Thursday, 21 January 2016

Calling Half a Spade a Spade

The Blether Region was in two minds about a piece by An Sionnach Fionn on the latest outbreak of anti-Gaelic loopery in Scotland, this time from Alex Johnstone MSP. Why in two minds, you might ask? Well, because it's a toss-up who's doing the most damage to Gaelic: Mr. Johnstone or An Sionnach Fionn — whose blog is subtitled "Irish Republican views from a Fenian Fox".

One could argue that the use of the word "Fenian" here is simply the reclaiming of a common term of abuse for Catholics. The fact that it's used alongside "Irish Republican", however, suggests that there is no irony about it and that it's being used in its sense of "violent revolutionary". So far, so good: there are of course many people of that persuasion in Ireland, and they are as entitled to comment on Scottish politics as the rest of us Euro-lefties are to comment on Donald Trump's presidential bid — even if not all Americans might thank us for it.

What really won't go down well in Scotland, however, is An Sionnach Fionn's insistence on referring to Scottish Gaelic as "Scottish", which amounts to a chauvinistic rewriting of history. That's all the sadder since the Blether Region — along with, no doubt, many others — has a good deal of sympathy for the view that the importance of Gaelic is not properly recognised by ordinary Scots. It is, after all, an historical fact that the extent of spoken Gaelic set the border with England and thus may be largely responsible for the existence of a separate state. It is a linguistic fact that it is more different from English than Scots is or could ever be. And it is an historical-linguistic fact that, of all Scotland's languages, Gaelic came by far the closest to being spoken across the entire nation, albeit not for very long.

The Blether Region also does its best to counter some of the more common tripey tropes about Gaelic, chief among them "we never spoke it down here" and "funding for Scots and Gaelic should be the same per capita" (try applying that one to seagulls and ospreys, if you will).

On the other hand, the notion that Gaelic is inherently more Scottish than Scots is nonsense; the two arrived in the territory at much the same time. Nor is Scots, as one whiles hears claimed in Ireland, somehow equivalent to Hiberno-English, owing its uniqueness wholly or even largely to a Goidelic substrate; Scots is, according to two respected academic studies, about 0.8% Celtic, of which Gaelic is only one constituent. But the really idiotic claim that Irish-speakers sometimes make — one implicit in An Sionnach's departure from conventionally accepted terminology — is that Gaelic is, or should be recognised as, the only genuine ethnicity in Scotland. Scotland has at least three distinct cultures: Highland; Lowland; and, in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness, Nordic. Although Gaelic culture has long been plundered as a source of national symbolism, it is naive to pretend that Scottish Gaeldom is the only, or even the main, ethnic tradition that people follow. It is patently obvious that pushing Gaelic as the sole legitimate ethnicity can have only two results: the secession of the Northern Isles; and the politicisation and then rejection of the promotion of Gaelic outside its nineteenth-century heartlands. Indeed, it's difficult enough to get the language used on signs in Caithness at the moment. Imagine how much more difficult that would be if it were being done on the basis not of contiguity with recently Gaelic-speaking areas, but of a conscious attempt to change the way people in Caithness view themselves.

The subtext to An Sionnach's choice of words may of course be the belief that certain people in the north of Ireland should wake up to their inherent Gaelachas. Now, if Irish were going to be the sole language of the island, that might be a necessary view to take. As it is likely to remain a regional and minority language, however, and is being promoted on the basis of cultural diversity rather than Nationalism, it seems churlish to say that Scots doesn't matter. Indeed, sensitive promotion of Scots may help sugar the pill when Irish unity eventually happens, as come it will.

While it is (relatively) easy to argue with folk about the facts with regard to Gaelic, it would be a brave man or woman who thought it a good idea to argue with them about what ethnic tradition they should follow. Yes, of course Mr. Johnstone is an obnoxious Tory clown and a serial twister of the truth. He may even be a blinkered political obsessive who thinks only of our crown jewels' value as shrapnel to be gaily stuffed into Mons Meg. But he is also from a north-eastern constituency in a region where people speak one of the most distinctive and sociolinguistically best preserved forms of Scots.

To see one but not the other is to see only half the truth.

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