Eric Hobsbawm cites Renan as saying that “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”. Part of the movement to create a story for Scotland has been the emphasis on Gaelic, a language spoken in some parts and hardly at all in others, where the dominant language was Scots, though variants included Lallans, Doric and dialects incorporating Norse. Some people use Gaelic at home, mainly in the Western Isles, but more use Scots or Polish, and other languages spoken in Scotland include Urdu, Punjabi, Chinese, French, British Sign Language, German and Spanish. Most people I’ve discussed the issue with regard the attempt to create a fictive Gaelic heritage with a bemused tolerance – it pleases some people, and it doesn’t do much harm. When it starts interfering in the interactions between citizens and government, it’s another matter.
Fife Council’s Gaelic Language Plan 2015-2018 is up for consultation. It tells us that in an online survey of council employees, they were able to identify 14 people who understood some Gaelic. No-one claimed to speak it well; two spoke it ‘fairly well’, and seven people could read it. That is out of over 20,000 employees (the last figure I have was 20,400). The plan also proposes to put the home web page – the one that people come to when they are looking for help – half in Gaelic. So Fife Council is proposing to put half its web page into a language that only seven staff it knows of can read.
The problem is not just that Gaelic is not spoken in practice, but that speaking it (or claiming to speak it) is a way of defining insiders and outsiders. What does it communicate, when local government presents itself in a language that very few people in the area use? To people with limited access to broadband, using mobile technology or just struggling to use the web, it’s an obstacle to making contact or getting information. To people whose first language is not English, it elevates Gaelic to a status that we don’t give to other minority languages – a good way to tell people they’re third class. To people with limited functional literacy – more than a fifth of the people in Scotland – it’s another hurdle to negotiate. And to people who aren’t bilingual in Gaelic, the message is simply this: “you are an outsider”. It’s hard to think of an approach that’s more exclusive.