Engage brain

IMG_20180817_132308683Last time I was writing here here I was living in what seemed like a snowglobe. The small town in which I live was cut off from its neighbouring city for many days meaning there was no option but to switch off and enjoy the dramatic weather. Since then another two seasons have passed and I’m staring Autumn in the face. It has been a busy spring and summer with the pressure of working two jobs equating to a 40+ hour working week (in a good week) taking its toll. There has not been very much extra brain space to maintain this online space, far less write anything of use, interest or purpose.

IMG_20180817_132524543But so it is that a few things have happened in a past little while that have had my mind turning to the niche subject I’ve spoken about here before: Gaelic language and the landscape, heritage, interpretation…

Firstly, I visited a site I hadn’t been to in 20 years and reminded myself of what it is that I love so much about archaeology. It isn’t the ‘strong personalities’ of people who have been in the sector almost twice as long as I’ve been alive, nor is it often incestuous working relationships between different organisations. It’s the sheer majesty of a place like Glenelg, the monumentality of a broch and the pure enigma of a place where we still, ultimately, don’t truly know what was going on. It’s the childlike sense of arriving somewhere, looking at something and thinking “woah, I wonder…”. That experience is missing in the daily grind of my working life and how to go about recapturing it more frequently is evading me at the moment.IMG_20180817_133719798

Secondly, coming across and being involved in discussions of the use of Gaelic in relation to promoting heritage. I have a lot of thinking to do on this subject but I’ve seen a few instances recently of Gaelic-related resources being promoted in good faith but with a use of language (in English) which implies an othering which makes me really uncomfortable. I’m thinking out loud here as much as anything so, no, I’m not naming and shaming (at this point) though the promotional activity has always been from an organisation not an individual. Is it a matter of poor choice of words (likely), a lack of knowledge or understanding (also likely), ill feeling and/or lack of respect (hopefully not) ? Is it simply a case of Gaels being misrepresented (again) and therefore the language and culture, too? I’m not sure where these thoughts are going or, really, ultimately where the fault lies but I know I’ve been feeling deeply uncomfortable – both as a Gael and as a heritage professional.

img_20180817_131903407.jpgTo end on a happier note, the interpretation panels at Glenelg are great – and Gaelic-led! – fitting nicely into the site without distracting from the sheer awe-inducing nature of the site. They’re far from brand new but do everything you want a panel to do, and bilingually as well.IMG_20180817_133558720

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Forestry, lochs but no otters on Skye

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I’m fortunate enough to visit Skye on a fairly regular basis. Having family there means that in exchange for a spot of baby- and animal-sitting I’ve got free accommodation in one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations. So far, so smug. But in realist, family comes first and so it is that most visits to the island don’t involve much sightseeing outwith our own wee area. Even so, there are still places nearby which have eluded us on multiple visits. One of these was,  the Forestry Commission Scotland visitor hide at Kylerhea, famed for expansive views, otters and being right next to the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland.

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The surroundings are impressive, we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife. Even so, within the side there was a wealth of interpretation and information about what we *could* have been looking at. The slight sting of disappointment aside, I was taken aback by just now how good the interpretation panels were. The south of Skye, Sleat specifically, is home to a really strong community which has been at the heart of the Gaelic language and cultural renaissance over the past 40 years. Even so, it’s possible to go to many, many places across Skye and not see a word of it.

I think my cynicism was out in full force when we went to Kylerhea as I was so taken aback by the bilingual interpretation that I just stood going “look! look how good this is! Look! Are you looking?” rather than just letting my partner enjoy the views and read as he wished.

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The interpretation uses Gaelic in a way that isn’t just accurate but really meaningful to the language and the inherent connection it has to the landscape. This isn’t just a translation of one piece of text to another but has Gaelic at its heart; it is the place itself that it speaks of. It helps the visitor understand what it is about Gaelic that is important to the surroundings. It’s all very well and good providing the English translation of a Gaelic place-name, but why should anyone care about the name in its original language? Here, such questions were answered, explaining the value of understanding even a little of the language. It’s precisely the kind of thing I’m forever wittering on about to anyone who’ll listen so it’s incredibly edifying to see a national organisation doing the same. I think my favourite aspect of it is that there is no song or dance made about it – it is simply the interpretation that works best for the subject matter, location and the wider landscape. That in itself seems too often a forgotten consideration at so many sites.

Top marks to the Forestry for taking this approach – it’s one that many other places would do well to follow.

– Apologies for the dodgy quality of photos in this post; they were taken on my mobile phone in a fit of excitement with little consideration given to their public usage.

At last – ‘Goireasan’ page updated

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I’ve finally – finally finished what has been a draft page on this site for ages. Spurred on by a recent meeting I attended in Edinburgh with colleagues from across the heritage sector, I thought it about time to finally formalise all the different online places that cover Gaelic heritage in some capacity. The topic of the meeting was developing heritage-focused Gaelic resources for schools/young audiences – I spoke about my own work – and it was a really valuable opportunity to discuss approaches and methodologies with folk who are keen to develop said resources but either don’t have Gaelic knowledge themselves or don’t know how to gain access to it.

There is no handy one-stop shop for heritage-related resources to do with Gaelic online and the ones I’ve amassed are certainly not exhaustive. However, hopefully they’ll be of use to anyone else looking for pointers. If there’s something you’ve seen that would be of use being added to the page, let me know! I forsee it being an ongoing work in progress.

The page – Goireasan (meaning Resources) can be found here: https://uiseag.com/goireasan-resources/ 

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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