Memories of youth
Many years ago, when I hadn’t enough beard to shave nor hair on my chest, a friend complained about Gaeldom being given a couple of million pounds to look after the language in publications and classroom teaching. “What a waste of money. They’re so few of them.”
Them? Intuitively I didn’t answer him for I knew his opinion was wonky. Why was an intelligent man condemning a language? I regard the abandonment of our mother (mither) tongue to have been the worst things Scots have ever done outside selling our country to the lowest bidder.
The bloody history of imperial England right up to and including this day makes explicit no nation it invaded has ever been the better for it.
We are the people
At one time Gaels inhabited most of Scotland, right down to Dumfries and Galloway. And it goes without saying the obvious, they spoke Gaelic. I hear the same whinge from right-wing quarters, and right-wing intolerants who call themselves socialists. “Gaelic road signs; what a waste.” They tell us Gaelic is not an ‘official’ language, meaning approved by the state. The answer to that is, so what? It’s an indigenous language. The Scottish Government has reinstated the status of Gaelic once and for all, and its own television service, given lip service by political parties in the past. I hope it doesn’t ghettoise itself.
The destruction of a people’s language is the first target for the colonial master. If you plan to command a nation’s resources, the wealth, and ultimately people’s thoughts begin with the deconstruction of their language.
The first rule of domination is influence of how people perceive themselves and their relationship to the world – “too poor, too small, too thick” is the current chant that could have been, and was, argued in the 18th century in various ways and ever since. The enemies of Scotland’s progress never alter their strategy nor their dogma.
Our way is the only way
It did not take Westminster long to ban Gaelic after the signing of the Treaty. Some Scots were happy with the injustice. They were ‘Irish’ Gaels, not quite one of us.
The Clearances north and south helped to spur along that tragic attenuation of our culture. Once that was underway the ability to control our culture gave our masters the means to constrain our self-definition. Yes, if our teachers and betters say we are weak and feckless we must be weak and feckless.
By the middle of the 18th century we Scots had become pretty well alienated from our own land. We moved from a mainly rural existence of communities to town dwellers. Until then we had loyalties and honour but very soon learned to adopt the English class system as the way to better one’s prospects. It took the most curious and questioning minds of the Enlightenment to activate our querulous, rebellious natures again and question who we are, but above all where we wanted to go.
We stood outside ourselves to see ourselves, just as we are doing once more in the path to the second plebiscite on our future as a nation or a colony.
Culture conditions the child to see the world in a certain way. Forced to use English we saw the world in England’s image, and for too many of us, we still do, worrying about ‘separatism’. We are anxious not to be parted from another nation’s dominant ambitions. How strange. It is not a phenomenon in other countries. There is no equivalent of, say, Italians desperate to be Swiss. Whatever we are at home as Scots we alter to please others when at work. There the language of imposition has us see the world through the culture we have adopted. Our television and radio programmes beat an alien culture into our skulls, followed by British’ films set in merry England or war times.
A world within a world
When researching the Highland Clearances for a screenplay I became aware of what we had lost. The decay and disappearance of various customs by underuse left a void where they had vanished.
One everyday practice I wanted to include in the writing of my historical work was the once universal singing of Gaelic songs during tasks that required men and women to work together and keep time with their movements. We see it retained in other cultures, particularly African and South American. We marvel at the community spirit. The nearest we get to capturing the same humanity is in marches for Scotland’s liberty.
I discovered many songs each having a marked rhythm, and not only boat songs. ‘Movement chants’ as I called them in my shorthand notes embraced boat-tasks, peat digging, reaping and other harvestings activities, grinding corn, churning butter, weaving, building cottages, all to raise spirits and keep the participants moving in unison, making repetitive labour reasonably pleasurable when shared in body and voice. How sad that we have lost that community togetherness.
These songs also served a social purpose, as they enabled people to relate specific thoughts about their communities and the subjects which were important to them. Songs sung together also generated a bond between the participants, giving a sense of attachment and of sharing experiences while toiling together.
That was then
In my earliest youth, when productive farm land spanned a mile or two between the Firth of Forth to smoky Edinburgh city, I recall milking songs amid moos in barns when I visited the Silverknowes farm for milk or eggs, and the farmer’s wife telling me the cows gave more milk when she sang an air or two to them. In today’s mechanised dairies cows are a played music over loudspeakers for the same affect.
Then there was Tam the local blacksmith and his apprentice sons bashing out red-hot horse shoes in strict beat time, the hiss and spit of the white hot metal stuck in the water trough still part of the overall rhythm. Tam was a Gaelic speaker from Uist who had abandoned his village after his wife had died in childbirth and brought his artisan iron bending skills to the big city.
Surely it is a regret that so many of us Sassenachs can’t be bothered to learn even the basics of Gaelic? To begin with we would learn so much more about our place names and their derivation. They are often far more descriptive than we realise. Take a stroll anywhere in Skye, for example, where every brae and burn has a name that you won’t find on any map.
The traveller’s tale
The Gaels are a poetic people, and it isn’t for nothing that English lexicographers are keen to tell us the best ‘Inglis’ is spoken in the Highlands where every syllable is pronounced with a sureness and sharpness, and sentence construction that’s faultless. Aye, Gaelic is a hellish language to pronounce if you’re not born to it; the slightest slip can destroy meaning.
This is from the journal of one traveller:
I asked the innkeeper’s wife what was a filabeg, and she said she didn’t know. “Och, I was never hearing of it at all.” But when I asked her husband he pointed to the kilt a drinker was wearing and said, “Part of a man’s Highland dress. That’s a philabeg. It is a small kilt”. So I scolded his wife. “You said you didn’t know what a filabeg was and it’s a kilt.” His wife rounded on me. “Of course it is the kilt. If you had said ‘pheelabeg’ I would be knowin’ at once what you wass askin’ about! I have known what a pheelabeg was ever since I wass born!”
The women were keening
I would like to be truly familiar with the grammatical aspects of the language. Time and domestic duties have beaten me, but I’m damned if I will condemn it when it exists still. Gaelic speakers see no contradiction between speaking their mother-tongue and speaking in English the rest of time. Why should we be so picky?
Why should we breed contempt for our native culture? Why speak English and nothing else? We do it because we have been taught by our colonial masters that that is the only way we can compete on equal terms with them. The Gaelic language and Gaeldom have been under attack for centuries and some of us continue the harrassment today.
When the word got around that Scotland had been sold by a few elite to ‘the De’il’ it is said women could be heard weeping and keening in villages and farms over the land, their grief so deep and profound it spoke to the heavens.
If there were only half-a-dozen golden eagles left in the wild is that a reason to allow extinction of the species?
PS: Example of a weaving song here: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/play/86963