The New Gael

An Gaidheal Ur. "De tha sin, a ghraidh?"  On the telly, Celtic and Liverpool.  On the radio, Rangers and Strasbourg.  We have come a long way.

In Stornoway, my mother lies dying: a seann Ghaidheal to the last.  Her mother died when she was four; her stepmother when she was twelve.  Her first child died, aged fifteen months; her second, aged twenty-eight.  She cleared away all his photos and never looked at his likeness again.  In childhood, she had potatoes and salt for dinner, and was belted at school for speaking Gaelic.  Her father took the King's Shilling and served as a soldier in Egypt.  In the Great War, he was a Seaman, RNR.  "'M bidh muir a'cur ort?" he asked me once.  "Bithidh," I said.  "Bha sin a's na daoine," he said, "Bha mis aig an iasgach fad mo bheath's bha 'm muir a'cur orm a h-uile la."  I remember it every time I board the ferry.  A seann Ghaidheal, pulling nets, sea-sick, day after day, year after year, from Stornoway to Yarmouth and Scrabster to Lowestoft.

Her friends'fathers died in the Iolaire.  Her friends themselves emigrated on the Metagama. Seventy years later, she described it, dispassionately and tearlessly: the gleaming dream-boat disappearing beyond the Butt, carrying young seann Ghaidheil who had had enough of hunger.  The dream-boat would lead to docklands, slums and prairies where they would shed tears in a language no one within a thousand miles could understand.  "Did many of the men go?" I asked.  "They all went," she said.  A Gaidheal Ur would have shown more emotion over Rangers and Gothenberg.

She never made it to education or to health or to a Board-house or to central heating or to children of whose achievements she could be proud.  There wasn't a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher among them.  When I told her I was going to be a minister, she, far more in touch with Jesus, the Ground of Being, than I will ever be, was distressed beyond reason.  "Caithidh tu do bheatha ann am beul dhaoine!"  How did she know?  How did she know so many of those things she knew?  We had long arguments about the way the seann Ghaidheil seemed to confuse Christian spirituality with prophecy and second sight.

I, Domhnall Dhomhnaill Mhurchaidh Dhomhnaill Phiobair', aged fifty-six or -seven and living in Morningside, Edinburgh, am a Gaidheal Ur. I speak some Gaelic and am very proud of it because everyone now knows that it is a very beautiful language, a key to a wonderful heritage and instant proof that I'm not descended from Burke and Hare.

I am wealthy beyond my grandfather's wildest dreams, able to spend more on repairing a window than he could afford on building a house; and in the end, my window would be worth more than his house.  I have five suits, three pairs of shoes, two pens, five telephones, three computers, one car and three waste-paper baskets.

I am very proud of my fellow Gaidheals in the city.  They are high achievers: solicitors, advocates, antique-book dealers, eminent educationists and distinguished journalists.  They do beautiful things, especially at Festival time, and are very highly regarded.  This year, the City Council even hosted a special reception for us and told us that we were the salt and light of Edinburgh.  Without us, there would be darkness.

And we are terribly well connected.  Many of our best friends are politicians.  We are are even on first-name terms with people who work for the BBC.  The Political Editor of Scotland's best-selling tabloid newspaper is one of us.  So is the Minister of State for Education, Transport and Industry.  Some of us have even had our photo taken with Donald Dewar.  And one of us sang at the funeral of the late, lamented leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, Mr John Smith.

I go back home several times a year and just love it: walking the beaches, strolling round the harbour, going for fishing-trips, checking out genealogies, visiting the museums and the comuinn eachdraidh, and talking to aunts and uncles about the old days and the old ways.

But as a perceptive Gaidheal Ur, I see changes that sadden me.  You can't just walk into people's houses anymore.  You have to knock, or even phone, just as you'd have to do in Morningside.  It grieves me to see people not using the land.  There seem to be few real crofters left.  No one has a cow any more.  You don't see fields of barley, or even of corn.  Hardly anyone grows potatoes.  Even the smell of peat-fires burning will soon be a thing of the past.

You'd think they would keep these things going for the sake of the visitors.  They mean such a lot to us on our annual holidays: stability in a world of change.  I know these corrugated-iron houses of the forties and fifties weren't up to much.  But these old black houses must have been wonderful and it would be nice if a few people would live in them still.  They are so interesting architecturally, especially the later types, with their almost baronial fire-places, the crana, the sideboard, the cuinneag and the beautiful china that Catriona brought home from Yarmouth; and the sun shining and the lark singing and all the children bare-foot on the airidh and everyone with such strong teeth and the Gaelic psalm-singing.

Why don't they appreciate their birth-right?  For us in the city, going home on holiday every year, these roots, these old ways and these wonderful memories are so important.

And we, the Gaidheil Ur, we have such enormous influence.  We have won eight million pounds for Gaelic television; our Gaelic play-groups and Gaelic-medium schools are the envy of distraught head teachers from Stranraer to Wick; and Geordies and Scousers, Borderers and Buchanites, each in his own tongue, scream,  "Discrimination!" and demand their very own CNAG, CTG and Proiseact nan Ealan.

It's little enough, I say, after centuries of oppression: little enough to compensate for my mother and her father and the Piobair alone on North Rona; and little enough for Kildonan and Cullodden and the death-ships and the sheep and the stags and the rushes.

But inside, voices: "Hubris! Hubris! Hubris!"  Are we, the Gaidheil of the Diaspora, really the Master Race?  Or are we the Gaidheil of the Highland Holocaust: aborigines for whom the politically correct feel bound to make atonement?

And what shall we do with our new-found power?  Shall we speak and sing only for revenge and compensation?  Or shall we speak and sing for those who now stand where we used to stand: those dirty, lazy scroungers whose grievances are still spoken in a language no one understands.

My brother is the man for whom no one speaks.  My sister is the woman who cannot speak for herself.

This article first appeared in 1997.