Interviewing Àdhamh Ó Broin

adhamh3Dear Readers,

We are pleased to introduce you to Àdhamh Ó Broin, the world’s most sought-after Scottish Gaelic Consultant. His job is as unique as he is, and we are extremely glad he could take some time out of his ever-busy schedule to be interviewed by us. Thank you so much Adhamh!

Adhamh’s work is diverse, he is a Gaelic tutor, a songwriter, poet, translator, storyteller, a live performer. . .and so on. His talent and skills know no bounds as does his love for Scottish Gaelic. He tutored the cast and crew of the American-British TV Series “Outlander” to deliver Scottish Gaelic to perfection. And that’s just one of his many pursuits. Although Adhamh’s work keeps him on his heels at all times, he loves to take time off and mentor young children in Scottish Gaelic.

1. Every interest has a story somewhere, an inspiration that got the fire started. Please tell us what got you interested in Gaelic?

Initially, I would say my grandmother. She informed me that the language had been spoken in the family, but that we had lost it due to draconian schoolmasters and general neglect. Her grandfather had refused to speak it to her father and so it had been lost. The idea that my family had a native language –albeit 100 years dead- other than English, was a tantalising idea for me, and being a died-in-the-wool cultural patriot, it didn’t take me long to become obsessed with the idea of being fluent in the tongue and bringing it back into its rightful place in the family.

2. As the world’s most sought after Scottish Gaelic Consultant, what is the best part of your job and what do you hate the most?

The best part of the job is when you realise you have been given or discovered an immense opportunity to be involved in something really worthwhile, whether that be Outlander, dialect revival, or Bombadil! It’s a great feeling to know that you can earn a living by doing something that you are not only passionate about, but that is making a contribution to the richness of people’s lives.

The worst part is undoubtedly paperwork. Running your own business means you take care of all of that and if you’ve not got the head for it, it can be a total pest!

3. Tell us something about the history of this rich language called Scottish Gaelic.

The language is the closest thing we have to a “national tongue”. It’s the only one bar English that was at one time or another spoken in more or less the entire country of Scotland and at least a couple of thousand years longer than English too! It’s what feeds –unbeknown to most Scots these days- our entire sense of identity as a people. When you think of Scotland, you think kilts, bagpipes, black pudding, whisky; all of these things, while to an extent today rightly regarded as clichés, sprang from Gaelic culture and at one time were part of the everyday life of the Highland –and a little further back Lowland- Scot. Something in the region of 70% of our place names have a Gaelic element to them and so you could say that the language is, in terms of our cultural legacy as a people, omnipresent.

4. Scottish Gaelic used to be the day-to-day language of the people of the Scottish Highlands until just a century ago. Since then the language has been witnessing a decrease in its utilization. Why is it so?

The language was systematically attacked and menaced by monolithic British society as it was seen as the tongue of a problem people on the fringe of society who could be “tamed” and “civilised”. Gaels have never quite shaken off the inferiority complex of being constantly told their language was stupid and useless. Children were savagely beaten and humiliated right up into the 1970s for speaking the only language they knew and in general, we have only just begun to recover from the institutionalised violence of this era.

5. Although there are around 60,000 native speakers of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland at present, the language is constantly declining. What is the best way to preserve a language in its entirety in your opinion and how can this be done in the case of this beautiful language?

I think the only way to do this is to attempt to allow the language to survive on its own terms. There is no point in trying to make Gaelic run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. We shouldn’t force it to do exactly as English does. The point in speaking another language is to have something different to say. English is everywhere and there is no point whatsoever in challenging that dominance. Why walk the crowded road when you can take a shortcut through the heather? The only cure for the seemingly unhaltable decline is passion. When those who have it in plentiful supply look for direction, we must help them to find their focus. Once there is enough of a buzz, it may even attract people who previously had no interest. Rather than attempting to “make the language cool”, focus on what is already cool about it. If there are people who don’t find the language attractive, even native speakers, fine. Leave them to it! The policy must be quality over quantity, rather than the current obsession with the opposite. Numbers don’t save languages, passion does, and no amount of legislation and funding can generate that; only by leading by example and choosing to make Gaelic the constant centre of our lives can we turn the tide.

6. You have recently joined the Bombadil family as a Scottish Gaelic language mentor and you have been guiding young minds who are keen to grasp the language. What do you feel about today’s generation’s contribution to this language and how can this contribution be extended beyond the native speakers?

The contribution will best be made by trying to avoid the language being in direct competition with English. You can go anywhere in the world now and find someone with a few phrases of English. Ability in it is not a particularly special talent. We all retain some kind of connection to global culture and most often it’s through English that we access that. Scottish Gaelic offers the chance for people living here to connect with home, with local culture, in a way that has us touching a vein leading back thousands of years into the past, and with any luck, long into the future. It’s a different animal to English and has no need to compete with it whatsoever. They occupy entirely different space in our minds and can co-exist perfectly well.

We currently have a dearth of lexographic richness and idiomatic strength in spoken Scottish Gaelic, even among-st natives. The people who speak it with any degree of real, versatile fluency are few and far between –perhaps numbering in the low thousands- and most people’s speech is riddled with English. The younger generations are most typical of this trend and do not seem to be encouraged to develop their abilities, so it goes without saying that there is work to be done here. Luckily so far, I have met with excitement from young people over the prospect, an excitement that is undoubtedly matched by my own!

7. What are your views on Bombadil’s new educational tool called MageQuill?

I can’t claim to be an expert on it so far and am feeling my way, but what I’ve seen up till now is very good indeed. It’s clean, easy to use and nice to look at. Giving young people an outlet for their creative abilities in a safe environment is a marvellous thing. Having a chance to make use of an interface like that when I was beginning to write would have been brilliant. I think the fact that aspects of it are similar to other online interfaces, especially for younger people, is a great advantage, with the chat and comment functions being immediately accessible and familiar.

8. What would be your advice for all those young people who are interested in studying and pursuing a career in Scottish Gaelic?

I would say “put the language first”. That’s what I have done over the last ten years, focussing on putting the language into a position of the utmost respect and allowing everything else to fall into place behind that. If you are an exceptionally strong and literate Scottish Gaelic speaker, you will not struggle to find a really cool job. I have had the privilege of working a good few so far!

9. You have mastered Scottish Gaelic from scratch. What is the secret behind this level of phenomenal fluency?

Apart from sheer bloody-mindedness? Adopting it as more than a hobby, assuming its place in your life as not only natural but essential. I see myself as a Gael first, English speaker second, despite not having grown up with the language at my mother’s knee. I speak no English to my children and never have, except maybe when imitating some other poor unsuspecting soul! Gaelic belongs to me and I to her, she’s the reason I get up in the morning and often the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. She’s changed the way I look at the world and given me self-respect in way I lacked it before. She’s like a wise old grandmother constantly at my shoulder when I need her and she never lets me down. I take her survival exceptionally seriously and I think because of this, I couldn’t have stopped learning until utter fluency as anything less would have been a raw deal for Gaelic. That said, I still have lots more work to do on my language skills like memorizing more proverbs and idioms!

10. What are your expectations from the next generation, in context of preserving this language?

That depends on whether Gaelic society adjusts its expectations, which are quite peculiar at the moment. It expect Gaelic Medium Education to wave some sort of magic wand and simply “produce” the next generation of speakers. However, we must think of the French or the Spanish we learn at school. As soon as we left the educational environment and ceased to have any use for these languages, many of us left them quickly behind. Gaelic is the exact same. At the moment, young people are leaving school and finding no reason to continue speaking the Gaelic they learned meaning that the quantity over quality approach is already proving to be the undoing of the revival. This is why being involved in a project that will help to focus young people on their talents through use of Gaelic language in a context other than school is massively important and exciting!

11. Last question before we sign off. Please tell us about your favourite Gaelic expression and why is it so close to your heart?

Thig a-staigh agas dèan suidh! (Come in and make a seat!)

This means a lot because it was what the old folks of Argyll would say to me when I came to visit, many of them now being passed on. It was their way of saying “welcome, come in and sit down”, the inference being that it didn’t really matter where you sat, as long as you were in and ready to share your news. Every Friday night, we run a sort of “Gaelic Speakeasy” in Glasgow called AN GEALBHAN and I take great pleasure when guests come in the door of continuing the tradition by calling over to them: thig a-staigh agas dèan suidh!

gu robh móran math agaibh! (thank you very much!)

You can reach Adhamh on

Spread the love