Ainmean-Àite / Place-names

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Almost every corner of Scotland has got some evidence of Gaelic in its place-names. Sometimes this is really obvious, other times it’s somewhat more obscure. The Gàidhealtachd – the traditionally Gaelic-speaking part of Scotland – is, as you would expect, rich in Gaelic place-names . These often carry stories and speak of the history of the place, though sometimes their meaning or origin has been lost. Understanding, researching and dissecting them is an ongoing artform and a point of interest for both lay audiences and academics for a long, long time.

For a number of years now an organisation called Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba (AÀA; Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland) have been researching these, and working with Scottish Natural Heritage to produce bilingual booklets disseminating place-names of particular locales. Their latest release is Gaelic in the Landscape: Place-names of Colonsay and Oronsay. Previous editions have focused on Islay and Jura, the North-West Highlands, Strath (Isle of Skye), the Rough Bounds of Lochaber and Gaelic + Norse in the landscape. Each of these publications is beautifully illustrated and – crucially – free to download. I’m really looking forward to delving into the Colonsay and Oronsay booklet, not least to remind me of lovely trips there a few years back.

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As well as being really interesting to both researchers and the general audience alike, publications such as these, and the work of AÀA, are crucial to increasing awareness of Gaelic. They are accessible, informed and easy to digest, and provide an important route to understanding how our surroundings and language have shaped each other.

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Some Colonsay and Oronsay names which have jumped out at me:

Sruthan na h-Ulaidhe – the stream of the treasure

Uragaig – bay with rock-strewn beach (Norse in origin)

Uinneag Eircheil – Hercules’ window

You can find all the booklets on the SNH website here. The AÀA database is ever-increasing in entries and worth spending a few minutes exploring. Siuthadabh – enjoy!

Is it enough just to fool someone?

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I approached a stranger a few days ago. My intentions were good – to compliment them on their achievements and express my interest in their work. Neither I nor the other party had met before, though I was aware of their work from afar.

What happened next really took me aback and has been playing on my mind since. I introduced myself, stated the organisations name this individual represented and was immediately critiqued for not using the Gaelic version of the name instead. Our conversation was happening in English and I had been informed by them almost immediately that they spoke next to no Gaelic. Or, rather, enough Gaelic to ‘fool a bus load of tourists’ (a deeply troubling attitude in itself).

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The conversation continued; I questioned why the English name was used at all if the Gaelic name was truly preferred (an honest query as much as me playing devil’s advocate). In doing so I was further critiqued for my incorrect pronunciation of the placename (in Gaelic) and for not having the appropriate regional accent. Again, I was taken aback. Immediately after our interaction I started questioning myself – who has the right to make such comments? Does anyone? Was this person actually entirely valid in questioning my useage despite me saying I was a Gaelic speaker? Should I be more militant in my usage? If I am, am I happy to inevitably alienate people as a result? Am I prepared to explain to people – all the time­ – what it is that I’m saying or what that word is that I’ve just used means?

Why am I even questioning myself over this? Objectively, I know the answers. I ought to be more persistant (though I think I am relatively anyway). I ought not to worry about alienating people. Normalisation of the language is key. I should be prepared to – and not tire of – telling people about the language I use, in whatever capacity.

But the honest truth is, it’s exhausting. I live and work in Edinburgh. Of the 500,000 people living here, there is a healthy and active Gaelic community, but that community is not part of my daily life. Day to day I am surrounded largely by people who do not speak the language and who would regularly require the explanations that are so tiring. Fundamentally, I live in an English world – the predominant language of Edinburgh is English and it requires active effort, thought and consideration every minute of the day not to just ‘go for the easy option’ and solely use English. It is exhausting.

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I say normalisation is key – and it is. The day I started writing this post Alex Salmond used the word bùrach during a speech in Westminster. Perhaps that could be used as an example of normalisation happening right this minute – that a non-speaker from central Scotland use a Gaelic word in London to a national audience. I’ve been chastising myself for not using Gaelic during that conversation the other day, but also being annoyed at myself for not having a better response to ‘why didn’t you use the Gaelic?’.

In my flummoxed state, I took to twitter to ask these same questions. I received a number of responses from both non-Gaelic speakers and speakers alike, all of which said what I know deep-down already: of course this person was wrong to criticise me; there is already too much linguistic judgement among speakers. We should be celebrating and encouraging each other to use what we can, when we can, and create an atmosphere of positivity that enables speakers of all abilities to feel like they have a place with the language. There is a good Gaelic phrase that not everyone agrees with, but one that I strongly believe in: Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste; better broken Gaelic, than Gaelic in a coffin. I wonder if the person I spoke to thinks the same.

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Inspired by Islay

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Over the past wee while, I’ve been working with Kate Davies and her team on their latest venture: Inspired by Islay. A quick scroll through old posts on this blog will show lots of content from Islay; I lived and worked there for a year in 2012-2013. My job involved Gaelic cultural-heritage with particular projects I initiated being about the connection between the landscape and language. It is on this topic that Kate asked me to contribute an essay to the book being produced as part of the project (sidenote: the book has gone to the printers!).

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Kate’s work has long impressed me, and I’m chuffed that she has come to me to contribute small bits of work to other projects over the years, where she has wanted to use Gaelic. Gaelic aside, as a knitter  and general culture/history-enthusiast I’m always impressed by the thought and consideration that goes into all she (and the wider KDD team) does and produces. Other folk contributing to Inspired by Islay include really astonishing artists, craftspeopleavian experts and photographers, so it is an honour to be included alongside them.

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Anyway, the photos here are some snaps from my archive of pictures from Islay. My time on the island wasn’t always a song and a dance so it’s been really lovely revisiting parts of the island I fell for, and exploring further the rich Gàidhealach culture I am part of.

For all of Kate’s blog posts to date on the project see here.
In other news, I started a facebook page for my work. Like, share, comment, etc.

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Cianalas

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Being back in the city grind and with a few weeks of no escape, I can’t help but think of the landscape and open stretches of the Highlands and Islands. The word cianalas about sums up how I’m feeling at the moment. A combination of homesickness, melancholy, and general longing for a place or, as in my case just now, places and culture. Day-to-day life in Edinburgh doesn’t afford me the opportunity to be as immediately absorbed in Gaelic culture and heritage as I was in the islands so I need to be making more of an effort. It seems fitting that on a dreich day in the city the only word that sums up how I’m feeling is a Gaelic one.

Cianalas – kʲiənəLəs – ke-en-alas.

Photos from misc. places in Uist, about this time last year.

Elsewhere, mostly unrelated:

Edinburgh Yarn Festival is coming up; I’m really looking forward to it.
The Danish Diaspora exhibition in Haddington looks very much worth a visit (Nikolai and Beka Globe’s Mission House Studio in Harris is wonderful).
Ernest journal is a relatively new find for me but I’m enjoying it very much.

Heartening

Two things today.

Firstly: Living alone in what is still a new place, surrounded by beautiful scenery but few very close friends, it is easy to feel isolated. During times of heightened stress and tension this is exacerbated further. When a loved one has been visiting and departs the same day various stresses hit crisis-point then, well, that’s not a good combination at all. It has not been an easy short while. Just as well then that I am so fortunate as to have people in my life, albeit at a great distance, who through small gestures help ease the worries, whether they realise it or not.

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Coming home to this book in the post, a gift promoted by an earlier blog post, was an unexpected treat and just at the right time. And now I’ve no excuse not to up my tree-knowledge.

Secondly: reading through the transcript of Fiona Hyslop’s keynote speech,Past, Present & Future: Culture & Heritage in an Independent Scotland” at the Talbot Rich gallery in Edinburgh was incredibly heartening. I am neither party-political nor decided upon how I’ll vote in the independence referendum next year. Hyslop’s speech, however, I found to be an honest, positive and, ultimately exciting account of the role culture and heritage plays in Scotland just now. The prospects for the future is anyone’s guess but being employed in the cultural-heritage field I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the statements made. Not often I agree so wholeheartedly with a politician!

…the culture and heritage sectors make an invaluable contribution to our economic life, but despite these challenging times, we do not measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence – we value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.