JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOT KNOWING THE LANGUAGE, LOVING IT ANYWAY – SCOTLAND’S NEW WAVE OF GAELIC THEATRE for Scotsman Magazine, 7.3.15. _______________________________________________________
IT WASN’T until the bus arrived back at the Tramway that I realiised I might – almost – be in a minority of one. On a wild, wet Glasgow night, we had been driven around the corner to a handsome family house in Shields Road, where – divided into groups of seven or so, and plunged into darkness by a dramatic “power cut” – we had moved for an hour from room to room, through the world of a show called As An Dorchadas (Out Of Darkness), based on 100 years of flickering memories of a Glasgow family with a strong Hebridean heritage.
The show’s dialogue was almost entirely in Gaelic; but with a few aural clues – an air-raid siren, a Seventies song – it was easy enough for non-Gaelic-speakers to work out which period we were in; and a gently illustrated family tree in the programme helped us to sort out the characters.
So it was only when the young woman behind me on the bus prodded my cosy winter coat, and told me in fluent Gaelic that she liked it, that I realised that most of the rest of the audience were probably Gaelic speakers. Years of watching Edinburgh Festival – and, at one time, Mayfest – shows, in a range of languages from Polish to Japanese, have long since accustomed me to the business of enjoying theatre in languages I don’t understand; words, after all, are only one aspect of theatre, and perhaps not the most important.
And in the case of Gaelic, there’s no question that English-speaking audiences in Scotland need to see work that includes and revels in this ancient and beautiful Scottish language, not ony because Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking community, at just over 1% of the population, is too small to support a thriving audience, but because the rhythm and sound of Gaelic is so ingrained in our place-names, language, music and history that not to hear it and enjoy it is to cut ourselves off from a vital part of our own heritage.
And now, with Glasgow City Council sponsoring a whole new wave of Gaelic drama in Glasgow, and the National Theatre of Scotland about to launch Iain Finlay MacLeod’s Gaelic-language touring version of Whisky Galore, there are huge opportunities for audiences beyond Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking areas to enjoy theatre in what is, for most of us, an unknown but strangely familiar language. Last year, White Stag’s 2013 Gaelic version of Macbeth played successfully on the Fringe; Edinburgh-based Storm Oig’s 2012 family drama The Idiot At The Wall, was seen in this year’s Celtic Connections festival. And Scottish theatre has, after all, a long tradition of drawing strength from the Gaelic tradition; Gaelic song, story and language was a key element in the work of John McGrath’s legendary 7:84 Scotland, and there are powerful elements of the language in David Greig’s mighty Macbeth sequel Dunsinane, now playing in Chicago.
It’s no secret, of course, that there’s still a strand of intense hostility to Gaelic in some parts of Scottish society; those who see it as a “backward” language that should be allowed to die, and resent the public money spent on it.
The loss of a powerful indigenous language, though, is no small thing; it impoverishes everyone who takes any part in it, and strengthens the idea of a monoglot English culture that fatally narrows perceptions and thought. And it seems to me that a thriving future for Gaelic in Scotland depends not so much on the unlikely prospect of millions of us learning to speak Gaelic, as on our ability to open our minds and hearts to those who do, and to artists who create Gaelic work; and increasingly, to hear and enjoy the stories they tell, as a vital part of our own narrative.
As An Dorchadas, run completed. Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr (Whisky Galore) opens at the Sunart Centre, Strontian on 9 April, and tours untl 15 May.
Sent from my iPhone