SCOTLAND is evolving as a country, as a cultural entity, as a place that knows itself. The contradictory and dividing myths we’ve told ourselves (and been told) are falling apart. One of the enduring mythologies is that of the “divided self”– from the “double and divided” Scottish self in literature, including Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

But the country, as we have told ourselves, is divided also between Catholic and Protestant – industrial past (heroic-masculine) and post-industrial future (chaotic-dystopian). These binaries are outdated and inadequate, a series of false-dichotomies that have out-served their purpose.

This splitterdom of course gave birth to the term ‘‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’’, the idea that Scots can hold simultaneously the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity”, thought of as being typical for the Scottish psyche and literature.

Caledonian Antisyzygy was first coined by the literary critic G Gregory Smith in response to the view espoused by figures such as TS Eliot that there is no value in Scottish “provincial literature”. Smith noted an absence of coherence and an anchor in a single language. The idea is explored by Kirsten Stirling in her book Bella Caledonia: Woman, Nation, Text (New York, Rodopi, 2008).

Of course the other central myth that has been perpetuated alongside this is that of the Highland-Lowland divide. It is a trope that has been regurgitated down the years, presumably by the original “metropolitan elites”, by an embracing of “progress” that would assume anything rural or traditional to be backwards, and for a tendency to belittle or ignore your own cultural heritage unless it was wrapped safely in kitsch, tartan and Nessification.

But now Eliot’s idea that a singular unitary base for literature or language looks positively imperial.

Last week saw extraordinary explosion of interest in Gaelic learning on Duolingo – the world’s largest language learning platform. It has attracted about 65,000 learners in five days.

Ciaran Iòsaph MacAonghais – a primary teacher from Fort William and co-creator of the Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course told us: “Previously, there were around 5500 learning Gaelic in Scotland and we have already raised this number significantly and hopefully it will continue to rise in the coming weeks and months.

‘‘There is no single solution that will save the Gaelic language. Much more needs to be done to support native speakers in Gaelic speaking communities, but having a high profile starting point for learning is still a powerful thing. In a small language community like this, every speaker makes a real difference.”

He continued: “I am blown away by the reaction to the course. Feedback seems to be overwhelmingly positive, we have even had a professor of Gaelic comment on the quality of the course itself and the Gaelic you can hear in the audio recording.”

The course is currently in “Beta” which means we are working around the clock to respond to feedback and correct any errors and hope to get these ironed out as soon as possible. Once the course graduates from Beta, we are planning on expanding it significantly. My hope is to see the course used in schools and to see the number of people learning in Scotland and overseas grow and grow.”

But the success is twofold. It is first that a small group of language activists managed to find agency and successfully lobby Duolingo – this is independent thinking in action. But it is secondly a blow to both the idea of binary, fundamentally split Scotland and the idea that the hatred of Gaelic that oozes forth from the cracks of cultural self-hatred is a mainstream past time.

THE tiring re-tread of arguments about schooling, broadcast or the cliche of road-signs that gets trundled out by the monoglot community stuffed with internalised anti-Gaelic stigma has been blown away by the Duolingo success. And we know where some of this comes from.

The Gaelic scholar Iain MacKinnon writes in Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind: “Michael Newton has also recently made available online some examples he has collected of texts written by Gaels that describe the culturally repressive role of education. In at least one school the ‘maide crochaidh’ – the ‘hanging’ or ‘punishment’ stick – was hung around the neck of any child overheard speaking Gàidhlig in school.

“The idea was that the child heard speaking the language would have the stick placed around their neck and, when they heard

another child speak the language, they would pass it on, and so on. At the end of the day the teacher called for the stick and began to systematically flog each child who had worn it during the day.”

The correspondence with Thiongo’s experience in Kenya is striking. Although the actual terrorist device differs between Gĩkũyũ and Gàidhlig – a button rather than a stick – the process and intent are identical. In Memories of Rannoch, an autobiographical account published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society in 1981 but originally written in the 1920s, a man from Rannoch recounted a related form of psychological terror which had been used to try to destroy young Gaels’ connection to their language.

He recalled an older neighbour telling him how children who spoke Gàidhlig in their school were treated by the schoolmaster.

‘‘It [the Gàidhlig language] seems to have been even more sternly discouraged in the early fifties [1850s], for an old man of eighty-eight, Duncan Cameron, now living next door to me here at Druimchruaidh, told me that when he was going to school at Camaghouran, any boy or girl caught speaking Gaelic during school hours was punished by having a human skull suspended round the head for the rest of the day.”

MacKinnon concludes: “In my own family, when my maternal grandmother went to school on Skye in the early twentieth century she spoke only Gàidhlig.

‘‘Although her teacher was a Gàidhlig speaker, he belted her and others in the class if he caught them speaking the language. Violence engendered a brokenness in our family’s relationship to Gàidhlig which has fractured into the present day. It seems possible that stories such as these are fairly common in families, but have been repressed, as has been the case in other colonial contexts.”

Now there’s two important caveats worth mentioning here. The first is that like gymn membership and purchasing kitchen gadgets, online language courses are probably signed-up for with great enthusiasm but often abandoned in large numbers. Duolingo might be the spiraliser at the back of your cupboard by January.

Secondly, there is no substitute for growing and nurturing Gaelic in the Gàidhealtachd. It’s not the same to have someone learning Gaelic out of any located cultural context online, as it is to have people learning and re-learning their language in place.

But the vast numbers signed-up mean we can anticipate a huge drop-off and still have a magnificent growth in Gaelic learners boosting the amount of people involved. And whilst Gaelic needs housing and jobs in the Western Highlands as much as it needs digital practice, the two are not at odds and this is a significant cultural moment.

It is also liberating from Eliot’s notion of language and identity and worth. Instead we have a a multi-polar world where identity, Scottish identity, can operate with several languages and an appropriately complex swirl of signifiers: Highlander, Gael, European, Anglo-Scot, Afro-Scot, Glaswegian, and on and on.

Declining cultural self-hatred is a long-term project, but it’s one that has taken significant advances in the past week. There are political ramifications of the process of de-colonisation and it doesn’t end – it begins – with language diversity.