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Cecil: Pursuing my love for languages

Cecil recounts his journey towards speaking Scottish Gaelic and eventually moving to live in Skye. He has come full circle having started an City Lit 1995, He is now back to study with us but this time, online!

By Cecil Ward

When I was at school in the 1970s I loved languages. I studied German, Latin and French.

This love continued my whole life.

My first encounter with Scottish Gaelic

In 1987, my first visit to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland sparked off a life-long love affair. Staying in the house we were renting, one morning I heard a children’s program on television in Scottish Gaelic. In my ignorance I had just always for some reason assumed that Gaelic ought to sound similar to Welsh, but this didn’t sound the same at all. I was mystified and wondered why.

During a trip to Port Rìgh, the capital of Skye, I found a shop that had a little ‘Teach Yourself Gaelic’ paperback grammar book. Fast forward several years to around 1994 and this book had been sitting on the shelf. One day I decided to work through it diligently, but it was hard going all by myself.

My first City Lit experience

In 1995, I saw that the City Lit was advertising Scottish Gaelic evening classes, so I signed up for the beginners’ class. My first tutor was Angus Nicol (Aonghus MacNeacail) who made the lessons enthralling.

During that first year of study I found out about residential intensive week-long Scottish Gaelic courses in Skye at Sabhal Mór Ostaig, Scotland’s national Gaelic-language college.

Over the next three years from1995 to 1998, I continued my studies at the City Lit and combined them with many trips to Skye for SMO’s intensive courses. By now I was completely bitten by the language-learning bug.

In my second and third years at the City Lit, I was taught by a native speaker from the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, Criosaidh NicLeòid-Webb.

"That autumn I started a full-time Gaelic course at SMO, where no English is permitted…

Moving to Skye

In 1997 we started looking for a house to buy in Skye, found a very old stone house in an extremely poor state, and in 1998 we decided that we had had enough of London and were going to move to Skye altogether.

That autumn I started a full-time Gaelic course at SMO, where no English is permitted, although it’s by no means as strict as that sounds! This raised my level of fluency enormously, being in an all-Gaelic environment from 9-5.

We have been in Skye ever since. Gaelic is still spoken by the older people on the Island, including a couple of my neighbours in our remote village.

"Even though I’m 500 miles away from London, the distance no longer matters!

25 years on - back to City Lit

At the end of 2020, my wife discovered by chance that The City Lit was now offering courses taught over the internet. I was delighted and couldn’t decide what subjects to study; overwhelmed by the riches on offer. Even though I’m 500 miles away from London, the distance no longer matters! In one of my classes we have a student in Moscow, so I by no means hold the distance record.

I’m now studying Latin and Welsh. Knowing one Celtic language helps enormously when learning another, even though in this case it’s one in a different branch of the Celtic family tree. The differences can be confusing though and your expectations can be dangerous. Welsh is hard!

Even though my illness - chronic pain and ME/CFS, which involves severe fatigue - means that I’m more or less confined to bed, I can still participate in classes via Zoom on my iPad. I’m very much hoping that internet-based classes will continue.

I have a long list of subjects I would like to study, a list which has grown rather out of control, and I don’t have enough mental energy, or money: Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Old English, Icelandic and Swedish.

So, twenty-five years on and I’m back to where I began, studying once more at the City Lit.