Let my language die with dignity

This essay has been brewing for many years.

I’ve written the title countless times. I’ve floated it past people who have sucked their teeth and tutted. More than one person told me not to write it.

And I didn’t. Until now.

Let me start at the end. My personal conclusion is this. Gaelic as a living community language, certainly in Tiree, is dying. The illness is terminal. Gaelic as a language may survive, but Gaelic as a key to an entire culture, a way of being, an approach to life, a lens through which the world is seen: that is not going to make it.

And no, I’m not an academic. And yes, this is a personal opinion. And yes, it’s controversial. And no, that doesn’t bother me.

Does it mean I don’t love my native language? No. I love it.

Does it mean I won’t use it? No. I will use it til the day I die.

Does it mean I hate learners? No. I will help anyone who wants to speak to me in Gaelic.

Does it mean I wouldn’t pass it on? No. I don’t have children, but if I did, I would do my damnedest to gift it to them.

So what does it mean?

It means that it is time to start talking about loss. And about emotions and about feelings. None of which fit neatly into a research project or another study into language decline.

The Highlands and Islands — specifically the islands — have become the last outpost of the way of life and culture which gives the Gaelic language its voice.

Those places are changing. The demographics are changing, the way of life is changing, the houses are no longer affordable, land prices are absurd, the young people continue to have no choice but to leave. The rich and comfortably retired enjoy the “quiet pace of life” and the less fortunate work three seasonal jobs to make ends meet and smile politely.

Gaels are an endangered species and the prognosis is poor.

We can debate and argue about the definition of a Gael till the cows come home. Frankly as the daughter of a Tirisdeach, with a mother from Bristol, who grew up in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but who somehow managed to be a native Gaelic speaker and now lives back in the family home on the family croft in Tiree, my identity is probably an essay in itself. And it is irrelevant. I don’t give two hoots about whether I am considered a Gael, or a Tirisdeach or an incomer or simply an annoyance.

All I know is that Gaelic is part of me. I think in it. I reason in it. I talk to myself in Gaelic when I am trying to process my most complex emotions, because my connection to it is absolutely intertwined with who I am. The Gaelic I speak is in the soil. In the sea. In the nature around me. It is in the place-names, the history, the stories, the memories, the wind, the birds and the flowers.

It is a lens through which I view the world.

That is a privilege. It’s one many people who didn’t have Gaelic passed on wish they had. It’s one that people learning Gaelic often wish they had. It is that intangible element in a relationship with a language which cannot be taught — no matter how hard you try. And that is part of the problem.

You can’t save Gaelic as a living language by teaching it as a subject. You can’t save Gaelic without talking about communities and history, about marginalisation, about political and academic power dynamics and about policy decisions. You cannot save it without acknowledging the immense sense of loss that communities where Gaelic is still indigenous are experiencing. You cannot save it without very hard conversations about what has gone wrong. You cannot save it by getting uptight about conversations which use the word indigenous. You cannot save it without the buy-in of those whose needs have not previously been taken into account and who are now almost impossible to reach in a meaningful way.

Because it is highly unlikely that these things will happen in any consistent way, or result in anything more tangible than an enormous social media bonfire or another research project, we will not save it.

That hurts.

It hurts those who have the Gaidhealach culture running through them — in either language. It hurts those who have learned Gaelic in cities. It hurts those who have built careers and identities on trying incredibly hard against the odds to stem the decline. It hurts people for whom this is not an intellectual debate, but their entire frame of reference.

And we need to start talking about that.

I remember the moment someone with the most beautiful local Gaelic turned to me and switched to English, apologising because he was self-conscious that he didn’t have “School Gaelic”. It’s hard to forget.

Or the moment someone told me they didn’t read things in Gaelic now because they don’t understand most of the words. It didn’t feel like their language anymore. They didn’t recognise it.

Those are the moments which break my heart. We’ve done that. Unintentionally, but we’ve done it.

If officially calling an area of Scotland the Gaidhealtachd will help educate people about a dying a culture a bit longer, if it will help those who have been disenfranchised from their mother tongue regain their voice, then that is fine by me. If it turns out that Twitter thinks I am irredeemable — also fine by me.

It doesn’t mean that everyone I ever taught Gaelic to as adults in the Central Belt are cancelled. It doesn’t mean that everything done for the language up to now is pointless. No-one is saying that. No-one is threatening my identity as a Gaelic speaker by acknowledging the existence of other people, with a different lens, for whom it is also an identity.

It means that we got some stuff wrong and we need to do something radical to try and fix it. I’ll go further. If you truly love the language, and you think it is worth saving, then you should be in favour of doing whatever it takes to try and keep hold of the culture from which it comes. It is not about any of us as individuals. It is about communities of people and their places and the generations of feelings that go with that.

Sit with the complexity and the contradictions and the frustrations and the pain. Open a book of Gaelic songs or poetry and read them. Loss of place and identity, complexity, frustration, pain. It’s all there. I used to laugh about how my Gaelic lessons were all about the Clearances and wall-to-wall loss. I don’t laugh any more. Cultural loss is all around me. Every tradition bearer we bury and house that is sold writes another verse.

And if you are not up for those painful conversations, for holding more than one thing true at a time, and for acknowledging what has gone wrong and engaging with communities who can still touch the culture with their fingertips — then just stop. Stop the infighting and the undermining and the academic point scoring and the political football kicking and leave it be. Let it die with dignity.

Sunset in Caolas, Tiree.