A sardonic gentleman of my acquaintance recently dismissed the phrase, ‘saoghal na Gàidhlig’ as making it sound like we live in Brigadoon.
Brigadoon was, of course, the eponymous village in a Hollywood musical, which emerged from the Scottish mist for one day every hundred years. And that, coincidentally, is about the frequency with which the Gàidhealtachd attracts the attention of the media, or the government, or the two-bit celebrity out for cheap publicity.
The filmic village was protected by the local minister’s prayer. By those terms, Brigadoon went on in peace and harmony, as long as its people kept within its boundaries, and it remained mostly unseen.
We are good, though, for a few column inches from lazy journalists. Or, no, let’s call them what they are: racist journalists.
I have seen all the counter-arguments made by my fellow Gaelic speakers. They will quote statistics, they will use scientific evidence for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, they will even travel through history to prove to a few bigots that Gaelic WAS spoken outside of the modern-day Gàidhealtachd.
And that’s all great. It really is. Make those arguments if you have the appetite for them.
But, here’s the thing, I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone, least of all a tabloid journalist, or a Lowland politician.
In a world where you can identify as a teapot, or a dog basket, or a Taiwanese figure-skater, why is my honest to goodness Gaelicness still a problem? And, more importantly, why is it allowed to be a problem?
Why are people permitted to say and write the things that they do about Gaelic?
I read a comment on social media recently, where it was suggested that the racist abuse levelled at Gaels does not signify because snide comments don’t cause a language to die.
No, but they can make people ashamed, which causes a culture, a way of life, to die – and that’s what Gaelic is to me. It is not simply a language and it certainly isn’t a cash cow, or a political football either.
It is long days in the potatoes with my parents. And it is the laughter of older folk, sharing that unique humour that only makes sense if you’ve grown up with it. Gaelic is knowing words like ‘tobhta’, not because I am seeking linguistic richness, but because, in my world, there only was one tobhta. Gaelic is the taigh fhaire chairs from the village hall, piled up at someone’s door like the sorrows that they represented, or the blessings they counted.
For me, Gaelic was long, tedious sermons in the homely setting of the Seminary and understanding the spiritual significance of ‘dà cheann-latha’. It was the kindness of the old folk – that particular keen-eyed concern. And it’s handshakes, more warmly expressed in Gaelic as ‘breith air làimh’ – ‘grasping hands’.
That, for reasons of clarity, I should add, is not grasping as in mean, as in looking for money. It is grasping as in hanging on for dear life to the things that matter.
Language, however, doesn’t matter to me at all. I don’t want Gaelic if what’s on offer is a sterile thing in a test tube: a synthetic language without a cultural context; a wild animal placed in a zoo because we have let its habitat be destroyed.
But don’t mistake me. I am not talking about Gaelic as a thing of the past – I am talking about it as something that formed me. Like my parents, my family, my home, I carry it with me. It is who I am; it is my very self.
When I worked as a development officer in Ness, I spent a lot of time applying for funding. It would have been much easier to obtain if more of the Nisich had been Welsh, or lesbian, or . . . well, just not so . . . Niseach. They were just boring old White British – no extra cash for that. But then, I thought, no, they ARE part of a minority ethnic group, and so the heck am I. Repeatedly, then,the National Lottery received forms from me with ‘Other’ ticked and, under ‘Details’: ‘crofters and speakers of Scottish Gaelic’.
That’s who we are. It is what we are. Why should we apologise? We have been doing that for centuries.
It’s time to clear the taigh-fhaire chairs from the door, and build up the walls of the tobhta. Restore. Revive.
We are an indigenous people, still occupying our ancestral lands. Despite clearance and emigration, despite famine and despite concerted policies to eradicate our way of life, we remain.
Gaelic in Edinburgh and Glasgow is all very laudable, but I tend to think of the proverb which says the bird sings sweetest where it was born.
This was never just about language. And working hard to save the language is rather missing the point, if there survives no place on earth where it is woven into the hearts of the people.
Gaelic is my father and my mother, and it is my home. When people denigrate the language, and deride our way of life, that’s what they strike at.
And all the shame is theirs.