Saying things you can’t say in English
But for lovers of Gaelic, the language is beyond price. With 18 letters in its alphabet, no direct equivalent for ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and five syllables needed to say ‘please’, it is very different from English. It gives access to a unique treasure trove of history, literature, song and storytelling — and vocabulary to express ideas not readily put into English.
“It’s all to do with identity,” says Marsaili MacLeod. “It’s the language of my forebears, my grandfather’s and grandmother’s generation, the language of place and of people. It gives me a sense of who I am and where I come from.”
It provides an understanding of environment that’s been built up over generations — from the workings of landscape and weather to the healing properties of plants, she says. “Any indigenous language has a lot to tell about that place.”
Rooted in close-knit rural communities, these original languages also tend to place people. “When you meet someone in Gaelic the first thing you ask is ‘Where are you from? Who out of are you? Who do you belong to?’”, says MacLeod.
In the Maori language of New Zealand, she says, people introduce themselves with ‘What boat did I arrive on? Which is my lake? Who are my people?’.
To learn more about great-great-grandfather Angus, I need to head to the windswept and wildly beautiful tip of the island of Lewis, the most north-westerly point in Europe. It’s here that descendants of migrant families find their way from north and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to a trim white-painted former schoolhouse – home to a museum and café run by the Ness Historical Society.
Annie Macsween, chair of the society, helps visitors navigate family archives from the 1800s, and earlier. A retired teacher of Gaelic, and a native speaker, Macsween’s fascination for the past was sparked by a summer job in a retirement home as a teenager.
“I would sit and talk to the old folks at night and hear about their lives and history,” she recalls. “In school we learned all about kings and queens and the geography of other places but not of our own Highlands and islands and the history of it.”
The subject of her university thesis – the poetry and history of her home village – was at the time considered not very academic. Today, it’s what Unesco call “intangible cultural heritage”.