I have seen the future…and it works
In the Outer Hebrides, their accent is more Irish than Scottish which owes something, undoubtedly, to the fact that the Western Isles are directly above Donegal as the crow flies.
Over half the population of these islands on the very edge of Europe speak Gaelic and over recent years, not least since Gaelic became an official language of Scotland in 2005, their native tongue has become a source of inspiration and celebration.
Gaelic roadsigns (n.b. Irish is wholly absent in the north of Ireland from all traffic markers) are ubiquitous. Indeed, less than an hour north of Glasgow, bilingual signs become the norm as the traveller enters the Gaidhealtachd, the Highlands and Islands which represent the heartland of the Gaelic language.
Almost 90,000 people from a total Scottish population of five million speak Gaelic — a figure on a par most probably with the number of fluent Irish speakers in the North of Ireland. Of course, while Gaelic has earned the fulsome support of the state in Scotland over recent years, the Irish language in the Six Counties has no official status. Goodness me, even Manx, a close Celtic cousin of Irish and Gaelic and spoken by less than 2,000 people is an official language in the Isle of Man.
Of course, the Outer Hebrides from Stornaway, capital of Lewis, down through North and South Uist, Harris, Benbecula and beautiful Barra have much more to offer besides their proud linguistic heritage. Unspoilt beaches, stunning landscapes, the mouthwatering bounty of the seas and world-famous whisky distilleries complement summer days which last 20 hours and more in an archipelago which at its northern point is closer to the Arctic Circle than Paris.
What works on Barra could surely work in Belfast — if celebrating culture was more to do with respecting heritage and cherishing difference than burning flags and erecting mock gallows on monstrous bonfires perched beside high-rise flats.
I leave the last word to the flame-haired 16-year-old intern at the tourist information centre on the isle of Barra, famed for the filming of Whisky Galore and boasting just over 1,000 inhabitants, who greeted us in glorious Gaelic, proud as punch of his heritage and delighted to show off his fluency in his native tongue. I meet his like in Belfast every day. The only difference is that the young Irish speakers of Belfast operate in a world in which their language is absent from almost all official signage and government publications.
I return to Belfast tomorrow convinced that I have seen our future in the Western Isles. And it works.