New dawn, new drive for Gaelic language

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Fuelled by the fear that Gaelic may not survive the 21st century, a national plan has been put in place. Getting more children to speak and value the language is now regarded as `critically important'.

Gaelic is in a "precarious position" - the new national five-year plan for the language says so.

The ideological battle has tipped Gaelic's way, with the Scottish Government and national bodies throwing their weight behind it. In a survey published in August, 81 per cent of Scots said they did not want Scotland to lose its Gaelic identity; and there have been landmark successes such as Glasgow's Gaelic-medium school and BBC Alba's arrival on Freeview. Yet fears persist that the language may not survive the 21st century.

The stark fact is that older speakers continue to die in greater numbers than new ones emerge. Census reports show numbers fell from 65,978 (1.4 per cent of the Scottish population) to 58,652 (1.2 per cent) between 1991 and 2001, continuing a centuries-long decline; another fall is expected when the 2011 figures are published.

The new national plan has a tone of urgency. Education is at its heart, as is the message that "Gaelic belongs to the whole of Scotland". The plan calls for a "new mass approach to Gaelic teaching" and a co-ordinated response from local authorities.

A critical target is to double the number of children entering P1 Gaelic- medium education from 400 to 800 by 2017. Proposed new schools in Portree and Lochaber will help, but another mooted for Edinburgh is crucial. Traditional rural Gaelic-speaking areas cannot revive the language on their own.

The second five-year plan - published in draft form this week for consultation until 21 December - straddles a "critically important" period, according to John Angus MacKay, chief executive of Gaelic development body Bord na Gaidhlig.

Mr MacKay finds much to make him upbeat. At a Gaelic event at the Scottish Learning Festival last month, he did a presentation alongside an HM inspector and found "we were speaking almost as one". Antipathy to Gaelic, he says, has retreated to the "chattering classes in the media".

The proportion of Gaelic-medium P1s in the Western Isles went up from 36 per cent in August 2010 to 46 per cent this year, and the growing band of confident young speakers has cast off the "baggage" of previous generations who were frequently beaten for speaking Gaelic at school. Meanwhile, the Government's much-vaunted "Scottish studies", incorporating Gaelic, gives him added confidence that the language is moving in from the curricular margins.

But demographics render all those foundations shaky. So the plan's headline target is to get the number of new speakers to match the number of lost speakers within its five-year life, largely through a 15 per cent year-on-year increase in children entering Gaelic-medium education. Education has become more central than in the first five-year plan, says Mr MacKay.

The new plan has a "particular emphasis" on improving provision from birth to three. Reviews of initial teacher education and continuing professional development are proposed, as well as paid sabbaticals to allow teachers to learn Gaelic.

An increase in the number of Higher subjects available through Gaelic is envisaged. Mr MacKay's hope is that there will six by 2017; only maths is currently available.

The authors want Scottish ministers to explore making Gaelic a legal entitlement by 2014. This would build on the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which requires local authorities to produce Gaelic language plans and treat English and Gaelic as normal practice.

Meeting demand is an uphill struggle, Mr MacKay acknowledges, especially in secondaries. Hundreds more Gaelic-medium teachers are needed, but the first step is to work out how many exist at present. While there are about 300 in practice across primary and secondary schools, it is not known how many others have the necessary language skills but are in different posts.

Existing provision is patchy. An HMIE report in June found "too great a variation" in schools' interpretations of Gaelic immersion. Many people also remain indifferent to it. In a Government study of 1,009 people published in August, "a sizeable propor-tion simply did not have an opinion on the role of Gaelic in Scotland today - with the language being far removed from the norm for many".

Gaelic-medium education cannot be restricted to the classroom if it is to thrive, and the plan suggests ways of increasing the language's presence in homes and communities.

Gaelic is poised to go on the offensive and break into areas of daily life. The plan advocates publicity campaigns on the importance of learning Gaelic. It will become more visible and audible in workplaces, art galleries and playgroups. A Gaelic Language Academy will be created to push ahead with devising new Gaelic terminology.

But education is key. The doubling of Gaelic-medium P1 intakes is the target "on which the success of much of the rest of the plan depends". This will require "substantially increased funding and a continuing political commitment". Bord na Gaidhlig will also push for the expansion of Gaelic-medium education to be included in local authorities' Gaelic plans and single outcome agreements.

The Gaelic lobby could risk alienating a population that is generally supportive but often uninvolved, by asking for more money at a time of economic woe. But that risk is unavoidable if Gaelic is to flourish - more converts must be found, and soon.


Priorities have been skewed since the 2005 legislation that boosted Gaelic's status, believes former Education Minister and long-time pro-Gaelic campaigner Brian Wilson.

"Official status has not delivered much for Gaelic and the danger is that it has become a diversion," he says. "Translating unread constitutions of public bodies into Gaelic achieves nothing except that it takes a few more graduates away from teaching.

"There has been very little expansion of Gaelic-medium education since official status was bestowed, so no new right has been created. In the part of Lewis where I live, Gaelic has disappeared from the local primary school irrespective of parental wishes, so official status has not done much good for Gaelic in Uig."

The language still fails to command the support from political parties that Welsh and Irish enjoy in their native countries, he says, even though Ireland has fewer native speakers.

He believes that in Scotland, the claims of Gaelic are tolerated rather than embraced. Though progress has been made on various fronts, the official attitude is "so far, but no further".

Secondary school provision also remains "extremely patchy", he points out.

"Some education authorities have been terrific and others less so. For example, the Nicolson Institute (in Stornoway) - which should have been in the lead on teaching secondary pupils through the medium of Gaelic - has offered virtually nothing until now, although there seems to be a definite change of attitude under a new headteacher."

The Nicolson headteacher, Frances Murray, says the big issue for the next five years is staffing. The availability of Gaelic teachers is haphazard, with schools dependent on "certain individuals being in the right place at the right time".

There are seven practising Gaelic-medium teachers in the school, as well as six Gaelic language teachers, but Mrs Murray estimates that a third of the full-time equivalent staff of 85 may have some Gaelic. She wants to survey staff and provide training so they have the confidence to teach pupils in Gaelic.

Gaelic-medium education is a minority pursuit in the school. This year, 43 pupils across S1 and S2 are doing the five subjects available through Gaelic. In S3 and S4, 46 pupils are doing core religious education in Gaelic, the only subject taught in Gaelic at those levels. No pupils sat the one Higher available though Gaelic - maths - last year.

Mrs Murray wants to establish a more "Gaelic ethos", building on the separate identity of one of the school's five houses, which is entirely populated with the Nicolson's 250 Gaelic-speaking pupils. She wants pupils to keep up their Gaelic even if not using it in classes, perhaps by arranging for them to teach staff.

The headteacher at Glasgow Gaelic School, Donalda McComb, says it is thriving. Having opened to primary pupils in 1999, with secondary education following in 2006, it has just reached the stage where there are pupils all the way from pre-school to S6, with a roll of 610. There are now 188 secondary pupils, up from 33 in 2006.

Dr McComb estimates that 60-70 per cent of pupils are from homes where Gaelic is not spoken. Parents are attracted by pupils' confidence, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and the insight into another culture.

Attainment is high, notably in languages, perhaps backing up the argument that proficiency in a second language makes subsequent languages easier to learn. Pupils do not show self-consciousness about speaking another language as other children might, Dr McComb says.

Finding teachers remains a big problem. Dr McComb is used to the difficulties of secondary staffing - chemistry is taught in English - but for reasons that she struggles to explain, finding primary teachers has become more difficult recently.

However, Dr McComb is looking long-term: Welsh and Northern Irish examples have shown her it could take 20 years to build a full complement of Gaelic-speaking staff.

Matthew MacIver, former chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland and former chairman of Bord na Gaidhlig, is upbeat about progress. He highlights the Glasgow school and a Gaelic-medium primary in Inverness as two great successes of recent years, and believes the significance of a prospective school in Edinburgh "should not be underestimated".

The national Soillse initiative is another "really big achievement" of the past five years, he believes. It has created opportunities for study and research about Gaelic, including PhDs and teaching fellowships.

He is encouraged, too, by a growing acceptance that flexible routes, involving distance learning, are necessary to get enough Gaelic teachers into the education system.

But the "perennial" tailing off in Gaelic-medium education at secondary level remains a "real challenge". Professor MacIver is chair of the court of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and wants to see a more "co-ordinated and strategic" approach across primary, secondary, further and higher education. He believes it is not enough to boost P1 numbers in Gaelic-medium education - more must be done in the early years.

Cause for optimism

Boyd Robertson, the principal of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Skye college which serves as a national centre for Gaelic language and culture, has been encouraged that the "political climate for Gaelic is much more favourable than was the case in the not-too-distant past". The interest in learning the language across Scotland gives him added cause for optimism.

Mr Robertson's main concern is the shortage of teachers, particularly in secondary schools. Scotland, he believes, should look at the successful approach in the Basque area of Spain, which frees teachers to take three- year sabbaticals to be trained in the native language. Although some teachers in Scotland have had year-long sabbaticals, he does not believe that is long enough.

He is worried, too, about Gaelic in its heartlands, where many people "don't know its value". It is important to show them in the coming years that Gaelic is not just about keeping tradition alive, but has demonstrable benefits such as boosting cognitive skills and career prospects.



Establishment of a fund for innovative approaches to supporting Gaelic at home by 2012-13; building up childminding and pre-school services to support children's language skills.


More bilingual signs and publications; establishment of community translation services; public authorities and Gaelic organisations to provide day-to-day services through Gaelic "as a matter of course".


Creation of Gaelic phone and email contacts; Gaelic reading or writing to be treated more often as an "essential" or "desirable" skill in recruitment; identification of Gaelic speakers within organisations, perhaps through name badges or signs.


Increasing the number of people creating and taking part in Gaelic arts, media and heritage, including efforts to "normalise" Gaelic in their work and make more projects visible in schools; providing Gaelic artists with advice on "maximising their economic potential".

Corpus planning

Gaelic Language Academy to provide guidance on register, style and grammar and work on new terminology, which could lead to a number of specialist dictionaries.


Most people believe Gaelic should have a bigger role in education, although overall support for the language in Scotland is only "moderate".

A Scottish Government survey of 1,009 people, published in August, found that 86 per cent believed pupils who wished to learn the language should be allowed to do so, and 63 per cent agreed it should be promoted more within education.

There were regional variations, with people in the Highlands and Islands and Glasgow significantly more likely than elsewhere to agree strongly that Gaelic should be a school subject.

Awareness of Gaelic is high, thanks mostly to the media, but it was not perceived as particularly relevant to modern Scotland. Gaelic learners are a small group and "for many there is currently no appetite for learning Gaelic".

- 81 per cent thought it important that Scotland not lose its Gaelic language traditions.

- 70 per cent believed there should be more opportunities to learn Gaelic.

- 63 per cent thought more should be done to promote Gaelic within education.

- 53 per cent wanted more Gaelic in Scottish life.

- 43 per cent believed more subjects should be taught in Gaelic at school.


Edinburgh is to follow Glasgow and Inverness with an all-through Gaelic- medium school

Growth in demand for Gaelic-medium education in Edinburgh has increased steadily since a unit was established at Tollcross Primary in 1988. A report last year showed the number of pupils had risen from 90 to 158 in six years.

The city council voted earlier this year for a dedicated Gaelic school, after 94 per cent of 598 respondents to a city-wide consultation named that as their preferred option.

Before the school has even opened, however, the problems of staffing are being flagged up, with council documentation stressing that "it should also be noted that difficulties in recruiting teaching and support staff who speak Gaelic is a national issue and not all staff recruited for a new school may be able to do so".

The council, which is receiving pound;1.4 million capital funding from the Scottish Government, recognises that it will draw on a considerably smaller population than the Glasgow Gaelic School, and that Inverness's Gaelic-medium primary is surrounded by a far higher proportion of Gaelic speakers than Edinburgh. But officials insist that "a successful school is one that generates demand".

A council meeting on 27 October will decide whether to go ahead with the school, which would open in 2013.

800 - Target number for children in P1 Gaelic-medium education in 2017 (double today's)

43% - Proportion of people who believed more Gaelic subjects should be taught in school.

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