It's a fairly big room. I don't know if any estate agent would go as far as to call it spacious but there's certainly enough room to swing both Fergus and Fiona (if their feline sense of decorum allowed such undignified treatment). And yet it doesn't seem big enough when you remember that it holds a language. A minority language but a language nonetheless. To be precise, it stores almost all of the materials that are to become the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic: a card index of words collected from manuscripts and printed sources, questionnaires and taped interviews produced during fieldwork, and a bunch of cardboard boxes containing unsorted slips, a layer or two of dust and a few dead spiders.
The project was begun at the University of Glasgow in 1966 and the materials continued to be gathered, on and off, for the next thirty years. Unfortunately, most of them ended up gathering dust in the successive buildings housing the Celtic Department because there were never enough funds to begin systematic work.
Until last year when finally some money was found making it possible for the Department to employ one of their students to start sorting through the materials and typing some of them into a computer. As the student happens to be a Polish national, I'm half waiting for the Daily Mail to get hold of the story. Message to you Poles: hands off our jobs, women and endangered languages.
Most of the time, it's just part-time work. It's more fun than stacking shelves or cleaning ashtrays and it feels great to be able to pay the bills by doing something connected to my studies, but still, it's a job like any other, which means that I do get fed up with it sometimes. I've started by sorting out the fieldwork materials so there's loads of illegible handwriting to be deciphered and I get particularly annoyed when Mr MacLeod doesn't cross his t's.
But then I realise that back in 1968 when Mr MacLeod filled in his questionnaires, he was 74, and well, unless the legendary Fountain of Youth is actually located on the Isle of Lewis, we can safely assume that he's no longer with us. And neither are most of the other informants. Och uill, as Maighstir MacLeòid would have undoubtedly said himself. That's the way it goes. Fact of life. But when he and the other informants died, they took with them a little bit of Gaelic.
And that's when it stops being just a job and gets personal.
As I said, I was born in Poland. Although I grew up in England and will most probably grow old in Scotland, my ancestry's Slavic through and through. If you dig deep enough, you'll find some Tatar roots but no apparent Celtic connection. And there's definitely no trace of the Gaelic language anywhere in the family. Mind you, there's no French in the family either but somehow nobody was surprised when I decided to learn that language. Not so with Gaelic. A large part of my first year in Glasgow was spent trying to explain to people why I'm learning it. And I know that my fellow students, even those with much stronger links to the Highlands and Islands than mine, had to go through the same ordeal of trying to justify themselves without sounding cheesy or sappy. Saying simple things like: I'd like to be able to talk to Gaels in their own language and I want to be able to order a drink in a bar in Barra without having to mime aren’t going to work in the case of Gaelic. (They will work in the case of Welsh, the only Celtic language not to be under serious threat of extinction, but that's another story.) You'll be met by comments like: But they all speak English, anyway. Nobody speaks Gaelic. Gaelic is dead. Why the hell do you want to learn it? Taxi drivers don't believe in tact and diplomacy, do they.
Gaelic isn’t dead. In fact, officially, it's doing better than it has for centuries. On 21st April 2005, the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language Act, which recognises it as an official language of Scotland. The actual practical implications of the Act are still not entirely clear but it's undeniably a significant gesture, which hopefully will be followed by other more tangible developments, such as, for instance, the opening of the first Gaelic secondary school, Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu (Glasgow Gaelic School), on 21st August 2006 or the launch of the Gaelic TV channel, BBC ALBA, just a few days ago, on 19th September 2008.
So Gaelic isn't dead. Yet. Because none of the above events, important though they are, changes the fact that fewer and fewer people use it as a community language, which is a sure symptom of a language dying. Although Gaelic is doing better than one might have expected even fifty years ago and it won't die as soon as some predicted, it's still under threat.
So what? Who cares?
I chose to study Gaelic because I like learning languages and I always wanted to learn a Celtic language. (In case you wonder why I didn’t go for Welsh – I'd always had a thing for Scotland). That's the long and short of it. Of course I knew that learning an endangered minority language would be different from learning any other foreign language, which was part of the attraction as well, but I never thought that my learning it will make any difference. In other words, I didn't set off to single-handedly save Gaelic.
Four years on, I still don't think I'm making much of a difference. If I wanted to, I’d forget about university, find an eligible Gaelic-speaking bachelor, have at least half a dozen children and bring them up speaking nothing but Gaelic, as that's the only seriously useful thing anyone banging on about preserving the language can do. But I do care. And I'd like to think that those hours spent in a dark and dusty room crossing Mr MacLeod's t's are more than just a part-time job.
Also, given a chance, I'd like to go back to all those taxi drivers who four years ago were kind enough to express concern regarding my chances of getting a job with a degree in Gaelic and tell them to pòg mo thòn.