S1 E11: Scottish Gaelic – Prof. Rob Dunbar

Today, we are joined by Prof. Rob Dunbar of the University of Edinburgh. Prior to assuming the Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh in June 2013, he was Senior Research Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Research Director of the inter-university Soillse Research Project. Previously, he was a lecturer then senior lecturer in Law at the University of Glasgow (1995-2004) and reader in Celtic and Law at the University of Aberdeen (2004-2010). As a native of Canada, he has been involved in Gaelic language development for almost twenty years, and has worked with international organisations such as the Council of Europe, of which he is an expert, and the OSCE, national and sub-national governments, including the National Assembly for Wales, and governmental and non-governmental organisations, on issues broadly relating to the maintenance and revitalisation of minority languages and the protection of their speakers.  He was a member of Bòrd na Gàidhlig from 2006 to 2012 and MG Alba from 2004 to 2012, and was involved in the development of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 and the creation of BBC Alba, Scotland’s Gaelic digital television service.

Much of his research focuses on language policy and planning for Scottish Gaelic, and for minoritised languages more generally, and on legal instruments (international, national and sub-national) in support of such policy and planning initiatives. Gaelic broadcasting, and provision for broadcasting in other minoritised languages, also forms part of his research strand. His work also focuses on Gaelic literature, culture and society from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, and on Gaelic in Canada.

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Episode Transcript


[Carine] Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of Much Language Such Talk. Today you’re listening to me, Carine, and our volunteer Bérengère. Bérengère is not a linguist as her background is in neurobiology. She finished her PhD in psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2020, which focused on the effects of bilingualism on the life, mind and brain of autistic people. Currently, she is the engagement officer at the Patrick Wilds Center at the University of Edinburgh. Bérengère, hi, how are you?

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[Bérengère ]
Hi, well, thank you. How are you?

[Carine] I’m good. Thanks. It’s a very gloomy morning, but I’m having a nice time with all my lights on inside. Together we’re going to be talking with Professor Rob Dunbar. He’s the chair of Celtic languages, literature, history and antiquities at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests also include Scottish Gaelic literature and culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Gaelic tradition in Canada. Before coming to Edinburgh, he was a senior lecturer in law at the University of Glasgow and a professor in Celtic and law at the University of Aberdeen. Additionally, Rob was the senior research professor at the University of Highlands and Islands and the research director of the inter- University Social Research Project, a research collaboration originally established between the University of Highlands and Islands, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, which conducts research to help inform public policy towards the maintenance and revitalization of Gaelic language and culture. As a native of Canada, Rob has been involved in Gaelic language development for over 20 years, and has worked with international organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, national and sub national governments, including the National Assembly for Wales on issues broadly relating to the aintenance and revitalization of minority languages and the protection of their speakers. Furthermore, Rob was a member of the Gaelic language board and Gaelic media of Scotland. He was involved in the development of Scotland’s 2005 Gaelic Language Act and the creation of BBC Alba, Scotland’s Gaelic digital TV service. Hello Rob. Hi, how are you?

[Rob] I’m very well, how are you? I’m good.

[Carine] Yeah, we’re really excited.

[Rob] Great.

[Carine] We’ve mentioned this on the podcast before we are based in Edinburgh. So we do hear about Gaelic. We’re really excited to learn some more about it since, surprisingly, not many of us and Bilingualism Matters actually speak Gaelic. So I’m very excited. Are you ready to jump right in?

[Rob] Absolutely.

[Carine] Awesome. Here we go. How did you develop your interest in languages?

[Rob] Like I’m from Toronto, Canada, which is famously multilingual and multicultural city, and even when I was a boy, which wasn’t yesterday, the city was very diverse, and our streets that I grew up on was very diverse. So I heard all sorts of languages pretty much every day, we had neighbors whose family languages were Italian, Serbo-Croat, Romanian, Japanese, German, our next door neighbors and our closest friends were a Jewish family. So when their daughters were preparing for bat mitzvah, I saw them struggling to learn Hebrew, their grandfather was a Russian Jew, and spoke Russian and Yiddish. So we heard a lot of languages. Gaelic was in my family and I had an uncle who would always greet us when he came to see us with a little bit of Scottish Gaelic. So that perhaps was the seed that later started to grow when it became a little bit older. The other thing about Canada is that it’s an officially bilingual country. And what I was a boy that in my teenage years, Canada had just introduced a new Official Languages Act, which gave much stronger recognition to French there was a very significant recognition that French was a very important language. I took French from the age of 10. And I’m not as fluent as it once was, but at the time I finished secondary school I’d become very fluent in French and loved the language. At secondary school, I got to do a bit of Latin, but also did German. And I didn’t take Italian which I wish I had in retrospect. My reasons were, I was very goal oriented in my teenage years and in spite of the fact that there were many Italian speakers around me and including many of my classmates, many of them had arrived from Italy with no English you know, we’re in English second language transitional programs. My calculation was very childish in a way, I thought there’s no way that I would do well in Italian with so many of my classmates who are native Italian speakers, but of course, they always told me that you should have taken up because we speak dialect. Many of them were from families from the South of Italy, but they said, you know, in the class, we’re learning standard Florentine Italian and you know, it’s like a different language for us as well. So it was very much the multilingual mix that I grew up in and saw every day, but also the realization that language is a really important. Again, my teenage years were also the period when law 101, the Charter of the French language was introduced in Quebec language was very divisive issue. There was very much part of the push for an independent Quebec, which dominated the news both when I was at secondary school and at university. So I guess you know, the issues surrounding languages, the challenges that multilingualism diversity pose, but also the huge benefits from the amount of color that diversity adds, richness that it adds to life, sort of a daily lived part of our existence growing up.

[Carine] Wow, that is really amazing. It’s so great to see how prevailing in your life, so many different languages were. I knew Toronto was quite multilingual and very diverse and everything but it’s just really nice to hear just how many different languages you grew up around. Also to see that in high school, you were so goal oriented and already thinking about the multilingual identity and policy that’s, that’s really amazing. I think at high school, all I wanted to do was sleep and watch TV so, well done (laughs). You mentioned that your uncle would speak to you in Gaelic. How did he develop Gaelic then?

[Rob] Well, my grandparents were from Nova Scotia. They were Gaelic speakers, but never knew my grandfather, he died when my father was a boy, he was a miner, the family moved to Western Canada for work. So the children, you know, once they left Nova Scotia, they weren’t exposed to the language as much. But he learned some phrases, some basic phrases. So he would always refer to us with the ‘mo ghille’ would say which means
my dear little boy, and would occasionally greeted us with ‘ciamar a tha thu, ciamar a tha sibh’, how are you, and he didn’t have much more Gaelic than that. But just hearing those words created that sense that we knew that my father’s family background was Scottish from Nova Scotia. So that I suppose planted the seed. It wasn’t until much later that I sort of began taking an interest in that after I graduated. My first degree was in International Relations at the University of Toronto. And when I graduated, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Brazil for the better part of the year. So I learned Portuguese lived in a city called Novo Hamburgo which means ‘New Hamburg’, and many of the people that lived there have German or Polish ancestry, especially German ancestry, but a dialect of German still survived amongst the older people. They were very interested in what were my background was from, Canada as an immigrant country, and it was at that point that I began thinking about where my family was from I’d been to Nova Scotia but I hadn’t really thought too much about Gaelic or Scottish. It was at that point I began reflecting on my family’s own story.

[Carine] That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that Gaelic skipped a generation almost in your family, it seemed that your uncle obviously tried…

[Rob] …at least.

[Carine] Yeah, and then you got interested in it.

[Rob] My father had a few words as well. When I started learning Gaelic, my father had a few words that he remembered he remembered hearing some Gaelic songs. He grew up in Alberta, but he went back to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia with his mother, my grandmother, who was a Gaelic speaker, when he was quite a young boy and heard a lot of Gaelic in his grandparents house and remembered hearing some Gaelic songs and learn some words. He wasn’t there long enough to learn much more than that, but he has a little rhyme [GAELIC] which means a ‘little boy, big boy, cold water, hot water’ is sort of beginning to learn some of the basics that I guess his grandparents, his mother taught him. Again, they’re a little bits of things, but I didn’t really think too much about it until I started reflecting as a young adult.

[Carine] That’s amazing, honestly, that it’s so interesting. Also, in a way how you left Canada, you went to another country. And there it was the moment that you got to reflect as well. At what age did you start to learn Gaelic?

[Rob] I guess it was about 30 or 31. I went and studied law. At that point, I was interested in learning language, but I wanted to finish that degree, get myself established in practice. And it was really, I guess it about my first year practicing law that I decided that I was going to take the leap, and I signed up for a night school class, the Toronto Board of Education offered all sorts of adult learning courses, and they offered three of the Celtic languages Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh. So I signed up for Scottish Gaelic, and that really started me on my journey, but it was as an adult and I think I’ve come to a quite a high level of fluency in Scottish Gaelic. So if my story has any value at all, perhaps is that as a person who’s well into adulthood, it’s still possible to become fully fluent and functional in another language. I know it’s best for children to learn it at home, to have it reinforced in school, but I think becoming fluent can happen at any age. And I think it’s very much a matter of hard work because I was wanting to become fluent in the language. I worked hard at it and tried to get as many opportunities to hear it and speak it as possible. There are many more opportunities now than there were some almost 30 years ago when I started on the journey. So that’s one like that has to be borne in mind. The other thing I learned about from learning French at school and some German, but also in Brazil, is that you can never become fluent in another language unless you’re willing to make mistakes, to laugh at your own mistakes and embrace your mistakes. And I made some spectacular mistakes in Brazil, when I got there trying to get to fluency in Portuguese, but I stuck with it. I laughed at my own mistakes, and said, I just got to keep going. And I got to a high level of fluency in Portuguese as well. But it’s realizing that you can’t learn anything, but certainly you can’t learn a language if you are not going to speak a language until you feel that you’re perfect in it. You’re not going to speak that language.

[Carine] Yes, definitely.

[Bérengère] No, I just find that so inspiring that you start said really quite late compared to other people to learn Gaelic…

[Carine] ‘late’ in quotes almost, it’s really not that late

[Bérengère] Exactly, no it’s not and that now, it’s it is such a huge part of your career and your life. I find that really inspiring because I guess like many people would say, well, I’m in my late 20s, there’s no point. Like even if I want to start now, it would just be like a tiny hobby on the side. And your journey just shows that no, it can actually become something gigantic in your life. So I find that so inspiring. Thank you.

[Carine] It’s one of the things we try to push as Bilingualism Matters as well that there is no limit to age and when you can learn a language. My father was mid to late 20s when he started to learn English. But it wasn’t until he moved to America in the 70s that he started to learn English. And that’s a good point about mistakes as well. We one of our other hostesses, Brittany, has talked about it when she was learning Spanish, you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. And sometimes you are lucky if you’re able to move to the country and immerse yourself there. Because if you’re too afraid to make a mistake, you’re never going to use the language. How are you going to learn? It’s not gonna happen. I have no problem making a fool of myself at this point on my Finnish side, talking to my cousin’s kids and Finnish because I speak like a three year old and Finnish, and they’re like seven years old. And I’ll be like, you school going to today? And they’re just like, yeah, and I’m like, cool, good talk, good talk (laughs).

[Bérengère] It’s really important. It’s so true. Like my English really improved when I moved to England, because before then I would never want to use the language. I would, I mean, I could speak English like school English, but I would never use it because I was afraid of making mistakes. But when I moved to England, I didn’t have a choice anymore. I had to use the language to survive. And that just really helped within a few months, I really got much better. That’s exactly it. I mentioned that you’re doing work on Gaelic in Canada. What does that work entail?

[Rob] Well, I do two sorts of work. Most of my work on Canada now involves literature, culture, I’m finishing two books on a Gaelic poet who emigrated from Tiree (Scottish Gaelic: Tiriodh) in the Inner Hebrides to Nova Scotia in the early 19th century and doing some work on other interesting figures. The only Gaelic newspaper, proper Gaelic newspaper that ever existed for any period of time was a paper called mac-talla, which means the Echo, which was published in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton Island between 1892 and 1904 for 12 years, and it came out on a weekly basis for most of its existence, laterally on a bimonthly basis. Every week, it had news and had events had stories that had songs and all of the advertisements that were mostly local businesses, you know, all in Gaelic as well. And the editor was a young man from Cape Breton. His family was from the Isle of Skye, named Jonathan G. MacKinnon. And I’ve been doing a lot of work on MacKinnon lately, because I think he’s a fascinating figure. He went on to do all sorts of other interesting things with the language. And he’s sort of one of these culture heroes. Again, this shows the importance of faith in the future of the language. Nobody would have expected a 22 year old man from a tiny rural community in 1892, to make the decision that he was going to single handedly create a Gaelic newspaper that would come out every week, but he did it for a long period of time. And it shows this determination and commitment, perseverance that I was talking about earlier, some things to work on. In terms of language, I continue to support efforts, there are really interesting things going on in Nova Scotia right now, the language, as I said, declined very significantly. And now there are only a few hundred native speakers there, growing number of learners and young people between 20 and 40. And the numbers have gone up dramatically. They’re still small but these people are people that have also come to a very high level of fluency and they’re committed to using the language, but a few of them have their own children and are raising their children through the medium of language. So it shows what’s possible with some commitment and some inspiration. But after almost total neglect in recent years, the province of Nova Scotia has become more supportive. I did some work with them and with the Gaelic Counsel of Nova Scotia, what their strategy for essentially reviving Gaelic now was, this was back in 2007 2008 2009, and we look to Scotland obviously, should we be starting with Gaelic medium education in preschools, and there have been developments in these areas. Now there is some Gaelic being taught in the schools, but I was of the view that they probably should start with the sort of people that they have started with, with young adults to get people who are adults coming to fluency, because an adult who comes to fluency and is committed to the language has made an active choice, that they want the language to be part of the repertoire and part of their identity. And that when they do that, you have a level of commitment that will result in them, perhaps raising their own children to the language but also acting as effective advocates, children learning a minority language, you know, you see them at school, they get up on stage, they’re very good ambassadors for the language, but they’re not really activists. This has been part of the strategy. They really started even before that in about 2004 with a method, an interesting method of adult language acquisition, which involved, rather than teaching language in the classroom setting, to do it in very much informal way, in households with native speakers, where the language reviews conversationally, and this has helped to produce some highly competent speakers. The other thing that they did, which was very interesting, is they went to California. There’s a scholar at the University of California now retired, Leanne Hinton, who has done a lot of work with the revival of Californian Aboriginal indigenous languages, many of which were reduced to 10 or 15 or 20 speakers. She set up these master apprentice programs, where a young person would work with an old native speaker to develop fluency in the young person in the language. They have adapted those programs in Nova Scotia, where now, once a younger speaker has come up to a certain level of fluency, they’re teamed up with an older remaining native speaker and learn from them. They learn language skills, they learn cultural skills, they work on song texts for the older person that can be beneficial because many of the, although native speakers, are not fully literate in the language, and so the learner will be helping them with literacy skills. And I think this is part of the reason why so many of these young people who I see that are coming through there with Scotia have really excellent language skills and cultural skills. Gaelic has become part of their identity. I think there’s a lot to be learned even in a case that’s as marginalized and threatened as Nova Scotia. There’s always reasons to be hopeful.

[Carine] Yeah, definitely. Speaking of Gaelic specifically, you mentioned that Gaelic is a Celtic language and the Celtic family language group is, I would, it’s quite small, is it only the three languages Is that right? Is it Welsh, Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic?

[Rob]  There are six modern Celtic languages there are two sub families. One are the so called Goidelic languages, which include Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx Gaelic, which is a revived language with the last native speaker died in 1974, or there abouts. And then there are the brythonic languages, Welsh of course, which is in many ways the strongest of the Celtic languages, but Breton as well, which is still spoken by a fairly large numbers of people in Brittany, but they tend to be very much older. And then Cornish, which is closely related to the other two languages to particularly to Breton, and it ceased to be spoken, it died in the late 18th century, but it’s been the subject of revival efforts and there are speakers of Cornish as well. And now has a measure of recognition in Cornwall as well. So there are six Celtic languages and sort of two sub families. They’re all indo European languages, which means that they’re related to most other European languages to the romance languages, the Germanic languages, the Slavic languages, but distantly so.

[Carine] Oh, right. Wow. Okay. I did not actually realize that Cornish was a Celtic language. So that’s really something new to learn every single day.

[Bérengère]  It’s super interesting. All these different features of language that you’ve just mentioned, are these six languages and mostly well, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, are they mutually intelligible?

[Rob]  No, Scottish Gaelic and Irish and Manx are close. I don’t think that the Gaelic speaker would necessarily understand Irish without a bit of prompting. But with a bit of prompting, I think it’s possible. It’s very interesting. My wife is from the Isle of Lewis. She’s a native Gaelic speaker and her parents and native Gaelic speakers and on the Gaelic television channel, we now get some Irish programming. And what they do is they broadcast in the original Irish and then there are subtitles in English rather than Gaelic. But my mother in law was very excited, one night she called me up and she said, Are you watching the channel? I said, No. And she said, I speak Irish as well. So she thought this would be interesting to me. She said, well, I was watching the show, and I wasn’t understanding everything but I got the sense of what they were talking about and I’d really like to learn Irish now, it’s it’s it’s closer than I thought. And that’s very true, though with a bit of training, they get a speaking is slightly greater challenge, but there are increasing numbers of Irish speakers who have an interest in and have become quite fluent in Scottish Gaelic, and similarly many Gaelic speakers are very interested in Irish and have learned it, so I suppose, making comparisons with other languages a little different, but Scottish Gaelic and an Irish perhaps a similar sort of relation to Spanish and Portuguese, or Spanish and Catalan. But that strikes me as being the sort of degree of similarity, for some property there’s some mutual intelligibility. The difference between the Goidelic languages, Gaelic and Irish and Manx on the one hand, and the Brythonic languages, sort of P- Celtic languages they’re called, Breton, Welsh, Cornish is greater, those languages separated at a much earlier stage. Certainly many of the grammatical features, the basic structures of the language is similar. If you’ve speak one of the, say, Scottish Gaelic and go to learn Welsh, you’ll find that in terms of understanding the basic sort of structure of the language that you have a head start, but there are very big differences in vocabulary. Some, some vocabulary is similar, but you’re really learning a quite different vocabulary.

[Bérengère] That’s really interesting. When learning Gaelic What do people struggle most with? So coming from English, or the other romance language, because I am, I am trying and I have been trying to learn Gaelic for quite a while but I’m not doing this very well. I’m not committing as much time as I should. And I do find that very difficult to learn. I don’t know if it’s the word order, or I don’t know if it’s that I never know when I should add the little ‘h’ to change the sound for the noun. But I do find it more difficult than when I learned English, for example.

[Rob]  I think there may be structural features that are challenging. Fortunately, we don’t have a different alphabet, to learn Greek or the Slavic language or Arabic or something you could be struggling with that as well. My own view is that the biggest barrier, first of all learning materials, which are much better now than they were even 20 years ago. But the other thing is the opportunities to practice the language and hear the language spoken. And that’s improved quite a lot in recent years as well. But that’s really a problem. Gaelic speakers, native Gaelic speakers are now, they become much more used to learners. That wasn’t always the case. And you know, there’s a lot of historical baggage as a minoritized language. You know, many learners will say that the native speakers are reluctant to use Gaelic, or they’ll switch to English as soon as you run into problems. And I’ve had all sorts of different reactions from people I’ve been very lucky with that many native Gaelic speakers have supported me and worked with me and put up with me as I come to grips with the language. But without a doubt that, that I think is the biggest problem. And I contrast that with my time in Brazil, I was able to learn Portuguese fairly quickly, partly because I learned a bit in advance. I think having come to fluency in French helped. But the big advantage was this was in the early 1980s in Brazil, not very many people there spoke English. And like today, we don’t have the internet and everything that would have kept me in touch more with English. So I had no choice. I had to use Portuguese every day, if I wanted to get a coffee or if I want to listen to the news. There’s no English to be heard. And so it was really a proper immersion experience. And that really is not possible in Gaelic or in most of the other Celtic languages. Even when you’re in the heartland of the languages, the Western Isles or in the Irish speaking areas of Ireland or Northwest Wales, you’re still exposed to a considerable amount of English, and every speaker essentially is bilingual. So I think it’s the opportunity to make mistakes as I said earlier, making mistakes is really important in learning a language and I think that’s the biggest problem. There may be structural issues, but I’m not convinced that Gaelic is necessarily more complex than German or Russian. You’re not dealing with a difference in sentence structure, but you’re dealing with all sorts of, or Finnish, Carine, where you have, what 15 or 16 different noun cases, or Basque, which also has a large number of noun cases, or indigenous language in North America, I said to myself if I go ever go back to Canada like to learn one of the indigenous languages, but those languages are structurally completely different from Indo-European languages, of course, in terms of vocabulary, learning a whole new vocabulary. So, you know, you can certainly find many languages that are structurally much more difficult. I think it’s really the opportunities to hear and to speak the quality of the learning materials which have improved.

[Bérengère] You’re totally right. I totally agree. That’s mainly probably the main problem is just finding people to practice with and hearing the language.

[Rob] We can help you with that, we can help you with that, Bérengère.

[Bérengère] Thank you (laughs). So for in Gaelic learners who wanted to be immersed in the language, where should they go, where is Gaelic primarily spoken? But also, are there other versions of Gaelic spoken, around the world? I mean, Scottish Gaelic around the world. I think you’ve mentioned Canada.

[Rob] Good question. The language is still fairly widely spoken in the Hebrides, particularly the Western Isles, the parts of the Isle of Skye, there are still quite a few speakers in the Isle of Tiree. But in terms of day to day opportunities, you would probably want to go to the Western Isles or perhaps Skye, particularly the north end of Skye. In the last census, in the Western Isles, there was a majority bare majority, but a majority of people who spoke Gaelic, you go to some of the rural districts in South Uist, or parts of the Isle of Lewis, you still have over 70% of the local population, who are Gaelic speakers, that will give you the greatest opportunities to hear and speak language. But we also have to remember that there are concentrations of Gaelic speakers in urban areas. One of the biggest Gaelic speaking areas is Glasgow, where there’s something like 10,000 speakers, or over 1/6 of the speakers of Gaelic are greater Glasgow, at least speakers in Scotland. The difference is of course, they’re very scattered. They don’t have local concentrations. And in Edinburgh, there are lots of Gaelic speakers, both native Gaelic speakers and learners. But you really you have to find the networks of speakers to increase your opportunities. That’s one of the challenges that all minority languages face, is developing stronger networks of speakers. In terms of where Gaelic is spoken, thanks to the history of the language from the late 18th century, right into the 20th century, the large scale emigration that’s part of my family’s story, the earliest settlements were in North Carolina and Georgia, then in upper New York State in the United States. And then in the late 18th century, Gaelic speakers turn their faces to what is now Eastern Canada, particularly Eastern Nova Scotian Cape Breton Island, where my family emigrated to who first ancestor, who was a Gaelic speaker left Scotland, he was in a Highland regiment that was raised to fight for the British in the American War of Independence and for their efforts was given land grants in Nova Scotia in 1784. So by a son who is now 13, he was born in Scotland, my father was delighted to hear the first child in our family to be born in the old country since 1783, the year before my ancestor, Alexander, Alisdair Dunbar left Scotland, so there was large, large scale immigration to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, but in the 19th century, many other parts of Canada. Such that by the end of the 19th century Canadian census of 1901, there were at least 90,000 Gaelic speakers in Canada that made it the fourth most widely spoken language in Canada at the time. It’s estimated that at the time of Canadian Confederation, birth of the country 1867, the Gaelic was the third most likely spoken language. And in Nova Scotia in 1901, there were 50,000 of those 90,000 speakers. The work has been done at a local areas, but in many districts, particularly Cape Breton between 80 and 100% of the population at that time a little over a century ago, was Gaelic speaking, the languages declined rapidly in Canada. There are still some native speakers left I saw a news story just recently that the last native speaker of Gaelic in the province of Quebec just passed away. She had been born in 1926. And there are still native Gaelic speakers who are fifth, sixth generation, some seventh generation Canadians in Cape Breton Island. The language has changed in some ways in Nova Scotia, the language is picked up North American influences. So instead of the Gaelic word that you commonly hear here for our shop, which is bùth, in North America, in Nova Scotia you tend to hear people talking about the store, chaidh sinn dhan store, we went out to the store rather than dhan bùth, to the shop. And it’s been some assimilation of North American English. But what do you see is that because of the patterns of emigration and settlement, people tended to leave thanks to the Highland clearances and economic changes in the highlands.

[Carine] Would you mind explaining what the Highland clearances is just really quickly?

[Rob] Sure. From the late 18th century, there were major changes in the patterns of estate administration in the highlands. It’s got a long history and a complicated history, it has a lot to do with the last Jacobite risings in 1745 and 1746. But the late 18th century, the landlords in the highlands, many of them, wanted to increase their income from their estates. They had a large number of Gaelic speaking tenants, but the landlords felt they could generate higher rents through the introduction first of all of large scale sheep farming, and to accommodate that people were removed from their traditional settlements. After the end of the Napoleonic War, the population became what a historian might describ as a surplus population – far too many people on the estates given the new economic policies of the landlords. So, people were then encouraged and sometimes forced off the land. Huge numbers of Gaelic speakers through the course of the 19th century especially, essentially had to emigrate to Canada became the prime destination. Although as the 19th century progressed, they moved to other parts of the British Empire, particularly New Zealand and Australia. But Canada has the strongest links because of this mass migration. But when people left, they tend to believe in extended family groupings because whole communities were being moved from their land, and they would settle together. And therefore, one of my friends and colleagues, Dr. John Shaw, who’s done a great deal of work on Gaelic folklore, oral tradition in Nova Scotia has described the process of migration as being “more of a hiatus than a break,” the communities were able to reestablish themselves quite quickly. That dialect survived is an area of Cape Breton that was heavily settled by the people from Lewis, and Harris, and the Outer Hebrides, when you speak to those people, you would swear that they were speaking somebody from Lewis or Harris. I remember a few years ago, speaking to one of the older fellows from the North Shore that I knew, who finally got to return to Scotland and to the Isle of Lewis, where his ancestors came from. He comes up and he said to me, “I finally got back to the old country and I guess our Gaelic isn’t very, it’s okay.” I said, “Well, of course, it’s okay. Why would you think it wasn’t?” He said, “Well, I don’t know. We just spoke country Gaelic that my parents taught me. But when I got to Louis, I was speaking to a Gaelic speaker, they said, ‘When did you leave the island?’”

[Carine] That’s amazing.

[Rob] And he said, “Oh, a couple of weeks ago,” meaning Cape Breton Island. And the person with whom he was conversing though, “When did you leave Lewis?” And so he said, “No, no, no. Oh, you live in Nova Scotia. Now I know. But when did you leave Lewis?” He said, “Well, I never left Lewis. I just arrived in Lewis,” he said, “I’ve never been to Lewis before.” “Oh, well, your parents must have been from Lewis.” “No, no, they weren’t from Lewis. They’d never seen Lewis.” And I think he had to go back to the original settlers, which is about four generations earlier. So, the dialect survived. And it was partly because of isolation and the fact that people settled together.

[Carine] That’s, that’s amazing.

[Rob] So I wouldn’t say that there are distinct forms, although as I say, all of the dialects survived in Nova Scotia, you have English words that have been assimilated, but they’re certainly mutually intelligible. And I think Gaelic speakers from here when they speak to Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton are quite amazed. First of all, at how good the Gaelic is, sometimes by how nicely idiomatic it was. Again, these people lived in relative isolation, and they didn’t have you know, number of neologisms that crept in to the language here, but certainly fully mutually intelligible.

[Carine] That’s so cool. Honestly, also the fact that the idioms have stayed pretty much the same. You mentioned a lot of places where Gaelic is spoken and has like a larger population, so the Outer Hebrides or northern Skye, the Isle of Lewis, would you say that in those areas? Or are there any areas where Gaelic is spoken more than any other language, that it’s the predominant language?

[Rob] It’s difficult to say, there’s been recent research done, but the most recent research was published just last summer by researchers at the University of Highlands and Islands and showed a the very weak state of the language particularly amongst young people. So I think we could say that even in the strongest communities…another piece of research was done in about 2010/2011 by researchers at the Gaelic college, Sobhal Mòr Ostaig,in one particular community very strongly Gaelic speaking community in Lewis. And it showed again that amongst older people, the language was used, but with younger people, not so much. Very decreasing percentages of young people are speaking the language. And so, when you have such a mixed linguistic environment and then the ever presence of English through the media, certainly when I’m in the Hebrides based on my firsthand observations, there are plenty of opportunities to speak Gaelic, and you will be in Gaelic speaking environments. But I wouldn’t say that there’s very many places left where the presence of English is not felt. And again, the strength of your social networks and so forth can determine it, you can certainly spend a good part of your day speaking nothing but Gaelic. But I would say every day most Gaelic speakers will use some English for some purposes.

[Carine] That makes sense. Yeah. English has made itself very dominant globally, and not even just in the countries where it’s spoken. But it is there is a heavy hand of English definitely everywhere, that’s for sure.

[Rob] Absolutely.

[Carine] So one of the biggest things that really affects a language that you see a decrease in speakers, one of the things that really affects that as the society’s attitude towards the language and how it’s viewed. Across Scotland, what are generally people’s attitude towards Gaelic? Is it different region by region? Or is it just kind of a general feeling across the country?

[Rob] There’s some very interesting research done by colleagues at Edinburgh University in about 2011/2012, based on the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. This a survey that’s done regularly to provide evidence for government decision making. And colleagues, Professor Lindsay Patterson, Dr. Fiona O’Hanlon, they developed a range of questions for the first time on Gaelic. This has given us some very good evidence of what attitudes were, at that time, and surprised me and I think many others. Historically, I think it’s fair to say that there was a certain amount of hostility towards the language in Scotland. A view that it was a dying language, that was only associated with the Highlands of Scotland, very critical views that are very deeply historically ingrained, going back to the late Middle Ages, the sort of Lowland-Highland, the split in, in Scottish society. And a marginalization of Gaelic is part of, you know, the Anglophone agenda. You know, the supposed that inferiority of certain languages of their speakers. There was a very strong ideologies, certainly when I arrived in Scotland in 1995, and even before that, in Canada, Toronto. You know, as learning Gaelic, can you meet Scots who had no immediate or necessary connection with Gaelic, you know, they are sort of amused by they think this is sort of a Twi language, etc. that was really part of Scottish identity. And the most interesting things in the Social Attitudes Survey Research, very rigorous, scientifically sound research, showed that there was a majority of people of, a significant majority of people, who thought that Gaelic was important to Scottish identity, and that it should survive. By the same token, much smaller percentages thought that they themselves should learn it, they didn’t think that it was necessary for their personal identity. That we wouldn’t be more Scottish by learning Gaelic, but they did recognize that it is important. And there are questions about things like Gaelic medium education, Gaelic signage, and the majority felt that certainly bilingual signage and Gaelic medium education as a right should be available, at least in the Highlands and Islands. There is significant support for signage and Gaelic medium education across the country. So, I think those… that’s very interesting, I think the status of the language has changed. That there is a greater recognition of the language. And I think this is partly as a result of language policy and partly as a result of media with now a Gaelic language channel. For the first time that 99% of the population of Scotland to don’t speak Gaelic, they could hear the language, they see it, they know it exists. They may occasionally watch programs on the channel, they see that Gaelic medium education exists in different parts of Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh. I think it’s like anything else, any other form of social views, when something is unknown, people suspect or fear it. Whereas when you see something and experience it, then that fear, perhaps hostility goes away. And when you see that the Gaelic community is very a diverse community. And there are still lots of young people who speak the language. Some of the stereotypes I think, can’t stand up to, to the evidence of one’s own ears and eyes. So, I think aspects of policy have helped change views, but because we don’t have, you know, a similar sort of research from your earlier periods, it’s difficult to say whether the results in 2011/2012 they represent a significant change. But my gut feeling, and I think that of other people working on the language, is that these are hopeful signs that attitudes have changed, become much more supportive. And finally, we see that at the political level with the Gaelic Language Act which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2005. It was passed unopposed, support for it in all parties. The level of debate on Gaelic, then and since, has always been very supportive across the political spectrum. There was an attempt to pass the Gaelic Language Ace, but 1981, led by the Member of Parliament at Westminster for the Western Isles, and the legislation got nowhere. But the level of debate and the hostility towards the language by members, Scottish Members of Parliament was quite striking. And we never see that sort of that sort of rhetoric from politicians of any party today. I think that sort of broad cross-party consensus that Gaelic is important and valuable, but also is an indication that things have changed.

[Carine] That’s a really good point about the fear of the language and the policy. We were talking with a researcher, this is Professor Itziar Laka from the Basque Country. And Basque is one of these types of minority languages which has been forced down by the dictatorship that happened in Spain and tried to… well basically they tried to get rid of these languages Basque, Galician, Catalan, all of them. And it’s Itziar was talking specifically about how it’s the language policies and having the resources. Once you have that, you get past that fear. And then once you can get past the fear, that’s when your language starts to come back. So that I think that’s a very good point, that once we can get with these policies, it’s our step by steps going forward. Yeah.

[Bérengère] So, if we look at Scotland today, in 2020, you said, we have the Gaelic Language Act, we have for the BBC Alba, we have the schools, do you think that the language is now promoted enough? Or would you like to see more changes to promote the language even more?

[Rob] I’d still like to see more changes. We do have, as you say, significant institutional supports, we have an excellent radio service, the Gaelic channel needs additional funding. If you’ve watched it, you know that there’s a high level of repeat programming and there’s some debates about things like subtitling, and so forth. I’ve done a fair amount of work on minority language media, I think it’s safe to say that compared to any other minority language community in Europe of similar size, we’re in a very enviable position. Very few linguistic minorities of about 60,000 speakers have a standalone television channel that broadcasts but seven hours a day and provides a, you know, excellent news service and so forth. And the radio service is also very good about 94 or so hours of radio broadcasting per week. And so it could be better, but those supports are in place. There have been developments in terms of Gaelic medium education, we still have challenges in terms of continuity. Gaelic medium at the primary level is now well developed and is growing. It’s growing in places like Glasgow and Edinburgh. Recently in the Western Isles, the council has now taken the decision that Gaelic medium education will be the default position so that unless parents choose English medium education, it will be presumed that their children will go to Gaelic medium education. That’s a very significant development as well. But there’s questions about continuity, the Gaelic medium at secondary level is not nearly as developed. We still have very small numbers of schools, most of us think that having a standalone school is important because then you can create a fully Gaelic medium environment, as in Canada, where French medium schools and English-speaking provinces exist. They tend to be a focus of the community as well as, a hub for, for wider language use of language-based activities. So, there are still developments take place. The Gaelic Language Act created a system whereby we have a language board now, Bòrd na Gàidhlig. And it can require public agencies, public authorities to create what are called Gaelic language plans, which they set out how they will use the language and how they’ll support the language. It doesn’t necessarily create any rights to the use of the language, something that exists in other countries. In my own view, too many of these plans have been too weak. They haven’t imposed significant enough obligations, and they also have not been implemented with the degree of urgency that they should. These are political questions at the end of the day. So, I think that’s one thing all of us would like to see is much more aggressive approaches. With regard to the situation of language in its heartlands, there’s no question that the language faces real challenges there. My view is that further erosion would be tragic and dangerous. The solutions are not so easy.

[Bérengère] What do you think Gaelic will look like? What do you hope it will look like?

[Rob] Maybe I’ll start with what I hope it would look like. I hope that the numbers of speakers will have increased. That the language will have stabilized in its heartland areas and begun to grow and be used not as the sole language, I don’t think that that will happen anytime soon. But it will become wider language of greater networks, and contacts in those areas, and that there’ll be greater opportunities to speak Gaelic in all parts of the country. My hope is that, you know, that system of education will continue to develop, that a proper system of support for learners of the language will be in place, so that some of the problems that you faced, Bérengère, will be further reduced. You know, we still don’t have a proper strategy for Gaelic learners. There’s been lots of improvements in materials, and so forth, as I talked about resources, online resources, are much better now. But we still don’t have a proper strategy for learners. So, I’m hoping that that will be part of the mix as well. And that we will begin to see, you know, a greater social use of language in all parts of the country and a greater embracing of the language more generally. More people who may not feel a close family linked to the language, nonetheless, saying that it’s really an important and interesting part of our culture, that I want it to be more part of our culture. You know, living in Edinburgh, my son goes to the Gaelic school, but he plays football on a football team here. You know, most of the little kids, they don’t really know much about Gaelic because they’ve never been told anything about it, in the school or the media. I’d really like to see that change. I’d like to see people understand a bit about the language, all students to understand, even if they’re not being educated through the medium of the language. But they have more opportunities to learn it and they know that it’s a living part of the country. So that’s what I hope for. In terms of what I expect not quite so rosy as all of that, I expect that there will continue to be some declines in numbers of speakers. I expect that there will be some further weakening of the language in the heartland areas. But I also expect that if politicians and policymakers are as serious as they say they are, that the signs of these trends will have been reversed, that much more supportive policies on a national and local level will be put in place. And to me language, particularly the fate of minority language is always very much a political question. And it will depend on the commitment of the political classes in the country. And it’ll also depend on the ability of Gaelic speakers to organize and supporters of Gaelic to organize and mobilize themselves and to demand more and continue to make the case. But having worked with minority languages, in many parts of Europe over, over 20 years now, we all share many of the same challenges. The work is in many ways frustrating and never ending. And people just have to be prepared for that, for the disappointments that come, and the frustrations that come. And I hope that sort of resilience that speakers of minority languages will need and determination are some of the values that we can, can communicate to the next generations that come behind us. That same love for the language and the communities that speak but also the sense that there are going to be roadblocks, there are going to be frustrations, there are going to be challenges. We just have to be prepared for that. And not expect a silver bullet. not expect easy solution to the problems, but that there are other communities elsewhere, which share our goals, our experiences that we can draw straight from.

[Carine] Yeah, you’d mentioned that, you know, the status of Welsh in Wales is different. But it’s… all of my Welsh friends, it has been so great that just to see when they get together, that they will like just start speaking to each other and Welsh. Like I would love to see that here. I’ve had that opportunity once we I was at a workshop for that was co-hosted by the University of Highlands and Islands during the break. I was going to turn to the person next to me, but he managed to turn to the person next to him a little bit faster. And all of a sudden, all the four people at the table I was sitting at, I were speaking to each other and Gaelic. And I was like, I’ve never experienced this before, it was a really amazing moment, because I had never seen such a fluid conversation happen in the real world like that. I’d seen people say phrases, I had seen things in the media, but I’d never seen an in just like that. And I wish that that I really hope as well, but that can become more common. That these you know, people, proficient speakers, we will just see them around and about, because once you see them around that I think that as well, that increases the visibility of the language, and then more people will have an idea of what Gaelic is and what needs to be done. So, let’s definitely be optimistic and hope. But realize that yes, there is a lot of work still to be done.

[Rob] Oh absolutely, I mean, without, without optimism, without optimism, we’re in trouble.

[Bérengère] Yeah.

[Carine] Yeah.

[Rob] That’s my greatest fear, actually, that people, especially native speakers, will say, “it’s too late. things can’t be done, or the decline of the language is inevitable.” And I guess that’s the fear when we do research on the state of the language, that we communicate our messages in a measured way. Because when we get bad news, sometimes it can be very dispiriting to campaigners and to speakers themselves. And we have to be able to tell a variety of stories that allow us to continue to be courageous and committed, in spite of the frustrations that will inevitably face. Every minority language faces these.

[Carine] Yes, exactly. But we’ve come to our final question. You mentioned that you’ve gotten…that you’re working on a book about Gaelic poems. Something that I think is really important, and also, if we’re trying to bring young people into the language. I actually have a friend of mine when I posted to social media, if anyone had any questions for this episode, a friend of mine from high school, actually, it was just like, “I’ve been learning Gaelic for the last five years. Oh, my God.” And I was like, “That’s so cool. It’s so random. But awesome!”. If you could, is there a book or a movie or a TV show, or musician or any music or an artist that is part of Gaelic or talks about Gaelic culture that you would recommend or who or what would you recommend?

[Rob] Oh, that’s a that’s a good question. In terms of books, we now have a growing number of Gaelic books. You know, Gaelic publishing, is receiving more support than it has. So now we have, you know, a significant number of Gaelic novels and so forth, but most of them have not been translated. So, for a non-Gaelic speaker, they wouldn’t be accessible. But there are some good bilingual collections. There’s an excellent anthology of Gaelic, mainly poetry but other texts including some players, texts, and also some forms of Gaelic oral narrative that was published just last year by close friends and colleagues with a colleague, Professor Wilson MacLeod in our department at Edinburgh, my old friend, Dr. Michael Newton, who’s in the United States. They published a book called An Ubhal as Àirde, the Highest Apple. There is publisher, Francis Boutle, who has published a series of bilingual editions of minority language texts. So, there’s one for Galician, Catalan, as I recall, Manx, Welsh, etc. He’s committed to minority language literature. But this is in that series, and it gives an excellent overview of the Gaelic literary tradition, both oral and written. So, An Ubhal as Àirde, I can give you the link if you want to spread the word. It would be great introduction to anybody to the literature. There are so many great Gaelic singers and it would be almost unfair of me to name any one or two without offending other friends. (laughter) Mary Ann Kennedy, Margaret Stewart, Mary Smith, Brenda Lightfoot, Art Quomac… I started and I’m going to get myself in trouble because there are other people I really love. Mary Jane Lamond  in Nova Scotia, one of my old friends has done a wonderful job in using the Gaelic tradition of Nova Scotia. So, I would recommend given my loyalty to Canada, I recommend Mary Jane Lamond, any of her CDs. The other thing I really love here is Kathleen McInnes from South Lewis. But the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh has, since the 70s put out a series of recordings taken from the archival recording they’re called The Scottish Tradition Series. And a number of them feature phallic material is an excellent early was originally a pilot recording, it’s now available to CD called Music from the Western Isles, for example, but there are many others in the series that are fantastic and some great stuff in Scots as well. And in terms of movies and television. Well, there’s now a Gaelic television channel so there’s lots of good stuff there. There’s a very good Current Affairs program called Eorpa, which is about European current affairs that’s worth watching. It’s now been a few years but there, there are a few Gaelic films but one that I’m particularly fond of, is called Seachd, the Inaccessible Pinnacle. And it stars one of our greatest living Gaelic writers, Angus Peter Campbell, but also a young boy, who is now an adult. He did a music degree at Edinburgh, and he’s a fantastic ambassador for Gaelic and a fantastic musician, name Padruig Moireasdan, who comes from Grimsay, North Uist in the Hebrides. Padruig is now an adult, he’s in his 20s. And I always think of him as this lovely little fellow who did such a splendid job as, I don’t know he must have been seven or eight in this wonderful movie, but now he’s taller than I am. He’s still a lovely looking fellow and lovely, lovely guy altogether a wonderful ambassador for the language. But Seachd is great feature like movie, beautifully done with five acting performances by these two enormously talented, creative, contemporary Gaelic speakers: one a little older, I guess Peter, one a little younger, both have a good University of Edinburgh connection. Angus Peter did a degree at Edinburgh in the early 1970s. He was encouraged in his Gaelic poetry by probably the greatest Gaelic poet of the 20th century, Sorely MacLean, who was a writer in residence at Edinburgh at the time. And then Padruig more recently is another Edinburgh project. And so, Edinburgh can be proud of the film these two splendid, splendid creative talents as well. So, they got a long-winded answer, as is usual for me.

[Carine] It now means that we have things to do this weekend. Yeah. So much research. Oh, man, I’m so excited. I will need to ask you if you could spell everything for me. That’s the one thing because I do not trust myself to spell in any language. So, I will need this as well. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been really amazing to just see how Gaelic has traveled across the world to see how you’ve traveled with Gaelic and how your family has been a part of it. And you coming back, and you know, you’re it’s just been really inspiring, and it has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

[Bérengère] Thank you.

[Rob] Thank you for asking me it’s been a real pleasure.

[Carine] We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to us talk with Rob about Gaelic and language policy and revitalization. If you’d like to learn more about Rob, his work, and his research, you can find a link to his university page in the description. Also, you can find links to all of the musical and artists that he has mentioned throughout our transcripts that you can find on our website. Thank you so much for tuning in. And we hope you’ve learned some amazing facts. As always stay safe, stay healthy, and


[Rob]

[Bérengère] Hasta Luego (Spanish ‘See you Later’)

[Carine] Hejpa (Swedish Finnish “Bye”)

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