Monday, 7 March 2011

The language of the land

This landscape is written all over in Gaelic. Every stream, slope and hollow is named in the language, and many of those names are rich descriptions, with hints about the trees that grew here, the animals that frequented the spot or the uses that people made of the land. Some of these are still pertinent: our croft Braighlinne, the slope above the pool, will always be aptly named, and Baddidarach still has lots of oak trees. But the wolves have gone from Gleannan a' Mhadaidh, and Creag Dharaich was devoid of trees until oaks were planted as part of a reforestation project in the 1990s.

Yet the names can guide us in how to restore the land to ecological health, they can inspire us about what the landscape might be like for future generations and they can help us to connect to this place as a lived-in ecosystem, one with cultural as well as natural heritage. The tragedy is that not only have the woods and wildlife been decimated over past generations, so too the very language that spoke about them has been almost completely lost.

I am proud to be part of a movement to try to prevent the total collapse of the Gaelic language here in Assynt, and thanks to the Ulpan teaching system, I'm one of a group of people determined to help bring about its revival. In December I took part in a teacher-training programme that means we now have three fully trained tutors in the parish, and another one just north in Scourie. My part was to be a 'guinea-pig student' for the tutors to practice on, and I learned more Gaelic in the process than I have by struggling with self-study for I don't know how long. There were eleven of us and seven of us are now continuing with twice-weekly Gaelic language classes. Ulpan is a brilliant system, and I'll write more about it here in future. For now, you can read my piece about it in the Bratach, here.

Another crucial part of sustaining Gaelic is all the associated culture. The language is fuel, but the heat and light are what matter: stories, songs and poetry; tunes, dances and games. The Feis and Mod movements are keeping these alive, and it was inspiring to see the tiny village of Scourie run their first Feis last month.

In Assynt, the song tradition has remained strong and many people were taught songs by family members who did not otherwise speak Gaelic to them. One of these is James Graham, who has become one of the country's most lauded Gaelic singers, and who put years of study into becoming a fluent Gaelic speaker. There's an interview I did with him a while back on the Northings website. He is now one of our trained Gaelic tutors and an excellent teacher, when his job with the Mod doesn't take him away from us. For the wider cause, I suppose I should be glad that someone with his talents is involved in the Mod, but we'd rather we had him here, helping to get Gaelic back onto our lips.

Why am I, an incomer, bothered about Gaelic? As well as wanting to understand the names on the maps, it's the poetry. All the song lyrics and all the poems of this place, prior to Norman MacCaig's visiting eye, were in Gaelic. Just across and down the Minch, people are still writing in Gaelic. I want to be able to read it in the original, not with all the music and nuance washed out of it in translation. I live in the woods, and the trees here formed the original alphabet, called Ogham, when the Gaelic language was first written down. There's a depth of association with this place that I am sure can only be best expressed in Gaelic.

In my mission to deepen my connection to the nature of this land, I can but try to speak its native tongue.

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