DUALCHAS AN AGHAIDH NAN CREAG (THE GAELIC REVIVAL 1890–2020)
Domhnall Iain MacLeoid
CLO BEAG, £6.00 64PP ISBN 978-0-9505640-0-5
Given that Gaelic had been, in the distinguished folklorist John MacInnes’s appraisal, subjected to an extensive and debilitating official campaign of ‘ethnocide’, it should perhaps not surprise us that key figures in the battle for its survival came from outside Gaeldom. Most Gaels are aware that we are beholden to an Englishman, Edward Dwelly, for the (still) definitive Gaelic dictionary, first published in 1911.
What many do not know is that it took a Lowland Scot, Aberdeen-born historian and novelist David Masson, having attended the 1890 Welsh National Eisteddfod, to prod Scottish Gaels into establishing An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Gaelic Association), in 1891, with a view to promoting the National Mod. For the next half-century, for better or worse, that organisation ran its national, and local, events while doing what it could to muster official support for the language.
Though numbers continued to erode, An Comunn did lay the groundwork for future developments, with action on music, education and publishing, including school textbooks, magazines and a monthly newspaper. It also lobbied for changes to the 1872 Education Act, which had excluded Gaelic from the classroom, eventually, in 1918, achieving an act which committed authorities to make ‘adequate provision for Gaelic in Gaelic-speaking areas’. A youth organisation was also established. And a new Gaelic literature began to develop, culminating in the appearance of Sorley MacLean. Domhnall Iain MacLeoid’s/ Donald John MacLeod’s compact account of The Gaelic Revival 1890–2020 introduces the individuals and organisations that have done so much to ensure the language has a future.
MacLeod cites Joshua Fishman, the American sociolinguist, who imparts much wisdom about language preservation. MacLeod infers reasons for cautious optimism when he measures the achievements of the various associations, councils and boards that now service the Gaelic populace, as well as a flowering of writers, musicians, educators and broadcasters against Fishman’s scale of needs for ‘threatened languages’. With Gaelic schools in place, and an increasingly vigorous adult learning community, Fishman’s essential requirement that Gaelic-speaking parents can themselves deliver a new generation of Gaelic speakers is attainable. Fishman, one also notes, is recorded observing that teaching materials ‘appeared to reflect the standard values of Scottish middle class society rather than a distinctly Gaelic dimension’.
MacLeod’s book may be a short account of the recent history of our ancient language, but it’s dense with information, and it features an intriguing cast of characters, from Lord Archibald Campbell, son of the Duke of Argyll and first President of An Comunn, to Fionnlagh MacLeoid, who virtually single-handedly created theGaelic pre-school movement around 20 years ago. There were, from an early stage, internal critics like the aristocrat Ruairidh Erskine of Mar, who was determined to rid Gaelic of ‘the curse of the modern ghetto, the Music Hall’. His objective was a world-class literature. The publications he promoted may have failed, but they laid the groundwork for future developments.
MacLeod’s book is a personal project, drawing on research and personal experience, and designed to encourage further debate. If it can be faulted, it’s in that it too often tantalises with a sense that there is more that could be told, of agitation and acrimony as well as achievement, and that MacLeod, having been in the thick of it, as academic and editor, activist and administrator, is well equipped to do the telling. As a sketch it succeeds brilliantly in showing how Gaelic language provisions and objectives have developed in scope and sophistication, but we may wish one or other funding body to commission its author to do the detailed research and writing his subject deserves.