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?!
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 a’ phian
’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.”