The beautiful reality
of Iain Noble's
'Is there a more beautiful campus in all of Europe?', asked a colleague. 'Or in America?', I responded. We were on the Isle of Skye, a mile or two north of Armadale, having just arrived at the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, where the Association for Scottish Literary Studies was holding its 2012 annual conference.
Composed of two or three modern buildings, the college is modest in scale but its location and setting are breathtakingly beautiful. Situated on the eastern coast of Skye, a stone's throw from the sea, it looks across the blue waters of the Sound of Sleat to the dramatic coastline north and south of Mallaig. The dark mountain peaks of Knoydart and distant Kintail define the skyline. (Am I alone in thinking that Scottish mountains almost always seem much loftier than in reality they are?) And the changing coastline is etched with astonishing clarity against the shining surface of the sea.
The college grounds, containing some modern artworks, are colourful and well-maintained, but fit in well with the natural splendour of the setting. One tall building is particularly striking. White, like all the buildings, it is called the 'Tower'. Elegantly round in shape and multi-storeyed, it is clearly visible almost from the moment the Armadale ferry leaves the port of Mallaig. Its architect must have been inspired by the concept of a lighthouse – even if this lighthouse for living in is less slender than a traditional one. The college was created a generation ago – by the banker and entrepreneur Sir Iain Noble – with the single purpose of promoting and developing the Gaelic language. It is hard to imagine a college campus more attractively designed to further that important aim.
ASLS had first held its annual conference in Sabhal Mor Ostaig back in 2005. Its theme then had been 'Crossing the Highland Line in the 18th Century: cross-currents in Scottish writing'. Returning in 2012, the theme was the same, but the century different: 'Crossing the Highland Line in the 19th Century: cross-currents in Scottish writing'. However, 2012 had an additional dimension which all of us were delighted to participate in: the celebration of the 70th birthday of that fine poet Aonghas Macneacail. Angus of course publishes his work in both Gaelic and English – Gaelic on the left hand, English on the right hand page – thus beautifully embodying in his own person the crossing of the Highland line.
Around 60 people attended the conference. Larger conferences mean that there have to be parallel sessions so that all those who wish to present papers are able to do so. (And of course in the current climate most of those attending academic conferences have to give a paper otherwise their home institution will not fund them.) But the effect of parallel sessions is a kind of fragmentation of the audience, making it more difficult for a conference as a whole to develop any sense of coherence or shared intellectual experience. At the ASLS conference all of us attended all the papers so that over the almost three days a real sense of sharing in a coherent cultural event did indeed develop.
Summing up the conference, one of its organisers spoke of the need to recognise the diversity of Scottish culture – including its linguistic diversity. Rather than one Scotland, perhaps there are several Scotlands.
Looking back on the event, however, I am inclined to wonder over just how 'coherent', in intellectual, cultural, and particularly linguistic terms, it actually was. In all around 15 papers were presented. They fell into two clear categories. Broadly speaking, one focused on a Highland dimension of Scottish literary figures writing in English: Scott, Stevenson, Hogg, John Wilson and other contributors to Blackwood's Magazine, and the female authors of popular novels set in the Highlands. The second category concerned authors of Gaelic poetry: Ailean Dall, William Livingstone, Mairi Mhor, and Neil MacLeod. A fifth paper focused on 19th-century Gaelic periodicals.
The remaining handful of presentations included one concerning a largely forgotten United Kingdom theatrical writer (Archibald Maclaren) who occasionally incorporated some Gaelic into his English or Scottish language plays, while the rest discussed in more general terms historical and artistic links between Highlands and Lowlands, including the so-called Celtic Revival which occurred in the second half of the 19th century.
To my mind, the central issue of the conference was the degree of crossover between those figures who wrote exclusively either in English or in Gaelic. Now while I'm sure that others present will disagree – including some much better placed to make such a judgment because they are fluent in both languages – my sense was generally of the division created by the two different language traditions. And in a sense that divide existed within the conference itself.
My guess is that Gaelic speakers amounted to a large minority of those present – perhaps 40%. But just as it should be, Sabhal Mor Ostaig is a Gaelic-speaking redoubt. All the college courses are taught exclusively in Gaelic. All those who work there speak only in Gaelic. Every sign everywhere – from the guest bedrooms to the restaurant – is in Gaelic with English only as a kind of afterthought. As a monoglot English speaker one feels very much relegated to second place. And why not? A professor of English literature, I have to admit to no knowledge whatsoever of the four Gaelic poets my bilingual colleagues discussed and debated in Gaelic with such enthusiasm and intensity. The loss is entirely mine.
Summing up the conference, one of its organisers spoke of the need to recognise the diversity of Scottish culture – including its linguistic diversity. Rather than one Scotland, perhaps there are several Scotlands. No one language – Gaelic, Scots, or English – should be granted absolute hegemony over the others. Sabhal Mor Ostaig was created by a man who dreamt that the Gaelic language deserved to survive and flourish. It is no longer a dream. It is a beautiful reality.
Plans exist for the expansion of the college, which is now part of the University of the Highlands. If funding is found, a new sports and health centre and new housing will be provided. As long as the current fine architectural standards are maintained, that can only be a good thing. Given its glorious location, Sabhal Mor Ostaig should continue to grow as a hugely attractive and world-renowned centre for the preservation and study of the Gaelic language. Scotland should be proud of its existence.
Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at