Why A Portuguese Guy Is Learning Gaelic

Culloden

On the 16th of April, 1746, the Battle of Culloden was fought, the final clash that marked the ending of the Jacobite Rising that started the year before. It resulted in a complete and total victory of the British Army over the Jacobites, bringing with it decades of persecution, prohibition and the unrelenting attempts to destroy the Gaelic culture of the Highlands of Scotland, in order to strengthen the grip of the British union over Scotland. This period saw the expropriation of lands belonging to Scottish clans, the banning of traditional forms of Highland dress, and the start of a decline in the use of the Gaelic language that would continue to this day.

Culloden, and its legacy, have been a shadow hanging over Highland culture. But, despite the worst attempts by the British state, Highland culture suffered, but it was never fully cleansed. Its lands were emptied of its people, many of its customs and traditions lost, but the Gaelic language survived – not only in but also outwith Scotland, travelling in the hearts and minds of the folk forced to go away as a consequence of the Clearances, another dark period of Scottish history.

There’s a future for Gaelic

Despite its many challenges and tribulations, Gaelic (or Gàidhlig, as it is known in its native tongue) has survived all the way to the 21st century. Yes, it is not in a place where we are allowed to be relaxed about it – the language is still facing an existential threat, as many of the older generations who still have it die out, with fewer younger people carrying on that legacy. But there are also immensely successful stories happening recently, not least the launch of a Scottish Gaelic course, for free, on the famous Duolingo app, which occurred in November of last year (and no, Duolingo has never paid me for promoting it, I just think it’s a brilliant tool).

There’s been a shared sense of excitement and wonder all over social media, as Duolingo has provided an easy, free and fun-to-use platform on which to learn the Gaelic. People coming together in hilarious exchanges, as we all discover that gorm, the Gaelic for blue, is also the word for that deep green found in nature. Or the joys of finding out that a Coo is a cow in Scots, but a is a dog in Gaelic (and, as a bonus point, the Portuguese for arse is , and is pronounced in the exact same way as the other two words).

One question that never seems to go away, however, particularly from sections of society that remain incredibly averse to Gaelic and, unfathomably, see it as a threat, is this: What’s the point of learning Gaelic?

learn gaelic

What’s the point of learning Gaelic?

I should start by making something clear, something which I personally hold as an incredibly important view, as a lover and speaker of a few languages: the point of learning any language is the point of learning the language itself. You don’t need to have an economic, professional, religious or academic reason. If you feel drawn to any particular language, there should be nothing stopping you but the time & effort required to learn it. No language is a waste of time, no language is a lost cause, and no language is beneath or above you. In the United Kingdom, languages like Cornish, Manx, Scots, Gaelic and Welsh are continuously derided and disproportionately criticised for being “a waste of time and resources”, but that’s just one of the manifestations of English exceptionalism and how it perceives everything slightly different as an immediate threat to it hegemony.

The fact is that learning Gaelic or any other language doesn’t harm English in any way, to the contrary – polyglotism is often an academic and professional strength in young people and the opportunities that are opened to them.

I’ve been a lover of languages ever since I can remember. I taught myself English as a young child through playing videogames, and later on found a passion for reading books by English-speaking authors in their original language rather than Portuguese translations. This passion resulted in me knowing how to read four different alphabets & writing systems (including Middle Kingdom Hieroglyphs), and having between moderate fluency and some basic conversational skills of around nine different languages.

But Gaelic has always had a special place in my heart, long before I ever dreamt of one day calling Scotland my beloved home.

My journey to learning Gaelic

In my early teens, and thanks to the boundless universalism of the internet, I found an interest in what’s often called “Celtic” music. This involved a lot of Irish, Scottish but also Breton singing (personally, Welsh and other Celtic languages never struck as much of a cord with me, for no reason whatsoever – you can’t choose what resonates with you, some things just do more than others).

But from all of these, I was always particularly drawn to Scottish Gaelic. I found it the most beautiful, emotional, even eerie of them all. I always felt like Gaelic carried a lot of sorrow with it, fascinatingly, in ways not dissimilar to my native country’s most well-known musical genre, Fado. I was drawn to the stories as I googled what the lyrics meant, and found an increasingly rich – and often times, dark – history behind these songs.

From then on, learning Gaelic had been on my bucket list. Since then, I found myself moving to and happily settling in Scotland, and as it happened, last year I found out a beginners course being provided by the Edinburgh Council that was very affordable and also conveniently located, and I grabbed the opportunity wholeheartedly.

Perhaps with a touch of serendipity, Gaelic also happened to launch on the aforementioned Duolingo app just a couple of months after I started my lessons, and it complemented those lessons perfectly. With the two resources, as well as a couple of books (I’ve previously done a Twitter thread with loads of resources for learning Gaelic, you can read it here: see Twitter thread), I’ve been able to start this journey that I’d been longing for.

Learning Gaelic has been challenging (we all know how daunting those long words look, especially when you realise that some letters are pronounced very differently from English), but lots of fun and, above all, immensely rewarding.

Not only does having the Gaelic open up a new window into the culture of the Highlands & Islands, and what is a crucial part of Scotland, it opens whole new worlds of music, poetry and literature. It opens a new perspective, a new look at the world, a greater depth to the human experience. It opens a link to Scotland’s past, but has also given me a new tool with which to help shape Scotland’s future.

gaidhlig-238x300

Learn Gaelic as an act of defiance

It’s very easy to romanticise Gaelic, as often happens with all things related to Highland culture. I’m a writer and artist, I know a thing or two about erring on the side of being a bit too romantic at times. The fact of the matter is that Gaelic has been, since the 18th century, in a continued state of decline, thanks to a myriad of political, religious and socio-economical circumstances. Only around 57,000 Scots are reported to be fluent in Gaelic (2011 data), with 87,000 declaring some knowledge of it (2011 data).

The Scottish Government has made efforts to protect and incentivise its use, efforts which are often faced by an inevitable barrage of armchair critics who make money out of writing controversial opinion pieces for newspapers that aren’t editorially sympathetic to Gaelic to begin with. And this is not just a unionist / pro-independence divide – you’ll find Gaelophobes on both sides of the debate, as well as speakers and lovers of the language.

Languages are political, and Gaelic is no exception. If you’re taught that your language is not proper or worthy, your culture inevitably becomes a source of embarrassment for you. In Portugal, I’ve never experienced this due to it being a monoglot block, but this debate was one of the first things I encountered when moving to Scotland, and it doesn’t affect only Gaelic, but the Scots leid too.

Gaelic is not my language more than anyone else’s, but I’m passionate about its protection because I see it at risk, and it would be a monumental loss to human civilisation to have this wee thread bleached out of its colour and tone. Gaelic is adding something to our great cultural tapestry, and by learning and using it, we’re ensuring its colour remains vibrant enough for future generations to be able to appreciate the greater beauty of this whole tapestry.

Learn Gaelic. Pay no heed to the naysayers who feel threatened because they never managed to learn anything more than English, and have caged themselves in a monoglot prison of their own making. It’s difficult, frustratingly hard at times even, but once the pieces start falling into place, you’ll become immeasurably enriched. And remember, if it wasn’t for the historical wrongs inflicted upon Scotland, and the institutionalised way in which people have been brought up to think that only British Received Pronunciation is a legitimate way of expression, who knows how many people in Scotland would speak this tongue right now.

We can’t change the past. No one can. What we can, is to learn from it, and to prevent its disasters from ever being repeated again. And losing the Gaelic tongue would be just that.

Declaration of Arbroath – 700th Anniversary

Today marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the most important documents in Scottish History. Between 2009 and 2014, I completed both my degree in History and my MA in Medieval Islamic History, at Lisbon’s university, and I happened to have studied this document throughout the course of those years. It’s not only important to Scotland, but also as part of European history, and it really is an exceptional text of its time for numerous reasons.

As such, today I carefully wrote a thread, on Twitter, in which I poured all my past experience as a Medievalist, and as much knowledge as I could muster, about the crucial importance of this document, as well as its larger context in Medieval European History. I have decided to collate those tweets together into a single text and post it here too – so, bear in mind the media that it was written for (original thread here, if you care to like / retweet it: https://twitter.com/wgsaraband/status/1247099903781875713

Remember that if we are to make sense of our present and prepare ourselves for the challenges of our future, we must never forget the lessons of our past. History is a discipline that we all ought to pay attention to, read about and cherish.

Declaration of Arbroath

The only remaining copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, part of the National Archives of Scotland

Declaration of Arbroath – context

Today, 6th of April 2020, marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), one of the most important documents in Scottish history.

Here’s a wee thread, from someone who had to study this document at university, in Lisbon, as part of my degree in History:

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter, written in Latin, and signed by almost 40 Scottish barons & earls, addressed to Pope John XXII.

The Pope was a major political figure throughout most of the Middle Ages, and this was a bit like sending a letter to the United Nations.

Calling it a Declaration of Independence isn’t exactly correct – to be precise, the Declaration of Arbroath makes it clear that Scotland had been a sovereign kingdom for many centuries, ruled by a succession of Scottish kings, and that no one else could claim sovereignty over it.
Hence, the document isn’t asserting Scotland’s newfound independence – it is making it clear, to the Pope and Europe, that it had long been an independent nation and that the English throne had no rightful claim to it. Fascinatingly, it tells the tale of how the Scots came to be.
The letter says that the Scotii were a people originally from Scythia, a place outwith the limits of the Roman Empire, who travelled across Europe, all the way to the Iberian Peninsula before journeying to the British Isles and settling in this lovely cold place we call home.
The most fascinating part of this tale of migration and survival is that it is corroborated by evidence of Celtic peoples travelling, indeed, from Anatolia and across Europe. Many went by my own native Portugal, leaving remnants of Celtic culture there, before heading North.

Whilst many countries have a foundational story based on biblical myths, Scotland presents here a uniquely realistic tale that shows how some elements of oral history from this time survived in the collective memory for long.

The Scotii were migrants who fought their way here.

The other fascinating part of the Declaration of Arbroath, and why Medieval academics across the world study it, is its assertion of sovereignty. It states that it lies with the people, rather than the King of Scots.

But who, exactly, are the “people”?

Well, it doesn’t have the same meaning as today. In the context of its time, the Declaration of Arbroath makes clear that the King of Scots must be supported by the nobility – the barons & earls who signed the letter. That’s who the people are – not the whole population.
This is not a new concept in Europe – after the fall of the Roman Empire, many elements of law from Germanic peoples became popular amongst many of the kingdoms that were born. For the sovereignty of the king to be decided by noblemen is one of these aspects, seen across Europe.
By asserting their sovereignty, these 39 noblemen write in the letter that they reject the rule of the English king, accusing him of committing atrocities against the Scots, and that Robert the Bruce is the legitimate Scottish king who has put a stop to said atrocities.
There are inevitable Biblical allusions in the text – impossible not to, in a document of this nature, in Medieval Europe. They include the comparison between Robert the Bruce and Judas Maccabeus, who led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucids.

In simple terms, what did the Declaration of Arbroath seek to achieve?

To recognise Robert the Bruce’s military victories and his rightful claim to Scotland, to reject Edward II’s claim to overlordship of Scotland, and for Scotland’s sovereignty to be legitimised by the Pope.

“Because, while a hundred of us remain alive, we will not submit in the slightest measure, to the domination of the English. We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”
Many people know the above paragraph and a few other quotes, but the Declaration of Arbroath is a remarkable Medieval document in the context of great social and economic changes sweeping across Europe, in regards to the old Feudal structures, and the assertion of sovereignty.
More than once, the letter says that Scots merely want to be left alone, in peace, and unbothered by the armies of the English king. It claims that the Scots have survived many other invaders, like the Danes, breaking free from any attempts to enslave them.
The concept of “Nation”, as we know it, only begins to be formed a few centuries later, after the Renaissance. The Declaration of Arbroath represents a transition from what the old concepts of “Kingdom” and “People” meant, to what they will mean later on in our History.

Declaration of Arbroath today

Finally, it’s not the prerogative of Scottish Independence supporters, today, to be interested in this document. Every Scottish person should read it and study it. It’s one of the most important pillars of Scottish history and a key piece of our shared European history.
I’ve been disheartened by people who, because of their constitutional politics, make ill-informed remarks about the Declaration of Arbroath. This is not a political football. This is, no matter your views on the United Kingdom, part of the very DNA of Scottish identity & history.
Arbroath Abbey

Grounds of Arbroath Abbey, which I first visited in May, 2018

I was fascinated to have studied this letter, as part of my degree in History, which led me to my MA in Medieval Islamic History. I never imagined, at the time, that I’d later be living in Scotland – but, moving here, has been one of the greatest joys in my life.

Don’t let your ignorance become a blindfold. Don’t let your cringe stop you from valuing a fascinating piece of your own history.

If people from outwith Scotland can see the worth of your people, culture and history, then please ask yourself: what’s stopping you?

Scotland’s history is not exceptional or superior to anyone else’s, but, like the history of any other country, it is unique. And if we are to find our way into the future, we must never forget the paths in our past that we have trodden.

Read your history. #DeclarationofArbroath

The Clearances – why Scotland welcomes immigrants

 

The Emigrants

“The Emigrants”, Helmsdale (credit: Mary and Angus Hogg)

 

It was in the summer of 2016, when me and my partner went on our first car trip around the Scottish Highlands, that I first encountered the term “Clearances”. In fact, we did not encounter the term per se, but upon reaching Ullapool on one of the legs of this trip, we were asking ourselves: “How come the Highlands are so empty?”. As we settled into our B&B for the night, I googled that same question, and so I stumbled into a very grim and depressing period of Scottish history which had remained totally unbeknownst to me.

I love the rugged emptiness of the Highlands, their feeling of remoteness; it’s part of what makes them so beautiful. But since that first trip, I’ve done a lot of reading on the Clearances, and that sense of beauty will forever be entwined with sorrow. My heart despairs whenever I think of the suffering and hardship suffered by those who were ripped off their land and scattered along the coasts of Scotland, told to survive on impossibly small pieces of land, which inevitably resulted in thousands upon thousands of people risking their lives in the hopes of finding a better future elsewhere. Fortunately, many did, but many died on the way, or even before they could pay for the expensive transportation out of Scotland.

The horror of the Clearances shall not be forgotten

Despite the many attempts by certain people to erase the human horror of the Clearances, or portray those found dispossessed and forced into exile as “mere economic migrants” (Looking at you, Neil Oliver, and that utter mess of a documentary that you put together for the BBC. Perhaps you should leave history to actual historians, and focus on your archaeology, a very noble but very different science, next time?), the memory of the Clearances has never gone away.

How many Scots today have family around all four corners of the world? How many of those families are descended from Highland & Lowland exiles, those people who, as the historian James Hunter puts it in the title of his book on this subject, were simply set adrift upon the world? Many others, who might not remember the Clearances, will have family abroad descended from emigrants in the 20th century, many of them leaving in equally desperate circumstances, after the calamitous effects of two World Wars.

This reality, I think, explains why immigration is much less of a toxic debate in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Because many Scots will hopefully remember the hardship faced by those forced into exile, but also recognise the wonderful contribution those people have made around the world, and hope that immigrants coming into Scotland bring those same benefits into this wee part of the world.

 

Thomas_Faed_-_The_Last_of_the_Clan

“The Last of the Clan” (1865), by Thomas Faed

The Clearances are a uniquely horrible period

Let me make it clear that I don’t think there are many similarities between the reality that forced Scottish people into exile during the Clearances, and today’s reality of economic migrants like myself. Refugees from war-torn countries certainly have much more in common with those dispossessed Scots, but I’m lucky enough to never have experienced the utter desperation that leads to forced displacement. I’m privileged to have saved up money and prepare in advance before I moved to Scotland, I am privileged that it only took me a 3-hour flight to get here, and I am privileged that I had a safety net back in Portugal if everything fell apart with the move. Refugees today, and Scots fleeing the country back in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, enjoy none of these privileges.

We look at places like Badbea, in Caithness, and how people cleared from the straths and glens were literally forced to live on a cliff-edge, stuck between a wall meant to keep in the sheep and a deadly precipice, and we get just a tiny glimpse that there was no choice when it came to emigrating for many of these people. All hope had been lost, their entire way of life shattered in order to feed the greed and vain desires of an aristocracy that couldn’t spare a moment’s thought for the victims of their calamitous pursuits. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, a continued part of the British state’s attempt to destroy Scotland’s identity and culture. A project that went into full force right after the Battle of Culloden, and, we could argue, one that hasn’t fully stopped since then.

And today, although there are now memorials to many of these exiles, such as the one in Helmsdale, the statue to one of the architects and main actors of the Clearances still stands in Sutherland, overlooking the deserted landscape he created. (I’m not one for tearing down statues, but I’d rip that cunt right off that place and put one up to the victims of this horror instead, the ones whose strength and courage deserves to be immortalised and celebrated).

 

The consequences of this on Scottish attitudes today

I don’t want to keep going on about the historical side of the Clearances, as there are many brilliant books out there for you to read. James Hunter, who I mentioned above, depicts these horrors in his brilliant Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances, so far my favourite book on the subject, although focused on the Sutherland region alone, so you may want to look out for others if you want a broader picture. Consider the Lilies is a novel recommended to me many times, and I finally bought it this week, so I can’t wait to read it. And there’s also the very recent The Scottish Clearances by T. M. Devine, recipient of much praise.

My point is that the waves of forced emigration have ensured a sense of empathy in Scotland about the plight faced by emigrants in today’s world, even if the circumstances may be very different. There is also a sense of the great things that these exiled Scots went on to achieve, and perhaps a hope that by welcoming immigrants into Scotland today, these New Scots will too go on to enrich and improve our country.

May we never forget the plight faced by those people, cleared from the Highlands, Islands and the Lowlands, and may we rejoice in the legacy they have left around the world. Equally, may we never forget the humanity and sacrifice of those migrants leaving their native countries behind and coming to Scotland in the hopes of having a better life.

I am such one of these New Scots, and I hope to prove myself worthy, in time, of the love and hospitality that I’ve been greeted with since the moment I set foot upon this land of ours.