Sunday, 20 December 2015

In search of Gaelic - Glasgow

I would love to have the time and resources to devote to a full-time course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, but my job in London and my wee dog Dougal put paid to that. Fortunately, living simply in an Airstream trailer means that I only have to work 50%, and as I work in the travel industry I can do a ton of extra shifts during the holiday seasons, then take extra time off during term time.

That is exactly what I did this autumn. I took time off which meant I only needed to go back to London every fortnight, giving me four clear runs of 10 days in Glasgow. Commuting was done on the Caledonian Sleeper, and what a wonderful way to travel that is:

On the first set of days off, I headed on up to the Isle of Lewis in search of Gaelic (see earlier blog entry), then on the next three blocks I stayed in the city itself.

What a brilliant time I had. It is fair to say that if you have the time, and the devotion, you can find a stack of Gaelic in the city.

If you look at the Gaelic Map of Glasgow, you'll see that there are opportunities galore for structured learning, but not so many 'drop in' sessions of the kind I was looking for.

A great place to start when looking for more informal Gaelic events is the An Lòchran website (click on the name) where you can find a list of events coming up. Be warned that many events are only listed a week or so before they take place, so keep checking back. 

I hit jackpot as soon as I landed in Glasgow, as there was a stack of events going on.

First off was the Gaelic music session at the Lios Mòr (Lismore) pub in Partick on the first Wednesday of the month. I went along and for the first hour enjoyed the music but didn't really know anybody. However, Calum (of Beag Air Bheag fame) introduced himself to me and we had a good chat for half an hour in Gaelic, then I met a really nice guy MB who was also a more advanced learner, and we chatted for the rest of the night. It was a brilliant evening. I guess, though, like any pub night, you will have some nights that are quiet and others that are terrific.

Two nights later on the Friday night I was in the basement of the Argyll Hotel on Sauchiehall Street at Àdamh O' Broin's event, the An Gealbhan social. The night I went was a quiet night and my Gaelic wasn't quite up to the fluency of the others there, but it was a fun and interesting evening.

Next day, by pure luck, the Irish/Scottish group Gaels Le Cheile put on a day of language classes, aimed mainly at those looking to learn Irish Gaelic but also with sessions for those of us looking to improve our Scottish Gaelic. As such, I spent a fantastic day with the brilliant Joy Dunlop, going through a ton of pronounciation exercises and other really useful stuff. The event was, sadly, under-subscribed but I wonder if that's because there wasn't a huge amount of advance notice given. I would seriously take a day off work and make the trek from Dover to Glasgow for another session like that.

Finally, the following Wednesday, I made the journey back to Partick for the lunchtime session at the Gaelic Bookshop (An Lèanag) with Inbhich gu Fileanteas, a structured two hour weekly session for those looking to improve their Gaelic fluency. It was a super crowd and I was made to feel warmly welcome. The two hour session is led by two separate fluent Gaelic speakers and it was a really worthwhile experience; so much so that I shall be heading back hopefully once every month or two just to catch up with them all as work and finances allow.

Let's not forget that there are plenty of other opportunities in Glasgow to put your Gaelic skills to test, whether it is craic at the Park Bar or one of the many other formal learning events that take place through the university or through An Lòchran.

Sadly, the combination of migraine attacks and needing to go to work at weekends curtailed my activities and I didn't get to as many events as I had originally planned. But I have to say, if you're looking for somewhere to go and practice your Gaelic and you are prepared to 'put yourself out there', Glasgow is definitely the place. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Beag Air Bheag - The Broadcast

So... following on from the entry about 'Learner of the Week',  the interview itself has now been broadcast! Don't worry if you missed it, here are a few links for you:

To play the entire programme (Series 3, Programme 9) click on this line here. The interview on the finished programme is split into three parts, and you can hear this at 01:54, at 18:18, and at 52:12. This link and timings are correct until 10/1/16.

Or you can download the podcast by selecting Series 3 Programme 9 from the page clicking this line here. Interview timings may change as the music gets cut from the podcast.

Or, if you're REALLY REALLY bored, you can listen to the entire 26 minutes of interview (which was not broadcast in full due to time constraints) by clicking on this line. 

Needless to say, when it was broadcast on Sunday night I was very, very excited and more than a little bit nervous.

It is at this point I digress to mention a bit of TV work some friends of mine did. They were approached by a downmarket TV company and asked if they could be filmed to make a programme about caravanning. Some of my friends agreed, thinking it would help promote a pastime that they enjoyed.

What happened? About 20 hours of footage was edited to a preconceived agenda and it portrayed everyone in a really, really, bad light. If they said 98% good things and 2% daft things, the 98% of good was edited out, and the 2% daft was left in, to sensationalise the subject and portray the people involved in a negative light. Exactly the same footage could have been edited to produce a completely different portrayal. It was trash television at its worst.

My interview with Iain for Beag Air Bheag lasted about 35 minutes. Again, this could have been edited one of two ways for the 10-15 minutes that was finally broadcast. A cheap sensationalist who wanted to make me look stupid could have taken out all the good bits and left in all the pauses, stutters, and mistakes.

However, I was absolutely delighted (and more than a touch relieved) that the interview had been edited as kindly and as sympathetically as possible, editing out some of the massive clangers and stutters, and leaving in the bits that make me sound like I actually know what I'm talking about. If you listen to the full 26 minute interview, you'll hear that I'm nowhere near as fluent and correct as the 'final cut'.


It wasn't just Beag Air Bheag and the lovely people on the team there that helped pull me out from being down in the dumps where I had previously spent a couple of self-pitying weeks, not feeling the love for Gaelic.

I really thought that the last entry ('What goes Up...') would attract a couple of comments such as 'Oh stop moaning you self-pitying whingebag!' but there was nothing of the sort. All there was in response was kindness, support, and - sadly - thanks from other learners. It seems that 'bad days' affect most learners and the fact that nobody else seems to undertand can make us feel a wee bit alone and isolated.

I guess part of the challenge is that many Gaelic learners are learning remotely by distance learning. As such, there does not seem to be anywhere to turn for support when the going gets tough. This can especially be a problem for those whose friends and family do not support their Gaelic endeavours. I think there is another blog entry to be made about this at some point in the future.

But right now I am still basking in the warm glow of being part of a great radio programme which I cannot rate highly enough. Resources for 'upper intermediate/advanced' learners are scarce, and Beag Air Bheag is a terrific and much-needed asset.

If you fancy playing a part in the programme, you'll be treated with kindness and respect, and the experience is one of the best things that will happen to you on your Gaelic journey. Iain, Fiona, and Calum who work on the programme are absolute stars. Without Gaelic, I would never have met them. Just think about that for a minute. Without Gaelic I would never have met these and many other lovely, lovely people. If that isn't reason enough to enroll on An Cùrsa Inntrigidh at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig right here and now if you're not already learning Gaelic, I don't know what is. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

What goes up...

What goes up, must come down. Sunshine follows the rain. Night follows day.

For some reason, media and society seem to expect a 'constant' from us human beings, and we end up beating ourselves up if we're not always on top form. Lunch is for wimps. Feeling below par? Take a pill and be happy and productive. Unhappiness is an avoidable state.

Me, I don't subscribe to this 'always up' culture that we are pressured into believing is real.

There probably are people out there who can bumble along in a constant state of industriousness and discipline. I, my friends, am not one of them.

We all know that the best way to learn something, Gaelic included, is to go for the 'slow burn' and do a little bit every day, learning just one new word or phrase a day, and keeping refreshed on what we already know.

For some reason though, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, my Gaelic learning seems to follow an intense 'crash and burn' cycle. Crash, burn, repeat.

Over the summer period this year I had plenty of time to devote to Gaelic revision. I basically re-sat my entire course from the previous academic year in my own time, hiding myself away for days on end and immersing myself in the Gaelic.

Then, come September, I simply stopped. It's a bit like that Forrest Gump scene from the film where he runs and runs and runs and runs and then one day, he just stops. After weeks of running, he suddenly doesn't want to run any more.

My ever-patient and understanding Study Buddy MR gave me some space, I did the minimum possible to keep my head above water in the new term of college, and slowly the momentum returned.

This time, the carrot dangling afore me was the interview for Beag Air Bheag that I did a few weeks ago. As the interview approached, the urgency to become as fluent as possible grew at an alarming pace, and by the end of October I once again had all my trotters in the trough and even started to dream in Gaelic. 

Then, after the interview, the music stopped. I didn't want to hear Gaelic or speak it for a while. Irritations and setbacks that I had previously managed to ignore or laugh off started to irk and cripple me.  Meanwhile, some charming young lad left a comment to a video I'd posted online proffering '...your attempt at Gaelic is actually insulting!' Curiously enough, he answered my Gaelic response in English.

I even contemplated the thought of jacking it all in. I'd had enough of being looked down on, people turning their backs to me, and being treated as very much an outsider. And people I thought would be supportive turned out to be anything but.

Fortunately, my true friends MR in London, CF in Dundee, and RK Inverness offered their empathy and support and have gently nudged and cajoled me back into action. 

For others who go through similar cycles, the important thing to remember when you are not 'feeling the love' is to be your own best friend. Don't be too hard on yourself, be kind to yourself, allow yourself a wee break, and don't feel pressured into doing anything. If, after a couple of weeks has elapsed, there is no improvement, you then do what your own best friend would do and give yourself a good kick up the backside and get out there again.

I am supremely confident that now the rain has stopped, the sun is about to come out again. To me, that's a more natural way of 'being' despite what we are told otherwise. The most important thing is just to hang in there when the rain falls, knowing that it will eventually pass. 

Anyway, if you want to hear for yourself just how much of an insult to the language my Gaelic really is, tune in to BBC Radio nan Gàidheal at 9.30pm this coming Sunday 13th December 2015, when my interview on Beag air Bheag will be broadcast. You can then at least make your own mind up if that's an acceptable level of fluency after two and a half years of learning.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Learner of the Week

Anyone who has been following this blog will know that I am very fond of the Gaelic Learners' Programme on BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal, Beag Air Bheag (Little by Little), currently steaming ahead through its third series. If you cannot access Radio Nan Gàidheal, you can download the podcast, or listen via the BBC website.

There is an earlier blog entry about the programme here.

On the programme there is a section called 'Neach-Ionnsachaidh na Seachdain', Learner of the Week. Learners of ALL abilities are invited onto the programme to speak of their experiences. Speak, that is, IN GAELIC!

It was way back in March this year when the Main Man Behind the Scenes, Calum, wrote to me inviting me onto the show as Learner of the Week.

Two thoughts immediately entered my head:

NO! My Gaelic is nowhere near good enough, and I'll make an idiot of myself!
YES! It will be a great experience, and to date there has never been a Learner of the Week that lives outwith Scotland.

Anyway, I reluctantly agreed but then things went quiet for a while as Series 2 was wrapped up. It took a lot of arranging to get both myself (from Dover) and presenter John Urquhart (from Skye) in a city with a BBC recording studio at the same time, but a date was eventually struck for 10th November as we would both be in Glasgow. I was holding out for a Helicopter from London or a Stretch Limo to Stornoway, but oddly enough the BBC makes slightly better use of its coffers.

Even before the date was set, the fact that I was going to be on BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal speaking Gaelic remained in the back of my head. For the entire summer I had great big fat juicy carrot dangling in front of me, helping me get on and improve my spoken Gaelic. It was that, or face the embarrassment of not being able to string together a sentence after two and half years of learning.

So what is the experience like?

To start with, it is absolutely nothing to worry about. As you might have gathered, the questions follow pretty much the same pattern for every Learner every week, so you know what you are likely to be asked. To make sure you are comfortable, you'll be sent a list of the kind of questions you'll get a couple of weeks beforehand. 'How long have you been learning Gaelic? What does Gaelic mean to you personally? Tell us something unusual about yourself...?' and so on.

For the three weeks leading up to the 'Big Day', I spent a lot of time writing out, correcting, and rehearsing my answers. My Study-Buddy MR in London was an absolute Diamond, giving me many, many hours of his time to help with my grammatical correctness and with my pronounciation.

Suitably rehearsed and drilled, I headed to the smart, swish, BBC studios at Pacific Quay in Glasgow on the set day.

Sitting in the waiting area waiting for Calum to collect me, I whipped out my smartphone and looked at the dictionary at  I knew that Calum's first question would be 'Ciamar a tha thu?' (How are you?) and I had no idea how to say 'I'm a bit nervous' in Gaelic. It's 'Tha mi beagan nearbhach', just so you know.

Up we went through the fabulous Atrium I have only ever seen on the telly to the studio itself:

I had met John many times before, so we greeted each other like old friends. Yet it wouldn't matter if you have never met him in your life - everybody who meets the man instantly loves him. I have never heard one bad word spoken about him, ever. So if you go for it, be assured you will be put at your ease and treated very gently.

With my notes written on my tablet (that's the device, not the toffee), we had what can only be described as 35 minutes of craic. All the speech training I had done with MR went out of the window. All those set phrases I had learned vanished. We just simply... chatted. I think this says a lot about Iain's journalistic expertise and people skills.

Afterwards, of course, I thought about things I wish I had said, or how I might have answered differently, but I think that would be the same for anyone in any situation. I never did say how Gaelic has enriched my life, which I really wanted to do... but I did get in a plug for the blog, so hopefully anyone who is interested will read the previous entry 'I'm Rich!'

Yes, there were mistakes. Yes, there were stutters and long pauses which will no doubt (I hope) be edited out. All that pronounciation I had learned - from 'agam' to 'uabhasach', went clean out of my head.

The producer wasn't sure when this particular recording will be broadcast, but it looks like it might be between four and six weeks. Trust me, I will keep you updated.

In hindsight, this is probably the best thing I have ever done. Why? Because when I got the first email about appearing, I could hardly string a sentence together. Suddenly I had a MA-HOOSIVE incentive to get my spoken Gaelic up to scratch. After the (self-imposed) rehearsing and practice I sat and chatted comfortably in Gaelic for 35 minutes, and we could have gone on all morning if we had had the time.

Could I have done that without Beag Air Bheag? I don't think so. Taking yourself outside of your comfort zone will improve your language skills massively.

So what are you waiting for? Best get in touch with Beag Air Bheag team. Whether or not I will be saying that after I have heard myself on air, I'm not so sure. But I cannot thank Calum, John, and the team enough for the privilege of being invited onto the programme, and for giving me the incentive to improve my Gaelic to a level that, six months ago, was beyond my wildest dreams.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


The past couple of weeks have brought a few ups and downs in my Gaelic journey, but tonight we had a bit of a Eureka moment.

Changes and improvements can happen so subtly that you don't notice that they are happening. Sometimes, we are so obsessed with what we don't know, we forget to focus on what we do know.

I suddenly realised that I am very, very rich. No, I haven't won the lottery, and a part-time job as a train guard is never going to see me trade in my truck for a Range Rover.

Let me explain... Over the past six months or so I've been toiling away at the Gaelic, but this has been made easier thanks to resources like 'Beag Air Bheag' podcasts, watching entertaining programmes like 'Fonn Fonn Fonn' on BBC iPlayer, and enjoying the Look@LearnGaelic Videos on the smart and refreshed website. My 'caraidean-cànain' (study buddies) whom I try to Skype as often as possible have been a true source of help and support.

Over the past couple of weeks I have really upped my game... I have something 'big' to aim for which happens next week, and I will tell you about that very soon. Suffice to say that with the help and support of my caraid-cànain MR in London, I've been doing tons of work on my spoken Gaelic. I've been expanding my vocab and just doing simple stuff like learning stock phrases to questions that people are always going to get... where I live, why I am studying Gaelic, what I do in my job, and so on. It sounds so simple, but one thing I had not yet done was to invest time in learning 'stock' phrases until they became second nature. OK, the 'second nature' thing has yet to come, but we are getting there.

This work, and the fact I've had a bit of grief (haven't we all) with the Anti-Gaelic Bigots recently, made me stop and take stock of my Gaelic journey. And that is what has bowled me over completely.

'What has Gaelic brought into your life?'

Oh. Mo. Chreach. I've just stopped, thought about this, realised the richness it has brought, and I am completely blown away. Where do I start?

Music - So much wonderful music I would never otherwise have discovered.

Friends - loads and loads of new friends. All there to learn new ideas from, help widen my mind, and to support each other.

Culture - Poetry and song, live music and stories. Real entertainment from people with passion and talent, not being strapped to the telly like a brain-dead force-fed zombie.

History - Still early days for me, but history is starting to come to life and actually mean something.

Geography - That deeper understanding and appreciation of the landscape when you are in the Highlands and Islands, and the place names coming to life.

Being part of something special - Gaelic is not the easiest language in the world to learn for many reasons. It's not common. So to learn it is actually something quite special and helps form a strong bond of understanding with other learners.

Having something to say - Being at a party or meeting new people. They are all talking about their jobs in the city, the football, or how they like to do DIY at weekends. You have a story to tell about Gaelic and your journey...suddenly everyone is interested. They may not understand, they might think you're a bit bonkers, but they are interested.

A safe haven - In times of trouble and crisis, Gaelic can sometimes be an anchor, a 'safe place' where you can immerse yourself for a bit. It's consitent, it's grounding, and it's not going anywhere.

Self-belief - That feeling when you realise that you have just conversed with someone, even if it was just saying what a lovely day it is. You did it!

Being a part of the bigger picture - Every single person that learns Gaelic, at any age and to any level, is contributing to the momentum of getting the language back into the mainstream.

Hope for the future - Nobody, not even the best fluent speaker, knows it all. Gaelic is a bottomless well of riches and you will never use it all up no matter how much you try. For me personally, that hope translates into the possibilty of embarking on an Honours Degree; something I have never before acheived, and something that I never thought I would ever be able to do.

That 'Eureka' moment hit me tonight when I was asked to talk for five minutes - in Gaelic - about 'Gaelic and me'. Of course I made mistakes, but I could have talked for far, far, longer.

The journey with Gaelic, as I said earlier, is one of ups and downs. But when you are on a downer, take a moment and consider the richness it has brought to YOUR life. Me, I am absolutely blown away by it.

Monday, 26 October 2015

In search of Gaelic, my road trip to the Isle of Lewis

Last week, in an attempt to improve my spoken Gaelic and try and do something about my horrendous English accent, I nipped up to the Isle of Lewis for a couple of days.

Being a bit of a ferry geek, I was keen to take a trip on CalMac's new ferry the Loch Seaforth. Like most folks I have spoken to, I find it smart and swish but full of design quirks that beggar belief. The main thing is the televisions. Gees! There are TVs everywhere! Even in the lounge where you sit with the dog, all the seats face one way and there is even a TV on the wall BEHIND all the seats, so you'd have to crick your neck 180 degrees to even see it.

Nice ferry CalMac. Just ditch the tellies, please!

Not one was showing BBC Alba of course, but full marks for the Gaelic announcements on board.

My accommodation in the village of Achmore (near Leurbost) was at a B&B called Westend, run by Gaelic Tutor and local celeb Maggi (Magaidh) Smith.

You'll see on Magaidh's sign something I wish other Gaelic-speaking B&Bs would do - be PROUD of the Gaelic spoken! I was welcomed with tea and biscuits and a warm craic in Gaelic. It was then that I realised that I'm not as fluent as I would like to be, but hey. We spoke English when I couldn't cope any more, so don't feel that you need to speak Gaelic if you don't want to. As is the mantra at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, it is all about just using the Gaelic that you have, no more and no less.

For £30 per night including a nice brekky of fresh fruit, muesli, cereal, and yogurt, it was a nice place to stay. The room was cosy, clean and comfy. It does lack a desk but Magaidh allowed me to use her camping table in the laundry room. Wifi ('island' speed) is included. OK for basic browsing, but don't try and download anything.

The new, immaculate shower room and WC is directly across the hall, and as this is the only guest room Magaidh has, you have exclusive use.

Like many islanders, Magaidh has about 395 jobs on top of all the charity and voluntary work she does. Conversation opportunities were limited to breakfast, and a chat in the evening - pretty much the same as any B&B host. However, for an additional fee you can book her for an hour or so if you need to go through anything you're stuck on. It's definitely worth calling for a chat first if you are coming here on an informal language break.

Most of my Gaelic conversation was with friends that I had met beforehand. However, one evening Magaidh was running a wee cèilidh in Stornoway and I was invited to that. Sadly, there was limited opportunity to speak Gaelic as most of the native speakers spoke to me in English as usual.

All in all I had a nice time and enjoyed my autumn break on the beautiful Isle of Lewis. Every time I visit Lewis, I fall in love with it just a little bit more.

As for the Gaelic, you will get nowhere near as much from such a break as you would from a short course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig - here there is far more of the  'holiday' element. However, you'll get a stack more opportunity to use what Gaelic you have by staying here with Magaidh and being introduced to local folks than you would by staying in an impersonal hotel.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Come out of the closet!

The nervous teenage boy enters his parent's sitting room.

'Mum, Dad, I have something to tell you. I'm Gael.'

Mum bursts into tears. Dad gets angry.

'But...but why son? Was it something we did? I KNEW we should never have had that holiday in Barra in 2009.'

'It's just the way I am. I've been surpressing it long enough, and I can't hold back any more. I'm Gael.'

Mum dries her eyes. 'I should have guessed. You left your computer on once and I saw you'd been looking at dirty websites like I've heard you listening to 'Beag Air Bheag' podcasts through your headphones. I even found those disgusting magazines under your mattress. Yes, those Sabhal Mòr Ostaig course notes and prospectuses from those 'weekends away' when you pretended you were going to the city with your mates to get off your face on booze and drugs and end up in trouble with the Police. But they were all lies weren't they? You were sneaking off up to weekend schools in Skye, learning the Gaelic, playing the fiddle, reciting poetry, singing songs and other such disgusting behaviour. How could you? HOW COULD YOU?'

OK, so this is all a bit tongue in cheek, but I'm prompted to imagine this scenario by two separate thoughts.

First off, it's to help my own understanding of why someone from the South East of England feels such a strong affinity with the Highlands and Islands, and Gaelic, despite the lack of roots. Well, sometimes strength of feeling cannot be explained logically, it just IS. Think of the men and women 'trapped' in the 'wrong' bodies. Transexuals are often ridiculed, but I for one think that you'll not find a a stronger and a tougher band of people. These folks have such a strong feelings from within that they are prepared for the mental and physical battle that lies between the gender that they are born with and the gender at which they will finally be at peace. As someone who is very happy in my own skin, I don't really understand it, but that doesn't mean to say I don't respect and admire these folk. Live and let live and celebrate diversity.

So while I'm happy with my skin and who I am, I often feel like there is a Gael deep down inside me busting to get out. I don't understand it, but am taking on the tough battle to let it out. Thank goodness I don't have to go through painful surgery or psychological analysis.

Just like the transgender man living as a woman before the operation has to endure the jibes and sneers of the mob, the Englishman learning Gaelic has to endure the thinly-veiled racism of the anti-English brigade. References to the 'Auld enemy,' 'the Bad Side of the Border,' and far, far worse will always serve to remind me that I am alone in a place where people hate the place where I was born and brought up. Yet, rather than give it all up, us English folk learning Gaelic just have to shoulder it and get on with it. Yes, there are many aspects of English Culture, History, and Politics about which I am deeply unhappy, but that doesn't make me as an individual responsible for any of them. As for History... well, so much of that is placed in a romantic light by dreamers who forget about one crucially important factor, and that is context. Dreamers and romantics refer to historical events in a modern-day context, which skews fact and interpretation.  Do I hold my German friends accountable for the destruction of my corner of the country and the loss of life 100 and 75 years ago? No. Do they hold me accountable for Dresden and the like? No. We shall never forget, but we shall also move on.

As for 'coming out of the closet,' it still amazes me how many Gaelic speakers hide their language and culture. Of course, Gaels are notoriously polite, decent, and modest folk, and their lack of arrogance and selfishness is one of the main reasons that I find the whole culture so utterly amazing and wonderful. However, this in itself brings additional challenges for the learner.

Let's look at our friends in the Gay Community. A generation or two ago, even the most placid and peaceful men and women were faced with no option than to be vocal and visible. It was the only way to get their rights to be who they are accepted and integrated into wider society. There is still some way to go, but things are moving in the right direction. A generation or two ago, if a train driver announced he was gay in the messroom it could have ended in his being ostracised and cut off, excluded and lonely until possibly he ended up on a downward spiral. I say 'he', because women didn't drive trains then. Nowadays, if a train driver announced that he or she was gay, it would be about as exciting and controversial as what was on the menu at the staff canteen.

What has this to do with Gaelic? Well, there is just so much of it in the Closet, and that makes it difficult for the learner and the would-be learner to find it being used in everyday life. Bigots will always put down minority groups because bigots are ignorant, and ignorance promotes fear. Ignorance means that they don't understand it so they try to kill it. When cultures and lifestyles are dragged out into the open and life doesn't end because of it, ignorance gradually fades.

Right now, the only way for somebody to learn Gaelic as an adult is to do it through some kind of a course. Ùlpan is the least academic course, but these courses are few and far between, and they never seem to be consistent or structured in their occurrence. The only clear courses with a clear progression path are the academic ones, at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland and a few other colleges and universitites in the UK.

However, on social media I have been following a few Gaels who are disparaging towards the 'academic' approach to Gaelic. It's true that when you're at Sabhal Mòr, you are surrounded by people who have the time, brain power, and financial means to devote to an Academic Course. It is a luxury not everyone can afford, and in a chat with other students, we voiced concern that Gaelic is becoming a Luxury Language for the Middle Classes.

But what are the options, when Gaels refuse to speak Gaelic outwith people they know?

I am on a bit of a personal mission to find Gaelic outside the classroom. I have searched for homes or farm stays where guests can stay for a week with a Gaelic-speaking family and pick up what they can. So far, I have not found any such thing. I am sure that there are many farms, B&Bs, cafes, and other social places where Gaelic is spoken, yet this fact is never advertised. Just like some places are 'Bikers Welcome' or 'Walkers Welcome', howabout a scheme where 'Gaelic Spoken' is used in marketing? It would make life a lot easier for us intermediate learners who are looking for opportunities to consolidate all those words and grammar that's jumbled about in our heads into real-life sentences outside the classroom.

I have found one - just one - B&B where Gaelic is not just spoken, but it is promoted. That B&B is on the Isle of Lewis, and tomorrow I will head on up there to check it out. When I phoned to book and spoke Gaelic to the landlady, she never once reverted to English, even when I struggled. Now THAT is the kind of thing I'm looking for! Stay tuned and I'll tell you how it goes. 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Invisible Gift Horse

Awaiting the Right Away, Scotland Bound again

There are many rewards, and frustrations, with learning Gaelic.

One of the frustrations I'm finding at the moment is that nobody within the Gaelic speaking community appears to acknowlege the existence of a very powerful asset that they have. Nobody appears to be looking outside the long-established bubble.

Anti-Gaelic bigotry is real, and I've only come across it in Scotland. Right now, some very narrow-minded and blinkered folk are working themselves up into a state about bilingual road and rail signs.

Yes, really!

Personally (maybe I'm biased) I love to see the bilingual signs. To my wide eyes they add a sense of place to this beautiful country, a 'uniqueness' that you only find outside England. It's also a daily reminder to non-Gaelic speakers of their native language's existence.

The bigots will argue that to support Gaelic is a waste of public money. In retort, the pro-Gaelic lobby will argue with the facts and figures that would suggest that money spent on the language is but a drop in the ocean. We could all find public projects that we don't agree with, but the joy of living in a democracy is that we need to allow others to enjoy their passions, skills, and creativity even if we don't understand. Even stuff we don't necessarily like or agree with adds to the fantastically rich and diverse culture of Scotland and of Great Britain in general. Me, I have no interest whatsoever in football. I don't really agree to my taxes paying to Police football matches, but a few million football fans would disagree with me. We live and let live.

Recently there was a survey about Gaelic learners. The study focussed soley on learners based in Scotland. During a recent course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, we were asked by a third party to give our feedback and ideas for BBC Alba. My form was whipped away from me when I said I was resident in England, as my views would be null and void. This is slightly ironic as a licence fee payer who mainly watches BBC Alba, albeit by the wonder of the internet or satellite.

My major source of frustration, as I hinted earlier, is that I don't really exist in the wider Gaelic picture. Neither do my friends R, M, M, J, and E in London. Or R in Wales. Or M&C from Misouri. Or S from Germany. Or anyone else living outwith Scotland who spends a considerable amount of their income on Gaelic.

It's not just the Cùrsaichean Goirid and the Cùrsaichean Air Astar that we pay (non-Scottish rates) for. There's the travel, the food and accommodation, and the countless cultural trips to Glasgow, the Highlands, and the Islands that we make. Ever since my discovery of the Outer Hebrides in 2009, I have been hemhorraging my hard-earned English pounds in Scotland. Like many of my learner colleagues and friends, learning Gaelic is a way for us to get right underneath and into this beautiful country and its culture.

For the fact and figure lovers, here is my spending over the last 12 months:

Cùrsa Adhartais, 4 x modules @ £450 = £1800
Cùrsa goirid, two weeks at approx £500 p/w including board & lodging: £1000
Food, lodging, site fees, fuel, ferry, accommodation in Glasgow, Highlands & Islands: £2,200

So that's £5000 or thereabouts from me alone. November/December last year was Harris and Lewis. January was Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Mar/Apr/May was a three month island tour. I'm intending to sneak a wee trip or two to Staffin and/or Tiree before the end of the year, as well as basing myself in Glasgow for 10 weeks just to improve my accent.

There are hundreds of us making the pilgrimage to Scotland every year to immerse ourselves in the Gaelic language and culture. Coming to Scotland - where the landscape speaks Gaelic - is a ritual we enjoy. We spend lots of money while we're doing it, as do visitors who are not Gaelic learners, but see the language and the culture as part of the very fabric of Scotland that they find so attractive.

I may be wrong, but as far as I am aware we are not being counted. I cannot find evidence of our existence in any report or study that I have come across. Here is this wonderful, gift-wrapped present for the pro-Gaelic lobby to exploit and highlight; this body of non-Scottish learners demonstrating that Gaelic can be, and is, a money magnet as well as a cultural asset.

Yet despite our contribution and commitment, we seem to remain invisible.

I'd love to be proved wrong. I hope I will be.

Monday, 3 August 2015

'Getting' the future tense

The verb 'faighinn' in the future tense.

Irregular verbs, don't you just love 'em? There aren't actually that many in Gaelic compared to some other languages, but there are a few there with the primary purpose of being a challenge to remember.
In order of 'stem - past tense - future tense,' my four nightmare verbs are:

rach - chaidh/cha deach - thèid (go)

abair/can - thuirt - canaidh (say)

faigh - fhuair/cha dh'fhuair - gheibh/chan fhaigh (get)

thoir - thug - bheir/cha toir (give)

I find it really hard to commit these forms to memory. 'I went' is 'Chaidh mi...' yet 'I didn't go' is 'Cha deach mi...', as irregular in Gaelic as it is in English. Then in the future form you get another word - thèid - but at least this is fairly consistent throughout, dropping its lenition when making pronounciation easier.

The best way to remember things, of course, is to get them to make you laugh.

My 'Caraid Cànan' M made me laugh the other day with the verb 'get' in the future tense, and finally it has stuck.

All through the future tense, it's 'faigh' (rhymes with 'high'), with or without lenition, except the simple future which is a completely different word: Gheibh, loosely pronounced 'yeahv'.

Now, if you've been learning Gaelic more than a couple of months you'll soon be told that the phrase 'mas e thu toil e' ('if you please') is never, EVER uttered by native Gaelic speakers in everyday use.

Manners are implied by use of tense and the question form, so while 'bheir sibh dhomh cupa tì' (give me a cup of tea) is as direct and rude as it sounds in English, the phrase 'am faigh mi cupa tì?' (may I get a cup of tea?) is normally used instead. Forget sounding American, 'am faigh mi...' was around for a long time before English-speaking folk started imitating their American cousins.

So... we're used to 'am faigh mi...', to which of course the response in the negative is 'chan fhaigh' (easy enough to remember) but in the positive is 'gheibh'. Gheibh, as already mentioned, bearing no resemblance to the root 'faigh'.

So... how to remember this?

A great way to remember this is to think of the non-Gaelic speaker visiting a Gaelic speaking canteen-style cafe, and trying their best with the people serving the food:

'Am faigh mi seo?' (May I get this?) 'Gheibh' (You may)
'Am faigh mi seo?' 'Gheibh'
'Am faigh mi seo?' 'Gheibh'

Perplexed, our non-Gaelic speaker takes his food to his table and quietly has a word with his Gaelic friend.

'Well, they're a cheery bunch in here' he says to his friend.
'What do you mean?'
'Well, every time I used that phrase you taught me to get something, they practically cheered! I thought they were going to high-5 me every time!'
'I still don't get what you mean.'
'When I asked for and pointed at the fish, they went 'YEAH!'. Then when I asked for peas, they went 'YEAH!!' Then when I asked for chips, they again went 'YEAH!!!' Are they always that happy?'

His friend thought briefly, then put his hand over his eyes: 'Gheibh' said the friend. 'Gheibh'.

 Now, can anyone think up a joke for chaidh/cha deach/thèid? ;) 

Monday, 20 July 2015

We Need to Talk - and the Solution is Simple

Learning Gaelic can be challenging enough if you live in Scotland. However, if you live outwith Scotland, it can be even more of an uphill - and satisfying - struggle.

My Study Buddy 'C' recently sent me this link to a recent BBC News story:

'Cothroman a dhìth gus Gàidhlig a bhruidhinn' is the title of the piece, 'Lack of opportunities to speak Gaelic'.

Results of a recent survey show that one of the biggest challenges facing Gaelic learners is the ability to use their language skills outwith the classroom. Some of the students surveyed NEVER get the chance to practice.

You only have to look at my earlier blog entry 'Why Won't You Talk to Me?' to see the real life challenges faced by a real Gaelic learner when in the Outer Hebrides.

Before we look at my simple and all-pleasing solution to the problem, I need to have a minor rant about additional challenges for us Non-Scots who chose to pump our money into the country and learn its language.

For starters, take that survey. If it is the recent survey that took place earlier this year, then it only concerned itself with Gaelic Learners that reside in Scotland. Despite the fact that many Gaelic Learners are in England, Wales, Germany, the USA, and Canada, our views were not courted.  Just so you know, the results are only applicable to Scottish Learners, so the chances we have outside Scotland are even slimmer or non-existant.

To add insult to injury, the fees paid by Gaelic Students in England, Wales, the USA, and Canada can be over three times higher than those paid by Scottish students. When I last looked, for me to do An Cùrsa Comais at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig would have set me back £7,500 in fees compared to £2,200 for a Scottish resident. That's fair enough I guess (thank you, David Cameron and all those who voted for him) and the same fees apply to those resident in Wales, Northern Ireland, the US, and Canada. However, were I to live 25 miles away in Calais, I'd be paying the £2,200 along with all the German, Polish, and other EU Students. I thought that the UK was in the EU? Not when it comes to tuition fees. So not only are the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish charged three times the amount of someone living South of the Irish border or East of the English channel, but our views counted for nothing in the Gaelic Learning Survey. Well Gee Thanks Eddy, that really makes us feel valued for taking such an active interest in Gaelic and Scotland and overcoming all the associated hurdles and barriers!

Rant over.

I have to be grateful that at least those of us in 'Rest of UK' have access to the wonderful BBC resources, such as the podcasts of 'Beag air Bheag' on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, and iPlayer programmes from BBC Alba. These resources help massively.

Back to the 'Lack of Opportunity' bit. I had an idea a while ago that I mentioned to folks at my college but nobody really took any notice. I'll mention it again now.

On one hand you have Gaelic learners in Scotland and around the world with little or no opportunity to practice their language skills.

On the other hand, we have a diminishing number of native Gaelic speakers whom at one time were monolingual and had to learn English as a second language. These people speak with old dialects and rich vocabularies that are crying out to be saved. These people are the Older Gentlefolk of the Highlands and Islands. Despite the enviable sense of community in these areas, there must still be times when these retired men and women feel a little lonely and isolated. And all but a few of them will have a telephone.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

Surely it cannot be that difficult to marry up Gaelic Learners with patient older folk who would love to receive a weekly half-hour phone call from their 'Caraid Cànan' in Berlin, London, or Pitlochry?

Being down here in the South East of England I don't really know how to go about setting up something like that. Surely it can't be that difficult? It's an idea anyway. It's now out there, so let's hope that somehow it grows legs.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Coffee and Craic - what next?

It was with great sadness that I read on Facebook that Coffee and Craic, the Gaelic Cafe in Glasgow, has closed:

A short while ago I blogged about the place, saying how valuable and welcome it was to me as a Gaelic learner, and no doubt countless others too.

However, as we all know, love and support does not a business grow. Footfall and money is what is needed. It appears that the location of the cafe did not encourage enough footfall to make it commerically viable. Also, let's be honest, the Gaelic speaking and learning community isn't huge. It is also spread out across the world. It was a great place for this guy in Kent to meet his Gaelic-learning buddies from the USA, but that's not enough to keep a business running, sadly.

With no money to keep a team of staff on, poor Sarah ended up having to reduce the opening hours, and if a family crisis cropped up then the cafe had to close. Thus the ever-decreasing circle took effect until such a time that, for the moment at least, Coffee and Craic remains closed. I'm so sad about it.


I'm not privvy to Inside Information, but I would hope that lessons have been learned. According to the notice on Facebook, new City Centre premises are being sought to help increase the footfall, and therefore the sustainability, of Coffee and Craic. Its former location was handy for the Gaelic school, but it seemed that many folks, myself included, travelled there specially from outwith Glasgow, and the trek from the city centre to the West End was a bit of a drag.

My thoughts now turn to the new, city centre Coffee and Craic. I was prepared to travel from Kent on the train for a couple of days hanging out with the likes of 'Gàidhlig gun Bheurla' with Àdhamh, especially if I could catch a 'Togaibh Fonn' session as well. However, we all know that travel and accommodation are only really affordable if you pay in advance and book the non-refundable option. You're looking at at least £100 for a trip to Glasgow for many people, even if you book anti-social trains and stay at the Ibis Budget. However, that's more than worth it for sessions with the likes of Àdhamh. Glasgow is a LOT easier to reach than Sabhal Mòr Ostaig for the great majority of people. However, I didn't book these trips as it couldn't be guaranteed that the cafe would be open.

Coffee and Craic, for some of us, was not just a cafe. It was a destination in itself, the very reason I'd figure Glasgow into my trips to Scotland. For this reason alone, the new incarnation has simply got to be reliable and be open when advertised without short-notice closure. This is way too much to ask of one woman, and I hope the management have realised this.

In my ideal world, Coffee and Craic would also have rooms upstairs for out-of-town guests to sleep over, to save having to stay in a hotel. There is no facility (to my knowledge) for us learners to stay in a Gaelic environment other than a short course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig or the occasional summer week on Uist. If the new Coffee and Craic is a reliable centre that hosts affordable weekends/midweek breaks where the likes of us learners can chill and socialise in a Gaelic-speaking environment, then I'd definitely help CrowdFund that!

Whatever happens, I wish the team well and offer my full support. I just don't want to lose this wonderful resource.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Flagging up Gaelic

One of the best things about learning Gaelic is that it is unlike learning almost any other living language in the world.

The perception of Gaelic is a complex subject that I am sure a professor could write a thesis about. It's something that goes beyond the remit of a Learner's Blog.

However, even little old me had a question that stumped everyone when my employer launched a new uniform and new design of name badge for its front line staff. A lovely touch they decided upon was to put flags on name badges to represent the languages that the wearer speaks, in order to give people visual reassurance that you can communicate with them in (hopefully at least one) language that they would be comfortable using.

French and Dutch are straighforward enough. The languages are pretty much indelibly linked to France and the Netherlands.

However, the spanner in the works came with Gàidhlig. What flag represents that?

I asked respected Academics and Agencies, and in all cases was met by an uncomfortable shuffling and a 'Hmm, not sure. We'll get back to you.' Nobody did.

All I did manage to find out is that there were only two companies in Scotland who gave Gaelic-speaking customer-facing employees badges to wear if they wished to do so. These badges carried the text 'Tha Gàidhlig agam' which is great, but didn't fit the design brief in this case.

Slowly it dawned on me that this was probably the first case of its kind - at least until someone can come along and claim otherwise. In other words, maybe this was the first case of a Gaelic speaker in a Customer Services role wishing to display a 'Gaelic flag' on a name badge.

As such, we decided upon the Saltire. Admittedly, it's not technically 'correct,' as the Saltire represents Scotland, not just the Gàidhealtachd. In the same manner, the Union Jack represents the UK, not just the English speakers, but these flags do the job they're meant to do.

This brings me nicely on to the promotion and use of Gaelic in the big wide world. In my short and limited experience, it does appear that many native fluent speakers don't really bother to use their Gaelic on people they don't know. It's almost as if it's a precious thing that has to be kept in the box for special occasions. Meanwhile, us Learners/New Speakers seize every chance we get to speak Gaelic, and speak it we do.

Despite the fact my job is based in London, I treat my passengers to a blast of Gaelic when we set off:

'A chàirdean, madainn mhath/feasgar math. 'S e Anndra an t-ainm a th' orm, agus 's e ur manaidsear trèana a th' annam. Fàilte air bord Eurostar a' dol a Pharis/a Lunnain/a Dhisneyland/dhan Bhruiseal. Tha mi a' guidhe tùras math dhuibh.'

It's brief enough not to annoy those not interested, but long enough to make any Gaelic speakers feel at home and warmly welcome,  especially in an environment where this wouldn't be expected.

'Putting it out there' has only resulted in positive events. I met M and her family from the Isle of Lewis after they nearly choked on their breakfast in disbelief on their way to Disneyland. We keep in touch and have become good friends. Recently I took Dougal to M's daughter's school near Stornoway to show the kids the Cool Dog on a Motorbike.

Linguists take an interest of course, but another bonus is that it's also a great ice breaker for people who simply want to have a chat. 'What was that 'other' language you spoke?' people will often ask, and off I rattle excitedly about Scottish Gàidhlig as if someone has just lit my blue touch paper.

It's all good. The only other Gaelic announcements I've heard so far are the pre-recorded ones on CalMac Ferries. One skipper once slipped 'Madainn mhath' into his welcome, but that's been about it. I've not heard any other individual make general customer announcements in Gaelic yet. However, there is one person doing so on a train out of London. It would be great if more people did so and took Gaelic outside into the everyday world.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Why won't you talk to me?

Apologies for the lack of posts for a while… many other learners out there will appreciate that it’s been end of term assessment time here in Scotland.

However, with the business done, it’s time to enjoy a couple of weeks holiday, and where else but in the Outer Hebrides where at least you can practice your Gaelic?

Or can you?

As hinted at in an earlier entry, there are many reasons that a Gael may be reticent to speak Gaelic with someone they don’t know. I had a very interesting conversation with a Gaelic crew member on a CalMac ferry about it, which I shall come to later.

But first, just to give you an idea of what it’s like, let me tell you about my experience trying to buy a pint of milk in the community store this afternoon. As I was browsing the shelves, I heard the shop assistant chatting away in Gaelic to a regular customer. I got to the till, put my bottle of milk on the counter, and the conversation went exactly like this:

Me: ‘Feasgar math. Seo a-nis.’
Shop Assistant: ‘That’ll be one pound ten please.’
Me: ‘Obh…tha mi duilich, chan eil deich sgilling agam. Sin sibh.’
SA: ‘Thanks… and that’s ten pence change.’
Me: ‘Mòran taing. Mar sin leibh!’
SA: ‘Thank you, bye.’

I left the shop just about ready to give it all up.

On the ferry over to the islands, I got talking to a very nice crew member from Barra, a native speaker. We chatted about Gaelic, and I asked why so many people are reticent to speak it, especially outwith people they know.

The lady explained in a roundabout way that she, like many, is a little embarrassed of her Gaelic. It’s not what she considers ‘proper’ Gaelic. She gave two examples. One was when she worked on a ship with another Gael who flatly refused to understand her Gaelic (like the interaction above where there wasn’t even the smallest attempt to engage) and always spoke to her in English. Another was when the BBC journalist Andreas Wolf travelled on her ship and spoke to her. You may remember my earlier entry about Andreas, one of the few people people I am totally in awe of. Despite being a ‘new speaker’ (the latest term for ‘learner’), his Gaelic is perfect. And that was this lady’s problem… in her eyes, her Gaelic was not perfect. She was embarrassed. So she hardly ever speaks it. As we all know with languages, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’ and here we witness yet another Gaelic speaker fading into history…

The 'wrong' Gaelic

If we go back to the 70s and earlier, it was almost impossible to hear a presenter or narrator speak with a regional accent or dialect on British TV and national radio. It was always ‘The Queen’s English.’ Only in the 80s did regional accents become popular and accepted into the mainstream. Of course, there is still pub or messroom banter at work between friends mocking the ‘funny’ way they say things if they are from another British region, but personally I have never witnessed anyone saying that something is ‘wrong’ if it is pronounced differently. I say bath and you say bath yet we both say father. I say rolls and you say cobs. I say little and you say wee. 

However, it appears that in the minds of many Gaels, there are no Gaelic dialects. Barra does not have a dialect, Lewis does not have a dialect, Uist does not have a dialect… instead you  have Barra Gaelic, Lewis Gaelic, Uist Gaelic… and countless other ‘Gaelics’ like Harris, Skye, Argyll, Islay…

Yet for some reason, in the minds of many Gaelic speakers, there is no ‘different’ Gaelic dialect, only ‘wrong’ Gaelic. ‘Oh, we don’t say that HERE’ has been spat at me on more than one occasion after saying the ‘wrong’ word.

Maybe what many native speakers don’t realise is that us learners/'new speakers' are exposed to all kinds of Gaelic, but this itself is taught within the Gaelic Orthographic Convention oojimaflip. No, even I don’t understand why certain things like the numbering system had to change. The French seem to manage quite well with a non-decimal counting system (‘sixty-ten, four twenties, four twenties ten’) and some of the spellings would have been better left as they were. I’d have been able to pronounce ‘feuch’ correctly far quicker if it was still ‘fiach’. However, I’m still getting my head around three ways to say ‘because’ (air sgath, o chionn, air sàillibh) for three different dialects, and I notice that Iain Urchardan’s  wonderful ‘Beag air Bheag’ Learner’s Programme on the radio goes to great lengths to include at least three different dialects every week.

The refusal of many Gaelic speakers to engage in conversation is one of the biggest challenges I have come across. I’m more forgiving of those who at least try at first, but switch to English at the first mistake, although that is still a bugbear. However, you can’t blame anybody for not having the patience to indulge the mistakes of a Learner. It’s annoying, but that is the price we pay for steamrollering English as the language of all communication throughout the entire UK.

Cùm a' dol

I shall leave you with a positive story.

A few months ago, during a weekend school at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the tutor wheeled in a former student of the course we’re on, who is now completing his degree in Gaelic. This chap’s parents were Gaelic speakers but never, ever spoke to him in their native tongue. He was brought up in English and had to learn Gaelic through college.

Eventually, this chap told us, he rang up his Dad and spoke Gaelic to him. His father answered him in English. He continued in Gaelic. His father answered in English. Apparently, the whole conversation went like this. A bit like my conversation with the shop assistant.

The next time he phoned, he spoke Gaelic. His father answered in English. And so on and so on for the next three or four phone calls.

Finally, on the fifth or sixth phone call, the man’s father conversed in Gaelic, and they continue to do so to this day.

It was an inspiring talk he gave us. We just need to keep focussed on speaking Gaelic and not giving up hope. Other folks’ reticence to engage us in Gaelic is just another challenge that makes it all the more interesting. A bit like the genitive case. I’ll tell you this, Gaelic is not for wimps.

The question is, how many pints of milk will I have to buy to achieve the same result with the shop assistant?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Beag air Bheag - Little by Little

Image property of BBC

Most Gaelic learners have heard of 'Beag air Bheag le Iain Urchardan' by now. If you haven't, let me tell you about it.

No matter what your level of Gaelic, from beginning to advanced, if you are a learner and you have access to BBC services, you need to be listening to this fantastic radio programme.

At the end of last year, a series of 10 x 30 minute episodes ran on BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal. I found out about it roughly half way through the series. Sadly there was was no Podcast to download, but happily the past episodes were available for 4 weeks via iPlayer Radio. I don't have broadband, I rely on tethering my mobile phone for internet reception. I became so hooked on 'Beag air Bheag' I ended up increasing my data allowance as I was listening every morning.

I was very pleased when Series One was repeated directly after it ended, so I could start again with episode one and keep up a constant supply of episodes via iPlayer. It was just a pain that I relied on mobile phone reception (3G or 4G) to keep connected. There is no Radio nan Gàidheal radio reception in the South of England!

I'm guessing the series was a Pilot to gauge reaction. All my learner friends were full of praise for the programme and it was lauded during class-phone sessions and at weekend school at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

To my utter delight, Series Two was quickly announced. I can only guess that we weren't alone in our enthusiasm.

Even better news was that Series Two would be bigger and better in every way.

For a start, there are 15 episodes planned (count them, FIFTEEN!) and they are now a whole hour long, not just 30 minutes. But the best news of all? You can download them as a Podcast. No more relying on a mobile phone signal or being tied to the internet for the 90% (my guess) of listeners who listen outwith the Radio Nan Gàidheal signal area. Right now (early April 2015) we are on the cusp of episode three which will be broadcast this week.

If you're just setting out in Gaelic you may worry a little that you don't understand a single word, as the entire programme (bar a few technical words that few people know and some of the Grammar Points) is delivered in Gaelic. However, owing to the fact that Ian Urchardan, the presenter, speaks slowly and clearly, you are very quickly able to pick out the words that you DO know. Just to pick out a few words will help you commit them to memory. You'll also end up hearing the same unfamiliar words week in and week out. Eventually you get to know the word but not its meaning. For example, for weeks I heard an expression that sounded like 'Grass cainch' and wondered what it was. Every week I heard 'Grass cainch'. Hmm.

Weeks later I discovered that the word used was actually 'gnàthas-cainnte', meaning idiom, saying, or expression. Gaelic has a lot of 'gnàthas-cainnte' indeed, and thanks to repeatedly listening to Beag air Bheag I knew the word before its meaning, which of course makes it 100 times easier to remember than a dry vocabulary list on a page.

The 'Oisean a' Ghràmair' section I find particularly useful, and now there is a Podcast I can repeat this section over and over again. When settled in one place I can study the pages on the website at and make notes.

Right now, at my self-assessed 'upper intermediate' stage after two years, I reckon on understanding about 55 per cent of what is said (there is some 'native speaker' stuff for advanced learners too). A beginner may start off only understanding five per cent, but I reckon that this beginner understanding five per cent of episode one will probably end up understanding 10 per cent of episode 15. I'm hoping that I end up understanding 60 per cent of episode 15.

So if you don't completely understand what's going on, keep listening (daily is good, on your commute to work) and keep absorbing the sounds. It's all going in and even if you don't realise it you ARE picking it up...beag air bheag.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Secrets of learning a language - quickly

Here is a link to a fascinating online article about language learning:

Thank you to my 'Study Buddy' (Caraid Cànan) Shiela, known to many as 'Granny Scalpay', for alerting me to this.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Ceòl is Cianalas (Music and Longing)

Norrie Tago, Leòdhasach from the fantastic group Mànran

This is another one of those entries where I try and clumsily make sense and justify why on earth I'd want to be learning Scottish Gaelic.

The embers that start many learner's Gaelic fires are bourne of Trad Music. Gaelic language is indelibly entwined with Gaelic culture, of which music is probably the strongest element.

Way back in 2011, on what must have been my third trip to the Outer Hebrides, I remember distinctly asking the nice lady in the Arts Centre in Lochmaddy for her recommendation for a CD to listen to on my long, sorrowful, tearful drive home to Dover. She recommended a Cèilidh CD from Skipinnish, so I duly contributed a few more of my English Pounds to the Highland economy (take note, Gaelic Haters) and duly jigged, sang, and cried my way home.

Two songs established themselves as my favourites - 'Air an Tràigh' (On the Beach), a jaunty interpretation of a Runrig song, and the hauntingly beautiful ' 'S fhada leum an Oidhche Gheamhraidh', (The Winter Night Feels so Long to me). I know not the singer who gives us both of these beauties as she sadly isn't credited anywhere, but all I can tell you is that she has an exceptionally beautiful voice.

I liked these two songs so much they became backing music to my 'Hebrides Video' that I made that year, which you can see by clicking here

It took 18 months after buying this CD before starting to learn Gaelic. It took almost two years of learning before I could sing along (badly) with 'Air an Tràigh', happy that I could translate the lyrics and get the gist of it.

Meanwhile, I started this blog and in an earlier entry tried to explain and justify my reasons for learning Gaelic. After taking the plunge and 'putting it out there' on Twitter, I was delighted to receive some positive responses. One such response was this one:

'You may appreciate this: Bith cianalas air Leòdhasach ann a neamh. Google it.'

Google it I did. It lead me to this entry from a fantastic blog called 'The Croft'.

Click on the link and there you'll find a succinct interpretation of the non-translatable word 'Cianalas'.

In a loose, clumsy, superficial kind of a way we might say 'longing' or 'homesickness' in English, but it doesn't convey one iota of the emotion and heartache of 'Cianalas'.

Meanwhile, I revisited that hauntingly beautiful song, 'S Fhada Leum an Oidhche Gheamhraidh. It's a song sung by someone displaced from the Isle of Lewis (possibly a victim of the disgusting 'Clearances'?) who longs for the home she will never see again. There are no Cèilidhs on the empty prairies that now surround her.

The last line of the chorus (which is just 'Faili faili...') is:

'S cian nan cian bho dh'fhàg mi Leòdhas'

With a deeper understanding of 'cianalas', and therefore the meaning conveyed in that last line (you see the word 'cian' implying a distance almost that is spiritual as well as physical) you can at least begin to understand the depth of emotion, sadness, and longing that the English words 'It's far away terms of time and spirit and longing since I left the Isle of Lewis' fail to convey.

Such depth and beauty simply cannot be expressed in English. This, my friends, is why we simply cannot lose Gaelic, and is another reason I'm doing my little bit to at least try and keep it alive so that it may thrive again in days to come.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Pop Idol

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I've never been one for idolising people. After all, we're ALL only human whether you are David Beckham or Stephen Hawking. I guess the reason that I've never really idolised or admired anyone is because I've never REALLY strived to do anything much in the past, other than be a good person and be good at what I do. An over-privileged spotty yoof on TV who thinks that an average singing voice is the passport to an easy future does little to inspire and earn the respect of this cynical individual.

Thanks to Gaelic, I now have an idol. In fact, I have many idols. For a start, I look up in awe to absolutely anybody that is fluent in Gaelic.

However, top of the tree in my eyes are those who have reached fluency as adult learners. Topping even these awe-inspiring people are the non-Scottish folks who have managed it.

The man I most idolise, and whose shoes I am not fit to polish, is the BBC reporter Andreas Wolff. This German National learned Gaelic to such fluency that he is now a presenter for BBC Alba, the BBC's Gaelic language channel.

Just think about that for a minute. Imagine how amazingly good you have to be and how incredibly hard you have to work in order to acheive such an incredible feat. The man is, in my eyes, a God. Those who have had the pleasure of meeting him also inform me that despite his amazing skill and intellect, he's also a thoroughly decent and charming bloke. This man, Andreas Wolff, is my all-time idol. The Gaelic community is a small one and I am sure that our paths will cross in the future. I have no doubt that this man's presence will reduce me to a gibbering wreck.

Not far behind him is a fellow Englishman, Charles (Teàrleach) Quinell, another non-Scot who has also acheived fluency to the point of being able to present on BBC Alba.

Joy Dunlop and Àdamh O Broin are another two learners who have carved careers in Gaelic despite learning as adults (so I understand), and in their company I also feel completely unworthy. I've been privileged enough to meet both of them, and you'd be hard pushed to meet two more lovely, enthusiastic, charismatic, gifted, and charming people.

I am sure that there will be more people that I learn about along the way who have managed to lick this language to the point of being able to work with it and earn the respect of native Gaelic speakers. I'm not quite sure where my own Gaelic journey is going, but people like Andreas, Teàrleach, Joy, and Àdhamh provide the kind of inspiring role models that vacuuous mainstream media can only dream about.  It's yet another reason why I love Gaelic so.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Coffee and Craic - Gaelic Cafe Society

As I touched on in the entry 'We Need to Talk,' there are precious few opportunities for us learners to speak Gaelic face-to-face with other learners and fluent speakers.

'If only there was a coffee shop somewhere,' I used to think, '..where I could hear and speak Gaelic, somewhere the Gaelic community uses as a social hub, and I could experience living, breathing Gaelic.' I did a bit of research and found that such Utopia did not exist.

At least, it didn't exist until the tail end of 2014. Watching the news An Là one evening on BBC Alba, a feature caught my eye about Gaelic singing sessions organised by An Lòchran that took place in a new Gaelic coffee shop in Glasgow. I got terribly excited for two reasons. Yup, grab that damp flannel folks, I need dabbing down yet again:

- I had found out that An Lòchran, a Gaelic Arts Organisation, actually existed
- I had found out that my Utopian Gaelic Coffee Shop also existed

Before long I was making haste to 74 Eldersleigh Street in Glasgow to see what this Gaelic Coffee Shop 'Coffee and Craic' was all about.

You can visit Coffee & Craic's Facebook Page by clicking here.

First of all, I'll tell you what you won't find.

You won't find a Sabhal Mòr Ostaig-Esque 100% Gaelic policy where you're surrounded (and possibly intimidated) by fluent speakers gabbling away at 100mph.
You won't find bad coffee.
You won't find attitude or stuffy formality.

What you WILL find is:

A warm and friendly welcome even if the only Gaelic word you have is 'Slàinte'.
A 'safe place' to speak/practice your Gaelic WHATEVER YOUR LEVEL OR ABILITY
A child-friendly environment where scribbling on the blackboard is positively encouraged
A dog-friendly place as long as your pooch doesn't get in the way or upset others
Fantastic coffee
Fabulous cakes (including Gluten-Free and Vegan), soups and sandwiches
A Variety of Gaelic classes and Kids Clubs throughout the week
Gillebrìde, the Coffee & Craic mascot

Did I mention the warm and friendly welcome? There's a small table near the window for 2/3 people, a sofa to flop down on opposite the counter, and everyone else sits around a large table, easing conversation if you want it but it's large enough to sit fairly quietly in the corner too. Oh, and there are power sockets and wifi... you know what I mean.

As I've hinted before, being an Englishman learning Gaelic can make me feel like a real 'outsider' which, to be fair, I am! Being born and bred in Dover hardly makes me a Gael. It can be a little scary at times to be in a big, big city like Glasgow and be looking for people to talk to - in English or in Gaelic. Yet already I have somewhere to go where I 'know' people, and a safe place to go to if I'm feelng a little bit wobbly or tired or just in need of somewhere quiet to sit and be me.

I've even done a couple of 'organised' conversation sessions here, and both times my Gaelic and my confidence has improved immeasurably. 

Find out a little bit more about the setting up of the cafe in this Daily Record Article here. 

If you need any further proof of what a great place this is, think on this: I last visited Coffee and Craic a couple of weeks ago when in Glasgow for Celtic Connections. The Coffee was great and the Craic brilliant. After getting back to Kent, I received a wee message from Sarah thanking me for returning to the cafe and hoping that I got back to Dover safe and sound. You don't get THAT with faceless tax-avoiding chain cafes.

Oh, and by the way, stop by for the porridge one morning. That alone is worth the trip from Dover.

How *do* you say 'Bon Apetit' in Gaelic?


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Bonkers yet Brilliant

This week I've come across my new favourite bonkers Gaelic word:

'Dìochuimhneachadh' (forgotten).

Well really!

Still... break it down and you have 'chuimhne' in the middle, a lenited version of 'cùimhne' meaning 'memory'.

'Chan eil cùimhne agam' - I don't remember. 

From this we get 'cùimhneach' - mindful.

From this we get 'cùimhneachadh' - mindfulness (i.e. remembering)

From this we get 'Dìochuimhneachadh' - non-mindfulness, i.e. forgetting.

What started off as a silly bonkers word with way too many letters in it has now got me all of a quiver and I need dabbing down with a damp flannel again.

I blooming well love Gaelic.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

We need to talk

I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to academia. I sat two A-levels at school, and did appallingly in my mock exams. In French I got 33%. Oops. My poor school performance encouraged me to do a bunk from school and push off to the Auvergne region of France where I had French friends. I spent many happy weeks ‘en famille’ completely immersed in French culture, went back to England, sat the A level exam, and got an A.

I did a similar thing with Dutch. A 12 week Total Immersion Programme including a two week stint at the University of Leuven in Belgium during which time I stayed with a Flemish family. During the 12 week course, English was banned after week two. If you didn’t know a word in Dutch, you weren’t allowed to ask for it in English. So if, for example, you wanted to know the Dutch for ‘cup’, you didn’t ask the tutor: ‘What is ‘cup’ in Dutch?’ You would instead ask, in Dutch: ‘Hoe zeg je in het Nederlands…waneer je drinkt tee of koffie…wat neem je het drankje in?’ (‘How do you say in Dutch…when you drink tea or coffee…what you put the drink in?’)

Sadly for us Gaelic learners, these options aren’t easy to come by. Gaeland does not exist. As I explained in the entry ‘Why is an Englishman Learning Gaelic?’, many native Gaelic speakers are reticent to speak with learners. Plus, unlike French and Dutch people who may not be able to speak English (although rare with the Dutch), practically everyone who speaks Gaelic also speaks English. It is therefore exceedingly easy for either side to lapse into English at the first hurdle. I reckon it must be easier to stop smoking or stick to a strict chocolate-free diet than keep a conversation in Gaelic when you don’t know a word or phrase.

To my knowledge, the only place where ‘Gaeland’ exists is Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland’s Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye. Here, students are contractually obliged to speak Gaelic, and it’s a wonderful enclave. However, even here, the laws of the land dictate that Health and Safety Notices are repeated in English, and anything crucially important to safety or welfare has to be communicated in English to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation.

If you’re not attending Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on a full-time course or a short course during the Easter or summer holidays, where do you go to speak Gaelic?

‘Speaking’ is the one biggest challenge that most learners cite when quizzed. After all, thanks to the likes of, BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal, and BBC Alba, we can surround ourselves with Gaelic that we can absorb on conscious and subconscious levels. One thing media cannot address though is being able to call upon the grammar and vocabulary in our minds and make instant, grammatically correct, and appropriate sentences. Either we take five minutes to think of the right words, draw a blank, or bungle our way through in really bad Gaelic which eventually forces the conversation to switch to English.


I’m no expert, but I reckon that everyday stuff you need for instant use is kept in a different part of the brain to the longer-term, lesser-used stuff. It’s a bit like keeping the coats you use daily hung up by the front door so you can grab one as you leave the house, but your snowboarding jacket or your bike leathers are hanging upstairs in the wardrobe. You use them less so it takes you longer to get to them. In a cranial sense I look upon this as ‘wiring’. I need to get the wiring into place that’s going to instantly transmit that Gaelic knowledge in my head directly to my mouth without spending too much time going through the slow process of conscious reflection. The only way to get that wiring into place is to speak. Make mistakes, but keep speaking.

I’ve got an idea or two of how to get speaking when you're 500 miles from Scotland. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Cùm a' dol. Keep going.

We all get them. Down Days. 'Bad Gaelic' days. Days that we are tempted to jack it all in. Nothing seems to stick, it all just seems so futile.

We look around and all we see are people who are better than us. Brighter than us. More accepted than us. Better Gaelic than us. More confident than us. Gees, it's a rubbish feeling.

Well, I've just met a very inspiring man called Paul. He doesn't speak a word of Gaelic. He's a professional I've been to see about memory loss, and I want to tell you what he said to me.

I'm 45 years old and concerned that as the Gaelic fills up my brain, other things drop out of it. You know the kind of thing; remembering where I put my wallet, where I put my phone, and so on. I've even gone to work and forgotten to pick up my bag containing wallet, security badge, season ticket...everything.

'Am I bright enough to do this, Paul?' I asked. I left school at 17 and I've never done a degree or anything like that.

It turns out that Paul left school at 13 with no qualifications. Now, at an age that I'd peg a year or two older than me, he has done two master's degrees and just completed a PHD. He did these while working full time and raising a family.

*WOW!* Big respect.

A few weeks ago I was listening to Iain Urchadan's 'Beag a Bheag' programme on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal. I love this programme. One of the features is 'Luchd-ionnsachaidh na seachdain' (Learner of the Week), and one such learner was a very, very inspiring young man from Spain called Marcel. This clever, dedicated chap had studied Gaelic purely using online resources for two years, and had just embarked upon An Cùrsa Comais at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

However, to someone like me, such inspiring people only serve to show me just how useless I am. This guy had AMAZING Gaelic despite only learning for two years (the same as me) and by self-study and not with the help of courses and tutors like me. I'm not seeking sympathy, I'm just one of those people who feels a sense of admiration and respect towards the amazingly gifted high-fliers, yet they tend to make me feel pretty rubbish about my useless self.

Back to Paul, the man I saw to check out if I was bright enough to do this. You can almost guess what he said, can't you?

It turns out that there will ALWAYS be people more gifted and more talented than ourselves. That's just the way it is.

However, there is one way, and one way only, to get good at something academic. And funnily enough, it is nothing to do with intellect. No sir.

The one and only thing you need to acheive anything academic, and that includes learning a language, is nothing to do with possessing a brain the size of Inverness.

It is persistence.

Quite simply, you just have to keep going. That, my friends, is all you have to do.

Just. Keep. Going.

Cum a' dol.