Recently, I was up in Scotland, attending a debate at my alma mater, St Andrews. The train journey is an agreeable one, taking in some lovely coastline and the mighty Forth Bridge as well as sight of the new road crossing, which looks very impressive. It was when we were sitting briefly at Kirkcaldy that my ire began to build. I looked out of the window, and there it was: the signage announcing that I was at KIRKCALDY, or Cair Chaladain. Like the whole rail network in Scotland, Kirkcaldy has dual-language English/Gaelic signposts.
According to the last census, approximately 1.1 per cent of the Scottish population speaks Gaelic. Overwhelmingly, this handful of people is concentrated in the far Highlands and the Islands. Yet there are dual-language signposts across the rail network. Why? Who are they for?
Kirkcaldy is not a Gaelic-speaking area, nor has it ever been. The translation of ‘Cair Chaladain’ is just that, a translation.
Clearly, as there are no Gaelic monoglots, nor have there been for decades, the signs are not there for information, nor to nourish the local culture. So you have to sneak yourself towards the suspicion that there is another agenda at work here. I’ll tell you what it is.
The idea is to foster the notion that Gaelic is somehow Scotland’s “national language”, that it is an alternative to English, and that it should be embraced as part of our country’s heritage: indeed, an indelible part. Nationalists see the hay made by republicans in Northern Ireland, and they think: ‘We’ll have a piece o’that.’
The problem is that it is built on a lie. For as long as Scotland has been a recognisable state, since we emerged from the Brythonic soup, the majority language has been English. A dialect form of English, to be sure, but English nonetheless.
Gaelic was, and is, a fringe language, spoken in the Highlands and Islands – excepting Orkney and Shetland, where Norse was the lingua franca for a very long time, and which were ruled from Scandinavia until the 15th century.
So ‘Cair Chaladain’ is nonsense. It’s not what the residents of the Lang Toun ever called their home. It’s a political project.
Why does this matter? Well, on one level it doesn’t. Setting aside the spending of public money on a spurious vanity project, English is unlikely to be displaced as the mother tongue of bonnie Scotland any time soon.
But the promotion of Gaelic as some kind of ur-Scots neglects the vigorous Scottish form of English, which is a rich and vibrant vernacular. It’s not a separate language – don’t get me started on Lallans – but it’s a very dense and rewarding subset of English.
It should be celebrated. There’s no shame in having Scottish English as a national language, but don’t pretend it’s something it isn’t. The accent, the intonation, the vocabulary is all.
Eliot Wilson is former House of Commons Clerk. He lives in Sunderland, tweets as @SybariteLooks and blogs at http://reflectionsofasybarite.blogspot.co.uk