Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 17.10.19

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Gaelic has often been described as the language of the Garden of Eden because the people who use it are friendly, the landscape beautiful and the weather always lovely!

Wherever it had its roots, it was the native tongue of the Scotti, or Gaels, who settled in Dalriada (present-day Argyll) in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. By the 11th century, it had become the language of the Scottish crown and government and the population as a whole – at least those living north and west of the Clyde.

Gaelic has a rich oral and written tradition and was the language of the bards of the Highland clans for several hundred years. Its decline probably began in 1609 when Highland chiefs were forced by the Scottish government to send their heirs to Lowland Scotland to be educated in English-speaking Protestant schools. This was meant to ensure the next generation of local leaders were English speaking and Protestants.

Bards, who were the bearers of tradition, were outlawed, undermining the confidence of Highlanders. People would increasingly look to the new English speakers. Knowledge of the English language was soon regarded as a tool which would allow anyone to get a better job and be part of the new society.

Another blow came in 1746 after the battle of Culloden when the Gaelic language, wearing of Highland dress and playing of bagpipes were outlawed. But it is probably true to say that it wasn’t until the arrival of television in the mid 20th century that the decline accelerated.

Today, despite the Scottish government’s bold 2016-2021 Gaelic Language Plan and its hard-working Bord na Gaidhlig, it is still not the natural language of the playground, Twitter or Facebook.

If there was anywhere in Scotland where Gaelic flourished, it was in parts of the Highlands and Islands where the Reformation never reached. Some clans, the MacDonalds of Sleat and the MacDonalds of Harris, adopted Protestantism, while the Macleans of Mull and Morvern, the MacDonalds of Clanranald, Keppoch, Glengarry and Glencoe remained staunchly Roman Catholic.

There are places on the mainland which have remained predominantly Catholic to this day, including Moidart, Arisaig and Morar in the Rough Bounds, west of Fort William. In South Uist and Barra, where shrines of the Virgin Mary can be found by the road and on hillsides, it certainly doesn’t feel as though there is a divide between the Catholic faith and Scottish culture. Every year the parish priest blesses the fishing boats and faith is still a part of everyday life there.

The 2011 National Census shows that almost 58,000 people in Scotland are Gaelic speakers and a further 30,000 have some Gaelic language skills (in total around 1.7 per cent of the population). Not a large number, but for the first time in modern history there was an increase in the number of speakers aged under 25, even though the overall figure decreased slightly.

Andreas Wolff, the German-born BBC correspondent, multi-linguist and regular contributor to the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper, suggests that figure is set to rise. After a special Gaelic mass with Canon William Fraser in St Columba’s Cathedral, Oban, on September 7, attended by about 40 laity from across Argyll, Andreas held a meeting of Comann Gàidhlig Caitligeach – the Catholic Gaelic Society – which he founded in Uddingston on July 13 this year.

‘The main aim of the CGS,’ he said, ‘is to promote the use of Gaelic in the church. First and foremost, we want to work with priests to increase their knowledge of the language and their confidence to use it. Eventually we hope to employ a Gaelic development officer as the Church of Scotland has just done. We have the blessing of Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and the Isles.’

The rector of the Scots College in Rome, Fr Dan Fitzpatrick, said: ‘There is obviously a Gaelic revival in Scotland with the Gaelic-medium schools, which have the backing of the government, and I know some Catholic families who send their children to those schools and speak highly of them.’

Fr Colin MacInnes, parish priest of St Mary’s Church, Benbecula, said: ‘There is a lot that can be done to help revive Gaelic within the liturgy. There are bodies out there like Bord na Gàidhlig who can offer great support. We have to move and request it. I have two Gaelic masses per month which are entirely spoken and preached in Gaelic.’

Fr Ross Crichton, parish priest of St Michael’s Church, Eriskay, said: ‘Work is under way updating our Gaelic prayer resources and hymn books, some of which haven’t been altered since the 1960s or before the Second Vatican Council. Although there are substantial pockets of Gaelic speakers on the mainland, there are seven parishes in the diocese where Gaelic is used habitually – principally in the Western Isles – but there are only four active priests who can speak the language fluently.

‘After 13 years of priestly ministry in the islands, Gaelic is very much part of my daily life and pastoral work. When mass is celebrated in Gaelic, there is sometimes a lack of confidence in saying the responses, especially among the younger generation.

‘If Gaelic is used as the language of private devotion at home, it will provide a stronger foundation for using it in a communal liturgical context.’

Fr Ross plans to publish a new book of Gaelic devotions along the lines of ‘lul a’ Chriosdaidh’, first published in 1963, as a way of encouraging prayer in the home in Gaelic.

The late Canon John Angus MacDonald was involved in an ecumenical project to translate the New Testament into contemporary Gaelic. It was published recently and is available from the Scottish Bible Society.

Reading from Genesis, Fr Jarosław Kwiecień, who preached during the mass at the founding of the CGS, said that by wanting to return to the land of their forefathers, they wanted to return to God Himself. He compared the situation to our society. ‘By giving more time and more attention to Gaelic, we are going back home, back to the roots, to the heritage of this country. In a way, we are returning to the country of our forefathers.’ He added this was true to a certain degree even for those present who weren’t Scottish, as they wanted to go there, too.

The Catholic Gaelic Society, whose annual fee is a modest £5, welcomes more members. Further information can be found on Facebook @GaidhligCaitligeach or by contacting Andreas Wollf by email on This worthwhile society will only flourish if people lend it their support.

Iain Thornber