Friday, 18 July 2008

Bring on the Norse/Scots and Gaelic bilingual signs

"IT appears that Gaels were in a majority in Caithness right up until the early 19th century, although, of course, there was always a significant English-speaking minority in its north-east corner."

That's one conclusion reached by Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart of Edinburgh University and Sabhal Mor Ostaig. It appears in a recent article from the June issue of Am Bratach and was prompted by the loud opinions that are "not all of (which) particularly well-informed" to be heard over the Highland Council policy to promote bilingual Gaelic and English road signs.

Commenting on this issue could be compared to treading on eggshells. What came first the chicken of anti-Gaelic pronouncements or the egg of mixed linguistic experience in Caithness? As a nation our native culture was rejected by the ruling classes that volunteered to assimilate to the British state from the 17th century onwards. Such issues as the promulgation of English in the Authorised King James version of the Bible and the rigorous rejection of Gaelic from the school room by the 1872 Education Act are but examples of the establishment attitude.

Meantime ordinary folk continued speaking their older tongues against the odds. That Gaelic has survived so far is remarkable. That the Caithness dialect of Scots is still vigorous is a tribute to local patriotism and robust local customs. Would that today's generation saw the bigger picture. Dr Stewart advocates that the perennial feuds of 300 years ago between the Sinclair Earls of Caithness and the cattle-raiding Mackays soured relations among Caithness farmers then why does such an anti- Gaelic voice appear today?

Noticeably the Courier/Groat online poll last week showed a majority in favour of bilingual signs. Yet virulent anti-Gaelic comments seem inexplicable. So folk memory still rules? Well, can't we find it in our hearts to enjoy a glorious mixter-maxter of cultures? Why is no-one suggesting correct Norse/Scots spellings for road signs where they occur? Bilingual signs in Norse/Scots and Gaelic would be most appropriate. Or does the legacy of English as the language of progress and education, that was beaten into our forebears, still rule the roost?

For the sake of our self-respect and the growing confidence of Scots in our own culture and languages I hope Caithness folk can decide a reasonable way ahead. Certainly there is a growing welcome for the inclusion of Scots along with Gaelic in the guidelines of the Curriculum for Excellence which will form the foundations of a confident base for our children's schooling. I hope Caithness, with the Year of Homecoming due next year and the National Mod in 2010, can celebrate our linguistic riches.

IT seems like a distance nightmare but this time last year farmers were suffering the twin ravages of violent weather and the threat of foot-and-mouth disease. To remind those who have forgotten, the crisis was caused by mistakes at a UK Government laboratory in Surrey. Restrictions were enforced which seriously hampered farmers' ability to move and ultimately sell their stock.

It was a hard time for all involved in livestock and it tested the nerve of many.

At the time I sang the praises of the livestock farmers in the north and west, as well as environment secretary Richard Lochhead and the Scottish Government's handling of the situation.

In a recent report on the crisis, Professor Jim Scudamore concluded that the Scottish Government handled it well. He said that their actions were in the best interests of the Scottish industry to ensure the return to normal conditions as quickly as possible.

He also said that other key industry players also made sure that the situation didn't get out of control. The agricultural sector as a whole was commended for their role in reducing the risk of disease incursion and spread.

It shows what can happen in a crisis when people pull together to minimise a serious threat. But crucially it suggests that the Scottish Government should have full control of crisis management and compensation issues. Westminster reneged on the costs for sheep farmers; that must never happen again.

By the time it finally reaches its goal of official university status, the University of the Highlands and Islands will have had enough time to complete several doctorates. Yet like a good wine or whisky it is something worth waiting for and what is undeniable is that in recent years progress to that goal has picked up speed. Great credit has to go to principal Professor Bob Cormack for his dedication and drive which saw UHI reach another milestone recently, that of receiving degree-awarding powers.

Why is the UHI important? Well for a start it is a truly a Highland and Island-wide university, a collegiate structure that stretches from Shetland to Moray, Lewis to Dornoch, Caithness to Inverness and many more places as far as Perth.

It is something that should be welcomed by all and sundry in the region. Rest assured it is going to happen as 6800 students currently study in UHI and there will be more in the future. It will allow students from the area to attend university closer to home if they wish.

This option has never been available to them before. Also it means that students from around the world will have a chance to study in some of our most stunning places and with some of the most innovative lecturers.

A fully-fledged UHI will help bolster the Highlands and Islands educationally, culturally and economically, not to mention give it a sense of confidence which has been partly missing. To see the importance that universities make to the feel and reputations of an area, you need only look at Dundee which is world-renowned for genetic research – when I was there in the 1970s it was still jute, jam and journalism.

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