I was looking through my camera’s viewfinder at yet another Gaelic roadsign: Fàilte gu Port Rìgh, when I stopped short of taking the picture. I wondered why it was so important to me that all the signs in Skye were in Gaelic.
I was in Skye on part of a trip from my current home, Hawaii to my childhood home, Scotland. Since leaving 12 years ago, I had travelled all over the world but this was my visit Skye—an island only a few hours from my home. I knew I was looking for something, a connection to the land, perhaps. Skye drew me in as it opened up in front of me; so wide, wild and those signs inscrutable. I immediately regretted not knowing how to read them and desperately wished I could. I felt that I should.
I asked myself if I even had a right to claim this language as part of my culture when I had always been so dismissive of it. Growing up, we had always laughed at the obligatory Gaelic programmes on television; shrugged off attempts to teach us the language by asking “what’s the point? No one speaks it anyway.”
Not exactly no one, but very few. I read that roughly one percent of the Scottish population speaks Gaelic; if you consider that Scotland’s total population is around five million, you’ll realize that that is precious few.
Still, a concerted effort is being made to keep the language alive, one that has noticeably amplified in the 12 years since I have lived in Scotland. From Fort William up (and even, I noticed, a smattering in the Lowlands) all street- and road-signs are bilingual—I guessed at the commitment of each community by noting if the Gaelic was written above or below the English.
It is a tricky language and the pronunciation of only some came easily through the remembering of names of childhood friends—the mh in Mhairi sounds like a v, for example. With shame I found myself flipping through my Rough Guide (co-written by an Englishman, no less) to sound out the rest.
“dh – before and after a, o or u is an aspirated g, rather like gargle; before e or I like the y in yes; elsewhere silent
d – like the d in dog but with the tongue pressed against the back of the upper teeth; at the beginning of a word or before e or I, like the j in jam; in the middle or end of a word, like the t in cat; after I like the ch in church
rt – pronounced as sht”
From that starting point, through the slow unraveling meanings of Gaelic words, the geography of this wild and windy land began to reveal itself: a corr is a forest; inver a river mouth and strath a broad valley. Words I had spoken for years without bothering to think about the meaning.
My words “what’s the point?” seemed, in themselves, pointless. Words have meaning; a language isn’t just a string of words, it’s a way of looking at the world. A dying language, in particular, holds the key to the land; I respected this in Hawaii, why did it take so long to respect it in Scotland?
My dismissal of the language was cruel: it wasn’t just that Gaelic had to move aside for a more useful English, it had been suppressed following Culloden, swept away with the Highland Clearances and, by the late 19th century, I read, children were punished for speaking it in schools.
With just a week in Skye, I didn’t gain much knowledge, but I did gain an enthusiasm to learn. I found that connection I had been looking for too: slowing down and taking in the country alone had given me a sureness in my identity that I had missed on the last 12 years of rushed visits, dashing between friends and family before packing up and heading out again. I felt Scottish, and I felt at home for the first time in a very long time. Full circle.