Fiona is the 'first lady of Gaelic'

16th January 2009 at 00:00
A former TV presenter has retrained and gone straight from probation teacher to reviving the language in Aberdeenshire

Aberdeenshire has a new ambassador for Gaelic language and culture - the region's "first lady of Gaelic".

The title, coined in publicity material, may make her squirm, but Fiona MacInnes is well suited to the role of promoting her first language in the area. The former television presenter from South Uist is the first Gaelic teacher to be appointed by the council and over the next year she will travel to teach pupils at four secondary schools and 13 primaries.

If anyone can switch hundreds of young beginners onto Gaelic, it will be her. As well as being passionate about her language, she's funny and thinks learning should be a pleasure. "It's a fun language, it's easy to learn and everybody should learn it, no matter what age they are," she says, sitting with the sixth-year Gaelic learners at Alford Academy.

Her new teaching post is part of the council's strategy to develop a Gaelic education policy and is funded by the Scottish Government under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act. Ms MacInnes will be clocking up the mileage, travelling from her base at Hill Of Banchory School to rural schools in Deeside and Upper Donside. But pupils will use Glow, the education intranet, and they will link up with their teacher and other pupils using video conferencing. Today, pupils at Alford are exchanging basic Gaelic greetings with pupils more than 40 miles away at Ellon Academy.

Ms MacInnes believes there is a real resurgence of interest in Gaelic among young Scots. "There's a lot of interest now in traditional music and when people start learning say, the fiddle or the clarsach, they get to know about the Gaelic songs and want to know more.

"And there's an opportunity for them to learn the language when they go to the Feisean - there are Gaelic classes and it's taught as drama through Gaelic medium. There are lots of things. They take an interest in singing and finding out what songs mean. There's a general sense of more pride."

She has seen this revival in her daughter's generation. Siobhan MacInnes, 21, is following in her mother's footsteps as a presenter of the BBC children's Gaelic programme De a-nis? "Gaelic was her first language. But even her friends take an interest and they're always asking her things. There's a lot in her age group who either work as teachers or in the media - she's a Gaelic singer and a lot of her friends are traditional musicians. So there's more pride and more opportunities for careers, to get a job in Gaelic," she says.

"Many people are not aware Gaelic was part of this area 100 or so years ago, that it was spoken, and this has been proved by the amount of place names in the language which were anglicised in Aberdeenshire. The last fluent speaker in the area was Mary Bain from Ballater, who died in 1984."

Sixth-year Alford Academy student Claire Gordon, 17, explains why she has taken up Gaelic. "I did French last year, and I like languages, so I thought I would try something new. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to learn Gaelic, so I thought I would give it a go since I've got some spare time."

She has only been studying for a few weeks, but sounds as if she is getting the hang of it. "We have to write it down in phonetics, because when it's written down you don't really know how to pronounce it because it's completely different," she says. "They have a really weird short alphabet that has only 18 letters - they miss out w, x, y, z and they miss out a chunk in the middle."

On the TV screen in the corner, Ellon pupils Ryan Bennett, 16, and Heather Innes, 16, introduce themselves and have a conversation. The technology works first time, but Ms MacInnes would be well equipped to deal with any technical hitches television throws at her, having spent years in the business.

A former pupil of Daliburgh School and the Nicolson Institute, she was one of the first students at the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye, and studied business and Gaelic studies in 1983.

Ms MacInnes worked as an administrator in South Uist and after working on Gaelic programmes with an independent TV company, presented Gaelic education programmes and developed multimedia education for Western Isles Council. In 1998, she joined the then Grampian Television to present Telefios.

Her first teaching experience came later when working for Feisean nan Gaidheal, helping children learn about Gaelic culture through drama, singing and games. "Teaching was always something I wanted to do," she says.

After taking a degree in Gaelic and culture at the University of the Highlands and Islands while working, she joined the first intake on Aberdeen University's distance-learning postgraduate diploma in education in 2005. Her probationary year was at Hazlehead Academy in Aberdeen last year.

To encourage empathy with newcomers, Ms MacInnes says she has taken up Spanish and Doric: "At Strathdon Primary, I teach them Gaelic and they teach me Doric."

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