Walks unearth Celtic roots

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Gaelic-speaking pupils from Glasgow are finding out where their language had its origins

THERE IS a greater concentration of Gaelic speakers in Glasgow than anywhere else in the world, which is why the first 3-18 Gaelic-medium school is located there. Immersed in the language, its pupils rapidly learn to speak and think in it, switching easily to English when it is needed and gaining the benefits of bilingualism from an early age.

But these kids are also immersed in the city. So their learning can be broadened and deepened by getting them out of it occasionally and back to the countryside, where the language had its origins.

"We're running a series of guided walks for pupils from Gaelic-medium schools and units in central Scotland," says Shona MacLellan of Scottish Natural Heritage. "We have been taking them around Inchcailloch, the wooded island in the national nature reserve at Loch Lomond."

More than 50 pupils went recently from the Glasgow Gaelic School. "It was interesting," she says, "that although they are brought up with Gaelic they don't have the same connection with the countryside that you get with kids from the islands, who grow up with nature all around them. They were asking us, for instance, if there are any shops on the island, and we were telling them 'No there's nothing here but wildlife.' They seemed surprised."

Inchcailloch is uniquely placed to bring together Lowland kids and Highland culture. The fault-line that separates the two landscapes, with their very different geological origins, runs right through the little island.

There is diversity too in its human history. Traces of stone tools, thousands of years old, have been found. Celtic missionaries came in the 8th century and nuns lived there, giving the place its name, from the Gaelic for "island of old women".

The graveyard, with its many MacGregors buried beneath old stone, hints at stirring tales of clans and cattle-rustling from the days of Rob Roy and his forebears. The long-abandoned remains of a farm can be seen, and there are modern toilets for the tens of thousands of visitors to the national nature reserve, who sometimes camp out.

But humans and their artefacts are guests here, since nature has largely reclaimed the island. "We made up worksheets for them," says Ms MacLellan.

"So when they were walking around, they could mark when they found an oak tree or a foxglove or bluebells, and they could answer questions in Gaelic.

We also translated the national parks walking guide for Inchcail-loch into Gaelic."

When Katie MacLennan, who accompanied her P5 pupils from the Glasgow Gaelic School, asked them for feedback on the walk, and what they had learnt from it, the picnic on the beach got high marks. "They remembered the bluebells, because the guide told them that the Gaelic name is fuadh-mhucan, which means 'the thing pigs hate'. That stuck in their minds. They loved the boat ride across the loch.

"Many of these kids have roots on the islands and go there often. But they are city kids, so it was great to get them out to learn about nature in Gaelic. Our topic this term is woodlands, which ties in well. Now if we talk to them about animals or birds that live in the woods, they won't just be words to them. They will also be pictures in their heads."

SNH has organised a further three Gaelic guided walks on Inchcailloch this summer as part of its support for the Highland year of culture. They are likely to be repeated, and perhaps extended to other locations, next year.

* www.snh.org.uk

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