What is so Celtic about these connections?

Calum MacLeod

celtic connections

Over the past 20 years Celtic Connections  has evolved into one of the most respected and acclaimed folk music festivals in the land. However, when it comes to its treatment of Scottish Gaelic not only does it leave much to be desire, but it could actually be contributing to the decline of the language. This seems an odd proposition, as it seems reasonable to assume that a festival called Celtic Connections would score highly with Gaelic audiences. Unfortunately in terms of both content and presentation, the festival fails to deliver when it comes to Gaelic.

There are a modest number of Gaelic events and performances, despite their official website listing only four under that category, but the Gaelic line-up fails to reflect the diversity and the adventurousness of the rest of the programme. The majority of their Gaelic output is by established acts that play in Glasgow regularly. There are a few interesting collaborations and events exploring Gaelic culture, for example ‘A’ Bhanais Gàidhealach’, which explores the variety of different wedding customs and songs from across Gaelic Scotland. This event however was commissioned for Blas festival in Inverness last year and other innovative events have been taken from Heb Celt and Ceòlas festivals.  While Celtic Connections could argue that it is bringing these events to a larger audience it is likely that these events would have found their way to the Central Belt eventually, especially given large numbers of urban Gaels and Glasgow’s increasingly vibrant Gaelic scene. If the question is what original Gaelic acts and events does Celtic Connections bringing to the table then the answer is: not much.

While such failures in content are disappointing it is hard to argue that this directly contributes to the demise of Gaelic. It is in the presentation of the festival that Celtic Connections does Gaelic the greatest disservice.  It is an undoubtedly an Anglophone festival which hinders Gaelic from being used in any situation other than on stage. A vital step in language revitalisation is normalising its usage in everyday situations. Currently it is impossible to buy a ticket for a Celtic Connections gig in Gaelic.

The Celtic Connections’ online presence typifies this, without so much as a single page of Gaelic on their entire website, nor a solitary tokenistic tweet.  The names of Gaelic artist and events, which, aside from one sentence, make up the entirety of the websites Gaelic language content, are riddled with basic spelling mistakes. It is of little consolation these have been rectified in the print copies of the programme as presumably the majority of those attending would view it online. This raises wider questions as to the competence of the organisers and their treatment of other non-English languages.

Improving the status and public opinion of a language is another vital aspect of revitalisation. Celtic Connections has played a role in raising the status of not only Gaelic music but folk music of all descriptions. The danger with Celtic Connections’ treatment of the language is that it promotes it not as a medium of communication but only as an aspect of a performance. It is not necessary to understand the meaning of the song, or their historical context, because it all sounds so nice. Even the few Gaelic events will take place through the medium of English. The developments in availability of simultaneous translation appear to have gone unnoticed by the festival organisers. Giving Gaelic music the platform of the Royal Concert Hall raised the status of the music, now the festival must do the same for the language itself.

If Gaelic is to survive and prosper then it must be the language not only of the stage but also of the box office and the bar and the event organisers have to facilitate this. Many of these criticisms could be levelled at a number of folk festivals in Scotland, but if you call your festival Celtic Connections, and tap into that brand, then you have a responsibility to give something back to the Celtic languages. As the Gaelic revival continues to gather pace, merely paying lip service is longer enough.

Celtic Connections is a success story, over 20 years its growth in size and diversity has brought artists from around the world to Glasgow many of whom would never otherwise have played here. But the position of Gaelic in Scottish society has also changed since the early nineties and Celtic Connections does not seem to have noticed. It would be a sad irony for a festival which seeks to promote folk cultures throughout the world ended up contributing to the demise of Scotland’s indigenous Celtic language. The festival organisers must address these fundamental failures because, as it stands, Gaelic is treated with more respect at the train-station than at this ‘Celtic’ festival.