13 March 2011

United we stand, divided we fall: Multiple minorities

Anyone living in Scotland will be familiar with the big noise made in the media over Gaelic.  Mostly it's just about how a minority is getting money (incidentally, the figures aren't really that high), bolstered by the claim that it was "never spoken here".  Every now and then we see that argument reinforced with "what about Scots"?

The claim "never spoken here" is untrue in most places, as most parts of Scotland had Gaelic at some point in history, and a lot of it still had some even only 200 years ago.  But this is an irrelevancy, and people get there blood up picking over the semantics of never.  In the final analysis, history is less important than the present: if people don't identify with a language now, then it simply isn't their language.  Sadly a core minority of Gaelic activists do not accept this and get people's backs up by effectively telling their fellow countrymen that they aren't true Scots.

Some people who support Scots call Gaelic an incomer language from Ireland.  Some people who support Gaelic call Scots an incomer language from England.  Well so what?  Every language came from somewhere else to start off with.  (And incidentally, Scots came from overseas, not from England.  Common thought still says Gaelic came via Ireland, but it came from Iberia before that, and somewhere else before that.)  The simple fact of the matter is that both are present in Scotland today, and both are part of lineages that have been spoken in parts of what is now Scotland for well over a millennium.  In my book, that makes them both "Scottish languages".

In arguments such as these, people often reach back and invoke the names of legendary historic Scots.  A recent blog post claims Wallace and Robert the Bruce as Gaelic speakers.  "Wallace" is an Anglo-Saxon name for a speaker of Brythonic (related to the modern "Welsh").  So maybe he spoke Gaelic, but he mostly likely was at least bilingual.

Robert de Brus was from the Norman nobility, and though to have been brought up in the Scots-speaking southeast, or in the northeast of England where even now the everday speech is more like Scots than Standard English.  His mother was a Gael.  Why did a Norman lord marry a Gaelic countess?  This romanticised in legend as some great romance, but in truth the most likely explanation is that the de Brus line had been claiming the throne since the death of Alexander, and Bruce's grandfather (after being denied the crown in favour of Baliol) realised that he needed to get the Gaelic clan chieftains on-side if one of his descendants was ever to be crowned king.  So he married his son to a Gael.  When the young Robert the Bruce courted the chiefs and lairds, he would have been able to address each and every one of them in their own language, and as one of them.

In his blog post at Tocasaid, Mac an t-Srònaich seems to suggest Scots is a massive conspiracy to divide the people of Scotland by separating them from their true language.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Scotland has always been divided and has always resisted the imposition of a shared identity from one of its groups.  Scotland was at its best when a few visionary leaders were willing to stand up and bridge that divide and develop a common purpose that still respected individual identity.  This is the model we should be following.

Come on now people let's get on the ball and work together.


Thrissel said...

I couldn't agree more with the general idea, but as regards Bruce... given that he was born in 1274, he was already twelve when Alexander III died and eighteen when his grandfather was denied the crown in favour of Balliol.

That said, Robert McNair Scott writes in his biography of Bruce (1982): "He would have spoken the Norman-French of his peers and in the Celtic household of his parents absorbed from their retainers the Gaelic language which was dominant from Galloway in the southwest up through the western Highlands to the mountains of Inverness. In his grandfather's house too he would have heard spoken and learnt the northern English, which was to become the broad Scots of later generations and was then the common speech from the borders to Strathclyde, and from Lothian to the trading ports on the eastern seabord. He would have become trilingual at an early age: an accomplishment most necessary for one who was to draw supporters for his struggle from all three spheres."

Tocasaid said...

Is there any evidence to show that Bruce spoke 'Scots'. 'Scots' didn't exist in Bruce's time though a form of Anglo-Saxon was spoken in parts. Bruce, if I remember correctly, also appealed to the Irish, on the grounds 'of our common culture and language'.

Same for Wallace. And does being bi or tri-lingual, as Wallace was, mean that you aren't a 'Gaelic speaker'?

Ali Abassi was a Gaelic speaker despite his Asian roots.

'Scots' is a misnomer and while a Scottish AngloSaxon exists, maintaining that it is 'Scots/ Scottish' is wrong. Gaelic is/ was also known as 'Erse'. Should we still travel that road? Or should we seek to correct - or at least highlight - the mistakes of the past?

Perhaps reaquainting 'Gaelic' with 'Scottish' - as it was until the 1500s - might alleviate many of our present woes.

Nìall Beag said...

And you've missed the entire point of the whole post. You're playing a game of one-upsmanship.

I doubt you'd have a problem with the term "Old English", so what's wrong with refering to the Anglo-Saxon spoken in Scotland back then as "Scots", using the modern term?

You're going back to history to tell us why "Scots" is a "misnomer" and claiming it as an attack. It's just divisive, because you're making people chose -- you're telling people that Gaelic is in opposition to their identity.

"Reacquainting" Gaelic with Scottish wouldn't alleviate "our" woes, because I am not a Gael. I'm from a part of Scotland where Scots has far more currency than Gaelic, and I'm telling you that openly attacking the local identity will do nothing but create more problems.

As I said in the post, lets stop arguing over the past and over minor questions of semantics, and accept the current reality for what it is. If we deny reality, we get nowhere.