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Writing with Gaelic: a bilingual blessing

Award-winning writer Donald Murray shares his insight into the joys of writing bilingually

Audience: Writers

Last updated: 16 February 2023

Notebook, coffee and smartphone on a table

I have always felt blessed by being bilingual. Gaelic, my other tongue, has provided me with another way in which I can see the world. It performs its magic each time I glance out at the small bay I can see from the front window of my home. Diving into the sea is the ‘sulaire’ or ‘gannet’; its Gaelic name similar to ‘suil’ or ‘eye’. That word reminds me of the power and exactitude of its sight, that astonishing ability to pinpoint the whereabouts of a sliver or two of fish. Racing around the shoreline are a clutch of oyster catchers.

These black and white birds with their orange, fluorescent beaks have a number of Gaelic names

These black and white birds with their orange, fluorescent beaks have a number of Gaelic names. The one which I was familiar with in my childhood was the onomatopoeic ‘trillichean’, echoing the piercing notes of that bird’s cry. However, it is also known by the word ‘gille-brighde’ or ‘Bridget’s man’. Their black wings like tiny crosses, their presence takes me back to the days of the early Christian saints - like Columba and Moluag - who once preached upon these shores.

And so it is with the moors I have walked across in my time. The short-eared owl I used to glimpse in Uist is - in Gaelic - bestowed with the name ‘cailleach oidhche’ or ‘old woman of the night’, a tribute to the soft beat of the wings with which - moth-like - it approaches its prey. There is, too, the ‘guilbneach’ or ‘curlew’, that first term a reminder the Gaels noted that these birds wept above that barren landscape many centuries before great poets like Dylan Thomas and Norman MacCaig heard the bubble of tears within their cries. And then there are the other words that allow us to see our country and its wildlife in strange and different ways. The ‘curracag’ for ‘lapwing’. The ‘snipe’ sometimes called the ‘eun-ghabhrag’ for its habit of mounting the air with the stirring of its wings resembling the fevered bleating of a goat. (‘Naosg’, I would call it; the sounds of that bird haunting the twilight of my teenage years, especially on these occasions when I sauntered down to the next village for a pint in our local pub.)

These birds of moor and shore helped spawn a special idiom for the Gaels, their own method of looking at the universe of which we are part. ‘Tha I’ na eun air leth,’ they would say of some individual who was seen as a loner, claiming she was a bird separate from the flock. Or they might sniff dismissively when they considered the bad behaviour of an individual who came from some particular household. ‘Cha d’thainig eun glan a-riamh a’ nead a’chlamhain,’ they would say. ‘A clean bird never came from a buzzard’s nest’.

Each native language contains its own landscape

We should be reminded of words like these each occasion there is an issue about spending on Gaelic education and some monolingual buzzard flaps out of his (or her) own nest, decrying the tongue and all that the wonders that it contains. They fail to realise that each native language - both Gaelic and Scots - contains its own landscape, summing up within its parts the unique way a country’s inhabitants have seen their world for centuries. As the great Nobel prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, himself able to communicate in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and English, once wrote about the limitations of Esperanto:

"An international language would miss all the idiosyncrasies of ordinary languages created by a natural process."

And so it with our increasingly international language of English if we ever lost Gaelic or Scots. There are times when its vision, its way of seeing our countryside, constrains us, preventing us from noting all that occurs within our hearing and sight. It is in some ways the eccentricities that are contained within another tongue, particularly a native one, that free us, allowing us to see the world in a fresh, new way, one that can never be glimpsed by those who are tied and fixed to one language.

It is in some ways the eccentricities that are contained within another tongue, particularly a native one, that free us

All this, of course, is never noticed by our more fervent monolinguals. So ensconced are they in the narrow straits of their own landscape and language, they are unconscious of the fact that much of the history, topography and wildlife of their own country is Gaelic, a fact that can be seen within many of the nation’s place-names, the words we attach to many of our towns, villages, rivers and mountain-tops.

In order to assist them in this process, can I suggest that they undertake a few simple steps basic - I find - to the entire writing task? They could lift themselves out of their armchairs and explore the countryside nearby. If they did this, they could even discover that - with the exception of Orkney, Shetland, east Caithness and some parts of the Borders - much of this is both marked and mapped by the Gaelic tongue.

And if they did this, they could discover, too, a new way of seeing, one that might just surprise them the next time they went out to view the well-worn familiarity of their world.