Blue Skye thinking on Gaelic

9th January 2009 at 00:00
A group of Lowland pupils went over the sea to study a minority language and culture - and they're going back for more

The school did not teach Gaelic; pupils were not interested. The former mining town near the Edinburgh bypass was far from the wind-pummelled islands of the Gaidhealtachd heartland. Yet from this unlikely setting comes evidence of Gaelic's renewed appeal.

Last year, pupils from Lasswade High in Bonnyrigg became the first from a Lowland school with no knowledge of Gaelic to travel to the Gaidhealtachd and learn about its language and culture. It was such a success that funding was recently announced for another trip this summer.

Every second June, the Midlothian school puts its timetable to one side so pupils can try other things. German and French teacher James Forbes saw them flourish in pottery, martial arts and horse-riding, and thought about Gaelic.

"As far as I was aware, this would be the first time pupils from a Lowland school, not already studying Gaelic, had travelled within their own country to learn a language and about a culture of which too many Scots know virtually nothing," he says.

It is an assertion backed up by Gaelic development agency Bord na Gaidhlig.

The idea interested the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and pupils' parents - but not everyone. "In spite of great interest from adults, I encountered enormous difficulty selling the idea to teenagers," says Mr Forbes.

"That was due, in part, to a widespread misconception that Skye was barren and uninhabited. We tried several times to get the project up and running, but could never drum up enough interest."

Mr Forbes was "in despair", but the school management encouraged him to try again. He focused on pupils from poorer families who would not go on holiday under normal circumstances. A Pounds 5,000 award from National Lottery funding ensured the trip went ahead and was open to all for Pounds 50.

The 20 S1-5 pupils who went to Skye had Gaelic lessons each morning, and trips to attractions such as the Talisker distillery and Skye Museum of Island Life. In the evening, they took lessons in step dance and Celtic instruments. Bord na Gaidhlig donated Pounds 1,000 towards a ceilidh so the pupils could meet Gaelic-speaking teenagers. An education officer spoke about the language's importance, and pupils visited the BBC Alba studios.

"The overwhelming majority of pupils are now inspired to learn more Gaelic and we hope that this will be the first of many such trips, both for our school and for others," says Mr Forbes.

The trip was seen as such a success that Bord na Gaidhlig has awarded Pounds 4,750 to ensure another visit in June with 30 pupils.

Three S4 girls enjoyed themselves so much that they applied for a week-long film-making course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, although this was cancelled because there were too few participants.

Mr Forbes was inspired by a trip to South Uist that he made himself when he was 18. He says he was treated so well that he wanted to "give something back".

He does not expect all pupils to become fluent or to send their own children to Gaelic-medium schools. But he believes that "if any of my pupils, once grown up, feels sufficiently motivated to speak out for Gaelic and other minority cultures when under attack, I shall have reached my objective".

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