Neil De Grasse Tyson: “the universe is in us.”
(to JK)Those scars rooted me. Stigmata stalagmite
I sat at a drive-in and watched the stars
Through a straw while the Coke in my lap went
Waterier and waterier. For days on end or
Nights no end I crawled on all fours or in
My case no fours to worship you: Amoeba Behemoth.
You were dawn on the mountain,
And daylight dancing over the water,
A sun on her elbow in the gold-stream
And a white rose breaking the horizon.
Glittering sails on a sunlit kyle
The blue depths and bronzed sky
Morning is young in your hair,
And in your cheeks, bright, beautiful.
My jewel of night and daybreak -
your face, your love and kindness,
Though the arrows of misfortune
Marr this morning of our youth.
NOTE: Both Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith have translated this poem too. This translation is my own, inadequate, work. I have deRassified and simplified the poem to make it more English-friendly. In Gaidhlig the first line “Bu tu camhanaich air a’ Chuilthionn” has an almost Biblical feel in the majesty MacLean sees in Eimhir, but the Cuilthionn means little to non-Highlanders, so I just generalized it to mountains. Gaelic words like ‘og-mhadainn’ have no real English equivalents either, so I just gave up and made up something similar. I hope you enjoy my translation.
In this post, I want to explore the relationship between science and Gaidhlig - a minority language from Scotland - especially within the domains of education, culture and religion.
The fact of the matter is that Gaidhlig culture is pre-scientific. Remember up til the 1800s most scientific work was conducted through the medium of Latin – Principia Mathematica etc. So ‘English’ science only got started in the 19th century, by which time, of course, Gaidhlig had lost any form of political or educational power in Scotland. Therefore, famous Scottish scientists like Kelvin weren’t Gaels, and Gaidhlig never acquired a scientific vocabulary.
The Education Act in 1871 made English the official language of school, so there was never any need to create Gaidhlig scientific words. Before that there had indeed been Gaidhlig schools in the Highlands, but these were run by the Church, and so focussed on the classics and Hebrew. Even during the 20th century, the great high schools of the Highlands (Portree, Fort William) were notoriously bad for their science provision due to a simple lack of funds. Moreover, southern Hebrides islanders went to seminary for their high school education – these Catholic institutions didn’t have labs, so the kids never had a chance to do proper science. These impediments to gaining a scientific education meant that in the 20th century very very few Gaels ever became scientists, preferring to do classics, or Celtic, or English, so there is no work of original Gaidhlig science writing to be found.
Nonetheless, Derick Thompson did translate a biology textbook to Gaidhlig, saying it was only the shadow of our history that stopped us expressing these scientific concepts in Gaidhlig. And today, in the Glasgow Gaidhlig school, science is taught through the medium of Gaidhlig, as is maths. There is nothing stopping us speaking about science in Gaidhlig – we just have to make the effort. Many teachers say its just too hard – but its only hard for them, as they are unaccustomed to discussing, say, chemistry in Gaidhlig; children who have been doing it all their school career lap it up. In GME primary schools, science is often done in Gaidhlig and a 2009 report concluded that this had no detrimental effect on performance:
Incidentally, one of my aims in life is to produce a popular science book in Gaidhlig and maybe present (or help make) a Gaidhlig documentary on science, writing the material straight in Gaidhlig, not translating. This would be a first, I think!
There is an argument that there is no utilitarian value in teaching kids science in Gaidhlig. I did Maths up to age 8 in Gaidhlig, then the teacher gave up saying I’d be doing it in English the rest of my life anyway. She was pretty justified. In countries like Denmark, no advanced-level physics textbooks are written in Danish as it would be too small a print run – they are in English instead. If you want your papers read you have to write in English – it’s the universal language of science, as Latin was in Newton’s time. This doesn’t preclude teaching kids basic biology (life cycles, food webs etc) in Gaidhlig though – in fact, this would be beneficial as it would provide an outlet for using the Gaidhlig words for flora and fauna, seldom used in urban Gaeldom.
When talking about science and Gaidhlig we can’t ignore the religious side to things. The islands are often called Britain’s Bible Belt, and judging by some exchanges in the West Highland Free Press a few years ago, there are many Christians in Lewis, Skye and Uist who are committed young earth creationists. On the other hand, from my own experience, many Gaidhlig clergy are very close to nature, and in fishing and walking the isles, know the true age of the universe. Remember Lewisian Gneiss is the oldest rock in the world!
Island Gaels certainly are very close to nature, and there is a Gaidhlig taxonomy of all life-forms encountered in the isles. There is also a lot of folk-science - tide-tables, husbandry, crofting techniques, meteorology – showing that daft claims that the Celt is more prone to mysticism than the rational Saxon are just that: daft. On the other hand, we do have a myriad of pagan traditions, such as second sight, orbs floating in the sky, and the magic of going clockwise. On my own island Eriskay, at the end of the 19th century, lots of ‘scientists’ came to investigate the phenomenon of second sight, trying to see if they could utilize it to predict things. The Gaels believed in second sight, and told stories of it – this willingness to embrace the non-Churchlinked supernatural persists to this day, even in a priest I know, and stems I think from the fact we live in a place where it still gets dark!
Finally, the historical Gaidhlig atheism movement is not scientific at all – it is based on poetry and the emotions, a reaction against the cold bite of Calvinism. Sorley MacLean said that he hated the clinical penetrating mind of the scientist: maybe scientific literalism was too similar in tone to soul-crushing Calvinist literalism for MacLean’s liking. I do get the feeling sometimes that Gaels revere nature in a way that isn’t scientific, but more an acceptance that this is a harsh life and we just have to fear nature. In poetry, at least, Gaels seem to celebrate the musical imagination rather than the scientific one. Here is a translation of a poem by Donald MacAulay, an atheist poet from Lewis:
“The fleet is shattered,
The mercernaries of the emperor,
Slaughtered, both red and white.
Circle, pyramid and sphere
Are sent flying
With all his might
Along Einstein’s curved paths
And bashed against table legs,
Illustrious fame unheeded;
Getting lost in the darkness below it
An apple (of Newton’s)
Gnawed to its seed.
No tame order will withstand
This giant –
Striving to be two years old.”
It’s seems to be about the victory of childlike imagination against science. Though the poet himself claims its about the infinite potential of the child beating the stifling rules of the community. The clear references to Newton and Einstein give him away, and we see how science is equated with the Lewis community: namely, Calvinism. For me at least, that’s quite depressing! Why would you see the wonder and beauty of science as similar to the whining Wee Frees?!
This is beautiful.
This is a thirteen year old version of me, beside my grandfather’s grave. I want to explain how important he is to me and to my relationship with Gàidhlig.
My name is Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach and I was named for my grandfather, Dòmhnull Dòmhnullach – a poet, schoolteacher, politician, scholar, crofter, fisherman and general islander. Because of this, I was always fascinated by this man, who everyone on the island spoke about in an almost awed voice. He had died five years before I was born, drowned, fallen of a pier. As I grew up, and discovered a love of Gàidhlig and history and poety, can increasingly found myself compared to him. It fell to me to do things like translate his poems, or transcribe his papers, or speak on the radio. So when I was in thirteen, I wrote a big fat biography of him, pages and pages of impenetrable Gàidhlig, and handed it around the family, and that was that. But about two years ago, I did another big fat study of his poems, which nobody has read, and I never finished, but which made me realize he was in fact very significant as a baird-baile and as a religious poet of nature. I felt proud to call him my grandfather.
But my interests have now completely drifted, and my Gàidhlig lies unused. To do anything Gàidhlig is ultimately futile, unless one talks to one’s mates or one’s kids in it. It’s sad, but I think I’ve made a lucky escape. One of the problems in minority languages is that the people whose work is the language often end up becoming all there is to the language. It would be a hard (yet strangely easy) future to let Gàidhlig become me, to obsess over the past, to dedicate my life to the language. But the language can only become truly living again if we embrace the example of men like my grandfather. He did Gàidhlig-related work – he wrote poems, novels and plays; he translated the Latin mass to Gàidhlig; he collected folklore – but he also had a life: he fished, worked in local politics, taught, ran a croft, went shooting. If you speak a minority language, you might feel a duty to dedicate yourself to preserving it. Don’t! The language belongs to you. You don’t belong to the language!
This is where I live. The Island of Eriskay in the Western Isles of Scotland. Fr Allan MacDonald wrote (in Gaelic):
“Should I even have my choice
I’d prefer of all in Europe
A dwelling place beside the wave
In the lovely Isle of Youth.
It’s bare of foliage, bare of bent-grass,
Bare of barley sowing,
But beautiful for all its bareness
Is each sod of it to me.”
Sometimes, I try to deny a part of their beauty,
Setting them against
Other gifts the God of Grace gave us
But notwithstanding my tribulations
I’ll admit and It’ll be said to me
That there was nought ever as handsome without soul
As the little flower of the desert.
from Flowers by Domhnall Eirisgeach, translated from Gaelic by Candide
Do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
John Milton, Paradise Lost