Scots Gaelic, Scots law and Scots attitudes

On 1 September I posted a Storify about the often sneery and regularly ill-informed commentary that flies around on the internet about Scots Gaelic. This blog picks up on that, in a blog of two halves: a legal “blawg”, about legislation that relates to Gaelic; and some further personal insight.


One recurring trope, touched on in the Storify but easily found elsewhere, relates to the Scottish National Party’s apparent crusade for Gaelic. As I alluded to in the Storify, this is questionable. The key Holyrood legislation about Gaelic was enacted by a Labour [EDIT: and Liberal Democrat, see comment below] administration. The referendum question could have been rendered in Gaelic and English, but it was not, which contrasts with the fact the Welsh language will feature in the future EU referendum in Wales. At an international level, it is the UK – as a nation state – that is signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages: sure, the nation state might have tried to subcontract that to the devolved administrations, but as far as other nation states or the Council of Europe are concerned that makes no difference. If, for whatever reason, someone was to argue that the UK Government was being remiss in its treatment of non-English languages in Northern Ireland, devolution would be no defence.

What other statutes are of continuing relevance to Gaelic in the present day?

Two I blogged about recently, in terms of crofting law and the Scottish Land Court, being the Scottish Land Court Act 1993 and the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.

Also of relevance to Gaelic are:

  • the Local Government (Gaelic Names) (Scotland) Act 1997, a short statute that confers a power on a local authority to change its name into Gaelic and back to English if it changes its mind later (only Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has done so);
  • the British Nationality Act 1981, which (in Schedule 1) asks for a sufficient knowledge of the English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language for naturalisation [note the disjunctive “or”, it is possible to become naturalised in the UK with no English];
  • Some rules about education, such as the Grants for Gaelic Language Education (Scotland) Regulations 1986, but with education being such a specialist area I am not going to look into that any further.
  • Some rules about broadcasting, such as section 183 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (a section that has changed over the years, but has always been about Gaelic).
  • the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF), which provides for many things including rights for those arrested (in Article 5(2)) and charged or on trial (Article 6(3)) to be dealt with in a language they understand (which is of limited relevance to contemporary Gaels appearing in Scottish Courts, but there might still be situations where this could be relevant, and see above regarding the very unlikely situation of an immigrant who has opted to learn Scots Gaelic rather than English or Welsh);
  • Other international instruments about cultural heritage.

There may be others, but I can detect some readers becoming bored by legislation. Let me now pose a question: other than Gaelic (or language in general), what do all of these measures have in common?

Not one of them was enacted by the SNP.

Sure, Holyrood legislation regularly bestows Gaelic names on statutory bodies, and letterheads might be changed accordingly, but all the substantive rules I have mentioned owe nothing to the SNP. From a statutory point of view, all the SNP can be thanked for is not sinking what was already constructed.

To sail on with that maritime analogy, I think it is perfectly fair to characterise the SNP’s treatment of HMS Gaelic as “steady as she goes” or, if it is any stronger than that, they have emboldened the crew of the boat and made sure they have plenty ammunition, in the event that the crew feel the need to engage in any Gaelic gunnery. They have not upgraded the weaponry or ordered a new boat.

Believe me, the SNP could have done more. Here are two ways. First, they could have insisted on a bilingual #indyref question [politics alert, that might have had a skewing effect on polling day, so non-inclusion of Gaelic was perhaps a political move, albeit one that is open to criticism from a minority language perspective]. Second, they could have amended the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 to give Gaelic official status, rather than simply “equal respect”.

So what are they being criticised for?

Of course, governments do not just make (and unmake) law. Governments also spend money, which ties in with my idea of tooling-up HMS Gaelic with the best armoury a minority language can ask for. Even then, my (completely unprofessional) opinion is the SNP have not gone overboard and, as pointed out in my Storify, the whole Gaelic signs thing was kicked off before the SNP got anywhere near minority or majority government.

To conclude this part of my post, by all means criticise government, but please do it in a way that is sensible and not in a way that can catch a rather tender minority language in the process. And for those criticising the SNP in particular, I would have thought there is a danger the more vociferous #SNPout anti-Gaelic weirdness will ostracise many Gaels who are well and truly nothing to do with the SNP. In case you had forgotten, such Gaels do exist: after all, the Western Isles region voted No in the independence referendum, and the result was initially announced in Gaelic.

A personal view

I confess, the legal blawg above was not entirely impersonal, interspersed as it was with personal views. What follows now is definitely a change in writing style, in that it is not some law coupled with random observations, rather it is me on a soapbox.

On the same day I published my Storify, the pro-independence website Wings over Scotland published a post about Gaelic. It was primarily a takedown of a silly tweet by Jackson Carlaw MSP, which also features in that Storify.

I can imagine pro-independence Gaels clicking through to that post like an expectant child on Christmas day, rushing through to see what Santa Wings had left. And yes! Santa Wings provided the Jackson Carlaw voodoo doll, as requested, complete with all the necessary pins and instructions on how to use them.

But Santa Wings also did something else. After coming down the chimney, Santa Wings left a big, festering jobby on the hearth. “Why did you do that?” a disgusted Gael might ask. “People have jobbies,” Santa Wings responds. “Deal with it.”

To stretch this shit analogy to flushing point, just as people have jobbies, they also have opinions. You can argue about a fact being right or wrong, but opinions are trickier beasts to handle. After fronting-up that he (that is to say, Rev. Stuart Campbell) anticipated the loss of (Gaelic lobby) friends, the Wings post calls Gaelic “obsolete”, it glosses over any cultural heritage argument for the language, acknowledges bilingualism but big-ups other languages instead of Gaelic, argues (with reference to a newspaper report) that bilingual signs can stop people keeping their eyes on the road as much as they should, then notes:

Non-primary native languages are a tool whose main utility in practice is at best the exclusion of outsiders, and at worst an expression of dodgy blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism. They’re a barrier to communication and an irritation to the vast majority of the population, who are made to feel like uncultured aliens in their own land.

It is fair to say not every Gael was massively enamoured with this. I won’t address all those points here (but see this blog for a more detailed overall response than I can offer, this on why learning Gaelic instead of Mandarin is not so daft after all, and this from Transport Scotland and this academic paper on the difficult issue of whether bilingual signs can be problematic (selective quote ahoy, from that second source and based on a sample of English and English/Welsh participants, “drivers were able to read one and two-line monolingual signs and two-line bilingual signs without disruption to their driving behaviour“)).

The Gaelic world being relatively small (yes, I acknowledge this simple fact can be readily fashioned into an argument against the utility of Gaelic) means I know or know of some of the people who engaged in the initial backlash to the piece. In fact, I am related to one of them, Ruairidh Maciver. Here is their conversation:

To take up Maciver’s initial point, I know what he was getting at, namely the fact that Gaels were and sometimes still are a people who can be made to feel alien in their own land. Where he perhaps left his defences open, and where Campbell promptly thrust a riposte, was suggesting English speakers don’t ever feel like that. They might well feel like that, and it certainly isn’t the fault of this generation of English speakers that Gaelic has “lost” in the game of languages, be that by:

  • a desire to communicate and trade;
  • active government policy aimed at subordinating the language (think Statutes of Iona, Proscription after Culloden (even though Gaels fought on both sides of that battle) and the 19th century Education Act);
  • a legal system that allowed clan chiefs (or whoever took over from them) to improve land with little regard for its (often Gaelic speaking) inhabitants; or
  • whatever else it is that makes a language decline (a point analysed in this timely book review about the Welsh language).

One way English speakers would not have to worry about feeling like uncultured aliens in their own land is in the imagined world where a combination of Scots (the language) and then English had in fact completely pushed Gaelic into the Atlantic, hence why Gaels can feel a bit vulnerable. Fortunately (in my opinion) we are not in that counterfactual, and Gaelic still has a toehold.

How would an English speaker stop feeling like that? The two ways I can identify would be for Gaelic to finally and completely go the way of the dodo, or for non-Gaelic speakers to come to some kind of a rapprochement with the continuation of Gaelic.

More on rapprochement later, but what about the language being “obsolete”? Here is where I might lose friends, but I hope only temporarily: I am well aware that much of Scottish society does not and probably cannot function entirely in Gaelic. Two personal examples follow.

When I was a practising lawyer (in Edinburgh), I did not transact in Gaelic. There was one occasion when I was asked to speak to an elderly client who was making a will, but for whatever reason that did not happen. Everything else was in English*.

When I had health concerns, all relevant medical conversations (in Aberdeen and latterly Glasgow) were undertaken in English**.  The Gaelic for “metastatic” and “pulmonary embolism” did not really feature in childhood conversations, but I do a mean line in household commands. (Or perhaps ignoring household commands, if you ask mo mhàthair.)

Do my examples, from Scotland’s legal world and healthcare, mean we are we past the tipping point for the language? And even if we are past a tipping point, does it matter?

Here is where I may regain some of my Gaelic minded friends. First, and even with my examples, I don’t think we are past a tipping point. I think Gaelic can and should have a continuing role to play in aspects of Scottish life, as per my blog on the Scottish Land Commission.

If I am wrong and we are past the tipping point (if indeed there is a tipping point), allow me to return to the idea of rapprochement. People need to remember Scotland would not be Scotland, and Britain would not be Britain, were it not for the Gaels. This is something that was touched on by Wee Ginger Dug in a wonderful post, written when the Gaelic snark seemed to be building up its bizarre head of steam. One thing not really mentioned there is the martial element of Gaelic history in the British Empire. Of course, it is not to everyone’s taste to discuss the various British adventures, but beginning in the 18th century we can note that the Gaels of Wolfe’s army – yes, he of the “No great mischief if they fall” quote – were crucial in winning Canada from the French. Highlanders fought, with varying degrees of success, in the American Revolutionary War, in Louisiana, in India and in the Napoleonic Wars, then formed a Gaelic speaking thin red line in the Crimean War. Moving into the 20th century, the people of Lewis invested much in the Great War and perhaps suffered particularly for that, as so eloquently detailed in this recent Guardian article. My own great-grandfather somehow survived the sinking of the HMS Formidable in 1915, as narrated by my cousin Ruairidh Maciver (yes, he who conversed with Campbell) in this blog. Moving to a later war, Gaels gave much to the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy: my great uncle was lost to a German torpedo. Stories like that abound in the Hebrides.

From martial to music. Without Gaelic there might well be no ceòl mòr and much less ceòl beag (the big and little music of the great Highland bagpipe), which only survived by virtue of an oral tradition. I appreciate my love of piping is not shared by all, but I think this merits inclusion in the contribution of Gaelic to modern Scotland. Cherry-picking bits of Gaelic culture, like piping, whilst omitting the Gaelic it is built on is something that I have never understood and I think it fundamentally cheapens that which is picked. Another personal insight that I think merits inclusion is the interest I have found in Gaelic when I have been on various piping trips. Requests for Gaelic happen with a surprising regularity and, as I often found myself to be the only Gaelic speaker in the Lowland pipe bands I have frequented over the years, I tended to be the one pushed forward to say something in Gaelic. I have found people from furth of Scotland to be genuinely and affectionately interested in the language. Sure, it has its limitations when you are lost in an overseas metropolis, but it has a currency of some sort. Plus, it is always especially illuminating when you can find a direct link between a foreign language and Gaelic without using English as a bridge.

So what am I asking for when it comes to present day approaches to Gaelic? An acknowledgement that Gaels do not form part of an exclusionary clique might be a start: if I speak to my brother, mother or grandmother in Gaelic, it might be because it is something that comes semi-naturally to me, as opposed to because I want to make a non-Gaelic speaker feel like an alien. And if there are times when Gaelic speakers and non-Gaelic speakers are interacting and someone does feel like an alien, are we not grown-up enough to come to some sort of understanding about that? Failing that, if anyone, taking inspiration from Jackson Carlaw MSP, still feels the need to have a go at Gaelic, can you please do so with some accuracy and with some considered arguments? (For responses to the non-considered arguments, please refer back to the first part of this post.)

I will give my final word to a comedian. Before anyone panics, no, it is not David Mitchell. Stewart Lee tells an anecdote of Margaret Thatcher visiting a university and asking a student what she was studying. “Ancient Norse,” was the answer. Thatcher was caught replying, “What a luxury.” Lee explains in this video why ancient Norse is not a luxury. If ancient Norse is not a luxury, Gàidhlig bheò certainly is not a luxury either.

*Actually, there was another time I spoke Gaelic in my time in practice when, as a trainee solicitor at Tods Murray, I was part of the delegation making a pitch to to a public body who had put out a tender for legal services. We thought the pitch went well, but it was unsuccessful.

**There were actually two occasions when I had a bit of Gaelic chat in hospital. When I was having an inferior vena cava filter fitted, the three-lady team doing the fitting was 1/3 Czech, 1/3 English and 1/3 Gael, so I had a bit of banter with the Harris lady in the radiology team. Later on, one of the many nursing students I met was from South Uist. A resounding, “Halò, agus tapadh leibh!” if you are reading this.

[EDITING NOTE: I added the footnote about the Gaelic tender at 09.35 on 4 September. Separately, social media contacts suggested I might find output by Derek Bateman and Florian Breit of interest, the latter especially in the context of naturalisation in the UK, which he is seeking to do via Welsh.]


About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots academic lawyer. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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12 Responses to Scots Gaelic, Scots law and Scots attitudes

  1. Haidh a charaid, puing bheag – ‘s e co-bhanndachd Làbarach/LibDeamach a thug a-steach Achd na Gàidhlig agus chan e riaghaltas mòr-chuid Làbarach mar a thuirt thu gu h-àrd.

  2. Jamie McIntyre says:

    There is another angle you could expand upon should you wish – the fact that we seem to feel it is of great importance to restore or safeguard natural habits which are in, as the jargon puts it, ‘unfavourable condition’, and worth spending large sums of money on them. Biodiversity is, apparently, important. Cultural diversity, seemingly not.

    It would be interesting to contrast the public & private funding spent on restoring peatlands, ancient woodlands, and so on, plus improving life for squirrels, corncrakes etc, with the very modest sums spent specifically on Gaelic (ie not money that would have been spent anyway, where the Gaelic content adds little or no cost).

    It has long been a source of ironic frustration that in many areas where both an endangered language (Gaelic) and an endangered habitat or species co-exist (machair, corncrake etc), it is the natural heritage that gets the rapturous support and consequent funding from outside agencies.

    So perhaps what we should be demanding is not just equal respect with English, but equivalent value being placed on Gaelic heritage as is placed on the natural heritage of the Gàidhealtachd which has been shaped over the years by, er, Gaelic speakers.

    PS I note Jackson Carlaw MSP is a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Culture, alongside such individuals as Julie Fowlis and Mary Anne Kennedy, and organisations like Fèisean nan Gàidheal and the Gaelic Arts Agency. This is the sort of contradiction that Twitter can be very good at highlighting 😉

  3. Mark Murray says:

    Gaelic is also a reminder of the very long-standing, deep and abiding (pre-)historic links between Scotland and Ireland, links that were important long before England even existed. Too often the relationship with England and the other nations of these islands is seen as the only one worth exploring. A reminder that Scotland’s culture and history is intertwined with another nation, and a nation that has achieved political independence for the most part, is helpful in pushing back against the idea that the only relationship that Scotland has with its neighbours that’s worth discussing is the relationship with England.

  4. Regards Rev Stu and R. MacIver, in the interest of Transparency I have to add that the Campbell’s have caused us [MacIvers] grief for 500 years. Not least when using our surname, to hide their own, when travelling outside of Argyll.

    Despite that Ruairidh Maciver, expresses well the Ethnocentric prejudice of some Scot’s Monolingual English speaker, which Gaelic Speakers have to put up with. Scotland has two legs Gaelic and English to run on. Only some English speakers elect to hop along!

    Rejoice in Scotland’s, Lingual and Cultural diversity and traditions.
    Celebrate, don’t castigate.

  5. Frank Cranmer says:

    I remember the Local Government (Gaelic Names) (Scotland) Act 1997. It was introduced as a private Member’s bill – and I had to explain to the Member in charge, Thomas Graham, how to pronounce “Comhairle”.

    • basedrones says:

      Interesting. Thanks for the comment. (My only Thomas Graham anecdote relates to another Thomas Graham, who has a building named after him at the University of Strathclyde.)

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  8. translatoral says:

    I must say up front I have not a word of Gaelic, so maybe I am not the best person to speak, but much as I admire Campbell’s sterling work for the independence cause, his attitude to Gaelic borders on pig-ignorance. I speak German and listen to NDR1 Welle Nord radio station all the time to keep my German up to scratch. They actively promote “Plattdeutsch” (Lower German), a dialect far removed from the German spoken by TV presenters and the like. It is almost considered a language in its own right. There are radio plays hosted, and even rockbands sing in the language. It is promoted as a cultural treasure. To tell anyone in Northern Germany that Plattdeutsch was dead or outdated, simply because it is not the language of officialdom, would be outrageous. It defies belief that someone so obviously intelligent could CHOOSE to be so pig-ignorant.

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