Gaeldom in an Age of Independence


My name is Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach and English is my second language.

In other words I am a native Gàidhlig speaker and what keeps me awake at night is not the results of the next referendum poll, but the dread I feel about the release of the 2011 census data. In the last century, the number of Gàidhlig speakers declined from nearly a quarter of a million in 1901 to less than 60,000 in 2001 – half clinging onto the west coast and the rest scattered throughout Scotland’s cities. This month saw the announcement of the news that Bòrd na Gàidhlig had achieved only 6% of its Five Year Plan to double the number of children in Gàidhlig Medium Education (GME) by 2017. There are not enough young Gaels to replace the old who are, to put it bluntly, driving in their droves. The language is being culled by the passage of time.

Am I being too despondent? A recent Herald editorial cites the wholly GME secondary and primary schools in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness as a way to halt the trend, while Bòrd na Gàidhlig claims more teachers need simply be trained. However, having grown up in the Western Isles, I believe that GME has just created a new Highland Line between the urban Gaels and those left behind in the islands. In Glasgow and Inverness, GME is available to S6 but, in the Western Isles it ceases abruptly at 12. Gàidhlig is relegated to an optional school subject, on par with French. In the islands, primary school children are more likely to speak Gàidhlig comfortably and casually, yet they go to schools where Gàidhlig is but a “unit” within a school whose dominant tongue in English. And it is always English. The young Gaels of today must accommodate those children whose parents weren’t wise enough to take advantage of a bilingual education.

Because Gaels must always defer. It is a fact of life. No better example of this was the callous dismissal of demands for a Gàidhlig translation of the referendum question, as described by Aonghais MacLeoid at National Collective. That the Gaels, who created the first Kingdom of Scotland, should be denied the right to create the second using their own language taints the claims of Scottish nationalism to be inclusive. This happened despite the 2005 Gaelic Language Act which gave Gàidhlig back its rightful place in public life and parity of esteem with English. Though tabloids and Caithness Councillors have been quick to dismiss Gàidhlig signs on roads and in the parliament as mere tokenism, official recognition provides the means and confidence to fight for the language’s survival. Should Scotland become independent, it is only right that Gàidhlig (along with Scots) be written into the constitution as official languages of Scotland, on equal standing to English.

But ultimately I do not believe that the future of Gàidhlig post-referendum lies with more official recognition, more enclaves in Edinburgh, more programs on BBC Alba. I believe that the future of Gàidhlig is in the hands of the island communities who speak it naturally. Some years ago the activist Finlay MacLeod campaigned for the setting up of a Gàidhlig-only village near Inverness, to create a “social space” for GME pupils to use their language outside of school. Although Arthur Cormack of Bòrd na Gàidhlig criticized him for promoting Gàidhlig “ghettoes,” MacLeod was right to argue that, even with state-support in media and education, Gàidhlig cannot survive without a concentrated speaker base. MacLeod, however, missed the point. There is still a Gàidhealtachd extant – those islands at the edge of nowhere, those dots behind the weatherman’s head, the Western Isles, where Gàidhlig is still a living community language.

And here is where I part company with those who advocate purely linguistic initiatives to save Gàidhlig. Yes, to correct the two-tier GME system, a Gàidhlig secondary school should be set up in Lewis and, more radically, Gàidhlig should be the universal language of study in every Hebridean primary. But, here’s the key point, if the survival of Gaidhlig depends on the survival of the Gaels of the Western Isles, then the decline in population of these islands must be thwarted, skilled jobs must be created and the economy improved. Murdoch’s The Sun should never have cause to write sensationalist articles about alcoholism and unemployment in the isles again.

That is why I find the Our Islands – Our Future campaign so exciting. It is an organic campaign, sprung from the three island local authorities of Scotland, NOT, as some might argue, a unionist ploy to discredit independence. The group is holding a conference in September to further crystallize its policies. Its current demands for greater island autonomy are eminently sensible, and should occur, whether independence happens or not:

  • Control of the sea bed around the islands, allowing revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate to be channelled into local needs.
  • New grid connections to the Scottish mainland to allow world class wave, tidal and wind energy resources to generate maximum benefits for the islands.
  • New fiscal arrangements to allow the islands to benefit more directly from the harvesting of local resources, including renewable energy and fisheries.
  • Clear recognition of the status of the three island groups in the new Scottish Constitutional Settlement and within the European Governance Framework.”

The recent forced designation of the seabed round Barra as a Special Area of Conservation against the wishes of the local community (as shown by the protracted SHAMED campaign) is a stark illustration of why islanders desperately need the political macho to resist mainland-based meddling. As an independence supporter, I believe strongly that an independent Scotland should not be a colonialist nation. If Scotland’s raw wealth is to be based on the riches of the seabed surrounding these three archipelagos (whether oil, wave and wind power or fisheries), then a truly socially-democratic Scotland must give the islands it exploits the right to benefit economically from their own resources. Brian Wilson wrote in his Scotsman obituary that the late, great Father Calum MacLellan of Eriskay dreamt of creating “a wee Gaelic Empire” in the west. In the 70s Father Calum was instrumental in creating Comhairle nan Eilean Siar from the two ill-served island fiefdoms of the landlord-dominated Ross and Cromarty Council and Inverness Council. We should regard his words as a challenge – as the new Scotland is independent within Europe, then so the isles should be independent within Scotland.

In the daydreams of this particular radical Gael, we would take land reform to its logical extent. My conversion to radical politics came as a child when I realised I lived in a feudal estate – though thankfully no longer, after the South Uist Estates community buyout. But recent revelations about the huge public subsidy the few private landowners who own most of Scotland receive show the process of land reform is not over yet. Though I know it would never happen, an independent Scotland founded on the principles of social justice in both its rural as well as urban areas, would enshrine in its founding the nationalisation and then localisation of control of the chartless swathes of this country still controlled by parasitic landlords. Is it stupid to dream of a Western Isles owned and controlled by the people that live there? Of a semi-autonomous Gàidhlig-speaking Hebrides? In 1900, it would have been considered stupid to dream of an independent Scotland.

Kay Matheson, who passed recently, was the only woman in the band of nationalist students who returned the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in 1950. She was also a Gàidhlig-speaker. The truth is that Gaels have been integral to the independence movement since its inception. The great Gàidhlig poets and bards of the last century – Somhairle MacGill-eain, Ruaraidh MacThòmais, Dòmhnall Ruadh Phàislig – were overwhelmingly nationalist. Gàidhlig IS the literary and musical culture of independent Scotland, free of the shadow of Anglo-Saxon dominance. In this age of independence, let us save Gàidhlig by giving Gaeldom control of its own destiny.

It is a matter of pride to some that Scottish nationalism is entirely civic and open to all forms of Scottish identity. It is about democracy, not patriotism. But that is an easy thing to say when your Lowland Scottish culture is not moribund, not dying by the day. It is Gaidhlig, with its distinctive Celtic culture, which makes Scotland not-English. Gàidhlig stops us being an arbitrary nation for without it we will remain North Britain forever. It is no coincidence that the Gàidhlig word for Lowlander is the same as that for foreigner – if Scotland does not take seriously its duty to save Gàidhlig, the Gaels and the islands where they live, then this country, whether independent or not, will remain forever foreign to me.

Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach
National Collective


About Domhnall Iain Domhnallach

Domhnall Iain Domhnallach is a poet and prose writer of Gaelic and English. He lives between Eriskay in the Western Isles and the University of Oxford, where he is studying Neuroscience.

There are 13 comments

  1. James R Thompson

    I agree with most of this article but I disagree that it is Gaelic which makes Scottish identity. Gaelic is only a part of our vibrant culture and trying to drive the old highland / lowland wedge in is really counter
    productive to Scotland as a whole. English through the medium of Scots has hugely enriched our land
    and it is also worth bearing in mind the sad demise of our predominantly P-Celtic speaking ancestors who’s language has also
    enriched our national identity. It was not the Gaels but the Picts who formed the first cohesive nation which would become Scotland. Without them there would have been no Scotland Gaelic or otherwise. I mourn the fact that my native language was taken from me and I was brought up to speak English but even with this I recognise it’s beauty and its worth to our nation as a whole. I wholeheartedly embrace the Gaelic
    language as much as I embrace English and mourn my lost P-Celtic
    heritage. I totally agree that Gaelic should be on an equal footing with English in our country and that it should be taught as a matter of course in all our schools. Is it not better to have compassion than offend by calling “foreigner” those of our nation who through no fault of there own were robbed of their native tongue? Gaelic may be in crisis but it is still alive and together we can all take it forward into a new golden age in an independant Scotland. Let us go forward together and forge an independent Scotland which is inclusive to all.

      1. Crìsdean

        By about A.D. 400 the Gaels had
        asserted themselves as the dominant group in Ireland. By this time,
        however, Ireland’s tribal nature was well established, and the
        Gaels simply became the overlords of a myriad of once
        P—Celtic-speaking tribes

        By the beginning of the historical period (ca. A.D. 500) all of these groups spoke dialects of Q-Celtic, the prestige language of the dominant Gaels.

        They largely assimilated the matrilineal P—Celts of Scotland, the Picts or Albans, and made inroads into Wales and Cornwall as well.

        All this was accomplished between the fifth and ninth centuries, and in Scotland the first Gaelic-speaking invaders, the Scots from Dal Riada in northeastern Ireland, firmly placed their Gaelic stamp, and eventually their name, on the new

        The resultant Picto-Scottish Gaelic kingdom came in time to be known as the Kingdom of Scots rather than
        as the Kingdom of Scotland

        Gaeldom had never bowed its head to the foreigner, and its perspective was one of pride, confident strength,
        and expansion.

        ~Electronic Scotland

        Scotland was born on the backs of the Gaels…the first King was a Gael or more accurately was raised a Gael and became King…Everything Scottish is due to the Gaels….when you mention the Picts theres very little evidence to form any type of conclusion so your stretching it just a wee bit…so why are you ignoring the true history that we know for sure instead of posting false hoods and misrepresentations…its far from being accurate!

        This is what frustrates me..people post crap that others read and then propagate through out the internet…please inform yourself before posting…its no wonder our culture is misappropriated and misunderstood! Sheesh!

        1. James R Thompson

          Not really sure how this relates to my comment above. It is a historical fact that had the Picts not defeated the Northumbrians at the battle of Dunnichen Moss in 685ad there would have been no Scotland Gaelic or otherwise. Northumbria at the time was one of the most powerful dark age kingdoms and had they defeated the Picts at the above battle would have lost no time in conquering the whole of what would become Scotland. This truly was a pivotal battle and was the true birth of Scotland. This is not hypothesis and has been well written about. James Frasers “The Pictish Conquest” is a good place to start.
          You also talk about people posting crap yet you yourself quote the same old outdated chestnut about the Scotti coming from Ireland to place there stamp on Scotland and yet current scholarship and archaeological investigation has shown this is likely to be incorrect. A reading of Ewan Campbells excellent paper “Were the scots Irish” is called for here. Funnily enough it is on the very site you suggested I should look at – Electric Scotland!

          1. James R Thompson

            The sources I mentioned are by some of the foremost academics and researchers of Pictish and Celtic studies. How much more credible than this can you get?

      2. Tocasaid

        As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence for a ‘Gaelic’ invasion from Ireland. According to some recent sources, ‘A New History of the Picts’ and before that the BBC series Scotland’s History, evidence points to the Scotti being in Dalriada up to 500 years earlier than previously thought.

  2. LisaR

    Seems you think the islands and its people more important than those in lowland Scotland who live in Pictish areas. Is this do as we say or we’ll stick by the union in Tavish Scott style.I get impression you think Scots on the mainland already foreign to you.

  3. Tocasaid

    Pìos math-dhà-rìribh agus nach math gu bheil an iomairt ‘nàiseantach’ ag aithneachadh cànan na h-Alba mu dheireadh thall.

    However, he does his case no favours by referring to Lowlanders as foreigners. When did the term ‘Gall’ become current as ‘Lowlander’. Many Gaels throughout the centuries have recognised the (lost) Gaelic culture of the Lowlands. The Gaidhealtachd as we know it only exists because geography hindered the otherwise agressive and successful Anglo onslaught. Scottish culture is rooted in that of the Gael and for centuries Gaelic in English was simply ‘Scottish’. The isolation of Gaelic from Scottish culture and its recent definition as ‘Highland’ simply continues the divide and rule mentality of the Statutes of Iona and subsuquent repression of the indigenous Scottish tongue.

  4. disqus_zZA6sDUpNy

    I very much like this article. I think I agree with all of it except this sentence: “Should
    Scotland become independent, it is only right that Gàidhlig (along with
    Scots) be written into the constitution as official languages of
    Scotland, on equal standing to English.”
    I’m a lowland Sasunnach, and I esteem my Gàildhlig speaking friends and the beautiful sounding language. When I was in school in the 1950s and 60s, our teachers ridiculed us for speaking Lanarkshire Scots. They told us it was bad English. But when January 25th was approaching we memorised Burns’ poems. One teacher told us that Burns language was Scots and English, but what we spoke was despicable and bad English. I don’t think that English should be an official language of independent Scotland. All teaching should be in Gàidhlig for the West Highlands and Hebrides, with Scots, sign language and English as compulsory second languages. All teaching should be in Scots for the rest of Scotland, with Gàidhlig, sign language and English as compulsory second languages. Sign language should be the medium of education for the hearing disadvantaged. We lowland Scots need to learn to esteem our Scots language, as the vehicle of our culture, and a means of discovering self esteem, after having had our language denigrated by our teachers during the whole of our childhood and adolescence. We need to recover Scots vocabulary and grammar, the latter being quite different from English grammar. English is a foreign language, the language of imperialism, and is only important for Scots as the language of international relations and international business, and general International communication. So our children must learn to speak, read and write it well. Let us,

  5. Liam Ó Caiside

    A very interesting article. However, I don’t see any claim in the article that it is Gaelic “that makes Scottish identity.” In fact, there’s a reference to nationalism being open “all forms of Scottish identity.” I do see an interesting argument for greater autonomy and control of resources by local communities in the Western Isles — and perhaps elsewhere in Scotland? What do the commentators think about that argument? Tha mi’n dòchas gun còrd an deasbad seo dhuibh — bu thoigh leam tuilleadh fhaicinn.

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