Islay's bright new light shines across the sea

THE onward march of post-school provision in the Highlands and Islands continued last week with the official opening of Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile - the Islay Columba Centre.

"A bright new light has been lit on Islay," Brian Wilson, the UK Energy Minister, said. As the Scottish Office minister for education and Gaelic, Mr Wilson was largely responsible for initiating the pound;2 million project, and subsequently prodding it into life.

But post-devolutionary sensitivities meant it was left to Mike Watson, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, to perform the opening. Mr Watson said the new centre would advance education and training on Islay, as well as tourism.

The centre will offer courses in the Gaelic language, arts and history, providing access to further and higher education. It will be overseen by the rapidly expanding Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic college on Skye, and is therefore another satellite of the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute.

It remains to be seen what funding is forthcoming. In the next academic year, running costs will have to be borne by Sabhal Mor Ostaig and the Highland university project. As the fiscal noose tightens round colleges, this could be an inauspicious time for a new venture.

Robin Currie, a local councillor who chairs the centre's management committee, sounded almost desperate as he opened proceedings last week and admitted that "much remains to be done to secure funds". Mr Currie called on the public and private sectors "to support this innovative initiative".

The centre is beginning cautiously, with around a dozen students scheduled to start next month. But Mr Currie allowed himself to hope that its establishment "will mark the turning of the tide of the regeneration of Islay. For the first time ever for our youth, getting on in life will not mean having to go away from the island."

The links with Ireland symbolised by the choice of St Columba's name will be reflected in attempts to forge strong bonds across the Irish sea, educationally and economically. The launch itself, a mixture of ceilidh and conference, was attended by musicians from Rathlin Island and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland, an hour's boat ride away.

Michelle Macleod, manager of the centre who formerly lectured in Scottish Gaelic at University College, Galway, is particularly keen to stress the Irish dimension - or, more specifically, the historic links between Argyll and North Antrim. She herself has travelled to Rathlin in a small rigid inflatable to give a lecture on cultural developments on Islay.

As if to underline the links, the annual Sabhal Mor Ostaig lecture - delivered in the past on Skye by luminaries such as President Mary Robinson of Ireland and Donald Dewar, the late First Minister - was given on Islay by Micheal O Suilleabhain, chair of music at Limerick University and founder of the Irish World Music Centre.

The centre has already chalked up at least two notable successes. It became the latest of the 335 centres in Scotland to win the Learndirect Scotland branding for quality assurance - and it is said to be the largest public building in Scotland powered by solar energy.

Whether its energy will be enough to take on one of the formidable tasks of its mission, regenerating the Gaelic language, is another matter.

The number of Gaelic speakers on the island fell below 50 per cent in 1971 and has kept falling to around 20 per cent now.

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