Gaelic is the soul, not a side-order

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

"There is no word in Gaelic," smile the Lowlanders, "that quite conveys the urgency of manana." That whiskery image of the lazy Highlander carries more than an overtone of racism and patronising urbanity and yet, like many bad jokes, it carries the seeds of a truth inside it. The cruel fact is that Gaelic might soon have no need for a word for tomorrow. The language is dying and there may be only a long and silent goodnight ahead.

Parliamentary Edinburgh has recently come out in a rash of bilingual signs; underneath the English name for a Holyrood government department is the Gaelic translation. But brass plates glinting in the inaugural summer give a completely misleading impression. Only 65,000 people in Scotland can read, pronounce and understand these Gaelic signs.

For that is how pitifully small the speech community now is. And the detail of that baleful return from the last census is even more shocking: of those 65,000 speakers, almost 40 per cent are over 60 and, at the other end of the spectrum, fewer than 1,000 children between the ages of three and five have a grasp of more than some songs and simple sentences.

Gaelic is dying and, unless urgent action is taken soon, it will shrivel into nothing more than a lexical curiosity within one or two generations.

That is more than a matter for quiet regret. It is a national cultural disaster. And if the Scottish Parliament wishes to be worth its name, it needs to forget focus groups and move quickly to compile, resource and implement a comprehensive language rescue plan.

In a plush document outlining with a few nostrums and an e-mail address what might in time become a national cultural strategy for Scotland, there is a quote from the Gaelic poet George Campbell Hay. Printed in big type and set alongside quotes in English and Scots, it looks as though Gaelic might be some sort of priority. There is even a paragraph advocating the strengthening of our indigenous languages. Which is grand. But action, not typography, is needed. And soon.

If education is genuinely to be the prime engine for change in Scotland, as well as the rest of Britain, then Gaelic needs to be part of that. And not as some sort of quaint Celtic side-order to the main meal. Even though many suspicious Lowland Scots and also some highly proprietorial Gaelic speakers cannot yet see this, the language is part of the essence of who we are. For example, no other lexicon describes Scotland's landscape and weather with the precision, lyricism and metaphor available in Gaelic. The mountain that guards the landward entrance to Glencoe is Buachaille Etive Mor, the Great Herdsman of Etive. Onomatopoeically, in Gaelic "an ataireachd" means, clumsily, in English, "the surge of the sea". The colour spectrum of the language is different; the words used to describe the hues of animals' coats would test the perceptional muscles of a monoglot English speaker.

These words are also the transports of memory for they carry our history, seen from the inside. Over nearly two millennia they describe exclusively all that experience in one place. Inside the Gaelic dictionary there lies a Scotland that monoglots and Lowlanders will recognise if they will only take the time to find enough vocabulary to make a key. The mighty language of the Gael is hidden in the middle of all of us north of the Cheviots and in some to the south, and if a new parliament was made to represent us then it must be good to discover as completely as we can who we really are.

Gaelic and Welsh were spoken in Britain and Ireland before the Romans came and it survived their departure. Their history here is unbroken and they are among the oldest languages in Europe. Even though they were pushed west by Anglo-Saxon invaders, these languages survive, just, and they tell the experiences of the peoples who lived in Britain first and longest. Now, in Scotland, more than ever before, we need their stories and perhaps some of their ancient passion, so that we can be all we can be.

An old priest on the Hebridean island of South Uist told an interviewer in a Gaelic television programme that he believed we were all losing our primal connection with the earth we live on. "As a schoolboy, in the springtime of every year, I took off my boots and went everywhere barefoot. And I thought I could feel the ground coming alive under my feet after the long winter sleep. And then in the autumn I could feel it getting ready to die again." The old man turned away to look out of his kitchen window over the machair to the Atlantic breakers. "I say all these sorts of things in Gaelic, because in English they just sound daft."

No, they don't.

Alistair Moffat