War of words over Gaelic road signs

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MANY of its place names are derived from Gaelic, the Royal National Mod – Gaelic's premium arts event – will be held there in two years and there are moves to open a Gaelic-medium education unit in future.

However, a number of councillors in Caithness yesterday argued that the language was not of significant relevance and sought to exclude it from a Highland-wide policy of erecting bilingual English-Gaelic road signs where appropriate.

The move was defeated by 36 votes to 29, but not before the chamber was treated to various interpretations of Caithness culture and Gaelic's importance within it.

Eight councillors signed a motion arguing that "the blanket roll-out of bilingual signs in the Highlands should only proceed where there exists significant local demand for such a policy".

David Bremner said the motion was not anti-Gaelic. But he insisted: "Across Caithness, in community councils, on the streets and in the workplace, there is no wish for this."

He referred to the Norse influence on the county, with places like Lybster named by the Vikings, and also Pictish history. He said Hebridean fishermen speaking Gaelic came to Caithness later, as "economic migrants".

"I'm not saying Gaelic was never spoken in Caithness, but the history of our county is rich and diverse with Norse influence and Gaelic influence."

His colleague Graeme Smith said the signs would be inappropriate and the presence of "this barely indigenous language" would mislead tourists. "If I go to the local Tesco I hear Polish, in the pub I hear Polish, Urdu and Latvian. To hear Gaelic in Caithness, I have to turn on the TV or go to the hall where the Gaelic choir is practising.

"When Gaelic is commonly heard in the school playground, the pub, post office or local shop then it will be time enough to introduce this homogenised dictat."

David Flear said there should be a debate in each area to see if people want the road signs. "This is not anti-Gaelic," he said. "This is just reality and listening to people – 27,000 people in Caithness against 12,000 Gaels who speak Gaelic in the Highlands. Let's listen, let's have some democracy."

John Rosie added: "To proceed with this would do considerable damage to the reputation of the council and it in no way would help the promotion of Gaelic. It would give the impression of riding roughshod over the people of Caithness and trying to ram something down their throats."

But Roy Pedersen, an Inverness councillor and a Gaelic speaker, said the Picts, by the ninth century, were a Gaelic-speaking community: "The language of the Picts in Caithness and elsewhere in Scotland was Gaelic. We have such names as Dounreay, Dunbeath, Mey – all prominent Caithness places – with Gaelic names.

"Most of the Norse earls of Orkney, who ruled Caithness for a number of centuries, were bilingual in Norse and Gaelic, particularly Sigurd the Mighty."

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