Stupid bloody Gaelic! No one speaks it anyway, and no one ever did. Probably. The familiar refrain of the Scottish cringe, which rears its ugly head pretty much any time anyone wants to spend any money on anything related to our national heritage. It was ever thus, but its become more and more entangled with Scotland’s constitutional status since last year, and the cringe has become something of a badge of honour amongst those who inhabit the darker side of Scottish unionism.
Lets lay to one side the issue of whether anyone outwith the Highlands ever spoke Gaelic (they did by the way), or whether there are any native speakers left (there are by the way). Sufficed to say that most of what passes for established fact regarding the irrelevance of Gaelic, is a nonsense.
I’ve never seen those critics of our native language, getting up in arms about – say – public funding for schools who teach Latin, or ancient Greek for that matter. But then neither of those “dead” languages have any impact on Scotland’s cultural status I suppose.
I can hear my detractors screaming at their screens though: “but no one’s proposing putting Latin on our road signs!” Well, no. But unlike Latin, Gaelic is still a living, breathing language (as anyone who’s shared a cigarette with John MacInnes outside the Royal Oak knows only too well). If you’ve ever ventured further north than the Green Welly Stop, you’ll find there’s a lot more to Scotland than the central belt – and just because less people live there, doesn’t make it any less important.
According to the last census, just 1.1% of the population speak Gaelic, but that’s still well over 57,000 people! Are we really saying that their language should have no place outside of the north west highlands? Isn’t Scotland for everyone who lives here?
It’s about more than that though. Of course the vast majority of Gaelic speakers also speak English; no one is going to get lost on the road to Balerno due of a lack of Gaelic signage. It fulfils a historic purpose though, and one might even argue (in fact I am) that it fulfils an artistic purpose too.
Every time I see a signpost with Gaelic translations I am reminded of how little I know about the country of my birth. I’m reminded of the thousands of years of history attached to all those places we bumble in and out of every day, I’m reminded of the cultures that have come together to make Scotland what it is today (of which the Gaels are one of many). But most important of all, I’m reminded that there’s far more to Scotland than just the central belt.
The real beef that the anti-Gaelic brigade have with these proposed signposts of course, is the cost. Anything from £2-million to £60-billion they’ll cry indignantly! They’re entirely made up figures though, as roadsigns need to be replaced and updated anyway, so the Gaelic translations will be getting worked in with the next round (which works out at anywhere between zero and whatever-road-signs-cost-anyway).
Regardless of all that, even if it did cost a fortune, even if it was all a pointless waste of time, that still wouldn’t be an argument to keep doing down Gaelic. Surely we measure our happiness not by our ability to spend time and money on essential things – but rather, nonessential things?
Art is entirely nonessential, but it’s what we spend our disposable income on. Whether it’s a production of Swan Lake or an episode of Strictly Come Dancing; a Crosby, Stills and Nash reunion or a One Direction concert; all are utterly pointless on the grand scheme of things, but by the same token they represent the whole point of what it means to be alive.
With that in mind, I’ll conclude with this performance from the Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes. If you want to rid Scotland of this, I’d suggest you are a deeply troubled individual: