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Everyone Loves The Scottish Language But The…

Fáilte Gu McDonald's, Albain
Fáilte Gu McDonald’s, Albain

Yesterday I wrote about that tired old phenomenon of the self-hating Irishman and woman: a small but influential minority of the English-speaking majority who regard our indigenous language and those who speak it with a level of hatred and zealotry that borders on racism (and “borders” is a charitable way of putting it). One of the more poisonous after-effects of eight centuries of English colonial rule in Ireland this culture of discrimination continues to blight the social fabric and politics of our nation. But we are not alone in that.

Our fellow Gaels in Scotland face the same attitudes from the anglophone extreme there. Speakers of the Scottish language (Scots Gaelic) regularly experience bigotry in all aspects of their lives, from the streets to the newspapers. Journalist David Walker reflects some of those attitudes in a recent article for the Largs and Millport Weekly News, a local newspaper in Scotland, showing how prevalent, widespread and quite casual this culture of intolerance is:

“I’ve had enough of Gaelic. There I’ve said it.

I didn’t say garlic there – I’m not a vampire – but Gaelic, that strange language that’s everywhere in our midst despite no one actually speaking it.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind the language itself, the practice of it, or its traditions – I even think it’s laudable that people are trying to keep it going – just keep it well away from me.

The inexorable bureaucrat-driven rise of the Gaelic movement and its continued encroachment into an overwhelmingly English-Scots-speaking populace has, to my mind, been annoying and anachronistic at best, and faintly sinister at worst.”

The desire of Scottish speakers to seek equal civil and legal rights with their English speaking peers is “sinister”?

“I suspect that such basic phrases as “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (Do you speak Gaelic?), the more advanced “Tha mi ag iarraidh briosgaid!” (I want a cookie) or “Kaw uhn KEU-ra shin KAW-la root uh CHOO-nik mee uhn-royer?” (Who was that sheep I saw you with last night?) would go right over your head.”

Ah yes. People who speak the indigenous Scottish language but of course like to have sexual intercourse with animals. Now that’s not the least bit racist is it, David? And don’t forget, men who speak Arabic like to groom prepubescent girls for sex and people who speak Hebrew regularly sacrifice babies at midnight masses.

“The propaganda merchants tell us that if Gaelic does indeed die then this generation of Scots will have been complicit in a grievous act of folly; that something of Scotland’s soul will have been lost forever. They say that not many other countries have their very own ancient tongue and one that carries some of the most beautiful music, poetry and prose in Scotland’s bounty.

But the death of a language is surely as unavoidable as the rising of the tide; it becomes obsolete because it is obsolete. Like Latin, it falls by the wayside because it becomes outmoded, impractical and unwieldy – and no amount of marketing, promotion or money can change that.

By any normal yardstick, Gaelic should barely exist in modern day Scotland. It exists in a more historical landscape, redressing old rural grievances rather than expressing new metropolitan demands.”

Actually, no. The “death” of a language is not a natural event. It is an artificial event created by specific social, economic and political forces. Including racist ones. Scottish did not arrive where it is by choice. It arrived there at the point of sword and gun.

“Only on a superficial level does it help the tourist trade by rewarding visitors with that quaint sense of difference that all visitors seek. It’s pleasing primarily because it conforms to the stereotypes of a Scotland that no longer exists – but ultimately it’s as superfluous as the Loch Ness Monster or a wee Australian dressing up as one of our national heroes and telling us that he knows all about our freedom.”

Really, David? Well this American tourist and travel writer at USA Today Travel seems to strongly disagree:

“You know you’re in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland when McDonald’s greets you in Scottish Gaelic.

Have no worries, this northern part of Scotland is not overrun with fast food outlets. Inverness, which is a hub of transport and trade and the administrative capital of the Highlands. does have a McDonald’s in its city center, though.

On the windows of the store in Inverness, ‘welcome to McDonald’s’ and other familiar slogans of the chain are in Scottish Gaelic. I didn’t stop in to see if they have menu boards in both English and Scottish Gaelic as well, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Slightly more than one percent of people in Scotland speak Gaelic as their first or day to day language, but many more have an acquaintance with it, through school days, through community activities, through music, and through signage. That signage part has been controversial at times. People have asked: is it really a good use of the government’s money, or a business or school district’s funds, to make sure there are dual language signs on the road ways across Scotland, in government buildings, in the signs which explain exhibits in museums?

So far, the answer has been yes. I agree. When you lose a language, you lose a whole way of thought and creativity in thinking about a nation, a culture, a way of life, a whole way of understanding parts of history and ideas about the present day.”

It would seem that everyone loves the Scottish language – except for a bigoted minority of English-speaking Scots.

[ASF: Update 03.03.2012. It seems the offending article has been taken down from the Largs & Millport Weekly News website. The power of negative publicity?]

16 comments on “Everyone Loves The Scottish Language But The…

  1. Wee Red Squirrel

    Reblogged this on The Wee Red Squirrel and commented:
    The view from across the Irish Sea on Scotland’s languages.


  2. david smillie

    When I moved to Inverness in the late seventies I was astonished at the pure hatred expressed by the locals towards Gaelic. Having been brought up in SE Scotland and lived in Dublin, I had never encountered anything like it before and I found it profoundly depressing. That said, the racists (and I think that’s exactly what they are) are very definitely on the retreat here.


    • Thanks for the Comment, David. Interesting to note that the offending article has now been taken down from the Largs & Millport Weekly News website, or so it would seem. Interesting. Perhaps indeed they are on the retreat?


  3. Seán Ó Briain

    I think it’s wrong to label Scottish Gaelic as ‘The Scottish language’. It is not the Scottish language. It is one of a few Scottish languages. Scots is another which they are very proud of. I do like Gaidhlig, and understand some basics of it. It’s a wonderful language that should be kept.

    Title should be changed to to reflect the status of Gaelic.


    • Thanks for the Comment, Seán. However by that logic you could argue that the Irish language in Ireland should be only called the Gaelic language (or Irish Gaelic). Indeed that itself is an argument from the more extreme elements of the anglophone community here. They object to the use of “Irish” and insist on the use of “Gaelic”.

      And why? Because they are fully aware of the deep psychological and cultural ties that stem from referring to the Gaelic language in Ireland as the Irish language. As indeed did those 19th and early 20th century Irish nationalists who insisted on the change in terminology. They knew that by using “Irish” instead of “Gaelic” in ordinary English speech they were tying the language to the Irish nation and Irish nationality.

      Scottish nationalists who now refer to Scots Gaelic as “Scottish” in colloquial speech are doing the exact same thing. Binding language to community, nationality and nationhood. The same as we did.

      That does not detract from Scots, that is Scottish English. Or at least no more so than referring to Irish Gaelic as Irish detracts from Hiberno-English.

      As Irish and Scottish are sister languages, close members of the same Gaelic family, I think we should accept and encourage this exciting new development for our fellow Gaels. The movement seeking to recognise Scottish as Scotland’s “native” or “national” language will have enormous cultural benefits for the language and its speakers in the years to come.

      In that sense the title reflects the status of the language.

      Scottish = the Gaelic dialect of Scotland
      Scots = the English dialect of Scotland


      • Seán Ó Briain

        I’m sorry a chara, but I just don’t agree with your analysis. Unlike Ireland, Scotland varied greatly in it’s linguistics over time in different geographical regions. Lallans & Doric (Scots) is not a dialect of English as it stands. It’s actually derived from Old English – where Scots matured, alongside English. But it did not develop from modern English. It is linguistically incorrect to state that it is a dialect of Modern English.

        Scottish Gaelic itself is derived from an old form Irish. In fact, it was often referred to as ‘Irish’ in Scotland in the past. A quote from 1706, when analysing the languages in parishes in Caithness stated: “There are Seven parishes in [the Presbytery of] Caithness where the Irish language is used”.

        ‘Scottish’ is not an appropriate name for Gaidhlig, nor is it linguistically valid – as it completely overlooks Scots – which is a language that the Scottish people are very proud of. Gaidhlig, Gaelic, or Scottish Gaelic are the only terms I would consider valid. In the same respect, I would never refer to Scots as ‘Scottish’, or the ‘Scottish language’.

        I’m not an opponent of the language, but rather a huge supporter. I just think you’ve dived in at this article from an emotive perspective, rather than from a linguistic one.


        • Yes, but even linguists are divided over whether Scots should be categorised as an entirely separate language or not. The majority, even those favourable to it, tend to describe Scots as the dialect of the English language spoken in Scotland or as the English language spoken in Scotland. That is what I meant by describing Scots as the English dialect of Scotland. It was not intended as a pejorative labelling. I do believe it is sufficiently different from Basic British English to be classed as a distinct dialectal language within the English family of languages. It certainly deserves respect as one of the historic (if “late”) languages of Scotland. But its common origins and links with English are clear. But that is not a bad thing. Languages tell their own histories. They are living repositories of human history and development. Through Scots we can chart the importation and growth of English and English speakers in Scotland down through the centuries as much as any archaeological dig.

          Likewise the Scottish language of Scotland is a ‘dialect” of Gaelic. But so is Irish and Manx. They are dialects or languages within the Gaelic family of languages. There is no lessening of status in that. On the contrary it draws attention to a “commonality” of origins in language, culture and history that we should celebrate and embrace. They tell their own story too.

          As for the origins of Scots Gaelic in Proto- or Old Irish, new studies in history and archaeology are pointing towards the growth of the Gaelic languages in situ either side of the North Channel. Rather than seeing Gaelic as a 5th century export to Scotland some historians now see Scotland and Ireland existing in a single ‘Gaelic milieu” covering the island of Ireland and parts of northern Britain long before the historical growth of the Dál Riada either side of the channel. In that sense Scots Gaelic is native to Scotland, since it grew and developed there, linked to Irish Gaelic speakers in Ireland, and bound by a broadly common culture (societal structures, body of laws and customs, economies, oral and later literary traditions, political and familial links, etc.).

          Finally, up to the 15th century what was the Gaelic of Scotland most frequently referred to in the English language? “Scottish”!

          The terms Scottish and Scots were appropriated by English speakers in Scotland to refer to their dialect of English from the 1500s onwards and terms like Irish and Erse were only applied to Gaelic in Scotland, in popular speech, from the 1600s.

          By calling Scots Gaelic “Scottish” people in Scotland are simply taking back the original name for their language in the English tongue! And I support them in that 🙂


          • James Todd

            Also bears mentioning that, up to the 15th century, just as the Gaelic of Scotland was called Scottish, “Scots” was called “Inglis” by its speakers.

            This business of viewing the dialect as a separate language entirely is, in the large view, fairly recent.


  4. david smillie

    As a small side comment to the above exchange, Invernessians were equally unpleasant and dismissive of Lowland Scots speech. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that their attitudes were conditioned by the presence of English army contingents over a period of about 150 years from 1716 onwards. Reported Scots speech is replaced by English in the burgh during that time, a shift that happened nowhere else in Scotland. Gaelic persisted as the language of a poor peasantry in the area until the 1872 Education Act delivered a slow-acting death blow.

    I’m a bit sensitive to these attitudes since I’m a native Scots speaker, though I do have some Gaelic. Incidentally, the late Sir Iain Noble (staunch supporter of Gaelic) promoted the idea of renaming Gaidhlig as ‘ the Scottish language’ some years ago, but without success.


    • Thanks for the Comment, David. Some interesting points.

      I support the Scots language, as the English language spoken in Scotland. And I don’t intend that classification as an insult. I use it in the same way that I would say that Danish is the Scandinavian language spoken in Denmark while Norwegian is the Scandinavian language spoken in Norway. I do recognise the separate traits and nature of Scots and its enjoyably complex origins.

      As I pointed out below, “Scottish” (and indeed ‘Scots’) is the original title for Scots Gaelic in the English language. Scots Gaelic and Gaelic in popular speech all date to the late 18th and 19th centuries.

      So by saying the Scottish language one is merely reclaiming what once belonged to Scots Gaelic and achieving a balance in nomenclature.

      I also think it avoids confusion.

      Scots = the English language in Scotland.
      Scottish = the Gaelic language in Scotland.


      • James Todd

        I’m not sure “Scots” and “Scottish” are all that easily distinguishable. The two words are really just two ways of saying the same thing, “of Scotland”. The nomenclature ought to be much less vague. Scottish Gaelic has its origins in Scotland and Scots has its comparatively-recent origins in England, so…

        Scottish = The Gaelic of Scotland
        Scottish-English = The English of Scotland

        Much the same as the distinction between Irish and Irish/Hiberno-English.


      • I think what he is saying is why should it be called ‘Scottish’ now when it is now seen as originally Irish? The Irish claimed the Gael name as theirs from between the 17th to 19th century so it’s now become universally accepted as Irish, so that’s why most Scots are put off learning it.
        Scots seems more like how a Scottish language should be and not Irish.


        • Thanks for the Comment, Robert, always appreciate feedback. However I believe you may be somewhat confused there. The Scottish language was never seen as “originally” Irish, in the sense you mean, since it was the indigenous language of communities throughout Scotland at various stages in Scottish history. Since it may well have evolved locally in Scotland, and in parallel to Irish in Ireland, from a Q-Celtic/Goidelic mother-tongue (to use the linguistic descriptions) it has every right to be defined as “Scottish” or the “Scottish language”.

          The Irish have actually claimed the name “Gael” since the 6th century (at least). They have also used the name “Scot” too, from the 6th to 16th centuries (and it still crops up in historical and poetical works). “Gael” is used regularly by modern Scottish-speaking Scots in both English and Scottish. Though it means an Irish person it has a far wider meaning, and in Scotland means something different. It is a word with complex and subtle layers of meaning dependant on use.

          I’m not sure what you mean by “Scots seems more like how a Scottish language should be”? How so?


          • Hi Séamas, what I mean by the ‘Scots language’ being seen as more of a Scottish language than Gáidhlig is that it has the title of ‘Scots’ and is not associated with Ireland, where as ‘Gáidhlig’ does not, This no doubt causes many in Scotland to view Gáidhlig as foreign, and not Scottish, but an Irish language, which puts many Scots off from bothering to learn it because they do not feel that it is their language to learn, to say that the Irish are associated with it’s origin and not the Scots is all it takes to put people off, in the similar way that saying the word ‘Scots’ is associated with Irish puts Scots off of independence because that Romanist theory undermines Scottish nationalism to a degree. This is why the Scots language is naturally seen as theirs, and the old Pictish language as their original historic language of the nation.

            I have heard from many in the Youtube community that the terms ‘Scot’ and ‘Gael’ were once synonymous terms and that Scots-Gáidhlig was once known as ‘Scottis’ prior to the 16th century, after which, it then became known as ‘Erse’ in Scots.
            As with the term ‘Irish’ being a 16th century Roman Catholic term that was imposed upon the peoples of Hibernia (the real ‘Irish’ of the time) by Pope Leo X for the accusation of lying about their origin and entering a fraudulent claim – pages 376-379 of Benedict Fitzpatrick’s book “Ireland and the Foundations of Europe”.

            The man whom Christianised Hibernia/Ireland, I’ve heard, S.Patrick, referred to two different peoples of the land of Hibernia, the Hiberni (Irish) and the Scoti (New comers), he writes in his ‘confession/apology’ piece, that the Hiberni were the commonality, the Sons of the soil and the most populous people of the land and that the Scoti being distinctly different, were the ‘Nobilis/Regulus’ – Nobles and the ‘Men of Military’.

            I know you say that the Scottish language was never seen as originally Irish at the start there in a sense, although, many Irish and those with the Romanist view, believe that it was, which further undermines it ever being Scottish to many, there are a few other reasons as well on why it’s been in decline, but from my experience, and having spoken to many people on both sides, that is by far the biggest reason why people don’t view it as theirs and would rather speak the more Germanic Scots language, as it feels more naturally Scottish to them.


            • Ah, I see what you mean now. Well, some interesting points, and you are correct that in the English language Scots Gaelic was referred to as “Scottish” and the “Scottish language” up to the 16th and 17th centuries. Then the pejorative terms “Irish” and “Erse” were imposed by English speakers to describe Scots Gaelic (and still occasionally crop up) until the terms Gaelic and Scots Gaelic came into use in the 19th and 20th centuries. Meanwhile “Scots” became the name of the dialect of English spoken in Scotland.

              Some modern Scots now wish to revive Scottish as the correct term for Scots Gaelic, just as with Irish in Ireland and Manx in the Isle of Man (in fact the process began many decades ago). It is a logical step that I support.

              And I should point out that the English language, even in the form of Scots English, is an alien one to the island of Britain, and Scotland. On the other hand the Scottish language, in one form or another, is bound up with the land and the people of Scotland since at least the Late Bronze Age. It is in the very name of the country, even in English: Scotland, land of the Scots, the Scottish speakers.

              Glen, loch, kilt, etc. All Scottish in origin, not English. William Wallace. A Scottish-speaker. The indigenous Scottish language, the Gaelic tongue, is part of the weft and weave of the Scottish nation. It is the Scottish nation.


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