excellent chance of getting your novel published or your TV programme made. No one cares how many books you sell or if anyone watches your programme. No one even questions if all this money spent on stopping the decline of Gaelic is doing any good or not. The only good it is doing is to those who make their living from it.

As the numbers of vernacular Gaelic speakers declines still further no one will question the failure of the Scottish Government or the Bòrd na Gàidhlig. This is Alba, the answer to every problem is to throw more of someone else’s money at it. When vernacular speakers reach 5,000, we will have still more Gaelic TV channels, still more Gaelic road signs and more people in the lowlands will send their children to Gaelic play groups and Gaelic schools. What will we do when the numbers reach 1000?

But this is the problem with throwing public money at a problem, it means that no one actually feels responsibility for teaching their children Gaelic. Who needs to speak Gaelic to an infant when it will be able to read all the road signs, watch Dòtaman on TV and go to the Gaelic play group?

The only people who are going to be able to revive Gaelic are Gaelic speakers. It’s perfectly possible to do so if enough people want it. After all the language of contemporary Israel was not the vernacular language of most Jewish people even one hundred years ago.

But while many Scottish nationalists are touchy about Gaelic and in theory are desperately concerned that Gaelic should survive, few indeed want to speak it. While some Scots will go to a Gaelic school and others will go to an evening class almost none of these people will use Gaelic daily or even weekly. The reason for this is that there is almost nowhere in Scotland apart from the Outer Hebrides where it is possible to speak it.

If Scotland became independent, I strongly suspect that the official languages of Scotland would be Gaelic and Scots. It is possible that every Scottish child would be made to learn Gaelic, but this would have almost no affect on the number of vernacular Gaelic speakers. My mother might have married her Irish cousin and I would never have been born, but for the fact that she had to have an Irish qualification to teach there, but you’ll still only hear Irish on the streets in some tiny corners of Ireland. Force feeding Irish has failed and would fail here as well, but that wouldn’t stop us trying.

So too the latest idea of Kate Forbes to have Gaelic only villages in the Highlands has something of the Brigadoon about it. While the minister in Brigadoon wanted to keep witches out of the village and asked God for a miracle that would make it wake only one day a century from its slumber, so Kate wants to keep English out of her Highland Brigadoon. The locals could be showed off to tourists rather like a Potemkin village. They might have quaint forms of dress and archaic customs. Anyone wanting to join the village (including girlfriends and boyfriends?) would first have to pass a Gaelic language test or promise to become fluent in Gaelic (in a fixed period of time?) or else be cast out into the land of the English. Tourists might feel a bit like Harrison Ford visiting the Amish, teaching them the delights of sex and popular music.

But if you have seen the film of Brigadoon its easy to see that Kate Forbes plan wouldn’t work. Harry Beaton is dissatisfied by Katie the only pretty girl in the village marrying someone else, by only getting one day a century and not being able to go beyond the confines of the village. He tries to break out, which will doom all in Brigadoon. But the alternative if anything is worse. Brigadoon will sleep until everyone else is dead.

What also of the American visitors one of whom falls in love with Katie and wants to kiss her while they gather heather on the hill. Would they too have to pass a Gaelic test to stay in Brigadoon? Would even love for K K K Katie not be enough unless he could sing the song in Gaelic. It would be almost like being in love except the Gaelic Mafia would have to check that Katie c c c continued to speak Gaelic.

Katie is a Gaelic speaker, but how often does she speak it in her work or home life? How often did she use it in her studies? Did she ever speak Gaelic on holiday? Does she speak it daily or just sometimes? I suspect I speak Polish more often than Katie speaks Gaelic.  How many children has she taught it to? Any advance on zero?

Instead of building a Gaelic Brigadoon the best thing Katie could do is to have ten children and teach each one of them Gaelic. If one hundred Katies did just that there would be a mini Gaelic revival, but instead of taking responsibility for the problem and trying to do something to solve it we will get Brigadoon and ever more Gaelic TV shows no one watches and signs directing no one to nowhere as wherever it was fades into the mist at the end of its day.