Allan Massie: Gaelic will only be a hobby language

Pupils learn Gaelic. According to the last census, 58,000 people identify themselves as Gaelic speakers. Picture: Neil Hanna
Pupils learn Gaelic. According to the last census, 58,000 people identify themselves as Gaelic speakers. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The indulgent pretence surrounding Gaelic does nothing to halt the language’s decline and amounts to intellectual dishonesty, writes Allan Massie

My father, in his old age, was asked if he would be wearing a kilt at a grandson’s wedding. He replied, “I’m a Lowlander. I’ve never worn a kilt in my life”. He had been born and brought up in Aberdeenshire, lived there till he went to Malaya as a very young man, and, like most Lowlanders of his generation, had no time for Gaelic. He thought it nonsensical for public money to be spent keeping the language on a life-support machine. I suspect that even today, despite the pro-Gaelic propaganda to which we are subjected, and despite, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of signs in Gaelic, a majority of Lowland Scots would agree with him, believing that public money spent on Gaelic might be better spent elsewhere – or, of course, not spent at all.

According to the last census, 58,000 people identify themselves as Gaelic speakers. Some satisfaction was expressed because the decline in the number who make this claim had slowed – there was a fall of only 1,000 in ten years, while the number of young Gaelic speakers had risen by the staggering figure of 0.1 per cent. Of course, all Gaelic speakers are now bilingual, also speaking English or some variety of Scots. Nobody knows how many speak it habitually at home, or how fluent in Gaelic many of the 58,000 are.

The decline has been inexorable. James IV (1488-1513) is believed to have been the last King of Scots who could speak Gaelic, though as he also spoke Scots, English, Latin, French, German, Flemish, Spanish and Italian, one may guess that he didn’t speak Gaelic very often.

By 1755, 23 per cent of Scots were Gaelic speakers, in 1901 4.5 per cent, in 2001 1.2 per cent. The decline may have been arrested, partly as a result of the establishment of a handful of Gaelic-medium primary schools (though there are fewer than 1,000 children in them), but it is in the highest degree improbable that the language will recover even to the level it was at in 1901. Moreover, a fair number of Gaelic speakers then were monolingual, while others habitually used it at home. This is no longer the case. Gaelic’s survival will be as a hobby language.

Unlike my late father, I don’t dismiss Gaelic as an out-of-date and therefore useless language. I am sympathetic to those who want to learn it and promote it. What I object to is the hypocrisy and pretence that goes along with enthusiasm for Gaelic; hypocrisy and pretence that are encouraged by the Scottish Government – not just the SNP one, with its Minister for Scotland’s Languages, but the preceding Labour/Lib Dem coalition.

The hypocrisy goes a long way back. Thirty or forty years ago I used to be irritated by friends who assured me that Sorley MacLean was the greatest living Scottish poet – some even said the greatest living European one. I knew Sorley slightly and liked him a lot. He was a delightful man, but I couldn’t understand a word of his poetry, and was therefore unable to judge its quality. I was ready to believe a Gaelic-speaker like Iain Crichton Smith when he told me that Sorley was really very good, but most of those who praised him had no more Gaelic than I had, and their opinion was therefore worthless. Poetry can be truly appreciated only when you know the language in which it is written. Prose is translatable as poetry isn’t.

Now the hypocrisy is officially encouraged. Successive Scottish governments, eager to emphasise our distinct national identity, have made Gaelic a key feature of our difference from England, and have fostered the pretence that we are a bilingual nation. We aren’t.

There are many different languages spoken here – apparently some 54,000 people speak Polish at home – but we are essentially an English-speaking people, English being the language of public discourse, spoken by many with an admixture of old Scots and with a Scottish intonation. The several varieties of spoken Scots are in far more common use than Gaelic. Indeed there is no worthwhile comparison to be made.

Everyone in politics and public life knows this is the case. Yet they promote the idea that we are a dual-language nation. The word “Alba” appears at the border, but do you know anyone who, if asked which country he or she comes from, would reply “Alba”?

A few years ago the magazine The Scottish Review calculated that the annual cost of the Gaelic-language channel BBC Alba – then £17 million – meant that 30 per cent of BBC Scotland’s budget for making programmes was devoted to a little more than 1 per cent of the Scottish population. BBC Alba’s viewing figures have since improved because it shows Scottish football and rugby matches which most of us probably watch with the sound off, though we may switch it back on when a player is being interviewed because the interview won‘t, of course, be in Gaelic.

To subscribe to the official view that we are a bilingual English-and-Gaelic speaking nation is to indulge in cant. It is to practise intellectual dishonesty. The Irish historian, journalist and politician, the late Conor Cruise O’Brien was critical of the reverence in which Irish Gaelic was held in the Republic: “Holding high esteem for a language you don’t actually use while holding the one you do actually use in low esteem is,” he wrote, “to be in a parlous mental and moral condition”.

He was absolutely right. We will doubtless continue to spend public money in order to help preserve the Gaelic language and to encourage young Scots to learn it. That’s a worthy cause – even if my late father thought it a ridiculous one. But don’t indulge in make-believe, and that is what our politicians are doing. It’s disreputable.

One piece of evidence shows how things really are. You may put up road signs in Gaelic all over the country, but if you have a warning to deliver about road conditions, the word you will use is “Danger”, because it‘s a word that every Scot can understand, whereas only a tiny number will know the Gaelic for it.