Impireachd nan Gàidheal

Wee Ginger Dug delighted me a couple of days ago with this beautiful Gaelic map of Inverclyde, part of a series of maps of Scotland he plans to produce:


Yet because Mr Kavanagh is a Scottish Nationalist who just happens to be one of the most prominent advocates for our national languages, he was the subject of much criticism by the usual suspects within hours:


I can only assume Mr Gallagher is equally outraged by all the Spanish, French, and German maps of the UK which dare to “rebrand” Britain as linguistically Spanish/French/German…

They’ve insisted that Gaelic was never spoken in places which have Gaelic names. But no one in Edinburgh / Fife / Dumfries ever spoke Gaelic, they say, oblivious to the fact that all of those places contain significant numbers of Gaelic place names which prove that Gaelic was indeed once spoken there. In Scotland Unionist ignorance of Scottish linguistic history is touted as good sense and erudition. The truth is that Fife was at one time solidly Gaelic speaking, that Gaelic was still spoken in Dumfries and Galloway until the 18th century, and that there are plenty of Gaelic placenames in Midlothian created by Gaelic speakers who once lived in Edinburgh.

It’s a similar case in Inverclyde – one of those weird places, with a significant history of Highland & Irish diaspora, and absolutely saturated with Gaelic place names… where “nobody actually spoke Gaelic.” One wonders where they think the name Inverclyde comes from.


Obviously there’s a lot that can be gleaned from this map. In many locations, the Gaelic lineage – or at least familiarity – is easily recognisable: Guireag to Gourock (“rounded hill”); Grianaig to Greenock (“sandy/sunny place/hill”); Cille Mhaol Chaluim to Kilmacolm (“Church of St. Columba”); Achadh a’Phuill to Auchenfoyle (“Field of the Pool”); Loch Thom to… Loch Thom. Others require a bit of understanding of Gaelic pronunciation: Ironotter Point to Airigh na h-Oitire; Am Leabhan to Levan (“The Expanse”); Srath Ghriobhaidh to Strathgryfe (“Glen of the Rough Stream”); Bagh na h-Uaimhe to Wemyss Bay (“Bay of the Cave”); Aird a’ Ghobhainn to Ardgowan (“Point of the Smith”).

Some of the most interesting, though, are those place names which are indisputably English language, and are completely different when translated to Gaelic. Midton is Baile Meadhanach; Larkfield is Achadh na h-Uiseig; Langhouse is An Taigh Fada; Quarrier’s Village is Clachan Tochailteir; Blood Moss is Moine na Fala. That these names can be translated without loanwords (like poor old Port Ghlaschu and Dun Matilda) does not “erase” their original history, nor rewrite it: it simply changes the perspective from Anglocentric to Gaelocentric.

That’s what makes Paul’s maps so exciting: it lets us look at Scotland through the eyes of our nation’s ancient people, not just for the ancient castles and elder towns, but for new town and villages as well – towns which may not have a prominent Gaelic population right now, but stand on ground that Gaelic speakers trod.


The sheer antagonism of anything to do with Gaelic from so many British Nationalists is a bit bewildering: it isn’t as if Gaelic is going to be replacing English any time soon. Yet like people who fear influxes of immigrants are an existential threat to their nation (even when that nation has lasted literally centuries of constant immigration without losing their national identity), Anglocentrists seem to fear any minority language encroaching on the English hegemony. They can’t see the difference between refusing to be your inferior, and wanting to be your superior. A bit like the “why do you hate the English” supposition.

This is hardly unique to Gaelic, though. For decades, the city known to Marathi and Gujarati-speakers as Mumbai was called Bombay, because the ruling elite decided the Portuguese loanword was a better name for the city than the one used by their own inhabitants for centuries. The same elite decided that a name like Zimbabwe is no name for an African nation, when you could name it after a British mining company magnate instead. Sri Lanka was Ceylon; Ghana was the Gold Coast; Lesotho was Basutoland; Belize was Honduras; Malawi was Nyasaland. A map of the world from those times would be barely recognisable to today’s – not just because of borders.

Gaelic and English in Scotland is a balance of Endonyms and Exonyms: the names a people use for themselves, and the names people use for others. In Gaelic, Alba is our land’s endonym. Scotland started out as an exonym – but as the Scots language developed, and Scots began to use English, it became an endonym itself. Gaelic/Scots/English speakers don’t have a problem dwelling in multiple language-scapes, in common with a significant proportion of the world’s multilingual population: it’s only when you concentrate on the one language that it seems you get nervous around road signs.


Nonetheless, it isn’t as if Mr Gallagher is making up the idea of cultural imperialism. After all, things like this have happened before – dominant Imperial forces rewriting history to better serve their interests at the expense of truth. In India, the very history, culture, and language of the nation was traduced, replaced with that of a language from a far and foreign land:

I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813, that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied, that we are free to employ our funds as we choose, that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing, that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic, that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic, that neither as the languages of law nor as the languages of religion have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement, that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.


Zimbabwe, too, saw its history traduced and subverted by a racist ideology. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe were great, monumental, advanced. The settlers of what was then called Rhodesia claimed they couldn’t possibly have been built by native Africans. So they falsified a nation’s history: they concocted a romance of “foreign colonists” who built the ancient city’s cyclopean architecture, and went so far as to suppress and censor archaeological discoveries:

A few other Europeans who appeared to hold a different view from the colonial one were accused of being unpatriotic or worse, in secret conspiracy with black terrorists intent on overthrowing a well-ordered colonial society and so were either imprisoned or deported. One particular dissent voice was that of David Randall-McIver, an Egyptologist. In 1905 Randall-McIver managed to uncover artifacts which were very similar to the ones which were being used by the Karanga people living in the vicinity. The continuity of these artifacts suggested to him that the site had been built by people whose culture was similar. Apart from scoring a great milestone with his conclusion as regards the continuity of the artifacts, Randall-McIver managed also to demonstrate that the Arab and Persian beads were not older than the 14th or 15th Century and thus could not be dated back to the Biblical times and King Solomon. Yet another argument he advanced was that the stonework was not at all Arabic for it was curved and not arranged in geometric or symmetrical patterns. Subsequent research and digs on the site by J.F. Shofield in 1926 and Getrude Caton-Thompson in 1929 confirmed avid Randal-MacIver’s conclusions.

Despite, however, the mounting detailed evidence and archaeological testimony which was offered by this second group of archaeologists, most European settlers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) adamantly held on to their old view. To ensure that the findings of this second school of archaeologists received no public recognition, the Rhodesian Front began to censor all books and any information on Great Zimbabwe from 1965 till independence in 1980. It was openly an apartheid kind of system aimed at preventing Africans from gaining power. Kiami Nehussi was thus right to say,

[…] the fundamental form of enslavement of Africans by Arabs and Europeans during the MAAFA: the holocaust of Africans, has not been physical enslavement, but mental enslavement.

Perhaps, as with most things, the real problem British Nationalists have with Gaelic is one of reflection. British Nationalism has deep roots in Empire and the White Man’s Burden; that the Empire was, on balance, something to be proud of. A revival of Gaelic is not just about revitalising a minority language – it is an implicit statement against Anglocentrism, English hegemony, and the idea that teaching the natives English instead of their own language was a good thing. And since British Nationalists can only see a mirror when they judge other Nationalisms, on some level they perhaps fear that the “Gaelic Imperialists” would do to their culture what their culture did to Gaelic.

I suppose it’s inevitable. When your culture has spent centuries “bringing civilisation” to others, you must worry that someday, it could be your culture’s turn to be “civilised.”

(I know, it’s technically Gaeilge, shut up, Cruachan rock.)

*Special thanks to Wee Ginger Dug for noting the title should be genitive plural, which I’ve altered accordingly.


8 thoughts on “Impireachd nan Gàidheal

  1. Alex McDonald says:

    An interesting article, and educational too, right up to the first mention of “British Nationalists”. That’s where you and those like me who are Scottish but not nationalist, part company,

    • alharron says:

      It depends on your definition of Nationalism. My definition of Nationalism is simply the idea that a state and its government should be coterminous. Scottish Nationalism is the idea that Scotland should be a sovereign state: British Nationalism is the idea that Britain should be a sovereign state. Right now, the UK is sovereign; Scotland is not. Hence the difference.

      Unfortunately, Nationalism is frequently used as a synonym for Jingoism, Patriotism, or Chauvinism, all of which are distinct in their own way: it’s an attitude I disagree with, obviously, but it’s one a lot of people hold. Ah well.

  2. Tinto Chiel says:

    Well said, sir. You wear you erudition lightly and expose the ignorance of many who decry Gaelic and deny its long history in the Lowlands.

    Sadly, often those who know the least are the loudest and most assertive in expressing their views.

    It’s a strange attitude but it is part and parcel of The Scottish Cringe, I’m afraid, as they deny and denigrate their own culture

    I liked your international analogies also.

  3. David says:

    Good stuff, thanks. Looking at the map. I have played/coached rugby in Dùn Matilda, Cille Mhaol Chaluim, and Dùn Breatann; and got the ferry from Bagh na h-Uaimhe to play on err, Rothesayo. (Gaelic’s like Spanish, yeah?)
    And this is just one small part of Scotland, outside of the Gàidhealtachd heartland.

    P.S. If Wee Ginger Dug did dual-language maps, with Gaelic and Scots, I wonder how many unionist/Britnat heads would explode. 😉

  4. Jimbo says:

    It must be infuriating them that a language they thought they had almost eradicated is being given a new lease of life.

  5. Stop the people from speaking their language, erase it from the landscape, re-write the history books, erase the memories… the increasing force of the black hole of cultural / economic imperialism. In my native region, all of the villages, roads, coves, and post offices have official English names. All of the inhabitants use the traditional names. This has been going on for generations. But for how much longer can small cultures continue to wage such battles? It is particularly difficult when the fiercest battles must be fought against one’s own people who have been thoroughly colonised.

  6. […] September – Impireachd nan Gàidheal. I’m still a neophyte when it comes to Gaelic, about the Dotaman level. Like Mr Kavanagh, […]

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