From Gael Force to Farce -- Scotland has probably more households where Urdu is spoken
than Gaelic-speaking ones, writes Allan Massie in The Scotsman for 21 March 1998

YOU could seat all Scotland's professed Gaelic-speakers in the stands at Murrayfield, and not many would have to spill over on to the pitch. If you restricted your invitation to those who habitually use Gaelic as the means of communication within the family home and the circle of their friends, a very much smaller stadium would accommodate them. The noise made by the Gaelic lobby and the attention paid to it are out of proportion to its size. Tynecastle would probably be too big.

Yet Mr (or Miss, Mrs or Ms) S MacAdhaimb, writing to this newspaper from Sleite in Skye, tells us that "Gaelic is the closest we have to a national language". This is preposterous, and not only because the letter is written in English, that being the national language for public discourse. The reason, apparently, is that "it was, after all, the tongue of the Scots". So indeed it was, and for the best part of a thousand years more people living in Scotland probably spoke Gaelic rather than any of the other languages which were even then spoken in the country. Around the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, it might fairly have been asserted that Gaelic was the national language. Today the claim is nonsensical.
The common written language of Scotland is English, this being the language of newspapers, textbooks and official documents. It is the language which everyone, except illiterates, can read or write. To pretend otherwise is sentimental fustian. The common spoken language is what may be called Scots-English. This is standard English, enriched or modified by a scattering or sprinkling of old Scots words and turns of phrase. There are also local peculiarities of accent which can make this Scots-English sound more different from standard English than it actually is. This tongue shades, imperceptibly almost, into what we can call demotic Scots, both rural and urban. Both show great regional variation. Rural demotic retains many words which were employed in the classic Scots of the 15th and 16th century, but which have fallen out of general use; the urban demotic has few, or comparatively few, such examples. But demotic Scots, unlike Gaelic, is widespread, and spoken, to some degree, by millions.

Then there are other languages spoken by immigrant groups, whose members outside the family will commonly speak English or Scots-English. Examples are Urdu, Cantonese Chinese, Italian and Polish. There are probably more households in Scotland where Urdu is spoken than there are Gaelic-speaking ones.

Nobody disputes that Gaelic speakers suffered discouragement for a long time, or that Gaelic speaking children were forbidden to use the language in school, even in the playground. Few people would now think that was right, though the policy was, for a long time, approved by all of a progressive and liberal disposition. Discouraging of Gaelic was the policy of the Scottish Education Department, as of its forerunner, the Board of Education. The same policy, incidentally, was pursued in Wales with regard to Welsh, less successfully because more Welsh people continued to speak Welsh then Scots to speak Gaelic. Presumably they cared more about their language than the Scots Gaels did. It may also be because they were less committed to "getting on", smaller players in the United Kingdom and the Empire. Whatever the reason, Scots Gaelic withered as Welsh didn't.

Many in Scotland -- perhaps an increasing number -- retain an interest in Gaelic as something which differentiates us from the English. This can lead them into absurdity. I never knew whether to be more amused or more irritated when I used to be told that Sorley Maclean was our greatest living poet. I met him a few times and found him a delightful and impressive man. But, since I couldn't read the language in which he wrote, I could not judge his poetry. Many of his admirers were no more able to do that themselves; their ignorance of Gaelic didn't stop them from lavishing praise on his work. Some even called him the greatest poet in Europe,which could have made sense only if they had been able to read and understand all European languages.

The Gaelic lobby is now pushing hard and has friends in high places. Brian Wilson's support for its suggestion that the old Royal High School should be made into a Gaelic school and cultural centre offers the most recent evidence of this. Of course one understands Wilson's point of view. He is an enthusiast for Gaelic, and has learned the language himself (though I've heard the extent or depth of his knowledge questioned by some Gaelic-speakers). But that is incidental. The proposal is more than a sop to the Gaelic lobby. It is an expression also of cultural nationalism, an attempt to show that New Labour Unionism is compatible with the promotion of Celtic culture. Brian Wilson is a Gaelic-speaking Braveheart wrapped in the Union Flag. Well, that is fair enough. In as much as New Labour must prove its Scottish credentials if it is to fight off the SNP, Wilson's personal support for the idea is tactically adroit.

Gaelic is a minority interest and a minority culture. That's no reason why it shouldn't be encouraged. All countries benefit from cultural diversity. So it is good to support Gaelic, even with the taxes of people who have no desire to speak the language. I should be happy to see more people learning Gaelic. But then I should be happy to see more people learning Latin, which is also an integral part of our Scottish culture.

The promotion of Gaelic has its dangers, however. The first is obvious. The more it is promoted, the more public money is spent on it, the more resentment among those who have no interest in the language will be provoked. And this resentment will become sharper if Gaelic-speakers are seen, or thought, to be favoured, to benefit from affirmative action. In Wales, for instance, there is considerable resentment of the dominance of Welsh-speakers in BBC Wales and in local government and on quangos. This resentment was one reason why the referendum on a Welsh Assembly was so nearly lost.

The second danger is more serious. The business of Gaelic is provocative of cant when people praise poetry written in a language they can't read. It is cant when people claim that a language spoken by less than 2 per cent of the population (and by many of them only haltingly) is "the closest we have to a national language". It is cant when people propose that the laws of the forthcoming Scottish parliament should be bi-lingual in Gaelic and English and that there should be facilities for simultaneous translation from Gaelic in the parliament, even though there will not be a single MSP who is incapable of speaking Scots-English. And this sort of cant is the last thing we need in this country, where there is already no shortage of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

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