The land, the language, the people

Last night, I dreamt I went to Mangersta again. It seemed to me I stood in a passing place leading to the village, and for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream, ‘fosgail an geata’, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spikes of the gate, I saw that the houses were empty of anyone who could understand me.

Before this vision of mine is entirely fulfilled, can’t we utter some of the forbidden words? Isn’t it past time to talk about why one of Scotland’s last indigenous communities, wrapped and bandaged though it is by legislation, has failed to be protected by any of these measures?

We have reached a point where serious academic research backs up what we have all known for some time: the Gaelic language is in crisis because the community that nurtured it is in crisis.

This is not a problem that can be solved by Gaelic agencies because, quite honestly, this isn’t a purely linguistic problem. And it’s hard to talk frankly about the real issues because people will rush to call you ‘racist’ for using vocabulary that excludes – words like ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ for example. Because the struggle has focused purely upon language acquisition for so long, they walk among us who will claim, ‘is Gàidheal mi’ just because they’ve learnt to speak Gaelic.

Well, I have news for such people: is not Gàidheal thu; is Gaelic speaker thu. There is much more to being a Gael than just speaking the language.

And there is much more to being an islander than just living here. People, sadly, are failing to recognise this, and that is contributing to the death of community. I have firsthand experience of people who bought crofts here in (yes, in) Lewis expressly for the purpose of starting a business. They, and many others like them, think that, because they have bought and paid for a parcel of land here, they have become islanders.

But, just as learning Gaelic does not make you a Gael, owning property in Lewis does not make you a Leòdhasach. And that’s okay, because – presumably – you’ve got your own cultural identity.

So, we get ourselves a culturally diverse Gàidhealtachd and everyone is agreed that this diversity is a good thing.

Except, not everyone. I don’t, for one. At this point, some of you will have decided that I’m just being racist. I’m not; I’m being realistic. We have reached a point where an indigenous people with its own language and way of life is under threat. It’s time to stop being so damned polite and right-on. And so, I am now going to launch into saying the unsayable.

We need a new approach. A complete sea-change in how things are done ought to begin with legal recognition of the indigenous people who inhabit the Western Isles. Once that status is conferred, there has to be robust support for crofting and for Gaelic. I’d like to see the Crofting Commission and Bòrd na Gàidhlig working together – they already share a building (in Inverness, for now, Rome wasn’t built in a day) anyway. One might almost say gun robh e meant.

And we have to look at land ownership legislation. Much is made of the community right to buy – but it’s largely meaningless in the nurturing of real community as long as anyone with a fat enough purse can bag a croft, regardless of background. Young local people cannot hope to compete with that, or with the other blight on our society: housing for tourism.

Tourism is low-hanging fruit for people hoping to make a fast buck, or development agencies looking for an easy ‘win’. It is used as a battering ram to foist change (Sunday opening) or to oppose development (wind farms).

‘What will visitors think’?’ is the constant refrain.

I don’t care what visitors will think. This isn’t a reservation or a living museum exhibit. We were born and brought up here and we are committed to it. But we have complacently permitted the ongoing vandalism of our way of life, and smiled politely as it is dismantled around us.

The recent publication of ‘The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community’ is a wake-up call. We need legislation that will empower the Crofting Commission and the landowning community trusts to put land the way of young islanders. Under the ‘new normal’, people like me will be at home a lot more during daylight hours. At a stroke, this providence has reduced the sad phenomenon of dormitory communities. What if we saw the economically active generation combining their main occupation – broadcasting, lecturing, weaving, graphic design or whatever – with crofting? Imagine land being worked, and villages where you see activity in the middle of the day; imagine Gaelic being spoken as the older folk pass their skills on.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I hope I’m not the only one.

I am not saying that incomers shouldn’t be welcome, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that if we really are serious about our culture, we have got to stop it being reduced to a commodity. If we don’t act now to stop the exploitation of our heritage, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the thing we’re selling no longer exists. Native islanders – and I include myself in this – have been remiss in not providing a better welcome for those who come to live among us. We consistently fail to demonstrate that there is more to places like Lewis than just scenery and much more to our culture than a few songs or scraps of tweed.

Community, like heritage, is codified in our conduct, and in our relationship, both with the place we call ‘home’ and with one another. You can’t package that up and sell it.

In the post-lockdown period, we have seen the ugly side of tourism. Not just the dirty camping phenomenon, but a disturbing attitude. All over social media, would-be visitors and those seeking to make money from them were talking about ‘rights’. The ‘rights’ of anyone who wanted to visit Lewis, for example. ‘It doesn’t belong to the islanders’ one man said, ‘and I can come if I want’.

No, it doesn’t belong to the islanders; that much is true. But we belong to the island in ways no visitor can comprehend.

As a student, I read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a beautiful book about his travels in Australia. In it, he wrote:

‘The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was’.

We are the Aboriginals: custodians of our ancestral lands, speakers of an ancient language through which we construct and comprehend the Gaelic community. It is past time for us to recognise that and to take steps to protect what has been left in our care.

It is time for our indigenous status to be formalised; it is time for everyone to recognise that these communities would be nothing without their people. And it is time for us, as a people, to recognise that we are nothing without the heritage that give us our identity.

Who Should Inherit the Wind?

This week, I have a guest blogger. He is originally from the village of Sandwick, and has strong connections to crofting and farming, with a particular interest in sheep husbandry. I decided to let him air his views on the debate over wind farm developments, just to provide a little bit of balance to my own. Hopefully he won’t bite the hand that feeds him.

His name is Mr Roy MacDonald Murray – over to him . . .

I thought the Blone understood that I would always be a Sandwick dog. After all, she’s the one who said that, when you adopt outside your own culture, it’s important to respect the adoptee’s heritage. That, I think, is why she and the late Cove allowed me to keep MacDonald as a middle name – a wee nod to my origins on Sandwick farm, before the Boss died, and I came to live in North Tolsta, of all fleeking places.

Anyway, we got on okay. The Cove wasn’t that well, but he used to buy me sausage rolls. He wanted me to restore a bit of gender balance in the house – the Blone and the two cats are all . . . well, blones.

Even when the Cove had gone too, myself and herself did okay. We kept each other sane.

Then, last March, it all changed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but the cat took a lot of pleasure in telling me. She said that the Free Church had got the Blone a seat on a Truss. Now, I may be a bit dopey, but even I know that sitting on a truss is pointless  – and I informed the cat of this. After staring at me in disdain for what seemed like an eternity, she finally suggested that I read all about the Blone’s new hobby for myself.

So, I went where all the right-thinking people of Lewis go for their information – the interweb.  And I have never read such a catalogue of betrayal in my life. Well, to be fair, I hadn’t done much reading at all up until then, apart from the odd report from the Wool Marketing Board, and the labels on my Pedigree Chum.

The Blone and her Trust (that cat really needs to work on its diction) have, apparently, sold the people of Sandwick (and other, lesser villages) down the river.

Now, I know I live with her, and I’m biased – according to one of the blogs I read, it’s actually against the law for people to be related in Lewis – but in this case, she came late to the party, when most of the betrayal had already happened. The wise people of the interweb are saying that she’s either stupid, or a liar, and I haven’t yet figured out which. ‘Both’, the cat says, but she’s very judgemental, so I’ll keep my own counsel on this one.

Either she’s been duped by the Bad Men of the Trust, or she has become One of Them. I had no idea that living in this island was quite so exciting – it’s like a Cold War thriller, but with tractors instead of submarines. It’s also very hard to work out who the Enemy is, and who the Good Guys are. The internet says the Crofters are the Good Guys, but that doesn’t make total sense.

I mean, a lot of the Bad Men of the Trust are also Crofters, but then people say the Crofters are poor, yet heroic, truaghans, so how can Crofters and Bad Men be one and the same?

I also find it a bit rich that the Blone is suddenly so interested in wind power when she’s always been very scathing about my flatulence. She says that the landlord is doing what’s best by letting the Big Developers come in. Apparently they’re French. I don’t know what the late Cove would have to say about her consorting with them; he wouldn’t buy French wine even years after the BSE crisis. The Blone would tell him not to be so racist and illogical. . . but that stuff must be okay now.

Crofters are allowed not to like the French: coming over here, putting up wind farms, taking our debt . . .

The lease was signed in Trustees’ blood, and will last till all the seas gang dry, or Scotland wins the World Cup – whichever is soonest. And the Chairman’s soul, along with that of his firstborn, also belongs to the French now too. That’s what social media says.

Anyway, the people of Sandwick (and other, lesser villages) simply want to override democracy and run the estate themselves. I’m sure the voters of North Tolsta, Gress, Back, Coll, Tong, Newmarket, Newvalley, Stornoway and most of Point, would be quite happy if we binned their votes and told them they’re now under The Crofters of The Four Townships (which I actually thought was a sequel to Lord of the Rings).

The Blone might be good to me in lots of ways, but I am unamused at what she and the Bad Men are doing to my homies in Sandwick. If they want to overthrow democracy, put themselves into a lot of debt, jeopardise the interconnector (no idea – the cat says it’s like a big extension lead, but what does she know), scupper years’ of development, against the will of the majority . . . well, that’s their right.

It’s very simple, the web says. The Crofters are good; the Trust and the French are bad. Getting stuff done free is evil; debt is virtuous – because it would be OUR debt, apparently.

I’m a black and white kind of dog (geddit?), and a loyal son of Sandwick. So, I say we just let four grazing committees take over from the Bad Men (also the Bad and/or Stupid Blone). What could possibly go wrong?

And if the whole plan does start to fall apart, maybe we can put a Truss around it, to keep things together, like before.

What did Gaelic ever do for you?

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.

Sound familiar?

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.