It’s hard to believe that I’m already two weeks into my second semester at Edinburgh University. Christmas break seems like a lifetime ago, but I feel so lucky that I got to spend three solid weeks in my warm, cozy home with my friends, family, and kitty. It was a much-needed break, as social and academic exhaustion had caught up with me. It was pure bliss to be surrounded by so much food, Christmas spirit, and even snow! Still no sign of snow here in Edinburgh, but honestly, I am A-okay with that. The so-called “Polar Vortex” is wreaking havoc in the States, and I have to admit I’m a little smug about all this above-zero weather Edinburgh has.
But a return to Edinburgh means a bittersweet return to academics. It’s funny that I haven’t discussed academics much, seeing as it takes up a good 75% of my time and mental energy (although I’m starting to realize that I might be unusual in that way). I’m taking three courses this term: Visualising Scotland, Modern Scottish Fiction, and Gaelic 1A. In some ways this semester is very similar to last semester, in that I’m enrolled again in one Scottish Ethnology course, one Honours English course, and I’m completing Gaelic 1A.
Visualising Scotland combines my love of Scottish culture and history with my love of art history, and I always enjoy my time in the small but friendly department of Celtic and Scottish Studies. Modern Scottish Fiction, my Honours English course, is intensive. We read between one and three novels per week, and meet once a week to discuss them. It’s a bit like being in a fast-paced book club, which is in some ways a dream come true, although it ties with Gaelic for my most time-consuming course.
But what I’d really like to talk about is Gaelic—that bizarre, beautiful, agonizing language. I enrolled in the course knowing almost nothing about the language. I needed a language credit, I wanted to learn something that I could only learn in Scotland, and I liked the idea of lending a helping hand to a minority language. I could write pages and pages about Gaelic, but I’m going to assume that most of my readers (and I think I’m right in this) know little or nothing about the language, and so I’ll limit myself to a brief introduction.
Scottish Gaelic, not to be confused with Irish Gaelic, or just Irish, is language indigenous to Scotland that was spoken across the nation (although it wasn’t a nation yet) from the 4th Century through Middle Ages. Gaelic is a Celtic language that ultimately descends from Middle Irish, and is therefore one of the three members of the Goidelic or Q-Celtic group, which also includes Irish and Manx. In the Middle Ages Norman French and English gradually began to replace Gaelic as the language of the aristocracy.
The number of Gaelic speakers steadily declined up through the middle of the 20th century, not without the help of the infamous Statutes of Iona passed in 1609, which were effectively an attempt to eradicate the Gaelic language and Highland culture. The Highlands Clearances, in which thousands of people were forced off their land to make way for sheep, caused a mass migration of Gaelic speakers to the western coasts and the Americas. A resurgence of the Gaelic language began in the late 20th century, and today roughly 60,000 Scots speak Gaelic, most of whom live in the Hebrides—the islands off the west coast of Scotland.
There is my brief and un-nuanced introduction to the complex and highly political history of Gaelic, a language that I knew absolutely nothing about in September. Five months later, and I’m sitting here at my desk surrounded by Gaelic books and notes and flashcards, watching a Gaelic-language cooking show on BBC Alba, and laughing hysterically over Gaelic idioms I find in the online dictionary—including but not limited to:
“Ith do bhuntata beag mus tig na Frangaich!”
Translation: Eat your small potatoes before the French come! (Said to children picking at their food.)
“Tha tide agad a dhol dhan leabaidh mus beir na corrachagan-cagailt ort!”
Translation: You had better go to bed before the corrachagan-cagailt gets you! (What a ‘corrachagan-cagailt’ actually is remains to be seen…)
“Bainne nan gobhar fo chobhar ’s e blath, ’s e chuireadh an spionnadh sna daoine a bha.”
Translation: It is the milk of the goat, foaming and warm, that gave the strength to the past generations of people.
“Is tu an t-aog duaichnidh.”
Translation: You are a miserable looking skeleton.
“Sheideadh e na h-adharcan de ghobhar.”
Translation: It would blow the horns off a goat.
While some dictionary entries are humorous, others are just plain magical—words or phrases that we don’t have in English, and that can never be translated properly. For instance:
Casair: “Phosphoric light proceeding from old wood when in the dark.”
Sgriob: “Itching of the lip, superstitiously supposed to portend a kiss (sgriob-poige) or a dram (sgriob-dighe).”
DISCLAIMER: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these translations or their actual use as idioms in everyday Gaelic. I merely unearth them on Dwelly’s (an online Gaelic dictionary) and find them an amusing diversion from my actual studying. I also apologize for the conspicuous lack of grave accents.
For better or for worse, Gaelic has planted itself firmly in my life, my schedule, and my fevered brain. I have a 50-minute Gaelic lecture every day, and next week we will be adding a weekly reading class, in which we will tackle the eminent literary masterpiece “Cleasan a’ Bhaile Mhoir,” or “City Tricks,” by Catriona Lexy Campbell. Our lecturer described it as Gaelic chick-lit, so naturally I am very excited to dip into a genre that normally I avoid like the plague. It arrived today from Amazon, and honestly, the cover is exactly what I expected.
But it’s not all fun and games. I spend quite a bit of time raging about my flat and whimpering on the floor because prepositional pronouns, irregular verb forms, the relative future tense, lenition, silent consonant groups and helping vowels all exist. To a native English speaker Gaelic pronunciation is just mind boggling, and the rules of grammar are even more obscure. (For instance, the title of this post simply means “I love Gaelic,” but can be literally translated as “Is love at me on Gaelic.”) But just as often, I rejoice at the sight of a Gaelic sign, covet the (albeit pitiful) selection of Gaelic books in Blackwell’s, and celebrate when I understand when they are saying on BBC Alba, the Gaelic television channel.
If it weren’t for Gaelic, I never would have discovered the poetry of Sorley MacLean, or the magic of live music in Captain’s Bar. I wouldn’t be going to Islay next month, I wouldn’t have danced at nearly so many Ceilidhs, and I wouldn’t have had the joy of discovering that “kerfuffle” (my mother’s favorite word) derives from Gaelic!
In an effort to show the impact that Gaelic has had on my life and university life in general, I tramped across campus and documented every Gaelic sign I came across. There aren’t many—the expense of making bi-lingual signs is actually quite political and controversial. There may be a few signs that I missed, but here is a little taste of Gaelic on the University of Edinburgh campus.
Don’t expect to hear Gaelic spoken in the streets if you ever visit Edinburgh—you’d have to travel to Lewis or Skye (or maybe even nearby Glasgow) for that pleasure. But you might be so lucky if you visit Captain’s Bar on a Saturday night. Keep your eyes peeled for the Gaelic signs hiding throughout the city, and the few Gaelic books on the shelves. It might not be much, but things like Gaelic signs go a little way towards making me feel that learning Gaelic is maybe, just maybe, worth having to memorize all of those prepositional pronouns.