An ancient tongue finds cachet in the classroom and the community beyond

31st July 2009 at 01:00
There are fewer than 2,000 Gaelic speakers under 15 in the whole of the Western Isles, but Back School in the Outer Hebrides is intent on keeping the language active, as Henry Hepburn reports

Welsh-language schooling has, in recent years, become big business in large swathes of its homeland, but few may be aware that a similar but smaller-scale revolution is taking place in the Outer Hebrides, where teaching in Gaelic is taking root in a small group of schools.

Only 58,652 people in Scotland speak the language, which has been in danger of extinction for generations. But, as in Wales, teachers and schools are playing a key role in ensuring that the language continues to survive, if not exactly flourish.

The challenges and opportunities are many and varied for teachers in institutions such as the Back School in the northern-most of the Scottish islands, Lewis, where half the roll is schooled in the language.

Educating pupils from nursery through to S2 (the equivalent of Year 9), the school has led the way in extending the boundaries of Gaelic education, and huge strides have been made since it was introduced as a "unit" with five pupils 20 years ago.

This is impressive stuff when one considers the fact that there are fewer than 2,000 Gaelic speakers under the age of 15 in the whole of the Western Isles.

Care is taken at the school not to segregate the two language groupings. The idea of a separate unit has been replaced by "functional bilingualism". In other words, there is a natural flow between the languages, and pupils are not browbeaten into speaking one or the other at given times. A pupil repeatedly speaking English in a Gaelic-medium class might be gently reminded to try again in Gaelic.

Gaelic is the language of the corridors. If teachers are greeting pupils, asking them about their day or complimenting them about a good piece of work as they pass, it is always in Gaelic.

A gaggle of children chatting away with one other in English slip easily into Gaelic with teachers. One of the pupils in the group has an English accent. The point is to expose children to the language, not set aside times for "doing" it.

"It's not just a classroom activity," says depute headteacher Angus Maclean.

One major problem is that Gaelic resources are expensive. The quick turnaround of translations can compromise quality, although inventive minds are coming up with solutions: online geography materials for S1 and S2 are reducing the strain on school resources. Often, however, the burden falls on staff.

"I sometimes grumble at the time I've been spending on preparing materials in Gaelic when I should have been preparing my lesson," says Netta Macleod, the P3-4 (Years 3-4) Gaelic-medium teacher.

Yet huge progress has been made. Principal science teacher Peigi Nicholson recalls "a huge number of parents who were very antagonistic" when the first Gaelic-medium cohort started, with her daughter, Eilidh, one of the five pioneers. Now, Gaelic has considerable cachet.

S2 (Y3) pupil Annabel MacLennan says a lot of her English-medium peers wish they had done Gaelic. She smiles with pride as she remembers an impressive performance by the girls' football team at a tournament in Edinburgh, where opponents complained about them talking tactics in Gaelic.

It is also useful, she says, for learning other languages: French words for "a thousand" or "church", for example, have close matches in Gaelic (millemile and egliseeaglais).

Often the most enthusiastic supporters of the language are parents with no roots in the Western Isles, who want their children to appreciate the heritage of their surroundings. The chef at an Indian restaurant, who recently became a father, has told Mr Maclean that he wants to put his child's name down for Gaelic medium.

An after-school club for children from non-Gaelic-speaking homes, funded as a pilot by development agency Bord na Gaidhlig, has ensured that the momentum behind Gaelic continues after school. "If you come into this school at 4.30pm, it's still going and going and going," says headteacher John Maclean.

A council report last year showed that there were 505 primary pupils receive Gaelic-medium education in the Western Isles, more than 25 per cent of the primary population.

In P1, however, it was more than 33 per cent, having risen steadily from 24.6 per cent in 200304.

That apparently encouraging trend, however, is still undermined by evidence that the considerable goodwill towards Gaelic dissipates as children get older.

Not all pupils attending Gaelic pre-school will enrol in Gaelic-medium education. Some are signed up simply because the Gaelic nursery is closest to home; they will not bypass a local school to take up Gaelic-medium primary education. And the report found there was not the same demand from secondary parents.

The language continues to face another struggle in recruitment of Gaelic-speaking teachers. An advertisement for a post at the Nicolson Institute listed Gaelic as "essential", yet most candidates could not speak the language. The job was re-advertised, with Gaelic this time listed as "desirable".

Rather than gearing it purely to the demands of traditional classroom subjects, Mr Maclean says Gaelic has to be a tool that children can use to talk to their grannies.

As Mr Maclean puts it: "Gaelic has to work its way through the whole fabric of the school life, and of the whole community."


80,978 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 1961, when TV influence started to grow

58,652 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 2001 (1.4 per cent of the population)

23,447 Gaelic speakers in the Western Isles in 1981

15,723 Gaelic speakers in the Western Isles in 2001

1,978 Gaelic speakers aged 3-15 in the Western Isles in 2001

Figures taken from the 1961 and 2001 censuses, and from Sgrud research for Bord na Gaidhlig.

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