I STUDIED Gaelic when I was a teenager, but after many years living outwith Scotland my command of the language got very rusty. When I was still living in Spain, I decided that a good way to get back into the language would be to draw Gaelic maps of Scotland. It’s a project that’s kept me occupied for the past five years. Unfortunately what I’ve now discovered is that while I’ve got pretty good at Gaelic mediaeval agricultural terminology, I’m still not very good at holding a conversation.
There’s only so many times you can drop words like dabhach ‘the area of land that can support a head of forty cattle’ into a modern conversation. On the plus side, I’ve now got some detailed Gaelic maps of a number of Scottish regions.
I put a few excerpts from the maps on social media a few days ago. The response was hugely positive from most, but I also found myself subject to attacks and abuse from people who identified as Unionists.
Loading article content
Prominent Unionist Tom Gallagher referred to me as a Nationalist demagogue, and said that a Gaelic map of Glasgow was a form of Gaelic imperialism. He claimed I was only doing this project in order to make a lot of money. Clearly Tom has a more optimistic view of the commercial potential of Gaelic maps than I do.
Which does make me wonder why he’s so opposed to them. Others weighed in to call me a blood and soil nationalist and a fascist, drawing a Gaelic map of Glasgow means you must be narrow-minded or insane. Some simply responded with pig ignorant personal abuse.
Yet others were very keen to inform me that Gaelic has never been spoken in Fife, or Edinburgh, or Dumfries and Galloway, despite the fact that the language was once widely spoken in all those areas. Gaelic was at one time the language of all of Fife, it was widespread in Edinburgh as Gaelic place names like Corstorphine, Balerno or Inveresk attest. Galloway Gaelic survived into the 18th century.
In fact at the time of its greatest extent, around 1100, Gaelic was at one time the dominant or sole language of all of mainland Scotland west and north of a line drawn approximately from Edinburgh to Lockerbie. It was even spoken in parts of the modern English county of Cumbria. Yet despite being very keen to inform me how little they cared about Gaelic, my critics were equally keen to insist that they knew more about the language than those who have studied it seriously, those whose works I used as sources for the maps.
It’s a peculiar paradox.
Those who claim that Gaelic and Scots are irrelevant are often those who put most energy and enthusiasm into attacking those of us who do see the relevance of Scotland’s traditional languages.
Those who say they don’t care about the languages all too often care deeply that other people do care about them. This proves that contrary to the assertions of their attackers, there is in fact a use for Gaelic and Scots. The languages are useful as cringe detectors, and as such they’re incredibly accurate. Scotland’s languages are the epicentre of the cringe.
The critics of Scotland’s languages claim that spending public money on them is a waste, yet they don’t object to the state spending public money to protect and foster other parts of our national heritage. Intangible assets like Gaelic and Scots are as much a part, indeed arguably more a part, of Scotland’s heritage than tangible aspects of our heritage like castles or museums. The languages are responsible for the creation of Scotland. It was the use of Gaelic that created the Scottish nation, the mediaeval Latin word Scotti meant Gaelic speaker. The nation those Gaelic speakers created formed a state, the kingdom of Scotland, and for much of its history that state expressed itself through the medium of Scots. Without the Gaelic and Scots languages there would be no Scotland.
And that’s precisely why modern Unionists object so vehemently to a part of their own history, culture, and heritage. The existence of Scottish languages puts a lie to the myth that there is no content to Scottish culture except an atavistic hatred of the English. They prove that Scotland is capable of discussing itself and looking at itself without reference to the English language.
Maps are inherently political. A map is a statement of ownership and possession. The British colonial enterprise painted much of the globe in the blood red of Empire. Native languages were extirpated, native place names corrupted. That’s real cultural imperialism. And Scotland didn’t escape, our modern English language maps consist of names made up of nonsense syllables, written down by English speaking surveyors who neither knew nor cared about their meanings.
When you draw a map of Scotland in Gaelic, you’re reclaiming the sense of Scotland, and that’s threatening to those who want Scotland to remain firmly locked within the Great British shortbread tin. A Gaelic map of Glasgow isn’t Gaelic imperialism, it’s an act of restoration.
Gaelic maps do not replace English ones, but they do return meaning to the Scottish landscape. A Gaelic map is a meaningful map. It unleashes the story of the land. It tells us who we are. And while there were critics who attack the idea of Scottish maps in Scottish languages, the response from the great majority was one of excitement. Most people in Scotland want to know the story of this land, they want to hear the voices locked into the place names of our landscape. Modern Scots want the chance to view our country through different eyes. And that’s what really frightens the Unionists who howl in derision, because once you look at Scotland through a different and Scottish lens, you might very well decide that Scotland doesn’t need the UK to teach it about itself.