Twice recently I have encountered people who are surprised at the amount of Gaelic there is in Australia. It isn’t something I’ve thought much about, since I was raised in the Australian school system being taught that the first hundred years or so of European settlers were from the British Isles – and after all, there are only a few hundred Gaelic-speakers for all that.
At a fiddle workshop weekend run by musicians from Scotland, one of the tutors was mulling over the rediculousness of using Italian words when English ones should suffice. In particular, he said, Why should we say ‘arco’ when we could say ‘with the bow’? And why couldn’t we use the Gaelic? “We should all learn the Gaelic terms,” he said, but he didn’t know how to speak it. “Does anyone know how to say ‘with the bow’ in Gaelic?”
I thought he was asking the room at large – I learnt later he was addressing it mostly to one of the workshop graduates who had learnt Gaelic at school – and after a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, “It would be ‘leis a’ bhogha’, wouldn’t it?”
“It could be. What does that mean?”
“Literally ‘with the bow’. I don’t know if that’s a fiddle bow or just a rain-bow…”
“Do you yourself have the Gaelic?”
“Yes,” I nodded, a little embarrassed by the whole thing, and we moved on with the workshop.
A little later, one of the facilitators was telling us about the organisation. “We’re based in Scotland,” she explained. “Have any of you been to Scotland?”
About half of us put up our hands, me a little timidly. After all, I was a few days shy of my second birthday last time I was in Scotland. I can’t remember anything of it. To all practical intents and purposes, I haven’t been to Scotland.
But she looked straight at me and asked, “You’ll have been to the Highlands, haven’t you?”
Again, technically, I have, and I said as much, before gabbling out some excuse about having been a toddler when we came back to Australia.
Later in the day, the same facilitator caught up with me over morning tea and asked how I came to speak Gaelic.
The truth is, I don’t really have a sensible answer – about how I came to speak it or why. I told her a story about how my grandmother, who grew up in New Zealand, probably spoke it. I told her about how, as a teenager, I started spending more time with the Gaelic-speaking community in Adelaide than I had previously, I learnt to hold a basic conversation with them. I explained that, because I had been exposed to Gaelic for the first few years of my life, learning it as a teenager felt more like remembering something I already knew than it did the hard task of learning German when I started at a German-medium school for high school. I told her about how excited I’d been to move to Melbourne, where there are more than half a dozen Gaelic-speakers, and how I’d joined the Gaelic choir. I mentioned that Australia, like Canada, used older spellings and had a few different words. And I commented how, when I was doing the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig course, you could guarantee that every written assignment would come back with the word “‘n-uair” highlighted and the correction “nuair”, even though the former is how it was spelt in Scotland 30 years ago.
“Oh, so you did spend time at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig?” she asked. She seemed relieved to finally have a reasonable explanation about how I spoke Gaelic. I’d been to the immersion language centre on Skye.
“No,” I told her, “It was a correspondence course I did when I was in Year 12.”
According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 household speakers of Gaelic in Australia. Most of the Gaelic-speakers I know are the only speaker in their households, and so wouldn’t answer Gaelic on the census. According to Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia, there are Gaelic classes in every capital city, and learners’ groups in a number of regional centres as well.
Just a few days ago, someone posted a question on the FaceBook group Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Learners). Feeling curious, he asked,
“This may be a stupid question, but how come Gaelic is popular in Australia? I can understand having courses in Scotland (obviously) and Nova Scotia but if anyone ever asked me where they might be able to find a course, I would never have thought of Australia…”
There were a lot of responses. Ideas from non-Australian learners. Ideas from new Australian learners. Comparisons to other parts of the world with either lots of Scottish settlers or historic Gaelic where classes and groups no longer exist.
“Gàidhlig was briefl a major language in the early days of European invasion. There was even a newspaper called An Teachdaire Gaidhealach published in the 1850s which was 85% Gàidhlig.” – Prenna Ello.
“I suppose Scottish people have always had a presence in Australia, in numbers, and Gaelic has always been part of that – “Taladh ar Slanuighear” was written by a priest moving from Muideart to Australia in the 1850s, and he’s buried in Geelong. Recently I sang with Còisir Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria at the 150th anniversary of a church in outer Melbourne that was built by Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“My ancestors came from Skye to New South Wales in 1838. They could onl speak Gaelic and they attended the first foreign language church service in Sydney to offer thanks for their safe arrival. As the family historian I travel to Skye each year to immerse myself in Gaidhlig language and the wonderful culture of my forebears.” – Rachel Heath.
“My own family came out much more recently (I’m first generation, although there was some time spent in Dunedin/ NZ a few generations ago), but there’s always someone at Sgoil Nàiseanta who’s just started learning because he’s done some family history and discovered that his Gaelic-speaking family moved out in eighteen-whatever and continued using the language until his grandparents’ generation.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“My mother and her family moved to Australia from Scotland in the 60s. Part of my desire to learn Gaelic is because of my family’s connection.” – Kiah Bergman.
“The British Isles were always favoured for immigration, so there’s always been a constant flow of Scottish immigrants, presumably with an average representation of Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“So Gaelic societies in Australia are not a new thing and are often 100+ years old, with recent immigrants from Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, and “Australian-as-they-come” people with Gaelic-speking heritage who are re-connecting to the language, and – the most confusing part for me – a lot of completely non-Scottish-heritage-whatsoever people who are learning it.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“According to the 2011 census around 8.3% of the Australian population claim Scottish ancestry, which is the fourth biggest ancestry group represented in the figures. Not sure how this compares to other countries but it might be a factor. My question is why isn’t Gàidhlig *more* popular?” – Prenna Ello.
“Interestingly enough, hubby did some online training at work and one of the questions at the end of completing it had a drop down for identifing all languages spoken at home. Scots Gaelic was on it! So he picked it. I have never seen this on anything in Scotland and here it was in Adelaide.” – Ash Kane.
“I’m told Gaelic used to be offered with the School of Languages into the 90s so maybe it was once more widespread in Adelaide than we think…” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“Gaelic was one of the languages on the SBS radio service until 2003.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
It was great bouncing around all those fantastic ideas an anecdotes, but there was another side of the story represented:
“Because Australia has immigrants from around the world and, not all the Scottish went to New Zealand.” – Simon Hogan.
“But I’m sure there are Scottish immigrants all over and you don’t see so many courses.” – Tom Morrison.
“Maybe it’s like Nova Scotia and there was a dense population of speakers in one or more areas.” – Fo Gish.
“The 2011 census had around 720 primary-language-at-home speakers of Scottish Gaelic listed, which is only around half as many as Nova Scotia I think – it’s just that Australia (even if it’s just the eastern states) is a lot bigger than that, even bearing in mind that Australia and New Zealand did get a lot of refugees from the Clearances. Gaelic was more spread-out here to begin with, so it’s not as well-known about as Nova Scotia.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“Lotta Scottish in Appalachia, US, no Gaelic.” – Gwyn Fae.
“Lots of Scottish in South Australia, not historic Gaelic (a few learners these days but mostly recent immigrants). Most of the Scottish “founding settlers” in SA were from the lowlands from what I vaguely recall from primary school history lessons. Might be a similar sort of thing? Eastern states were taking immigrants at the right time to get a lot of people from the highlands & islands.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.
“Until the early 1900’s, there was a Gaelic speaking community in North Carolina. Many Gaels settled in the mountains because they were reminded of the highlands of Scotland.” – John Grimaldi.
So what did Australia do differently?
We weren’t the only place to get Gaelic-speaking early settlement, but it wasn’t as dense as in Nova Scotia.
Gaelic stuck around in Australia for a while, like North Carolina, slowly dying until the early 1900s.
Australain-born Gael numbers have always been supplemented by newer immigrants from the UK – but they didn’t always come to the same places.
Gaelic societies were set up in Australia – but also in New Zealand, where many of them have ceased to be Gaelic societies and become generic “Caledonian” societies.
There are up to 1000 Gaelic-speakers in Australia today, with around 200 in Melbourne and many more in Sydney, where there is a native speakers social group, regular learners’ conversation groups, and it’s even taught at one of the universities.
All around Australia, there are Gaelic classes, Gaelic learners, and Gaelic speakers.
I suppose, reviewing the evidence, I can see why someone from Scotland or elsewhere would have such a hard time understanding that there are so many Gaelic-speakers in Australia. It doesn’t make sense for it to have stuck around so long. We shouldn’t have the numbers we do – even though they seem small to me – with two Gaelic choirs, an annual national live-in weekend, our own quirks of vocabulary and spelling, and courses and classes run every week of the year by locals to teach and preserve the language.
It probably shouldn’t be possible for a teenager to learn enough Gaelic for a conversation without ever leaving Australia.
/\ By the way – next month, 14th-16th, Brisbane.