Growing up in the Outer Hebrides, Gaelic was just… there.
I never thought anything of it. Everyone around me was bilingual. My parents spoke it, as did my grandparents and every one of our neighbours. Gaelic was a normal part of everyday life, sitting there unobtrusively in the corner like an old piece of furniture.
Like many of my millennial generation – those of us who started school just before Gaelic was a widely availble full-time option, before there was an entire TV channel in the language, before Gaelic music went mainstream – my first language is English. I’m not fluent in Gaelic by any means, but I can get by. As a child I always knew what my elders were saying – especially when they didn’t want my younger brother and I to know what they were talking about!
I was reminded of this recently, when I sat down to interview Gaelic music superstar Julie Fowlis before her concert in Pennsylvania, and was astonished to learn that she was not fluent in Gaelic as a child growing up in North Uist. “Mam was a native speaker, and all her family are, and then my Dad didn’t have Gaelic, so we kind of heard both in the house when we were growing up, and my Granny would always speak to me a lot in Gaelic,” she explained.
“As youngsters we were really guilty of being spoken to by a lot of our older family in Gaelic and we would respond in English. And so you kind of have this understanding of it but then you’re really lazy to speak it.”
That last bit hit home – it described my teenage self to a tee. As I got older, my interest in Gaelic waned. I appreciated Gaelic music, certainly; I picked up the melodeon as a teenager, playing at ceilidhs and appearing on national TV, spending my evenings studiously working out the right notes for a jig or a waltz.
But when it came to the language, I was so enamoured with learning about other cultures that I failed to really appreciate the one right under my nose. I stopped studying Gaelic in school and replaced it with French. Gaelic was normal, mundane; French felt far more exotic, more useful.
Usefulness is a trait ascribed to maybe a handful of languages. There’s English, of course, but look at any discussion of languages worth learning and you’ll likely see that Chinese is good for business, French is an asset for European diplomacy, Spanish is crucial in the States, and so on.
I loved learning Mandarin when I lived in Tianjin (it was both challenging and rewarding), and I fully support the notion that English speakers should be learning more languages, full stop. But a language is worth more than its market value. Your language is part of your history, both personal and communal. The language you speak is part of who you are, part of where – and who – you come from.
I learned that late, when I returned to the islands after my travels and studies in mainland Scotland, in America, in China. Reconnected to the islands, I made more of an effort, asking my Dad to speak to me more in Gaelic, stopping him when I knew what he was saying, but didn’t quite know which word was which. I learned that I knew more Gaelic than I had realised, but that – like so many Gaels – I can lack the confidence to just put the words out there, even when they might be wrong.
It’s something that even someone as talented as Julie Fowlis could identify with. Having already completed her undergraduate degree in music, she then attended the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig. “There was myself and another girl from Skye, and there was a girl from Raasay, and we were great friends, and the three of us came from families who were native speaking Gaelic families,” she told me as the notes of fiddle music floated in from the sound check next door.
“And then there were other folk in the class who had no connection to Gaelic at all, and they were so confident, and they would speak out and they would make mistakes and they wouldn’t care and they would just keep going, and the three of us would be terrified to say anything in case it was wrong, not wanting to make a mistake. And I guess that’s how it is for a lot of Gaels, because you respect it so much that you don’t want to do badly by it, you want to do right by it as it were, so it took a lot of confidence to get back to speaking it.”
Now that I live a world away, where the chances of hearing Gaelic here in New York are, give or take, about six million to one (there’s another Rubhach out there in the Big Apple somewhere!) Gaelic has taken on a much more personal significance. It feels precious, important, part of my personal history. And I’m sure for younger learners, it’s simply useful, no strings attached: aren’t we always hearing about the benefits of bi and tri-lingualism?
Maybe absence – and age – does make the heart grow fonder. Maybe that’s why the Julie Fowlis gig in Pennsyvania made me feel so emotional. To the American audience clapping and cheering and stomping their feet in the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, this was an evening of spectacular talent and entertainment from a faraway place. To me, it was that and a whole lot more. It was a piece of home. Those words, those tunes – they’re a piece of Hebridean culture, and hearing the songs sung so beautifully, so magically, so far from their origin, was incredibly moving.
I may not be a fluent Gaelic speaker, but it is still a part of who I am, and where I come from. Even here across the Atlantic, there are times when I can still conjure up a Gaelic sentence or two, times when I can still get a glimpse of that old piece of furniture. As an expat, it’s the little things, like an old familiar phrase, that can make all the difference.
What does your language (or languages) mean to you? How important is it to your culture and way of life?