If you’re a Twitter user, or still read the papers, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a rising tide of anti-Gaelic feeling. I wish I could give you an explanation of why that’s happening now but I can’t – it’s beyond me. But what is certain, beyond a doubt, is that it suddenly seems to be okay to give Gaelic – and therefore Gaels – a real kicking.
It’s been a problem for long enough – it goes back centuries and who hasn’t noticed the lively ‘debate’ about whether Gaelic road signs are a good use of public money or not – but there’s been a change in the tone of the debate about Gaelic recently in the mainstream media. Increasingly, we are seeing newspapers pour out column inches of spite and bile about Gaelic, claiming that nobody speaks it and we should pull the plug on it.
It was with deep consternation that I read Brian Beacom’s piece in The Herald, ‘If Gaelic is dying does it deserve a kiss of life’, although it was hugely encouraging to see the backlash on Twitter, with the upwelling of the #IsMiseGàidhlig hashtag, in a reaction not unlike #MeToo, where Gaelic speakers came together in defiant celebration of the language.
Beacom clearly got a shock with the level of resistance to his xenophobic rhetoric but showed some strength of character later in meeting with Prof. Wilson McLeod of Edinburgh University, in a bid to learn where he might have gone wrong. A subsequent piece did help.
But then, just five days ago, we were back in the pits again, confronted by the latest anti-Gaelic diatribe masquerading as journalism: a insidious and aggressive piece from retired Celtic (bit ironic, that) footballer Frank McAvennie – putting the boot into a language he cheerfully admits to knowing nothing about. He’s a fool but it’s time to call this out.
I’d like to share with you here today a piece from one of my friends, Gaelic writer, scholar and singer Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, who has picked apart McAvennie’s entire piece – and thrown a few choice words his way – should the Amadan (that’s a ‘fool’ in Gaelic, for your benefit, Frank) be inclined to listen.
Over to Marcas…
It’s a common conundrum: how best to deal with this kind of hatred in public life? What’s positive is that people are responding, in the way that they see fit.
For the majority, #IsMiseGàidhlig represents the ‘when they go low, we go high’ approach (to paraphrase Michelle Obama), whereby we continue to extol the virtues of our community and celebrate excellence, keeping our heads down and not dignifying our detractors with a direct response.
Another approach, evidenced in ‘Beacom Part Two’, reflects the modus operandi of the multitude letters that have been published as responses, many from the pen of Arthur Cormack and Bòrd na Gàidhlig itself. These usually take the high road, countering the misinformation with cold hard facts and statistics, in a bid to educate.
The third response, which social media has had a hand in, is more direct. Here, the writers, and tweeters, force the likes of Beacom, McAvennie, Scott Begbie, Alan Roden and Mike Wade (to name a few) to look in the mirror and consider what might be at the root of their arguments. To consider why they hurt so deeply the Gaelic-speakers reading their words and have such an effect in diminishing the prestige of the language.
McAvennie made his key argument very clear: to him Gaelic no longer has a place in contemporary Scottish life. Plus ça change. However, the headline has within it the recognition of a sea-change. Anti-Gaelic commentators are feeling the heat because, finally, we are fighting back.
I intend to do some textual analysis, here, of the anti-Gaelic diatribes. Starting with the headline on McAvennie’s piece, it was as pugnacious and inflammatory as you’d expect:
The majority of the article hangs on McAvennie’s own experience, or rather his lack of linguistic skills, presuming he only speaks English. MacAvennie, with the perspective of a monoglot, or monolingual if you prefer, embodies that UK-wide stereotype surrounding our national inability to engage with language learning. He continues:
“I’m nearly 60 years old and yet to meet a single soul that speaks Gaelic — so why do you see a dialect which is on life-support everywhere you go?…”
Here McAvennie attempts to set his own age and life experience as qualifications for discussing a matter he admits to knowing very little about. Indeed, despite the ever-growing number of socio-linguists working in the field of Celtic Studies (the languages, not the football team) the Scottish Sun has chosen not to make use of this expertise, but to publish the thoughts of a retired footballer.
The choice is a curious one. If the time is now to write about Gaelic in the press, why have they not approached an academic expert, one of the Gaelic policy makers, or — if they need to engage with celebrity culture — a Gaelic-speaking public figure, from amongst the thousands of singers, musicians, actors, writers, and raconteurs in our community?
McAvennie is incorrect in asserting that Gaelic is a dialect. Gaelic is a language of its own, with its own dialects ranging from Lewis to Barra, from Skye to Jura, across mainland areas, such as Argyll, and historically, across Scotland. And not just the Highlands. Indeed, a native Gaelic dialect was spoken in Aberdeenshire until the 1980s.
Any Gaelic speaker could have told him that and been more qualified to write this article.
McAvennie has, in fact, met a Gaelic-speaker who could have helped him out as the photographic evidence proves (he’s pictured below with Gaelic broadcaster Niall Iain Macdonald). It’s strange to consider, also, given countless appearances at Celtic Park, that he wouldn’t have met Alex O’Henley.
“I know it’s Scotland’s native tongue and I’m supposed to shout Alba gu bràth (Scotland Forever) and all the rest of it but it’s time to move on…”
MacAvennie concedes that Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland for centuries, though he may not know that the language dates back to the first centuries A.D., thus pre-dating Scots and English. He’s mistaken, though, if he thinks that he is ‘expected’ to do anything about it, or even make comment.
In 2018 there are more opportunities to learn Gaelic than ever before. Classes offered at community level through local authorities, the length and breadth of Scotland, which are often free to those participating, are regularly filled with learners post-retirement. Pensioners, who are keen to still take on new skills, whatever their age.
Now elevating himself to the position of Scottish cultural ambassador, he continues:
“You arrive in Scotland and there’s a welcome sign in Gaelic, you see traffic signs with it and it’s even on the sides of police cars now. But it’s all entirely pointless because nobody — or hardly anybody — has a clue what it says…”
Visit Scotland and and Historic Environment Scotland regularly release feedback from visitors to Scotland, which consistently reflects a positive response to seeing Gaelic given certain prominence in signage and other visual media. Indeed, visitors from abroad, used to their own bilingual signage, might legitimately expect to see the same, given Scotland’s native trilingualism. So, if they haven’t got a problem with Gaelic, why does McAvennie?
What is it about seeing a place italicised in its own language, beneath the English name, that enrages people so much? The continual response to accusations of allegedly exorbitant public spending is that such signage is replaced bilingually on an ad hoc basis, the translations being funded from moneys devolved by the government itself and administered through Bòrd na Gàidhlig, specifically ringfenced for the language.
The inability to grasp that fact is infuriating and McAvennie has clearly missed the point. There would be no Gaelic road signs if there were no Gaelic placenames; the best evidence we have in demonstrating that, yes, Gaelic was and is spoken where you live.
Indeed, such road signs only display how these place names have entered the English language and been re-spelt according to English-language orthography. As the debate around signage rumbled on, singer and all round Gaelic hero Margaret Stewart had the best riposte I’ve ever heard on Twitter earlier this year: ‘Have you ever considered that what’s truly ludicrous is that we’ve had to suffer these awful bastardised spellings of our Gaelic place names for far, far too long?”
“Around one per cent of the Scottish population speaks Gaelic and good on them, no issues there…”
McAvennie returns with everyone’s favourite 1% statistic, ever used to brow-beat an already minoritised group. Not very original is it? Indeed, is a population of c. 60,000 (according to the last census) really that insignificant?
What isn’t being considered, here, is that census results are far from conclusive and are frequently rounded up or down.
Traditional issues surrounding the prestige of the language come into play here. If you continually read in the press that your language and its culture is dying, are you going to feel enthused about using it, or even safe to do so, publically? Are you going to register yourself as a Gaelic speaker, officially, on the census?
It’s alright for McAvennie to say ‘good on you’ when you’re striving against all odds to raise your child as a Gaelic speaker, in a world of English-language dominance, or when you feel that speaking the language might make you a target of abuse, as I wrote about for Bella Caledonia.
He may have ‘no issues’ with us as individuals, making a personal language choice, but words have power and its articles like these that serve to legitimise a very real xenophobic undercurrent in Scottish society, which perpetuates such ‘otherness’.
These anti-Gaelic ‘think pieces’ (I use the term loosely, as they don’t betray much meaningful thought) are one of the singly most effective means of stirring up an anti-Gaelic culture in Scotland.
That said, can we really consider the worth of the Gaelic language and its community to this country in terms of bald and limiting demographics and percentages? Yes, we are a minority but we’re still here and we still contribute — holistically, creatively and magnanimously, despite the hate.
Perhaps McAvennie should look deeper into the language and consider why it is not just a minority language, but a minoritised language. McAvennie showed little cognisance of the processes a community goes through, in becoming a threatened minority.
This kind of press is a factor in that process. He is not simply commenting on a linguistic phenomenon but, in raising his pen, is an active participant in that anti-Gaelic culture. If Gaelic really is on ‘life support’, his is one of the hands that hovers over the plug.
“But spending money to plaster it everywhere is a complete waste of time, money and effort…”
Having ‘othered’ us out of sight, McAvennie now feels authorised to attach a financial sum to the fiscal value of our language and community.
McAvennie, like many before him, has forgotten that Gaelic-speakers across Scotland pay tax. Gaelic speakers contribute more to the public purse than we get out. We understand how the common pot works, but just because there are certain services for which requirement is universal, this doesn’t mean that specialist services should be forfeited.
“If you want to speak Gaelic great, but don’t force it on the rest of us who know next to nothing about it…”
The fact of the matter is that it’s about us, not anyone else: the native speakers and fluent new speakers, who according to the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 should expect to see our language treated with respect equal to that of English and Scots.
McAvennie isn’t showing equal — or any — respect to Gaelic.
Whatever the sums are, the financial support for Gaelic is piecemeal and only serves to try and put back something which has faced wave upon wave of institutionalised denigration and annihilation, for centuries, since the Statutes of Iona, through Culloden to the Dress Act of 1746 to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, which outlawed Gaelic education in schools and even its use in the playground.
These are not insignificant or stand-alone phenomena, within a historical context. They have had a lasting effect on the Gaelic-speaking population and were catalysed by individuals with opinions not unlike those evidenced by McAvennie in the Scottish Sun.
If McAvennie thinks his opinions are original or thought provoking, he is mistaken. We’ve been hearing them ad nauseam since the dawn of time.
“It’s not right to spend huge amounts of public money on something which caters for a tiny smattering of people in Scotland — when there are so many more pressing issues…”
So here we have it; the aspect of McAvennie’s piece, which to me, is the most abhorrent.
What is the price you put on the head of a Gaelic speaker, exactly? On a child learning through Gaelic Medium Education?
It’s true that amid the austerity of Tory Britain there are issues in welfare, in healthcare, in education and countless other social causes which are being neglected. But here McAvennie, like many others, places the blame for these ‘pressing issues’ on the doorstep of a minority group, positing that everything might be alright, should funds be directed away from Gaelic development at national and local level.
“Fix the roads and potholes for a start. Before long we’ll be reading directions to the nearest tyre repair centre in Gaelic…”
Because no Gaelic-speaker ever had a flat tyre, and no English-speaking monolingual ever made use of a Gaelic-speaking mechanic in the Hebrides.
Even if we gathered all all the banknotes ceded to Gaelic together in a big Harris Tweed bag, they wouldn’t fill any or all of the potholes in Scotland, and certainly wouldn’t scratch the bitumen when it comes to funding our transport network here.
“Let’s take football…”
Finally, something on which McAvennie might have a modicum of erudtion.
“Everyone knows BBC Alba as the telly channel you’re forced to watch because a game is on nowhere else…”
So, it’s BBC Alba in the firing line, now. Yes, because of the fact BBC Scotland doesn’t broadcast minor Scottish football games, we need to target the one channel that does. BBC Alba, which champions clubs big and small and not only broadcasts the men’s game, but the women’s game too. BBC Alba, which not only brings these games to audiences that might otherwise miss out, but even creates a model for inclusivity, which should be the envy of broadcasters worldwide and cause for certain celebration amongst football fans.
Football coverage is just one thing that the channel does. Its award-winning broadcasting has a wide reach and encompasses various genres, appealing to all ages.
“My pals all turn the volume down and try to find English commentary on the radio. It’s nonsensical…”
It’s all about McAvennie and his limited social circle, as we’re now acutely aware. Gaelic is so insulting to the ear that it must be muted as well. Yet one aspect is clear: Gaelic is ‘nonsensical’, its words mean nothing. Despite having of the richest literatures and oral traditions in the world, its music being one of Scotland’s greatest cultural exports, Gaelic, the language of Sorley MacLean and Julie Fowlis, is nothing but gibberish.
Would McAvennie afford any other ethnic, cultural or linguistic minority such disrespect, in reducing their languages to such base terms? Possibly not, but of course it’s OK when it comes to Gaelic, even in Scotland.
“I just hope the first Rangers game under Steven Gerrard isn’t shown on BBC Alba. The world’s eyes will be on Scottish football and they’ll be forced to listen to chat that 99 per cent of Scotland doesn’t understand. We’d be a laughing stock…”
As the antithesis of a football fan, I’d not be crying if the beautiful game never again graced our screens. I find the punditry insipid and inarticulate, much like that article. Regardless of the skill of the players, I am unenthused if forced to watch it. But whilst I don’t pay my licensing fee to watch it, I must acknowledge that there are people that do.
So why not the same benevolence for Gaelic? There are licence payers who do so in order to watch BBC Alba. There are speakers abroad who wish they could access the service.
The 1% figure is one which is being wielded at the transgender community, currently getting a beating in the press as well. The question arises: are there minorities which it is still seen as appropriate to stigmatise?
“I respect tradition and understand that people are fiercely proud of our Scots roots. And to be politically correct, I suppose you need to be seen to be catering to all. But it’s only correct for the handful of people who have a clue what they’re on about…”
He criticises Gaelic and Gaelic-speakers with noblesse oblige. Indeed, anti-Gaelic sentiment has been a feature of the mainstream press for centuries and commentators continue to lampoon our community with cultural stereotypes. Beacom’s ‘Brigadoon’ and ‘Angus Òg’ effort was the latest in a long line.
Perhaps it’s time for editors to consider the message that their anti-Gaelic writers send out to the world. My friend nailed it, in response to the latest from McAvennie, stating: ‘Nothing like an uneducated fool opening their mouths and letting their belly rumble to make you feel alive, eh? Makes me feel so proud to be Scottish.’
McAvennie is really concerned that broadcasting football on a minority language channel will make Scotland a laughing stock. I have news for him, as a Yorkshireman with an international perspective. The only thing that makes me want to crawl up and die, when it comes to Scotland’s profile on an world-wide platform, is the continual inability of Scots to recognise and respect their country’s longest established, native language.
The problem may not be in the language but the likes of McAvennie himself, who continually make a virtue, and a career, of airing their prejudices in public.
The time as come for this to end, when it comes to Gaelic.
If it is we, as Gaelic-speakers, who must catalyse the change in reporting, then we need the help of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Riaghaltas na h-Alba (the government, Frank) in availing our newspapers’ editors of the guidance they so clearly need, if they are to report on Gaelic accurately and without prejudice.
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir is a writer and singer working in Gaelic and English. He is a PhD Candidate in the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has two bilingual poetry collections in print – ‘Deò’ (Grace Note, 2013) and ‘Lus na Tùise’ (‘Lavender’, Bradan Press, 2016) – as well as being the co-author, alongside Stuart A. Paterson, of the critically-acclaimed pamphlet ‘beul-fo-bhonn / heelster-gowdie’ (Tapsalteerie, 2017), which includes original poems and translations in Gaelic, Scots and English. For further information, check out www.marcas.scot