[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 November 2005, 09:45 GMT
Gaelic roots need to be unearthed
Craig Cockburn
In this week's reader's article, Craig Cockburn, who runs an online guide to Scotland, says children should be exposed to Gaelic so that they can learn their history. To send us your views on this topic, see below.


With the National Mod, one of the largest festivals in Scotland, recently finished and the recent news from the Registrar General for Scotland regarding Gaelic speakers being on the increase in the Lowlands, I feel it is time to ensure that greater access to our languages and cultures is made available.

Gaelic road sign
Many place names have a Gaelic origin

Especially when our children are coming home with greater knowledge of other countries' cultures and languages than of their own.

I am not suggesting that we force anyone to learn Gaelic or Scots if they don't want to, but isn't it strange how many grow up in a country where so few know what the local place names mean?

A large proportion of Scots have either a Gaelic origin first name or surname and, of course, even across Lothian - from Kinneil in the west to Dunbar in the east - there are place names of Gaelic origin.

That's not to mention hills, rivers and the many words of Gaelic origin in English (slogan, smashing, etc). You can even see the Munro "Stuc a' chroin" from West Lothian - try pronouncing that without Gaelic.

This ignorance is alarming - few other countries show such ignorance, yet Scotland is a highly educated country.

We should... not allow our children to become strangers in their own land and unaware of their own surroundings

We also teach our children that loch is the same as lake without realising there is no such thing as a tidal lake.

We frequently mispronounce our own place names such as Taynuilt and Tomintoul. Many now think that Gleneagles is a place named after a bird of prey rather than a church.

What is more surprising is that the suggestion of teaching Gaelic in the Lowlands is often greeted with "that hasn't been spoken around here for centuries", without realising that about 2% of people in the Lowlands do speak it.

Moreover, children in primary school are now routinely taught French and, clearly, whether that is a "local" language or not is never raised as an obstacle.

Our children are more likely to come home knowing the Chinese for Happy New Year than they are knowing the Gaelic at the Celtic equivalent - Hallowe'en.

Child reading a Gaelic book
Gaelic is taught in some Scottish schools

Even a close approximation of "Sam Hain", a variant used in Canada, would be a start but instead in Scotland we again fail to teach our Gaelic roots.

I have nothing at all against learning about the cultures of other people, including those who have recently come to Scotland.

But at the same time we should be teaching these within the context of our own cultures and traditions, both Gaelic and Scots, and not allow our children to become strangers in their own land and unaware of their own surroundings.

I would suggest that, especially in areas without local Gaelic medium education, we have Gaelic and Scots culture awareness classes which would introduce children to the role of Gaelic and Scots, past and present, in Scottish society.

This would ensure that they grow up at least as knowledgeable of Scottish culture as they are of cultures elsewhere and that children aren't denied a proper opportunity to learn their own history.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not endorsed by the BBC.

Your views on Craig Cockburn's article.

As a frequent visitor to the Highlands & Islands, I would love to be able to speak to local people in their native language - but the possibilities for learning Gaelic are almost non-existant for someone from the West Midlands (as opposed to the West Highlands). Gaelic is a fundamental part of what has shaped the Scottish outlook and character over so many centuries - it's ironic that 200 years after the Gaelic language was used as a partial excuse for the Highland Clearances, it is still not fully recognised and appreciated. If we do not value and nuture it, it will die.
Julie Atkins, Walsall, England

The worst thing isn't the lack of opportunity it's the way people who do speak (or want to learn) Gaelic, or any other native language, are made to justify themselves. Nobody should have to justify wanting to learn about their own culture and language. To Paul, perhaps only a small number of people speak Gaelic but it is only a minority like yourself who are totally disinterested in our own culture.
Liz, Scotland

It was refreshing to read Craig's article and find it particularly relevant to the changing face of Britain today. I am proud to say I'm Scottish and feel the Scots have a strong sense of identity not just at home but the world over. I feel that sense of identity is something that needs to be preserved and encouraged from an early age. If that means introducing Gaelic into more schools then make it happen. I find it sad to read some people take the view that everything boils down to economics. We're not worth much if we can't be proud of who we are.
Joe, London

Gaelic was my first language when I went to school in 1954 aged 5. We even have perfect quality BBC tapes of our class! From then on the grown-ups changed to English when you entered the room. The added distraction of Gaelic was considered a disadvantage to your future progress. Pronunciation has since never been a problem, but I've more or less lost the vocabulary. I've dreamed of a society where Gaelic is used a living language, but gave up hope around the '70s that we'd ever see that again on the Scottish mainland. Someone's got to come up with a very popular ploy if it's to be saved.
Iain Macnab, Brunsmark, Germany

I totally agree with Craig. I was taught Gaelic in the lowlands at Perth and Forfar for five years and it became my second language. People should have a choice to speak Gaelic should they wish.
Jason, Dundee, Scotland

Fully agree. As a frequent visitor to the Highlands & Islands, I would love to be able to speak to local people in their native language - but the possibilities for learning Gaelic are almost non-existent for someone from the West Midlands (as opposed to the West Highlands!!). Gaelic is a fundamental part of what has shaped the Scottish outlook and character over so many centuries - it's ironic that two hundred years after the Gaelic language was used as a partial excuse for the Highland Clearances, it is still not fully recognised and appreciated. If we do not value and nurture it, it will die.
Julie Atkins, Walsall, England

I fully agree with Craig. Where I live in Ayrshire there are so many placenames with Gaelic origin. If you have no Gaelic at all then they are simply meaningless names - if you have some Gaelic knowledge they stand out from a map and can give a cultural, historical and geographical context. In these times when we Scots are told we lack confidence surely having a better knowledge of who we are and where we come from can only help raise our collective self esteem? Paul from Dunfermline might also want to know that children who attend Gaelic medium primary schools outperform their monolingual mainstream peers in English language as well. Suas leis a' Gaidhlig
Gary, Ayrshire

I'm in my second year of studying the language at Ayr College. Classes are run once a week and we have a good range of ages of the people attending. If people are interested in learning the language they can contact their local colleges and councils to find out where and when the classes are run.
Kenny Brown, Ayr

"It has little to teach us about our past, and even less to offer us for the future." Paul's understanding of the language must be second to none to make such a statement. Perhaps he could share his knowledge with us, anns a'Gaidhlig, naturally.
John Kennedy, Livingston

My grandparents spoke Gaelic. Good for them. Well done. They couldn't however communicate with anyone outside the Gaelic community. All very well for a bygone era when you didn't expect to travel more than 50 miles from the place you were born. We now live in a worldwide arena. Why hamstring children by teaching them a parochial language when you could teach them a language that will let them communicate with hundreds of millions of other people? We can pack the Gaelic culture onto a few CDs. If everyone on the planet stopped speaking Gaelic we'd easily be able to pick it up again in a hundred years time. Let's just burn Gaelic onto a CD and push Scotland into the future, not back into the past.
Menzies, Edinburgh

It is great to see this debate gathering pace in Scotland. Surely it is to everyone's benefit to understand and learn the language of or ancestors. It gives us a better understanding of our common history and culture. The Gaelic speaking culture has survived for centuries in these islands and it would be a crying shame to allow it to fade into the mists of history. In the north of Ireland there is dozens of Gaelic medium primary schools and even two secondary schools. People even speak Scots Gaelic in Nova Scotia, Canada, where it reminds them of their roots, their history and how they came to be in the new world!
Cormac Loughran, Belfast, Ireland

When people say that they are proud to be a Scot but dismiss Gaelic they are forgetting that a language is not a vocabulary and some grammatical rules it is a way of thinking and seeing the world. If we lose Gaelic we will lose something of what it means to be a Scot. That is why the language was given second class status by Government and Education to get rid of our culture. People in the lowlands often claim the Gaelic was never spoken there but they are wrong it was spoken all over Britain, English only arrived with the Anglo Saxons. Scots were well established before this. I feel cheated that my Great Grandfather didn't speak English but I don't speak any more than a few words of Gaelic. Gaelic should be taught in schools and lessons given free to any adult who wants them. It is silly to dismiss the Gaelic because no one else speaks it - after all we wouldn't expect the Norwegians to give up speaking Norwegian for the same reason - would we?
Angela Smith, Annan

I agree that Gaidhlig should be taught in Scottish Schools. When I went to school in the 60s and 70s we were taught about English history and culture with very little taught about Scotland's history and culture. Scotland has a rich culture which should be preserved for future generations or the country will (as Margaret Thatcher) tried to do, become a region of England.
John, Sydney, Australia

I see a few comments here about there being no exposure to Gaelic, or Scots culture, and I wonder how much of the "problem" is an apathy to find out what is available. There are Scot's Gaelic programmes on TV regularly (particularly ones that target an under-5 audience), and many online resources for those motivated enough to find and utilise them. I brought my family here from Ulster, and my daughter had plenty of exposure to Scottish culture at primary school, and was given much opportunity to inform others about her own cultural background. Teaching the language is a much different issue from ensuring that information is available to those who are interested, and I personally have gone online several times to research the meanings of place names etc. I think teaching the language takes a back seat in today's education because the focus is on those languages and skills that will help in careers. I think the use of the English language is appalling enough, before thinking of requiring secondary languages as a norm.
Catherine, Scotland

As a librarian and professional genealogist to trade, I am aware that as more and more people delve into their family history, a fair few discover that parts of their family were from Gaelic-speaking areas, and thus some of the records may be in Gaelic. It can be difficult for such people to find someone to translate from Gaelic to English, and so the more Scots who learn Gaelic, the easier it will be to help family historians, and incidentally, find paid work in translation.
Gordon Johnson, Wick, Caithness, Scotland

Couldn't give a monkeys and resent the fact that there are so many Gaelic programmes on TV. I'm proud to be Scottish, but I don't feel any need or inclination to understand Gaelic. I'm glad it wasn't forced on me at school.
G, Scotland

I am a born Scot, and have lived in four countries, currently in Germany. Growing up in Scotland I wasn't offered Gaelic as an option and although I use French and German regularly I do feel that I have missed out on aspects of my own culture. Learning a language gives such an insight into history, psychology and the beliefs of a people that you can't get just by studying history or taking culture classes. Language is an experience to delve into, who cares if only 1% of the population speak Gaelic. That's surely not the point. I'm trading Gaelic lessons with my 28 years younger cousin, who is learning at primary school, for German lessons.
Sandra, Karlsruhe, Germany

In Glasgow you can be educated in Ghidhlig from pre-school to university; next year we'll have the first all-Gaelic secondary school. I organise classes for learners: at the moment we're overrun and I'm currently looking for new tutors. The average age of our learners has dropped to under-35, thanks to the success of the Gaelic primary school, parents and family members are involved. Our learners are from families where the language was spoken and has skipped a generation or two, as well as people with an interest in climbing and hilllwalking or traditional music. Incidentally Jim, there are Gaelic programmes on most days of the week: BBC 2 on Thursday nights from 6pm to 8pm is particularly good. We also have the excellent Radio nan Gaidheal which I'm listening to as I type - it's on seven days a week. Finally, to Paul in Dn Phrlain, Gaels pay their taxes too and children in Gaelic-medium schools are doing better at other languages than their counterparts in the English-medium sector.
Eddy Cavin, Glaschu, Alba

My mother's first language was Gaelic. Despite being dyslexic, she worked in Thailand and was fluent in the written and spoken language. She felt that the pure vowels used in Gaelic helped with learning Thai.
Rona, Glasgow

On the apparent contradiction that Scots are an educated nation but that they have little knowledge or appreciation of the Gaelic language: the explanation may lie in the fact that for the last several hundred years education by state and church in Scotland has been directed towards undermining Gaelic and all that it symbolised. After Greek and Latin Old Irish was the next great literary language of Early Europe. But there you have it: Old Irish! In my schooldays in Scotland Gaelic was called "Erse". Others will recall the story of the (Inverness?) councillor who asked ironically, during a debate on this very matter, "What's the Gaelic for macaroni?" Whereupon another councillor present asked "What's the English?" That says it all.
j. p. ward, Netherlands

What on earth would be the benefits to wasting taxpayers money on this? None of my friends or family speak it. I have no problem with supporting it at a local level in areas where it is common, but the last thing we need is to promote this nostalgia countrywide. Let those who are interested in it waste their money, I'd rather let it disappear into history.
Jason , Dundee

I'm in the odd situation of having a Scottish father, English mother, I now live in Wales and am expecting my first baby with a first language Welsh speaker! Our baby will be brought up bi-lingually because here in Wales there is massive support for this and indeed all aspects of the language. Contrary to popular belief, over 25% of the population in Wales speak Welsh first language and Welsh is taught in all schools, TV and radio broadcast in Welsh and after the Welsh language act was passed last century the language is protected and very much on the rise. This should be inspiration for the Gaelic language!
Fiona Cameron, Bangor, North Wales

An awareness of Gaelic should be taught as part of the history and geography of Scotland. However, it's very much in the 'nice to know' rather than the 'need to know' category in terms of usefulness. Learning Scots Gaelic will enable you to communicate with around 60,000 people. Learning Chinese will enable you to communicate with 1.3 billion people.
Martin, Glasgow

I was taught Gaelic in my earlier secondary days, a few years ago, and found it to be a rewarding and beautiful language to learn. I disagree with Paul from Dunfermline that we should simply cast aside this language in the present day; It is a piece of history, yes, and one more worth preserving for many more because of its now decrepit state in society.
Stuart, Glasgow

I learnt a bit of Gaelic at school in the early 70's because a friend was from Harris and we had an English teacher from Harris. What I learnt was a completely different way of looking at the world. In the Gaelic language you are passive in that action happens to you - the hunger is at you. This leads to a realisation of how much of what goes on in the world effects your life. It is no surprise that so many Gaelic name predominate as the Gaels use names to define their physical world - not maps or contracts. Gaels pre-date Greenpeace in their knowledge of the importance of balance in the natural world. Their communities only survived for so long because they cared and nurtured their land while supporting each other. They did not have writing so their word was important. There is much that a good understanding of the 'Gealtacht' would bring to our nation; too ready to ignore the weak and vulnerable, too ready to listen to vacillating politicians to whom words are not importantPeter Thomson, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries

I agree totally with the comments from Craig. The Scots need to assert themselves more and have much more confidence in who they are and where they are from. Too often this is misunderstood as being intolerant or even rude to others who do not share a Scottish background. Scottish culture and language, in the widest sense, is a vast treasure chest which should be promoted and made accessible to people of all backgrounds.
Sean Gallagher, Paisley

I remember while I was actually at Secondary School in Edinburgh, wishing that Gaelic was given as a choice of lesson among the French, German and Latin on offer. I felt it was important to me for exactly the reasons set out by Craig Cockburn. I was never very good at languages, but I felt let down by the Scottish Education system that I was never even given an opportunity to learn the basics of my 'native language' and cultural heritage. I felt this more-so when I moved to England at 14 years old, the opportunity to learn Gaelic now lost. Languages, dialects and accents are part of a persons character, and helps define who they are and where they are from, whether it be Scots Gaelic or Brummy. To Jim Ellis's post (which I agree and sympathise with) I would also add Cornish to his list.
Vince Birnie, Portsmouth

There was a Gaelic lady in my primary school. She taught us a song and some words. She was told to stop. I have never forgiven our school for not allowing me to learn even just a little from a real Gael. Gaelic, even a little, should be taught in all Scottish schools as a right of the children of Scotland. And Scottish culture should not be undermined by Americanisation which most kids now get via cable and satellite TV, it should be taught.
Bren, Dundee

I agree with most of what is being said here. However, in an era when we are continually told that life-long learning is the key to work, success and intellectual fulfilment, it is also worthwhile pointing out that opportunities also exist for adults to learn and use the Gaelic language - thanks in large part to the spread of new technology. Check out details of An Crsa Inntrigidh at Sabhal Mr Ostaig, for example. One of the worst aspects of 'British' culture is the strident monolingualism that leaves people believing that learning a language is a hassle and difficult. It has never been easier than it is now for all ages (pre-school to adult) and for all languages (Gaelic to Chinese).
Tam McTurk, Edinburgh

I absolutely agree with Craig. The routine slagging I get for being a proud Gael is due to ignorance and the belief that Gaelic is a second rate language. I understand that children are taught European languages to help Scottish people work in Europe and to enhance job opportunities but I would think that within Scotland, more people would use Gaelic as a part of their job than would French or German, for example - the Tourist Board/Industry, Local Government, Education etc. I also don't understand why people wouldn't be proud of our Gaelic and Scots heritage as it is that which sets us apart from other countries in the UK. It's also a living entity and not something which remains only in the past.

It seems to me that Mr Cockburn's article is a plea based on the unrealistic and misty-eyed assumption that Gaelic has anything to offer modern 21st century Scotland. Gaelic is a moribund language - a museum piece - spoken by less than 1% of the Scottish population. It has little to teach us about our past, and even less to offer us for the future. I don't believe that any public monies should be spent on keeping this ancient and useless tongue alive. There are far better things to spend public money on like teaching children to read, write and learn ENGLISH for instance. If Gaelic speakers and fusty old Scots heritage buffs want to preserve and promote Gaelic, they should do so at their own expense not at the expense of the other 99% of us who have zero interest in Gaelic. Enough already!
Paul , Dunfermline

How true, how very true. For how long have we subjugated our own heritage for the "British" and now European heritage? Scots and Gaelic are part of our heritage. My grandmother spoke Scots and thanks to her I can still read and understand, but unfortunately I can no longer speak Scots. Scots is just not an accent, it is a language. We should remember our strong and proud heritage and history.
Richard Walls, Bahrain

We in Scotland are often generous in our support for threatened indigenous cultures and languages in far-flung corners of the world (rightly, in my view), so it strikes me as odd that we often ignore our own languages and cultures, which are perhaps equally imperilled. My son goes to the Gaelic-medium nursery here in Edinburgh (the only one in a city of half a million) and will go on to attend the Gaelic-medium primary school. Whether he will have the opportunity of a secondary education wholly or partially through the medium of Gaelic remains unclear. But, regardless of that, he will have had access to a bilingual primary education, with all the inherent advantages that that offers, and, equally importantly, he will have been exposed to more Scottish history, literature etc. than he might in a typical mainstream school. Sad to say, attitudes to Gaelic language and culture in the general population of Edinburgh range from indifference (and even contempt) to a nodding acceptance that it is a valuable part of our heritage (without being prepared to learn about it, let alone fight for its survival).
Sandy Nicholson, Edinburgh

What a valid and interesting article. My children, now at secondary school, are going through Gaelic medium education, and wouldn't have it any other way. They have had a whole area of Scottish history, culture - and music, opened up to them that so many never experience. Introducing children to another language from an early age benefits their learning. My children have often commented on the number of their peers who want to learn Gaelic. Interesting, isn't it - through the superhuman efforts of a number of committed parents, we have Gaelic medium education in Aberdeen (a 'lowland' area), yet there is no provision for those older children who really want to learn the language and learn more about its associated culture.
Pat Ballantyne, Aberdeen

I totally agree with Craig. I, as an English man married to an Irish woman, believe that we too readily throw out native British isle languages. We seem more interested in speaking anything BUT the other native languages of this country. When was the last time Welsh or Gaelic was broadcast on the TV? Do our children even get the option of learning them? My young son will not have that option, living in England. My wife speaks faltering Irish - but its not enough to ensure that our son will be able, so that's the end of that then... there is no support for minority British isle languages. I think it's crazy that, at a time when people seem to be telling us to take citizen tests and trying to define British culture over all, that we ignore languages like Scots, Irish and Welsh. These are native languages of the British Isle and its about time they were recognised as such and broadcast to the nation in an accessible manner.
Jim Ellis, Rugby

I full heartedly agree with Craig Cockburn's comments. Growing up in Scotland most of the exposure I had to Scots or Gaelic was through some dedicated teachers taking their own initiative or my parents.
Michael Rossi, London

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific