Duolingo's Gaelic lessons mean I won't run out of Irn-Bru and guga on St Andrew's Day - Gaby Soutar

There’s the possibility this drink combined with seabird could be the ultimate hangover cure, but it’s not an order you’d ever make in a restaurant.

If you’ve been learning Gaelic on Duolingo, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “Irn-Bru and guga”.

I certainly am, since I’ve been attempting to assimilate a few words of this language in advance of St Andrew’s Day on November 30.

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According to the people at this dialect app, they passed the one million pupils mark in Gaelic earlier this year, on the course’s third anniversary.

Scottish Fling on the Western Isles. From left to right: Martin Compston, Coinneach MacLeod (aka The Highland Baker), Phil MacHugh  Pic: BBC/Tern Television Productions/Jack HarrisonScottish Fling on the Western Isles. From left to right: Martin Compston, Coinneach MacLeod (aka The Highland Baker), Phil MacHugh  Pic: BBC/Tern Television Productions/Jack Harrison
Scottish Fling on the Western Isles. From left to right: Martin Compston, Coinneach MacLeod (aka The Highland Baker), Phil MacHugh Pic: BBC/Tern Television Productions/Jack Harrison

Famous learners include actor Martin Compston, who taught himself a few words of the language before shooting his recent BBC Scottish Fling show, which he starred in with pal, co-host and fluent Gaelic speaker Phil MacHugh.

Last year’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, conducted by ScotCen Social Research, found those who could speak the occasional word of Gaelic had doubled from 15 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent.

It’s estimated there’s around 57,000 fluent Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and about 87,000 who have some ability. Maybe they can make that 87,001, now that I can say uisge beatha and sgadan. That’s whisky and herring, if you’re not au fait.

I am 14 days into my journey. If I ever forget to do my ten-minute session, the annoying green owl – the seemingly benign cartoon face of Duolingo – pesters me with push notifications on my phone.

Sometimes I wonder if he’d taste similar to guga. I’d strip the bones, crunch through his beak and wash him down with Irn-Bru. I’ll put a napkin over my head while doing it, as if I was eating an ortolan.

I suppose at least his constant nagging works. Sometimes I find myself at midnight, trying to solicit the satisfying pinging chime that occurs when you get a sentence or multiple choice question right.

Although I love the idea of learning a bit of Gaelic, this Celtic language sometimes feels like a slightly depressing choice, since I am not doing it in advance of going on holiday. That’s usually the conclusion to a spell on Duolingo, or one of its rivals.

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Anyway, though most of us can say sláinte, I have started from ground zero. In fact, it’s more basic than that, as I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly skilled at languages.

When my class at high school did Standard Grade French, none of us even laughed about the fact that my teacher was called Miss Ure. We didn’t get the joke. That’s probably just as well. She was terrifying, and notorious for flinging chairs around the classroom, presumably in a fit of colère with her idiot pupils.

These days, I also tend to avoid learning new skills, since I have no confidence in my ability to retain anything anymore. I find it hugely frustrating.

My brain is like an old Aldi carrier bag. You put a lot of new stuff in the top, then it all falls out a hole in the bottom.

There is only so much room in my cranial-filing cabinet to fit the accumulated knowledge of middle age. It’s slotted into a slim file alongside much fatter ones that are packed with regrets, grudges, material for silly columns, favourite snacks and useless song lyrics.

Indeed, now that I’ve traversed through a few stages of the Duolingo course, via Intro, Food, Phrases and now onto Feelings, with many levels still to unlock, I am already having to go back to the beginning, since certain words refuse to stick.

Uisge, or water, is one of them. That could be useful too, if there’s ever a drought in the Outer Hebrides.

Mnemonics help. I had a problem with retaining the word cù for dog, until I visualised a Jack Russell with udders. You can milk her too, though don’t put it on your cereal, as it tastes of Pedigree Chum.

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I always knew it was going to be hard. My mum had warned me. She took Gaelic classes a few decades ago and the only word she remembered afterwards was aran, or bread.

Mandarin is considered the most difficult language in the world, and I bet Xhosa, with its clicks, is no walk in the park. However, Gaelic isn’t for wimps either.

The pronunciation is especially tricky, and you are blindsided by hs, cs and accents, not to mention bs, which suddenly appear as if a nearby hive is on fire and you’re covered in pollen.

Despite the difficulties, there is part of my brain that is relishing the challenge. It obsessively rolls around new words, over and over, in my head at night.

This kernel is the one that’s always trying to persuade me to take up sudoku and Wordle. It’s slowly rousing, after I’ve spent nearly 21 years in the same job, doing repetitive tasks and following a similar daily routine.

The opportunities are few and far between, but it seems that my subconscious still wants me to learn. I can feel the neurons firing, like the bullets out of a dusty old blunderbuss.

After this fortnight long stint, I have come to love the sound of certain words. These include snog, which is pronounced ‘snoc’, and means nice. It is a kiss, but melded with cosy footwear.

Then there’s tìoraidh, or goodbye, and it sounds the same as ‘cheery’. Which reminds me, I must go, that owl is about to pester me again.



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