Mither of All Battles; Why Politically-Motivated Promotion of the Scots Tongue at the Expense of Gaelic Would Have Burns Turning in His Grave

By Warner, Gerald | Daily Mail (London), January 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mither of All Battles; Why Politically-Motivated Promotion of the Scots Tongue at the Expense of Gaelic Would Have Burns Turning in His Grave


Warner, Gerald, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: GERALD WARNER

TONIGHT, across Scotland and around the world, people will gather to toast the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, our national bard. Burns Night this year has a topical significance: it coincides with a national reappraisal of issues of language and identity that have suddenly assumed a new urgency.

Both the vernacular Scots dialect in which Burns wrote and the beleaguered Gaelic language of the Highlands have recently become active political issues. The threat of extinction looms over Gaelic; in the case of "Lallans" Scots, rigor mortis set in generations ago, but a small minority of fanatics refuses to accept that reality. Supporters of both causes have provoked a flurry of political activity.

Last week saw the first meeting of the Gaelic Board for Scotland, a quango that the Scottish Executive has created in contradiction of its declared policy of reducing the number of such bodies. Next week, the latest census is expected to reveal that the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has declined below the 60,000 level for the first time. The general presumption is that if the number of speakers were to fall below 50,000, that would be the point of no return.

At the same time, champions of the now extinct dialects of Scotland have been pressing for their artificial resuscitation. A report by the Scottish parliament's education committee has just recommended that Scots should be given the same status as Gaelic and be awarded massive resources for its promotion in schools and the media. This report is to be translated into a variety of languages, including Gaelic, Urdu, Chinese and Punjabi, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than u10,000.

So, however eccentric ( or downright insane) some of these initiatives may appear, there is no doubt that, this Burns Night, Scottish language and identity are at the forefront of public consciousness. This preoccupation is being both promoted and exploited by politicians whose own cultural qualifications are questionable. What is the reality behind the present linguistic hype?

Gaelic is a great cultural heritage. It is an ancient and poetic language, common to Ireland as well as Scotland: if we allow it to die out, under the pressures of modernity and mass communications, we shall leave a blighted legacy to future generations. This language is still (just) living and, with suitable encouragement, can be cultivated back to a point where its existence is no longer threatened. Unless we are totally insensible to the claims of cultural stewardship, we must recognise a duty here.

The question of artificially reviving Lallans Scots is a totally different matter. Unlike Gaelic, it is not a language but a collection of English or Anglo-Saxon dialects, all of which are effectively dead, although the great language from which they derive dominates world communication. To carry the corpse of Lallans out of the School of Scottish Studies and attempt to clone it ( like a linguistic version of Jurassic Park) would be absurd and impractical.

It might seem churlish, on the day of the national bard's annual commemoration, to dismiss his language as beyond resurrection. But ' facts are chiels that winna' ding' and the fact is that a dialect of the people is only viable so long as the people speak it. Scots has lost out to urban society and the mini- globalisation of language made inevitable by television. When a language is fully understood only by academics, then it is as much a museum piece as hieroglyphics. Historically, Gaelic was the language of most of Scotland, brought here from Ireland in the 6th century.

By the 11th century it dominated the country, its only competitors being Anglo-Saxon in the south-east and Norwegian in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness.

AS Norman-English influence spread north, Gaelic was forced into retreat.

It died out in Galloway in the 17th century and became restricted to the Highlands. …

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