For our Young Geographer magazine published in 2019, our team of Editors sat down with BBC presenter and wild-swimmer Calum Maclean. The magazine article was published in Gaelic, but we're pleased to share the English version online! 

The Gaelic Language

How long have you spoken Gaelic for? Where did you first learn to speak Gaelic?

I’ve spoken Gaelic from the beginning – and I’m 30 years old now. My sister and I learnt Gaelic alongside English growing up. We were born in Australia, where Mum’s from, but Dad is from Scotland – I’ve only ever spoken to him in Gaelic. When I was 18 months old, we moved to the Isle of Skye, where we went to a cròileagan (Gaelic nursery) and Dad studied at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college. As we went through school – Gaelic Medium Education in Inverness, Mum learnt as well – she speaks Gaelic with an Ozzie twang!

How important is the Gaelic language to you?

To me, Gaelic is a part of my daily life, and my identity. It’s natural for me to use Gaelic; being able to speak two languages has enhanced my life in so many ways. I think you get a much wider view of Scotland as a country, and a deeper understanding. As well as that, I want to see the number of people that have Gaelic increase, and hope that I’m playing a part in that.

Do you think protecting Scotland’s cultural heritage and natural landscape is important? If so, why?

Gaelic is special to Scotland (and Nova Scotia!) and we have a duty to promote it, strengthen the communities in which it’s used, and to be proud of it – it’s something that belongs to Scotland as a whole. We’re incredible fortunate in Scotland to have the natural landscapes and freedom we have, and I think that culture and places go hand-in-hand, we need to recognise that. By understanding how others saw the landscape before us, we can have a better understanding ourselves. I’d like to see the population of the Highlands increase – keeping young people here – and at the same time protecting our natural landscapes.

Can you draw any parallels between Scottish and Arctic cultures? There are over 40 indigenous languages spoken in Arctic regions. Many of the people who speak these languages have had to work hard to fight against their language dying out. With only 1.1% of the Scottish population speaking Gaelic (according to 2011 Census data) have you ever felt similar pressures or concerns in Scotland?

I see parallels in the examples of Gaelic and the Sámi languages – that both have declined greatly in numbers of speakers – but a language doesn’t “die” on it’s own; it's through people’s actions. We can compare the wider vocabulary they have for nature, comparing that to Gaelic, where there’s over 100 words for mountains! I see reasons of hope also – that young people can learn the language through school, that we now have recognition of the languages – but there is still a lot to do. We all live in an English-speaking wold these days, it’s finding things that keeps us using other languages that are important.

Can you draw any parallels between Scottish and Arctic landscapes?

I’d love to visit the Arctic but since I’ve not been I’m not sure if I could say. I visited Iceland a number of years ago, and I see some similarities there in terms of the wild coasts, and islands – but I was mainly struck by how unlike anything I’d seen before it was!

What is your favourite thing about the Gaelic language?

That my dog speaks it! Or listens, rather than speaks maybe! Also that I get an understanding of the mountains, rivers, corries when I’m out in the hills.

What are the benefits of speaking Gaelic? Why do you think more people should learn the language?

Loads of benefits! It’s good for your brain, you get a wider view on the world, makes learning another language easier, impress tourists, you can pronounce “Buachaill Etive Mòr” without fear. In many other countries it’s natural to speak more than one language – we should aim for that, and since Gaelic is here, from here, let’s go for that!

Do you have a favourite Gaelic word? What is your favourite (or most difficult) word to teach non-Gaelic speakers?

Water! One word I hear people struggle with is “Loch” – I like teaching people that as it’s such a common sound in Gaelic, the “ch” - but doesn’t appear in English.

Outdoor Swimming and Filmmaking

What do you enjoy most about your job as a film maker and presenter?

In life, the two things I mainly enjoy that make me happy are: being outdoors, and being creative. If I can combine those things in work, then I’m satisfied.

How did you first get involved in making your own films?

I had a terrible YouTube channel years ago (it still exists but I’m not telling you what it is!) and used to make ridiculous films involved my friends, and in-jokes and awful humour, and it just grew from there. My interest in photography grew, I started a blog showcasing where I went swimming, then got asked to make films for BBC The Social, and it’s continued ever since!

What was your favourite film to make?

Maybe when I swam the Falls of Lora for my BBC ALBA series Dhan Uisge. I jumped in to the flow when it was going at its fastest! It was so fast and incredibly wild, I had to do it six times altogether. It’s not a swim I recommend others try – I had a safety team, but it was so much fun!

How did you first get involved in Outdoor Swimming?

Properly, I think about 10 years ago, I was back in Tasmania and without telling anyone I swam across the River Derwent in the dark one morning – about one kilometre and the furthest I’d ever swum. What a buzz I got!

What is the most memorable outdoor swim that you have done?

It’s swims without too much planning, and a bit of uncertainty I enjoy – that feeling of “can I do this?” A number of years ago I swam in Loch Maree, to find the island in the loch, in the island (!) on Eilean Sùbhainn. I did find it – the light on the hills was changing all day, the water was calm, then wild, there was a rainbow, I had an adventure in a beautiful place which is what it’s all about.

What is the coldest temperature that you have swam in?

I don’t measure temperatures much, but under the ice in Loch Coire an Lochain on Braeriach, almost 1000m above the sea – that was Baltic! It was probably about 1-2C.

Do you have any exciting projects, swims or adventure challenges lined up for 2020?

I’m contemplating a couple of long journeys – one long solo multi-day swim in Scotland, and one journey in Canada with a friend – probably in a canoe. I also want to do lots of swimhiking – swimming whilst taking with you everything you need to camp. Overnight or multi-day trips, I really enjoy it.