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The feeling of walking barefoot across a beach in summer and the sun-warmed sand chafing my toes takes me the length of this sentence to describe. My great-great-grandfather, Angus Morrison, would have used one word: driùchcainn.

That’s because, born and bred on the fringes of Western Europe, on Lewis, in the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, his mother tongue was Scottish Gaelic.

It’s the ancient Celtic language heard by TV audiences tuning into the Highlands time-travelling saga Outlander.

Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s list of imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’ 

In real life, working together crofting, fishing, weaving or cutting peat for fires, my ancestors spoke in Gaelic. It was spoken at home, sung at parties, used at church. But education in Angus’s day was strictly in English. As late as the 1970s, children were sometimes punished for speaking Gaelic at school.

Raised alongside Atlantic surf and storms, he became a sailor. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, moved to Glasgow, and settled there working as a ship’s rigger. Among the principles he instilled in the family was the importance of education. But he did not pass on his cradle tongue.


Dr Marsaili MacLeod says there's a fear that we risk losing some of our cultural diversity "through globalisation and English as a global language” (Credit: Getty Images)

On the brink of extinction

My family story illustrates what linguistics experts call intergenerational breakdown. In 2018, along with about half of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages, Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s list of imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’. Research suggests that one of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority languages is a thriving economy. As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres, meaning people are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold.

One of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority languages is a thriving economy

Today, only my father has a little Gaelic. My own knowledge is limited to words adopted into English, such as ‘ceilidh’ – meaning a social gathering, usually with Scottish or Irish folk music.

That puts me in the same boat as most Scots. The 2011 census showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic skills. In a population of five million-plus, this amounts to 87,100. Of these, only 32,400 were able to understand, speak, read and write it. Which is why the Scottish government is investing millions in trying to save it – through broadcasting, cultural and education projects. This ranges from Gaelic groups for pre-schoolers to ensuring the police and ambulance services have Gaelic language policies in place.

The budget for this tax year is £27.4m ($36m). But is it even possible to resuscitate a dying language – and does it really matter anyway?

In Scotland, news of £2.5m of further public funding for a new Gaelic dictionary has stirred debate. Over the past four decades, successive governments of different political stripes have all supported the language. But critics say the  policy is artificial and nostalgic and the cash should go to teaching modern world languages such as Spanish. “If Gaelic is dying does it deserve a financial kiss of life?” wrote columnist Brian Beacom in The Herald.

The 2011 census showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic skills, In a population of five million-plus this amounts to around 87,100 (Credit: Getty Images)

The controversy is mirrored across the globe in countries such as New Zealand, where funding for Te Reo Maori (one of the country’s three official languages) is hotly disputed. In Germany, 60,000 Sorbs are fighting to retain government funding for the two separate languages they want to keep alive.

“It’s very easy to use an economic argument that monolingualism would be much more cost effective and that would reduce conflict and create economic efficiencies,” says Dr Marsaili MacLeod, lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and a champion of language rights. “But we would lose something if we all became one international nation with one language. People today really value cultural diversity and there’s a fear that we’re losing that through globalisation and English as a global language.”

The value of an ancient tongue

Spoken in Scotland for more than 1,500 years, in Medieval times it was the primary language for swathes of Scotland. But over the centuries usage shrank back to the Hebrides and the Highlands. In 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, British government troops defeated Jacobite forces. Afterwards, state suppression of clan culture and traditions included banning Gaelic.

Generally, English was seen as the language of study, commerce and material success

It was further weakened over the following century by the Highland clearances, when landowners evicted crofters from land rented for generations so that sheep farming could be introduced for higher profits. The resulting mass migration means that today there are Gaelic-speaking communities in Nova Scotia in Canada as well as in New Zealand, Australia and the US.

“Historically, Gaelic and pretty much any minority language tended to be excluded from formal usage, marginalised from economic life,” says Wilson McLeod, professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “The traditional formulation was that Gaelic had no commercial value.”

Then in the 1970s a pioneering business model emerged on the Isle of Skye. Landowner Sir Iain Noble turned disused farm buildings into the Gaelic college and cultural centre  Sabhal Mor Ostaig and set up an hotel and a whisky distillery. He insisted that Gaelic was to be the normal working language of the estate. This was a new idea. “Nobody in the 1950s and 1960s in Scotland was working in an office in the medium of Gaelic,” says McLeod.

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

Thinking began to change. Politicians became interested in the idea of Gaelic as a motor in economic development, particularly in peripheral areas. “From the early 19th Century onwards, the economy of the Highlands and islands had been in perpetual crisis with out-migration, serious population decline, serious underdevelopment, and poverty,” says McLeod.

The 1980s brought key language policies with increased public funding for Gaelic arts, culture and education and especially for television. In  2005 the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh passed a law to promote and protect Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, with the aim of it “commanding equal respect to the English language.”  Since then, Gaelic education has been growing. Even parents arriving in Scotland from countries such as Germany and Turkey are sending their offspring to Gaelic-medium nurseries and schools.

Today, latest research by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 2014 puts the present yearly economic value of Gaelic at about £5.6m and estimates its potential as high as £148.5m. In sales and marketing, for instance, it can enhance perceptions of uniqueness, authenticity and provenance, thus increasing appeal to target customers. 

In 2005 a law was passed to protect Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, with the aim of it “commanding equal respect to the English language” (Credit: Getty Images)

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”.  

With husband John, a fisherman now retired, she brought up their four sons as Gaelic speakers. “We made our kitchen an English-free zone, encouraging them to speak Gaelic naturally.”

Living in the Gaelic heartland, where the highest concentration of speakers is found, how does she feel about new learners with no link to the language? “I spent my life teaching Gaelic to people from every place under the sun but the day we lose the natural communities where Gaelic is spoken I think Gaelic is going to become like Latin,” she says. “It’ll be a dead language.”

She sees it as a priority for public funding to support the language in the areas where it is still spoken – and where there are a wealth of dialects with their own idioms and sayings.

“The language is part of me and I would feel I would be losing part of my own being if I wasn’t able to use it,” she says.

Her family has farmed locally through the generations for nearly two centuries. Today, eldest son Donald runs a nearby croft but rather than fishing or weaving, his other job is presenting Farpaisean Chon-Chaorach – a series about sheepdog trials on BBC Alba.  Two of his brothers are also in jobs where Gaelic is essential.

Latest research into the Gaelic language labour market identifies the key sectors as public administration, creative industries, education and tourism. Women are taking up more of these jobs than men. This is probably because many new posts are in education, early learning and childcare – sectors employing a higher proportion of females. The study by Skills Development Scotland projected that 98,000 new jobs would be created across the country between 2015 and 2027.

On UNESCO’s list of imperilled languages Scottish Gaelic is classed as ‘definitely endangered’ (Credit: Getty Images)

Celtic guanxi?

While Gaelic was written out of business for centuries, recent research into Irish Gaelic – closely related to Scottish Gaelic – reveals that this exclusion brings its own surprising advantages. This is because Irish and Chinese culture differ to Anglo-American culture in that business is developed on the basis of personal relationships, rather than power and money, says Cathal Brugha, professor emeritus in the School of Business at Ireland’s University College Dublin.

“Your typical American trying to do business in China will start by handing out their business card or Visa card and say ‘I want to buy this’ and the Chinese person will say ‘I don’t even know you, I will not do business with someone I don’t know. We’re going to develop a relationship and then we’re going to do things together’,” he says.

The Chinese word for this concept is guanxi – which exists in Irish as caidreamh, he says.

Translated into English? “You would need almost a paragraph: personal relationships that involve a certain amount of getting to know each other and reciprocity and reliance on one another and favour-making and leaning on the other person when you have a need and remembering that they owe you something so that you’re going to ask them to do something maybe in years to come,” says Brugha.

It's a concept understood the world over but certainly the Irish Gaelic word is a neat distillation. So, this summer, when I wander along a beach on the island of Islay in the Southern Hebrides, and feel the white sand between my toes, I will think of my forebears and their wealth of words yet unknown to me.

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