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.