With all this independence turmoil, Scotland is enjoying an identity orgy (or whatever the opposite of identity crisis might be). Naturally the Gaelic language is getting its share of attention even though only about 1% of the population can speak it.


The Evening Post reveals that although there are more people in Dundee who speak Polish than Gaelic, nevertheless Dundonians (and other Scots) may soon be getting street signs in Gaelic as well as English. This seems fair enough to me, and is a trend which is already under way. If a nation wants to be bi-lingual in its signage, surely that’s perfectly fine. Of course more people in Ireland speak Irish Gaelic than Scots who speak Scottish Gaelic. In parts of London you can find street signs in Arabic. If Dundee wants to add Polish to its signage surely that’s up to them, and has nothing (much) to do with a national policy on road signs in Gaelic. It seems perfectly appropriate for a government to try to preserve ancient languages (as indeed is required under EU law — The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages mandates protection for the language).

Ian Jack tells us in this 2010 Guardian article that his new UK passport has the name of the country in Welsh and Gaelic as well as English. He gives a good review of the history of the language, and expresses sadness at the “imposition” of a Gaelic label on places which never housed any Gaelic speakers. I don’t really agree: a nod in the direction of a national heritage surely doesn’t impose any burden on the inhabitants of the Borders, even if they were speaking Northumbrian or Cumbric at the time of Gaelic’s widest distribution.

Almost unbelievably there is a version of Wikipedia in Gaelic. It is called Uicipeid, and may be reached via the quite thorough Wikipedia article on Gaelic. There’s a separate entry on literature in Gaelic. Robert Crawford’s Scotland’s Books (OUP in US, Penguin in UK) is notable for its attention to Scottish literature in languages other than English or Scots, especially Latin (though he misses Esperanto, in which language William Auld, a Scot, is regarded by some as the premier poet). Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) is by no means the only, though undoubtedly the best known modern writer in Gaelic. Recent Gaelic poets include George Campbell Hay (Deòrsa Mac Iain Deòrsa), Derick Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais), Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac A’Ghobhainn), and Aongas MacNeacail. Perhaps the most famous work of Gaelic literature is the embarrassing fakes that were the highly romantic Ossian translations. It turned out, after their sensational reception, that the works of Ossian were not actually based on any Gaelic originals, but were in fact the creations of their “translator” James Macpherson.

“From the 1970s onwards, Gaelic publishing was given a significant boost by the newly formed Gaelic Books Council (established in 1968, and still a member of Publishing Scotland today). The effect has been significant: in the first half of the 20th century, only four or five Gaelic titles were published in Scotland each year. There were very few novels – a comparatively recent addition. Most creative writing was given an airing in the influential magazine, Gairm, which ran from 1952-2004. Since the 1970s the numbers have increased to over 40 titles per annum.

Gaelic continues to be promoted in particular through the efforts of Acair, the publishing house based in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis; by Storlann, also based on Lewis; and smaller companies dotted around Scotland; as well as Gaelic-interest titles published by Birlinn in English. The ground-breaking new imprint, Ùr-sgeul, founded in 2003, revolutionised the publishing of the novel in Gaelic, issuing works by new and more established writers, allied to strong production values, and has been one of the biggest success stories of the past decade. The moves to expand dedicated Gaelic-medium school education in Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere in the country over the past twenty years has also played a large part in fostering an interest in Gaelic books.”

[From SAPPHIRE’s exhibition “40 years of Scottish publishing, 1974-2014”]

A search on Amazon’s UK site reveals over 3000 hits for Scottish Gaelic, most of which look to be language learning helps. Confidence cannot be placed on this total: the list does contain a translation into Gaelic of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it also includes Hart’s Rules, that invaluable guide to compositional practice at OUP — no doubt buried somewhere therein are some instructions regarding the setting of Gaelic. Disappointingly, an Amazon search for Ùr-sgeul, the Gaelic imprint mentioned above finds only a single book: maybe like Hachette they are working on their relationship with Amazon. Their Wikipedia entry suggests that they are still in vigorous existence: they got a write-up in The Irish Times this June (in Irish Gaelic appropriately enough). I can’t imagine that interest in Gaelic is likely to decline in the near future: the political situation guarantees continued attention. Whether we shall ever have more than 1% of the population speaking the language is perhaps doubtful, but there’s surely enough interest to ensure the language’s survival, and to allow Gaelic publishing to prosper.