Friday, 9 June 2006

Speaking up for a rich diversity of language

Published: 09 June, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

ON my travels I sense a growing mood of confidence about our diverse culture and languages in the Highlands and Islands. That's a sure sign of a wider optimism for our economic and social prospects.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has recently acknowledged the key part played by our traditional arts and music as well as contemporary artistic expression in underpinning lively communities. This has been confirmed by widespread research over several years. Would that Scottish Enterprise had a similar remit for the rest of Scotland.

Happenstance last week led me to meet a most enthusiastic local proponent of that confident cultural diversity. She is Dr Donna Heddle, of Orkney College, who mentors the UHI's BA honours degree in Cultural Studies of the Highlands and Islands and their MA in Highlands and Islands Literature. These are naturally open to distance-learning opportunities but based in Orkney. Donna, a Caithness native from Castletown, has drawn together an exciting prospectus of all the strands of identity that make up our complex region around the Pentland Firth and the North Atlantic rim.

The courses are attracting students from abroad; several are signed up from the USA and Canada. Revenue from their fees boosts the chances of more local candidates being able to develop their knowledge of our Scots, Gaelic and Norse cultures that coalesce - or, as some would have it, collide - in the Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney triangle. I was pleased to see that Dr Heddle has engaged Carl MacDougall, host of the excellent four-part series Scots: The Language of the People screened recently on BBC TV.

Talking of confidence-building, we need a big push for the Thurso-based nuclear decommissioning studies just in case people believe newspaper stories that the University of Central Lancashire beat us to it.

The cross-party group for Scots language decided last week that Dr Heddle should make us a presentation in the autumn. She's a Caithnessian who has learned Gaelic along with her robust native speech in the Castletown version of the Caithness dialect. There's a lot we can learn from Donna so Caithness schools can enjoy the legacy of Caithness Scots and Gaelic that provides a new sense of well-being for the Far North. In contrast I am aware of certain councillors who object to Gaelic language appearing on bilingual road signs here and even voting in the Highland Council to stop people in other distant parts of the Highlands from opening a Gaelic-medium school.

With a local culture which has huge dollops of English regional accents, through the all-UK recruitment to Dounreay, diversity could stand a bit of celebration by including local strands of culture too. Frankly it would be racist if anyone proposed that all English people should conform by dropping their local tongue when they reside in the county. Who knows, some locals might soon be telling all Polish arrivals that they have to speak English, or else.

Hopefully not if a confident and informed mood is adopted by those in positions of power towards our own native tongues and the new tongues on the block.

CAITHNESS is indeed a unique place but it has yet to fix that idea in the wider public mind - that despite having more prehistoric sites in the county than Orkney, boasting the last clan battle in Scotland fought at Altimarlach, and, of course, sporting some of the best surf in Europe.

Last week I visited an important part of that unique Caithness fabric, Pulteney Distillery. Set up in 1826, it managed to continue to produce its water of life throughout the prohibition years and now has gone global. It is one of the biggest and most successful concerns in Caithness.

The only problem is that its single malt whisky is proving so popular that demand is threatening to outstrip current stocks - but then that is a problem worth having!

Prompted by a more than passing interest in its amber product, I wanted to explore the prospects for the local heating system fuelled by previously waste steam and hot water that should provide green credentials for the distillery and constant hot-water supplies for local homes. The Environment and Rural Development Committee's review of statutory instruments that regulate private water supplies and license abstraction from rivers and burns affects distilleries in particular.

So is Pulteney facing the challenges of tight regulation? Top marks are deserved.

Thanks to manager Fred Sinclair, whose enthusiasm and knowledge highlights yet another branch of Scottish cultural diversity, the worldwide success story of selling one of Scotland's treasured malt whiskies is in safe hands.

Fred originally comes from Sanday in Orkney and started work in the Scapa distillery near Kirkwall, after which he has served at Inver House outlets in Speyside and Wick.

With modern marketing and developing palates, sales of malt whiskies generally have soared and the huge Chinese market is only just opening up. So the prospects for well-marketed products like Old Pulteney depend on being able to make enough to meet market demands.

With a big surge in Scottish confidence we could raise a glass after the Holyrood elections next May and start to recycle the whisky revenues from Scottish stills for more tangible local needs. Add this to Scottish oil, an asset worth £170,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland. This week the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, launched proposals in the House of Commons to repatriate oil and gas, and the revenues from the Scottish sector of the North Sea, to the Scottish Parliament. Now that would be worth much more than a second dram.