Gaelic design for the 21st century: A laptop decal

by Feb 27, 2015

In 2012, I got tired of my plain silver laptop computer, and I soon found out that there are a lot of great laptop decals out there (why don’t more people dress up their technology with beautiful design?).

The first one to grab my eye was a design of Snow White holding the poisoned apple. This was clever, but I don’t care too much for Disney.

I found a Mac laptop decal design that suited my taste in the Etsy shop of suzie automatic, an artist from a small island in Maine. Many of her designs cleverly incorporate the Apple logo which is backlit when the computer is on. I chose Eve, as in Adam and Eve.

The artist agreed to customize the design for me. I wanted my laptop not only to look beautiful, but also to make Gaelic more visible in public. Art and design provide a small but enjoyable way to raise awareness about the continued existence and use of Gaelic in the 21st century.

The rest of this post explains my process of developing a 21st century design that references a longstanding Gaelic cultural and literary theme.

Eve and the apple immediately led me to thinking about the central place of Adam and Eve in a well-known myth about Gaelic: the idea that Gaelic was the language of the Garden of Eden. So I developed this new Gaelic design incorporating Suzie Automatic’s Eve artwork:

Gaelic Laptop Decal by Suzie Automatic

Gaelic Laptop Decal by Suzie Automatic

Straight up, just in case you’re wondering, Gaelic was not spoken in the Garden of Eden. I’m not even going to go there. Once upon a time, that idea counted as history in medieval Scotland (or at least political legitimation).

But the funny thing is, the idea is still circulating even today. Nowadays, it’s usually a joking reference; I have a postcard of an Angus Òg comic strip which I bought 20 years ago, in which Adam is saying “Ciamar a tha thu, a’ chailleach?” to Eve. Doing research for my dissertation, I noticed that Scottish newspaper articles in the 1990s and 2000s would occasionally mention this idea. It often appears together with the idea that Gaelic is an “ancient language.” Can’t get much more ancient than the dawn of the human race, eh?

Various authors attempted to prove the medieval myth and trace the ancestry of Gaels back to the Garden of Eden. One is the 1837 book Adhamh agus Eubh; no, Craobh Sheanchais nan Gáël (Adam and Eve; or, The Family Tree of the Gaels) written by one Lachlan MacLean (I love long-winded old book titles with “or” in them):

Adhamh agus Eubh (1837) - Cover and Title Page

Adhamh agus Eubh (1837) – Cover and Title Page

The “Gaelic was the language of the Garden of Eden” myth was also used in 18th century poetry. Now, when it comes to Gaelic literature and history, I particularly love the 18th century. It was a time of upheaval and change, the century when Gaelic modernity was forged in the breakdown of the clan system and the growing influence of the Scottish state and capitalism. It was the century of Ossian, that mixed blessing and curse to the Gaelic oral tradition. The 18th century also saw the first published collections of Gaelic poetry, which I discuss in a research article.

Gaelic poetry underwent a lot of change and development in the 18th century. Gaelic panegyric, or praise poetry, from the 13th century through 1745 had followed a code in which the professional poet invoked the distinguished genealogy of his noble patron, the chief (Source: John MacInnes, “The panegyric code in Gaelic poetry and its historical background.” In Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 50 (1976–1978). Pp. 435–498). With the breakdown of the clan system, poets who had inherited the classical genres and devices could no longer make a living as poets. As pointed out by Gaelic scholars, they broke down the rigid conventions and started praising not men but ‘women, creatures, things, [and] concepts,’ including pets, places, ships, bagpipes, whisky, the penis — and Gaelic (Sources: Ronald Black, “Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and the new Gaelic poetry.” In: Manning, S., Brown, I., Clancy, T. O., Pittock, M. (Eds.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Volume Two: Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707–1918). Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007. P. 114; also see Sharon Arbuthnot, 2002).

The first poems in praise of the Gaelic language and its heroes, and the first exhortations in print to save Gaelic and proclaim its worthiness, were prominent among the very first Gaelic poems to be printed on a press. They were also directly linked with the first attempts at scientific study, preservation, and standardization of Gaelic through philology, dictionaries, grammars, and translation. In short, this shift in Gaelic poetry was linked to a shift in the Gaelic cultural approach to Gaelic as a modern object of commentary in implicit comparison with English.

In 1751, in the first-ever published collection of Gaelic poetry, Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair wrote:

’S i labhair Adhamh,
Ann a phárrais féin,
’S ba shiubhlach Gáilic
O bheul álainn Ebh

(Source: Alastair Mac-Dhonuill [Alastair MacDonald] Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich; no, An nuadh Oranaiche Gaidhealach. Edinburgh, 1751. Pp. 3–4.)

The English translation from Jones and McLeod (2007:25) is:

It was [Gaelic] that Adam spoke
In his own Paradise
And Gaelic came fluently
from Eve’s beautiful mouth

(Source: C. Jones and Wilson McLeod. Standards and differences: languages in Scotland, 1707–1918. In: Manning, S., Brown, I., Clancy, T.O., Pittock, M. (eds.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Volume Two: Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707–1918). Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007. Pp. 21–32.)

So. Back to art and design. To evoke the printed Gaelic works of the 18th century, such as MacMhaighstir Alasdair’s poem, I used a font called butterbrotpapier by German artist Anke Arnold (aka Anke-art).

As for the words, I originally thought of using the poetry I just quoted. But I love creative anachronism, so instead, I used the lyrics from Runrig’s song “An Ubhal as Àirde”:

Seididh gaoth is deàrrsaidh grian
Tro mheas nan craobhan linn gu linn
Ach thig an là is thig an t-àm
Airson an ubhal as àirde
Air a’ chraobh a bhuain

The English translation given is:

The winds will blow and the sun will shine
From generation to generation
Through the trees of the garden
But the day and the hour will surely come
To take the highest apple
From the knowledge tree

So I sent the Gaelic text to the artist, asked her to create the missing accent marks (diacritics) for the font, she sent me a proof, and it turned out great.

I get lots of interested looks and comments on the laptop decal. People in airport security lines have asked about it, and strangers in coffee shops. The guys at the Apple Store in Halifax loved it. How could you add some Gaelic art and design to your everyday life?

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