HE had a saltire pin on his lapel, St Andrew's crosses all over his tie and a giant Scottish flag logo behind his shoulder.

Alex Salmond has never worn his nationality lightly. And he certainly did not do so when he launched his new party a week ago today.

And so, draped in white and blue, he stood behind a lectern and announced, over a shonky internet broadcast, the name of his party: Alba, the Gaelic for Scotland.

Except he did not. Mr Salmond, a politician who for decades has tried to make his country his brand, mispronounced the word, missing an entire syllable out. Al-ba, he said. Not al-a-buh.

As he spoke Scotland’s Gaelic speakers collectively winced. This, after all, was a remarkable sight and sound: a nationalist who could not say the name of his nation, a partisan who could not say the name of his party.

READ MORE: Why do so many Scots cringe when they see the language of their neighbours written down?

Salmond fans – and he still has them – rallied to the rescue. Pulling their hero up on his pronunciation was nitpicking, they said on social media. Trivial, even. Move on.

And they have a point. It was, after all, just one gaffe. By the time he appeared on evening news shows, Mr Salmond seemed to have learned a bit of Gaelic and was adding the missing middle vowel.


Alex Salmond and the Alba party

Yet I think this episode will have resonance. Why? Because some of us have developed unhealthy and overtly politicised attitudes to Gaelic and the just one in 100 Scots who speak the language.

For many, Gaelic has long served as a symbol of Scottish distinctiveness, a small but defining difference between this country and the others with which we share an island.

In a political culture polarised around the constitution that presents problems. Some Scottish nationalists – usually anglophones – have tried to hijack the tongue. Some British nationalists – especially a new aggressive breed of loyalists – have tried to diminish Gaelic and ‘other’ its speakers.

Some Gaels are getting tired of this. They are starting to speak up.

Lana Pheutan is one to do so. The TV presenter and actor, originally from Skye, has been thinking a lot about how she feels about Mr Salmond’s “Alba”. She has come to a conclusion: “I’m uncomfortable,” she said.

She has seen Gaelic used like this before, in branding, in marketing, by people who she says don’t “bother” to learn the pronunciation. It is as if, she suggests, they think the language is dead and they can say its words however they want.

“I think it is a lack of respect,” Ms Pheutan said “It discredits the language, which is something that is living and breathing. They don’t value pronunciation as important. There is a correct way to say Gaelic words. It is not up for interpretation.”


Gaelic schools have been a success

When Salmond stood up and said Al-Ba, he was taking a word, taking a part of a culture, something that was not his, and then distorting and using it for personal gain. He does not own Gaelic. Around the world there is a name for this: cultural appropriation.

Is that what is happening here? Ms Pheutan thinks so. But not all Gaels agree.

“It is difficult," she said. “Gaels are not people who want to cause a fuss. You don’t want to say ‘this is cultural appropriation’ when you see other minority communities who have it so much worse. It is such a complex issue. I personally think that – as mild as it is – it is a form of cultural appropriation.”

Ms Pheutan asked her friends on Instagram what they thought. One stressed Scots often butcher other languages, but added that the power dynamics between anglophone Scots and Gaels were such that mis-saying the name of a political party called Alba was “definitely problematic.” Another said his or her “blood boiled”. But not everybody’s irritation translated in to a claim of cultural appropriation. Some even hoped there might be something to be gained by having a discussion about “Alba”.

Mr Salmond is by far Scotland’s least popular politician. He polls below Boris Johnson. His reputation – even after his acquittal on sex crime charges – could barely be lower. His day job is working for the main international mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who has been accused of undermining local indigenous languages.


Gaelic signs predate the SNP

Has Mr Salmond’s toxic image coloured responses to his boorish mispronunciation?

“Would we be equally as annoyed if Sturgeon said it?” Ms Pheutan asked herself. “There would still be outrage but maybe because of what is going on in the political world, folk are quicker to attack. Gaelic gets a lot of negative attention and it could be difficult if it was tied to somebody who was not very popular at the moment.”

Much of the negative attention Gaelic gets stems from the more zealous online opponents of independence, some of whom see the language as a proxy for constitutional politics. Some “cyberyoons” attacking Gaels and Gaelic are straight out of central casting for the European populist far-right.

Will Mr Salmond’s Alba be seen by these extremists as a pretext to abuse Gaels?

“The language has been politicised but not by those who are speaking it,” said Ms Pheutan. “It has been seen as this as part of Scottish identity that is merely to make us more different to London, to England, to Westminster. That isn’t the case.”

There is an irony too with Salmond and his Alba party. When he was first minister he did little to nothing new to support Gaelic and its speakers.

All the policies now triggering anti-Gaelic bigots – the cost-free bits of Gaelic on road signs or the transfers on cop cars – date from before the SNP came to power.

READ MORE: Does speaking Scots make you more likely to support independence?

Even Gaelic schools – a rare proclaimed success in Scottish education, with their excellent results in English – were initially developed by unionist councils. It was Tony Blair’s UK government – not Mr Salmond or even Ms Sturgeon – who secured international recognition for Gaelic and Scots.

“If you are going to take your name from a Gaelic word,” asked Ms Pheutan, "what are your Gaelic policies?”

Alba’s website does not offer any clues. It has nothing to say about Gaelic. And it has nothing to say in Gaelic. The only word it uses in the language is its name.

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