Towards the end of the play, a Gaelic singer is reprimanded by the M.C.:

It’s no good singing in Gaelic any more – there’s an awful lot of people here won’t understand a word of it.

Aware that the majority of people in the contemporary audience would have little or no knowledge of Gaelic, McGrath consciously uses Gaelic frequently through the play. Gaelic lends authenticity and conversations are reconstructed with a degree of historical accuracy, as they would have sounded at the time.

Erosion of Gaelic language

Use of Gaelic makes a wider political point about the cultural degradation of the language. A series of readings tell how the process:

  • began in the 19th century when speaking the Gaelic language was forbidden by law
  • continued through the 19th century as children caught speaking Gaelic in the playground were flogged
  • in the 20th century children were taught to deride their own language

English – the language of the ruling class – was the language used in Scottish classrooms, in law and commerce. The play shows a clear division between characters who speak in Gaelic, Scots, or a mixture of both, and those who speak Standard English.

Translating and explaining Gaelic

Often, Gaelic words and phrases are either glossed in brackets: Saighdearan? De mu dheidhinn saighdearan? (Soldiers – what do you mean soldiers?) or they are repeated in English to aid the reader’s understanding.

In the song with which the play ends, the M.C. translates the lyrics of the Gaelic song into English to reinforce the importance of the message. When we hear the final verse of this song, sung in Gaelic, we do not focus on the lyrics so much as on the poignancy with which those words are delivered.

As the people’s resistance to change falters Gaelic is used less frequently in the play:

  • at the beginning, Gaelic is spoken as the medium of discourse between characters
  • by the end, Gaelic is a relic of a bygone age, the words are sung but not understood by the majority

Whilst translations of Gaelic are often necessary, the text does not always provide them. This destabilises or alienates the audience. It reminds us that this is the story of the Highlands told in the language that Highland people have had to forfeit over the last few centuries.

Gaelic haunts the play. The frequent Gaelic interludes remind us of the profound cultural loss experienced over the centuries. We can hear the strains of Gaelic being sung or spoken, but unless we have knowledge of the language, we are unable to comprehend the force and power of the words.

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