Since publicising on this blog that I’ve been doing Gaelic maps of Scotland, I’ve experienced a considerable amount of abuse on social media from people with a political motive for denigrating Scotland’s distinctive linguistic history and traditions. Strangely, these very same people accuse me of politicising the Gaelic and Scots languages by attempting to use them as national languages pertaining to the whole of Scotland.
The most common objection is that “Gaelic was never spoken in XYZ”, where XYZ is a town or district in the Lowlands which is chock full of Gaelic place names. The existence of these names is incontrovertible proof that Gaelic was once the dominant language of the district. The map on the left is a representation of the approximate extent of different languages in Scotland around the year 1000. The map is largely based on information contained in the book Scottish Place Names by WFH Nicolaisen. It’s important to remember that Gaelic was influential and important even beyond those areas where it was spoken by a majority of the population.
There was a time when Gaelic was spoken natively in the areas of all of Scotland’s modern cities. Like everywhere else on the Scottish mainland north of the Forth and Clyde, Dundee and Aberdeen were once solidly Gaelic speaking. Dundee is itself a Gaelic name, Dùn Dè in modern spelling, the first part of the name means fort, the meaning of the second part is disputed, but may be an Old Gaelic word for fire.
Likewise Glasgow was once deep within the Gaelic speaking area, as is proven by Gaelic place names within the city, and north, south, east and west of it. Barrachnie in the east of the city is from Bàrr Fhraochnaidh ‘the hill of the heathery place’, Garscadden in the west of the city is from Gart nan Sgadan ‘the farm or yard of the herring’. Ibrox, the spiritual home of red white and blue fleg waving deniers of Scotland’s Celtic identity, is from the Gaelic Àth Bruic ‘badger ford’. Dumbreck is from An Dùn Breac ‘the speckled fort’. To the south east there’s Cambuslang from Camas Long ‘the river bend of the ships’.
Even Edinburgh contains numerous Gaelic place names like Craigentinny – Creag an t-Sionnaich ‘the rock of the fox’, Craigmillar – Creag Mhaol-Àirde ‘the rock of the bare height’, Balerno – Baile Àirneach ‘town of the hawthorn’, Corstorphine – Crois Thoirfinn ‘Thorfinn’s cross’, and many more. These names prove that Edinburgh was once home to a large and politically and culturally important Gaelic speaking population.
Gaelic belongs to the Lowlands as much as it belongs to the Highlands. It may no longer be spoken natively in Lowland communities, but this is a fairly recent historical development. Gaelic survived in the south of Ayrshire and Galloway until as late as the end of the 18th century. It was once present in every part of the country. There is even evidence that Gaelic was present in the Northern Isles prior to the Viking invasions which established a form of Norse as the majority speech of the islands.
The Buckquoy spindle-whorl is a stone weight discovered in Buckquoy in Orkney in 1970. It’s a circular stone once used as a weight to assist weaving and it bears an inscription in Ogham letters. The inscription is in Old Gaelic and reads Benddact anim L. ‘A blessing on the soul of L.’ The stone is local, not imported from outwith Orkney. It does not prove that Gaelic was the majority language of Orkney, but it does provide evidence that the Gaelic language was both known to and was culturally important to the pre-Viking inhabitants of Orkney.
The truth is that Gaelic was once the sole or dominant language of every part of the Scottish mainland west and north of a line drawn very approximately from just to the east of Edinburgh to Gretna on the Border. It’s only in the relatively small part of Scotland to the east and south of this line where Gaelic was never spoken by a majority of people as a mother tongue. That doesn’t mean that Gaelic had no presence whatsoever in these areas. It did. Gaelic was present in all parts of what is now the territory of Scotland. It was even present across the modern border in what’s now the English county of Cumbria where there are a number of Gaelic place names, such as Ravenglass from Gaelic Roinn Glas ‘the green share’.
There’s a small but significant cluster of Gaelic place names in East Lothian. In this part of the county Gaelic probably was at one time the language of the majority. This Gaelic area is centred on the town of Gullane which most likely takes its name from the Gaelic word Gualainn, meaning ridge. Even much further south in the Borders we find places like Auchencrow, which is seemingly from Achadh na Craoibhe ‘field of the tree’, although this isn’t certain as the oldest attested form of the name is Aldencraw. However place name scholar Iain Mac an Tailleir suggests that Aldencraw may represent the Gaelic Allt na Crà ‘stream of the salmon trap’.
A name providing more certain evidence for the presence of Gaelic in the Borders is Longformacus, from the Gaelic Longphort Mhacais, the stronghold of Macas. Longformacus is next to the town of Duns, which takes its name from the nearby Iron Age hillfort. It was probably given the name dyn in the Brittonic Cumbric language, a word which refers to a hillfort, but the modern name derives from the Gaelic equivalent, dùn. In modern Gaelic the town is called Dùintean, the plural of dùn. Likewise Dunbar in East Lothian is probably originally a Cumbric name, but like Duns it comes down to us in a thoroughly Gaelicised form. The original Cumbric name Dyn Barr ‘the fort of the hill’ was Gaelicised to Dùn Bàrr with the same meaning and the modern English name derives from this Gaelic version.
The scattering of Gaelic names in the extreme south and east of Scotland, and the larger number of Cumbric names which have been Gaelicised tell us that while Gaelic might not have been numerically dominant in these areas, it was culturally and politically dominant. The presence of Gaelic, even in these areas, is still felt to this day.
Scotland has a complex linguistic history. Before the spread of Gaelic, the inhabitants of Scotland south of the Forth-Clyde line spoke a language known to modern linguists and historians as Cumbric, those to the north spoke Pictish. The claim is sometimes made, most often by people who seek to downplay the importance or relevance of Gaelic in modern Scotland, that if we acknowledge that Gaelic is a national language of modern Scotland, then we must also acknowledge that Cumbric and Pictish are too.
There’s a problem with this argument, and that problem is that before any linguistic variety can be acknowledged as a national language of a modern country it must first of all be capable of functioning as a language. Pictish and Cumbric are not capable of functioning as languages. They are fossil languages preserved only in a handful of place and personal names. There are no connected texts in Cumbric. We know it was closely related to Welsh, but we know nothing about how it differed, as it must have differed, from Welsh. Pictish is attested in some two dozen inscriptions in the Ogham alphabet, but no one is able to make much sense of them. We know next to nothing about the grammar, sound-system or vocabulary of Pictish, not even things as basic as the numerals or the personal pronouns. For that reason, while Pictish and Cumbric are important in Scottish history, they cannot be national languages of a modern Scotland. Not enough is known about them in order for anyone to speak them.
There’s a similar problem with the Norn language which was spoken in Orkney and Shetland, and bilingually along with Gaelic in Caithness, until as late as the middle 19th century (at least in parts of Shetland). Norn is far better attested than either Pictish or Cumbric, but the surviving texts in the language total only a couple of pages, written in a spelling which doesn’t accurately represent the underlying sounds of the language. All that can be said with any certainty is that Norn was probably very similar to modern Faroese, although it differed from Faroese in ways we can be far less certain about. Given the poor attestation of the language, it’s not feasible to revive Norn. That doesn’t mean that people who live in the Northern Isles should not celebrate their Norse linguistic heritage, but it does mean that in practical terms it’s only feasible for them to do so by learning a modern Scandinavian language proper to some other Norse country.
There are other languages spoken in Scotland. There’s Scots, which likewise has a claim to the status of national language. In the case of Scots, its claim to that status rests upon the fact that it was the official language of the Scottish state for much of the time that Scotland was an independent country. Due to limitations of space, I’m not going to discuss Scots in this article, suffice to say that I believe that Scots is every much a national language of Scotland along with Gaelic and Scottish Standard English.
Polish, Chinese, Urdu, and other community languages are present in modern Scotland. But they’re not national languages of Scotland. Their use should be encouraged and supported, but the main demographic and cultural weight of these languages is outwith Scotland. The communities within Scotland which use them can make use of cultural resources produced in Poland, China, or Pakistan in order to foster and support the continuing use of these languages within Scotland. That’s not the case for Scots or Gaelic. Gaelic and Scots rely entirely upon the cultural resources produced for them within Scotland.
I’ll be blunt. I have no time or patience for idiots who complain that a bilingual road or train station sign, or a Gaelic medium school that their children are not obliged to attend, means that Gaelic is being “imposed” upon them. Imposing a language means being punished for speaking some other language, an experience within the memory of many Gaelic and Scots speakers. Having to see the Gaelic version of a place name on a train station sign is not imposing a language. A bilingual English-Gaelic sign neither prejudices nor punishes English speakers. It’s simply making a public statement that Gaelic has as much right to a public presence in Scotland as English does. English speaking Scots who regard this as an imposition upon them are nothing more than mewling fools with a sense of monoglot privilege who seek to legitimise their disdain for Gaelic by claiming victimhood status. They do not deserve either sympathy or understanding. They are victims only of their own arrogance and their own ignorance. If you believe that Gaelic or Scots are irrelevant to you that is perfectly fine. But you do not have the right to demand that they should be irrelevant to everyone else as well.
The reason that Gaelic is a national language pertaining to all of Scotland rests upon two main claims. Firstly there’s the claim that the language was present across virtually all of the territory of modern Scotland. It was once far more widespread territorially than Scots has ever been. But more importantly even than that is the role that the Gaelic language played in the creation of the Scottish nation. The mediaeval Latin word Scotti referred to speakers of Gaelic, and after the Wars of Independence and during the High Middle Ages when the various linguistic and social groups present in the Kingdom of Scotland adopted a Scottish identity, they were making the social statement that they shared a national identity with Gaelic speakers. It is no coincidence that the national myths of Scottish origins, the stories of Dalriada and Fergus Mor MacEarca, the stories of Kenneth Macalpine and his violent dinner party, are all Gaelic stories.
Scotland was born in the imaginings of the Gaelic language. Gaelic is fundamental to Scottishness. The great flourishing tree of Scottish identity and culture took root in Gaelic soil. Gaelic speakers created a state and for much of its history as an independent country that state expressed itself through the medium of Scots.
The real reason that Gaelic and Scots attract such hatred is that they are proof that Scotland has a culture and an identity of its own. They prove that Scotland is a nation with a rich heritage. They prove that there is substance to being Scottish beyond the Unionist claim that Scottish nationalism is motivated by hatred of the English, and that’s why they have to be diminished and destroyed. It’s really those who seek to undermine attempts to foster and protect the Gaelic and Scots languages who are politicising the languages.
Audio version of this blog article, courtesy of Sarah Mackie @lumi_1984 https://soundcloud.com/occamshaver/wee-ginger-dug-25th-oct-2016
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