When we visited the island of Lewis this summer, there were language issues!

While the preservation of minority languages and culture is, one has to presume, valuable, I am sceptical of a policy which displays Edinburgh street names in prominent Gaelic and tiny English.       In the Republic of Ireland their policy on having Irish Gaelic as an official language seems to work far more successfully.   Irish Gaelic is taught in mainstream schools;  some items on the national news will be in Gaelic, and a higher proportion of the population actually speak it.    But in Scotland with its population of 5.5 million, speakers of Gaelic amount to around 50,000.   The website I looked up says that this population is scattered throughout Scotland but as I recollect it this is not the case and you will only hear it spoken in the far west highlands and the western isles of Scotland.   And that group who speak Gaelic also will speak fluent English to the last man or woman.

I speak as one whose grandparents spoke this Gaelic as their first language, and my grandfather was a poet and songwriter in Gaelic.     I have been told that the cadence and phraseology of my English has been influenced by the structure of Gaelic, but I have no way of knowing this.   But things move on, and personally given the time and effort required to learn a language, I cannot see the point if less than 1% of the population speaks it.

Lewis also has its signing (where it has signing at all) in large Gaelic letters and tiny English ones,  but with the declared intention of eradicating English altogether.   As a tourist you do not feel warmly welcomed in Lewis.

We visited the Standing Stones at Callanais.  This is my third visit, and each time I am struck with the powerful feeling that it is not ‘right’ – in the sense that the original placing of the stones has been tampered with;  however it is still worth  a visit and the actual stones themselves are very beautiful  and  curiously evocative.   In the middle of the monument is an incongruous burial chamber, now open.   During our stay we visited the stones en masse, and later we returned, just John and me and the girls, whom we took out for the day to give their parents a short  well-earned break.

On that occasion a party of about a dozen were squatting in the burial pit, conducting some obscure ritual of their own devising.   There was a guru/self proclaimed leader, and acolytes who made responses, and lesser votaries whose role seemed to be restricted to saying Om in a ceaseless and annoying monologue.   This was irritating, but of course each to his own.   However, when they continued to occupy the central position for all the time that we remained there, denying other people access to the centre of the monument and showing no signs of closure or of sharing the sacred space with other travellers, we became annoyed.   The last straw was that the language being employed was German.

I said to John:  I’m going to stand in the centre of the circle and tell them – in English! that in their selfish monopoly of the stones  they will offend the spirit of the place and that they should consider their position lest the displeasure of the Great Mother falls upon them.   John agreed that no doubt I could call down the wrath of the goddess upon them, but recommended I did not attempt it as I was too exhausted to be High Priestess that day.   He however stepped right up beside them, photographed the monument (and them) and loudly said Om and Em and Um in different and opposing notes.   The guru looked thunderously displeased, John reported, and considered reprimanding him, but as John looked steadily at him across the barrel of his camera, the Teutonic new age priest thought better of it.   When we left, they were still squatting and om-ing.

But the funniest incident in the entire trip was at a very nice cafe at the Black House village where we stopped for some lunch.    There was only the cook and one young girl waiting and the place was rapidly filling up.   A party consisting of parents and two children arrived.  When the waitress approached him, the man said, Vous avez un menu francais?   We had difficulty in concealing our laughter.   Was he kidding?   They barely had a menu in English!   But he ploughed on, speaking only in French (much as we do in English in other countries).   Was he a member of the French as a Common Language Society?   Did he think Gaelic was an ancient version of French?   Was he simply echoing the behaviour of the natives in forcing a language no-one spoke upon everyone?   Was he stupid?  Or merely French?   Anyway, by the time the harassed waitress escaped from them, there wouldn’t have been a vote for the EU in the entire establishment!

English forever!

About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.


  1. Jane Coleman says:

    Have only just read this Anne. I did attempt to learn Gaelic as it was spoken on South Uist and in the care home where I worked. But I found it extremely difficult as could not get my head round the structure or spellings…I had no reference in European languages. I was told it would take about 8 years to learn! I did like listening to it spoken and did sing in gaelic at the Ceolas-I wrote my own phoenetics so I could sing! Hope you are well n may see you in HH at Xmas?

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