Scottish railways, Scottish languages, and Scottish maps

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by Paul Kavanagh

Click here to read this article in Gaelic
Click here to read this article in Scots

Scotland’s national languages have traditionally been excluded from public signs and notices.  This began to change slowly in the latter part of the 20th century and into today and Gaelic now has a small but increasing usage on signs and notices in public places.  In the Parliament building all public signage is in English and Gaelic, giving Gaelic equal dignity and respect at Holyrood – which is exactly how it should be.  Gaelic still has a long way to go before it is commonplace to see public signs and notices in the language, but a secure foothold has now been established.

Gaelic speakers use trains too.  In 1996 Scotrail began to use the Gaelic version of names on railway station name signs.  To begin with only stations north of Inverness and those on the West Highland Line received bilingual signage – generally with the Gaelic version below the English version – but Scotrail has slowly increased its coverage.  From March 2010 bilingual English-Gaelic name signs began to appear on stations in the Lowlands as signage was renewed in Scotrail’s newly branded ‘Saltire’ style.  

Provision of Gaelic station signs is still patchy.  As Scotrail renews station signage, monolingual signs will be replaced by bilingual signs.  Not everywhere in Scotland which has an officially recognised Gaelic name has bilingual station signs but as station signs are replaced due to natural wear and tear, Gaelic names ought to become more visible across the network.  

I applaud the decision of Scotrail to roll out Gaelic station signage.  Giving the language a public presence, especially on major transport routes, firmly establishes that Scotland is its own country with its own distinct linguistic heritage. There ought to be Gaelic signage at every single train station in Scotland.

But Gaelic station names only give a part of our story, everything that applies to Gaelic applies to Lowland Scots too.  Yet Lowland Scots names have no presence anywhere at all on the railway network, or just about anywhere else for that matter.  This is unfair.  Scots is equally deserving of respect and recognition.  Scotland has two national languages, and both are equally the national languages of all of Scotland.  What we as a society do for Gaelic, we should also do for Scots.

It’s time I came out of the closet.  I’m not just a languages geek, I’m a train geek too.  It’s my private shame, although I swear blind I’ve never stood at the end of a station platform and don’t possess an anorak.  A couple of months ago I tried to obtain a map of Scotland’s Gaelic railway stations, but was unable to find one.  Recent publicity and information material does show Gaelic station names along with English, but I wanted a Gaelic map of all of Scotland’s railway lines, showing all the stations in the country.

To my surprise I discovered that such a map isn’t available in English, never mind Gaelic or Scots.  There are maps of mainline routes, maps of regional routes and commuter routes, but no single schematic map that shows all the railway lines and stations in the country.

So I decided to create one and to make it freely available here on Newsnet.  I took the excellent railway map of Strathclyde, itself based upon the classic 1931 design for depicting the London Underground network, and extended it to cover the whole of Scotland.  I had to simplify the routes shown somewhat, but all Scottish passenger railway lines and train stations are shown on this new map.  I’ve done the map in English, Gaelic and Scots.  

I hope these maps will help to spark debate about providing officially recognised names for our towns, cities and villages, in all three of our national languages – as well as giving us a fun new way to get lost on the Scottish railway network.  

On the Gaelic map the names are officially recognised names, where such exist.   ‘Official’ for Gaelic I defined as appearing in the Ainmean Àite na h-Alba database or in the list of Gaelic place names produced for Holyrood civil servants by Iain Mac an Tàilleir.  Names without official recognition are marked with an asterisk.

No Lowland Scots name is officially recognised, in fact some might even contend that it’s not possible to produce a map of Scotland in Scots.  I beg to differ.  All the Scots names given on the Scots map should be taken as unofficial and provisional.  

Some may disagree with my choice of names in Scots or Gaelic.  I’m certainly not asserting that the unofficial names I’ve given on these maps are the ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ versions, which is why non-official Gaelic names have been clearly marked as such.

I did the maps for two main reasons.  Firstly I did them because we should establish the principle that all places in Scotland ought to have officially recognised names in English, Gaelic and Scots and that it’s perfectly possible to provide acceptable Gaelic and Scots names for every place in the country.  And we should establish the principle that Gaelic and Scots should be used on maps.   

There’s no reason a place needs to remain without a Gaelic name just because there is no traditional Gaelic name for it.  Gaelic and Scots are not museum pieces after all, they are living breathing languages.  To be a living language means a language is used creatively and expressively. When a language ceases to be used creatively it dies.

And secondly, perhaps more importantly, I just wanted to see what maps of Scotland in Gaelic and Scots would look like.   They provide a different view of our country, a decidedly non-English language view.  It’s a view we all need to have, at least occasionally, to remind ourselves of an important part of who we are.

Maps have been occupying much of my time recently.  As well as these railway maps I am in the final stages of producing a large road map of Scotland.  This map contains over 1800 names and I have done two versions, one in Gaelic and one in Scots.  We hope to publish these maps on Newsnet in the near future.  We also hope to produce print copies.

I’d like to thank Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh for all his help in producing the Gaelic maps and for translating this article into far more elegant Gaelic than I could hope to manage myself.