The feeling of walking barefoot across a beach in summer and the sun-warmed sand chafing my toes takes me the length of this sentence to describe. My great-great-grandfather, Angus Morrison, would have used one word: driùchcainn.
That’s because, born and bred on the fringes of Western Europe, on Lewis, in the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, his mother tongue was Scottish Gaelic.
It’s the ancient Celtic language heard by TV audiences tuning into the Highlands time-travelling saga Outlander.
In real life, working together crofting, fishing, weaving or cutting peat for fires, my ancestors spoke in Gaelic. It was spoken at home, sung at parties, used at church. But education in Angus’s day was strictly in English. As late as the 1970s, children were sometimes punished for speaking Gaelic at school.
Raised alongside Atlantic surf and storms, he became a sailor. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, moved to Glasgow, and settled there working as a ship’s rigger. Among the principles he instilled in the family was the importance of education. But he did not pass on his cradle tongue.
On the brink of extinction
My family story illustrates what linguistics experts call intergenerational breakdown. In 2018, along with about half of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages, Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s list of imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’. Research suggests that one of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority languages is a thriving economy. As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres, meaning people are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold.
Today, only my father has a little Gaelic. My own knowledge is limited to words adopted into English, such as ‘ceilidh’ – meaning a social gathering, usually with Scottish or Irish folk music.
That puts me in the same boat as most Scots. The 2011 census showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic skills. In a population of five million-plus, this amounts to 87,100. Of these, only 32,400 were able to understand, speak, read and write it. Which is why the Scottish government is investing millions in trying to save it – through broadcasting, cultural and education projects. This ranges from Gaelic groups for pre-schoolers to ensuring the police and ambulance services have Gaelic language policies in place.
Read more: BBC