Tuesday 12 February 2019

Gaelic in London, a very potted and personal history

by Antonia Senior

Some years ago, I gave my husband a present. We had been hill-walking in Scotland, and he was frustrated by his inability to understand and pronounce the names of the hills. A Glaswegian, he spoke only English (albeit an occasionally Glaswegian version). In the book tent at the Edinburgh Festival, there was a Gaelic section and I bought him a book on the language and its pronunciation.

It was the beginning of a deep and abiding interest in the language. Ten years later, and he is nearly fluent. Our holidays tend to have a Gaelic flavour - he won't go to the Isle of Arran because there are no native speakers. A trip to Canada for a wedding became a pilgrimage to the Gaelic language college of Nova Scotia.

This Summer, we are planning our trip to Scotland based around his one week trip to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic language college, on the Sleat peninsula in Skye. Is there a more stunningly located higher education college in the entire world?

Most of his exposure to the language, however, is in London, a city that feels distinctly unGaelic. But Gaelic in London has a long and proud history. The Gaelic Society of London was formed in 1777, The London Gaelic Choir (of which my husband is a member) found that some of its members' language skills were rusty. So in the 1880s the choir set up a London Gaelic class. The lessons were originally held at Crown Court Church.

This home of The Church of Scotland in Covent Garden is well worth visiting, incidentally. An unassuming door in the heart of Theatreland leads into a lovely, largeish church, entirely hidden in the folds of Covent Garden. Our youngest daughter was christened there.

In 1919, the City Lit further education college was set up, and the London Gaelic lessons moved there. Apart from a brief hiatus in World War One, there have been Gaelic lessons in London for the curious and the exiled since the 1880s.

The story of Gaelic itself is of course, far, far older. It is thought to have arrived in Scotland in the Sixth Century AD from Ireland. It quickly came to dominate, replacing the incumbent Pictish, about which nothing is known. Irish is still its closest cousin. Irish, Manx and Gaelic have grown apart over the past 1,000 years or so, but are recognisably close. Welsh and Breton have a similar Celtic root. None of them has much relationship with English, or its bastard cousin Scots, which makes Gaelic tricky for a non-native speaker to learn.

For much of its history, most Gaelic speakers were not literate in their own language. They could speak it fluently, but not read it or write it. So Highland soldiers writing home to their families in the war would often write home in halting English. Colin says that modern Gaelic speakers, by contrast, tend to be better at reading and writing the language than speaking it.

'It's bloody difficult,' he says. Often. While laughing at me for my complete failure to get anywhere in my attempts to learn the much easier Italian. Yet he perseveres, and he loves it. He points out that Twitter makes communicating in minority languages with other speakers much easier. You don't have to go to Lewis to have a conversation in Gaelic, you just go on Twitter.

Part of the attraction of the language is the access it gives to a treasury of historic songs and poems. My husband, to add to his many talents, is an incredibly good singer. He took part in an incredible evening of Gaelic songs and history last year at St Columba Church in Knightsbridge. Called Feeding the 50,000 it commemorated the church's role in feeding and caring for the Scottish soldiers who passed through London during World War 1.

Col has set up a website to pull together all the different strands of the Gaelic presence in London. https://gaelicinlondon.net.

1 comment:

Ruan Peat said...

I have been trying to learn on and off for decades, I must try harder! there are local Gaelic speakers in the local community, and we have one of the best mod choirs in the world here, but I am still trying to learn!
Thank you for this wonderful information and I must look for the church next time I am in London!