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.

Where are you going with this?

'It's better to travel than to arrive' so the saying goes. Obviously a saying coined by someone who has never fought the M6 in order to get to Scotland.

But where am I going with learning Gaelic? What's the point?

Quite simply, if you look at the blog entry from a few days back ('Why is an Englishman learning Scottish Gaelic?') you'll see many of my motovations. However, it doesn't address what I want to acheive by all this study.

Having successfully completed An Cùrsa Inntrigidh at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, I'm now on my first year (third module) of An Cùrsa Adhartais, a two year distance learning course which takes a similar format to An Cùrsa Inntrigidh. Fingers crossed, in a little over a year's time I shall be conversational in my abilities.

An then what? There are options. Maybe I'll continue my studies at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and do something like Gaelic with Media Studies. Who knows.

In this consumerist and sometimes vacuuous world we live, people are often fixated with 'results' and 'goals'. There has to be some money-making or target-obssessive reason why you'd ever do something.

Do you know what? Knickers to all that. You can shove your corporate rubbish up your jumper.

It's lovely to do something that you enjoy and have absolutely no goal whatsoever. It's liberating, fun, and an utter joy to indulge in a spot of Gaelic learning just for the pure, simple, uncomplicated delight of enjoying the journey, and seeing where it ends up.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Path to Learning - Part 2

 So where were we... ah yes, I'd tried 'Gaelic in 12 Weeks' and took about 12 weeks just to get through the first chapter. I could recite tables of pronouns but I still couldn't say anything remotely useful.

January 2013 I was once again in my beloved Hebrides, on an off-grid caravanning trip. That's right: Hebrides, January, Caravan, Off-grid. As bonkers as it sounds, it was amazing.

I was determined to get this Gaelic thing licked, and sought out a course.

After much research, only one course stood out, and that was with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, doing a Distance Learning Beginner's Course called An Cùrsa Inntrigidh. I duly enrolled. Exceptionally, I did this in person as I was passing the college on my way home from the islands. When I got to the college and saw its amazing setting, my jaw dropped. I loved it from the second I entered the gates.

How An Cùrsa Inntrigidh Works

For starters, you can choose from 'Standard Track' or 'Accelerated Track'.

There are two considerations here, ability and timing: 


If you have *some* Gaelic and are confident you can handle a heavy workload, try the Accelerated Track. It's blooming hard work. I wanted to do Accelerated, but timing (see below) dictated Standard Track, and with hindsight I'm really glad I didn't do Accelerated. It would have been too hard.


Looking ahead, the next course on from An Cùrsa Inntrigidh is An Cùrsa Adhartais (distance learning) or An Cùrsa Comais (full-time on campus). Both start at the beginning of the Scottish Academic Year, i.e. late August/September. Therefore, if (like me) you have missed the beginning of the academic year, you may as well start 'Standard Track' in January/February. This will take you through to the summer of the following year, leaving you in a good position at a good time to take your progression course.

You need to be aware that if you start Standard Track An Cùrsa Inntrigidh in September, you will finish the course then have a six-month wait to take your learning to the next level. Of course, you can do refreshers etc, but if your learning is standard (like me), you may as well start your learning in January and keep your head above water.

The course itself is structured by workbooks you download from a virtual 'Blackboard' and a weekly tutorial that you phone in to attend. It works like a conference call. Up to eight students and the tutor all call in and the spoken learning is done by phone. The tutor takes you through the work that you'll have done which he or she set the week previous.

Further information about the course may be found at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig's Website here.

At first it was all a bit intimidating. You have an induction week to make sure you know how everything works, and it's during this week I realised that this wasn't just some Adult Education Evening Class, this *really was* a proper University Foundation Course. The course itself was far more challenging than I had anticipated. I needed to spend about 8-12 hours a week on my Gaelic as I'm no natural learner. Some folks may get away with doing less, but if you scrimp on the course work, you'll soon be found out in tuturial. Besides, if you've paid good money and committed yourself to learning Gaelic, why would you then not do what you signed up to do?

One of the best parts of An Cùrsa Inntrigidh is the free weekend school that happens once a term. You pay only for accommodation and food, and of course your travel to/from Skye. I enjoyed three fantastic weekends during my 18 month course, despite never really ever having enough Gaelic to get by in any situation without reverting to English.  It was really worthwhile making the two day journey each way, as the course comes with one natural limitation: You never see your tutor, and some intonation is lost over the phone. To spend a 'real' weekend with Gaelic is a very, very useful thing to do.

There are other Gaelic courses out there, all of which you'll find on the website. However, if you are serious about learning and cannot easily get to a college offering a good Gaelic course on a regular basis, then An Cùrsa Inntrigidh is, in my most humble opinion, the one to go for.

Why is an Englishman learning Scottish Gaelic?

'What on earth are you doing that for?' is normally the first question I get asked when I mention I'm studying Scottish Gaelic.

Deagh cheist (good question) as they'd say in Gaelic. After all, I am from Dover. I still spend most of my time near my family in Dover. I have a day job in London. I have absolutely no Scottish Heritage whatsover, at least not since as far back as the mid-1850s, which is as far back as my family tree goes. Apparently there was a bit of a to-do and a hoo-ha with the housekeeper masquerading as a wife or something, so it all went a bit fuzzy and unaccountable. We forget that everything that goes on today went on then. It was just looked upon differently and covered up (for better or for worse) as much as possible.

So no. No Celtic blood in these veins whatsoever. Cut me open and you'll get chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, not peat from the Isle of Lewis.



I love, absolutely love, the Outer Hebrides. In fact, I love the whole of the Highlands and Islands, but especially the Western Isles. Without going into too much detail, I find a sense of peace and 'groundedness' in the Outer Hebrides that I fail to find elsewhere in the world. It really is 'my' special place. The landscape of the Highlands and Islands speaks Gaelic. Not just the signs and the place names, but the hills and the beaches. Learning Gaelic while continuing to live and work Down South provides me with a daily tenable link with the place I dearly love.


Everyone mentions this one. Gaelic culture is jaw-droppingly rich. The language, music, traditions, and stories are like an eternal onion; you can just keep peeling off layers and layers and finding a new one underneath. Unlike the uncultured yoof of the mainstream UK who adopt Vacant Consumerism as a way of living and have absolutely no clue where they come from, younger Gaels all seem to share an intense bond with their roots, their history, and their heritage. As a result of this, I never cease to be amazed at how many incredibly talented young people there are in the West of Scotland, and how few genuinely talented people there are elsewhere in the country. The energy and vibrancy of the Gaelic culture is something I simply cannot get enough of.


Unlike most popular languages learned in the UK (eg French, German, Spanish), Gaelic is a Celtic language and not a Romance language. It is totally and utterly different. This difference, and the difficulites it often presents, only serves to act as an incentive to 'keep going' on those all-too-familiar 'Bad Gaelic Days' when nothing ever seems to come out right. Now and again you'll hit on something that makes you explode with that 'Eureka!' feeling before suddenly realising you've become a language geek. For example: 'That is good' in Gaelic is: 'Is math, sin'. That's pronounced: ' 's-mar-shin'. Say it out loud....Smashing! That's why something that is 'smashing' in English is good. Ooh, dab me down with a damp flannel.


It makes my heart bleed to see people move to new places and set up an insular version of their own culture. Think of all those 'Brits Abroad' enclaves in Spain. Think 'Sonnenland', the German town in Gran Canaria. And yes, there are mainlanders and English folk who move to beautiful parts of the Gàidhealtachd and Islands then impose their unsuitable ways on the local traditions and landscape. Call me an ill-informed arrogant self-important twit, but if I'm going to move to the Hebrides - and one day I really hope I will - then to me it is important to learn the local traditions and culture. Even if I remain a perpetual tourist, my enjoyment and understanding will always be far more profound than had I not lifted the lid on the culture and language that the everyday obvious stuff on the surface sometimes conceals.


As I progress with my journey into Gaelic, 'acceptance' is becoming less and less of a motive. At first, I thought that anyone who spoke Gaelic would be treated and welcomed like a Gael. Two years down the line, I've come to accept that this is a culture that you cannot just learn a few phrases and barge your way into. Gaelic holds no place for Gatecrashers. That said, I've recently found a new group of people that welcome me with open arms. Those people are the 20,000 strong community of Gaelic Learners. The vast majority will always be standing on the sidelines of 'real' Gaelic life, but we find comfort and joy in each other's company.


Let's face it, mainly thanks to the arrogant mistakes of the past, Gaelic a language teetering on the brink of dying out. Initiatives over the past 30-odd years are still working hard to stem that decline and start the number of speakers growing again. To lose Gaelic, and everything it holds, would be an absolute tragedy. By doing my little bit, it's helping keep the language afloat until such time its strong enough to really flourish yet again. It took generations to reduce Gaelic to where it is today, so it will take generations to get it back to a mainstream level. But, as the saying goes, Every Little Helps. 


What about the reaction of others?

This has surprised me, massively. The main reactions I've had from people when I say I'm learning Gaelic have been:

Passionate enthusiasm

There, you might not have expected one or two of those, eh?


This is the main reaction I get from fellow English people. Many of them don't even know what Gaelic is. They generally think that my learning it is a good thing and can only broaden my experience of life. But... well, it's just a bit bonkers, really, isn't it?
'There there, dear.'


This is one reaction I've had from many native Gaelic-speakers. This is a whole open-ended story in itself which will hopefully merit its own blog entry. When first attempting to speak Gaelic with native-speakers that I didn't know, I was slightly taken aback by their silence and weak smiles. It took a while for me to learn that this was not rudeness in any way whatsoever, but a sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. Put it another way...imagine you've spoken a separate 'special' language with only your nearest and dearest for your entire life, and you use a 'formal' language for everyday business with the rest of the world. How would you feel one day if someone from that 'Outside' world spoke to you in your 'special' language for the first time, uninvited?


This is the reaction that builds and builds. It mainly comes from people who have, or did have, even the most tenuous link with the promotion of Gaelic. You also get the same reaction from most Learners who are pleased to find another soulmate who 'understands' their struggles and triumphs. These are the people who make it all worthwhile, and these are the people you need to be hanging out with.


This is the saddest reaction of all, but thankfully the most rare, but you need to prepare yourself for it. So far, every instance I know of hostility (towards my own learning or that of my peers) has come from somebody Scottish. This has ranged from Gaelic speakers in Lewis and Glasgow to non-Gaelic speakers throughout Scotland. The Gaelic-speaking 'Hostiles' would rather see the language die than be modernised into a teachable form and taught in a formal way. Or, possibly, there is an objection to me, a Sassanach, being privy to their language and culture. I'm pleased to say that the latter has happened only once or twice over two years. Every barrel contains a narrow-minded rotten apple or two. There is also hostility from people outwith the Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland. They see Gaelic as a waste of public money. I image these are the kind of people who see a railway or a bus company as needing to generate profit as a stand-alone company. The truth of the matter is, Gaelic (just like railways and buses) generates income from tenuous connections, maybe not as a direct result of anything. Just imagine if the trains stopped running in Scotland. Commuters and visitors wouldn't easily be able to get to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Businesses and tourists would go to London or Manchester instead, taking their money with them. Same with Gaelic. I dread to think how much money I've pumped into the Scottish economy since that first trip to the Hebrides in 2009, and it's Gaelic that keeps me coming back and injecting more money, be it on tuition fees or on cake. Gaelic helps give Scotland its unique identity which keeps it a top tourist destination in the world, as well as a centre for learning and culture.

So there you have it: the Whys, Wherefores, and the Ups and Downs of the journey into Gaelic. It's like standing at the front of a CalMac Ferry during a rough crossing. You may have to hang on tight and brave the wind and waves, but it's an experience that makes you feel alive and it's a journey you'll never forget.