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We must save Gaelic before it's too late

Did you get the cruel irony that the surname of the Barcelona player, Jordi Alba, whose last gasp goal in the Nou Camp broke Celtic hearts, means “Scotland” in Gaelic? If not, that means you know even less Gaelic than me!

"Is  Albannach mi" means "I am Scottish". I looked that up. If it’s not right, I’m sure kindly Gaelic speakers will write in to correct me. The Gaelic bashers will write in anyway to tell me I'm wasting my time.

In my last blog, I regretted the replacement of Scots words by globalised Americanisms such as 'dude' and 'babe'. Two responses caught my attention. These asserted that (a) Scots is not a language and (b) Glaswegian is not a dialect of Scots.

Not a language? Oh, yeah? Well, how come I'm greeted with total stupefaction in cafes down south when I ask for a "piece ‘n’ cheese"?  Or in pubs when I ask for a ‘hawf’? And why are English sub-titles used in films shown in the USA when a Glaswegian is speaking? I think that proves my case.

Anyway, Scots is recognised by the EU as a minority language.  So, there.  It’s official!  Scots is a language. And Glaswegian is of course one of its dialects. When did ‘soft’ and ‘lilting’ become essential prerequisites of Scots?

As you can see, I like to put myself about as a champion of the Scottish language. I must admit though, when it comes to Gaelic, I’ve got previous.

When I was a young man, I put myself on the side of ‘modernity’.  Modernity?    You know, like demolishing architectural gems and replacing them with soulless glass skyscrapers. Or running a big, dirty motorway through the heart of historic Glasgow. Or building high rise flats, unfit in our climes for any living thing other than damp moss. Ah, the foolishness of youth.

When it came to music, I allied myself with the avant-garde.  You know the sort of thing. Listening to ‘Cream’ and pretending to like ‘Toad’, Ginger Baker’s 20 minute drum solo. The last thing I wanted to hear was Gaelic but somehow from time to time up would pop Calum Kennedy on the telly.  For some reason, it was always Calum. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing. It made Scotland sound a million miles away from ‘where it was at’ in music.

Move on half a century and the Gaelic singer, Julie Fowlis, outshines rock stars on Jools Holland’s ‘Late’ show and sings the theme song of a Hollywood blockbuster.
I’ve moved on too. Too late perhaps to pick up the language myself but at least to recognise what a cultural treasure it is. Not least is the wonderful music produced by the likes of Flora MacNeil, Arthur Cormack, Karen Matheson, Margaret Stewart and the sublime Kathleen MacInness, surely the Laphroaig of Gaelic singing.  Even the English translations of Sorley MacLean’s poetry make for memorable reading.  But Gaelic is much more than just music and poetry.

Gaelic was our language when Scotland emerged as a country and it was spoken by most of our people for several hundred years later. But it was persecuted when it came to be seen as a symbol of a competitor to the anglicised polity taking hold in the Lowlands. Those who hounded it even pretended it was not Scottish by referring to it as ‘the Irish’.

I still remember the discomfort I felt as a pupil hearing a teacher say that our Glaswegian made us sound ‘backward’. (She was only carrying out official policy.  In 1946, the Scottish Education Department decreed that Scots “is not the language of 'educated' people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture".)

So imagine the impact on Gaelic culture of the hundreds of years of sustained hostility to their language. We owe it to try to undo the damage.

Now there are real efforts being made to resuscitate Gaelic. But there are still massive obstacles. I remember the enormous outcry recently over the cost of proposals to extend the area covered by bilingual signposts. Well, if only I knew the Gaelic for “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”!
Extend the area? Why not have every signpost from the border northwards in Gaelic as well as English? Every institution in Scotland should promote the language. What a powerful push forward it would be if football clubs with names like Celtic and Hibernians – and all those using ‘Thistle’ –  included Gaelic in their signs and written material.  

Most important of all, every child should have the opportunity to learn the language. That means at least one teacher with the capability to teach Gaelic in every primary and secondary school.

Too expensive? Nothing would be more expensive than letting a huge part of our history and cultural inheritance just fade away.

So, Alba gu bràth, we’d all agree – but that’s not possible without a vibrant Gaelic in our culture.

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