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Issue 11 - Getting to grips with Gaelic

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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Getting to grips with Gaelic

Roddy Matine talks...

With no disrespect to Scotland Magazine’s readership, I wonder how many of you are aware just how important a month October is for Highlanders? Or should I say for Gaels?

The thought occurs to me because two years ago, when I was in the town of Stornoway on Lewis, I was conscious of a large number of kilted men and tweed skirted ladies wearing white blouses all rushing about as if they were in a hurry to get somewhere.

What I quickly discovered was that they were all participating in the Royal National Mod (Am Mod Naiseanta Rioghail), Scotland’s largest Gaelic festival.

Now before I write anything further, I need to make a confession. I do not speak a word of the Gaelic language, although over the years I have made several serious attempts.

My main complaint is that Gaelic words are spelled in an entirely different way to the manner in which they are pronounced, but perhaps that is deliberate, to make it more difficult.

As a Scot, albeit with a somewhat anglicised education, I will admit, I do know how to roll my “arrrrghs,” but I have never to date managed to master that wonderfully soft and lilting purr that is the Gaelic accent. But that is my fault for not being smarter. My excuse, of course, is that my paternal ancestors, a mixed crew of East Lothian farmers, doctors and brewers, probably had enough problems understanding old Scots.

Gaelc was never the language of all Scotland; it was the language of the Highlander, and as recently as the early part of the last century was considered so subversive, that it’s teaching in schools was banned.

That said, two years ago I found myself staying with friends near Lochs, a gloriously potholed, peat-wrapped and treeless landscape on the south east coast of Lewis, close to where the island suddenly, and confusingly, becomes Harris.

The Mod today is considered to be of paramount importance to locals wherever, and whenever, it takes place, and my friends decided that we should go to Stornoway for the afternoon and support the local team, the Lochs Gaelic Choir.

Lochs did not win first prize, but they did pick up the Calum Robertson Memorial Trophy for the highest marks in Gaelic, and the Evelyn Huckbody Memorial Trophy for the highest marks in music, which I thought was pretty impressive.

More importantly, that afternoon was a revelation to me, not least because one of the judges was the clarsach musician Isobel Myras, who hails from Edinburgh and to my certain knowledge speaks Gaelic just as well as I do.

“You don’t have to understand the words, but the more you listen to them, the more you will understand them,” I was told, and I came away humming a tune which I still can’t get out of my head.

The Royal National Mod travels to a different location in Scotland every year, but this year there was a special significance about it once again being held in Oban.

The very first Mod took place here in 1892, and apart from the cancellations caused by wars, Mods have taken place at annual intervals ever since, thus making this a centenary celebration.

For Gaeldom, the role the Mod plays is critical. It serves as a focal point for Gaelic culture, and it highlights the debate over the funding and support of a language that was once spoken by the ancient celts of Dalriada, a language that is part of our Scottish nationhood and is in danger of extinction.

But then you cannot force people to learn Gaelic any more than you can force an American to learn Cherokee, or a Belgian, Walloon.

The way to keep a language alive is to give it personality and contemporary relevance, and with initiatives such as the BBC’s gaelic language television programmes, with their youthful and up-to-the-moment appeal, things are looking up.

All power to Sabhal Ostaig Mor, the Gaelic college on Skye, now part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Comunn na Gaidhlic, the Gaelic co-ordinating and development agency based in Inverness.

After 100 years, the very staying power of the Royal National Mod proves that Gaelic can and will survive. The number of Gaelic speakers may be down, but the number of those in the audience is growing.