catholic by birth; scientist by choice; sinner by merit. gaidhlig-speaking neuroscience student at oxford. likes to question everything! @di_macd

There is no such thing as a Little Scotlander

Vote yes for Scottish independence because Scotland would be one of the most progressive countries in the world.


Agallamh luachmhor gun teagamh! Somhairle talking about his poetry, politics, teaching experiences and conflicting feelings stirred up by the war. He speaks as if he’s drawing from some great infinite source beyond…

He has a beautiful voice. A voice like Gandalf.

Translation of Camhanaich by Sorley MacLean


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.

Science and Gaidhlig

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.


Euclid’s paraphernalia

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 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.”

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.”

Oran na Gaoithe [25/11/09]

Cluinn! òran na gaoithe

gam dhùsgadh tràth bho shuain;

na dealanaich a’ rànaich

cur sgaradh sìorraidh bhuainn.


Cluinn! an cuan a’ caoineadh

dhòmhs’ an daolag bheag;

thar raointean cadal drùidhteach

nam aonar ’s dòchas leagt’.


Cà’ bheil thu, a ghràidh?

Cà’ bheil am flùran a’ fàs?

Cà’ bheil do ghàire bàidheil

Nach àicheadh riamh an gràs?


Beò air talamh pàiteach,

guth binn an gàrradh uain’;

mo ghuailnean trom a’ bruadar

mu ubhal mhilis nach gabh a bhuainn.


Cha leum leth-sgeul an rainn

gu bràth gu àird an dìthein ghrinn;

mo theanga danns s a gàire fann,

tha samhradh caochladh leinn.


Seall! an seangan tùrsach,

pronn fo bhròig nan tàirn’,

fo sgàil na grèine gruamaich

is pòg oidhch’ na gràin.


Tha na siantan glas gar sracadh

ann am pìosan beag bho chèil;

chaill mi reul ùr na machrach

s i geal fo gheilt an t-sèist.


‘S e mo mhiann-sa nist bhith sàbhailt,

an caladh cruth mo chrìdh,

còmhla ribhs’ a ghrìogag dhàna,

gun farmad no strì.


Nach sir an Tì fhèin dhomh gràs?

Fàrdach chòir no tàmh?

Dh’iarrainn am bàs mur biodh e

An-còmhnaidh dùinte balbh.


Ach bha mi dall mar pheacaire

fo dheachdaireachd a’ ghaoil,

a’ caoidh sa choire-bhreacain,

mo cheann ciontach air do chùl.


Bha thusa tapaidh na mo chuimhn’,

blàth-ghàire air do bhilean,

s mi uair a’ coiseachd cianalach

air sliabh am fàsach fuar.


Dìthreabh far nach mair an ròs

cho fada ris aphian

s mi tarraing cluas ri do thòsd,

brònach aig a’ chrìch.


Beannachd ort mar sin a luaidh

aig deireadh an là a’ liathadh;

s deòir a’ tuiteam far do ghruaidh

tha mise ruith bhod riaghaltas…


On the 8th of May, my late grandfather, a crowned bard, would have been 99. Here is a (literal) translation I did of my favourite of his Gàidhlig poems:

Flùraichean / Flowers

 “Of all the sights I see

It’s the flowers that snatch at my heart;

For as I ponder through the fields

They lift my mood and appetite.

Millions marching throughout the world

And found in every corner.

An infinite blessing on the One who thought,

Upon the shepherd forever tending.


Plentiful throughout the meadows;

On the banks and in every garden.

Jewellery of precious stones

On the white proud breast of nature.

They gaze gleefully from its shoulders

when the seasons are sweetly smiling.

Until she folds them safely up

When cold danger and hardship approach.


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.


When I’m pained

To suffer the trials of this world

It is my desire if it can be done

To take a trip into the desert

Where I can converse closely

With the sweet smelling flowers

And see children

Diligently twisting them into garlands.


Those bonds man cannot understand

Always between child and flower:

Both innocents blooming fresh and renewed

They won’t die till age takes their heads off

Without trouble, blame or care,

In close companionship with nature

Taking heaven to the borders of the world

Like a revelation; a wish of God.


I cannot tell

How many thousands of meadows they proliferate

Between the machair and the ditches:

Even in the thirsty deserts,

Every hill and mountain brim,

Every deer forest and moor is full of them

Universal in every land

Thick as the grains of the shore.


Often we look with happiness

At the colours of the rainbow high in the sky -

Yet sailors of the stratosphere do but complain when

Compared to the graceful moors,

The scarlet mountains,

With every colour together

Feeding the eye of beauty

They gaze upon the covering of life.


Primroses the colour of the sun,

Clover deep as the ragged waves,

Dog-violet as blue as the heavens,

Daisies worthy of gold and silver,

Roses red and white adorn the branches,

And lilies fall as snow on the rough moorland.

Voice and speech cannot describe it

Nor can an artist with brush to canvas.


Wasn’t it a most ravishing mix of colours?

Nature’s beguiling, becoming dress

A comely suit that makes us aware

When it’s sunny, calm and warming

Cursed be bad weather

Which brings with it the icy bite of winter

And puts beautiful holy flowers

Out of sight until the seasons depart.


Before I part with you dear flower

Tell me the secret to your joy.

Mankind holds you in high regard

Seeking you as a lover would.

But you do not cheat the world’s ways for long

The blemish of old age stains you not

Till a long time after you fade away into the soil,

Your glamour ever obsesses me.


You are the messengers of peace

Who will banish ill-will and hatred.

You are the guiding light of the desert

To the hopeless who trundle after.

You are truth’s greatest revelation

Who will not betray me for as long as I live.

For it’s not the land that gives you essence

But the One with whom awoke my consciousness.


I see you on a noble’s table,

I see you in a virgin’s locks,

I see you in abandoned corners,

I see you with the wedding party,

I see you at the graveside

Holding court with those I loved -

Rich and poor in your presence

All gain an intangible delight.


It’s a past time for me in the winter

When the mountains gloom

And I think of summer

When the glens grow green -

When that picture comes to mind

It’ll spin in my head

Flowers backwards and forwards

Busy dancing in my thoughts.


And when death comes to call me,

I’m soothed by the everlasting sleep

Of being buried as a Christian

With a headstone beside the sea.

My only wish is there be hundreds

Of every kind of flower giving life at the grave.

With that thought, thank god

My soul, at least, will be smiling.”