Harvest time at the great barn

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Neil Munro looks at milestones in the life of one of Scotland's most unique colleges

There was a goodly deal of pride swelling in the breasts at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic-medium college on Skye, when Mary Robinson, the then Irish President, paid a visit in June. Mrs Robinson planted a yew tree to symbolise the first Pounds 4 million phase of the college's expansion, which will carry it into a degree-awarding future.

Yews live for up to 2000 years. Sabhal Mor Ostaig ("the great barn of Ostaig") is getting there. Next year will be its 25th. The college has come a long way from the time when Sir Iain Noble, surveying the lands of Sleat in south Skye he had just acquired from the impecunious Macdonalds, stood beside the derelict old barn and observed to a local journalist in his best Oxbridge: "Wouldn't it be fun to have a Gaelic college here?" One of the ironies is that two of the key figures in Sabhal Mor's short life have been a landowning merchant banker and Scotland's most right-wing politician of recent years. Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State, brought the college into the further education mainstream in February when he put its funding on the same footing as the other colleges.

The college faced diminishing support from the local authorities and, at the same time, was becoming highly dependent on European social funds. It received 41 per cent of its income from Europe a couple of years ago compared with a Scottish FE average of 4.1 per cent.

The Scottish Secretary granted the college a Pounds 400,000 FE grant for the current year, probably the only instance of a college welcoming the application of the student-driven FE funding formula. But Sabhal Mor's five-year plan envisages income of more than Pounds 2 million by the turn of the century, more than half of it from the Scottish Office as full-time students and those on short courses double from their respective levels of 50 and 500.

Sabhal Mor played an unexpectedly crucial role in the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands. Mr Forsyth was said to have been so impressed by the technological delivery of learning during a visit that he became a convert to the UHI project, overturning Scottish Office opposition.

The college is now a key player among the 13 FE and research institutions working to create a Highland university. Norman Gillies, Sabhal Mor's director, chairs the project's cultural and heritage curriculum working group, one of seven degree advisory teams.

The college's expertise has helped develop three degree courses offered throughout the UHI network from this year, in Gaelic language and culture, Gaelic performing art and media studies, and Gaelic and North Atlantic studies.

Just 14 years ago, Sabhal Mor ran only short courses. It took a landmark decision in 1983 to offer full-time further and higher education courses taught through Gaelic. The college started with just seven full-time students. Now the 50-plus students can take the first year of an honours Celtic studies course on Skye and complete it at Aberdeen University. Advanced immersion courses are being developed as the foundation of all Sabhal Mor degree courses. Farquhar Macintosh, the chairman of the college's board of trustees, hopes students from other universities will be attracted to Sabhal Mor to do part of their course in a Gaelic environment, in much the same way as language students go abroad.

"We have had students from as far afield as Japan, Nova Scotia and Germany, even England," Dr Macintosh says. "We are like a mini-university really, which proves that a Highland university is not incapable of attracting students from outside the area."

The college has other ambitions, not least the Pounds 13 million development for teaching facilities, computerised library and student residences where Mrs Robinson's yew marks the spot of the first Pounds 4 million phase, due to be completed next year. But almost Pounds 10 million has still to be raised and the talents of Donnie Munro, the former Run Rig singer, are likely to be called in.

Even without that expansion, Sabhal Mor has created a mini-industry on Skye. The Leirsinn research unit, Canan commercial arm, Barail policy centre and the ongoing Gaelic terminology database published in 1993 are all housed in parts of the great barn. The next step, the National Heritage Memorial Fund permitting, will be the project to assemble recordings of Gaelic lore, or "dualchas".

Dr Macintosh, a former chairman of the Scottish Examination Board, says the college's philosophy is to inculcate "a proper pride" among Gaels in their language and heritage.

"While courses in computing or broadcasting are not peculiar to Sabhal Mor, only there can these skills be acquired in the context of an approach which prizes Gaelic and enhances confidence and self-esteem," he says. "Such values have for far too long been absent from our education system."

Ironically, Sabhal Mor could encounter its first real competition at the very time when its cultural mission is spreading to other institutions through the UHI project. Lews Castle in Stornoway, for example, offers Gaelic studies and other colleges will not be slow to spot the potential of the language as a vehicle for expansion. Even Cambuslang and Jewel and Esk Valley colleges in the central belt are running Gaelic courses.

Sabhal Mor itself may come under pressure to run English-medium courses as the UHI colleges strive to "grow the business". Dr Macintosh says they are willing to consider such a step but adds: "We are determined not to compromise our ethos and to stick to our founding philosophy, which has been commercially as well as educationally successful."

Sir Iain must be very content that he has had his "fun".

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