The linguistic richness of the Atlantic edge – as much as its ecological distinctiveness – is at the core of importance. During the journey for this project an extraordinary amount of time was spent in regions where English is not the first language. Many Atlantic languages – such as Norn, the language of Shetland – were lost and remain lost (although its successor, Shaetlan, is a rich and unique tributary of Scots). Others – such as Cornish – were close to loss before partial revivals.
Of the major languages of the modern Atlantic coasts – Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh – each have histories very different from those of England and English. Indeed, many events that historians usually consider straightforwardly positive, such as the Education Acts of the 1870s, were disasters for languages other than English and for regions far from urban centres, since they imposed a one-size-fits-all Anglo culture which separated the English-speaking school room from the traditions of the home.
Since the 1970s, all the living Celtic languages have been in a state of limited revival. Their literatures flourish and their number of speakers slowly grow. Indeed, where all the technologies of the era from 1800-1970 worked against the languages of the coastlines, those of the last fifty years – particularly the internet – have worked in their favour.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge explores the histories and literatures of the islands’ languages while resisting making predictions about their futures. Following the work of Irish writers such as David Lloyd, it asks whether some of the problems of our present could be informed by looking to the worldviews of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh in their eras of greatest confidence, before the aggressive expansion of the Anglo world. Beyond Lloyd’s writing, the most useful texts on these linguistic revivals are Roger Hutchinson, A Waxing Moon: the Modern Gaelic Revival (2005) and the fantastic new Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution (2019) by Caoimhín De Barra. Reading these last two texts, I think, is enough to make anyone desperate to learn these languages, all of which require learners if their security and influence is to grow. Learning them opens up extraordinary cultural and social vistas.
The classic Welsh-speaking course (in book or online form) is Wlpan, by the University of Bangor.
But (if my slow-going with Wlpan is anything to go by) physical courses can be still more useful, and Nant Gwythern – beautifully situated on the North Wales coast – is the place to go.
The Learn Gaelic website provides lots of resources and tools for getting started.
Beag air Bheag (Little by Little) from the BBC is another great place to start for beginners.
I’ve used these alongside Am Faclair Beag (an online dictionary) to begin starting to read texts.
The Western Isles publisher, Acair, has lots of audiobooks (many free) to listen to.
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s short courses are the obvious next step.
The Irish broadcaster, RTE, offers language-learning tools and Gaelchultúr offers teaching, starting beyond the beginner level. But if I was going to learn Irish in earnest, I’d go straight for one of the Irish summer schools at the National University of Ireland Galway.
It’s much more difficult to find a way of learning Shaetlan, but not too difficult to learn plenty about the language. Whether Shaetlan – and Scots more generally – is considered a language or dialect is very much a political, rather than technical, choice: I’d err on the side of ‘language’ given the distinctiveness of vocabulary, grammar, history and traditions combined. The work of poets (often with useful prefaces/introductions concerning language) is a particularly powerful resource: William Tait, Day Between Weathers (1980) and Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy (2019) are great places to start.