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Have we had enough of gobbledegook on signs?

By Helen Aird

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The Gaelic for Balloch is Baile an Loch
The Gaelic for Balloch is Baile an Loch

IT is difficult to walk around Inverness and not see some evidence of the ancient language. Whether it is on a road sign, or on the side of a public building, Gaelic is prominent. But for many native speakers and those trying to increase the status of the language, Scotland lags way behind many other countries.

It is an issue close to the heart of Inverness Courier columnist Roddy MacLean, who is trying to counter the negativity surrounding the promotion of Gaelic and the critics who question its value, particularly at times of austerity.

The Inverness-based journalist, broadcaster and educator has published a booklet on Gaelic signs and maps to highlight how much further Scotland must come to catch up with other countries, such as Wales and Ireland.

Gaelic, he argues, has suffered discrimination and a "second rate treatment" at the hands of state institutions for centuries and he describes the general view of Gaelic when he was growing up as an "anachronism". However, he always vowed the language would be a central part of his life — his father and grandfather were native Gaelic speakers on the west coast of Scotland.

But it was a trip to Ireland in 1982, which really highlighted the gulf which existed. "As I walked onto the green land of Èirinn I saw what was effectively ‘my language’ staring down at me from signs," he writes. "Not only was Dublin signposted, but so was Baile Atha Cliath. Gaelic signs abounded. It hit me like a punch in the midriff. I felt angry, filthy angry, that Scotland had betrayed its heritage in such a callous manner.

"The Irish had taken ownership of their country and their language. We had not. No longer was I going to accept Gaelic being hidden away like a dirty secret in Scotland. For Ireland in 1982, read Scotland in 2010."

For Mr MacLean, it was the advent of the Scottish government which turned the tide and led to the formation of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which can instruct authorities or public bodies to improve use of the language.

Its aim is to grow the number of Gaelic-speakers, who are able to read and write in the language, to 100,000 in Scotland by 2041. According to the 2001 Census, just over 58,000 people in Scotland can speak Gaelic.

"While we have made enormous advances in changing the anti-Gaelic mindset in Scotland, we still have a long road to travel," he says.

Using the example of signs and maps, Mr MacLean notes the issues which exist in Scotland – from national organisations advertising bilingually in Wales, but not Scotland, to signs in places of special cultural significance to Gaels, not automatically bilingual.

"Even where authorities have accepted the validity of bilingual signage in a bilingual community, there are still issues to be resolved," he adds.

Using examples, Mr MacLean notes the difference in signage across the country – from the Gaelic above the English, to Gaelic below the English, to each language appearing in a different font, size or colour.

"There seems to be no national consensus on these matters and this can be a source of frustration for the non-Gaels in our community," he said. "They are not able to locate ‘their’ language (English) by just glancing at a sign, knowing where it will be."

Without uniformity, he argues, mixed messages are being sent on the acceptability of each language.

Calling for fewer inconsistencies and a national approach, Mr MacLean continues: "It almost seems as if there is a game of one-upmanship taking place between those who would give Gaelic the place of first violinist in the orchestra and those who would deliberately demote it to second fiddle. It is time to get beyond arguments of that nature and embrace bilingual signage in a manner which shows respect to both languages."

He also doesn’t buy the well-rehearsed argument that bilingual signage is a waste of public money.

"I would contend that the acceptable of bilingualism should be automatic," he continued. "Visit a hospital in Wales and you’ll see it. I very much doubt that the Welsh health authorities have sacrificed clinical excellence in creating bilingual signage — they have simply built bilingualism into their thinking and planning, so that Welsh language signage is not seen as an extra expense.

"We need the same mindset here, and not just in the health service. Gaelic on signage should not be viewed or counted as an extra expense, it should be seen as a fundamental aspect of delivery on the remit of the organisation."

The Gaelic for Inverness is Inbhir Nis, not Inbhir Ness
The Gaelic for Inverness is Inbhir Nis, not Inbhir Ness

Mr MacLean is also concerned about the number of mistakes in Gaelic road and street signs. For example, a road sign near Contin shows the Gaelic for Inverness, as Inbhir Ness, when it should read Inbhir Nis. "There is no excuse for this and we must demand that the standards for Gaelic are as high as for English," he writes.

In Wales, private firms are leading the way with bilingual signage, and Mr MacLean would like to see the same happen in Scotland, particularly in churches.

"It is instructive when one considered the signage associated with the Presbyterian churches in Lewis; even in very strongly Gaelic-speaking communities, the signs are in English," he writes. "The fact that Gaelic services are held is advertised only in English. Perhaps there is something of an irony that the only church that seems to commonly carry Gaelic signage is the Episcopal Church in the West Highlands."

And it is not just about promoting the status of Gaelic for native speakers, but, he argues, is important for non-speakers too so they can engage with the land. For example, the Gaelic for Oban, is An-t-Òban, meaning ‘the little bay.’

"It is a founding language of our nation, it has been spoken by Scots throughout the entire history of Scotland, it remains a living language, it covers vast areas of our landscape and maps and it has a unique culture associated with it. For those features alone, if nothing else, it ought to be valued."

Gaelic words also help with pronunciation. Is Balloch, BAL-och or ba-LOCH? The Inverness example is ba-LOCH because the Gaelic is Baile an Loch, whereas the Loch Lomond example is BAL-och, derived from Bealach.

He also thinks more Gaelic should appear on maps. "Ben Nevis, surely it is time to have both that and Beinn Nibheis on the map," he said. "We live in a bilingual country, Gaelic is a living language and we still call the mountain by its original name when speaking Gaelic – so why is it not on the map? To do otherwise is to deny the existence of Gaelic as a living part of Scotland’s public life, not to mention it being the main heritage language of the are in question."

Mr MacLean hopes by raising awareness of some of the issues surrounding the use of Gaelic in his booklet, steps will be taken to bring Scotland closer to what other countries have already achieved.

"To a degree, it is to counter the negativity that still exists with regard to putting Gaelic in the public eye," he said. "We want to obtain justice – long denied us – for our language. And although we are moving in the right direction, it is a long process."

However, he remains optimistic. New research by the Scottish Government shows 81 per cent of the public feel it is important that Scotland does not lose its Gaelic language traditions. The report, Public Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language, also indicates 65 per cent think more should be done to promote Gaelic in Scotland. "There is, ahead of us, a generation of Scots who will hold the Gaelic language in the sort of esteem which the Welsh have won for their language in Wales," he writes.

Gaelic on Signs and Maps in Scotland – Why it Matters’ is published by The Islands Book Trust. Visit www.theislandsbooktrust.com.

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