Gael Force

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Oct 22 13:03:55 UTC 2006

>>From The Sunday Times October 22, 2006

Focus: Gael force

Hardly anyone speaks Gaelic in Scotland, yet a lot is being spent on
promoting it. Why, when its an Irish language anyway, ask Allan Brown and
Kathleen Nutt

Partick, in the west end of Glasgow, seems an unlikely outpost of the
Gaelic empire, yet this gritty working-class neighbourhood boasts an
incongruous sprinkling of mother-tongue advice centres and a train station
whose signs announce youve arrived in Partaig. The Gaelic Books Council is
here; even the cash machines offer instructions in the language. And the
hub of it all is the Lismore, a gloomy, stone-walled bar where the air
thrums to the sounds of fife and fiddle. The centrepiece is a
stained-glass window depicting evicted Highlanders glumly awaiting the
ship that will take them to the New World. It is only at second glance you
realise the ship is actually the Waverley, a paddle steamer built a
century after the Clearances ended and one singularly ill-fitted for a
voyage to Nova Scotia.

For many, the scene seems to say it all about the Gaelic lobby in
Scotland, with its blend of sentiment and emotional manipulation.
Scrutinising it, you feel a sense of bemusement equal to the one provoked
last week by the revelation that public bodies across Scotland must now
prepare to use Gaelic in their official business, even if the number of
Gaelic speakers they serve is tiny or nonexistent. The development,
similar to the Official Languages Act passed in Ireland three years ago,
is evidence that Gaelic is ready to make felt its newly acquired
legitimacy and press home the advantage provided by last years Gaelic
Language (Scotland) Act, the first piece of legislation to give Gaelic
formal recognition.

But to many its a large and decisive step in a journey thats long defied
common sense and logic, in which a language that is spoken only by a tiny,
dwindling minority has elbowed its way to the heights of Scotlands
political agenda to demand respect even from those who have never
encountered a Gaelic speaker in their lives. Long considered a zombie
language nurtured only by clannish nostalgia, Gaelic has been given
emergency resuscitation and is readying itself for an unprecedented burst
of activity. In a perpetual crisis, though, since 1616, when the
Westminster parliament decreed that Gaelic should be abolisheit and
removeit, the next 400 years saw the language dealt equal blows by the
depopulation of the islands and the Crofters Act of 1886, withering to the
point where, as one minister said in the mid-20th century, he was burying
a pew of Gaelic speakers a year. The 2001 census showed there were 58,652
Gaelic speakers in Scotland, or 1.2% of the population over three years
old. With an annual subsidy of 4.4m (6.5m) from the executive, disbursed
by the Gaelic Development Agency (GDA), or Bord na Gaidhlig, Gaelic
development strategies cost 73 (109) per speaker per year.

Put another way, the concessions Gaelic has won from broadcasters,
education bodies, public authorities and tourism chiefs in the past two
decades mean that a Gaelic activist in a cheap suit is seen but rarely
heard. Just as in Ireland, the Gaelic cause has shown a stunning aptitude
for beguiling policy makers even if support from various administrations
has done little to reverse the decline in its number of speakers. It has
been estimated that in the time it takes time it takes to teach 250 people
the language, 1,500 Gaelic speakers have died. A taste of whats to come
with the Gaelic Action Plans (GAPs) was given last March, when Caithness
council rejected a request to erect English/Gaelic road signs on the
grounds that the area contained few Gaels. Road signs again are central to
the first formal notices issued last week by the GDA, warning that public
bodies will soon be pressed to observe their obligations under the 2005

Among the first bodies to be contacted are the Scottish Arts Council,
CalMac, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Crofters Commission. This is not
about imposing Gaelic on organisations or people, says Allan Campbell,
chief executive of the GDA. It is about facilitation, not coercion. It is
about creating opportunities for Gaelic speakers and those interested in
Gaelic to use the language in as many situations as possible. The
implications were not lost on the Edinburgh city councillor Iain Whyte,
however, who has rejected calls for a Gaelic development officer and
bilingual road signs in the city. A council like Edinburgh is awash with
strategy papers and action plans about the matters that concern its
citizens and I do not think Gaelic is one of them, he says. This kind of
stuff comes down from the executive constantly; public servants are
expected to run around like headless chickens and then, in a years time,
the action plan is gathering dust on a shelf. Im not against the Gaelic
language as such, but its of minimal relevance to the people of Edinburgh.

Whytes sentiments were echoed by Brian Monteith, an independent MSP, who
pointed out that, because of the law courts, more people in Edinburgh
spoke Latin than Gaelic. Theres no practical demand in the majority of
Scotland for Gaelic and all Gaelic speakers can also speak English, he
said. The answer to the imperialism of English is not to endorse the
tyranny of Gaelic in the 21st century. The Gaels have exerted on us, quite
successfully, a particular type of historical blackmail. The orthodox
position on Gaelic, however, is perhaps articulated most classically by
Brian Wilson, a former MP and founder of Gaelics megaphone, the West
Highland Free Press newspaper.

Gaelic lives or dies according to what we do now, he says. The language
now has national status and people in areas where Gaelic is not indigenous
also wish to learn it. In North Lanarkshire, for instance, 130 children,
through parental choice, are being educated in the Gaelic medium. However
John Josephs, professor of applied sociolinguistics at the University of
Edinburgh, believes that there is a fundamental difference between Gaelic
and other revived languages such as Catalan and Welsh.

With those there was a clear combination of state help allied to a
widespread public affection for the language, he said. This isnt the case
with Gaelic. There is an extremely vocal group who support Gaelic, but
they are statistically tiny, extremely localised and the claim that the
language is central to the national identity just isnt as strong as it was
elsewhere. Also, Catalan and Welsh didnt have competing claims to national
language status, as Gaelic does from the Scots language lobby. There is
little validity in the claim that Gaelic is Scotlands rightful mother
tongue. Its essentially an Irish language imported during the 17th
century. Historically, Welsh has a better claim to be Scotlands founding
language than Gaelic has.

This hasn't prevented a deep sympathy for Gaelic permeating a ruling class
seduced by the idea that Gaelic has been suppressed by political
conspiracy and Establishment loathing. Scotlands political parties are
well-trained in paying Gaelic the necessary lip service so much so that it
seemed a matter of course for the parliament building to be fitted with
bilingual signs and for debates to be translated live into Gaelic via
headphones. As with Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are quick to
claim credit for the 3.5m (5.2m) funding package given this year to
Scotlands Gaelic college, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, on Skye. Even the Scottish
National party is lining up to pay the language its due.

The consensus across the parties except for the Scottish Conservatives,
which exercises an inherent and unconquerable disinterest in Gaelic is
that the language is a precious remnant of ancient Caledonia, and that 99%
of the Scottish population is bemused by the impatience of Gaelic
activists. Earlier this year Sir Iain Noble, a businessman, announced that
only Gaels would be employed at one of his distilleries producing a range
known as The Gaelic Whisky Collection. Far from pointing out that such a
plan might fall foul of employment and discrimination law, John Farquhar
Munro, a Highland MSP, described it as reasonable. In June Rosemary Ward,
the education manager for Bord na Gaidhlig, argued that Gaelic lessons
should be offered to all pupils north of the border.

In the same month, 72 post office vans in the Western Isles, Skye and the
Ardnamurchan peninsula were repainted to include the Gaelic, Bus a Phuist,
and the word Alba was added to the strips of Scotlands football team. A
Gaelic spellchecker was introduced for computers, while activists
complained that a translator couldn't be found to render the Harry Potter
novels in Gaelic. But the case that captures best the zealous swagger of
the Gaelic lobby is surely that of Sleat primary school on the Isle of
Skye, where a tiny community has been torn in two by parental demands that
the school become Gaelic-speaking only, and sending its English-speaking
pupils on a 30-mile round-trip along winding roads to be taught elsewhere.

Highland Council is set to announce on Wednesday that, in a compromise
certain to leave both parties dissatisfied, the school will become
all-Gaelic but with an English-speaking unit. Does the word apartheid ring
any bells in this context, asks one of the pro-English campaigners. This
split has been incredibly vicious and damaging for the community. Three
families have left the island because of it. They've been so sickened by
the entire process they say its shaken their faith in human nature.,,2091-2416393,00.html


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