Scotland’s Language Myths: 2. Public signs in Scottish languages are nationalist propaganda


To read our 10 part series on the ‘History of Scottish Languages’ click: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Myth 2. Public signs in Scottish languages are nationalist propaganda

by Paul Kavanagh

There’s a widespread Unionist myth that promoting Gaelic and Scots is politically motivated and aims to further the nationalist agenda, and that it’s artificial and contrived.  What is actually most striking about Scottish nationalism is just how little the language issue figures in the political debate.  In other stateless European nations the language issue is often fundamental, in Scotland the debate largely revolves around economics.  Cultural factors, linguistic or otherwise, rarely get much of a look-in.

This doesn’t seem to be a recent state of affairs either.  Throughout history the inhabitants of Scotland have exhibited a remarkable propensity to play musical chairs with languages.   This has given Scotland a rich and complex linguistic heritage which no other European nation can equal.  It also means that Scottish identity is not tied to the use of a single language in the way that Basque identity is closely bound up with the Basque language, or Welsh identity with the Welsh language.  The Scots do not define themselves by reference to a single language and many, perhaps most, would be offended by the suggestion that someone who spoke Gaelic or traditional Scots was ‘more Scottish’ than a Scot who only spoke English with a Scottish accent.   Any Scottish nationalist with half a brain knows that although the language issue is culturally important, it will not do a great deal to further the cause of independence.

In recent years the increased public presence of Gaelic has excited some comment in the media, often negative.   The implication is usually that there is some nefarious nationalist plot afoot, and that reintroducing the Gaelic language into the Lowlands is an artificial and contrived way of creating differences between Scotland and England.  The public presence of Gaelic is perceived by some as an unsettling example of a nationalist political agenda.

A recent example is this piece by Ian Jack in the Guardian in which he expresses his ‘sadness’ on seeing a bilingual English/Gaelic name plate sign at Cardonald railway station in Glasgow.  Jack perceives this as the articifical Gaelicisation of Lowland Scotland.

Jack shows the ignorance typical of the Scottish Unionist media commentariat.  He attempts to cast doubt on the Gaelic version of the place name Cardonald Cathair Dhòmhnaill saying it is P-Celtic (ie. Cumbric) and introducing the irrelevant fact that in the 15th century the land was owned by a person with a name of Norman origin.  He conveniently overlooks the fact that there are many unarguably Gaelic place names in the Glasgow area, far more than there are Cumbric names. 1.

The place name Cathair Dhòmhnaill is a perfectly respectable Gaelic compound name containing a Gaelic personal name and an initial element which may have been borrowed from the Cumbric language into Gaelic.  However the initial element Car-, spelled cathair in modern Sc. Gaelic, also occurs in Irish place names where there can be no possibility that it is due to local Cumbric speakers.  (In the English spelling of Irish names Car- is written Caher-.)  The word was in fact borrowed into both Old Irish and Brittonic from British Latin and was widespread in Gaelic.  It was also found in Cumbric, but its existence in a modern Scottish place name is no guarantee that the name was created by Cumbric speakers.

The name Cardonald may have been created by Cumbric speakers on lands owned by a person with a Gaelic name.  Alternatively it’s just possible that the personal name was originally the Cumbric Dinwallt which was phonetically adapted into Gaelic, however there’s no evidence to support this.  The place name was more likely to have been created by Gaelic speakers.

The earliest attestation spells the name Cardownalde which is clearly a reflection of a mediaeval Gaelic pronunciation, a Cumbric name would have produced something like *Cardinwall.  Modern Sc. Gaelic Cathair Dhòmhnaill is not in any way an artificial Gaelicisation.

Whether the placename was originally created by Cumbric speakers or Gaelic speakers, the phonetic form of the modern name establishes without doubt that it was transmitted into Lowland Scots via Gaelic.  That fact is enough to prove that the inhabitants of the Glasgow area were once Gaelic speakers.

With this one badly chosen example Jack attempts to cast doubt on the whole of Lowland Gaelic.  The very real history of the Gaelic language in Glasgow is dismissed as inauthentic and a cause for “sadness”.  What’s truly sad however is the appalling ignorance of professional people who are employed to comment on Scottish culture in the British media.  None of the information I have given above is difficult to find, even for a non-linguist like Ian Jack.

In fact Gaelic only enjoys “perks” such as railway station name signs due to the decision of the UK government to ratify chapter 3 of the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages in respect of Gaelic, Welsh and Irish (in Northern Ireland).  Signing up to chapter 3 of this treaty obliged the UK government to ensure that education is available in those languages, that there are radio and/or TV channels broadcasting in them, and that they are given increased public visibility on road signs and other public information signs.  The UK government committed itself to ensuring that as far as possible citizens who speak Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or Irish should be able to deal with the state in their own language and that these languages should be guaranteed a public presence.  The public presence of Gaelic is due to decisions made by Unionist politicians in Westminster, nationalist plots do not get a look in.

Although Holyrood has responsibility for implementing language policy in areas of devolved government, it can only do so within the remit and funding determined by Westminster.  In terms of the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages, the Scottish government merely acts as an agent of Westminster.  In other areas of government and administration, such as the all important field of broadcasting and the media, language policy is entirely determined by the UK government.

Even so, although it’s the Scottish government and local authorities who often have the responsibility for the implentation of language policies, in Scotland the political complexion of a local authority does not appear to make much difference to its willingness or otherwise to promote Scottish languages.  For example the SNP/Lib Dem controlled Fife council did not change the decision of the previous Labour administration not to be included the National Plan for Gaelic.  Although they are unquestionably more sensitive to the issues affecting Scottish languages, when in office Scottish nationalists do not generally prioritise the language issue.  Far less do they force unwilling Lowlanders to learn Gaelic.

Despite the contrived and factually inaccurate nature of Jack’s complaint, there is actually a point lurking somewhere beneath the layers of Unionist prejudice.  The European treaty commitments of the UK government have given Gaelic a public profile which is denied to Lowland Scots.  For example signage in the Scottish Parliament building is in English and Gaelic despite the fact that when Scotland had her own independent Parliament the parliamentary language was neither English nor Gaelic, it was Scots.

So whilst the increased public presence of Gaelic should be supported and extended, it still doesn’t give the full story.

This state of affairs is also a direct result of the actions and decisions of Unionist politicians in Westminster.  Westminster officially recognises the existence of the Scots language as a minority language in need of protection, and has ratified the European Charter in respect of Scots.  (Those who claim that only Scottish nationalists declare Scots to be a language should be referred to this decision.)  However the UK government has only ratified chapter 2 of the Charter in respect of Scots.  Chapter 2 ratification offers an endangered language a much lower grade of protection.

In essence, the provisions of chapter 2 merely commit the government of the UK to mutter a few platitudes in support of Scots, they do not commit the UK government to provide Scots language education nor to ensure that the language has a public presence nor to permit Scots speaking citizens to deal with government agencies through the medium of Scots.  The UK government has no international treaty obligation to create a radio or TV channel in Scots.  As a consequence Gaelic enjoys dedicated TV and radio channels even though only some 60,000 Scots speak or understand the language, yet the Scots language is almost invisible in the Scottish media and its public presence is effectively zero – even though the language almost certainly has more active speakers than Gaelic.  The number of people who understand Scots is considerably greater.

It is impossible to give accurate figures for numbers of Scots speakers, since there was no language question relating to Scots in previous censuses.  Thankfully due to a concerted campaign by Scots language activists, and aided by the sympathetic SNP administration in Edinburgh, for the first time ever a question on the use of Scots will be included in this year’s census.

That a campaign was necessary is also a consequence of the UK government’s failure to ratify chapter 3 of the Charter in respect of Scots.  The UK government is not obliged to collect any statistics regarding use of the language.  No language maintenance or revival programme can be effective in the absence of reliable statistics.

But let’s suppose Scots was granted protection and funding equal to Gaelic.  Would Jack’s “sadness” be assuaged if public signs and notices in the Glasgow area were trilingual in English, Scots and Gaelic?  Somehow I suspect it wouldn’t.

Unionist complaints about Gaelic usually centre on the supposed artificiality of a Gaelic place name signs in an area which – they incorrectly claim – was never Gaelic speaking, or the supposed artificiality of using a language in an area where it now has few speakers.  Attempts to provide Scots with a public presence raise a different claim of artificiality, the claim that the Scots written language is itself artificial.  Somehow in this view when Scots is used for anything other than telling jokes, engaging in banter or the occasional vernacular poem it ceases to be ‘real’.  When Hugh Macdiarmid and others made a few tentative steps towards creating a viable literary standard for Scots in the 1920s it was widely condemned as Synthetic Scots.

If a fresh attempt were to be made to develop a variety of Scots for use on public signs, there would be a predictable reaction.  Instead of writing articles for the Guardian about how sad they are to see a supposedly unhistoric use of Gaelic, people like Ian Jack would instead be penning articles about how sad they are that the genuine Scots of spoken dialects was being replaced by an ‘artificial’ variety all in the name of stirring up nationalist sentiment.  They’d make this complaint even though they themselves make not the slightest effort to use Scots dialects in their own writing or to encourage or promote Scots dialect writing.

Although in general nationalists tend to be more sympathetic to Scottish languages, they’re often not sympathetic enough to do anything about them.  For many our traditional languages are rather like elderly aunts.  We trot them out on special occasions but then pack them back off to the care home as soon as possible.  God forbid anyone should suggest we ask Auntie Gaelic or Auntie Scots to come and live with us.

The Gaelic and Scots languages belong to all Scottish people irrespective of their political views.  People who accuse the movements to promote and protect Scottish languages of political nationalism or ‘creating separatism’ are trying to create an identification in the public mind between Scottish languages and a particular political stance.

In fact it’s those who make the accusation that Scottish language activists are politicising the languages for nationalist ends who are the ones who are themselves politicising the languages.  In so doing they threaten the future of Scottish languages, and damage and diminish the cultural heritage of all Scottish people.


1. Some Gaelic names in the Glasgow area

AuchenshuggleAchadh an t-Seaghail ‘the rye field’

BarmullochBarr a’ Mhullaich ‘the hill of the summit’

BarlinneBlàr Lànach ‘the swampy plain’

BlochairnBlàr a’ Chàirn ‘the plain of the cairn’

CambuslangCamus nan Long ‘the riverbend of the ships’

CrossmyloofCrois Mo Liubha ‘the cross of St. Malieu’

CumbernauldComar nan Allt ‘the confluence of the streams’

DalmarnockDàil m’ Earnaig ‘the field of St. Ernoc’

DrumchapelDruim a’ Chapaill ‘the ridge of the horse’

Drumoyne Druim Uaine ‘the green ridge’

DrumryDruim an Ruighe ‘the ridge of the shieling’

DumbreckAn Dùn Breac ‘the speckled fort’

GarscaddenGart Sgadain ‘the herring yard/enclosure’

GartnavelGart nan Ubhal ‘the apple yard’

IbroxAth Bruic ‘the ford of the badger’

Milngavie – possibly either Muileann Dhàibhidh ‘Davie’s mill’ or Muileann na Gaoithe ‘the windmill’

PolmadiePol Mac Dheagh ‘the pool or stream of Deagh’s son’

YokerAn Eochair ‘the riverbank’


Read P1,  Scotland’s language myths: 1. Scots is a dialect of English


Also see the article Glasgow Neighbourhoods by Simon Taylor, hosted on the Glasgow Story website.