From the Scottish Highlands to the Welsh Valleys, the Celts have been pushed to the very fringes of modern Europe. I spent a great chunk of my life in the Celtic heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales, so here’s my view on all things Celtic…
I’ve discovered a great TV channel called BBC Scotland*. It only broadcasts about six hours a night, but everything’s focused on Scotland (unlike most regional TV in the UK, which shows local news and then plugs you back into the national feed). There’s another Scottish channel called BBC Alba which is in the Gaelic language. They show some excellent documentaries on life in the Highlands and Islands, particularly Lewis and Harris, where about half of the islands’ 21,000 population speaks Gaelic as a first language. (All programmes on BBC Alba are subtitled in English, which is handy for someone like me. I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, although I do have GCSE Welsh (grade A!)
Gaelic and Welsh are both Celtic languages, but they come from separate branches. Welsh is related to Cornish and Breton closely enough that I can sometimes decode Cornish place-names. Scottish Gaelic is so close to Irish that until about three hundred years ago, they were considered the same language.
There are few if any Gaelic-speaking communities left on the Scottish mainland. There’s a total of 87,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, of whom 57,000 are fluent speakers. The problem is that many of these fluent speakers are scattered across Scotland in non-Gaelic-speaking areas, so that many of those who know the Gaelic aren’t using it. Only 1.1% of Scotland’s 5.4 million population now speaks Gaelic ― which is why the language is in such decline.
Until the early 20th century Gaelic was still spoken widely across the Scottish Highlands, but numbers have declined massively. This is not to say there are no Gaelic speakers left, but the Gaelic-speaking communities have all but disappeared. When fewer than 50% of anyone speaks the language in any particular community, a tipping point is reached and use of the language starts to die out. A big cause of this mass wipe-out was economics. Unemployed young people moved to the cities where English (or the Scots dialect of English) were spoken, and only elderly Gaelic-speakers remained, and then died out… and in little more than a generation, the language was practically gone from the Highlands.
I spent my teenage years in West Wales where Welsh was spoken every day. We had compulsory Welsh lessons at school, which I liked, although nearly everyone else affected to hate them. What we really hated more than anything was learning a form of the language never spoken anywhere! I had to quiz my Welsh-speaking schoolmates about how things were actually said, because Welsh comes in three distinct layers. There’s formal literary Welsh as used in bardic poetry and the traditional Welsh Bible, then there’s “BBC Welsh” a smart-casual form of the language that’s never really spoken anywhere ― the Welsh we learned at school came closest to this. Then there’s the dialect Welsh I heard all around me. This is the living language, and unless you pick it up from the cradle (or at least from a very young age) you’re unlikely ever to speak it fluently. Back in the 1980s when I was at school it wasn’t really written down. At least nowadays you can check things out on the internet!
To complicate matters further, there’s a distinct dialect-split between North and South Wales, so that even the most basic phrases are said two ways. For example, I want a cup of tea would be Dwi’n eisiau dishgled in North Wales, but in the South it’s something like Fi’n moyn panad.
Sometimes when I’m in a Celtic mood, I switch the TV over to the Welsh-language channel S4C (pronounced ess-pedwar-ec). This is the only TV channel that is truly local to Wales and that frequently shows the bits of Wales that I know ― the bits of West Wales where Welsh is spoken.
(This was a big part of why I chose to watch digital TV over satellite instead of Freeview which comes in via a rooftop antenna. It means I can watch regional TV from all over the country.)
There is of course a Welsh ITV channel, “ITV Cymru-Wales” but it shows back-to-back programming in English, and nearly all of it comes from England (when it doesn’t come from Hollywood). I’d be tempted to say the BBC isn’t much better, except that S4C is part-owned by the BBC (although unlike a full BBC service, it’s part-funded by advertising (most of which, I should add, is in English!)
So the point I’m trying to make about the Scots Gaelic is that unless the language is spoken to newborn babies and used by young children, it doesn’t have much of a future. A huge slice of S4C’s programming consists of children’s programmes, especially cartoons (which can be bought on the cheap from overseas and dubbed into Welsh). I think S4C is doing the right thing (although it’s pretty annoying to me when I tune in to see emerald-green countryside and coracles paddling near waterfalls). But at least this means kids in Welsh-speaking homes can watch telly in their own language. Hurrah for that!
*originally I described it as a “great new TV channel” but BBC Scotland TV is only new to me, having launched on 24 February 2019. When originally launched it showed a lot of BBC2 programming, which is why I never watched it very much until now.
THIS IS ONLY A STUB VERSION OF A PROPER ARTICLE I WANT TO WRITE ON SCOTLAND AND/OR WALES. SO IF YOU HAVE ANY IDEAS OR INFORMATION OR A POINT TO MAKE, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT!
Guardian newspaper article: SCOTS GAELIC COULD DIE OUT WITHIN A DECADE!
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