by Sara McQueen
Heading north at the Scottish border with England, you pass a sign. It reads Fàilte gu Alba, welcoming you in a language which has historically clung to existence in the mountainous, weather-beaten West and the far-away islands perched in the icy northern Atlantic.
Today, Gaelic is almost beginning to thrive again. Whilst you might not expect to overhear it on your average stroll down Glasgow’s Byres Road, it is being taught in schools and universities and occupies a respected and promoted place in the current and future plans of the Scottish government.
Here are 8 reasons to consider Scottish Gaelic as your next language-learning adventure. Gur math a thèid leibh!
Many different factors have come into play in the historical reduction of the Gaelic language in Scotland, and scholars may disagree on certain aspects. The disasterous defeat at Culloden in 1746 led to the banning of tartan, the bagpipes and the carrying of weapons in the Highland clans. The Highland Clearances might have been further accelerated by the events following Culloden, but arguments are made for a more continuous series of events culminating in the gradual loss of the language over centuries.
One such account is this recent post by Nicola Martin. No matter what you believe as far as the history is concerned, it’s certain that the language would benefit from a little help to get it back on its feet. At last count, the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland had dropped by 0.2%, but the overall proportion of Gaelic speakers under 20 years old had grown. Take the time to learn, and you’re not only investing time in a persecuted language, but also preparing yourself to communicate with a new, growing generation of speakers.
The culture in which the Gaelic language was nurtured was largely oral. A few celebrated manuscripts of Gaelic survive, and occasionally translations were made of significant historical texts into Gaelic, but typically, this is a language that especially thrives in song. Gaelic singers often still adopt traditional styles, from the waulking song intended to keep spirits high as women worked to soften thick tweed, to heart-wrenching laments which could be dedicated to a lost lover or even to a lost way of life.
There is a small but growing group of younger Gaelic singers emerging from Scotland, and their beautiful music would be the perfect soundtrack to your studies. One of my favourite artists is Julie Fowlis.
And of course, if you already live here then it will open up many new ways to feel closer to the traditions of the past, not to mention a great excuse to visit a Gaelic language group (Glaswegians - try the West End cafe, For Fika Sake, on a Thursday evening for Gaelic evening). On the roads and in the train stations, you will find bilingual Gaelic/English signs of place-names. Visit a Gaelic church and enjoy listening to Gaelic psalms and prayers - if you find yourself in Glasgow then there is Columba’s Church in the city centre. Look out, too, for pubs who host traditional musicians at informal sessions. The music is fantastic and you may well meet Gaelic speakers to practice with, preferably with a wee dram of whisky in hand.
The public consultation period for the revised Gaelic Language Plan has just come to a close and once finalised, there are big ideas and momentum coming into play to improve the number of Gaelic speakers in bonnie Scotland. If it interests you, you can check out the latest installment here, but one particularly promising aspect is the focus on Gaelic Media and Arts which should lead to more interesting ways to engage in the language that feel just a little more modernised.
If you are drawn to Gaelic as a potential professional skill rather than a hobby, then the plan also sets the intention of prioritising Gaelic-medium teaching, publishing, media and tourism. If you are interested in teaching, the arts or literature, then there has never been a better time to learn.
This radio station can be accessed online, and it has regular shows as well as the very useful podcast series Beag air Bheag (Little by Little). Keep it on in the background and see how many words you begin to remember - learning a new language has never been easier!
Gaelic-speaking or not, everyone should make the trip to the most rural outcrops of Scotland if they can. It feels like a different world, and the fact that the weather is sometimes nothing short of hostile has been known to produce some outstanding sunsets, so there’s always that! However, take the plunge and pick a sunny time to visit and it will take your breath away. The largest concentration of Gaelic speakers live in the Outer Hebrides so you’re certain to get a chance to practice. To find out more, check out the awesome video here, courtesy of Visit Scotland.
Plus, some language courses run from the islands - giving you the chance to really immerse yourself in the language and culture. The University of Highlands and Islands offers courses on Skye that you can read about here and if you are visiting during a feis (festival) then you will often find one-off classes in Gaelic language and music as part of the celebrations.
Although, as mentioned earlier, Gaelic has developed from a very oral culture, there are still some fascinating literary sources that you could read in a whole new light by brushing up on your Gaelic. The Scottish Poetry Library has a selection of beautiful poetry which also has English translations to help you understand them (http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/tags/gaelic). There’s nothing quite like sounding out the strange words and hearing a poem come to life, even if your pronunciation is a little… interesting, to start!
If you are a writer by trade, or willing to give it a go, then Creative Scotland is a wonderful resource to find ways to present your own written work in Gaelic and ranges from voluntary to paid positions and writing opportunities.
Have you ever been to Nova Scotia in Canada? There, you will find a Gaelic College, a Highland Village Museum and an a community of Nova Scotians who can trace back their lineage to the fallout of the clearances back in old Scotland. New Glasgow, Iona and Inverness are all named after their Scottish counterparts and over 7,000 speakers of ‘Gaelic Languages’ reported in Canada in the 2011 census. If a flight to Scotland is a bit far, then check out Nova Scotia, too!
Glasgow University offers undergraduate language and culture courses and Edinburgh University offers undergraduate teaching with Gaelic, and short language courses. Dundee University and the University of Highlands and Islands (from their college on the Isle of Skype) - offer distance learning and part-time courses, so there’s something to suit most.
Of course, this could certainly be said about any of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world, but do allow this indulgence in favour of Gaelic. There are copious words for mountain, even more for rain and a mind-boggling 8 forms of the definite article. Not to mention the gloriously rural sayings that still inhabit the language. A personal favourite at the moment is the optimistic saying: an rud a ghlèidhear seachd bliadhna, gheibh e feum uaireigin - if you keep a thing for seven years, then you’ll find a use for it.
The average language enthusiast probably doesn’t need much more encouragement to start researching. The faintest scent of a new language starts the brain off in a tangent that ends with a head in a dictionary. Gaelic, for me, evokes the comfort of a fire on a cold, rainy evening and is a language as connected to the land and nature as with the people who speak it. Whether you already know some Gaelic, or you were just curious, thanks for checking out our reasons to learn Scottish Gaelic.
If you need a translator in a hurry, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at Global Language Services. We’re based in Scotland and provide services in many languages - including Scottish Gaelic, of course!
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