Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Why is an Englishman learning Scottish Gaelic?

'What on earth are you doing that for?' is normally the first question I get asked when I mention I'm studying Scottish Gaelic.

Deagh cheist (good question) as they'd say in Gaelic. After all, I am from Dover. I still spend most of my time near my family in Dover. I have a day job in London. I have absolutely no Scottish Heritage whatsover, at least not since as far back as the mid-1850s, which is as far back as my family tree goes. Apparently there was a bit of a to-do and a hoo-ha with the housekeeper masquerading as a wife or something, so it all went a bit fuzzy and unaccountable. We forget that everything that goes on today went on then. It was just looked upon differently and covered up (for better or for worse) as much as possible.

So no. No Celtic blood in these veins whatsoever. Cut me open and you'll get chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, not peat from the Isle of Lewis.



I love, absolutely love, the Outer Hebrides. In fact, I love the whole of the Highlands and Islands, but especially the Western Isles. Without going into too much detail, I find a sense of peace and 'groundedness' in the Outer Hebrides that I fail to find elsewhere in the world. It really is 'my' special place. The landscape of the Highlands and Islands speaks Gaelic. Not just the signs and the place names, but the hills and the beaches. Learning Gaelic while continuing to live and work Down South provides me with a daily tenable link with the place I dearly love.


Everyone mentions this one. Gaelic culture is jaw-droppingly rich. The language, music, traditions, and stories are like an eternal onion; you can just keep peeling off layers and layers and finding a new one underneath. Unlike the uncultured yoof of the mainstream UK who adopt Vacant Consumerism as a way of living and have absolutely no clue where they come from, younger Gaels all seem to share an intense bond with their roots, their history, and their heritage. As a result of this, I never cease to be amazed at how many incredibly talented young people there are in the West of Scotland, and how few genuinely talented people there are elsewhere in the country. The energy and vibrancy of the Gaelic culture is something I simply cannot get enough of.


Unlike most popular languages learned in the UK (eg French, German, Spanish), Gaelic is a Celtic language and not a Romance language. It is totally and utterly different. This difference, and the difficulites it often presents, only serves to act as an incentive to 'keep going' on those all-too-familiar 'Bad Gaelic Days' when nothing ever seems to come out right. Now and again you'll hit on something that makes you explode with that 'Eureka!' feeling before suddenly realising you've become a language geek. For example: 'That is good' in Gaelic is: 'Is math, sin'. That's pronounced: ' 's-mar-shin'. Say it out loud....Smashing! That's why something that is 'smashing' in English is good. Ooh, dab me down with a damp flannel.


It makes my heart bleed to see people move to new places and set up an insular version of their own culture. Think of all those 'Brits Abroad' enclaves in Spain. Think 'Sonnenland', the German town in Gran Canaria. And yes, there are mainlanders and English folk who move to beautiful parts of the Gàidhealtachd and Islands then impose their unsuitable ways on the local traditions and landscape. Call me an ill-informed arrogant self-important twit, but if I'm going to move to the Hebrides - and one day I really hope I will - then to me it is important to learn the local traditions and culture. Even if I remain a perpetual tourist, my enjoyment and understanding will always be far more profound than had I not lifted the lid on the culture and language that the everyday obvious stuff on the surface sometimes conceals.


As I progress with my journey into Gaelic, 'acceptance' is becoming less and less of a motive. At first, I thought that anyone who spoke Gaelic would be treated and welcomed like a Gael. Two years down the line, I've come to accept that this is a culture that you cannot just learn a few phrases and barge your way into. Gaelic holds no place for Gatecrashers. That said, I've recently found a new group of people that welcome me with open arms. Those people are the 20,000 strong community of Gaelic Learners. The vast majority will always be standing on the sidelines of 'real' Gaelic life, but we find comfort and joy in each other's company.


Let's face it, mainly thanks to the arrogant mistakes of the past, Gaelic a language teetering on the brink of dying out. Initiatives over the past 30-odd years are still working hard to stem that decline and start the number of speakers growing again. To lose Gaelic, and everything it holds, would be an absolute tragedy. By doing my little bit, it's helping keep the language afloat until such time its strong enough to really flourish yet again. It took generations to reduce Gaelic to where it is today, so it will take generations to get it back to a mainstream level. But, as the saying goes, Every Little Helps. 


What about the reaction of others?

This has surprised me, massively. The main reactions I've had from people when I say I'm learning Gaelic have been:

Passionate enthusiasm

There, you might not have expected one or two of those, eh?


This is the main reaction I get from fellow English people. Many of them don't even know what Gaelic is. They generally think that my learning it is a good thing and can only broaden my experience of life. But... well, it's just a bit bonkers, really, isn't it?
'There there, dear.'


This is one reaction I've had from many native Gaelic-speakers. This is a whole open-ended story in itself which will hopefully merit its own blog entry. When first attempting to speak Gaelic with native-speakers that I didn't know, I was slightly taken aback by their silence and weak smiles. It took a while for me to learn that this was not rudeness in any way whatsoever, but a sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. Put it another way...imagine you've spoken a separate 'special' language with only your nearest and dearest for your entire life, and you use a 'formal' language for everyday business with the rest of the world. How would you feel one day if someone from that 'Outside' world spoke to you in your 'special' language for the first time, uninvited?


This is the reaction that builds and builds. It mainly comes from people who have, or did have, even the most tenuous link with the promotion of Gaelic. You also get the same reaction from most Learners who are pleased to find another soulmate who 'understands' their struggles and triumphs. These are the people who make it all worthwhile, and these are the people you need to be hanging out with.


This is the saddest reaction of all, but thankfully the most rare, but you need to prepare yourself for it. So far, every instance I know of hostility (towards my own learning or that of my peers) has come from somebody Scottish. This has ranged from Gaelic speakers in Lewis and Glasgow to non-Gaelic speakers throughout Scotland. The Gaelic-speaking 'Hostiles' would rather see the language die than be modernised into a teachable form and taught in a formal way. Or, possibly, there is an objection to me, a Sassanach, being privy to their language and culture. I'm pleased to say that the latter has happened only once or twice over two years. Every barrel contains a narrow-minded rotten apple or two. There is also hostility from people outwith the Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland. They see Gaelic as a waste of public money. I image these are the kind of people who see a railway or a bus company as needing to generate profit as a stand-alone company. The truth of the matter is, Gaelic (just like railways and buses) generates income from tenuous connections, maybe not as a direct result of anything. Just imagine if the trains stopped running in Scotland. Commuters and visitors wouldn't easily be able to get to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Businesses and tourists would go to London or Manchester instead, taking their money with them. Same with Gaelic. I dread to think how much money I've pumped into the Scottish economy since that first trip to the Hebrides in 2009, and it's Gaelic that keeps me coming back and injecting more money, be it on tuition fees or on cake. Gaelic helps give Scotland its unique identity which keeps it a top tourist destination in the world, as well as a centre for learning and culture.

So there you have it: the Whys, Wherefores, and the Ups and Downs of the journey into Gaelic. It's like standing at the front of a CalMac Ferry during a rough crossing. You may have to hang on tight and brave the wind and waves, but it's an experience that makes you feel alive and it's a journey you'll never forget.

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