Speaking Gay-lick

One of my many adventures of the last couple of weeks was travelling from Paris to the South of France by sleeper train. I rather like travelling by sleeper, but this was the first time I’d done it in France. French sleepers are a little different to the UK ones, not least in that there are more people per cabin. The couchette system feels more public than the British 2 person bunk enclosures. I was in a cabin with three others – further down the train, it was six to a hutch. Anyway, thus it was that I spent the night with two young women from North Dakota and a handsome French fireman called Rudolf. (Oh, how tempting to murmur in the night that my tiny hand was frozen).

Anyway, the Americans wanted to chat. We went through a whole “And what to you do?” routine, with eyebrows suitably raised when it came to my turn. (Provost trumps Pompier in the eyebrow-raising stakes). We must have been chatting for about 20 minutes when one of the Americans asked me this: “So, in Scotland, what language do you speak?”

I must admit to some confusion. What language did she think we had been speaking? When I said, “English”, she said, “Oh, I thought you all spoke a language called Gay-lick or something”.

As I write this, I’m waiting for the digital switchover to begin to happen. My set-top box will need to be retuned and I’ll get the benefit of some television, probably the television that I don’t want to watch, in HD. (Who wants to watch Dr Who in any definition, I say). Though I do welcome Freeview HD and do hope that we get a better telly signal in the West End of Glasgow than we have had hitherto, this is a moment for mourning the loss of something important.

BBC Alba, the Gaelic television channel is to move Freeview. That is not a bad thing in itself. However, what we lose to make way for it, is most BBC Radio stations on Freeview. Now, they will still be available on FM and DAB and so on, but not on Freeview, where there is apparently not enough room for both. Even more annoyingly, several BBC Radio stations have been reprieved on Freeview – 1 Extra, 5 Live and 6 Music are saved yet Radios 3 and 4 are ditched. Let us just say that 1 Extra, 5 Live and 6 Music are not the stations of choice in Praepostorial Towers.

I’ve no objection to Gaelic media being available. Indeed, I think it is probably a good thing. Gaelic will die faster without it and I don’t want to see that happen any sooner than currently appears inevitable. However, it is important to remember just how much of a minority sport this is. The number of people in Scotland who could understand spoken Gaelic was estimated at 1.6 % of the population at the last census and considerably less in parts of Scotland outside the main Gaelic heartlands.

I do have a problem with material (on Radio 3 and 4) which culturally connects us with the highpoints of western civilization and economically connects us with the greatest markets in the world, being nudged out of the way. I’m sad to see these radio stations being lost. It reminds me of a local authority that I used to live in which, when the SNP gained some power, dropped free peripatetic music teaching in favour of Gaelic classes. It is an insidious choice between culture which connects us with the world and a local language which I’d hate to see lost in Scotland but which, like 98 % of the rest of the popultation, I’m afraid I don’t actually want to save enough to learn.

Digital switchover is on its way. Two hours to go, I think. I’ve a horrible feeling that the Alba/Radio 3/Radio 4 decision is just one small decision akin to many that are to come.


  1. Agatha says

    Listening to the radio via the TV is a shocking waste of electricity anyway so I dont understand your problem.

    • Its about living a busy life and timeshifting radio to times when I can hear it, Agatha. It is also not necessary to have the television on to receive the Radio – just the digibox and the amplifier. The quality of the output from the digibox is significantly better than any other radio in the house and one doesn’t want to be distracted from one’s prayers when Choral Evensong is on by hisses and burbles, does one?

  2. Silis says

    Please read A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World by Dr Michael Newton for a more optimistic outlook on the future of the Gaelic Language & Culture.


  3. Daibhidh says

    Gaidhlig basaich? Ta se teanga Eden!
    (trans:Gaelic die? It is the language of Eden!) as we say in the Highlands and Islands.
    Sorry…couldn’t resist a gentle riposte in defence of our native tongue. The Scottish Government is taking great steps to promote Gaelic among young people – Gaelic medium education, bi-lingual publications etc. Just look at Ireland’s success in securing the survival of Gaelic. Yet Ireland still has managed to maintain a culture that connects it to the rest of the world without sacrificing its language.

  4. Isn’t a Darwinian attitude to language healthy? I can understand why people would want to preserve Scots, or Scottish English, but Gaelic (outwith wee teucthar enclaves) is and has been for centuries a tiny,silly minority dialect( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gaelic#From_the_Middle_Ages_to_the_end_of_Classical_Gaelic_education ) in no way analagous to (say) the Irish language’s relationship to (past and present)Ireland. That said, renaming it Gay-Lick might make it more popular 😉

    • “Isn’t a Darwinian attitude to language healthy?”

      That’s a nonsensical statement. Think about the natural selection in biology and about the pressures exerted upon a language in real life (mostly politics) and you’ll realize how nonsensical that question is. And, since language is as much a cultural artifact (although I guess that from a certain POV it somehow blends with being a cultural ecofact), I could ask instead why preserve Bach’s and Mozart’s music when Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are clearly the winners.

      • Disagree. Language is (to invoke the cliche) a dynamic living organism; Britney Spears had her Darwinian zenith over ten years ago and there’s much more people and institutions of merit who naturally wish to preserve Mozart and Bach for their intrinsic merits than there will be adherents for artefact-comparable preservation of Bieber’s music (as distinct from the interesting things that pop-sociologists might note about Bieber’s fame)

        Aside from which, if I concede that some things should be ‘artificially’ (if you will) preserved, that hardly makes a wee, 1.6% of the population, mickey mouse teucthar dialect of comparable cultural worth to Bach and Mozart 😉

  5. I wish Gaelic no harm at all. I just don’t think that BBC Alba is a fair payoff for the loss of Radio 3 and 4 on my digibox. That particular trade off does not seem to me to be a price worth paying.

  6. Rosemary Hannah says

    Well, I listen to radio on DAB – but what I listen to is 3, 4 and 4extra. I suppose in a sense this is all the result of being able to get all of the BBC stations easily on the internet too.

  7. The digibox remains the best way to record oneself when one is on the radio though! #selfinterest

  8. Bryan says

    ” a tiny, silly, minority language..” ? I always imagined the readership of this blog were a little more educated…..

    • Well, I did some Scottish Literature (& Language) at Yooni if that counts (and am 31, grew up in Scotland, and know a grand total of zero people with a deep love of Gaelic). Perhaps you could offer some actual facts and arguments to counter e.g. the census results ? What basis do you have for saying that Gaelic is not “tiny” or “minority” (“silly” is, I concede, opinion, and YMMV) . The Goverment wasting taxpayer’s money to prop up Gaelic does not indicate that it is not a “tiny” “minority” (in fact, such supporting, suggesting – accurately – that Gaelic would die out without the iron lung of goverment money, suggests quite the opposite)
      And I didn’t say “language”.

  9. Daibhidh says

    Ryan – I’ve no doubt your tongue was firmly in your cheek when you referred to ‘wee teuchtar enclaves’. However, I’d be hesitant to label one sixth of the landmass of Britain (the Highlands and Islands) as a ‘wee enclave’. Oh, and I should point out that the word ‘teuchtar’ is not held in favour by those of us who are Highlanders. A night out in Inverness, Portree, Stornoway – even the Lismore Bar in Partick (Gaelic heartland of Glaschu) might raise your total of known Gaelic speakers way beyond zero – and you might even realise that we are pretty reasonable members of humanity!

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