The right/write language

07 March 2022 The

Aye, I ken like, tha fios agam, I know, language is important. But which one to use? I can be a bit of a ditherer so why use one when I can use three.

I use Gaelic in one form or another every day. Mostly talking with young bairns. At the moment making up songs about Lachlann’s boats going up and down is taking up a great deal of my time. Basically because I have forgotten the version I sang the day before. As a writer, you could rightly expect I would have written all these versions down. But when you are playing with a pre-schooler you quickly move on to the next thing. All thoughts of grabbing a pen to jot something down forgotten.

"I save the writing of Gaelic for when I can shut myself away from the comings and goings of a busy household"

I don’t use Scots as much as I should. Like many Gaelic-speaking parents, I probably thought bairns would somehow just pick it up as they went along. Growing up you could hear it on the street all around in its many different forms. That is not true today, though. Accents are still there but the words themselves are not so frequently used. We are losing that richness.

When I was a bairn, we had an auld wifie who came in to school weekly to read us works by Robert Burns. She would allow us time to work out the meaning of certain words that had fallen out of use for example ‘ilka’ as in ‘ilka lassie has her laddie’ from Comin’ Thro’ The Rye. Most of us could make a stab at the meaning.

Other words however weren’t so easy to understand. What was a ‘cotillion brent’? Thankfully she could translate for us. I didn’t realise at the time how unusual it was to have this help.

I never envisaged I would become a writer. Like many other children, I made little shaped books with scribbles, they really were just wavy lines. I’m dyslexic so they looked fine to me.

Someone who has difficulty differentiating between words should a) not contemplate becoming a writer and b) stick to one language. Only in a bid to prove I wasn’t – to use a good Scottish phrase – ‘as thick as mince’, a writer I became.

The blame lies totally at the feet of the Scottish Book Trust, my old boss Finlay Macleod and Liza Storey. It started – like all the best tales – a long, long time ago when… actually when the powers that be stated that Gaelic would need to be considered when organisations were making plans and I just happened to be at a conference on books and Bookbug packs. Sent along by the aforementioned Mr Macleod.

I pointed out that Gaelic books would have to become part of any new packs. At the time this wasn’t well known but thankfully it was taken forwards. Liza Storey, a Gaelic publisher at the time, caught me at coffee break and asked did I have anything I could send her. And that is how it all started.

To a Gaelic speaker, it wasn’t important if I made mistakes. They expected it. After all, much of the Gaelic language was not written down. The language in general was passed on through everyday use. Through work, conversations, storytelling and song. My errors would be corrected. It is still the same today. Comhairle Nan Leabhraichean supplies an amazing creative editor who corrects my many errors. As she often says to me, ‘I could never come up with an imaginative story like that. My talent is in grammar, structure and language.’ 

As a person who thought they were too stupid to be able to conquer the ‘low-level skill of reading’ it was a pivotal moment. Without Comhairle Nan Leabhraichean and their continued encouragement, I would never have carried on or indeed written in English never mind Scots.

As a parent who writes for children, I understand the need to create something that wouldn’t drive any sleep-deprived parent insane by its repetition. However, children love that and if it is written in their second language it takes on an even more important role. Hearing the construction and idioms again and again helps understanding.

"the only difference between my Gaelic-medium pupils and my English-medium pupils is that my Gaelic pupils can do it all in both languages"

Children in Gaelic-medium education develop their understanding of the language before they start reading. This then impacts the themes and situations I can incorporate within a story at least in the younger primaries. By the end of primary school, as a headmaster once said ‘the only difference between my Gaelic-medium pupils and my English-medium pupils is that my Gaelic pupils can do it all in both languages'.

The amount of books for young children in Gaelic has increased greatly. Free Bookbug packs have allowed me to move on to writing for children in primary school. I still consider the parents and the various levels of Gaelic they all have. I’m not afraid to adapt the story to fit the audience if necessary.

Each year though I look forward to seeing the new Bookbugs packs with the same excitement as the children. What books can I use with the under threes? Are they suitable for learners of the language? Would a parent new to Gaelic understand what is being said? What songs and puppets can I use to help them do this? Are there any new families out there that want to learn?

BlasRootsInTheSoil_ebook_Cover_V1.jpegNow I am also writing for adults I find both Scots and Gaelic creeping into my writing. In Blàs Roots in the Soil, Old Tam speaks in a Dundonian accent with a little Doric thrown in. As in life, language also moves around. You can’t write about a community in the Highlands without acknowledging that Gaelic is there somewhere. Gaelic words splatter about in English up here in the same way Scots does down south.

Recently, I have been having more conversations with writers about writing in Scots. How we market ourselves, why we don’t seem to value our language as much as we should. How is it that one of the greatest poets known around the world, wrote in Scots, yet almost 300 years later it is still difficult to get a publisher to commit to a book written in Scots? We do have some small publishers here and there who are prepared to take that risk but we need the readers and market to survive.

Scots will always play a part in my writing in some small way. Old Tam now has his voice. Gaelic is part of who I am. It fills my life with daft songs and children’s smiles. As for putting bread on the table… well that is a completely different thing. Lang may yer lum reek, and give you time to enjoy the richness of our languages, mar sin leibh an dràsda.

Ceitidh Hutton spent many years as a Gaelic Development Officer working around the spectacular North Highlands of Scotland. She writes in Gàidhlig (children) and English (adults) with a wee bit of Scots. Grumpa agus an Latha Fuaimneach won best young children’s book at the Royal National Mod in 2019. She was also shortlisted in 2020 Gaelic Literacy Awards for an unpublished story. Her English writing, the Blàs Series follows the lives of a multi-generational group of women in a small rural Highland village.

She is registered with the Scottish Book Trust Live Literacy Programme and is the secretary of the Society of Authors in Scotland as well as a member of ALLI, the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Facebook: Ceitidh Hutton Author@cchuttonwriter