A 1828 Plea on Behalf of Gaelic in Scotland

Anyone who studies sociolinguistics knows that languages live or die not according to their own merits, but according to the circumstances of the communities that speak them. Communities that are marginalized, denigrated, and denied the ability to govern themselves and access resources also see their languages and cultures compromised.

This has long been the case with the Celtic languages, given that their respective communities were conquered and dominated by an expanding anglophone empire that saw difference as inferiority, and its own language and culture as the only road to progress and modernity. Gaels have long been fighting against this inequality, even if their voices have been seldom heard or respected.

Languages and cultures need not just respect and status, but the opportunity to be protected, developed, and enshrined by official policies and formal institutions. People have argued this in the case of Scottish Gaelic for centuries. One of the early voices saying just these things was Neil McNish, who in 1828 published the booklet The True Method of Preserving the Gælic Language; or, how to retrieve the decaying honour and prosperity of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland arguing for exactly the kinds of policies and institutions that we finally see emerging in the last generation or two, and are still incomplete.

I here include a few excerpts from his book that demonstrate the clarity of his vision for Gaelic to be given its proper place, but also his observations about the intentional destruction of Gaelic and the inferiorization of his language and culture along with the downgrading of his people.

The excerpt from p. 21 is quite important in showing the central role of language in cultural legitimacy and social leadership. As I’ve discussed in the book Warriors of the Word, and elsewhere, Gaels have long considered language a more important qualification for membership in the community than blood lines.

The final excerpt calls for the establishment of a university based in the Highlands that caters for the education of its people in their own native language – a vital course of action that only began to emerge in the late twentieth century.

[p. 6]

The object of the following treatise is to illustrate the condition of the present Highlanders, and to show how far their right should be extended with respect to the privilege of using their native language in political matters, as well as any other now in use, and when it is a living language, and continues to be employed to convey four hundred thousand Highland souls, the important truths of religion, why should it not answer the purpose of a living language? The only channel through which the rudiments of knowledge can be conveyed to the mind of a real Highlander, is the language of the country in which he lives, and by means of which he should know the laws of our constitution; but this he is unjustly deprived of.

To turn to our leading article, we shall lay before our gentle readers the true method of preserving the Gaelic language, the only way of promoting the honour and prosperity of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Many institutions have been formed of late years, in various parts of the kingdom, for the support of Gaelic Schools in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; but none of these benevolent societies have taken any steps for preserving and defending that language, they so honourably teach. It is high time therefore that we as Highlanders should look around us, and form ourselves into an association for the express purpose of supporting our native language, which existed for ages past.

There is no encouragement given to us, Highlanders, for persevering in, and improving our native language which is daily decaying, when it might otherwise be improved. Much has been [p. 7] said about the education of our countrymen, and thankful we are to those who have taken so much pains in planting Schools amongst us; but still we have to declare to them, (which we are exceedingly sorry to do) that though our learning be ever so good, and our genius be ever so well cultivated, yet unless we are fully qualified to transact business in our neighbouring language, we are deprived of those blessings which we would enjoy if our language were practised and made legal.

We pray therefore, and beseech the nobles of our land and those who are connected with and interested in the welfare of our country, on whom we should look as our true leaders and faithful guardians of our country’s rights and privileges, that they would boldly come forward and assist us in defending and maintaining the ancient language of our brave ancestors, which is daily losing ground by the communication of steam vessels, and the presentation of Lowland clergymen to our Gaelic parishes. This debars our language from the free exercise of the field, which it once had in its possession, in order to give room to the hissing English. Banishes it as it were unto unknown regions of the earth, no more to be sought after — no more to be the language of the gallant Caledonian — no more to be the watch-word of the Celtic tribes – no more worthy of taking up a pen in its defence – renounces it as if it were a spell to conjure up evil.

To remedy this and prevent future encroachment, we humbly lay before the consideration of our respective chiefs, and those intelligent men who wish freedom and prosperity to every nation, that they would look into our grievances, and diminish our oppressions, which we are now so grievously laden with, by depriving our language, [8] which is as fit for the transaction of business as any other in Europe, of its just place in commercial affairs. All we demand is to establish us on the same footing, in possession of the same principles and privileges, as other parts of the British dominions, making our language to have free course to all our courts and pulpits; then we shall raise ourselves from that obscurity which hangs over our heads, as it so shamefully now does; no more shall our neighbours view us as a region of superstition and ignorance, arts and sciences will be introduced into our language, our hills and glens will become a scene of intelligence, and resume the dawn of prosperity.

But alas! quite the reverse: driven from that source which leads to eminence, as if we were a race of savage beings, not worthy of being admitted to the privileges of civilized people, not even of enjoying the common liberty with others of his Majesty’s subjects, looked upon as if we were a people that never sacrificed our lives in the service of our country, but submissive to the rod of injustice, and succumbing to the sword of invaders. This cannot be said of our country: they were always ready and willing to go forward when King and Country’s cause needed their assistance; nothing prevents them from giving their aid on all occasions; often did the strength of their arm tell on England’s foes, and were we to believe the records of History, to them this realm owes its liberty. […]

[p. 11]

We would then put the question to our readers, and ask them what were the rewards, or what benefits do their offspring enjoy from the memory of such fears: why are they to be excluded from having their language heard in their own courts, as is so shamefully now-a-days done? These are their rewards— not even the privilege of having their native language spoken or heard in our own local courts, but debarred from it as if we had no right at the bar of Justice. 

We now proceed to relate the manner in which our courts are held; and leave it to the candid reader to decide this important question according to his own judgment; sure we are, that he will declare in our favour, when he sees the manner in which we are used, and thinks on the services which our forefathers have rendered to the country at large, by sea and by land.

We are graced with a Court of Lords of Justiciary, twice a year, without a single word of the language of the country in which they are to act as impartial judges. Our Jurymen and witnesses are summoned in from far and near, to relate their testimonies in an unknown tongue, and to return a verdict in a language they know perhaps very little about, and if they be of the opposite party, and know not a sentence of the Gaelic language, they have no right to seats as jurymen, over Gaelic people. Our criminals are placed at the bar to receive their doom in an unknown [12] language; and probably as ignorant of that language as the very sheep or cattle for stealing which they, perhaps, stand indicted!  They are called on to answer for themselves; but how can they answer when they do not understand a single sentence that is uttered within the walls of the court; how can they vindicate their own cause when it is not spoken in their native language; and if they make an attempt to speak in their mother tongue, they are instantly compelled to hold their peace.

This is the manner in which the sons of our brave Highlanders are used. […]

[p. 14] […] wherever there is a country subject to a foreign language, it cannot be prosperous until the system is removed and the native dialect encouraged and promoted, so that the lowest as well as the highest ranks, may receive the benefit of intercourse between each other in their country; and until the Highlander gets his own language introduced into the courts and other places of business, within the Gaelic districts, it is in vain for him to think that he can raise himself from the situation of a herd, by his native language, to any other station; for, being deprived of the advantage of his own language, he will not obtain a single place of trust in the whole Highlands unless he possess [15] English; let his genius be good, his abilities great, and let him pour forth his songs in the stream of the pure poet, yet he is despised and left unnoticed as if he were lying under a cloud.

Oh! if our language were once made legal, we would not be so obscured. Where is the country that is used like the Highlands of Scotland? even the very Indians receive the benefit of the own language: let us view what was said at a meeting of the members of the East India Company, on the necessity of encouraging the Hindoo language. […]

[p. 17]

Our courts are filled with men who are foreigners to our language and ignorant of ourselves; who care as little for us as if we had not paid our share of the revenue that keeps them up. Yes, we pay our share as well as any other part of the kingdom, in proportion to our population; and more, when we consider the vast quantity of blood of our ancestors that has been spilt in defence of the British constitution, and yet they feel as little for us as if we were descendents of a barbarous and rebellious people. But if we were a race of tailors, or delicate weavers, our case would be made known and minutely investigated, until our grievance were found out, and represented to the royal ear. But oh! our countrymen have the misfortune to be a tribe that take pleasure in the warlike exploits of the field, and prefer the handling of the claidheamh-mor to the throwing of the shuttle.

[p. 18]

Again, our superior situations are generally filled with our reduced gentlemen, or broken merchants’ sons from the Lowlands, such as collectors, supervisors, excisemen, tide-waiters, and even some of our Gaelic churches have felt this abominable practice; if they come not from the Lowlands, they come from the sister kingdom, not to feed us, but to feed upon us. We ourselves are obliged to desert the sweet homes of our fathers, in search of bread through the world, when our native situations are filled up with strangers, as if we were unqualified to fill such offices, not faithful enough to be invested with such power; and above all, we are not weavers, or broken merchants’ sons. […] In a word, if we may use the expression, we are the fame of the Scottish nation, and yet we are thus depressed in our own country, where we should live comfortably by the enjoyment of these situations.

And surely no persons would be more qualified to be excisemen than we, for according to the adage, “Old masons make good barrowmen,” so, old smugglers will make good gaugers. The Lowlanders are not to suppose that we wish to exclude them altogether from our country; this we do not, for it would be injustice to do so; some of our Lowland neighbours are decidedly our friends and admirers, and even adopted and encouraged our national dress in their fashionable cities, besides the bounties which they send yearly, to promote the education of our poor countrymen, and the unparralleled [sic] kindness and respect which [19] they show to us when we chance to sojourn amongst them. But we assure you reader that we would rather see old Nick himself coming to our country, than to see a plump, slabby cheeked, and red curly nosed sassunach sojourning amongst us. We find no fault whatever with the Lowlanders, provided they have our language, and converse with us in our mother tongue. Where is the Highlander that received a single situation in the Lowlands, unless he can speak some English? no, not one, even the meanest occupation would be debarred from him, and himself despised, as if he were not worthy to be taken in among civilized people; […]

[p. 21]

The reader will be surprised and astonished that there are so many gentlemen made judges in the Highlands, without the Gaelic language; yet it is a fact, that the great majority of them are of this class. There are many in the Highlands who pretend to be chieftains, or representatives of some great Highland family, as destitute of this language as those who are born and brought up either in London or Paris; and if we were to give here a list of those persons who are of this description in the shire of Argyle, it would disgrace many of the descendants of the great McChallummhoir, as well as the chieftain of Lorn, who should have the Gaelic language to converse with his clan, and to make himself familiar with the disposition of his followers, for there is nothing that can draw the attachment of the Highlanders to their respective chiefs, more than speaking to them in the Celtic tongue, which is so powerful to animate their passions: and without this instrument, it is in vain for him to think that he is a chief: without his name is rooted in the hearts of his clan; but no, he is beheld as a person destitute of that power which he should have, and considered not worthy to have that name, nor to be made a chief, but gives him the title of hen-chief.

[p. 59]

I have one thing more to recommend, and when I do so, I beg the most serious consideration of all who take any degree of interest with [60] me in my country’s honour and weal: It is, that we should have a college, or some seminary analogous to it, in which candidates for the sacred office shall receive their education. It is a very strange thing indeed that men should be preparing to devote their whole lifetime to preach in a certain language, and in that language alone; and yet, nevver during the whole course of their study write one essay or exercise in it, never consult its Grammatical structure, never compose a syllogism in it!!

How can we have teachers? How can we have preachers? How can we have orators? We have indeed few correct teachers, and few correct preachers; but, thanks to the native energy and pathos of our mountain-tongue, we have many orators: every public speaker in it, is of necessity an orator.

For this proposed university, what situation can be more suitable than venerable Iona.— Iona! “Once the luminary of the Caledonian region, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion.”

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