An Isle of Skye sunset. The Hebridean island is a centre of the Gaelic resurgence
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Language as activism: the big Gaelic comeback

The native tongue of the Highlands and islands seemed to be dying out – until the latest figures were released.

Gaelic is a remnant from Scotland’s independent past. Until the 18th century it was widely spoken in the Highlands and Islands – for 290,000 Scots it was their first and only tongue – but a government ban on all elements of Highland culture after the Jacobite rebellion started 350 years of decline. Since then the number of Gaelic speakers has dwindled year by year. The 1991 census showed a drop of more than 20 per cent in a single decade. By 2001 the number had fallen another 11 per cent, to just 59,000. Gaelic speakers were ageing, then dying, and their language was dying with them.

When the latest figures were released in September, naysayers were preparing to sound the knell. But the new total (58,000) had barely dipped and closer inspection revealed new growth: in every age group under the age of 20, there had been a rise.

There is a Gaelic revival under way. Increasing numbers of parents – even those who don’t speak the language – are opting to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools, where all subjects are taught in the language. In 1985 there were only 24 primary school children being taught in Gaelic; last year the figure was 2,953. Sixty-one schools across Scotland now offer Gaelic-medium education. The expectation is that, as time passes, these young Gaels will revitalise a language that is intricately tied up with their country’s identity.

My two-year-old nephew Daniel will be one of them. His parents – my brother Rory and his wife, Claire – speak only English, but have chosen for him to attend Fàs Mòr, a pre-school in Sleat on the Isle of Skye where staff speak to the children entirely in Gaelic. He chatters away happily in English, producing new and unexpected words like rabbits from a hat. He sings to himself as he plays: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle”. But sometimes he rattles off one I don’t recognise. “Nee-naw, nee-naw,” he calls out suddenly one morning, “einnsean-smàlaidh.”

“Oh,” says my brother, noticing my confusion, “it’s a Gaelic one. Something about a fire engine.”

I’m intrigued by Daniel’s secret school language. The Fàs Mòr building perches on a windy hillside next to the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, two miles north of the Armadale jetty, from where the ferry runs to Mallaig when the weather’s fine. We bundle down the steps past a cheery paper display full of words I don’t recognise. Càirdeas, it says. Toileachas. Iongnadh. Spèis. Friendship; happiness; wonder; love. The windows look out across the Sound of Sleat to the mountains of the wild Knoydart Peninsula beyond. A distant fishing boat trawls slowly across the view from left to right.

Madainn mhath, Daniel,” says a dark-haired woman, smiling at him. “Ciamar a tha thu?” Daniel comes over all shy, looking up at her through his blond forelock. The teaching assistant continues to talk to him in Gaelic as he listens, quietly.

“He understands a lot more than he says,” Rory tells me. Sure enough, when she asks another question, Daniel nods and follows her to play in the corner of the room.

Little Caitlin is already here. Her mother, Gwen Culbertson, is the head teacher at Bun-sgoil Shlèite, the primary school next door. There, the parents can choose which language they would like their child to be taught in. Fifty children are taught in Gaelic, only 12 in English.

The benefits of bilingualism are well known: improved mental agility, faster learn­ing of tertiary languages, protection against age-related memory loss. But it strikes me that, in an increasingly international society, educating your child in a hyper-local language – one that’s in decline – is an unusual choice for young, professional parents.

About this, Rory is sanguine: “Yes, it would provide more international opportunities if he was being taught in Spanish . . . but to be immersed in Gaelic for the first years of his education will give him an understanding of language that will become instinctive later in life. It’s the language of our area: what is spoken in the pub, at meetings, and so on. There has always been an impression that Gaelic is a bit of a nostalgic, inward-looking culture, but it seems to have a lot of energy and passion behind it now.”

Not speaking the language themselves can cause problems for my brother and Claire. For one thing, they will be unable to help Daniel with schoolwork when he is older. But new resources have been developed for parents in their position, such as Gaelic4Parents, a website that offers help with homework by instant messaging between 5pm and 7pm during term time.

Three-year-old Seonaidh (pronounced “Shaunnie”) is another regular at Fàs Mòr. His mother, Floraidh Forrest, has spoken Gaelic since she was a child and runs a bilingual creative agency in Sleat, but her Californian husband, a musician, learned the language only after they moved to Skye. “Decker and I both exclusively speak Gaelic to the boys,” she says, “though we don’t always speak it to each other.

“I am, I suppose, strict with Seonaidh: if he speaks to me in English I ask him to repeat it in Gaelic. I’m not one of those crazy Gaelic mums – I’m certainly not anti-the English language – but it’s a gift I can give my kids for free that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.”

Gaelic skipped two generations in my family, but Daniel’s enrolment at Fàs Mòr has sparked an interest among all of us. My mother, who last spoke Gaelic in school, now plans evening classes, so she might talk to her grandson in the language her own father loved.

And, across the country, Daniel’s pre-school peers are inspiring their own families into action: a new generation of tiny Gaelic activists.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at www.calflyn.com and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear