Alan Riach starts to unpick the threads that have kept our lips stitched closed too long ...

THERE are two determining factors in any cultural production – language and geography. By language I mean whatever medium you work in, the means of expression and communication. By geography I mean your specific location on the map.

That includes all the history going through into geology and further and all the experience of environment, ecology and whatever inhabitation brings to you. Economics underpins these factors and politics can over-rule them but they persist as the only finally essential co-ordinates.

Last week I introduced Window to the West: Culture and Environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd by Meg Bateman and John Purser, a book that is not a book, a book that is only to be found – entirely free – online. All anyone need do is go to this site where the publisher, Clò Ostaig, has made it available – click here for that.

At nearly 1000 pages this is an Everest of works, or to be more modest, as we Scots so characteristically are, it’s a mountain range of hitherto inaccessible pinnacles. They are not “inaccessible”: that’s the lesson. But work like this maybe needs some preparation before you start climbing.

Wole Soyinka once wrote: “From one crucible of the imagination, alchemists of the temper of a Lovelace, George Lamming, Chinua Achebe, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, Emile Zola, wa Thiongo, Camara Laye, Banumbir Wongar … from yet another, a Garcia Marquez, Amos Tutuola, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Genet, and again Banumbir Wongar and Camara Laye … fundamentally one material world, one physical reality. Yet, in different degrees, our sorcerers construct and communicate wildly separated yet coherent structures of a new reality, implying a refusal to accept that the empirical datum of reality is all there is – or else, why write?”

We can replace, add to, juggle with the sorcerers’ names but the point is crucial, “one material world, one physical reality” and yet enormously various “coherent structures of a new reality” made visible in art, that complements, confirms, but also takes us beyond as it interprets that “empirical datum of reality”.

But what if that “new reality” was not only the provenance of writers, artists, creators of vision but a capacity inherent in language itself?

The authors identify a particular quality in Gaelic that suggests an inherent capacity that distinguishes it from English – “VSO”. In their words: “Unlike other European languages, the Celtic languages (Cornish and Breton excepted) place the verb before the subject.

“Typologically, therefore, Gaelic is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language. ‘I went down’ is rendered as chaidh mi sìos ‘went me down’; or where in English we say ‘I took it from him’, in Gaelic it is thug mi bhuaithe e ‘took me from him it’. In simple terms of priority, the role of the individual as originator of the action is secondary to the action itself.

“Even in sentences in which common emphatic forms are used – ’s mise a tha a’ smaoineachadh ... ‘it is me that is thinking’ – the basic structure of VSO is retained. In terms of visualisation, the picture in the mind commences with motion. It incorporates an instant awareness of the verb rather than the noun.”

This little paragraph seems to me to be at the heart of the whole 960-page book. It’s more than “motion” that “the picture in the mind commences with”, it’s also that which is in motion, passing between identities, whether it’s a physical body moving between upstairs and downstairs, or a hammer that is being taken by me from you, or a political power that is being taken by you from me.

That thing moving in the air between objects is identified within that “motion” as primary, because “motion” is primary, not the objects on either or any side of it.

Imagine what this means. When we say, “I love you” we might think we know what we mean. But in Gaelic, it’s not quite the same thing. The authors quote Charles W Dunn: “The English words ‘I love you’ inevitably feature the first person pronoun ‘I’ as the grammatical subject, and the ‘you’ becomes the object no matter whether the ‘you’ in question wishes that assignment.

“In Gaelic, on the other hand, the corresponding sentence, ‘Tha gaol agam ort’, approaches the matter much more subtly. To translate its overtones, the sentence means ‘There is (tha) love (gaol) within me (agam) towards you (ort).’ By means of what grammarians unromantically call ‘prepositional phrases,’ agam and ort, the lover is simultaneously able to downplay his own ego and at the same time to imply, ‘There is love in the air between us’.”

As Bateman and Purser observe: “To put it another way, it makes the space between the two much richer.”

The point is that the priority of the language itself is relational. Relations can be kept in a sustaining and productive tension. Or they can be broken, and the structure collapses. That might happen naturally, for any number of reasons. But it can happen by the imposition of a different structure of priorities, one that has nothing to do with prioritising relations and everything to do with asserting a singular position of power.

And, one might argue, this is a key component of the dynamic between English and Gaelic. But it doesn’t have to be. Wole Soyinka’s conjuring of an image of a company of writers, sorcerers, generating coherent structures of new realities, all “implying a refusal to accept that the empirical datum of reality is all there is” is a model which evokes different languages. It could be imagined taking place in English – but an English riddled with difference and not bound by the exclusivities of ego and imperial authority.

Michael Newton, reviewing the book in the International Review of Scottish Studies (no.46, 2021), says this: “As Bateman and Purser note in the Introduction, this research is essentially an act of decolonisation as it is necessary not only to look past the ethnocidal damage wrought by the anglophone world to retrieve the relevant material evidence but also the very definition of art and ‘ways of seeing’ imposed by anglocentric cultural norms and institutions which have served to obscure and delegitimate those operative and normative in Gaeldom.”

Now, I’ve suggested that the way the Gaelic language works brings its own prioritisation to a way of understanding the world but here’s the hard question, which this book does more than any to address: Is it possible to imagine this “way of seeing” without a deep familiarity and fluency in the Gaelic language?

It’s a dangerous question. For very good reasons, one might decide to answer no. You have to learn the language, or better still, be a native speaker and grown up within it, learn to use it as an adult, self-consciously as well as “naturally” (from before birth, when you start hearing things), in order to be fully in command of its resources. Therefore you should start by learning the language.

There’s an undeniable truth in this argument, but it is not the only one. Languages can be learned, it should be possible to approach their practice, their music and the way they function, the priorities they set, from outside. It must be. And it is. We know this.

Even in the most rudimentary ways, we can have some appreciation of the different effects French, Spanish, Italian can produce, and beyond them, Breton, Catalan, Sicilian. Sensitivity and an appetite for learning can get you closer, if you keep a respect for the differences and a humility due to the fact that you’ll never be in full command, you’ll always be a student of such things.

So the answer to the question, ultimately, has to be Yes: you can – to some extent – accurately imagine what the Gaelic “way of seeing” is, even approaching it through the limited medium of English.

There’s a further point to be sensitive about, though. The English language has a particular historical relationship with Gaelic which is fraught with tensions and hostilities. Essentially, English was – and still is – the language used in effect to be most inimical to the healthy knowledge and exercise of the Gaelic language, as it is for Scots.

Many monoglot English speakers still deny the validity and viability of Gaelic and Scots. And this situation has social, cultural, economic and above all, political consequence. While society such as it is struggles on, and culture regenerates itself whether at a loss or a profit, and economics usually means you make do, get poor or grow wealthy, politics means all peoples and power.

And it’s only with power that change can be brought about.

Power resides in culture and is made buoyant or weighed down by the economy, but political decisions are too easily made from positions of almost absolute ignorance, too often prompted by prejudice, and more frequently destructive than liberating.

This book is one way to help strike in the wedge and prise the closed minds open. Here’s how Bateman introduces it: “This book takes its title, Window to the West, from the opening lines of Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig, which begins, Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig trom faca mi an àird an Iar ’s tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig na craoibh bheithe, ’s bha i riamh eadar an t-Inbhir ’s Poll a’ Bhainne, thall ’s bhos mu Bhaile-Chùirn: tha i na beithe, na calltainn, na caorann dhìreach sheang ùir ...

The window is nailed and boarded through which I saw the West and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig, a birch tree, and she has always been between Inver and Milk Hollow, here and there about Baile-Chùirn: she is a birch, a hazel, a straight, slender young rowan… ‘THE poem was composed in 1967 by a rational, agnostic, university-educated, left-wing thinker and yet its authenticity rests on the Gaelic supernatural – and on the ancient Gaelic topoi of sight unseen, circular time and the interconnectedness of all life.

“The poet’s visionary powers are enhanced by his natural vision being obscured by the boards on the window. The vision he sees through the boarded window is of his love in the form of various trees. Gradually, he sees the past generations cumulatively peopling the island in the form of trees. His vision, induced by his love of the place and its culture, is in some ways redemptive of the tragedy and injustice of the Clearances.

“In our research, as in MacLean’s poem, the view to the west must be imagined because the window is boarded up. The house appears unoccupied, even derelict, perhaps as a result of the Clearances carried out by George Rainy on the island of Raasay in the mid-19th century.

“This parallels our own efforts not only to see what has been obscured by prejudice, poverty, depopulation and cultural disintegration but also to see further back into Gaelic culture, even to the cultures that preceded the settlement of the Gaels along the western seaboard of Scotland.”

This is an immense undertaking, and the dangers are many. Scholars trained to attend most closely to specificities of data will be instantly suspicious, and the bringing together of what, in one exaggeration, might be described as a romantic imagination, and, at the other extreme, a slavish obedience to verifiable fact, requires skills of selection, balancing and measurement few scholars are able to manage or brave enough to risk.

But let me give an example of how this works and what the pay-off might be. Here’s a passage by John Purser from Part I, The Environment and Sight, dealing with latitude and light: “Longitude is not in itself significant in terms of the angle and rotations of the Earth, but where the Celtic-speaking communities live it is fundamentally significant, as they happen to be in western maritime locations which are impinged upon by oceanic currents and prevailing weather systems crossing west-east.

“As a consequence, by comparison with places such as Moscow or the southern part of Hudson Bay (which are on similar latitudes), the climate of the Gàidhealtachd may be described officially as temperate; but it is equally capable of extremes, supporting sub-Arctic species such as ptarmigan, snow bunting and white hares, within a few miles of imported sub-tropical species such as palms and eucalyptus. High winds, high rainfall, substantial tidal differences and flows, all add to this highly dynamic environment … “These facts fundamentally influence human adaptation to the environment. Houses must be built to withstand hurricane force winds and torrential and frequently horizontal rain travelling at high velocity, coupled with high humidity levels. Clothing has to cope with the same problems.”

The material facts of the world’s “empirical reality” are different in different places – light, geology, what’s in the earth, air and water, are specific to certain parts of the world, and so is language. Call the first the matter of geography, of place or location, and call the latter the matter of language, and you have the two most important co-ordinates by which to navigate the world.

Within this understanding, difference begins. This section ends with reference to the work of two great artists of modern Ireland and Scotland, Jack Yeats and William McTaggart, observing that in their coastal seascapes: “That ultimate subservience to nature – for it cannot be described as a mere accommodation or acceptance in the work of either artist – is an expression of a profound reality.

The National: A seascape by William McTaggartA seascape by William McTaggart

“It is an awareness of the fragility of one’s own significance and may well have relevance in other contexts […] “There is a particularly intriguing example in Immacallamh in Dá Thuarad ‘the colloquy of the two sages’, which dates from between the Viking invasions and the 9th-century Sanas Cormaic ‘Cormac’s glossary’.

“The young druid Néde is a son of the druid Adnae. Néde, while studying science in Scotland, is described going to the sea: ‘Luid laa and in gilla co mbúi for brú mara, ar bá baile fallsigthe éicsi dogrés lasna filedu for brú usci’.” One day the lad fared forth till he was on the brink of the sea, for then poets deemed that on the brink of water it was always a place of revelation of science.

Such a “place of revelation” is found on every page of this book.