A short while ago I became involved in a discussion about whether another language Wikipedia should refer to all places in Scotland by their Gaelic names. I believe that doing this was meant in a spirit of solidarity, but I have strong views on this for several reasons, and they are complex:
Gaelic was never universally spoken in Scotland (there is a difference between a “national language” and what people actually speak – something modern Gaelic speakers I’m sure can attest to). In the southern areas of Scotland, Scots has always held stronger sway. Areas of the north-east of Scotland around Aberdeen also held out and retained their own forms of Scots (Doric).
History of the Scots language (in Scots)
History of the Scots language (in English)
This linguistic diversity is important because it’s reflective of our national identities. To be a Scot is not to be the same as all other Scots. I am not from the Gàidhealtachd, that’s not my heritage or history, and I am very careful about not appropriating it. The marginalisation and attempted annihilation of Gaelic culture and language in Scotland is shameful, and out of respect for this history I won’t appropriate it for political purposes. And that’s my second problem; because I believe that in the narrative around Scottish nationalism, that’s exactly what’s happening. Scotland’s national identity for many outside is one of twee Highland romanticism. Tartan and kilts, castles and shortbread, tragic romantic stories of battle in vain (do not get me started on Outlander). Every year I meet tourists in Edinburgh who genuinely are surprised that we don’t all wear kilts (“you all look like you shop in the Gap” well, yes, we do, because globalised capitalism is a thing. That tartan rug was made in China btw).
I believe that the Gaelic language is in part now being used to prop up this romanticised view of Scotland, and in doing so, a lot of the diversity and complexity of what it is to be Scottish is conveniently put aside. This devalues Gaelic culture and identity too, and whilst it’s not my place to define what place Gaelic culture should have within modern Scotland, I am clear that it should have respect on it’s own terms.
This is also problematic because right now questions of nationhood, identity and self-determination have never been more vital as we grapple with Scottish independence, the implications of Brexit and the kind of society we want to be. Who we are as Scots is not settled and not easy.
Membership of the EU and economic stability were some of the key issues that meant we narrowly voted against independence. Membership of the EU and economic stability were what we voted for in the Brexit referendum. Membership of the EU and economic stability may be what drives us to another independence referendum, which I suspect could well be successful this time (there are opposing views here).
We are also the nation of Enlightenment; of rational thinking; of industrial revolution and science and technology. We have historically been mobile and well connected to the world around us. We gave the world penicillin; television; the telephone. Our Universities are ancient and our investment in education as civic good is long standing. We think of ourselves not as twee tartan and shortbread, but as an educated and modern nation.
And this is why we punched above our weight when it came to the process of colonisation and Empire. It wasn’t all dispossessed Gaelic Highlanders, cleared from their land and seeking refuge in the “New World”. It was well educated younger brothers who wouldn’t inherit and needed to seek their fortunes elsewhere; it was doctors; it was skilled tradesmen; and it was bankers. When we weren’t staffing Empire with a surplus of well educated young men, we were bankrolling it with credit. It was speculative, exploitative and extractive. Go take a look at the history of Jardine and Matheson for example.
I’m not comfortable with other people writing my story.