The case for and against Gaelic signage

For the most part I enjoy seeing Gaelic road signs* at the entrance of a town or village when I’m driving or passing through the Highlands. As someone who’s taken an interest in the subject of place names for many years I find it instructive and fascinating to understand where the meanings originate. Names like Taigh and Droma for Tyndrum (pronounced tineDRUM), or Baile a’ Chaolais for Ballachullish give the interested observer a helpful insight into how these names came about. Moreover, having the original Gaelic name can show why the English spelling doesn’t always match the local pronunciation.

Take, for example, Craignure on the Isle of Mull. Locals don’t pronounce it as craigNURE, but rather craig-an-YOOR. The invaluable Gaelic road sign below the English one shows the name to be Creaganiubhair, with the insertion of the missing syllable, thereby explaining local pronunciation. So, for those reasons and others (tourism etc) I’m in favour of Gaelic signage in places where it is either still spoken, has recently been spoken, or there is a historically good reason to do so. What I am less fond of, though, are Gaelic place name signs in towns and villages where the name isn’t derived from the language, and where it hasn’t been spoken for centuries, if ever.

On a recent train trip to Edinburgh with a few friends, we paused at Haymarket. On the platform there was adequate signage showing the English name of the station. Below this there was what appeared to be the Gaelic rendering of it: Margadh an Fheòir. Impartial and uncritical observers might reasonably conclude that this name is what Haymarket is known as in Gaelic. However, it isn’t. It’s simply a translation of hay and market. In other words, there is no Gaelic pedigree for the name. And though there are names in Edinburgh that are unquestionably derived from Gaelic, it has been many centuries since a native Lothian Gaelic speaker was born in or near the capital. (The Haymarket example is repeated in other parts of the rail network, incidentally.)

I must admit that seeing these signs puzzles me. Why are we promulgating Gaelic at the expense of other languages? Why don’t we have Norse place name signs, or even Welsh? Both were spoken widely in Scotland historically, with Welsh (more properly Brythonic, or Old British) accounting for a very large amount of names in the south of the country. Why not, for example, have Lynn Llaith Cau at Linlithgow train station, and Ecclesbrith at Falkirk’s, rather than the Gaelic interpretations? (Whilst we’re on the subject of Falkirk, I’d sooner see the station carry the English name ‘Fawkirk’, as that’s how it’s always been pronounced locally.) Both these names are older than the Gaelic renditions currently displayed, and reflect a time when this area was predominantly Welsh/British-speaking. They also give a more accurate interpretation of what the original name relates to. (Apparently Lynn Llaith Cau means ‘lake in the damp hollow’, and Ecclesbrith means ‘speckled church’.)

Having Gaelic signs at stations where it hasn’t been spoken for many centuries is clearly part of Scotrail’s implementation of its Gaelic language plan, which is itself in line with Scottish legislative requirements. These require public authorities to prepare a Gaelic language plan (if asked), and to enact its findings. The ostensible objective of all this is to ‘promote and facilitate the promotion of…the use and understanding of the Gaelic language.’ All this is an admirable objective in certain parts of the country, but I feel it overlooks a large part of Scottish history that the majority of people have no real appreciation of, and — I submit — one they’d be very interested in.

The counter-argument to my proposal of other languages on place name signs would be, of course, is that Gaelic is an extant language, whereas Welsh/Brythonic is not. The promotion of Gaelic, it could be argued, even in this small measure, helps to raise awareness of it, and thereby keeps it in the national consciousness. Also, given its historical persecution by the State, promoting it is a kind of payback for all the harm that was done. Though there is undoubtedly merit in this argument, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the logic. Firstly, the State didn’t eradicate the language from Lowland Scotland, as that had already happened by natural processes (as far as any language dying out can be judged as such) during the Middle Ages and Early Medieval period** . Secondly, by the time of Culloden, after which the persecution really started, the language was, to a significant extent, a Highland one (albeit with a sizable diaspora).

The other issue, I think, that needs to be addressed is that lots of the Gaelic names you see on railway signs (and elsewhere) are just plain wrong, or have been mis-interpreted, or been guessed at. Also, as mentioned, many of the names that have been committed to signage have no Gaelic heritage (like Haymarket). Frankly, I’d rather have no signs than ones that are little better than guesses.

So, to summarise, I’m all for Gaelic road signs where they’re appropriate or relevant, but not at the expense of British/Welsh/Scots/Old English/Norse ones where they are equally (if not more so) relevant. I personally don’t see why Gaelic should have a monopoly, as it forms only part of the wonderful variety of languages that were spoken in this country.

*Dual Gaelic/English signs on roundabouts in areas where Gaelic is not spoken seems to me to be an unnecessary and confusing jumble, particularly where there are three or more exits.