On a cold day in South London I left the house in search for a job in my new home. I felt anxious as I prepared myself for taking the underground alone. As I walked towards Brixton station I was swallowed by the market, lost in the crowds of people among the many stalls that sold everything from baklava to patties, from fresh bread to antiques. I remained silent in contrast to the cackling laughter of Nigerian women selling jewellery and the mischievous snickering of young men as they ducked and dived in search of business. Suddenly, somewhere between the arguments in Pidgin, Arabic and Polish I found myself understanding a snippet of conversation. I paused and listened, focussing on what I thought I had heard.
Much to my disbelief, two old men walked by me speaking in my language, Ghàidhlig. My pulse began to beat a little faster and I hastened my pace to walk alongside them. I stopped and broke my silence; “A bheil sibh a’ bruidhinn Ghàidhlig ?” (Are you speaking Gaelic?). They paused and looked at one another, astonished. We were mutually surprised by the situation, by the odds of being in the right place at the right time. Mostly, we were surprised by the odds of hearing Gaelic in a place home to over 100 different languages in each London borough. I immediately felt safe, as though a little piece of home had landed beside me, amongst the chaos of this new city.
I felt that I knew them very well—na da seann bodach *—as they conversed about their plans for the weekend, whether Màiri would come for tea, and the recent turn in the weather. These characters and scenarios were very familiar to me. I was also aware that this familiarity was—perhaps—not reciprocal. My language is not immediately associated with me. The fact that I am a fluent Gaelic speaker has often left confusion lingering in the air. They were not the first people to look perplexed as to how I can speak Gaelic ‘so well’. We spoke for some time together and our encounter was lovely as they wished me luck in my London adventure.
It also reminded me of the apparent duplicity my identity presents to others. It reminded me of the times where I have been excluded from conversation with other Gaelic speakers; that somehow my Gaelic connection was not the same as theirs, that perhaps I wasn’t authentic enough. It reminded me that though we were part of the same culture, it appeared that I wasn’t.
I was born and brought up in Glasgow and I have no direct ties to A’ Ghàidhealtachd . My ancestry lies in Ireland and Nigeria. I attended a Gaelic speaking school from the ages of four to seventeen which provided an excellent education and understanding of Gaelic culture. It is a rich culture which not only possesses a beautiful language, but a wonderful history of folklore and traditional music. However it is also a culture which deeply advocates patriotism that is often tinged with anti-English sentiments, which has the dangerous potential to breed prejudice and separatist attitudes. Through this learned patriotism I internalised notions of what it means to be a Gael, to speak the language, and what it means to be Scottish. I never saw any reflections myself within these set values. Perhaps it is wrong to call it ‘my language,’ as its culture doesn’t immediately represent or include me.
This is because Gaelic identity is largely associated with whiteness. The language is often thought of as outdated, and although there have been recent updates in new Gaelic dictionaries, I still feel it needs modernising to a certain extent. There is nothing wrong with the whiteness of Gaelic culture, it is part of its roots—the problem lies within the fact it has not evolved to keep up with a changing Scotland. I am disappointed by the lack of encouragement towards diversity, integration and inclusiveness. Without this, it feels as though the language and culture is being kept and preserved, like a cotton-wool child. If the expansion of Gaelic is to be a future pursuit of Scotland, with more Gaelic speaking schools, Gaelic broadcasting and nationalist politics, it will have to represent Scottish people today, which means acknowledging and understanding that there is room for multiculturalism. In other words, in ten years’ time, I don’t want people to be surprised when they hear someone like me speaking Gaelic and speaking it well.
My school days are very much over and I am not an active member of the Gaelic community, however I still love speaking my language. Sometimes the only way I can articulate what I want to express is in Gaelic, when I need to use the perfect, onomatopoeic words that just don’t exist in English. To some extent I associate it with nostalgia, as it conjures notions of childhood, discipline and secrecy; not just a means of communication. The perception that both the Gaelic language and culture is old-fashioned and one-dimensional still exists but it could be modernised and represent its multifarious speakers today. Gaelic can be young and fun in a multicultural society and come in the form of a mixed race Glaswegian.
*the two old men
Cassie Ezeji is a Glaswegian musician who lives and works in the city. She is part of six-piece band Golden Teacher. She is also one half of girl-gang low-fi rap duo Laps, with Alicia Matthews. Cassie’s Nigerian and Irish heritage informs her music as well as her interest in creative writing; which manifests in her poetry and fictional short stories.
This writing was published to coincide with the Stacey Tyrell exhibition at The Bothy Project, Modern One, National Galleries of Scotland, 20 November—6 December. With thanks to Julie-Ann Delany, Mairi Lafferty and Claire Walsh, all of the National Galleries of Scotland.
It is also published in conjunction with Tiffany Boyle’s essay, ‘SEEING SCOTLAND: Gazes and Articulations’, MAP online December 2015