Language // O Tell Me The Truth About Gaelic

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Last week, and not the for the first time (nor the last time), an ill-informed article about Gaelic was published in the Scotsman.

This time, it was by arch-Tory Allan Massie, which rambled down the well-worn path of anti-Gaelic histrionics.

It’s an odd piece, with Massie seemingly unwilling to believe that there are real-life Gaelic speakers in Scotland, much like someone might be unwilling to believe that there is a monster living in Loch Morar. He appears to think we’re all pretending – he even uses the word propaganda.

Massie’s weird take on the subject is of course his own personal view, and while it’s not helpful for his comments to be plastered all over a national newspaper, it is a free country. What is more concerning is that much of what he says is just factually incorrect. It’s the Theresa May approach; why let the truth get in the way of some bare-faced prejudice?

We’re not supposed to answer back to offensive articles like Massie’s, though increasingly people are. Mike Small of Bella Caledonia published a response to him last week, and Bella Caledonia has also published articles by Wilson MacLeod and Arthur Cormack in recent months, which draw on real data rather than well-worn prejudice and challenge the baseless but dearly-held attitudes of Massie and his ilk. Earlier this month, the Sunday Post was forced to print an apology after they were challenged over an article claiming £400m had been “pumped into Gaelic”. Again, Arthur Cormack published an online response, quoting the actual facts and figures of the matter.

Haven’t you got anything better to do that haver on about Gaelic?” scoff the detractors. (That’s detractors, before anyone cracks an agricultural gag). Of course we’ve got better things to do: dealing with guff like this is boring and depressing. But while rising above such attacks with a dignified silence might be less stressful and time-consuming in the short-term, it leaves us open to the charge of not caring enough. You know how it goes: “If Gaelic speakers themselves aren’t even that bothered about saving their own language, why should anyone else bother?”

So I’m going to leave the weirder bits of this piece sticking to the wall, such as Massie’s mutterings about his father, the Aberdonian Lowlander, never wearing a kilt, or his annoyance at some poetry posers of old jumping on the Sorley bandwagon, or his conviction that bilingual signage is ridiculous because few people, if any, would answer a question asked in English (“Where are you from?”) with a response in Gaelic (“Alba”) – though what bearing any of that has on the issue in question, I have no idea.

Instead, I’m going to look at the more clear-cut claims he makes in the article, and see if any of them stand up to scrutiny. And hopefully, every time the facts and figures about Gaelic are given another airing, it gets harder for those who want to obscure the truth.

1. The indulgent pretence surrounding Gaelic does nothing to halt the language’s decline and amounts to intellectual dishonesty.

By “indulgent pretence” and “intellectual dishonestly”, I take it he means the Gaelic Language Act and subsequent efforts at promoting and normalising Gaelic as one of the languages of Scotland, alongside English and Scots. In fact, these measures are in compliance with the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, of which the UK government is a signatory, and mirror similar measures taken by regional and national governments around the world.

Furthermore, to say these things have done “nothing to halt the language’s decline” is blatantly not true. As Wilson MacLeod’s article states, census results just published showed that the number of Gaelic speakers has declined very little in the last ten years, compared to previous census results which showed steady and significant decline, decade after decade. Numbers of young people speaking the language has increased, and literacy rates have also increased.

2. A “majority of Lowland Scots” oppose current spending on Gaelic.

There is not evidence whatsoever for this claim. Research published in May this year found that only 33% of those surveyed believed too much was being spent on the language. Maybe Massie knows for a fact that this 33% were all “Lowland Scots”? Maybe there is more general evidence that support for Gaelic peters out south/east of the Highland Line?

Well, no. According to a similar attitudinal study published in 2011, there isn’t. While results showed that support for Gaelic was indeed high in the Highlands and Islands, it wasn’t at its highest there. That honour went to Mid Scotland and Fife, followed closely by Glasgow. In fact, support for Gaelic in the Lothians, the Scotsman’s heartland, was at exactly the same level recorded in the Highlands and Islands.

3. “Nobody knows” how many people speak Gaelic at home, and anyway, it’s “no longer the case” that people speak Gaelic at home.

A strange claim, this one, when the recently published results of the 2011 census, addressed this very issue.  As Wilson MacLeod’s article reports, people were asked if they spoke a language other than English at home, and 24,974 Gaelic speakers said they did.

4. Most people speak only English, therefore Scotland cannot be dual-language nation.

Massie seems confused here, believing that everyone in a country has to speak the second (or third, or fourth) language in order for that language to have a legitimate place at a national level. He seems unaware, or disbelieving, of the concept of minority languages. He seems under the impression that a country’s linguistic identity is judged like a Mr Universe contest: there can only be one muscle-bound title-holder.

Yes, a large number of people in Scotland speak only English, and only a small number speak Gaelic. But whether Massie likes it or not, Gaelic is an official language of Scotland. His argument is that simply acknowledging that Gaelic is a part of modern Scottish identity, the Government are pretending everyone speaks it. They are of course doing nothing of the sort.

Of course, it’s more nuanced than that, and not just in Scotland but in many countries around the world, where several languages are spoken by the population as a whole, but not necessarily by every person. As mentioned above, Gaelic, and Scots, are recognised as minority languages, and as such are protected by European charter, as well as by the Scottish Parliament. The fact that many Scots do not speak them does not mean their existence can be denied.

5. BBC Alba gets too much money when it only serves 1% of the population, stealing what should rightfully be spent on BBC Scotland.

The vast majority of programmes on BBC Alba are subtitled and are therefore accessible to almost everyone, rather than the 1% which Massie claims. The fact that BBC Alba has a reach of 15.6% of the population shows that many non-Gaelic speakers are tuning into Gaelic programmes on BBC Alba in much the same way as they are to foreign language dramas on BBC Four. This is nothing new; in Machair’s 90s heyday, the programme routinely enjoyed audience figures way above the number of Gaelic speakers in the country.

Official BBC figures shows that while only £4.9m was spent on content for BBC Alba, the channel achieved a reach of 15.6% in Scotland.  If Massie is looking for value for money on his licence fee, he need look no further than BBC Alba.

It is concerning, though, that while Scotland raises around £320 million in licence fees, by 2016/17 spending on BBC Scotland will only be around £86 million. Even the Scotsman seems to agree.  Clearly somebody’s snaffling the surplus, but it definitely isn’t Gaelic broadcasting.

Yet still we sing

I could have gone on to talk about false claims that Gaelic medium education is either detrimental to children’s development (it isn’t, they even do better than their English-educated peers in some subjects) or an unfair waste of money (it isn’t, and it can be cheaper that English medium education), or claims that bilingual roadsigns are dangerous and cause traffic accidents (they don’t, and I still can’t believe we actually had to commission a study to shut people up about it).

Instead, I flicked over to BBC Alba and caught the second half of the award-winning documentary on Murchadh MacPhàrlain, the bard of Melbost. He was political, liberal and open-minded. He loved Lowland Burns and Gaelic Ireland. He raged against the hypocrisy of our government, preaching peace while arming dictators around the world. He wrote songs, he wrote poems, he wrote and wrote and wrote.

Towards the end of the film, he said to the journalist interviewing him, “I envy you people. Just imagine going home tonight and thinking that the language you speak will be dead in another 60 years. Just imagine that. It’s so discouraging. Yet still we sing, still we make songs, in spite of everything.”

Any one of his songs could take away the taste of this sour Scotsman diatribe. In truth, the contrast between enlightened men like MacPhàrlain and the likes of Massie couldn’t be more stark.

* I’ve removed a reference to BBC Four, as several people pointed out it seemed to be coming off badly in the article, and that wasn’t my intention.


12 responses to “Language // O Tell Me The Truth About Gaelic

  1. I agree that Massie did not exactly phrase his argument very well, but I interpreted it differently. I think what he was trying to say was that claims about the revival of Gaelic as a vernacular language are seriously exaggerated by vested interests, which is true. Gaelic is being revived by enthusiasts and activists, who are, by definition, motivated by politics and self-identity, and most of whom are non-native speakers. Massie, as an old Tory unionist, doesn’t like this. Many of the rest of us do.

    I don’t think his claims were factually incorrect. Gaelic continues to decline as a community language. For example, in Shawbost in 2010, researchers were able to find no young people who spoke Gaelic with their siblings. The census results say nothing substantial about actual Gaelic usage.

    • Hi Colm,

      You’re right to to say the census results don’t give the full picture. I also agree with you that the Shawbost report is important.

      Had Massie tried to probe the census statistics, or had he quoted the Shawbost report and discussed Gaelic usage in the Western Isles, or had he given specific examples of pro-Gaelic exaggeration and “dishonesty” (old Sorley anecdotes don’t count), and countered them with evidence to prove his point, I wouldn’t have had a problem.

  2. Hands off BBC 4, Rhona! 😀 It’s easily the best TV channel, according to my PVR, anyway. I would ask the family for their view, but they’re out socialising. If I did ask them, the questions would, of course, be in Gaelic, the language of our home (although we do converse in German, Castilian or Mandarin from time to time). Oh, and we generally speak English to the neighbours, since our Farsi, Punjabi and Urdu skills are rather in need of development.

    This is everyday family life in 21st century Scotland – very far from the 19th-century North Britain apparently still inhabited by Allan Massie and his ilk. (Come to think of it, that place haemorrhaged people to the “colonies” ceaselessly, and wiped out or traumatised a significant number of the remainder in the fields of Flanders and France.)

  3. Go hIontach – Being from Ireland I occasionally watch BBC Alba on the Scottish network via satellite. It is understandable to any Irish Gaelic speaker.
    I think it should be shown on the Irish network and our TG4 shown on the Scottiosh network. I think the music & rugby is great!

  4. Pingback: The Scotsman and our “slurping snouts” | The Failed Gael·

  5. Pingback: Tongue Lashing With Friends | A Wilderness of Peace·

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