Right-wing journalist and British nationalist writer Allan Massie has a misleading opinion piece in today’s Scotsman newspaper on the Scottish or Scottish Gaelic language (or more correctly those citizens of Scotland who speak it) that is so filled with patronising prejudice that for once it almost defies comment.
“My father, in his old age, was asked if he would be wearing a kilt at a grandson’s wedding. He replied, “I’m a Lowlander. I’ve never worn a kilt in my life”. He had been born and brought up in Aberdeenshire, lived there till he went to Malaya as a very young man, and, like most Lowlanders of his generation, had no time for Gaelic. He thought it nonsensical for public money to be spent keeping the language on a life-support machine. I suspect that even today, despite the pro-Gaelic propaganda to which we are subjected, and despite, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of signs in Gaelic, a majority of Lowland Scots would agree with him, believing that public money spent on Gaelic might be better spent elsewhere – or, of course, not spent at all.
By 1755, 23 per cent of Scots were Gaelic speakers, in 1901 4.5 per cent, in 2001 1.2 per cent. The decline may have been arrested, partly as a result of the establishment of a handful of Gaelic-medium primary schools (though there are fewer than 1,000 children in them), but it is in the highest degree improbable that the language will recover even to the level it was at in 1901. Moreover, a fair number of Gaelic speakers then were monolingual, while others habitually used it at home. This is no longer the case. Gaelic’s survival will be as a hobby language.
Now the hypocrisy is officially encouraged. Successive Scottish governments, eager to emphasise our distinct national identity, have made Gaelic a key feature of our difference from England, and have fostered the pretence that we are a bilingual nation. We aren’t.
To subscribe to the official view that we are a bilingual English-and-Gaelic speaking nation is to indulge in cant. It is to practise intellectual dishonesty. The Irish historian, journalist and politician, the late Conor Cruise O’Brien was critical of the reverence in which Irish Gaelic was held in the Republic: “Holding high esteem for a language you don’t actually use while holding the one you do actually use in low esteem is,” he wrote, “to be in a parlous mental and moral condition”.”
Of course the maverick Conor Cruise O’Brien, who later stood as a would-be British Unionist politician in the north-east of Ireland after serving as a authoritarian government minister in Dublin, was married to Máire Mhac an tSaoi, one of the most respected Irish-speaking scholars, writers and poets of her generation which makes one question his own “parlous mental and moral condition”.
It seems that in both Gaelic nations petty bigotry towards Gaelic-speaking men, women and children will remain the norm of the anglophone media establishments. Which of course is the same as it ever was.