“Should we expand the inclusion of Gaelic on public signage and police vehicles?” was a simple question. The reactions were not. The general retorts were divided and telling. For some, it is a matter of preserving a dying language. For others, and to borrow from Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, language has become politics by other means.
Gaelic isn't spoken widely in Scotland beyond the Highlands, Argyll and Bute, and the Western Isles. At the last census in 2011, just over 57,000 people identified as being able to speak the language. Some 23,0000 more said they could understand Gaelic but not read, write, or speak it.
Police Scotland, to labour an obvious point, does not make law. Their draft Gaelic language plan was prepared “within the framework of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, and seeks to support the National Gaelic Language Plan's overarching aim that ‘Gaelic is used more often, by more people and in a wider range of situations.’”
Almost none of this matters because Gaelic has been hijacked. It is a proxy war between a real and imagined Scotland as understood through a profoundly divided constitutional lens.
Independence proponents generally make their case by implicitly citing Scottish exceptionalism. Scotland will be a good global citizen. Scotland will help refugees. Scotland will be a place of absolute intolerance for any racist, prejudicial or misogynistic attitudes.
Gaelic has been appropriated by a stalwart quarter online who signal their Scottish credentials with mismatched Gaelic phrases. “The Gaelic language is a vital part of Scotland’s cultural identity,” declared Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville. That is an important point, but it begs the question as to whether the priority is about Scotland's identity or actually helping those in remote parts of the country?
Scottish cultural identity is a highly nebulous thing. Kilts and whisky are cliches. Having a language to protect appeals to a specific idea of collective cultural loss. It is often linked to grievance politics and the obsession with vignette histories like the Wars of Independence or the Highland Clearances.
The most commonly spoken languages after English, Gaelic and Scots are Polish, Urdu and Punjabi, usually in cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Many public bodies, including the NHS, offer pre-ready materials in these languages to reflect local demographics. Scotland would seem to need more than two official languages to reflect its diversity.
The Gaelic debate is a living, breathing example of a very confused nationalism in Scotland, wrapped in the messy understanding of history, coupled with an all-or-nothing approach to the Union and Scottish identity.
Throw into this city, regional, Scottish, British, European, and global citizenry, and it is almost impossible to create something universally agreed. Civic nationalism, as blazoned at the 2014 referendum, is a method, not an answer.
The SNP and Greens form their political and cultural narrative in opposition. They want to be at odds with 'Boris' and 'the Tories'. It is a classic manoeuvre in identity formation. Even the name 'Westminster' has taken on a loaded connotation of evil, corruption and stagnation. It serves a broader narrative.
The Yes movement will denounce any criticism of Scottishness as an attack on the country's soul. Unionists are no better. Some in the right-wing will decry such cultural policies as implicit advocacy of independence. It’s essentially a reflex now if it’s a policy idea from the SNP or Greens.
Gaelic is stuck in an ugly crossfire. Often Gaelic speakers are from small, rural, remote areas, far from Central Belt decision-making. Belittling heritage and language and bullying people off Twitter (as in the case of Scots language poet Len Pennie) is indeed a sorry sight. One has to ask if the arguments would be tolerated if it was any other language?
Should we be surprised it's come to this? Scotland is no utopia. According to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, “the total number of charges containing at least one element of hate crime increased to 5,525 in 2020-21, four per cent more than 2019-20. Racial crime remains the most commonly reported hate crime. In total 3,285 charges relating to race crime were reported in 2020-21, an increase of six per cent compared to 2019-20.”
Gaelic campaigners called for the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill to be altered to protect Gaelic and minority languages. If such enforcements were made, it would do much to counter the culture of pervasive intolerance.
Linguistic differences tend to provoke a visceral response, particularly in public spaces. I’ve seen the looks on buses when my wife speaks Macedonian to her family on the phone. I’ve not forgotten the cab driver who asked if she has “some crusader blood in her” because “she does not look like she's from there”.
The problem with the belief in Scottish exceptionalism is it begins to corrupt rational thought. We are in denial about our education crisis, our drugs crisis, our health crisis, and our approach to race and language. It is cognitive dissonance, and it is getting worse and far less accountable.
Scotland isn't progressive; it's progressing – slowly. We know fine well there are ugly undercurrents of sectarianism and racism within our society. Shouldn't more be getting done, now?
We are in dangerous waters these days because our national debates are proxy wars for constitutional bias. That Gaelic has been appropriated for such purposes is a sad thing.
It feels that this latest reaction to Police Scotland's dual-language vehicles is just another sign we are in trouble. Sadly, this feels like the new normal in contemporary Scotland.