It’s wonderful to hear Gaelic in a song. Where and when did you learn Gaelic?
I studied Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen between 2003 and 2007, earning an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in it. I did summer schools on the isles of Islay and Lewis and work experience at the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, in the Isle of Skye. I’d say that it’s here that I felt I clicked into fluency, but language learning is a lifelong process. I pick up something new every time I listen to a song, tune into the radio, pick up a book, speak to other speakers…
Now I teach Gaelic for An Comunn Gàidhealach – a Gaelic arts organisation – and have done for a number of local authorities and higher education institutions. I am also a Gaelic tutor for Lothian Gaelic Choir, which allows me to combine my love of Gaelic, poetry and music.
What is the story behind the song, in the sense of how was it written and what inspired it?
The song was written to the ongoing abuse of Gaelic-speakers in the Scottish and UK press, which foments an anti-Gaelic culture in daily life and especially online. In Scotland, Gaelic has co-national status, which falls short of offering it full equality with English. Despite this, public spending on Gaelic initiatives and its place in public life is still a source of debate. There is a lot of misunderstanding of Gaelic’s history, its use amongst the monolingual majority. This often breeds a certain amount of hostility towards speakers, which isn’t representative of the majority who are – passively at least – supportive of the survival of the language in general.
The song references a number of harmful tropes used against speakers in the press and online, but the choruses serve as a call to arms to continue using the language, despite the backlash in some quarters.
It’s interesting seeing the lyrics written in both Gaelic and English. Other than the literal written meaning of the lyrics, what deeper meaning or significance might the lyrics have? Or what is it about the song and lyrics that resonates with you?
It is customary for Gaelic poets and songwriters to present their work in translation. Even if audiences aren’t fully fluent or don’t have any Gaelic at all, there is still a broader interest in our art and culture, which is great to see. I provided the translation to aid those learning or with an interest, but the song itself is sung in Gaelic only. That was a considered decision as I feel that young people need empowering and encouraging with the language and one of the key aims of the song was to demonstrate that our creativity might not always have to be rooted in the tradition, but that the language can also find a home within the contemporary and commercial musical genres.
We’ve read that the song comes a response to the difficulties, abuse and marginalisation that Gaelic and other minority-language speakers have received. What have been your experiences? And what can be done to improve the respect, inclusion, and help for both Gaelic – and other minority language – speakers?
The majority of the abuse levelled at Gaelic speakers comes online, mainly because the screen and the keyboard provide abusers with the distance required for them to say things they might not say in public, or face-to-face. There have been times I’ve been shouted at in the street, but the majority of the prejudice we encounter is in silent indifference and in exclusion from the Scottish mainstream. The sad fact is that the majority of the arts, books, media and public sectors don’t think twice about Gaelic, pay lip-service to Scots and presume that the English-medium is the only way ensure diversity. You quite often see lineups at events and festivals where organisers champion themselves for their diversity when the whole show is English-language. That’s not diversity for me.
Inclusion, as I say, is key. Recognition in Scotland, and across these islands, that there are more languages spoken and signed than English. Education is key, but the expectation is that the burden of that education is on speakers and community members themselves. In many ways our experiences run in parallel to those of other minoritised communities.
The music video was particularly powerful. How was it filmed & put together? What were the ideas behind the video?
It as been extremely difficult getting a full-scale Gaelic Pop Music project publicly funded. I have experienced a great deal of difficulty in ensuring support from a number of Scottish arts organisations who either favour the traditional in a Gaelic context, or English in a mainstream context. I have had to self-fund a lot of what I do and so, because my application to fund the video was unsuccessful, I shot the performance scenes in my bedroom, on my mobile phone, with lights I bought online. I edited it together myself at home with stock footage available online and a number of images and scans of headlines and tweets gleaned off the internet. Other clips were filmed, pre-Corona, for another project I was engaged with about Gaelic in Edinburgh that didn’t get off the ground, so I was finally able to find a home for it. It was very home-made, much as a lot of art has been during the Corona Crisis. In the end, I felt this made the video more immediate. I felt the humanity behind it enabled me to better connect with audiences. The response has been incredible.
We realise that our questions might only scratch the surface. Is there anything you’d like to add or discuss openly?
I think this music has to be taken in the context of what is happening in Ireland, Wales and Brittany in particular, where there are exciting and fresh approaches to contemporary cenres – pop, dance, R&B, HipHop – in the Celtic Languages. I also find a lot of what’s happening in Samiland fascinating and how language and ideas of indigeneity and self-dteermination are crashing into the Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish mainstream there. I am pleased that in other areas of my career I’m able to engage with artists and activists working with minoritised languages in other countries. This is music that never makes the airwaves and is completely overlooked by blogs over here, such as PopJustice who only ever seem to think something’s good if it’s in English. The Top 40 is a solely English-language affair, despite eleven languages belonging to the Atlantic Archipelago. You might get the odd Spanish-language song, now and again, but that’s it. That’s why working with the Welsh Wonder Rod Thomas (Bright Light Bright Light) was so special. We managed to create something completely contemporary, building a bridge between Scotland and Wales, via New York, without the interjection of English-language cultures. That’s a powerful thing.