Tìr is teanga (Land and language): Language as sensory energy (by Dr Paul Meighan-Chiblow)

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In the past few years, I have been on a Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) reclamation journey. Gàidhlig is an endangered Indigenous language in Alba (Scotland). The reclamation journey has not been easy and is marked by contradictions, tensions, and hopes. The causes of Gàidhlig endangerment—such as land dispossession, destructive policies, and classroom violence —have influenced the journey. Embodied memories, trauma, grieving, refusal, and healing have all been associated with the reclamation process (see Lane, 2023, for more on language reclamation as an emancipatory, yet sometimes painful and silencing experience). In this BILD blog post, I will share some of my experiences and what language and reclamation mean for me.

To begin, Gàidhlig reclamation is very much an inward journey, marked by a sense of remembering, of activating sensory memories, of understanding a knowledge always known. Bateman and Purser (2020) remark, “though natural vision is celebrated in Gaelic culture, the inner vision was even more respected…Inner visions are seen to be a gift from the ancestors bestowed upon the living” (p. 27). This connection to ancestors, place, and land is part of my reclamation process. Growing up in Glaschu (Glasgow)—also known as Baile Mòr nan Gàidheal (Big City of the Gaels)—in the 1980s and 1990s, I often sensed a contradictory feeling of unease, of not feeling at home. I felt conflicted, in a “place of exile” that Gaelic scholar and poet Ruaraidh MacThòmais (Derick Thomson) has spoken about, a sensation I could not fully articulate nor understand at the time. I was raised by my mother, who was from Uibhist a Deas (South Uist), heartlands of Gàidhlig. She would often express to me how much she longed to go home there, a longing and deep sense of belonging known in Gàidhlig as cianalas. My mother passed away a few months before I started my PhD, which focused on Indigenous language revitalization and reclamation. She now rests in Uibhist a Deas, near where many of my other ancestors rest, in Cladh Hallan (graveyard of the slope), a place to which I will also return. Cladh Hallan is located on the sloping dunes of the machair, an ecosystem unique to the north-west of Alba and Éire (Ireland), near 4000-year-old Bronze Age settlements of the same name and the ocean (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Cladh Hallan Roundhouses; Augmented Reality Roundhouses (Source: Uist Unearthed App); Cladh Hallan Machair

The Gàidhlig reclamation process has been psychologically and emotionally challenging. The multigenerational impacts of the trauma associated with the oppression and repression of Gàidhlig and cultar nan Gàidheal (Gaelic culture) linger today and have been driving factors for language shift, language “loss”, socioeconomic and sociopolitical inequities, and the near destruction of family and community intergenerational language transmission in Alba. An example of the negative impacts on intergenerational language transmission is my fluent-speaking grandmother saying I did not “need it [Gàidhlig]” when I asked her to teach me. While I felt hurt and pain at the time, I now feel she was trying to protect her family from harm, since family members remember being shamed and beaten for speaking Gàidhlig in classrooms. And while I was in school, I was able to learn Spanish and French. I am now fluent in those languages, in addition to English, the medium of instruction. The fact these languages were available to me in mainstream education, and my own endangered Indigenous language was not, transmitted the subliminal, yet effective message in my youth that Gàidhlig was not “important” or was of little “worth”.

As a result of learning from ongoing language reclamation processes, from my married family, who is Anishinaabe / Ojibwe, and from my doctoral research, I have noticed how Indigenous language acquisition is different from the acquisition of dominant, non-endangered languages. Hammine (2020) elaborates that the “teaching and learning of endangered [Indigenous] languages comprise features and needs that are different from the teaching and learning of majority or foreign languages” (p. 304). These features and needs, for me, include a sensitivity to and awareness of trauma barriers to acquiring and reclaiming Indigenous languages, such as Gàidhlig. At the beginning of my Gàidhlig reclamation journey, I remember saying to my husband how upset I was that I did not know how to introduce myself and converse even a little in Gàidhlig, my own language. I felt conflicting and sometimes overwhelming emotions in those initial stages which would manifest in both body and mind, such as frustration, numbness, deep sadness, homesickness, anger about injustices, grief about loss of family, language, and culture, and “self-silencing” from “the expectancy of reclaiming what one ought to already possess” (Lane, 2023, p. 14). I never had to overcome these challenges and navigate these feelings when I was learning Spanish, French, or any other language. I was also taking Gàidhlig classes online around this time (2019-2020 during COVID-19 shutdowns), and I found it difficult to engage on a deeper level with the language. The content largely seemed to focus on grammar and was ahistorical and acultural. I wanted to engage with the spirit, the soul, and the life of the language. One of the things I found helped me in my Gàidhlig reclamation processes was learning more about cultar nan Gàidheal, like Gaelic history, storytelling, song, poetry, script, symbols, placenames, orthography, and concepts, such as Dùthchas.

Dùthchas is a millennia-old Gaelic concept that predates the formation of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Dùthchas is an intrinsic part of the sealladh a’ Ghàidheil (Gaelic worldview) and is derived from the root word “dú / dùth”, meaning “earth” or “land” (MacKinnon & Brennan, 2012). The word exists both as Dùthchas in Gàidhlig and as Dúchas in Gaeilge (Irish). Dùthchas stresses the interconnectedness of people, land, culture, language, and an ecological balance among all entities, human and more than human (Meighan, 2022). For example, the root word “dú / dùth” makes the very common Gaelic word duine, which can be translated as “person” in English. The more accurate and faithful translation of duine, however, is “person or one who comes from the land”. The last time I was home on the Dùthaich (the land) in Uibhist a Deas in August 2022—which is also the first time I have ever spoken Gàidhlig on the land with friends and family—I felt called to visit the Polochar Standing Stone. There are multiple millennia-old standing stones in na h-Eileanan Siar (Outer Hebrides). As I saw the sun in the sky above the Polochar Standing Stone and the surrounding ocean, I thought of the Gaelic song to the sun—A’ Ghrian (you can listen to this version by Kathleen MacInnes from Uibhist a Deas here)—by John MacNeill, a coitear (tenant) from Barraidh (Barra), an island you can see from Polochar (Figure 2). This was a powerful moment of consciousness and sensory energy.

Figure 2: Polochar Standing Stone; A’ Ghrian | The Sun (Source: Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael)

For me, this sensory energy illustrates that language is not just about “words”, language is also about values, knowledges, vibrations, and a way of seeing and relating to the world. When I take notes—in Gàidhlig or otherwise—I tend to draw spirals. I have noticed similar spirals carved on stones in Neolithic passage graves, such as Cnóbha (Knowth) and Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange) in Éire (Figure 3). “In Gaelic culture, the dark, as in the Neolithic passage graves, signify a place of initiation, of birth and rebirth, as in the womb” (Bateman & Purser, 2020). As I get older, I see more interconnections between these symbols, cosmology, the Gaelic Otherworld, and sensory knowledge. I view symbols and stones like these as powerful conduits of language, inward and outward knowledge, and energy in themselves and a further demonstration of how everything—human and more than human—is interconnected. Indigenous language acquisition is intricately connected to the land, a process that includes “literacies of Land” and experiences of “self-in-relationship to place” (Styres, 2019). Styres elaborates, “Land is an articulation of ancient knowledges grounded in the experiences of self-in-relationship to place. Indigenous literacy…is about reading all the things around us that are not necessarily the written word but nevertheless contain valuable information” (p. 25). In the Gàidhlig context, Gaelic scholar Michael Newton (2019) describes how Gaelic words, such as Dùthchas,

encode, transmit, and reinforce particular ways of thinking about the relationship between people and nature. These elements in Gaelic culture – oral tradition most specifically – encourage particular ways of ‘reading the landscape’ and perpetuate Gaelic ecological ideals and a sense of place and belonging for the individual and the community. These factors have shaped Scottish Gaelic culture and made it indigenous to its habitat in the Highlands and Islands (p. 453).
Figure 3: Spirals in Neolithic passages at Knowth, Newgrange, and in Paul Meighan’s journal

My Gàidhlig acquisition and reclamation process is very much connected to sense making on the Dùthaich (land) of my ancestors and to drawing on my Dùthchas (“Ancestral Bonds”; Meighan, 2022). These connections include a sense of belonging and identity, of responsibilities to place, kin, and community, and of rootedness, which afford me an inner strength and deeper understanding of who I am to better navigate trauma and challenges on my reclamation journey. Further referencing the interconnectedness of Dùthchas and the “word” in Gàidhlig, Bateman and Purser (2020) explain,

Far from being an arbitrary [Saussurean] sign…it [the Gaelic word] has the power to give physical protection as in the loricae (prayers) and written charms, to control in geasa (prohibitions and taboos), to wound in satire, and to create, as logos. It is treated with the utmost respect and words are not wilfully altered or used in the wrong context. Words are an essential part of Dùthchas which at once binds a particular people to the land while allowing them to interact with it on a spiritual level. (p. 246)

Languages, such as Gàidhlig, can transmit a force—a lùth-mothachaidh (sensory energy; MacKinnon & Brennan, 2012)—alongside ecological maps and knowledges, medicinal knowledges, place-based practices, and more. Course (2018) illustrates that, in the case of Mapudungun spoken by the Mapuche people, “the excess or potentiality of language is of a kind, or continuous with, the essential force of which all things are instances…a force irreducible to meaning.” (p. 13). In the Gàidhlig context, Gaelic scholar Alasdair Whyte has stressed that “tha tìr is teanga fighte fuaighte ri chéile (land and language are woven and sewn together)”. Gàidhlig therefore should not only be acquired and taught as a homogenous “code” to the neglect of local community language forms nor “purified” and essentialized as an “autonomous object” (Hauck, 2018), stripped of worldview, spirit, essence, and force. Sharon MacDonald in Bateman and Purser (2020) explains,

Gaelic could end up as simply an alternative set of labels—or a code—for an English or perhaps more generally ‘western’ way of seeing, rather than offering an alternative ‘window’ onto the world, as it has sometimes been claimed to do. A distinctive Gaelic way of perceiving and experiencing the world—a distinctive Gaelic system of cultural classifications—might slip away. (p. 186-197)

These ontological differences, as exemplified by Dùthchas and in the case of Gàidhlig, reflect the incommensurability of languages, where languages—in particular, endangered Indigenous languages—are deeply connected to specific places and lands. This relational understanding of language has much to offer the field of applied linguistics and mainstream education more broadly, especially in times of climate and humanitarian crises. I am hopeful and look towards a future informed by the power of language as a sensory energy (Meighan, forthcoming) that fosters deeper meaning and (re)connections with the human and more than human. In terms of how all this informs my language reclamation journey, the Gàidhlig proverb “Tìr gun canan, tìr gun anam” (land without language, land without soul) has never resonated more.


Bateman, M. and Purser, J. (2020) Window to the west: Culture and environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd. Clò Ostaig.

Course, M. (2018) Words beyond meaning in Mapuche language ideology. Language & Communication 63 9–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2018.03.007

Hammine, M. (2020) Framing indigenous language acquisition from within: An experience in learning and teaching the Yaeyaman language. The Language Learning Journal, 48(3), 300–315. https://doi.org/10.1080/09571736.2020.1720786

Hauck, J. D. (2018) The origin of language among the Aché. Language & Communication 63  76–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2018.03.004

Lane, P. (2023) From silence to silencing? Contradictions and tensions in language revitalization. Applied Linguistics, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amac075

MacKinnon, I., and Brennan, R. (2012) Dùthchas Na Mara/Belonging to the Sea: Exploring the Cultural Roots of Maritime Conflict on Gaelic Speaking Islands in Scotland and Ireland. Eirinn is Alba/SAMS/Scottish Crofting Federation.

Meighan, P. J. (2022) Dùthchas, a Scottish Gaelic methodology to guide self-decolonization and conceptualize a kincentric and relational approach to community-led research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 21, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/16094069221142451

Meighan, P. J. (forthcoming 2024). “Whatever you do, don’t give up!” A Scottish Gàidheal’s language reclamation journey. In A. Sherris & K. Peyton (Eds.), Untold autoethnographic stories of (in)justice, teaching, and scholarship: Textu(r)alities in and beyond applied linguistics. Multilingual Matters.

Newton M. S. (2019). Warriors of the word: The world of the Scottish highlanders. Birlinn.

Styres, S. (2019). Literacies of land: Decolonizing narratives, storying, and literature. In L. Tuhiwai Smith, E. Tuck, K. T. Wang (Eds.), Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education: Mapping the long view (pp. 24-38). NY: Routledge.

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