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.