Opinion: Gaelic signs are a spurious SNP vanity project? Grow up

Malcolm Combe

Malcolm Combe dispels myths surrounding Gaelic signage.

Every so often, to an unpredictable timetable, the Scottish commentariat arrives at the issue of bilingual English/Gaelic signage. This happened again on 12 May, when Scotsman 200 contributor Eliot Wilson saw such a sign in a station, then penned an article.

Nationalists, we are told, want a piece of the hay made by republicans in Northern Ireland. The headline proclaims Gaelic signs are a spurious vanity project for the SNP. The thing is, they are demonstrably no such thing.

Associating all things Gaelic with the SNP is questionable. The key legislation about Gaelic – the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 – was enacted by a Labour and Liberal Democrat administration.

Various other measures of continuing relevance to Gaelic (such as the Scottish Land Court Act 1993, the Local Government (Gaelic Names) (Scotland) Act 1997, and more) were not enacted by the SNP. All the SNP can be thanked for is not sinking what was already afloat.

Meanwhile, at an international level, it is the UK that is signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Of course, governments also spend money. Even then, the Scottish Government has not insisted on instant replacement of signage, and, once again, Gaelic signage was introduced before the SNP got near minority or majority government.

The fact there are no Gaelic monoglots is also used by Wilson as a stick to beat the language with.

This is an argument so simplistic, it does not even deserve engaging with. I grew up in Renfrewshire, with one Gaelic speaking parent. I went to English medium primary and secondary schools and only occasionally used Gaelic outside my family setting. As an adult, my Gaelic is passable, although it could be better. Why am I telling you this? Because it matters to a musing I had on a train that I have retained.

I used to travel from Milliken Park to Glasgow Central on a regular basis. One day, Milliken Park’s old signs were replaced with new bilingual signage. Seeing them was like an epiphany. The words came to life and a place name that previously meant nothing sang to me, as I unlocked its meaning on seeing the Gaelic form.

Okay, people from Johnstone don’t regularly call the station Pairc Mhaolagain, but that isn’t the point. Policies such as bilingual signage and Gaelic-medium education outwith what Wilson refers to as a Gaelic “fringe” are perfectly sensible steps that allow Gaelic to be a language in all of Scotland.

These are precisely the steps that would have improved my linguistic opportunities growing up.

Other countries function with more than one linguistic tradition: the Swiss somehow muck along with four languages on their banknotes.

Can Scotland not be grownup enough to recognise some people can and do view Scotland through a Gaelic prism, without suddenly making it about the SNP?

  • Malcolm Combe is a lecturer in law at the University of Aberdeen. He is writing in a personal capacity. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.

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