On Saturday I was back in Aberdeen. The Granite City sparkles in this glorious weather. A friend was celebrating a very important birthday with a ceilidh. It was a very sweet occasion.
Ceilidh is an interesting word. Chambers: in Scotland and Ireland, an informal evening of song, story and dancing. But in Gaelic, ceilidh has a more general meaning. Dwelly: gossiping, visiting, visit. These definitions remind me of the world of Jane Austen. You might say her six novels are a depiction of a series of ceilidhs. She says of Mrs Bennet’s life, “its solace was visiting and news.” I confess on Saturday I did rather more gossiping than Scottish country dancing. Terpsichore, the Muse of the Dance, gave me the body swerve. I’ve never mastered the intricacies of the Eightsome Reel and Strip the Willow, especially the Orcadian variety. There’s a Cary Grant – Ingrid Bergman film in which Grant finds himself floundering around in a Scottish country dance. It’s very amusing. I am Grant, minus the elegance. I did however manage the occasional shuffle. I would not wish to be Mr Darcy, hanging around, aloof. Who is that haughty man? Miss Bennet would tease me remorselessly. Alas Mr Darcy, there will be dancing. That’s the thing about a Ball. And it would be appalling not to celebrate Auld Lang Syne, even if the occasion under the Millennium Dome, when Mr Blair joined hands with Her Majesty, was excruciating.
Meanwhile the result of the Irish referendum confirmed Friday’s exit poll with a two to one yes vote in favour of the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution. Now there is pressure on Northern Ireland to follow suit in revising the most conservative abortion laws in Europe. Because the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for nearly a year and a half, this pressure is being put on Westminster. Interestingly enough, one of the main stumbling blocks to reconvening Stormont is that Sinn Fein and the DUP can’t see eye to eye over the Irish language. Language gets politicised. In Scotland, Gaelic evokes similar antagonism. People write angry letters into the newspapers complaining about the expense of producing bilingual signs at railway stations. The Scottish Government recently put a modest sum behind a particular promotion of the Gaelic language, and an article appeared in the Herald asking the question, “If Gaelic is dying does it deserve a £2.5m kiss of life?” In the article, the writer compared the sound of somebody speaking Gaelic to that of somebody gargling with Irn Bru.
That remark really pulled me up short. Imagine if somebody had said that of Urdu, or Yiddish.
(Incidentally, I see that Mr Trump has banned Irn Bru from Trump Turnberry. He says it stains the carpets. Maybe he’ll impose a similar embargo on red wine.)
But to return to the ceilidh for a moment, I was gossiping with a couple who the previous day had spent fifteen hours out on the hill and had climbed the five Munros of the Fisherfield. There used to be six, but Beinn a’Chlaidheimh got demoted in 2012. The remaining five are: Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Beinn Tarsuinn, A’Mhaighdean, and Ruadh Stac Mor. Most of us have difficulty pronouncing these names. Most of the 282 Scottish Munros have Gaelic names, and we can’t read them. We find we are illiterate. Our ancient homeland has become strange to us.
An analogous situation exists in New Zealand. Most of the place names are Maori. I am convinced that the predominant New Zealand national culture is Maori. The difference is that in New Zealand this culture is held in reverence, and protected through the Treaty of Waitangi.
Even a writer as profoundly English as George Orwell recognised the value of protecting Gaelic culture. Read “As I please, 73: Poles in Scotland; Scottish Nationalism”: “At one time I would have said that it is absurd to keep alive an archaic language like Gaelic… Now I’m not so sure… If people feel they have a special culture which ought to be preserved, and that the language is part of it, difficulties should not be put in their way when they want their children to learn it properly.”
If you lose the language, you lose the culture. If you lose the culture, you lose – well – everything. Then you can say: “Now there’s ane end a’ ane auld sang.”
But not yet. It was a wonderful ceilidh. And we are alive and well.
Ceud mile fàilte!