I DON’T SPEAK a word of Gaelic. That, in and of itself, may, to some readers, disqualify me automatically from having a valid opinion on the debate currently on the subject of the language.
In fact, if the conversation was limited entirely to the ‘pub at shutting time’ arena of Scottish political Twitter I might have agreed and used my lack of experience as an excuse to recuse myself from writing here. However, when the language breaks out of the online sphere and appears on road signs, police cars, ambulances, the Scottish Parliament, and all the other places that it does – and causes a heated debate – I feel obligated to do my best, in that fine liberal tradition, to add some light and maybe turn down the heat a little. If such a task is possible.
Gaelic is an issue in Scotland, that much is certain. There has been copious spending and legislation over the last forty years and there’s a Scottish Government action plan on it. Typically, as a cultural marker it is seemingly obligated to be divided neatly along the usual, tired, boring constitutional lines. In this case, unsurprising, the most trenchant advocates for it seem to draw, largely, but not entirely, from the pro-independence side, led by The National newspaper, while its most vociferous detractors and critics can reliably be found with profiles festooned with union flags.
So far, so Scottish politics… Add in the frisson that an emotive, sensitive, and personal issue like the language one speaks inevitably provokes people and you’ve got the perfect conditions for a scuffle.
Inevitably the issue is complicated and so it is difficult to know where to begin when trying to avoid the self-interest cacophony and arrive at something that resembles a reasonable, satisfactory, and nuanced conclusion. But I’ve never been a columnist afraid of such a things, so here goes…
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that Gaelic matters. Already, some more ardent unionists may be turned-off by this and will doubtlessly be arming themselves with claims of it being a “dying language”, whatever that means, spoken only by a smattering of people in small and isolated communities in very specific parts of Scotland. I disagree.
In a country of five million people, VisitScotland’s estimate of some 60,000 Gaelic speakers, is a not inconsiderable group and is larger than many of the other cohorts whose causes are given well-deserved consideration. Ranking these groups, as some are prone to do, is largely an exercise in portraying one’s own priorities, motivated by whatever they may be, and does not provide a useful basis from which to create a pamphlet, never mind anything resembling public policy.
The issue with Gaelic, however, and the main reason behind why a consensus isn’t anywhere close to being reached, comes back to the same divisions that run through almost all of Scottish politics. The language (which even the late great Christopher Hitchens lamented his illiteracy in, owing to its wealth of remarkable poetry and literature) has been turned into a wedge issue by political actors who, to put it as politely as possible, have the welfare and continued existence of Gaelic pretty far down their list of priorities, as far as I can tell. Some on the pro-independence side cynically deploy it as a way to make unionists seem cruel, callous, uncaring, or desirous of a cultural uniformity that no reasonable or compassionate person would or should want, without really appearing to care much about the language itself.
Meanwhile, on the other side, some pro-UK folks dismiss Gaelic out of hand in a way intended to reinforce the least flattering stereotypes held about nationalists – that they are obsessed with identity and not the hard graft of politics or simply that they live in a world of micro-issues so niche that they should not be allowed a hand on Scotland’s tiller.
Both approaches are completely wrong; morally, factually, and politically.
As with most wedge issues, the solution is completely clear and obvious and is only blocked by the two competing sides finding more use for the subject as a weapon. I stop short of accusing them of bad faith, such a claim would need a more robust proof of argument, but I am willing to say that there are ulterior motives at play.
It is entirely possible that a reasonable amount of public money ought to go to the learning, teaching, and preservation of Scots Gaelic and it is equally possible, and practical, to acknowledge that there will be some limits on the utility derived from doing so and that there may, in difficult economic times, be a case for those resources to be used for more pressing issues – schools, hospitals, the police and so on. The point is that it is not a zero-sum game – but it is approaching the subject as if it is that is preventing any real progress being made or lasting consensus reached.
As has become irritatingly familiar in Scottish public life, what many of us are arguing about isn’t really ‘what we’re arguing about’.
Remove the need for two constitutional sides to be taken on any one specific issue and the drama, hostility, and fracas surrounding the Gaelic language disappears. There are, of course, other complexities to consider but they are in the detail and minutia rather than the overall principle.
For instance, is it right to protect a language rather than allowing the natural flow of usage, spread, and development to take its course? Should any one tongue be favoured over another in a multi-lingual country such as ours purely for historical or cultural reasons, if so why? Who should take custody of the language, those who speak it or those who feel it has value in and of itself and therefore speak on its behalf, albeit usually in English?
All these complex, debatable, but ultimately resolvable issues are blocked by the incessant habit of approaching every issue through a constitutional lens and with the spectres of party politics and referendums constantly haunting the feast. If we can bust those ghosts, then maybe we’ve got a shot at a resolution but for as long as there are those who make their capital, political or otherwise, from the ghosts’ existence, our own Rays, Egons, Peters, and Winstons will be kept outside in the lobby while they argue with the snooty hotelier.
Ultimately to me, it doesn’t really matter in a personal context. I’m an English speaker in a country that overwhelmingly speaks English. It’s not of too much importance whether the big, white, vroom-vroom box on wheels says “ambulance” or “ambaileans” on it – if it’s got the blue flashing lights, contains paramedics, and takes me to the hospital; I can be pretty sure that I’m not in an Uber.
Personally, I’m more concerned with what’s going on in the hospitals, schools and police stations than which language the people working there use to talk to one another. However, it clearly matters to someone, in fact quite a few someones, and is therefore worth discussing. But while our politics remains in the reductive, absolutist, and childish state of development that it has been arrested in for many years, the discussion will continue to be, like a broken pencil – pointless.
Photo of a new Aberdeen railway station sign by The Dark Knight from Shutterstock. Aberdeen is believed to have been founded as a Pictish settlement with the name originating from their Brythonic language.