ON a dreich Sunday in October, I attended the Seirbhis Gàidhlig at Greyfriars Kirk. Outside the old church, foreign voices were abound: flocks of tourists searching for Tom Riddell’s grave or a stick to lay on Bobby’s. Yet beyond the sliding doors, tucked in the back corner of the nave, resounds a low Gàidhlig murmur.

The congregation is small, only a dozen or so, yet comprises a diverse range of age and sex. Behind me sit two male students, chatting merrily. A mother and father calm their two children, as older faces coo over them. The elderly service leader and younger cantor speak quietly behind the wooden pulpit.

Beurla (English) is barely used in the one-hour service. However, the elder makes a point to welcome learners and announce the pages for readings and psalms in English.

A bilingual copy of Am Bìoball (The Bible) is handed to me. I am unable to understand most of what is spoken, picking up only a few familiar sounds (agus, tha, bheil).

However, I try my best to follow the cantor’s lead in the Ùrnaigh an Tighearna (Lord’s Prayer) closing the sermon, and the psalms in Gàidhlig throughout. A capella psalmody is new to me, as I am used to church organ-led, modern hymns.

Yet the drone of 12 different voices finding a harmony is quite beautiful and organic. It strikes me as a practice passed down for generations, well beyond recorded history. Over tea and biscuits after the service, I chat in English with the congregation (“Tha mo Gàidhlig dona”).

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Several older members came from the Western Isles to Edinburgh in the 1970s for work or to study.

The congregation’s elected elder, Roddy MacLeod, is one such migrant for whom Gàidhlig was his first language.

“I came to Edinburgh from Portnalong on Skye in 1971,” he tells me. “I studied law at the University of Edinburgh. At the time, there was only one lawyer on the whole of Skye.”

MacLeod recalls a large Gàidhlig community in Edinburgh when he arrived 50 years ago that you’d find at “the right pubs”, in particular the West End Hotel.

As a young man he joined the Gàidhlig congregation, originally meeting at the Highland Tolbooth St. John’s Church (now The Hub), to continue speaking his native tongue.

Long after the congregation moved to Greyfriars in 1979, MacLeod was elected elder in 2019. Despite challenges over the years, all that matters to him is “a roof over our heads, and a space for our community”. Following the pandemic, Greyfriars now holds the last weekly Gàidhlig church service outside the Highlands and Islands.

Not all churchgoers are native Gaels: MacLeod says tourists from the USA are common. One member sat at the tea-table, Victor, is a university student from Sweden. He speaks Gàidhlig in an impeccable Uist accent (so says Roddy) and is very happy to teach some words. Right now, he’s helping an old congregation member translate something from Swedish into Gàidhlig.

For most, the service is as much a religious experience as a language lesson and a chance for community. “The Gàidhlig used in Am Bìoball is of a much older register than modern speech,” explains Duncan Sneddon, the young cantor. “I got in trouble for using it at university,” he laughs.

DESPITE growing up in Pakistan to a family of Scottish missionaries, none of whom speak Gàidhlig, Sneddon returned to Edinburgh to study at the university, where he became fluent. As well as language circles,

Sneddon credits Greyfriars’ Seirbhis Gàidhlig as essential to his learning process.

“If you want to become fluent,” he says, “You need to be part of a community, and experience the language as it lives.”

At 19:30 on Tuesday, I stop by the Cearcall Comhraidh (language circle) at Edinburgh’s SNP Club, a first-storey chamber overlooking Queen Street. Beneath the non-Gàidhlig iconography of Bruce and Burns, Gaels and Gàidhlig learners chat away, again over tea and biscuits.

Sneddon is here, this time in a black, sleeveless denim jacket covered in the names of metal bands, as well as a prominent “Tha Gàidhlig Agam” badge on its lapel. He speaks Gàidhlig leisurely, leading the conversation at my table. I ask him the Gàidhlig for “mosh pit” and he replies, laughing, “slochd-pronnaidh”: “a bit of battering”.

Beside me are Ella and Isaac, two young visitors from Nova Scotia, Canada. We talk about cèilidhs, and the difficulty they’ve found in understanding the Scottish Gàidhlig accent.

Ella tells me that while Gàidhlig is taught at some schools in Cape Breton and Halifax, due to repressive measures by the Canadian government in the 20th century it’s now facing extinction.

However, Ella says she’s part of a cultural revival beginning in Nova Scotia in the 1990s. She and her sister, Abby, give young children language lessons and practice traditional fiddling.

While she’s glad for renewed interest in Gàidhlig culture from domestic tourists and the federal government, she tells me her home of Inverness, Nova Scotia has faced problems due to a boom in vacant Airbnb’s and absentee landlords in Ontario.

With a “Tapadh leibh agus tìoraidh,” I say goodbye until next Sunday, and remind myself to redownload Duolingo.