This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald. John runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer
The Great Tapestry of Scotland – a wonderful depiction of the story of Scotland from pre-history to modern times – recently visited Inverness. One of the panels was called ‘English Advance Gaelic Retreat’ and depicted the changing names of many Scottish towns, both Highland and Lowland, from Gàidhlig to English.
Gaelic language regression has been a factor throughout Scotland and the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking part of north-western Scotland) for many centuries, a decline that has continued, with particular intensity, since the Act of Union – although there is now some evidence of the beginnings of an arrest in that decline.
This panel brought to the fore my interest in the role of language in defining identity. In particular, how important is the Gaelic language in defining Gaelic identity?
At first glance, this may seem to have an obvious answer – very. However, if language is a key component of identity, where does that leave, for example, the many Scots who associate with a Scottish identity but do not speak the Scots language? Indeed, one recent study suggested that the Gaelic language is not necessarily the most important marker in associating with Gaelic identity. Rather, it concluded that ‘there is no simple metric for being a Gael and while the language matters, that alone is insufficient’.
My interest in Gaelic identity has been shaped by two twentieth-century works of Gaelic literature, both of which provide emotive literary responses in support of the language as a key part of Gaelic identity.
Murdo MacFarlane’s words in the verses of Cànan nan Gàidheal (The Language of the Gaels) can be interpreted, not only as a cry for the survival of the Gaelic language from continued encroachment by English, but as chastisement for those Gaels that have abandoned their native tongue.
MacFarlane’s sense of frustration comes through as he mourns the loss of Gaelic identity from the ancient heartlands, as mountains and glens forfeit their Gaelic names, and in turn their connection with Gaelic identity.
Although Cànan nan Gàidheal may sound harsh in its anger towards the English language – the ‘disease from the south’ that is destroying the Gaelic language – this is tempered by MacFarlane’s scathing criticism of the Gaels for their own complicity in this matter. English would not have been so successful in spreading throughout the Gàidhealtachd without generations of Gaels abandoning their language.
YouTube BBC Four clip about Cànan nan Gàidheal
While MacFarlane imagines a continuing Gaelic heartland, it is expressed with a sense of hope rather than expectation. A more positive reflection comes from Anne Frater’s poem Aig an Fhaing (At the Fank).
Here, Frater imagines a typical rural Highland and Hebridean crofting event – a day at a sheep fank. Standing on the sidelines, watching, waiting and aware, before eventually becoming immersed in the work, this poem reflects on the role of Gaelic in defining identity. It could aptly apply to many Gaels who have let slip their native tongue, as a reminder of the importance of the language to their identity, and as encouragement to re-join the Gaelic language community.
YouTube clip of a sheep fank on the Isle of Lewis
Unfortunately, my academic impartiality regarding the question of Gaelic language and identity is likely to be slightly hindered by my own status – the very one chastised in Cànan nan Gàidheal – that of a ‘lapsed’ native Gael.
It is on with mo bhòtannan (my wellies) and off to the fank for me.
 2011 UK census report shows a significant reduction in the rate of decline of Gaelic speakers over the previous decade and a slight increase in younger speakers.
 See Robert Millar McColl, ‘An Historical National Identity? The Case of the Scots’, in Carmen Llamas and Dominic Watt (eds), Language and Identities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), pp. 245-56.
 Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone, ‘What makes a Gael? Identity, language and ancestry in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd’, Identities, 12:2 (2014), pp. 113-33. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1070289X.2014.878249]
 Murdo MacFarlane, ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ in Anne Lorne Gilles, Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010), pp. 312-13, and available online in Gaelic at [http://www.bbc.co.uk/alba/foghlam/larachnambard/poets/murchadh_macpharlain/bardachd]
 Anne Frater, ‘Aig an Fhaing’ in Christopher Whyte (ed.), An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd: In the Face of Eternity (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), and available online at [http://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/Laverock-Gaelic_Poetry.html]