The Gaelic Class 

 Na Clas Ghaidhlig

By Gordain O’Monaigh

"Latin is a dead language." Was what my Latin teacher at the Royal High School often told his students, while we struggled with our 'Amos and Amants, Mensas  and Mensarums'. 

"But you must learn it because it is fundamental to the English language and needed if you are to become a doctor, lawyer or botanist." He would  frequently remind us callow youths desperate for some 'Amo' from the young ladies at the nearby Gillespies Academy. If Latin was a dead language, was it tortured and murdered or did it die of natural causes?

Five years later when I met the Italian girl, Sophia at Edinburgh airport , Latin was very, very alive. 

"You do not speak Italiano?” she said in her gorgeously accented English, “but you say that you studied Latin at school ...but it is much the same... Latin became Italian."  

Suddenly, filled with regret I wished I hadn't come out  bottom in my Latin class.  Amo became amore...at least for an hour or so until I dropped her off at her Italian relatives Delicatessen in Edinburgh  from the taxi I drove during student holidays. Latin, over time, was indeed tortured and murdered, to become what are called Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian). 

But how did the Celtic languages fare?  Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Manx - all these Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities although there are continuing efforts at revitalisation. However, in 2017, Welsh is the only Celtic language not classified as "endangered" by UNESCO. 

English is a West Germanic Language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now the global lingua franca. English is either the official language or one of the official languages in sixty sovereign states. Wikipedia says that modern English descends from Middle English  which in turn descends from Old English. Particular dialects of Old and Middle English also developed into a number of other English (Anglic) languages including 'Scots' (Lallans) and the extinct 'Fingalian', 'Forth'  and 'Bargy' (Yola) dialects of Ireland. Modern linguists recognise Scots as a distinct language but my school teachers and my Government did not.⁠1

"Don't say aye, say yes!  Don't say dinnae, say don't!  Don't say ken say know!" 

This was how our native Scots language was⁠ 'dinged oot o' us' by teachers with their leather 'tawses' determined to have us speak correct 'Received Pronunciation' (RP) so that we could succeed in the new perfectly pronounced English speaking world. Our wee hands blistered and bled as the three pronged tawse hammered correct pronunciation into our ignorant Scottish brains.

The tawse often called the  'Lochgelly Special' was a custom made leather strap used in Scottish Schools  to discipline children. A quarter inch thick and eighteen inches long it was split for part of its length into two or three prongs or 'taws' (toes). Made exclusively by Dick and Co of Lochgelly it was essential equipment for Scottish teachers until 1986 when its use was banned by law after several court cases and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

Contrary to the often expressed views of sadists and masochists, beltings did absolutely no good and only legitimised and encouraged violence and sadism. Six of the belt would leave my hands aching and numb for hours and often raised weals and caused bleeding if the hits were on the wrist. Worst of all was to be belted across the legs, as I once was, for trying to sing, at age seven, an English folk song  “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising.' Yes, in Scotland, with one of the richest folk song traditions in the world, we were being taught to sing an English folk song collected by Cecil Sharpe.

Received Pronunciation is  the standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in Southern England.  Those plummy tones so favoured by BBC announcers were to be inculcated into the young Scots by Elocution Lessons. At Primary school, I recall the children and parents of my class being assembled and lectured by an Englishman about the importance of correct English speech for the children. They would be disadvantaged if they could not speak the Queens English. The parents were guilt tripped and invited to sign up their children to a course in English elocution and thereby to disown and degrade their own rich Scots language and culture.

Many years later, I was working on the Isle of Skye, three days a week as a  planner at the Council office in Portree. During the tourist season I had to find a room every, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night, either at a B&B, an inn or an hotel. What I found depended on 'Visit Scotland's', booking and availability system. Usually, I tried to find a room close to the office but sometimes I was sent to some eccentric B&B run, either by a  retired English couple, or an Englishman on the make with gimmicks such as 'a six course breakfast'. (This consisted of one plate with an egg, the next plate with a sausage, the next plate with a strip of bacon , the next plate with toast and so on....) or to a B&B run by a tall Glaswegian lady who must have been matron at a psychiatric hospital. She was truly terrifying in her efficiency and use of bleach. Then there were the hotels... At Uig I expected the hotel to be run by the Gaelic speaking MacLeods that I had met in 1969 but instead it was now owned by a South African family. The Greshornish hotel that had been owned by the Nicholson's was now run by an English couple from Eton, and at the Edinbane Hotel I heard fiddle music and thought it was an old time session, but it turned out that the fiddler was ex-Northern (English) Symphony and everyone in the bar were Sassenachs (Southerners), with holiday homes on the island from where they commuted to jobs in Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle.

In the heart of the Gaeltachd, a Gael was hard to find and Gaelic speakers hid their light. Occasionally in the supermarket. I heard Gaelic being whispered between two women at the checkout. Roddy, the building control officer, was a native speaker but you would never have guessed and so was Morag the administrative officer but they never used their native language in the context of work. At Sleat a beautiful new building had been erected for the Gaelic College 'Sabhal Mhor Ostaig' and there was a little College bookshop in Portree. Here and there  the road signs were beginning to appear in both English and Gaelic. "Is it Waternish or Vaternish,” I asked, “or should it be Bhaternish?" No one was sure.

One week in midsummer, all my usual B&B's and hotels were full so I found a room at the 'Victorian Hotel'. Situated on the edge of Portree it was one of those dog-eared Victorian country houses built with a mock baronial flavour in neatly jointed ashlar with crow-stepped gables, turrets and a fine Ballachullish slated roof. Inside it was oak panelling stained a muddy darkness, with a broad staircase festooned with mounted deer heads and antlers. Near the entrance a dead elephants foot served as an umbrella stand. Grim dark varnished portraits of kilted ancestors hung in their heavy gilded frames and here and there a landscape interjected  with antlered deer and craggy mountains. Guns and swords crisscrossed under Highland targes and tartan carpets, curtains and upholstery completed the kitsch tableau. I was glad that I was only staying one night.

After dinner the hotel owner invited all the guests to have a drink with him and his daughter and her friend would play some authentic Scottish music. After the dinner we were regaled with the two girls playing 'Ye Banks and Braes' and the inevitable 'Skye Boat Song' ( now better known as the 'Outlander Theme” ) on the piano and violin in that mannered classical arrangement so far distant from tradition. There was a group of Americans present who lapped it all up. The host wore an ill fitting threadbare kilt that looked like he had owned it since the 1745 rebellion and his knobbly pale knees poked down and seemed held up by two uneven socks. He spoke with an anglicised accent. He wasn't English but he had one of those strangely mixed up accents that you hear from those who attended the likes of Gordonstoun School (Prince Charles) or Fettes College (PM Anthony Blair). I recall  that in the late 18th century in Edinburgh the upper classes were taking elocution lessons to learn English from an Irishman. That's when the cringe began.

There was an English couple at the soirée, both had those plummy vowels of southern anywhere England. The American woman was eulogizing about Scotland. 

“Everywhere is beautiful...it's incredible....everywhere I look its beautiful, gorgeous, fabulous.” 

Simultaneously I thought about the places in Scotland where the tour buses never go that are memorable only for their hope-less-ness – bleak industrial hellholes, barren wasted mining landscapes, dreadful forlorn habitations and insular, depressed, addicted ,alcoholic and desperate people. Places,where the only wildlife are gangs, drunks, druggies and packs of feral dogs. But she would never see those sights. For her Scotland would remain a place of purple heather clad hills, with highland pipers in kilts - marching, a place of golf, shortbread, marmalade and whisky. Then she said to the Englishman.

“ I really like your accent, where does that accent come from?”'

”Well my dear”, he replied, “I don't have an accent, my speech is what is called Received Pronunciation. It's perfect English with no regional connotations. You may not know, but there are some dreadful accents in the UK, such as Glaswegian in Glasgow, Liverpudlian from Liverpool or Geordie in the Newcastle area, all these are ugly and totally incomprehensible to me!”

I winced. The host looked embarrassed. The American seemed puzzled and continued.

”I haven't had any problem understanding people in Scotland but then I haven't been to Glasgow.' 

The host interjected. 

“ I must say that it is well known that the best English is spoken in Inverness due to the lilting legacy of Gaelic.”

“That's an old chestnut”, retorted the Englishman, 'Mostly when I was in Inverness all I heard was grating Polish and the harsh sound of Glaswegian Scots but no Gaelic.”

                                                                        ******

With the devolution of some aspects of government to Scotland and the creation of a Scottish Parliament, the English had grudgingly recognised that there was such a place as Scotland rather than North Britain. The rise of the Scottish National Party to dominance in the new Scottish Parliament promised a volte face in public policy and a new pride in Scottish identity. One of these new  policies was to promote the Gaelic language. One day I opened an email and read that all employees of the Highland Council are encouraged to have their email names in both English and Gaelic and to take up the offer of free Gaelic classes once a week in office time. In the space of one day I became Gordan O'Maonaigh after a lifetime of living under an English alias.

After two and a half centuries of determined and ruthless efforts to stamp out Gaelic culture by both the English Government and the Educational establishment,; was this a turning point, a new beginning for the language, or too little, too late? I saw it as a courageous step in the right direction away from Anglicisation and  Ethnocide. A brave step away from those restrictive confines of English Nationalism towards a distinct and expansive coming of age for Scots amongst other distinct and ancient World cultures. Gaelic is an ancient language. It is commonly accepted by scholars today that Gaelic was brought to Scotland, probably in the 4th–5th centuries CE, by settlers from Ireland who founded the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata on Scotland's west coast in present-day Argyll.

Road signs were to be in both Gaelic and English. Gaelic was to be given prominence in publications and Gaelic language education was to be encouraged and promoted. However, I was the only person among a hundred in the Planning Service to take up the offer of free Gaelic lessons. The language had often intrigued me. When I learned the bagpipes as a child, there were words on the piobreachd (pipe music) manuscripts in Gaelic ..Urlar, torluath, suibhal, piob mhor, piob beag, ceol mhor, ceol beag...other words sounded Scots....tachum, birl, lill, reel, doublin, triplin. We had Latin, French, German, Spanish and Greek options at secondary school but no Gaelic option. In English class we all fell in love with Robert Burns romantic Scots poetry but we struggled with Shakespeare, except Macbeth, which somehow seemed darkly familiar. Many years later I discovered that our English teacher Hector MacIvor was a Gaelic poet but at school he hid his native language. He was a friend of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wide circle of literary friends included  the poet and founder of the Scottish National Party, Hugh MacDairmid.

As a young child I was drawn to music and words. Instinctively I felt  that I was destined  to become a Bard - the traditional Celtic bearer of words and music. Not for me the  paints and crayons of the visual artist. For me, words and music would paint and colour the world. However, it would be a foreign language that I would have to use for my creations. Doomed to carve my words in soft southern limestone and chalk when my word sculptures should be in hard northern granite and quartz. Robbed of my ancient Celtic tongue there is a void; a broken tumbled bridge, too broken to be rebuilt now, that separates me from another word-scape. My soul poet cries to me across the raging torrent. 

“Come to me, my son, come to your old mother.” 

Alas she is distant in the swirling mists and I must stumble on working with this alien tongue as best that I can.

                                                                     *****

On Wednesday at 2.00pm I made my way to the Charleston Community Centre for my first lesson in Gaelic. The teacher was a woman in her late 50's maybe early 60's, tall and handsome in that western isles Celtic way. Here hair was grey but their remained traces of black and her eyes were as green as the 'Machair' on Lewis. She had the lilting enchanting accent of the Gael when she spoke English but when she greeted us in Gaelic I could tell that this was her language of poetry and music. I was hooked.

The other students, only a dozen in total, were a motley bunch - a couple of social workers, a countryside ranger, a solicitor, a community worker, and a janitor. When asked why they were interested most were flippant.

          “It's two hours away from the desk, a respite from the office drudgery.” 

           One woman was more honest. 

        "My boyfriend speaks Gaelic and I want to know what he is saying to me when he is angry or in passion". 

I said I wanted to know how to pronounce place names correctly as it was embarrassing at public meetings in Gaelic speaking areas to not know  how to pronounce names or even know what they meant. If you think Gaelic is a dead or dying language take a look at any map of Scotland. The landscape is literally crawling with Gaelic words and place names. Some are familiar...glen, strath, corrie, ben, cairn. others not...sean-airidh, sithean, monadh, aonach, ach. There are many words for landscape, many nuanced landscapes that need many nuanced words. English words lack the poetry and feeling necessary to capture the variety and beauty of the Gaels homeland.

“My name is Rhona McLeod,” the teacher began, “and I am a native Gaelic speaker from the Island of Lewis. We will be using a modern language teaching method called ULPAN. Gaelic is essentially an oral language. Most language is learned orally by repetition and association and that is what we will do.” she explained.  

Written language came late to the Gaelic world, so that even in modern times many songs and tunes could be recorded from people who had preserved them, in memory, handed down to them over many centuries. The first words we learnt were “ciamar a tha thu?”, “ciamar  a tha sibh?  ”We learned to say ”Hello”, "How are you"  in the singular and the collective but not who are you? When I returned to my desk my co-workers would make sneering remarks about my interest in Gaelic. 

“ Waste of time learning that old crap,” Ms Cameron sniffed. 

“Just a waste of taxpayers money, all this Gaelic medium and Gaelic signs. I don't see why I should cover for you to go and have the afternoon off learning that decrepit language.” Mr McCorquodale spat out at me.

I was not surprised, but more than a little sad, that most of my colleagues had no time for the Gaelic language or the indigenous musical culture preferring the pervasive Anglo/American bandwagon pop culture. They seemed unaware and disinterested in the history of their country and region. They had no sense of pride in their local musical culture and no identification with Gaelic language. They were often racist in their condemnation of any Gaelic medium programmes in the schools or the Government project to have Gaelic signage and Gaelic usage in schools and the workplace. They had been so thoroughly indoctrinated in Anglo culture that they were neither embarrassed nor ashamed that they carried Gaelic names such as Cameron, McCorquodale, MacInnes and didn't know what their names meant or that they could not speak one word of Gaelic.

In Caithness the outrage at the introduction of Gaelic Road Signs was vehement. Despite all the place names in Gaelic on the maps, the Caithnesians wanted to be thought of as murderous Vikings and seemed to have convinced themselves against all evidence to the contrary that Gaelic was a late introduction to the north. The ethnocide there was now complete and deeply seated. Many had succumbed completely to the Anglo project. 

One afternoon as the class was ending, the pupils were packing and chatting and the teacher was talking to the social worker from Skye. He  revealed that he grew up in a Gaelic speaking home. He told her that he had turned his back on Gaelic as a young man because he felt embarrassed about speaking it and people told him that it would do him 'nae guid'.(no good)  I chipped in and said it had been the same for me, growing up in a Scots speaking area and being told that it was 'gutter language' by the teachers at school. Rhona, the class teacher,  said it was worse for her because at her home in Lewis they only spoke Gaelic. Her mother and father had very little English. When she went to primary school, speaking Gaelic was forbidden and she remembered saying to her collie dog that accompanied her to the school gates ,

“Oh, Lachie, you're so lucky that you don't have to go to school and learn English”. 

Of course she said this in Gaelic to her dog who understood. She went on to tell us how Gaelic survived in the playground among the children as a weapon against their English speaking teachers. The children quickly identified the teachers as the enemy of occupation imposing their language on an older culture and the resistance formed and grew. They were punished with the tawse if the teacher heard them speaking Gaelic but this only reinforced their love for their language and their resistance grew stronger and stronger. She  also observed that many Gaelic speakers couldn't read or write Gaelic as this was never taught to them. In modern times Gaelic Poets have composed all their works in memory and then had to recite them to scholars to be written and published.

It wasn't only the language that came under attack. The 6000 year old transhumans practice of summer sheilings, where young people would live, temporarily minding the animals on the upland summer pastures, were put an end to by moralists and public health officers who deemed the airigh insanitary. Music and song celebrated the sheilings as places of love and romance and natural beauty. The ecologically sensitive blackhouses were also torn down to be replaced by cold ‘sanitary’ cottages that most crofters hated..

Personally I feel a deep palpable sense of loss. Worse, there is an outrage at the immoral theft of identity and connection with ancestry and the natural world of the Gael. There has been a deliberate attempt at cultural genocide by the arch enemies of the Celts, from the Romans, Caesar Augustus and Emperor Hadrian to William the 'Bastard' Conqueror and his descendants, through to the 'Butcher' William Augustus Cumberland and on to “Crooked Nose” Cameron and other smarmy  chaps oozing from a saccharin tongued Eton, Cambridge or Oxford. I mourn the denial from me of the many nuanced Gaelic and Scots language, full of subtlety for describing the land, landscape, plants, animals and birds. Remove this from your vocabulary, from your way of seeing, of hearing, of feeling and you become English. It is Newspeak from Orwell's 1984. If you don't have the words you can't think the thoughts of rebellion. Assimilation is complete. Sneer at the bagpipe music, sneer at the reels and jigs, and you lose your soul to some urban pedlar of English songs, of stolen African rhythms, of vacuous American jazz, of raucous odorous Rock music and the abomination of 'Death metal' and 'Rap'.

My great, great grandfather came to Scotland from Donegal, his Irish would have been easily intelligible to Highland Scots. He married one of those Gaelic speaking Scots called Anne Archibald. He signed his name with a cross on his marriage certificate. My fathers ancestors were MacNabs from the area around Loch Lomond. In their industrialisation within the slums of Glasgow they lost their Gaelic but gained their Scots. Perhaps languages die because they are not useful, perhaps the users are murdered like the North American First Peoples, perhaps languages are assimilated like Anglo-Saxon was assimilated with Norman French. However, the story of Gaelic  is different as there was a deliberate policy to exterminate the language and the culture after the 1745 Rebellion. At the end of the 18th Century twenty five percent of Scotland's population were monoglot Gaelic speakers. In 2015 there are no monoglot Gaelic speakers, excepting a few children under three years who have yet to be processed. Living in Scotland does not make you Scottish. When we lose our unique words, our unique music and our literary and musical heritage we cease to be Scottish. 

My father played Boogie Woogie on his upright piano and sometimes at family gatherings or parties he played “Loch Lomond” or “Ye Banks and Braes” for his elderly Glaswegian aunt and mother who sang along in cracked maudlin, 'dewey-eyed' dis-unison. This was the only Scottish music my father played. He seemed disconnected from the socialistic, historical, realistic folk song tradition that I heard in the smoky rough bare-wood bars and in the backrooms of threadbare hotels in Lowland Scotland. My dad never played jigs or reels but preferred music hall kitcsh “I belong tae Glasgae” or “Stop yer Ticklin Jock”. The songs that pandered to the racist cartoonish joke of Scots and Scotland that made Harry Lauder famous and rich at the expense of his own rich and ancient culture.

I recall when my little childish ears heard the bagpipes and they screamed to me the true music. The clear honest voice of my ancient mother. At age five and thereafter, no-one could keep me from seeking that voice that was as clean and scintillating  as the waters from a mountain burn. All other musics diminished to irrelevance thereafter and it has remained that way ever since. I have sat through Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, jazz recitals, rock and pop concerts and all the time thinking and wishing for the bagpipes to kick in and enliven the piece. When browsing at an art gallery a painting is judged truly great by me, only when it contains a piper. Therefore, Brughel and Heronimus Bosch rate very highly over the likes of Vincent Van Gogh or Picasso.The burgeoning mass culture of Anglo /America with its lazy vacuous music, its bad food, its environmental insensitivity, its war with nature, its brash loud and macho, Anglo-centric white supremacy sickens me.

Through the years I have endured innumerable insults about my interest in bagpipes and their music. It used to hurt when at school the music teacher would single me out for ridicule. 

“Bagpipes are barbaric and not a real musical instrument... Mooney, why don't you learn the oboe or clarinet and play some proper music?” He would opine. I had no right of reply then.

“Don't you play any serious instruments?” I was once asked by a classical musician at a party. 

“I can't think of anything more serious than playing soldiers into battle under murderous gunfire.” I replied and added, “ and fighting for the freedoms you enjoy to play your music.” 

You see, as an awakened  Scot, now I have the right of reply. No more cringing, no more elocution lessons and no more subservience to ethnocidal invaders.

END           February 2018


1 Ethnocide (noun) - the deliberate and systematic destruction of the culture of an ethnic group. In the UNESCO "Declaration of San Jose" 1981, Ethnocide means that an ethnic group is denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether collectively or individually. This involves an extreme form of massive violation of human rights and, in particular, the right of ethnic groups to expect respect for their cultural identity

2 .Over the past five years, the Scots  language has become recognised in the classroom under the Curriculum for Excellence, which calls on schools to support children in maintaining their own first language. However, there are still negative attitudes towards Scots, with some arguing it is a dialect rather than a language and others believing it to be a slang form of English. An official survey found that nearly two-thirds of the Scottish public do not believe that Scots is a real language. The report into literacy by Education Scotland said:

"Across all sectors, staff are increasingly using Scots and Scottish texts to develop children's and young people's literacy skills. The next step for many schools is to plan opportunities for children and young people to use Scots language and Scots and Scottish texts beyond one-off events such as for St Andrew's Day or Burns celebrations. Through Scots, learners can explore language in more depth, making connections and comparisons with the linguistic structures and vocabularies of other languages."

The report found Scots could encourage reluctant readers and writers because it could "capture the imagination and speak to them in a familiar voice".Matthew Fitt, who helps run the Itchy Coo publishing company, which publishes Scots versions of classic novels and children's stories, said that since the 1872 Education Act Scots has been ignored in schools, at an enormous cost to Scotland's culture. He said: "For children to be told the natural way they speak is wrong negates a very important part of the development of the child and the recent growth of Scots has had a very positive impact.

3 *The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 effectively put an end to non-English medium education and repressed Gaelic with pupils being punished for speaking the language. Pupils were belted if caught speaking in Gaelic and beaten again if they did not reveal the names of other students speaking Gaelic. The effect of the education act upon the Gaelic language has been described as "disastrous" and by denying the value of Gaelic culture and language, contributed to destroying the self-respect of Gaelic communities. It was a continuation of a general policy (by both Scottish, and post 1707, British governments) which aimed at Anglicisation. As a result of facing punishment and humiliation for speaking Gaelic, many parents decided not to pass on the language to their children, resulting in language shift. Gaelic medium education in Scotland was not established until the 1980s, and the impact of the Act is still being felt in Gaelic communities today. Scottish Gaelic is neither an official language of the European Union nor the United Kingdom. However, it is classed as an indigenous language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which the British government has ratified, and the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 established a language development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, "with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland".Irish (Gaeilge), also referred to as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is spoken as a first language by a small minority of Irish people, and as a second language by a rather larger group of non-native speakers.

Irish enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, and is an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. It is also among the official languages of the European Union. The public body Foras na Gaeilge is responsible for the promotion of the language throughout the island of Ireland.Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history, and they brought it with them to other regions, notably Scotland and the Isle of Man, where Middle Irish gave rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx respectively. It has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe.