My first encounter with (Scottish) Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, was at a mòd in Vancouver, Canada. A friend brought me along to this song and cultural festival and promptly introduced me to his Gaelic teacher, explaining to him that I spoke Irish, that other Gaelic. With a little effort, we were able to converse fairly naturally, each of us speaking our own language. At one point he was explaining the particulars of how people use different words on different islands and I noticed him using the word can, which in Irish means “sing”. To me, it sounded like people sing one word on a certain island but sing another word somewhere else. I attempted to clarify, and the exchange that ensued went something like this:
“Wait, so can means to say? Then how do you say to sing?”
“Oh, okay, for us seinm means to play an instrument.”
“For that we say cluich.”
“Okay, we also have that word, but for us it means a game. How do you say play, as in play a game?”
“Also cluich, but you can say iomairt for playing cards.”
“We use imirt for playing any game or sport.”
…and on it went. We skipped back and forth between shades of meaning that almost but never quite matched up. Though we did finally conclude that súgradh and sùgradh did indeed mean the same thing—to play in general, like how children just play. Or better still, how we were playing in the interstice between our languages.
My second encounter with Gàidhlig was also in Canada, though at the opposite end of the country on Cape Breton Island. As was also the case in Vancouver, I was impressed with how much Gaelic many Scottish-Canadians knew, even if only song lyrics—they had a lot of songs memorised. The language seemed to be such a focal part of the Scottish diaspora experience, much more so than in Irish-American and Irish-Canadian communities I’d been a part of. It gave me the impression that Gàidhlig must be quite strong in Scotland. However, these experiences turned out to be a bit misleading, as Gaelic has probably less than 60,000 fluent speakers and is under an enormous amount of pressure in modern Scottish society.
In fact, this kind of false, perhaps naïve positivity that one can gain from token or ceremonial language use, is a point of warning in a Gaelic language revitalisation proposal published recently by Misneachd, a grassroots organization formed in 2016 with the aim of promoting and strengthening Gaelic in Scotland.
Misneachd cautions against looking at the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland as anything other than an urgent crisis that requires radical intervention if it is to survive at all as a community language of future generations. Their proposal comes in response to the National Gaelic Language Plan 2018-2023, drafted by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which Misneachd basically deems too little too late. While they do not reject everything mapped out in the plan, their own 100+ page response contains a comprehensive set of suggestions and strategies that call for a much more serious response to the state of the Gaelic language: stronger determination, higher demands and more drastic action. In short, more radical.
I personally find Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic very inspiring and think that any community involved in revitalizing or reviving their traditional language could benefit from the empowerment and spirit that Misneachd embodies. After reading all of their suggestions, two overlying perspectives stuck out to me as very important and unfortunately often overlooked in language revitalization programmes: comprehensive care for the community and advocating for the linguistic rights of the community.
Misneachd’s community-focused approach is nothing short of logical, practical and just good planning. However, this basic unit of society is often not given its due attention in language revival movements, perhaps due to its overwhelming scope. Indeed, “community” involves every aspect of our lives and the task of community reform or care can seem simply too daunting to take on. True to their name, though, Misneach (Gaelic for ‘courage’) argues against shying away from such a large task, instead advocating for grassroots organization and efforts, building from the ground up.
The focus of many language revitalization or reclamation programs has been bilingual education. Often the logic behind this is that the younger generations will learn more easily and will be the ones to carry on the language in the future. The problem with this, as Misneachd’s report points out, is that if the language is only used in schools and does not establish itself as the default community language, there are no real chances of its long term survival into the future. And in order for a minority language to be the default in a community, two thirds of the population must speak it fluently; otherwise it just won’t stick (p. 35). This certainly will not happen through bilingual education in schools alone. Therefore, a broader approach that involves the entire community is needed.
Among adult speakers, one of the biggest worries about Gaelic is that it is transitioning ever more rapidly from being a community language to a network language. This means that the major hubs of language use are no longer established and sustainable (usually rural) communities that speak the language naturally and produce new generations of speakers, but rather mobile, non-tangible communities of mostly adult L2 speakers that network and create events or spaces in which to use their language, but rarely manage to incorporate the language into every stratum of their daily lives. A good example of this can be seen in online communities, which—no doubt—are invaluable for their help in bridging geographic distance and giving more people access to media, instruction and resources in minority languages, but a Facebook group on an online message board cannot replace a live, in-person community. More importantly, as Misneachd’s report points out, network communities have been shown to fall short of true language revival (p. 9).
In order to put more effort and resources towards community building around Gaelic language revitalization, Misneachd recommends mandatory language plans for any area with a 20% or more Gaelic-speaking population. This would ensure that the country is keeping track of and utilising significant populations of Gaelic speakers as well as seeing that they get the support that they need to connect with neighbours and other community members in their language, to ensure that their children can be educated in their language and to maintain or grow the numbers of speakers. Such language plans would include strategies for increasing Gaelic usage and visibility in the arts, school system and local economy as well as increasing access to (subsidized!) Gaelic language classes for adults. To carry out these plans, full-time language development workers would be stationed in every Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland.
In addition to supporting existing Gaelic-speaking communities, Misneachd also calls for the radical creation of new residential communities. Using the Gaeltacht community of Shaw’s Road in Belfast as inspiration, they propose the establishment of ecovillages, communes, community-run estates and new planned (Gaelic-speaking) villages, such as Kilbeg on the Isle of Skye. Many of these communities could be centered around a project or business model that may have nothing to do with Gaelic but would be carried out in Gaelic, integrating the language naturally into the local economy and creating Gaelic-speaking jobs outside of the bilingual education system. Such structures could also engage in master-apprentice programmes whereby a younger individual is paired with an older native speaker to learn a trade through the medium of Gaelic. Not only does this make the language more viable and relevant for younger speakers, but it also provides opportunities to combat the loneliness and trauma that many older speakers experience living in rural areas, detached from their native language.
At this point, most people are probably thinking that this all sounds great in theory, but how will it be funded? This is, of course, a real concern, and without financial support from the government, most of the above would probably not be feasible. Affordable housing and land purchasing schemes are needed to even make it possible for many people to remain in Gaelic-speaking regions, let alone move there. Language plans must be funded, and language officers must be paid. Teachers must see some financial incentive for the extra effort of entering Gaelic-medium education. Bilingual schools must receive the same level of support and same quality of resources that English-medium school receive. And Misneachd does not shy away from this reality, but instead makes a compelling argument for why it is the government’s duty to make this funding available and the Gaels’ right to receive it.
Minority languages generally face the challenges that they face because they are grossly undervalued—both by society at large and even the speakers themselves. Part of Misneachd’s appeal is that they are so unapologetic in their demand for recognition of the value of their language by the government and Scottish society in general. The report talks about the pressure that Gaels feel under the encroachment of mainstream culture. Every day they are denied their rights to a traditional way of life and must bow to the wishes of the English-speaking majority. Misneachd describes this simply as cultural genocide, referencing the UN’s definition of the term.
In practical terms, Misneachd advocates pushing back against this force simply by no longer settling for unidirectional bilingualism—i.e. the phenomenon whereby all Gaelic speakers are expected to speak English when even just one English speaker is present, but no English speaker is ever expected to have any knowledge of Gaelic whatsoever, much less accommodate the Gaelic speakers present. In fact, Misneachd’s goal is 100% bilingualism in Gaelic-speaking areas for anyone resident there for more than 5 years. This would be encouraged with 6 months of free, full-time language instruction for new residents. For children in areas such as the western isles, English-medium education would be phased out altogether, and special attention would be given to heritage speakers, who may have a solid passive understanding of Gaelic but are English-dominant and come with their own unique set of needs in adapting to Gaelic-medium education. This is indeed controversial, but such is the urgency of the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland. To effect any lasting change, society must adapt to accommodate the language. Misneachd’s proposals are meant to be a wake up call and a call to radical action.
Naturally such heavy demands much come from a place of great self-worth and empowerment. To me, this is Misneachd’s strongest and most compelling point. They call for recognition of Gaels as an ethnic minority, due all the protections and rights that come with such a designation. As an ethnic minority, Gaels could have legislation to protect traditional ways of life, preventing big business or the government policy from interfering with the local economies that sustain traditional communities. Gaels would also be protected against hate crimes. Sadly enough, speaking Gaelic still can result in acts of violence, harassment and vandalism. These acts should not only not be tolerated, but should be prosecuted and treated as series acts of cultural genocide. When put in these terms, it is hard to deny the Scottish government’s moral obligation to protect and support the traditional ways of Gaelic Scotland, language included.
Democratic political autonomy should also be secured for the Gaels. Misneachd makes reference to the Sami Parliament as a possible model for how Gaels could have more power in issues that affect their existence and certainly the existence of their language. Gaels are always used as the emblematic face for Scotland. Bagpipes, tartans, kilts and even the Gaelic language are used to draw in tourist revenue and promote an attractive national image, distinct from the rest of the UK. In exchange for this, though, those actually trying to live this traditional lifestyle are brushed aside, expected to compromise and abused when they speak up for their rights. Misneachd is absolutely correct when they say that Gaelic IS a political issue. I believe that trying to play down its political significance means complacency with the situation at hand and turning a blind eye to the systematic and intentional suppression of a very important piece of world heritage.
Now is not the time to rest on one’s laurels. Gaelic speakers have the right to exist as a true community in their native land. Securing this right and maintaining these communities will be a struggle, but aiming high is the only way it will ever happen. I’ll end with one final point that I was really happy to see in Misneachd’s report:
We should remember that the struggle for Gaelic and other minority languages is part of the wider struggle for social justice, human rights and protection of the environment. Gaelic speakers must stand in solidarity with other progressive movements in Scotland and across the world – including but not limited to other language movements. (p. 97)
I think this demonstrates that this small, grassroots group knows the magnitude of the challenges it faces but draws strength from the fact that they are not alone in their struggle. This is one of the most important lessons that language revitalization and revival projects around the world could learn from. The battle begins right where you are standing, but a wealth of support can be found far and wide.
A copy of Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic is available for free here.