Neil Mcrae (‘What Gaelic Revival?’) quotes a foreword to Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s Annual Report written by me when I was the Bòrd’s Interim Chair. He does so extremely selectively, but that’s nothing new. I’ve tried reasonable debate with Neil in the past and swore I would never do so again. But let’s not get too personal.
Most fair-minded people reading the foreword from which Neil quotes would, I feel, think that there was some balance in what I wrote. After all, there was indeed a lot to be optimistic about in 2008. Research showed that there were at least seven areas in the Western Isles where a majority of parents had expressed a wish for their local school to be an all-Gaelic school. All that was needed was the local authority to make a move to establish these schools as Gaelic schools. Highland Council had committed to building two standalone Gaelic schools. BBC Alba began its life in September 2008. Research projects – which Neil likes – had been commissioned for the first time.
http://www.gaidhlig.org.uk/Downloads/Aithisgean%20Bhliadhnail/Annual%20Report%202007-2008.pdf. Subsequent Annual Reports are also available on the Bòrd’s website.
My foreword, from which Neil quotes, finished off by saying:
It has not, perhaps, been the easiest of years for the Bòrd, but it has been a good one for Gaelic … I would like to think that we will find ways to ensure that people in all sorts of communities across Scotland and abroad remain enthusiastic about Gaelic and want to participate in ensuring a turnaround in its level of use. That is largely in their own hands, and we must encourage people to use Gaelic in all situations, and at every opportunity.
An acknowledgement of something Neil himself says, that the survival of Gaelic is largely in the hands of individuals who must use it. Relentlessly self-congratulatory? I don’t think so but we can agree to differ.
Rather than having “completely parted company with reality” I have never been one to shy away from honesty about the state of Gaelic which I can assure Neil I care about as much as he does. It is close to my heart and defines my identity.
I have brought up three children as Gaelic speakers in the home. They have all attended Gaelic medium education and I can say that it is a good education. Unlike Neil, I have first-hand experience of Gaelic medium education. I admit it has weaknesses as well as many benefits but, overall, it is a good education. Everything has strengths and weaknesses but I can say that I have no regrets at having put my children into Gaelic medium education. Of course it t could be improved. That is why, in the current National Gaelic Language Plan, there are measures proposed that would help improve Gaelic education and some of these, I know, are already being put into action. Some of you reading this might be interested in something I posted to Facebook a while back which outlines what would, in my view, make a difference to Gaelic education.
Within the context of the money available to Bòrd na Gàidhlig (with which, for the avoidance of doubt, I now have no connection) and the overall funding for Gaelic available through the Scottish Government and some experience of what local authorities are (or are not) willing to do at their own hand, targets in the current National Gaelic Language Plan seem realistic. As we have seen, it is nevertheless difficult to increase numbers in Gaelic medium education and I agree with Neil that the numbers are far too low at the moment. There is still unmet demand, however, and it is early days. I have no doubt increases can be achieved with the right level of political and financial support, largely at local authority level, for it is local authorities that make educational provision. Gaelic education costs no more than English education and all that is needed is a shift in existing resources. But attitudes also have to change in order to bring about that shift.
Not everything works or will work. New things have to be tried out. Criticising initiatives that might not have worked as well as expected, often for good reasons, simply stifles innovation and makes people retreat from experimenting for fear of castigation.
The targets set in the first National Plan for Gaelic were, with the benefit of hindsight, too ambitious. In another time they might not have been. But Scotland’s local authorities have been cash-strapped over the past few years and there has been, in those circumstances, a low level of political support in local government that has had to be tackled in order to make any progress. It is clear that this will be a long haul. But there should be no apology necessary from those who were party to the development of that first Plan, myself included, for making it ambitious. The Gaelic language – and its speakers – need ambition, optimism, confidence and encouragement. Let’s also remember that the first National Plan for Gaelic was just that. The first one. This had never before been done in Scotland. There had never been such an opportunity previously. Its delivery was always going to be challenging and a learning curve for all involved.
I was very closely involved in the writing of the current National Gaelic Language Plan after which I resigned my post as chair of the Bòrd – exhausted and, I will admit, somewhat demoralised at people, like Neil, sniping relentlessly from the sidelines. My optimism has been regained, however, and I will continue to play a part in other ways to secure Gaelic’s future.
Talk of ‘quietly dropping’ targets is nonsense and gives an unfair, and false, impression of under-handedness. The current National Gaelic Language Plan was consulted upon in communities all around Scotland and online. It was clear for all to see that there had been a change in targets. And I can assure Neil that the “Shawbost Report” was taken extremely seriously by the Bòrd in my time as its chair. It did not offer as bleak a picture as Neil, characteristacally, makes out. But there has been a concerted effort to make headway in that community to try and ensure greater use of Gaelic. No acknowledgement of that action from Neil, however.
All these things have to be done within the confines of the limited resources available. When resources are limited there will always be a tendency to put all the eggs in one basket, or spread them too thinly. Should we spend all Gaelic money on education, or should we spend it on a community like Shawbost? Should we continue to spend money on the activities generated by Gaelic organisations, or should we consign the Gaelic-speaking people working in those organisations to augmenting the unemployment statistics? Should we have more Gaelic schools or a Gaelic television service? People like Neil have never been in the position of having to make that kind of decision.
The answer, of course, is that we would like to support all those things – and more. The answer is more resources, despite Neil’s view that we should be less reliant on public funding to revitalise Gaelic. Part of the answer must also be to give things a chance. As Neil well knows, language shift cannot be reversed overnight, in a year or in ten years. The census figures (“nervously awaited” by whom?) will give us a snapshot of people’s perceived abilities on one day in a decade. That’s all. They are not the be-all and end-all and it would be a huge mistake to use them in measuring the success, or otherwise, of efforts to revitalise Gaelic since the last census. In reality, those efforts have only just begun with the weight of an Act of Parliament and a framework for language plans behind them for the first time.
It was never expected by anyone involved in Gaelic development that the 2011 census figures would show an increase in the number of Gaelic speakers. Let’s wait and see what they do show. For me, if there has still been no progress in the next 30 years, I’d be worried at that point. But let’s have some optimism (which is different to self-congratulation) rather than the “nothing’s working – let’s consign Gaelic to the grave” attitude peddled by the likes of Neil. Let’s be realistic but let’s not denigrate that which was done, and is being done, by committed people – politicians, parents, teachers, community groups, artists and more – who are trying their best, with goodwill, to revitalise Gaelic.
Perhaps Neil should put his energy into some of the grassroots activities he advocates or offer solutions to some of the problems he is all too ready to highlight. Problems that nobody working in Gaelic fails to acknowledge. There is nothing to stop anyone doing something to revitalise Gaelic on a voluntary basis. There is loads already happening on a voluntary basis and long may that continue. But if Neil thinks Gaelic will be revitalised without organisations paid to work on putting the infrastructure in place to allow that to happen he has, himself, “parted company with reality”.