Scottish Gaelic on the Big Screen — A Short History by Àdhamh Ó Broin

Dornie_002Dear readers,

This week, we bring to you a short history on Scottish Gaelic on the big screen by Àdhamh Ó Broin.

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Since beginning work on Outlander I had been curious about how often Scottish Gaelic had appeared to any significant extent in mainstream film productions and whether it had previously been given the kind of precedence it received in both Diana Gabaldon’s books and our rendering of them for TV.

I began with a quick internet search. I hadn’t been into the first Wikipedia page I found two minutes before I realised that Scottish Gaelic was not even listed as one of the languages used in Outlander. After a quick stink kicked up in Twitter, someone stepped in to fix the oversight, no doubt wondering all the while why I hadn’t just gone and done it myself. The truth is that I am rather inept at these kinds of things and may have ended up backing away from the article palms up having made a complete pig’s ear of it.

The Wiki page “Scottish Gaelic Language Films” lists titles I had seen, some I hadn’t seen never mind known of the Gaelic in them, but also misses out a few others which do. Curiously, the 1990s children’s series Dòtaman had sneaked in with the feature films, although a special VIP viewing at the Cannes Film Festival may yet be a while off for Donnie MacLeod and co. I supplemented the Wiki page with a thorough look through IMDb and came up with the following timeline….

1945

A surprise start to the mix came in four years before Whisky Galore and was an old film I had never heard of, I Know Where I’m Going, made way back in 1945. Chì mi sa mhadainn u, a Ruairidh chòir (I’ll see you in the morning, dear Roddy) says the leading male, standing at the pier in the half-light. “Is that Gaelic you’re talking?” says a quizzical leading lady. “Yes, m’ lady. What would it be but the Gaelic?” answers old Roddy in what sounds like a MacKay Country accent as he heads for home. Some singing seals add to the fairy-tale Highland appeal for Anglophone viewers and the use of the pronunciation /galick/ instead of /gaelic/ in English must be one of the first on record, perhaps just after this usage started coming to prominence.

1949

I had never seen Whisky Galore and finding no easy way to view the film online, I searched instead for the film script and having copied and pasted it into Word, typed “Gaelic” into the find function. I found several sections entitled (SPEAKING GAELIC) and realised I would have to watch the film were I to have any idea of what was being said. Until such time as I can however, I surmise that there must be audible Gaelic language here and there.

1964

After a 15 year gap we have Culloden, an account of the final battle in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 which for anyone who has watched it, needs no introduction. It is brutal, presumably pretty authentic and featuring Gaelic as the native tongue of Prince Charlie’s troops, the actors hailing from Uist and Harris if their blas (taste, accent) is anything to go by. Having been filmed in 1964, the Gaelic is simple but most importantly correct, something which is not always the case these days. There are several sections of dialogue featuring Gaelic language and all in all, Culloden is time well spent, although recommending a box of tissues at your side would be to understate the case.

1982

Almost another 20 years goes by before we have anything else of note and this time it’s a mighty peculiar entry into our list which emerges from 30-odd years of total obscurity and therefore hardly befitting of the bracket “mainstream”. Hero was written by Englishman Barney Platts-Mills and filmed entirely in Scottish Gaelic, but not –as you might think- involving native speakers from Skye or Barra. A bunch of untrained Glaswegians were thrown together to act out scenes replete with phonetically pronounced Gaelic and the result is bizarre to say the least. The story revolves around the exploits of Gaelic folk-hero Fionn MacCumhail and his tiff with Diarmad. Shot in Argyll, the background is lovely; perhaps I’m biased hailing from the area myself, but even that couldn’t tear my attention away from the costumes which amounted to a hodge-podge of very new-looking tartan and ghetto-bling. The acting –if the meaning of the word can handle such a merciless stretching- might find itself improved if a host of canoos on legs were drafted in to take over. However –yes, there is a however- I have to be honest, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed thoroughly the fact that Gaelic was the language of 90% of the dialogue. The thought constantly crossed my mind that given they had clearly not gone out of their way to source great actors, they could easily have found a dozen Glasgow Gaels willing to earn a few quid grinding out the cryptic script. And yet, there is a valiance to it. There’s an innocent charm about the attempts of this eccentric Englishman to dish out these heroic exploits with a chronically low budget. The female lead is also quite captivating, although she seems to have gone out of her way to pronounce every word with the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Points for effort though, a chàirdean. All round.

1993

Despite what the old proverb is obair-latha tòiseachadh suggests, beginning was not a day’s work at all; it was getting to the end of Being Human with the late Robin Williams that was to prove the challenge, the film supposedly eponymously titled for its content. It begins with a bearded mountain man (Williams) and his family jogging half-heartedly around the hills for a few short minutes while some warbling savages in animal skins stream out from two old boats and chase them from hollow to crag, some sounds occasionally emerging from the babble as at least Gaelicesque. Tha do mhàthair an seo (your mother is here) says one of them as he beckons Williams’ children from their hiding place in a tree. Several other bits of phrases seem to be audible, but little of it makes any consistent sense. The film is very poorly shot, being more or less without atmosphere and I gave up once I had the measure of the language used.

1995

Braveheart, although a cracking piece of swashbuckling nonsense, is hardly worthy of mention here. Despite IMDb having it down as containing Gaelic, the actual content is negligible.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a hold of Margaret’s Museum, our second instalment from 1995, but I did manage to find a couple of early sections from the film in YouTube. During the second of these the main character Neil Currie (played by Clive Russell who I recently met at an Outlander read-through) explains to a cross-looking potential mother-in-law why he was fired from the pits in Nova Scotia: “For not speaking English…. for speaking Gaelic, the language of our ancestors”. I am now curious to know whether the language itself makes an appearance.

2004

IMDb states that King Arthur contains Gaelic: “The language spoken by the Woads in the film is a combination of ancient Gaelic and ancient Welsh, as the actual language spoken by the Picts has been lost”. Unfortunately, whatever the Woads are speaking, it appears to be more or less unintelligible, although admittedly sounding slightly more like Welsh than Gaelic. When it boils down to is that, if asked, I would state unequivocally that King Arthur does not contain Gaelic.

Years ago, I remember seeing The Rocket Post, set in wartime Benbecula in the Western Isles. I admired the fact that they had attempted to work Gaelic into the background of the film, but remember to this day being aghast at the use of tioraidh an-dràsta (cheerio the noo i.e. bye for now) which is clearly a modern adoption from Scots into Gaelic and not a native never mind period expression!

2005

Another film on the Wiki list is a short, The Crimson Snowdrop, and it’s a drop of pure gold. The predecessor of Seachd (see below), this is a delightful little piece. The language in it is very strong and the story is carried along for the most part by Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul’s beautiful Uist articulation. A joyful 15 minutes which leaves me, for one, wondering why there haven’t been more shorts like this. Despite some great entries into Film G over the years, the general quality of both language and production –although understandable in homemade shorts- has been very poor.

2007

In terms of Scottish Gaelic language in mainstream productions, there is only going to be one winner, and that’s Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle. I remember well the rumours going around that there was to be a full-length film produced in the language and myself and the rest of the learner community becoming very excited about it. We were not to be disappointed. Seachd is just wonderful. I can’t watch it without a good greet to myself. Not just because of the seeming plethora of poor souls passing away at every turn throughout, but because of the thoroughly Gaelic atmosphere of the film typified by the beautiful taigh-céilidh (party-house) scene with the old gentleman singing An Àtaireachd Àrd, the wee fella playing the accordion and everyone dancing old-school till dawn. I can only imagine that the crew more or less just let the Gaelic-speaking cast loose and said “have at it”. This created a genuinely Highland atmosphere, one which is now rarely found anywhere, English language and Anglo-American culture having wrought irreversible havoc on people’s perceptions of what constitutes normality.

2009

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra contains a “Scottish Celtic” command allegedly meaning “fire” –as in a gun- but ta-chain or whatever it was meant to be rings no bells with me whatsoever as a Gaelic word meaning anything close to that. There’s not a chance in hell I was sitting through the entire movie to check if there were further references!

2010

Onto the next film I go, Centurion. The film is pretty average, a fairly bog-standard action thriller centring on the exploits of hard-bitten Roman soldiers who end up being pursued by an incongruously tall, attractive and completely crackers Pictish woman with no tongue…. who I was admittedly cheering on against the imperialists. Its twin, The Eagle (see below), came out a year later and the question of a leaked script definitely looms large. Given that the Pictish language debate has never been settled and contrary to the opinions of that odd brand of “Scot” who would prefer the Picts to speak English than have them utter a word of Gaelic, it makes perfect sense to employ Gaelic language here as the closest thing we have to an original Scottish language. There’s lots of it, at every turn in fact, and much of it isn’t bad at all. You can clearly see that just like my boys on Outlander, some people take to it better than others. Overall though, it’s no bad thing to have it in the mix and it adds authentic atmosphere, especially in fact if you don’t understand it. There are a couple of cast members whose grasp of it is so poor that even fluent Gaels will struggle to understand a word they say, but big points for effort. Cha dèan mi cron sam bith ort (I will not do any harm on you), says the hero of the story to a bucksome young Pictish lass living conveniently by herself without a husband. If pronunciation’s your thing lass, this fella’s a catch!

A welcome change to films was an animation. The Illusionist is visually gorgeous, with the said stage performer travelling to England from France and through Scotland via Edinburgh, ending up in Iona. Although irritated by the fact that the Scots in the story are portrayed as either drunk or out for what they can get, the character of Alice (strange name for a Gael of that era) is given voice by Eilidh NicFhraing and a good job she does too, the Gaelic being minimal but clear and correct. Although disappointed not to hear Argyll Gaelic in Argyll, Eilidh provides a welcome substitute. If you are fond of relaxing with little to no dialogue, just soaking in the atmosphere of a beautiful animation, The Illusionist is your ticket.

2011

The Eagle I had seen. It wasn’t great and from what I remember the wee fella in it is speaking Irish rather than Scottish Gaelic. In terms of accuracy though, it didn’t strike me as being at all bad, simply that it had fallen foul of being part of a film with a “seen it all before” script. As with Being Human, the Gaelic is seen as the “tongue of the savage”, although being labelled savage by an imperialist aggressor would perhaps now be something of a badge of honour. On balance, I probably enjoyed its twin Centurion more, because if nothing else, the glorification of imperialist exploit in my long-embattled country is a little less bombastic and therefore slightly more palatable.

Having looked reluctantly at the trailer, I realised I might just have to sit through our second offering from 2011, The Decoy Bride. As much as the title horrified me, the fact that someone had shouted srùbag! (tea-break) in Gaelic during the trailer never mind the actual feature meant that I was probably going to have to batten down the hatches and watch it. When the credits rolled, I wished I bloomin hadn’t. Srùbag was all the Gaelic I was going to get, being the only phrase in the thing from beginning to end! The island of Hegg was basically Balamory for adults, a queer mish-mash with its Dumfries-shire castle plonked right down in the middle of it and a desperately clichéd script played out for all it was worth on its peculiar shores.

2012

Although not containing actual Gaelic use, Ridley Scott’s 2012 space adventure Prometheus features the words Eilean a’ Cheò (Island of Mist: Skye) which can be seen in the background of a conference lecture.

From the same year is the delightful Disney release Brave, which contains a few bits and pieces of Gaelic, most notably the massive, supernaturally-charged bear with the double-adjective name Mór Dubh (big black), certainly not native expression but effective enough for the purposes of this epic cartoon. Amusingly, the witch in the story also offers her magical cauldron answering service in Scottish Gaelic!

2014

The next Hollywood outing for Scottish Gaelic appears to be Outlander. My preoccupation when we began this project was that the language in it would not be a cop-out round of standardised book-speak, but that we would help the MacKenzie clan come to life by aiming as close to MacKenzie Gaelic as we could get. For this, I consulted two primary sources; the first, the work of a personal hero of mine Roy Wentworth and his Gaelic Words and Phrases of Wester Ross, a mountain of a book and an astonishing achievement. Nothing went into Season One of Outlander without being checked over in Roy’s book first. My second source when I was stuck was the late Ruairidh MacCoinnich, a born and bred native of Gairloch, who supplied me with a couple of lines which much to my delight can be heard more or less verbatim in the show! Unlike a film such as Dances with Wolves where indigenous language took absolute centre stage in the story with the Plains Indians speaking no English, the Gaelic in Outlander was not the main event. It was a tool to alienate the Goill (non-Gaels) -in both the story and watching at home- from what was going on around them, and it worked. It was not a documentary about Gaelic language, it was an epic US fantasy set in Scotland made by people who took the Gaelic content as seriously as they could. With that in mind, I think we did exceptionally well to place the tongue as centrally as we did and to elicit the quality we did from six actors who had never spoken a word before in their lives. Use of Gaelic in Outlander continues in 2016 with production of season II concluding in the spring.

So there we have it. We’ve had a wander through the years and found some gems, turkeys and oddities. My list will not be exhaustive so if you think I’ve missed anything out, we’d love to hear from you. The Edge of the World (1937), Ring of Bright Water (1967) and The Bruce (1996) are all reputed to contain Gaelic language but I was unable to verify that one way or the other for now!

My conclusions from this interesting sojourn are as you would expect; if you want top quality Gaelic in your production, hire Gaels. The native accent of an Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul or an Eilidh NicFhraing can’t be manufactured. If you can’t get Gaels or are adapting from a book where the look of an actor may take precedence over his or her language skills, don’t teach phonetically if you can possibly avoid it. Stand-out non-natives are the likes of Michael Fassbender in Centurion and Sam Heughan in Outlander, who have clearly learned the rhythm of the language and are not just reciting lines from memory of phonetic sheets. This allows filmmakers to marry the look of an actor for a particular role with achieving intelligible language for their production. Failing that, your fluent Gaelic-speaking viewers will spend just as much time reading the subtitles as anyone else.

I am convinced that native perception of the use of the Gaelic language in foreign films is an unfortunately negative one. The horror at the thought of productions using non-native speakers will have to be gotten over. Scottish Gaelic only has 60,000 speakers and not all of these are actors by any means. That leaves casting agents a very small pool in which to fish for talent. Instead of getting flustered at the thought of the language being used by non-natives when it is in truth still being abandoned at a rate of knots by its traditional speakership, better perhaps to concentrate on what can be gained from international exposure and building on that with a whole new raft of appreciative spectators willing us on. The Gaelic world has yet to realise that the language has already taken a massive step up and out of the confinement of its previous circumstances. The sooner it gets up to speed with that progress, the sooner we can work out how best to take advantage of it.

Although not covered by this article, some productions made closer to home and well worth a look to name but a handful are An Ceasnachadh covering the story of Kay Matheson and the Stone of Destiny, Gruth ‘s Uachdar about the early life of a Hebridean writer and despite its detractors a great resource for learners, Machair, the Gaelic soap opera.

Titles which are slated to come out over the next year or two and purportedly containing Gaelic include The Moon is Too Quiet (2017), although the proof will be in the pudding. One thing is for sure, we haven’t seen the end of Scottish Gaelic films, more likely the beginning of a more frequent appearance for the language in big budget productions. I have a project in development myself which will be filmed exclusively in Argyll, exclusively in Argyll Gaelic and will take some years to bring to fruition. Needless to say that if I use non-natives they’ll not be learning phonetically if at all possible and if I use Hebridean natives, they’ll be learning to speak with an Argyll accent!

Slàn leibh air an àm!

Cheers for now….

– Àdhamh