No medium required: Gaelic is alive

When I was in primary six, our class teacher asked who among us spoke Gaelic. I regarded the unexpected question with suspicion and decided not to put my hand up. He wasn’t so daft, though, and fixed his eye on me, before asking several questions, all of which I answered fully . . . in Gaelic. There was no denying it after that. So, three out of his thirty pupils were labelled ‘native’, a category which has long since fallen into disuse because of its supposed ‘ethnic’ connotations.

Having progressed through primary school to the point where I was staring down the barrel of my penultimate year, here was someone asking me about my first language. I hadn’t thought about Gaelic as belonging in the classroom, any more than I would have welcomed the sight of my father with a deamhais in the GP’s surgery. It was a peculiarity of my home life, nothing more. And, in a house where your mother plays the bagpipes and your father insists that someone named Bodach Brùgan lives in the cavity walls . . . well, you can understand why this example of their craziness manifesting in school was unexpected to say the least.

The reason we were suddenly being asked about our fluency was with one eye on preparation for secondary school. I realised this many years later but, at the time, I merely obliged the teacher by doing as I was told.

What a funny way to realise that your mother tongue is a relevant part of your identity. Six years of education and not one mention of its existence, far less its influence on my life and, ‘next thing, suddenly, this change of mood’, as Seamus Heaney once wrote about the power of education.

Education HAS power, and as with every other tool of its kind, there is potential for misuse. Over several centuries, education was used to teach the Gaels of their inferiority. Don’t believe those who tell you that Gaelic was beaten out of the population; it wasn’t – it was taught out of us. We so equated the acquisition of English with progress, with the fabled ‘getting on’, that anything tying us to the traditional way of life was . . . well, a bit embarrassing, frankly.

As I was being asked that question by my teacher, however, a bit of an ar-a-mach was taking place in the unlikeliest of locations: Breasclete. There, for the first time, primary school children were beginning to be taught entirely in Gaelic.

And this week, the news began to filter out that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is taking the momentous step of making Gaelic the default language for new enrolments. In other words, the ‘GME’ box is pre-selected and, if your child is bound for an English education, you will have to untick ‘Gaelic’. AS Donald Dewar once said about something else entirely, ‘I like that’.

It doesn’t materially change anything. If you don’t want GME for your child, you will simply have to say so, like Gaelic speakers have done since its inception. I’m a little puzzled by the objections I have read to this small administrative change, but not remotely surprised.  We have to remember that what may be one small administrative change for the Comhairle, is one giant shift in mindset for the electorate.

See, I can’t have been the only one whose identity was largely ignored by the education system until 1985. Indeed, I know I wasn’t.

So, we struggle now to comprehend the fact that we are accepted. The perverse types among us even object to it – how dare the Comhairle make Gaelic the default choice for enrolment.  Bring back the glory days of persecution, of the maide-crochaidh, of the ignominy and shame at being labelled a ‘maw’.

Sometimes, I have to confess to that mindset myself. When Gaelic is talked about in terms of percentages, and of cost to the taxpayer, and even when its champions cite the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I just want to snatch it out of their hands and run for the hills.

For me, Gaelic is my home, my parents, the laughter at one liners no English monoglot could get. It is the distinctive clipping sound of the sheep shears, and the smell of the freshly-shorn fleece. Gaelic is psalm singing and kind-faced bodaich and cailleachan who looked at you with the sort of Christian love that your soul can feel, even if your tongue cannot name it. Lewis Gaelic for me is warmth and security and humour. This Gaelic so derided by parliamentary committees and small-minded unionists, is the umbilicus linking people like me to a place and a people we love so much it defies description . . . even with two languages at our disposal.

The time of which I write here is gone and many of the people with it, though the place remains. I cannot capture for you what Gaelic means to me because it is elusive, beautiful and fragile as a soap bubble. But I can say that Comhairle nan Eilean has finally lived up to its name with this decision to normalise Gaelicness in the heartland.

No child in Lewis – or Harris, or Uist, or Barra – should wait ten years to speak to a teacher in their first language. And now they won’t have to.

 

 

 

Storm-proof Your Heart

Lewis has been battered by gales over the past week. Even as I write this, snug in my bed, the wind is raging around the house. Up until a few years ago, I would have slept on, oblivious – but this has woken me and will not let me sleep. You see, I am the householder now, with all the responsibility that entails. If a slate goes, or a window comes in (it’s late, I’m a bit hysterical), I’ll be the one looking for a tradesman.

Yet, I cannot really claim any anxiety. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have been experiencing a period of unexpected and – it rather goes without saying – undeserved blessing.

And that also began with something of a storm.

It isn’t something I want to go into too much, because to do so might draw the wrong kind of attention. Sufficient to say that I experienced a cowardly and insidious attack on my beliefs at the end of last year, days before Christmas. Someone, masquerading as a proponent of tolerance, sought to undermine my peace and my reputation with lies. Nevertheless, while I continue to live rent-free and, indeed, Wee Free, in their troubled head, I am enjoying a tranquility that can only have one source.

Initially, and for a short time after learning of this latest onslaught, I was troubled. But, God bless that anonymous stranger, because what they intended to harm me actually brought me ever closer to the throne of grace.

See, like every Christian, I imagine, I pray not to be a conduit for evil. I don’t want to be the door by which the enemy enters the sheepfold. Every time I suffer these attacks, however, I wonder whether I am doing more harm than good. Sometimes what keeps me wakeful is not the weather outside, but the storm of doubt in my heart.

The days following this latest were no exception. Prayer was giving me no peace either way. Finally, exhausted by my own feelings, I decided to do serious business with God. I prayed in a way that I always think of as ‘putting my shoulder to the wheel’. Was I, I asked him, misguided in my attempts at witnessing. If he willed it, I told him, I would put down my pen forever. All I wanted was for him to be glorified; and this just didn’t feel like a great stride towards that aim, I said.

Of course, God doesn’t always answer immediately. He did that night, though. This is the text I got:

‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’.

And there it was. So much of him in that little verse. He was reassuring me that my liberty comes from him. Yes, he was saying, the enemy could crush you in a heartbeat, he could use you to work his will – but he is not dealing with you; he is dealing with me.

These words are precious, but I believe I already knew their truth.The gold for me was really in those first four: ‘I know your works’.

They have been the balm to my soul in the early days of 2020. If I focus upon glorifying him, then it only matters that he recognises it. Whether my witnessing has any effect is ultimately not my business anyway,  but his. After all, if I do with might what he gives my hand to do, then I am glorifying him in obedience. Results are the department of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly of no consequence that the enemy despises my work. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter that some of the brethren disapprove. What is any of that to me, if I am following him?

He, himself, was able to sleep in a boat at sea in the midst of a storm. That is, God in human form slumbered, while the God of all Creation continued to rule the universe.

When we know with all our hearts that this is the God in whom we trust, what on the earth of his making should ever steal our peace?

I have been feeding this unrivalled sense of calm with his beautiful songs of praise. Every morning of this young year, I have been reading and praying through the psalms. There is nothing, I think, in the whole of Scripture, that comes closer to painting him as he is. As surely as God spoke the world into being, these psalms sing a wonderful image of him.

He is my Father. He is my Lord. He is my hope and confidence. He is the stronghold of my life. He is my high tower. This God knows me, he knows my heart; this God knows my enemy, and yes, he knows my enemy’s heart. He is mercy, grace, love, truth, justice. From him, the Father of Lights, all these blessings – and more – flow down. This is the author of my providence, the keeper of my fate, and there are no safer, surer or better hands than these.

This year, it is my prayer that those who are blind to his beauty would have their own storm stilled. It only takes a moment in his presence to become aware of  your smallness. Yet, when that realisation comes, it is also accompanied by an awareness of his greatness.

His greatness is in his name. And his name conveys all the attributes that make him God. Rest on that, and no night will be too long, no storm too savage.

‘He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler’.

I will never stop witnessing to that.

Full Moon Fever

The moon – and particularly the full version of it – has come to feature in my life more than I might have expected. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I rather think that the Kirk Session and Balaich an Trust all get a bit hairier and a bit howlier round about this time of the month. It definitely used to be that my social media presence agitated more folk while Luna was waxing than at any other time, but that’s all quietened down as they find other ways to spend their time: sharpening sticks and piling up stones, or whatever it is trolls do when they’re not trolling. Writing letters of complaint, possibly, in the case of those who fancy themselves a bit ‘educated’.

I don’t exactly know why, but in my pre-Christmas book buying frenzy, I ordered myself a copy of the 2020 Almanac. Perhaps, on reflection,  I am spending too much time with bodaich. But, no, it has a very practical application for someone who lives in North Tolsta and needs not only to know the lunar phases, but also which herbs make a good poultice to see off the effects of the evil eye. This is the sort of old wives’ lore a person can find in an almanac.

It is, of course, from the Latin, ‘luna’, meaning ‘moon’ that we get the word ‘lunatic’. This application of the term stemmed from the belief that mental illness manifested more extremely when the moon was waxing and full. My husband used to scoff at my suggestion that it had such influence, but I’m not entirely convinced that people who grew up in the witchcraft capital of Lewis are best qualified to pronounce on what might be considered erratic behaviour.

Actually, I do believe it has a part to play. Get your green crayons out now, ready to write letters of disquiet to the Session, because I’m about to tell you my reasoning.

We know from that great and infallible god, science, that the moon has a good deal of influence on tides, on gravity and on the forces that move the world generally. People do not dispute this; it is what we lovingly call ‘a fact’.

I know from my actually great, actually infallible and definitely God that he created the moon and everything upon which it pulls. Yes, the seas, the rivers, the animals, the seasons – all of these are subject to the lunar force. An integral part of the Creation too, though, is your common or garden human being. We are not apart from it, separate from it, distinct from it; we are a piece of the entire complex jigsaw that God called into being.

Therefore, we too are governed by the forces he instituted. Including the moon.

There is a school of thought in modern society that talks a lot about going back to nature, of getting closer to the low-intensity way that our forefathers used to live. People are drawn to the idea of making things, craftsmanship and following the seasons. I know my Harris seanair certainly liked to grow his own quinoa, and my granny was the first woman in Achmore to embrace shabby chic, but this new movement goes deeper than that. It’s as if people are looking for something simpler; as if they want to shed the complication and burden that modern life has placed upon our shoulders.

Look at the Greta Thunberg phenomenon. That a young girl and, indeed, a whole generation, is traumatised by the threat of environmental apocalypse testifies to our broken-down relationship with nature.

But it speaks of something else too, as does this whole shift to downsize, to reduce your carbon footprint: it’s all a symptom of the fact that we are looking the wrong way.

What is it we’re seeking in all of this greening? Listen to what people are saying. They want the environment to be safe for their children, they want to know that the food they eat and the water they drink is unpolluted by chemicals, they want to stop losing species at a rate of knots. It is the same instinct that drives us back to our almanacs and that causes us to feel better if we predict tomorrow by looking at the moon instead of a television screen.

We know that we are responsible for the state of the environment. God gave the one part of Creation crafted in his own image stewardship of the rest – and we blew it. Indeed, we blew it so badly and so early that man had to leave the garden he was made for. Man, in his own befuddled way is now trying to find his way back.

Because we are wise in our own sight and have been since the moment that precipitated the Fall, our map for getting to Eden is one we drew ourselves. It’s a tacked-together affair, made up of environmental policy and recycling bins. We think we can save ourselves, but the reality is that what we are seeking in all of this is the Creator himself.

And yet, in our own perverse way, we are going to try every other method to fix ourselves first. I don’t need an almanac to tell you how that ends.