whither gaelic

Sat, May 17, 2008

I was reading the latest issue of An Gaidheal Ùr and came across an article by Joy Dunlop titled, “S truagh am meas a th’againn air ar dualchas fhèin”, which means “It’s sad the estimation we have of our own heritage”.

The article concerns Joy’s evening singing in the hall in Oban, a place I know well, being the hub for the southern islands, which I cycle toured for years in my early teens. It’s also a place I associate quite strongly with Gaelic. I know of three giants of the Gaelic world with Oban connections. Iain Mac a’Ghobhainn (Ian Cricthton Smith), Aonghas Phàdraig Caimbeul (Angus Peter Campbell) and Anna Latharna Nicgillìosa (Anne Lorne Gillies). Also, Argyll has very ancient Gaelic roots, with the Gaelic of Islay being the closest to the original language of the highlands, with the dialects becoming more diluted by Norse the further north you travel.

So you’d think there would be lots of Gaelic to be found in Oban, especially in the town hall, where Joy was singing. On the walls of the hall were pictures painted by the local schoolkids, each with a bilingual caption explaining a bit about the picture. From a distance, Joy naturally thought the second language would be Gaelic, until a closer inspection revealed “door/drzwi”. The captions were indeed bilingual. English and Polish.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Polish is more prevalent in the Highlands than Gaelic, so I tried to get some rough figures from the internet to back this up but all I could find were references to “critics” who claimed there were more Polish speakers in Scotland than Gaelic. This statement seemed to grow from an original article in the John O’Groat Journal where a disgruntled local exclaimed:

“We have more Polish speakers here than Gaelic speakers…”

note the use of the word “here”. I can believe there are more Polish speakers than Gaelic ones in Caithness. However, I then spotted an article in the Sunday Herald which claims:

“Critics think that is too much to splash out on a minority interest and point out there are more Polish speakers in Scotland than Gaels”

Other online articles use this same argument about Gaelic funding, basically saying that Poles outnumber Gaels. However, the only concrete reference I can find to back this up is the local “critic” who originally pointed out the large Polish presence in Caithness compared to Gaels. I get the impression that someone such as this “critic” has planted the seed in the minds of anti-Gaelic campaigners and the “statistics” have grown from a local imbalance of cultures to, “Poles takes over the Highlands”, to “Poles take the place of Gaels in Scotland”. Indeed, if this bunkum was taken to its logical conclusion, An Gaidheal Ùr (The New Gaels) would be the Poles.

That’s clearly a load of codswallop. If you go into the Co-op in Broadford you’ll hear loads of Gaelic. Likewise the Co-op in Portree. Jump on the ferry to Tarbert and you’ll hear the clear diction and easy going accent of Harris Gaelic. Head north past Clisham to the flat lands of Lewis and your ears will take time to attune to the Norse influenced Lewis Gaelic. Head south to Islay and, courtesy of Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle, you can hear Gaelic as close to Gaeilge (Irish) as you’ll get.

There are loads of Polish people in the highlands, yes and they’re very nice people too. We have loads of Polish friends at work now and it’s great to compare languages. Quite a few Poles I know are learning Gaelic and indeed, we had Polish friends over for dinner the other night and we had a short conversation in Gaelic. Not to mention Russian too (which I learned in school) and they taught us some Polish phrases, which went down well when the cat started chasing an owad!

I asked them about the reports of Polish people leaving Scotland in their droves but they had a different story to tell. The pound is worth about four Zloty just now and the other Poles they know who are leaving are going home for a few weeks as they have been here for several years.

I suspect the hand of political nonsense stirring these “statistics”. From the remark of one person in Caithness, the rumour mill has ground out statements to the effect that Scotland will become Nova Polandia but the actual word on the streets is of two vibrant cultures enhancing each other. Strangely enough I haven’t seen any calls to bolster Gaelic’s image against the tide of Polish immigration. It’s the complete opposite I see in most reports. It’s calls to diminish Gaelic’s status in reply to it being overtaken by Polish, which as I think I’ve pointed out satisfactorily, is rubbish.

So when you read reports of the death of Gaelic under a tidal wave of Polish, they’ve probably been written by rabid anti-Gaelic campaigners, who are, I’m sad to say, more numerous in the Highlands than midges.

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