A Nasty Gaelic Storm Hit Scotland This Week
A Gaelic storm has been blowing around Scotland for the last week. Typically, Gaelic language revival suffers from a distinct lack of attention and interest but for several days now, Scotland’s best known indigenous language has unfortunately and undeservedly been at the heart of several different political stooshies.
Things began to heat up on August 31st when SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh tweeted a photograph of herself sitting in a shiny Scottish police helicopter that has recently been re-branded on one side in Scottish Gaelic. Ms. Ahmed-Sheikh is a member of the SNP 56, the spunky MPs that Scotland sent to Westminster for the 2015 UK Parliament. She has been outspoken on several issues while in London, as have many of her SNP colleagues, and thus she has become somewhat of a lightning rod for news coverage and opposition comments. Plus, the Scottish police themselves have been at the heart of controversy lately for a range of alleged failures and wrong-doing.
In a memorable case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the Gaelic language was assaulted along side the politician and the police. Unfortunately and unfairly, the language may have taken the hardest toll. Several professional and amateur commentators ridiculed and marginalized the Gaelic language in an attempt to expose poor leadership and politically biased decisions of the SNP led government. The Gaelic helicopter was labeled a “vanity project paint job” not worthy of taxpayer funds by one twitter commentator. Another wrote “at least the 1% of Scots criminals who speak Gaelic will be worried when the cops are after them.”
From helicopters the critique grew nastier that very evening as it expanded to bilingual road signs. A fairly offensive anti-SNP website posted a meme attacking the Scottish government’s strong commitment to bilingual road signs (Gaelic/English). Despite the fact that the figures quoted in the meme were monumentally inaccurate, when a few media sources picked it up and the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives re-tweeted it the political fitball game was on again.
On August 31st, anti-SNP political sources and a very feisty media launched a critique based around an alleged expenditure of 26 million pounds earmarked for adding Gaelic language to Scotland’s road signs even (gasp) outside of the Highlands and Islands. In fact, the figure was 2 million pounds and as it turns out the Gaelic element of Scottish road signs is expense neutral, not costing the taxpayer any additional costs. Despite the basic inaccuracy of the critique, the core message of the attack deserves attention from supporters of Gaelic revival.
The message of both of these attacks was that Gaelic should be recognized as nothing more than a “hobby language” which, in all likelihood (and with any luck), will be extinct by the middle of this century and thus, is not fit for significant public support. The point was to make the SNP led Scottish government look bad because it is spending money on something that is actually bad for Scotland and futile to boot. In doing so (or trying really hard to do so) a disturbing and ignorant dislike verging on hatred of Gaelic culture and heritage revealed itself. Then it got worse.
Scotland sports a very lively online political blogosphere and one of the most successful bloggers and websites on the pro-independence side is called “Wings Over Scotland”. Wings stakes out the opposite side of the political spectrum from those who were using the Gaelic language to bludgeon the SNP at the end of August. On September 1, 2015 Wings Over Scotland bit back at the Scottish media and Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw exposing the gross inaccuracy of their allegations of public expenditure on Gaelic road signs and their duplicitous hot and cold positions on public support for Gaelic language and cultural revival over time. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Wings also ripped into Gaelic language and culture in an even more aggressive and less informed blinkered Anglo-centric tirade than even the anti-Gaelic helicopter and road sign people had put together.
To begin, Wings titled its tirade “The lesser of two stupids” (Gaelic revitalization being one of those) and opened with the sentiment, “Let’s start off by losing some more friends.” Apparently Wings Over Scotland got up on the wrong side of the bed on September 1. It is well worth quoting the following few paragraphs in their full angry, arrogant, imperial and uninformed glory:
“This site has no time for the Gaelic lobby. The obsolete language spoken by just 0.9% of Scotland’s population might be part of the nation’s “cultural heritage”, but so were burning witches and replacing Highlanders with sheep and we don’t do those any more either.
Being multilingual is an excellent thing, but the significant amount of time and effort taken to learn a literally-pointless second language) because everyone you can talk to in Gaelic already understood English) would be vastly better directed to picking up on that was actually of some use, and every extra fraction of a second spent scanning a road sign trying to find the bit you can read is a fraction of a second spent with your eyes off the road.
Non-primary native languages are a tool whose main utility in practice is at best the exclusion of outsiders and at worst an expression of dodgy blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism. They’re a barrier to communication and an irritation to the vast majority of the population, who are made to feel like uncultured aliens in their own land.”
And because Wings’ political opponents are even worse than the horrors of living with Gaelic, Wings then launched off on an attack on the anti-Gaelic crowd as mentioned above. It’s all a little crazy.
Of course this is not the first time – or likely the last – that we’ve heard the idea that Gaelic is simply not worth the effort of support voiced in a fairly urgent and aggressive manner in Scotland. Back in 2013 Conservative writer Allan Massie gave Gaelic-bashing a good go. David Mitchell is a Scottish comedian but for some reason he gets deadly serious when it comes to the evil potential of the Gaelic language. The revulsion that some in Scotland have for their nation’s oldest living indigenous language and culture is surprising and has not been fully explained. Occasionally it causes me to believe that our ancestors who left Scotland actually had it right.
It is surprising how insular and sheltered the Scottish conversation regarding the Gaelic language actually is. The history and broad contribution of the Gaelic language and culture across Scotland appear to be not well known and the discussion is generally conducted from a position of British colonial imperialism even by those like Wings Over Scotland that like to consider themselves anti-imperial, progressive and open minded. Wings suggests that Gaels who are interested in reclaiming the language and culture that were forcibly torn away from them by an invading imperial power are an imposition to Wings and others of that invading imperial power who remain. That sentiment is simply ignorant and backward and deserves no further attention.
Astoundingly, these Gaelic critics may never have thought about the fact that minority language and cultural revitalization, re-invigoration and even reclamation of “sleeping beauty” languages that have lost all native speakers are part of a growing global movement that is actually picking up speed and in many cases flourishing outside of Scotland. First Nation languages in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, India and elsewhere are actively reclaiming “dead” languages and revitalizing severely endangered languages and those native cultures are beginning to flower in new and very positive ways. And it results in positive impact to the majority culture as well. Understanding cultural identity by learning indigenous language typically creates greater self esteem, pride and a decline in anti-social behavior in members of that culture. It is almost universally a good thing, although it is not always recognized as such by recalcitrant majority cultures.
Perhaps the most successful language reclamation project is now the primary language of private and public life in the state of Israel. The Hebrew language had its beginnings around the 13th century B.C.. Following a gradual decline Hebrew ceased to be spoken by the 2nd century A.D. For the next 1,750 years, spoken Hebrew was a “sleeping beauty” language – dead or extinct – it was no one’s mother tongue. At the end of the 19th century the Hebrew diaspora began the reclamation and revitalization of their ancient but extinct mother tongue. Today there are over 14 million Hebrew or Israeli speakers and the language is now one of two official languages in Israel, the other being Arabic.
Hebrew linguist and language revivalist Ghil’ad Zuckermann has commented that “[d]uring the past century, Israeli has become the primary mode of communication in all domains of public and private life among Israeli Jews. By now the Israeli language is probably the most important common element that still binds Israeli Jews together.” That is what ancestral language and culture do – they bring people together.
There is no question that the greatest beneficiaries of indigenous language revitalization are the language owners themselves. In Scotland, Gaelic was spoken almost everywhere until roughly the 13th and 14th centuries when it began to decline in the shadow of a rapidly spreading new Scots language and the pressure of French Norman institutions and cultural tradition. That means that if native Scots chose to be receptive, almost every Scot with native roots to his or her country could participate and benefit in Gaelic revitalization. By reestablishing connection with their ancestral lands, ancestral tongue and way of life language learners create a stronger sense of belonging, identity, self worth, and well being.
Writers like Wings Over Scotland are very proud of Scotland’s global multi cultural modern identity and they are therefore deathly afraid of the rise of ethnic nationalism in Scotland and that fear is evident in their anti Gaelic and even anti heritage writing. Yet in reality, the British imposed Scottish status quo which strips native identity and culture from Scots but allows it for immigrants to Scotland is the most corrosive and divisive societal structure possible. Instead of shirking and mocking their ancestral heritage, modern Scots should try to embrace and develop it. Learning the joy and satisfaction that comes with a better connection to ones own past is the very best way to assure broader and deeper tolerance for other cultures and traditions. When Scotland shuts that opportunity down for its own natives it condemns them to a parochial angry future.
Works that way in America too.