LECTURE BY RUAIRIDH MACILLEATHAIN TO THE GRADUATES OF THE CÙRSA INNTRIGIDH, SABHAL MÒR OSTAIG 01/12/07
What do Edward Dwelly and Father Allan, the Eriskay priest have in common? They were alive around the same time. They both did a lot for Gaelic. Their legacy lives on today, indeed. And they were both men who learned Gaelic as adults. They walked a long distance on the Gaelic road and they showed the way forward to many others. At times they were ahead of the others, as it were holding a lantern, brightening the footsteps of the Gaels.
Those are two names I’d like you to remember when you travel the Gaelic road in the times ahead. You’ve all taken the first step on that road, and there are great strides still to be taken. But, at the end, I hope that some of the people in this room will be ahead, showing the road to the rest.
As did Edward Dwelly and Father Allan. Dwelly with his dictionary which has never been bettered. And Father Allan – priest, poet, songster, defender of his people, defender of Gaelic. A man still held in the highest possible esteem in Eriskay – and among the Gaels generally.
And it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Dwelly was from England. Father Allan was from Fort William. People today are fluent in Gaelic in many countries outside Scotland. If you have Gaelic in your heart, and if she will eventually reach your tongue, that’s all you need to do something for her.
We’re alive at an amazing time in the history of the Gaelic people. We have the Gaelic Language Act, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Clì Gàidhlig, Comunn na Gàidhlig, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Ùlpan. We have the Cùrsa Inntrigidh! And isn’t that good! There will be a television channel – we hope. There are opportunities. Amazing opportunities. And learners are a big part of the picture.
The Gaelic world is changing. We should be honest about that. Sometimes we are a bit shy about telling the outside world exactly what’s happening in our own.
It reminds me of the time a lad went up to a policeman and said to him, “Excuse me, but a man and my father are fighting in the street. They’ve been fighting for an hour.”
“Goodness,” said the policeman, “why didn’t you tell me before this?”
“Oh well,” replied the lad, “my dad was winning to start with!”
Perhaps it’s the other way round with the Gaelic world. We are more inclined to advertise our victories but to be more reticent when we’re losing. It’s easy to understand why. We are dependent on government support and goodwill from the populace. An English-speaking populace. But, whether Gaelic is winning or losing, we ought to be more open. It’s no use us pretending that everything’s hunky-dory when it’s not.
A short while ago, people were talking about the death of Gaelic in the churches, even in the Free Church, because they possess fewer and fewer ministers capable of preaching in the language. Some said a fortnight ago that that would mean Gaelic would be dead – soon. As dead as a doorpost.
Let’s be honest. Gaelic is dying in the churches – because it’s receding in the communities where it has been strong. Or in most of them, at least. But even if she leaves the churches, she won’t be dead. If there are enough people who say, “As long as I live, Gaelic will not die!”, she will survive for ever, regardless of the involvement, or lack of involvement, of the churches.
I don’t want to see that. I want to see her being revived in the churches. But I fear that will not happen. Something is happening in the Gaelic world at present. I don’t like it, but to this point in time not enough has been done to counteract it. I’m referring to how the language is in retreat in the communities where it was very strong – particularly in the Western Isles. Some islanders have lost their courage, apparently – as happened on the mainland a generation or two before – and that’s a bad thing. We have to instil courage in them. Scotland has to instil courage in them.
The education figures substantiate the decline. Only a quarter of children in the Western Isles get a Gaelic Medium education. Only a quarter. That’s appalling. It has not risen in the last decade. It’s gone backwards, rather than forwards – although figures published yesterday are a little bit better and give a little cause for optimism.
Gaelic Medium education is superior to English Medium education. We know that. It produces a bilingual product. Young people who are capable of accepting the opportunities of a bilingual world – and to contribute to that bilingual world in which we live. But still the majority of parents in the Western Isles don’t take the opportunity.
A lot of work will be required, friends, to defend our language in the places where she is strong as a community tongue. Personally I think it’s time to stop referring to those islands as “Innse Gall” (Isles of the Foreigners). Innse Gall? Are we engaged in a death-wish for our language? What about “Na h-Eileanan Gàidhealach” (The Gaelic Islands) as a name in the 21st Century?
What would happen if the bad dream came true? That the Gaels left the Outer Isles? What would happen if everybody who spoke Gaelic as a first language were to leave tonight? And the only people left tomorrow were those who had learned the language – whether or not they were fluent. That’s a bad dream. But would Gaelic be dead?
Well, we can answer that question by looking at a Gaelic community – people who speak a language we’d all understand in this room – to some degree or other. I’m talking about the Isle of Man. Every adult who speaks Manx Gaelic today – it’s English or perhaps a foreign language that they speak as a first tongue. Perhaps that will change in time as some children are growing up who are getting Gaelg, as they call it, in the home and, indeed, at school.
I was in the Isle of Man this year and it came home to me that the people – the Gaels – there are not on about “language death” at all. They talk about “expansion”, about “liveliness”, about “building a community”, about the “self identity of the Manx people”. About “life”, not about “death”. Whatever else they might lack, confidence is not one of them.
The last first-language speaker of Manx – Ned Maddrell – died in 1974. Experts at the time said the language was dead. Officially – dead. But it wasn’t. Some had learned it from Ned and others, and they kept the candle burning.
In 2001, the number of people who were returned as Manx-speaking in the census had gone up tenfold in forty years. Tenfold in forty years. From one hundred and sixty to one thousand, six hundred. It can be done, friends. It can be done – with education and a will and strength and vigour and courage – and a little help from the authorities – although the Manx don’t put too much stock in being over-dependent on the government. It can be done in a Gaelic community – which values its music, songs, poetry and culture.
What is responsible for the difference between the Isle of Man and Scotland? Why do they get bilingual signs with little effort, compared the struggle we have? Why do business people use Manx Gaelic in marketing in a way that doesn’t happen here? I’d say two things – and those things are very important.
Firstly, the national identity of the people. Manx Gaelic is important to the Isle of Man as part of their national identity. That hasn’t happened in Scotland yet. It will happen, I hope. And the second reason? Well, this will be pretty brutal. But this is how it was reported to me on the Isle of Man this year by language activists. “Our language succeeded,” they told me, “when the old Manx folk died off.”
The old people – ones who belonged to the island – who had parents who were fluent – or at least grandparents who were fluent – they were suspicious, doubtful, fearful, non-committal, weakly willed, completely indifferent, even antipathetic towards the language. Not everybody. There were stalwarts amongst them. Ned Maddrell was proud of his ability with the language. But the next generation – many of them were against it. It’s when those people were no longer around that those who had learned Manx Gaelic – because they loved the language – made progress – without having to struggle against opposition.
Now they have a school – the pupils have now gone on to Gaelg Medium classes at a secondary school. They have political support. It was a Scot – Steve Rodan – he was the Education Minister that gave them permission to go ahead with a Gaelic school. And those who speak the language – they are strong. They are proud. But you could pretty much say that they are a community of learners. Among the teachers in the Manx Medium primary school are a Welshman and a Scotswoman.
You could say, then, that there is life after the native speakers go. And in many places in Scotland, that’s how it must be if Gaelic is to re-emerge. If Gaelic revives anew in Pitlochry, Dunfermline or Peebles, it will be like that. Perhaps the people in this room will do something for the revitalization of Gaelic in places where the language was lost a long time ago.
We’d lose a lot of talent if we lost all our native speakers, however. We’d lose good friends as well. It’s frightening to think of it. But we’d still have talented, committed people like Ronald Black, Wilson McLeod, Meg Bateman, Rob Dunbar, Ann Lorne Gillies, Michael Newton, Charles Quinnell, Martin MacIntyre, Mark Wringe, Donald Morris, Emily Edwards, Susie Hardy, Will Lamb, Alison Dix, Gordon Wells, Alasdair Allan .. and not to forget … Andreas Woolff! (doing the simultaneous translation). There’s a big list.
When Edward Dwelly and Father Allan were alive, there were a quarter of a million people in Scotland who spoke Gaelic. And those two learners left their mark on the world. Today there are – what? – sixty thousand – and there are more learners than there were in Dwelly and Father Allan’s time. There’s a fantastic opportunity for learners today to do something for the language – and for the wider world through the language.
Personally, I hope that we won’t lose our communities where the language is strong. There is a wonderful richness in Gaelic is she is spoken and written and sung in places like Harris, Uist and Barra. And in my youth in Applecross, indeed. It’s great that there are still places where the majority speak Gaelic. Where people think in Gaelic. Where their heritage is strong. That’s what invigorated Edward Dwelly and Father Allan in the first place. And myself as well.
But the figures show that the language is declining in every community in the Western Isles except perhaps around Callanish and Carloway in Lewis and in the south of South Uist. To arrest the decline we need strong people who will defend Gaelic rights – and learners have a big role to play in strengthening the language. Locally and nationally. Don’t be faint-hearted, friends. Be full of courage. There is an opportunity for all of you to strengthen Gaelic.
I hope that learners don’t take the place of natives speakers as happened on the Isle of Man. I hope that Gaelic families and households will be newly emboldened in the Western Isles and, indeed, on Skye. I hope the two groups will co-operate to the extent that they will be mutually inter-dependent, and that there will be no mutual distancing from each other.
And as Edward Dwelly and Father Allan contributed a lot to the world of the Gaels around a century ago, I hope that some of you will reach positions of rank and status and that you will do something to strengthen our language. Many thanks indeed and my best wishes to you all today, tomorrow and on the great road in front of us.