Gaelic at the End of the World

If you’re interested in Scottish Gaelic (which the Scots pronounce Gallic), a Celtic language closely related to Irish Gaelic, be prepared for a world of misconceptions. When I first picked up a Scottish Gaelic dictionary, I was twelve years old and had convinced my sister to smuggle me into her college library. That was the only way I could find a Gaelic dictionary or book. Times have changed. In the twenty-first century, the internet can bring Gaelic books to your door, but the misconceptions haven’t greatly shifted in the intervening period.

The fact that people now have hundreds of thousands of books at their fingertips just means that out of the way avenues like Gaelic remain unexplored. After all, why would you want to learn Scottish Gaelic? The most common thing people say to me when I bring it up is “Isn’t it dead?” They usually use the word “dead”. Not sure why. Maybe they are familiar with the phrase “dead languages” and are equating Gaelic with imperial Latin or Homeric Greek. I have always said “No.” to the “Isn’t it dead” question, but I was never really sure exactly how “un-dead” it was.

I took up an academic career as a Celtic scholar and became proficient in Welsh while living in the UK, added passable Irish Gaelic to that, learned to understand Breton and decipher Manx. Cornish and Pictish (little though there be) were not entirely mysterious, but somehow I was just always too busy to learn Scottish Gaelic, the reason I had become a Celticist in the first place. My least shining moment was when my professor offered to send me to Scotland to learn Gaelic and I opted to have a crazy week in Paris with some friends instead. The fact that the course of study was on the Isle of Skye made my betrayal worse, because my Gaelic-speaking ancestors were from Skye. My missed opportunities stayed with me a long, long time.

Years later I found myself telling my grandmother that I’d go and take that course “someday” and she, wisely, reminded me that there’s no time like the present. I considered this for awhile, too long, and after she had passed away, it came back to bite me. I decided to finally make that trip.

So this is where the story really starts, but the preamble has a lot to do with the significance of my arrival in July of 2012 on Skye. I was no stranger to Skye by that point- that pilgrimage at least I had made a couple of times- but I was still a little unsure what to expect. The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has been teaching Gaelic language and culture for almost 40 years. I had the idea that they were some kind of lonely academic outpost desperately teaching a few students a year (sorry SMO). I had no idea that they were at the center of a thriving Gaelic-speaking community that spanned the highlands and islands of Scotland and that around a hundred thousand Gaelic speakers still resided in Scotland. It seems almost impossible that a Celtic scholar managed to reach 2012 and not know that. It was the first of many revelations. It should have occurred to me that if my family managed to keep speaking Gaelic in the Carolinas of the USA for nearly 200 years after their arrival, a tenacious language would hold fast to it’s own landscape and endure, and be reborn into new generations.

Just to make things a little more offbeat, my scheduling for the summer meant that I signed up for a newly established course that placed a focus on travel around the island and learning outside the classroom. Skye is a tourist mecca for hiking and climbing, dazzling for photographers and for nature-lovers, so that all sounded brilliant to me, but I packed waterproof gear. The misty isle’s unpredictable weather is legendary and I had been both ice-burned and sun-burned on previous occasions. The new course was also running off site from the college campus that’s the home to SMO, in a “lodge” up north of Staffin on the Trotternish Peninsula. That seemed remote even to me, and when I arrived at a wild coastal landscape with dramatic volcanic views in each direction, it seemed unreal that I’d be spending a week in a place more suited to filming some kind of Viking epic. Beowulf could easily be filmed on Trotternish. They could even use the actual rocky shingles where Vikings drew up their longships. But maybe they wouldn’t want the actual Viking weather to interrupt their filming.

To add to the dream-like quality of the location, the sun would hardly set the entire week, and there’d be a dash of borealis, a shocking neon green, to keep you awake. The “lodge” was a stone house of generous proportions, recently renovated but maintaining a Georgian charm. It was alarmingly luxurious for language course accommodation, but that was part of what made the experiment unique. A small group of people were going to live in the house, travel together, and learn Gaelic more from observation and discussion than from staring at a white board.  That was the idea, and that was what happened.

Each of the students who arrived that Sunday afternoon had a slightly different story and widely divergent journeys in life. Most had taken some Gaelic courses before in some form, but felt for various reasons that they needed to start over and get a different kind of grounding in learning the language. Our teacher, Muriel Fisher, a native speaker from the Isle of Skye who has been a professor of Gaelic and linguistic consultant all over the world, was precisely the kind of change we all needed in our approach to language. I had looked at plenty of Gaelic books in my life- sure- I owned quite a few. They can give you an idea of the romance and structure of the language, but there will be something missing unless you learn Gaelic as a spoken language. It’s oral identity, firmly fixed, demands speech and sound at its formative level. I don’t mean to say that it is not, or cannot be, a literary language also. But Gaelic truly becomes a living language in the hands of a native speaker, and a native speaker knows best how to convey the vitality of a language to pupils.

Muriel’s approach did not focus on the minor rights and wrongs of language usage, but on what was most natural to the language. That’s where the outdoor classroom aspect came in. We learned the Gaelic for place-name features and landscape conversationally, by actually looking at them. How simple, but strangely revolutionary. Meanwhile, because we were moving through communities of Gaelic-speakers, we heard Gaelic spoken even more fluently around us. Anyone who has ever studied a language knows that this is key for beginners. If you only hear the beginners level of a language, you never progress and perhaps in more psychological terms, you never feel that desire to progress or dare to attempt conversations that you’re not sure you’re capable of. There is no doubt that this “experimental” format for the course had positive outcomes for the learners. Add to that the rich amount of history and local lore that we picked up, viewing the Gaelic-speaking community of the isles through real-world events, and gradually becoming even more aware of the tenacity that had kept the language alive through hardship and vast cultural shifts.

This learning aspect gave a greater reason for what we were doing, participating in the preservation of a language. It reminded us that we were becoming part of a community by speaking even one word of Gaelic. The Gaelic we were being introduced to in our rambles, ranging from an early medieval monastery ruin to a late medieval clan chief’s castle and a modern, functioning distillery, gradually increased in complexity, but I don’t think any of us noticed that progression. We were too busy being involved in our environment through the medium of Gaelic.

And at the end of the day we had a return to a small community environment, really mimicking an extended family set-up, with a pleasant sense of seclusion in a constantly changing landscape. Most evenings, the weather was clear enough to view the alluring silhouettes of the Hebrides hovering over the water in the distance. Just over them the sun would set in a streak of orangey-red, hang there for a few hours, then slide into the northern lights if you were still up to see them. We got used to the constant loud beating of waves only a few meters away that at first seemed almost deafening.

Skye, and the course, seemed to save the best for last. Our final day out and about on the island was so cloudless and the air so clear that I could hardly look at the stark landscape without sunglasses. Wind-swept, sun-struck, the ocean took on a Mediterranean blue with that chillier northern edge. We spent the day scrambling over ruins in the severe light, watching sheep being sheared, and learning more about the local community. Only a brief rest later we headed to a ceilidh gathering with a fluent-speaking Gaelic learning community in Flodigarry. We beginners were a little wary that we wouldn’t be able to communicate or participate fully in the party, but we needn’t have worried. I’ve been to ceilidhs before, but for me, this was a unique experience. It really seemed to redefine what a ceilidh is. It wasn’t necessarily the extraordinarily high quality of contributions from singing to instrumental performance to poetic recitation, though that was stellar, but the sense that this was just an informal, ordinary thing, where anyone could participate.

The sense of the ordinary conveyed something- that ceilidhs are, at heart, simply a communal gathering on any particular occasion- but that when they function through the medium of Gaelic, they become extraordinary. This is because it recreates the original circumstances of the language community itself. Ceilidhs were evening entertainments in a community of native speakers and that was what was happening at Flodigarry. Those two factors, simple though they may be, are the kind of thing that makes Gaelic a living language and will continue to do so.

I spoke to some of the people who were contributing to the event, trying to grasp a little of their background story for learning Gaelic, and in particular, pursuing Gaelic as a musical medium. Many were passionate supporters of folk music festivals in far-flung locales spanning the globe. Some were semi-professional, others just enthusiasts. All of them felt part of a community. It seemed like being at an event like this one made them feel like they had come home.

What does this kind of homing signal mean in an era where people are increasingly disconnected from the places where they live and work? I have actually lived in so many places in my life that I no longer remember how many. And yet, having taken the intensive Gaelic course, I am tempted to add Skye to the list. It just feels that way regardless of whether a week can “count” in that reckoning. I think that when people are increasingly faced with a wide range of cultural identities in their personal history, you enter into an era of “identification”. That means choice. If modern people, posed with the question of their national or international identity, decide to maintain their ties to a particular cultural identity, actually make the step to learn a language that has been lost or ineffectively transmitted in their heritage, it becomes quite a statement. It would be the equivalent of getting to choose your family. Everyone at the ceilidh had chosen their family. That’s a remarkable thing.

As long as people keeping choosing, and teaching, Gaelic will live on. It may be strongest in a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world from bustling cities like London or New York, but sometimes that’s the best place to hang out with your family and remember what you think’s important and why. It can be quite a revelation, and like my grandmother reminded me, there’s no time like the present.

To learn more about studying Gaelic with the SMO, click here.

To learn more about Muriel Fisher and all the great teaching she does in Scotland and the USA, click here.

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2 thoughts on “Gaelic at the End of the World

  1. How great to think of Skye as a place where modern people come to develop their chosen identities! Far from an island lost in time.

    1. Thanks Matt! Maybe that’s the new way of thinking in the 21st century with travel getting “easier”. People can choose where they “go home” to. Of course, it could also be pretty old-fashioned like seasonal migratory habits.

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