Although I write in English, and English is the language I grew up with, I sometimes remember that I should have grown up with the Gaelic language too. My mother’s family were all from the West Highlands of Scotland: they were crofting people – sheep, hens, a little arable land. It was a struggle against a constant fear of poverty, and that was the way it had been for hundreds of years. Although my mother was brought up in a household where English was the first language, both her parents – my grandparents – had plenty of the Gaelic language in their blood. But by the first decades of last century, it was a language that had been actively persecuted for a hundred and fifty years.
The Battle of Culloden, the final half hour of slaughter at the end of the second Jacobite Rising, fought in 1746, sealed the fate of the northern half of Scotland for ever. It led to the Clearances, where hundreds of thousands of Highland Scots left the country for America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The whole Jacobite story is a mighty complex business, not something that can be neatly described in a few paragraphs. But it’s a story worth exploring nonetheless. Many modern day Scots have a dangerously oversimplified view of this story as having been a fight between England and Scotland. That view is not helped by the Hollywoodisation of history through films like Braveheart. The simple truth is that it was most complicated.
What is much clearer is the aftermath. The Hanoverian forces, fresh from their victory at Culloden, set about bringing the Highlands into line. Villages were burned and innocent people, whose only crime was to speak the Gaelic language, were hanged. Some of the Highland survivors of the battle were taken down to England and hung, drawn and quartered. The message was clear: never was this kind of rebellion to happen again.
In the years that followed, two very clever strategies were employed to enforce that message. The first was the building of military roads into the wildest parts of the Highlands to ensure that soldiers could reach every corner as quickly as possible. The second was the establishment of tiny schools in every glen for one purpose above all others – the teaching of the English language and the suppression of the Gaelic tongue. Gaelic was the language of the rebellious Highlanders, so Gaelic had to be brought under control.
It was a strategy employed elsewhere in the Celtic countries, and it was most successful. I sometimes think it’s amazing any Gaelic at all remains in the Scottish Highlands, so efficiently was the programme carried out after 1746. What happened in the end was that many Highlanders came to hate their own language: they refused to pass it on to their children, seeing it as a handicap compared with ‘useful’ languages like French and German. By the time my mother went to school half an hour from Inverness, her headmaster – a fine speaker of Gaelic himself – believed that any child speaking his tongue should have the living daylights beaten out of him. And that kind of thinking was seen as joined-up.
There’s something of a revival in Gaelic in today’s Scotland, but it’s by no means an easy story of success. There are pockets of progress: that’s all one can say. But there’s a long way to go.
The wounded wandered home in Gaelic
by rivers and back roads;
all they had fought for
unsure and broken.
Hoe long before they saw
their language and their land
like a limb that’s tied too tight,
still there but dying all the time.
Or like a wildcat caught at last
not killed, but tamed;
de-clawed, castrated –
then stroked and told to purr.