Golspie had been great, even if we had left with the feeling that no-one was likely to keep up the Gaelic there. The incredible challenge that people face once they become the last handful amongst a vast and naturally ignorant English-speaking population must be intimidating to the point of desperation. Far easier to forget the Gaelic and assuage the shame. And who could blame anyone for that?
But just across the water was a village which people had considered non-Gaelic back in the 60s, despite a sizeable proportion of the inhabitants still speaking the tongue as a first language and in each other's company as a matter of choice. In fact, some of the people at that time would still refuse to alter their speech even when a non-Gaelic speaker was present. These noble souls were in the minority however and by 2010, there were only three people in the fishing settlement of Embo who could still converse fluently in Gaelic, and even then, lack of practice had made it that bit harder again for me to enjoy any sustained conversation with them. Most of the people -like the ones mentioned in the short clip below- were now incomers and even when resident in Embo full-time, had little awareness that the gulls, drizzle and fresh sea breeze that swept up the narrow streets had once vied for ascendency over the airwaves not with the television, but with Gaelic. This was a Scottish patois which retained many beautiful but unusual forms that were long thought of as almost eccentric to Gaels from elsewhere. And yet it had gone gradually, quietly, and almost without a trace.
Before we reached Caithness on our way north, Eilidh and I had arranged to call in on the Ross sisters, two ladies who had endeared so many of us to them in Mar a Chunnaic Mise -the story of Nancy Dorian's sterling work on Brora, Golspie and Embo Gaelic in the 1960s. It had literally floored me. Myself and my friend Seumas especially -who had sent me the link to the film and who had strong North-west and East Sutherland roots on his father's side- were deeply affected by the beauty of the dialect and the feeling of absolute helplessness as we watched a very neatly presented account of its death. And this in our own era, just a couple of hundred miles to the north, while plenty of people must have watched and thought: "There goes another relic, but of what real use is it anyway?"
It has always irked me that culture is seen as 'unnecessary' in the world we have inherited. Wherever you are in fact, as long as you are buying into the capitalist sham, cultures can be treated the same as many of our old people are: they can have lip-service paid to them and can be wheeled out for weddings, before going back to the vault to rot. Neither old people nor culture are in their natural forms viable business commodities. Unless celebrity or developed product, they are seen by the openly utilitarian Western world as dead-ends.
However, if something saleable can be identified, suddenly people are encouraged to indulge in their culture. Drink the whisky, wear the kilt, attend the cringe-makingly staged bash.... oh and wheel out Sean Connery if he's still alive. All the while the actual culture -that which is lived and breathed unconsciously by people who are steeped in it by the very fact of having been raised both in it and by it- slips out the back, under cover of the synthesized mist, never to be seen again.
So there we were in the Ross sisters big porch in Embo, feeling instantly welcome, not to mention tea and scones well to the fore, and talking about Gaelic and the effect of the television. Not only had I first seen the Ross sisters on a television programme, but they had just turned off the T.V. before we got there. What always affects me and what will continue to do so until the day I die, is the grace and warmth of people, whatever their culture, but at the same time, I couldn't avoid that feeling of helplessness taking over again as I realised that the sisters' fluency in their native tongue had slipped even in the time since the film was made five years earlier. It was happening in front of my eyes and I knew I could do nothing about it.
Eilidh made a valiant effort to capture us, but would take a couple of days to calm her hand and relax with the camera! :)
My feeling has always been that the T.V. is an incredible tool, like radio or steam-power, but that the technology has fallen into the wrong hands. Used correctly -as we tried to do ourselves with the little camera on our trip- it is irreplacable as a documentary tool. But it has become a ruthless medium for the absolute lowest common denominator, driven by the worst of our instincts, instead of something which could showcase the very best of what our culture has to offer. I genuinely cannot remember the last time I sat down in front of the box just for the sake of seeing what it had in store. It would be a completely useless gesture, as finding a good programme is like trying to find a Corncrake in Carntyne, or maybe even harder!
It must be incredibly easy to believe that what you see displayed on the screen is 'normal', even if only subconsciously. For the last 300 years, 'normal' in Scotland has been portrayed by those who wield the power as English, middle-class and in a state of accelerated evolution, where culture no longer has any value or meaning. The ubiquitous nature of the television has gradually brought this 'normality' over to a slightly altered position. Now it is English, mass-produced and in a state of accelerated devolution. T.V. is mob-rule, and the mob are certainly not Gaelic-speaking Scots from small fishing villages. Those particular individuals were left with little but the feeling that they must change and conform or be awkward and parochial.
The oracle that is the T.V. has now come to embody the aspirations of a culturally unaware majority, meaning that it would be incredibly difficult to ever convince a large section of the population that the most precious things they could conceivably hope to find could well be two doors down, ignominiously fading away with host into the frailness of age, instead of this seemingly widely-held belief that happiness is to be found anywhere but where you are right now.
And yet, the T.V. still remains a fantastic tool. It is something that like any other piece of technology has become defined by the history of its usage, and has acquired a notoriety through it, but that could still prove a medium for change. In the Ross family home, the damage has been done, the tele had chewed voraciously through the entire fabric of their existence, but had Wilma and Jessie not appeared on it, they would have been known and their story understood only by a tiny handful of academics and language enthusiasts. And so I find myself feeling thankful for a half hour -and many subsequent re-watchings- in front of the television substitute that is my computer monitor. 'Irony' just doesn't quite cover it.