The Future of History

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Culture Wars

I first became interested in the Gaelic language back in my teens.  The BBC had a programme on Sundays called Can Seo, which was effectively a short course in conversational Gaelic.  I sent off for the book and the long-playing records which accompanied the series.

Later, I signed up for the "Celtic Studies" course at Glasgow University, which included the study of Gaelic.  I didn't hang around at uni for very long, but I managed to pick up a bit more of a sense of the history and development of the language, along with a fair amount of Gaelic literature.

I love the sound of the Gaelic - for me, it brings to mind peat-smoke and the salt-sea tang.  It is a soft, musical language which survives most obviously in place-names and songs.  Many Scottish place-names have remained essentially unchanged for centuries.  They record the impressions of the people who named them, and the history of the immediate area.

Gaelic was brought over to the Scotland from Ireland in the early centuries of the Common Era, and many a Gaelic place-name preserves memories of that period when the English language did not yet exist.  A large-scale map of the Highlands and Islands can therefore serve as a sort of relief map of ancient history: a peek into times forgotten by all but the archaeologist and - perhaps - the native Gaelic speaker.

The Scotsman newspaper published a rather snide, borderline offensive article yesterday which really riled the Gaelic-speaking community, and with good reason.  It claimed that Gaelic was a dead language, kept on life support only through huge injections of public subsidy, to which it had no right.  Confusingly, the piece also discussed the supposed decline of the Scots dialect, which has nothing to do with Gaelic (Scots is, in fact, a parallel development of English, both having evolved out of the Northumbrian Old English which had taken root in southern Scotland by the 7th century AD).  By the end of the comment piece it was difficult to know what the commentator was really on about - was he bemoaning the apparent decline of everyday Scots at the expense of the longer established Gaelic tongue, or did he hold both in equal contempt?  Hard to tell.

In many ways, the article resonated with a history of its own.  Gaelic is, and was, predominantly a language of the Highlands and Islands.  The Scots tongue belonged predominantly to southern and central Scotland, to Edinburgh and the Lowlands.  So, if we assume that the writer of the snarky little piece was campaigning against the survival of Gaelic, and allowing himself a twinge of nostalgia when it comes to Scots, then he was really resuscitating an ancient prejudice - what the Gaels of the Highlands thought of as the Lowlander's "great hatred".

But I'm not so sure.  Let us not forget that next year - 2014 - sees an opportunity for the people of Scotland to vote for an independent Scotland.  Right now, it's looking pretty close.  And, if I'm honest, I think independence for Scotland would be a very, very good thing.  In the increasingly fevered atmosphere of the independence debate, though, culture becomes a battleground.  The not-so-veiled attack on Scottish culture and the linguistic heritage of the Highlands and Islands which comprised the bulk of the Scotsman's article should be seen in the light of the independence furore.  What it's basically saying is: "Your language is rubbish and it should be dead.  And with it, the memories of your people, your ancestors, your ancient history.  Your culture is pants.  Forget it.  We're all English now.  In fact, we're becoming American.  So anyone who wants to speak the language of Scotland is some sort of effete subsidy junkie draining the public purse in order to maintain a Gaelic-language TV channel."

(For the record, BBC Alba is lovely - some of the very best music on television.)

There are times when you sense that history never changes.  The tone of the Scotsman piece is depressingly familiar.  You hear things very much like it throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  It's the boring jawing of the colonial mind, with all its implied superiority.  It's the thinking that gave rise to the Glencoe Massacre and the Highland Clearances.

It is, all in all, a pretty silly attempt to justify the Act of Union of 1707 (England didn't really want Scotland, and most of Scotland didn't want England, but for strategic reasons it was in England's short-term interest to forge a political union with their northern neighbours.  England paid just under £400,000 for the privilege, most of which took the form of compensation for the failure of a financial scheme which the English had done their utmost to ruin.  The common people of Scotland gained little or nothing from the deal - in fact, the Highlands were forcibly drained of people and stocked with sheep instead, those few Highlanders who remained then being employed by wealthy English people to be little more than forelock-tugging gamekeepers.)

The author of the Scotsman piece seems to advocate some kind of Year Zero.  The abandonment and complete forgetting of the past (which the Gaelic and Scots tongues retain - the outlooks, worldviews and memories of their people).  He seems to want to draw a line through the present.  Everything before hand goes into the rubbish bin of history.

As he put it himself, "Like most educated people, I find the Mither Tongue almost unintelligible."  Note the superciliousness of that statement.  His education hasn't stretched to a curiosity and interest in the living heritage of his own people.  The statement would make as much sense - and, arguably, somewhat more sense - if it read, "Like most uneducated people, I find the native language of my fellow countrymen perplexing - because I never bothered to learn it - and barbarian, because I have a false sense of cultural superiority."

The same intolerance, the same violent denial of a peoples' right to their own memories and capacity for self-expression, has been used in the past in numerous attempts to stamp out other languages (Welsh schoolchildren were once cruelly humiliated if they let a Welsh word slip from their lips, because the English didn't want them to be able to express themselves in their own terms and in the language of their fathers).  It's not the mercy killing of a dying language that we're looking at here - it's the deliberate denial of another person's way of thinking, their memories and the way they see the world around them.

It's an argument we've heard, over and over again, since Roman times.  What it demands is absolute conformity.  No linguistic or cultural memories.  No history, in fact.  Forget everything.

None of that quaint, homespun wisdom, the bleak memories of past atrocities, the songs of love and loss and longing and rebellion.  No roadsigns telling you what the true name of the place you're looking for is.  Blanket conformity, and the smothering dominance of an alien culture.  What you might call, the Clearances all over again.

Let us hope that the Scots find the courage and confidence to vote against this sort of imperialist gibberish next year.

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