I don’t mean why I decided to learn Gaelic. When I started learning Gaelic, I had no real idea what a Gael was. It was about eighteen years ago. I was living in Edinburgh, going to punk shows, and making a little money busking on the Royal Mile, and one of my friends, Deek, the singer in the Scottish punk band Oi Polloi, was a fluent Gaelic speaker and language activist, and he would come around to our flat and teach us Gaelic. We would cook him a vegan lunch, and he would spend about an hour with us at the kitchen table, teaching us a little Gaelic in exchange. As an American living in Scotland on and off, I knew next to nothing about the Highlands and Western Islands or traditional Gaelic culture. For me, and for punks like Deek, learning and using Gaelic was about supporting one of the indigenous languages of Scotland, and part of a broader politics of resistance against global capitalism and Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Personally, I liked playing traditional music, and I had lived in Ireland and Scotland for short periods at various points in my life, but I was altogether ignorant of the complexities of language and identity in the Highlands and Islands. But I would soon learn.
In 2002, frustrated that I seemed to be stuck at an early intermediate stage with my Gaelic, I decided to spend a year at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, and make a bid for fluency. I enrolled on the first year of the degree courses at the College, in the program aimed at intermediate learners, an Cùrsa Comais (the Proficiency Course), and dove into the language head first. I came to the college as a mature student, as a not-so-young punk, with a pink mohawk and a head full of preconceptions. My time with the Edinburgh punks did not prepare me for the difficulty of actually using Gaelic as a daily means of communication. The politics around the Gaelic language in the Highlands are complicated to say the least, even at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and I made many missteps as I learned the language and started to use it as my normal, default language with classmates and other friends.
But in spite of all the difficulties associated with acquiring and using a threatened language like Gaelic, I really enjoyed my time at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. It is an exciting place: to be involved day-to-day in a language revival movement is both challenging and fascinating. I ended up completing a BA and then a PhD in the language, and I am now working as a lecturer at the college. On the courses I teach here, we do a lot of reading and discussion on the question of Gaelic identity in the 21st century. The connection between language and identity is never straightforward anywhere in the world, but the question of identity for a Scottish Gaelic speaker is more complex than most. In comparison to the identities associated with other minority languages in the UK, Scottish Gaelic identity is particularly fraught.
One of the things I learned early on is that politically correct learners or new speakers of Gaelic don’t call themselves Gaels, or at least, they believe that they should be low-key about their own identity in relation to the Gaelic language. Even though many new Gaelic speakers, deep down, do consider themselves Gaels, we all quickly learn not to say too much about it. That wasn’t a problem for me at first; I came to Gaelic with no aspiration to be a Gael, but as I learned more about the troubled connection between identity and Gaelic in Scotland, I came to see that this uncertainty about who is a ‘real’ Gael not only poses a serious threat to the success of the Scottish Gaelic revival, but also threatens to lead that revival in an unintended, but dangerous direction.
To illustrate some of the problems with Gaelic and identity to my students, I sometimes conduct a small thought experiment in class. I have a photo of two school children — I think I found it on the BBC website — and in this photo, the children are in school uniforms at a table in a classroom reading together a Gaelic children’s storybook. The iconic information available in the photo makes it clear that these two children are supposed to represent students in Gaelic-medium education (GME). So far the image may sound very conventional and even unremarkable. After 40 years of GME in Scotland, a picture of two students reading a Gaelic book in school wouldn’t trouble most Scots; however, there is a twist: while one of these children is of European ancestry, with white skin and a curly head of red hair, the other child is of East Asian ancestry. I imagine that this photo was specifically chosen to illustrate a story about Gaelic-medium education in a multiracial and inclusive way, and this is actually a realistic and reasonably representative picture of Gaelic-medium education in Scotland in the 21st century; Gaelic-medium education is diverse, welcoming children of all backgrounds, and most Gaelic speakers would undoubtedly consider the openness and diversity of Gaelic-medium education as an unqualified good thing.
The problem comes when the question isn’t about language ability but identity. To demonstrate this problem to my students, I would start my lecture by projecting a slide of this picture and then ask my class, “How many Gaels do you see here?” The lecture room usually goes very quiet and you can see the cognitive dissonance sweep across my students’ faces. I am sure that none of my students would consider themselves racists, but faced with this picture and my question, they find themselves, in spite of themselves, judging a small school-child by the colour of her skin. They immediately see the difficulty. While historically connected to the Gaelic language, currently, the identity of a ‘Gael’ in Scotland is still predominantly defined by ancestry, and therefore, by race. No one I know would deny an Asian child the right to Gaelic-medium education if available, and if the identity of the ‘Gael’ was predominantly defined linguistically, then Gaelic-speaking Asian children would be considered as much members of the core Gaelic in-group as anyone else, but the fact is, currently, the ‘Gael’ identity is typically based on a complex conflation of ancestry and language, shutting many modern Gaelic speakers out on racial grounds. To my students, and to most readers I am sure, this would be a clear problem.
One possible answer to this problem is to distance Gaelic from the old core identity, to create a new idea of a ‘Gaelic speaker’ that is independent of the low status and shame associated with being a Gael, and that is also based on Gaelic ability alone, rather than the potentially racist foundation of ancestry. I would argue, however, that this solution is itself problematic on several levels. Firstly, the identity of the Gael, while contested and mistrusted among young Gaelic speakers in particular, is nonetheless powerfully affective and even institutionalized to a degree in the Gaelic world. The two students in the photo I mentioned above, if involved in Gaelic-Medium education, may attend the tutorial musical festivals, Fèisean nan Gàidheal (Festivals of the Gaels); they may also may compete in local or national Mòd events staged by An Comunn Gàidhealach (literally, The Gaelish League); and would listen to the judging and commentary of these events on Radio nan Gàidheal (Radio of the Gaels). The Gael identity is contested and misunderstood, but it is not empty or irrelevant. After more than a millennia of association with the Gaelic language, the idea of the Gael is still very much alive and will not fade away of its own accord anytime soon.
Which brings us to the second main problem with abandoning the Gael identity, perhaps the biggest problem. Language revival is about this sort of continuity of linguistic identity and cultural narrative. Some social scientists would contend that this continuity is essentialist and constructed, but as the New Zealand sociolinguist Steven May has argued, although identity may be constructed anew in each generation, that doesn’t make it any less ‘real’; these links to place and past can still be very powerful however they are formed. Indeed, for the sake of language revival, these identity links need to be affective and powerful enough to motivate the sort of grassroots activism that makes a language revival movement work. The one identity that has connected the Gaelic language to Scotland all the way back to the early middle ages is the Gael. If the Gaelic revival is to reinvigorate itself as a grassroots social movement, to rally around a uniquely Gaelic identity with a clear connection to Scotland’s people, Scotland’s geography and Scotland’s past, that identity is the Gael.
Some would argue that there is another, more powerful identity connection available to Gaelic-speakers. They would argue that the real original Gaelic identity, expressed in English, is the Scot, and it is undeniable that this assertion is at least historically correct. The first Scots were Gaelic speakers, but the ‘Scot’ is now a multilingual identity. Scots speakers (and Polish speakers, English speakers, Urdu speakers, etc.) would very rightly resist if Gaelic speakers attempted to make exclusive or primary claims on the Scot identity. Being a Gaelic speaker is one way to be a Scot, but in the 21st century, so is being a Polish speaker. As the unifying civic identity of the Scottish nation, the Scot simply cannot and should not be repurposed as a linguistic identity for the sake of the Gaelic revival. It just can’t happen now.
So if we accept that a strong linguistic identity is a prerequisite for a successful grassroots revival of Gaelic, and if we accept that the identity of the Scot is not an option in this respect, then the original associated emic identity, the Gael, is the clear choice. Rather than disassociate the Gaelic language from the idea of the Gael, we need to more tightly bind the language to that identity, to reestablish the Gael as a purely cultural and linguistic identity completely unrelated to ancestry or race. A Gael needs to be reestablished as a ‘big-tent’ identity that includes anyone who speaks Gaelic and who engages with the Gaelic world, regardless of their ancestry, religion, nationality, race, sexuality, or anything else at all. At the same time, the Gael identity needs to be reclaimed by traditional Gaelic speakers and by new Gaelic speakers alike, not as a shameful identity associated with poverty and social exclusion, but as an identity of pride: Gaels as the group that first united all the different groups living in the north of Britain as Scots, with a cultural legacy in Scotland stretching back more than 1500 years, and Gaels as fully modern participants in the Scottish civic project, however that is defined.
This may seem like a huge ideological task, and it is, but it is not impossible, and we know this because there is a good precedent for this kind of identity reimagining in the course of a language revival: the question of Basque identity and the revival of the Basque language. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Basque identity was still largely defined by race, leading to sometimes sinister and regressive eugenic-like tendencies amongst early Basque revivalists. But as a number of historians and sociolinguists working on the Basque revival have documented, more progressive Basque speakers waged a successful ideological battle through the 20th century to shift the Basque identity from race to language. Radical Basque revivalists rejected the racial definition of Basque identity and mounted a sustained ideological campaign to open up the language and the identity to anyone living in the Basque region, regardless of background. And while Basque identity is still undoubtedly contested by some, the progressive revivalists have largely succeeded. The Basque identity is now firmly connected to learning and using the Basque language, and the Basque revival has been hugely successful as a result.
We can make the same transformation of Gaelic identity in Scotland, but it will be a difficult and sustained ideological project, and the struggle will have to involve the totality of the Gaelic revival movement in Scotland and around the world. Much of the work will involve the schools. With the decline of traditional Gaelic speech communities in Scotland, in the future most Gaelic speakers may acquire the language primarily through the school system rather than in the home, but recent research by Stuart Dunmore at Edinburgh University has shown that Gaelic-medium education in Scotland is failing to produce active young Gaelic speakers with strong identity links to the language. Gaelic-medium education in Scotland is strangely non-ideological. Indeed, it is often sold as to parents and councils as simply mainstream education, but in Gaelic. This philosophy may make GME appear more palatable to wary counselors and uncertain parents, but it is a failure as a program for creating active bilinguals and language revival.
As the sociolinguist James Oliver pointed out more than a decade ago, without a strong identity connection to the language, there is little hope that students in GME will use their Gaelic outside the school gates. To succeed, GME simply cannot be non-ideological. GME needs to not only educate students to be fully fluent in Gaelic but must also inspire students to take ownership of the language, to see themselves as proud young Gaels who speak Gaelic because it is central to their identity. Both young students in the picture I mentioned above would need to understand that they were core members of the Gaelic speech community and that they both had important parts to play in the redefinition of the Gael identity in modern 21st-century Scotland. No one with Gaelic should be left out or marginalized, and given how central GME is to the Gaelic revival, that inclusion needs to start in the schools.
But that inclusion needs to be reinforced outwith the schools as well, and some of the most difficult ideological work will take place in Gaelic speaking communities and Gaelic speaking networks throughout Scotland and abroad. Nancy Dorian is a world-renowned American linguist who conducted most of her research on severely threatened Gaelic communities on the east coast of Scotland. These little pockets of Gaelic speakers were surrounded by English and Scots speakers, and as they declined, these communities typically included members with a range of Gaelic abilities: from fully fluent speakers; to members she called ‘semi-speakers’ who had some Gaelic, but who were less than fluent; to members who could understand Gaelic but not speak it. As Dorian observed, in such a situation of extreme decline, if too much emphasis is put on specific Gaelic ability for community membership, you risk excluding folk on the fringes, and particularly, young people in the community who might be key to reviving the language in the future.
With Gaelic’s continuing decline throughout Scotland, this is now a universal problem for the Gaelic revival. Such is the mixed character of our declining Gaelic communities that most Gaelic speakers have neighbors and close friends, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, even brothers and sisters who speak little or no Gaelic. I have argued that redefining the Gael as a strongly linguistic identity is key for building an inclusive and successful Gaelic revival, but what about those ‘Gaels’ in our midst who don’t speak Gaelic or who speak very little of it? How do we welcome everyone into a big-tent revival of the language without excluding folk who have family or community ties to the language but are not (yet) fully proficient Gaelic speakers themselves? It will be a difficult balance to strike and there is no simple, glib answer to this question; it is a question that can only be answered in practice, and I would argue, by finding a way to facilitate and to encourage those people who missed acquiring Gaelic fully in the home as children to learn it again as adults. This group is a key target for adult Gaelic learning initiatives and needs to be specifically catered for with well-funded Gaelic courses tailored to their particular needs.
Finally, there is a general need to more seriously promote adult Gaelic learning in Scotland. Up until now, the principal tactic of the Gaelic revival has been to campaign for more GME provision, and while children are central to a healthy language community, international experience has shown that when it comes to new speakers, successful adult learners, not children, are the real drivers of strong minority language revival movements. For decades, Gaelic adult learning has been a very low priority for language development officials and Gaelic activists in Scotland. Underfunded and disorganized, the Gaelic adult learning sector is a mess, but much like GME, Gaelic adult learning is also ideologically unfocused. Gaelic in Scotland is still largely taught as if it were a foreign language; in other words, Gaelic is taught like an abstract grammatical system with no social context. In contrast with adult learners of other minority languages, Gaelic learners are not encouraged to see themselves as fully-fledged new members of the core speech community, and this is a grave tactical and ethical error.
If I learn French, I don’t expect on that basis alone to become a Frenchman because ‘French’ is a civic national identity, not solely a linguistic identity. I might learn French as a language to use on visits to France or Montreal or other French-speaking areas around the globe, but with no intention of living in France or adopting a French identity. But it is reasonable to assume that many, or even most, who learn a threatened minority language learn that language specifically for reasons of identity, even if that identity connection is inchoate at first and even if learners may also be shy to admit their identity aspirations openly to others. There is no practical, instrumental imperative to learn Gaelic. Everyone who speaks Gaelic also speaks English perfectly well. When adults learn Gaelic, it is not because they have to learn it for communicative reasons; it is because they want to learn it, and that desire to learn Gaelic will often come down to some sort of identity connection to the language.
Openness is particularly important because the Gaelic linguistic community in Scotland is so complex when it comes to identity. Indeed, the simple distinction between learners on the one hand and native speakers on the other, insiders and outsiders in neat boxes, fails to adequately capture the shadings and diversity that exist in the Gaelic community. Very few learners of Gaelic in Scotland are 100% naive newcomers to the language like me. Most would have had some connection to the language in their lives somewhere before they started learning. As explained above, many would be “semi-speakers” of the language, folk who heard and perhaps even spoke some Gaelic in the home as children, but who never reached full fluency, and who are learning Gaelic to fill in their knowledge as adults. Others may have other living Gaelic-speaking relatives, grandparents or great grandparents, and therefore, a close family connection to the language. Others may live in Gaelic-speaking communities and are learning Gaelic to integrate with their neighbors. Still others may be learning to support their Gaelic-speaking children in GME. And most learners in Scotland would have Gaelic-speaking ancestors somewhere on their family tree, however distant, and of course, anyone in Scotland could make an identity connection to the language simply by virtue of living in the country where it was traditionally spoken. In the midst of all this diversity, who gets to decide who is in and who is out?
Even amongst native Gaelic speakers identity is complex. Emigration and the decline of core Gaelic-speaking communities means that very, very few Gaelic speakers today live in linguistically homogeneous and culturally “Gàidhealach” areas. My colleague Iain Mac an Tàilleir has analyzed the most recent census data and shown that less than one percent of Gaelic speakers fit the strictest definition of a “real Gael”, i.e. a native Gaelic speaker living in a community where Gaelic is still spoken as a default community language. That strictest definition excludes almost all Gaelic speakers in Scotland. There are good ethical reasons for favoring a broad, linguistic definition of a Gael, but also, on purely practical grounds, the Gaelic speech community in Scotland is so small and fragile, for the sake of the future of the language, we can’t afford to exclude anyone.
So, am I a Gael then? Well, not in the same way that someone in Uist is a Gael, or Glasgow, or even Cape Breton. I am who I am. I am my own thing: a Seattle Gael perhaps. We need an understanding of Gaelic identity that is broad enough to include all different sorts of Gaelic speakers, even me. But the truth is, as an American who learned Gaelic to full fluency as an adult, I am a very rare outlier in the Gaelic world. For all practical purposes, it doesn’t really matter what I call myself. What is far more important is how my students can come to understand themselves as young Gaels, can take personal ownership of the identity, and remake it to fit their own lives as Gaelic speakers in the 21st century. It is the ideological work we do together in the classroom, discussing Gaelic and identity, that really matters.
And while I am certain that an ideological campaign to reimagine the Gael as an exclusively cultural and linguistic identity will be difficult, I would argue that recent research shows that it is not an intractable problem, that some core Gaelic community members already understand the Gael in this way. In 2014, Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone published research showing that 28% of self-identifying Gaels living in strong Gaelic-speaking areas would accept a foreigner with Gaelic like myself as a fellow Gael. That 28% is a minority, less than a third, but critically, it is not zero, and it offers a foundation to build on.
Historically, the Gaelic language and culture has flourished when Gaels have accepted large numbers of new speakers into their midst. When the first Scots united the many tribes of North Briton into the kingdom of Alba, they absorbed Picts and Britons into their Gaelic speech community. We have no idea how this happened sociolinguistically, how the Picts in particular were absorbed so rapidly and thoroughly, but we are certain that it did happen. And then again, the genesis of the first Gaelic renaissance in the Lordship of the Isles was the absorption of Norse speakers in Innse Gall into the Gaelic speech community there. In 2019, Gaelic is hanging on by its fingernails in Scotland and desperately needs a second renaissance if it is going to survive. If Gaels can find a way to welcome large numbers of new speakers of Gaelic into their midst again, as they have before, there is no reason that Gaelic can’t thrive for another thousand years as a spoken language in Scotland.
Ma tha a’ Ghàidhlig agad, ’s e Gàidheal a th’ annad!
For further reading, here are a couple very interesting first-person perspectives on the question of Gaelic and identity (le taing do Wilson McLeod):
What it’s like being black in the Scottish Gaelic community.
Cassie Ezeji, ‘Whose Gaelic Is It Anyway?’ Identity And Perception.