Tuesday, 20 August 2013

What are you learning THAT for?

Tha Sassainach a th’ annam, ach tha mi ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig, comhla ri Sabhal Mòr Ostaig anns an Eilean Sgitheanach. Dè? Chan eil fios agamsa. 

The digital sabbatical will have to wait another 24 hours as I'm on a site with free wifi. The rain is persisting down outside so it's a good time to neck a few wee drams and compose a bit of an egotistical rambling. It's about something I really don't understand, and probably something that won't be of interest to many.

You see, I'm from Kent. My family is from Kent. I even had a distant relative in the USA trace the family tree back a few generations (she gave up when it transpired that my great-great-great something was carrying on with the Housekeeper and the records went a bit skew-whiff) and they were ALL from Kent. I spent every happy childhood summer in the caravan in...Kent. 

This makes it all the more puzzling as to why on earth I love the Western Isles of Scotland so much. Not just in a 'Ooh, isn't it pretty?' kind of a way, but in a deep down right-under-the-skin way where every minute of my life that is not spent in Scotland is a minute that, while not wasted, is a minute closer to my next trip. 

Even my parents haven't been to Scotland, if you excuse the one time they got lost in Edinburgh and didn't even get out of the car as they became inanely cross about the sheer number of traffic lights. 

From Dover, it's so much easier and cheaper to head to the likes of France or Wales. 

It took until 2009 to finally make the journey North of the Border with the caravan and it was, unbeknown to me at the time, a turning point in my life. I spent three weeks discovering the Outer Hebrides and life changed instantly. I instinctively knew that this was THE place. Nowhere else would captivate me in the same way. 

I went home and life changed dramatically. 'I don't know what happened to you up there but since you've come back I hardly know you,' declared my partner before rapidly becoming my Ex after six happy years. 

The visits to the islands increased in frequency. If you include a trip to the Inner Hebridean island of Skye, this August trip in 2013 is my fourth this year already. 

In an attempt to try and make some sense of it all, I started to learn Scottish Gaelic. Like most keen students, I thought I'd do the cheap self-study route of 'Gaelic in 12 Weeks'. I think I made it to chapter three before giving up. 

You see, to my mind there are two approaches to learning a language: Scientific, and intuitive. 

'Scientific' is for academic people who like to learn verb tables, clauses, and know what the third person singular means. For these people, I'm sure that 'Gaelic in 12 Weeks' might work. Just don't expect too much in the way of spontaneous converstation. 

'Intuitive' is for thickos like me who like to learn a language by ACTUALLY SPEAKING it. You know, a bit like how we learned our first language when a baby. You listen, eventually understand, and start to say the words yourself. OK, your grammar may not be spot on, but you can converse face-to-face with people and form a connection. 

In January this year I enrolled at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland's Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, for a distance-learning course, and have now completed my first term. 

Learning is done on a self-study basis, where workbooks, exercises, and sound files are emailed in the form of password-protected files. What makes this a little different to many self-study courses is that there is a weekly tutorial at a fixed time. Once a week you phone in with your fellow classmates and go through the week's work with your tutor. If you are as tight (I mean, as careful with money) as me, you make sure that you've got the work done in order to get your money's worth out of the course. 

'But what on earth are you learning THAT for?' is the common question. After all, everyone in Scotland speaks English anyway, don't they? 

Well, yes. But I am hoping that by learning the language I will learn about and understand the culture on an ever increasing level. That in itself may in turn lead to an understanding about why on earth I feel so connected to the Outer Hebrides, and why I love it so much here. 

There's also something rather nice in a niche kind of a way in learning a language that you cannot simply put in to Google Translate - it's just too small and complex. 

It's still very early days. In the first term, as well as learning a few basics in the language, I have learned about the game of Shinty and I have started, just started, to learn about how Gaelic is perceived in Scotland. It's not all sweetness and light as I have also come across apathy and anti-Gaelic sentiment. However, this just makes me want to dig deeper. 

It's easy for an Outsider to romantically muse about how sad it is that the language is still waning. When you're a student in the Outer Hebrides and you want to get on in life, you might still think that English-medium education could offer you better long-term prospects than Gaelic-medium education. Who's going to risk their entire future for the sake of a romantic historic idyll? 

Never before have I enjoyed studying. However, when the first term of college ended I was really, really sad. I thought about Summer School but the classes didn't fit in with the timetable of the distance-learning courses. Gaelic is a fiendishly difficult language to learn, but I think that that's what makes it so interesting and what creates the motivation. 

So far on this trip I've stayed on a couple of campsites run by Gaelic speakers and have insisted on practicing my limited conversation on them. 'We could see that you were bursting to have a go' laughed Catriona at Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist. But why not. Learning even a few words of the language and a bit about the culture of where you go shows a level of respect towards your host country. That could be France, Spain, Croatia, or indeed the Western Isles of Scotland. 

Gàidhlig. Cànan beag, beartas mòr. 


  1. Hi Andrew
    Just picked up my first caravan today and very excited to see you (and many others it seems) have already trodden the path I intend to follow.
    I've yet to work out how I can become a full-timer from the financial standpoint but I will find a way!
    I have visited Oban and the surrounding area and absolutely love it, and also feel drawn to it. Once I feel brave enough to tow my little caravan further than the edge of town (it was scary towing it home today despite having completed the Practical Caravanning Course) Wales and Scotland, via the Peak District (or anywhere else with hills) are at the top of my list.
    Thanks so much for your inspirational blog; my dog and I will soon be hot on your trail to the north!
    Any tips you are happy to provide me with are very, very welcome!

    1. Thanks for the message Michaela and congratulations on the caravan purchase. Main advice? Don't rush it. Go at your own pace. Also, plan loosely. The fewer rigid plans, the less there is to go wrong, and the more you will see along the way, if you even make it to your desired destination. Just get out there and enjoy, and see what happens. Enjoy the journey! :)