Inbhe Ar Cànain – Should Socialists be Concerned about Gaelic?

johnmortonJohn Morton, a member of Mid Fife & Glenrothes CLP and Fife Co-op Party, argues that part of local devolution is the promotion and support of Gaelic.


It is often stated that, for instance, money is being “wasted on Gaelic” when it could be used for “better” things. The fact that Gaelic is a uniquely “Scottish” thing has led many to associate it with nationalism and such like – in spite of the fact that very few of us actually have any significant knowledge of the language, let alone use it regularly as a means of communication.

The traditional view was that Gaelic was brought to Scotland by invading Ulsterfolk around the fifth or sixth century AD. However, recent archæology suggests that a common culture existed in Argyll and Antrim before the Roman conquest of Britain, and that that culture was significantly different from that found, for instance, in Strathclyde.

It is thus likely that Scottish Gaelic – or its ancestor – was already in use amongst the “Epidii” (a tribe Ptolemy places in Kintyre: Ptolemy’s sources were mainly Britons from Strathclyde and the name loosely means “horse people” in Brythonic, though the modern Gaelic nickname for somebody from Kintyre is “Each” – “horse”) in Roman times.

Gaelic spread throughout Scotland between the 6th and 10th centuries, largely because it was both the language of the church and the state. The only areas with no evidence of Gaelic are around Eyemouth and the Nothern Isles. However, it’s unlikely that Gaelic completely supplanted what was there before – just as a millennium of having an English-based church and state in Scotland hasn’t quite done for Gaelic yet.

But Gaelic declined from the 11th century on, first in the already largely English-speaking Lowlands, then up the east coast and somewhat later into the Highlands and Islands. Gaelic is currently spoken by about 1% of the Scottish population, still being the majority language – just – in the Outer Hebrides.

Gaelic maintained a cultural stronghold for many centuries with the Lordship of the Isles, a sort of sub-state that at times threatened the power of the Scottish state itself. For these reasons, James VI moved against it and got rid of it, culminating in Reachdan Idhe, the Statutes of Iona (1609), which included the stipulation that all noble children were to be educated in English. In the wake of this, the “chieftain” system came to the fore – although now all the cinn-cinnidh could speak fluent English.

But the main factor that did for Gaelic in the Highlands was economic – the Clearances. The land-owners, both traditional clan chiefs and incoming nouveaux-riches, could get much more profit from sheep and shooting than from cattle and subsistence, so the land was cleared – often forcibly. So now we have a Highlands whose every corrie speaks to us in Gaelic – but with nobody there to actually speak it.

It’s clear that the current parlous state of Gaelic was brought about by unbridled capitalism. And, to an extent, this is still happening. It’s not the forced evictions these days, but the lack of job opportunity in “remote areas” that feeds the continued depopulation of the parts of Scotland where Gaelic is still a significant community language. Meanwhile, we are all aware of the massive overheating of London – and, indeed, of Edinburgh – with their ridiculous house prices and clogged arteries.

One must ask why our economy is so “centralising” – especially when very little of any real value is actually produced in centres like London and Edinburgh. It’s maybe time to consider devolution in the local and economic sense rather than in the national and political sense.

And one – admittedly small – part of this is the promotion of “remote areas” as sustainable economic units. A part of this promotion involves a normalisation of “remote ways” – for instance, the expectation that those dealing with people in a predominantly Gaelic-speaking area should actually be able to communicate in that language.

In every school in Scotland a pupil can learn English and at least one foreign language. Every Scottish local authority provides this. But only a very few provide any schooling whatsoever in Gaelic: CnES (as one would expect), Highland, Perth, Aberdeen, Argyll, Glasgow, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire and Stirling – I think that’s it. This limits the career choices open to children from, e.g., Fife or Ayrshire: every Scottish local authority should have at least one primary and secondary school where Gaelic can be studied.

This is not some silly flag-waving exercise or pandering to some ill-thought-out tribal emotion. This is about respect for our communities – all of them – and giving our children the best start in life we can.

When we came back to the glen
The winter was coming
Our goods lay in the snow
And our houses were burnin’
I will go, I will go…

Related Posts

One thought on “Inbhe Ar Cànain – Should Socialists be Concerned about Gaelic?

  1. There are sensible purposes to Gaelic and not sensible ones. Above all, the sensible ones relate to areas where Gaelic has been spoken continuously.

    On the other hand, not sensible puposes include bilingual roadsigns, like those in Argyll that read “Glaschu A83” – are there really monolingual Gaels who need this to get to Glasgow? And how will they fare when they get there? And why bother contriving a Gaelic translation for Helensburgh, which founded and built under that name? Likewise with bilingual railway stations signs for places which have never had Gaelic names? What is the point?

    There is also a more significant danger, if we look at the experience of South Wales, which has been monolingually anglophone for centuries. Its people are increasingly under pressure to learn Welsh, which they resent and regard as an alien imposition from North Wales. (By the way, my grandparents lived on the Heads of the Valleys – when you went in a shop or pub speaking English, the locals would switch to Welsh.) Many South Welsh parents believe that resources spent on Welsh language teaching is the cause of under-achievement in mainstream subjects. The same is likely in those parts of Scotland where Gaelic has never been spoken and those where it died out centuries ago.

    So possibly the best way to treat Gaelic outside Gaelic areas is to leave it to the local authority to decide on its place in the curriculum. Likewise if they choose to spend on signage etc., and they can account to their local population for not spending it on other services.

Comments are closed.