Gaelic Road Signs: Atonement

BY EFFIE DEANS

About a year ago I described a trip to the Highlands and my difficulties with Gaelic road signs. Faced with a roundabout with multiple place names in a language I could neither understand nor pronounce I unjustly blamed my getting lost on the signs rather than on my own poor ability at navigation. I received some sympathetic responses from other road users, but also some criticism from those who either could not see the problem or who felt that if I could not read such signs, I should not be driving at all.

Rather like Shostakovich when his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was described in Pravda as “Muddle instead of music” I took the criticism of my muddle to heart and resolved to change my ways. Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” and I too decided to respond positively to my own lack by learning Gaelic.

I already speak a few languages including Russian and Polish so I thought it couldn’t be that hard to gain a reasonable proficiency in Gaelic. I began by buying all of the beginner Gaelic books on Amazon and began to study. I would urge all those who justly criticised me to do the same. I found Gaelic to be a rewarding language to study. True it is very distant from English. Far more distant in my view than Russian is. It is impossible to guess the meaning of most Gaelic words unless they are loan words, but this challenge meant all the more satisfaction when I began to improve.

After a few months I began to watch BBC Alba every evening. At first, I could understand nothing without the subtitles, but soon I began to understand a few words and then whole sentences. I looked forward to being able to include myself at the next Census in the select group of Scots who could justly describe themselves as Gaelic speakers. But I wanted to go further.

When I wrote my original muddled article because I had read that there were only 11,000 vernacular Gaelic speakers in Scotland. The best thing I could do in response to the criticism I received was to turn that number into 11,001. But in order to do so I would have to put my new found Gaelic language abilities to the test. I would have to speak Gaelic every day.

Unfortunately, in my house we only speak Russian, English and Polish. My husband is from a part of the Soviet Union that was part of Poland until 1939 and so he had grown up speaking Polish although it was forbidden. We had never spoken much Polish until a year or more ago, when he met some Poles here and I felt a bit left out being unable to understand what they were saying. So, with some encouragement and some help I began to learn Polish and eventually got to the stage where we could switch between English, Russian and Polish quite naturally. But what was I to do about becoming a vernacular Gaelic speaker?

The pandemic made it impossible for me to seek out Gaelic speakers in Aberdeenshire or even a Gaelic evening class, but when it became possible once more to travel within Scotland, I resolved that we would go to the Highlands once more in search not so much of An Gearasdan [Fort William] which I now knew to mean The Garrison, but of a Gaelic speaker with whom I could chat.

It was with joy that I saw my first Gaelic road sign again. All was clear now. I knew that A’ Mhanachainn [Beauly] meant The Monastry and that Drochaid a’ Bhanna, meant Bonar Bridge. I no longer was confused by the signs. I never missed my route. I felt indeed that my driving had improved and all due to the just criticism that I had received.

It was in Inverness that I first attempted to use Gaelic. Surely in the capital of the Highlands I would meet success. True I hadn’t heard anyone actually speaking Gaelic, but that must have been because of their Highland shyness. I went into the Tourist Information Centre. All of the signs were bilingual and I was certain that here at least I would have my first Gaelic conversation.

My initial question about places to see around Inverness was met with blank stares. I asked about A’ Mhanachainn, but no one seemed to know where it was. I wondered if there were any Gaelic speakers in the office, and there was, but unfortunately, I spoke too quickly for her and my vocabulary was rather more extensive. She had studied Gaelic at school, but spoke at the level of someone who had an O level in French. This was hardly vernacular speaking. My search continued.

I decided to revisit the place where I had spent a few years as a child. In those days there were no Gaelic road signs, but there were still quite a lot of Gaelic speakers. My childhood friends hadn’t spoken any Gaelic, for which reason I didn’t learn more than a few words, but I remembered that their parents and grandparents were fluent. Surely here I could practice my Gaelic.

We drove on a single-track road to what must be one of the remotest parts of mainland Scotland. There were Gaelic signs everywhere. Whatever I could possibly have wanted to know about the village and the area was available in both Gaelic and English. This must have had a beneficial effect on those who had remained after I left.

I was able to find some of my school friends now much older as was I. But when I tried to switch the initial conversation from English to Gaelic, I once more met blank stares. I continued my search in the pub and the restaurant and in the shops, but to my dismay I heard not a single word of Gaelic. In desperation I asked one of my old friends if there was anyone I could have a conversation in Gaelic with? I was told that the school teacher might speak Gaelic, but it turned out that her fluency was rather worse than mine. I asked her if there was anyone I could talk to. She thought that perhaps Fiona Mackenzie might be able to help. Fiona was now 85 and she was indeed a fluent Gaelic speaker. She was quite impressed with my ability to converse, but unfortunately, she kept switching back to English. I’m not used to speaking Gaelic anymore she told me. I asked who she talked to in Gaelic. I don’t very often she explained. It turned out that nearly everyone she knew spoke only English and that had become her habit too.

My Gaelic journey had come to an end. If I wanted to be a vernacular speaker my only option was to live with Fiona Mackenzie which would make commuting to Aberdeen rather difficult or else move to the Outer Hebrides or a small pocket on the tip of Skye.

I had put in enormous efforts to make up for my failure to appreciate the benefits of Gaelic road signs. I had done my bit to preserve Gaelic as a living language in Scotland, but it had turned out my goal of adding to the Gaelic vernacular speakers of Scotland was only going to be possible if I moved to one of the remotest and most sparsely populated villages in Scotland where the only speakers were in their eighties and nineties. This would obviously leave me quite quickly as the only Gaelic speaker in the village.

But still I recommend those who criticised me a year ago to take the same journey I did. They would then discover the utility of the Gaelic language. How it helps the learner to understand and pronounce road signs and avoid getting lost. Most importantly if enough Scots chose to make the effort to actually learn Gaelic, rather than merely support ever more funding for ever fewer speakers, I might be able to use the Gaelic that I learned. I will keep learning Gaelic in the hope that one day I will find someone in Aberdeenshire who speaks it rather than merely cares about its preservation, but I’m afraid the only languages that I will speak here will be Polish and Russian.

But at least I can watch BBC Alba and have atoned for the sin of thinking that Gaelic road signs were not useful.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.