2007 - 2021

On Sacred Cows

There’s a gulf between the reality of a mass of people appreciating the centrality of gaelic language and culture to Scotland – and a small handful of mainstream media outlets cultivating hatred and grievance.

First the good news. After the spectacular success of Gaelic Duolingo – covered here and here –  and after the critical reflection of the functioning of Bòrd na Gàidhlig (which is useful), two more pieces of important positive developments emerged this week.

First we hear that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – the council for the Western Isles – have adopted a policy of ‘Gaelic first’ to increase the rate of growth for Gaelic in the islands. It’s a reversal of the previous situation where English was the main language, unless parents asked for their children to be taught in Gaelic.

All primary one pupils in the Western Isles are to be automatically enrolled in Gaelic medium education (GME) from 2021. Under the new policy, pupils will be taught in Gaelic and will start learning English from P4 onwards. Launching the new policy, Mr Chisholm, the council’s director of education, said the:

“Outer Hebrides is a Gaelic speaking community with a rich Gaelic heritage and culture” and the “majority of our children in nursery and those enrolling in primary, want to speak our language”.

Rob Dunbar, chair of Celtic languages, literature, history and antiquities at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“Wherever you have Gaelic-medium, there are parents who have wanted it for their children. But it is weaker than in the west of Ireland and in Gwynedd, the strongest Welsh-speaking part of Wales. Exclusive Irish-medium education and exclusive Welsh-medium education have been standard practice for a long time.”

This good news was preceded this week by the announcement that Edinburgh Council are to open a second gaelic-medium primary school in 2023 and a secondary gaelic-medium in 2024. There are critical questions about how this is delivered and supported, but the media backlash has been spectacular and depressing.

Published in the Herald, Alan Simpson writes: “Gaelic has proved to be fairly divisive in recent years” – a statement which is simply not based in fact – “and much of the blame must be placed at the door of the Bord which has been allowed to devise strategies with no real accountability and have been accused of imposing the language on areas with no Gaelic tradition.”

This is the old “forced down your throats” canard.

Simpson continues:

“Pupils attending Gaelic schools get taxis if they live outside the catchment area while their peers at other schools have to walk. This, understandably, breeds contempt. amongst some” and “Road signs have also been made bilingual across the country which has led to confusion amongst foreign drivers, and even some locals.”

This is just a boring litany of bigotry trotted out by a newspaper in search of clicks.

Most of his tissue of nonsense should be just ignored, however when he argues that Bòrd na Gàidhlig “may also be breaking the law by only employing Gaelic speakers” it is worth challenging this ill-informed garbage.

As Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh wrote for Bella last week:

“It is very important to us to challenge the assertion made during the meeting that there might be anything unlawful about Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s requirement for staff to be Gaelic speaking. This is entirely legal and has been tested in relation to Welsh language provision, where more far reaching policies are in place, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission agreeing that the protection of a linguistic minority justifies positive discrimination towards that minority group. If Gaelic speakers can’t use their language with and within Bòrd na Gàidhlig it sends a signal, which more than any poor governance practices at the Bòrd, reinforces the historical prejudice that Gaelic is not a language of work or advancement. Positive discrimination is widely used to encourage gender and ethnic diversity and the protection of an indigenous ethno-linguistic minority, Gaels, is no different to this. Gaelic is essential to the work of the Bòrd, and for every job there is, naturally, a list of essential skills, language, qualification, experience, etc.”

Not to be outdone, across the M8 the Scotsman coughed up this response by the Conservatives education spokeswoman Liz Smith, who called it: “a deeply troubling step and one that could put children in the Western Isles at a distinct disadvantage to their peers.”

She said (Educating pupils in Gaelic could harm academic achievement say Scottish Tories):

“This worrying move will inevitably put pressure on primary children in the Western Isles to speak Gaelic for those first crucial years of school.”

“That could have all sorts of consequences that have clearly not been considered fully.”

The idea that gaelic – language which has been historically abused and persecuted a ‘sacred cow’ is pathetic, and ahistorical, and Smith’s comments are both culturally insulting and linguistically incompetent.

A quick reminder that in the 1872 Education Act (Scotland) all language except English was banned in schools. Children were punished at school for using Gaelic or Scots. This was just the latest in a long line of formal repression.

Wilson McLeod has responded saying: “This is astonishing stuff from Liz Smith gaelic-medium education has been established in Scotland for 35 years. The Tory government took the key steps to support it in 1986. Repeated studies have shown superior educational outcomes for Gaelic-medium pupils compared to English.”

Neither of these articles have a place in 2020 Scotland. If these newspapers are struggling it is because they are out of touch with contemporary Scotland and publishing material which is little more than an exercise in cultural self-hatred.

The reality is however, that in the face of niche prejudice and random animosity gaelic is surviving and being celebrated and nurtured.

The reality is that this weeks good news is being celebrated in Scotland’s capital and in the Gàidhealtachd.

This country is increasingly divided by people who are comfortable in their own skins, unashamed of their own culture and looking to the future, and those that are festering in the past and ill-at-ease in contemporary Scotland.

Fiona MacIsaac from North Uist responded saying:

“The recent news from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar about all Primary 1 pupils being automatically enrolled into GME is a great development for Uist and Western Isles as a whole. This will be an incredibly important step in ensuring that the language continues to thrive in the Western Isles.”



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Comments (22)

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  1. SquirrelTowers says:

    Great article Mike. My kids are fluent Gaelic speakers thanks to Gaelic medium education and it’s an amazing language that I am also learning.

    I’m English but the kids Grandad was a native Gaelic speaker until he went to school in 1950s Scotland. He didn’t pass it on to his son, sadly but we both feel a sense of happiness that our kids are learning the language their grandad was discouraged from speaking.

    Glé mhath

  2. Bill says:

    As I have recently started learning Gaelic on Duolingo – and enjoying the experience, it could be suggested that I am in some way biased. When I read and hear of the cruelty inflicted on young children to suppress Gaelic, I am moved to anger and tears. It not only happened in Scotland but also to those in Cape Breton who were native Gaelic speakers.

    The response to the good news of a re-kindling of our heritage and native culture beggars belief. Of course what else would you expect from the Tories, who are totally out of touch with ordinary people. Aneurin Bevan once said that the Tories ‘are lower than vermin’ – I do not think that they are even that good and the MSM are joining them.

    On a more positive note, it has been found(forgotten the reference but evidence based research) that children who learn a second or third language when young have more developed brains than those who remain monolingual. They have greater creativity and a greater ability to conceptualise. Of course this will be denied by the English speakers – Britain has the poorest record ( again evidence based research) of bi-lingual ability in the whole of Europe.

    Of course my Gaelic, and I will keep trying, will not have the flavour of an original native speaker, but at least it is a step forward. I am immensely proud of my young grandchildren who attend the Gaelic school in Glasgow and am grateful for they help in my learning.

    Let us not let the naysayers get us down. Let us be of good cheer and move forward with hope and pride in this new venture. Let us be radical and supportive of a venture that expands the human experience especially in these critical times


    1. Muiris says:

      Absolutely right Bill. I attended a lecture, in Dublin, by Thomas H. Bak, an Edinburgh based cognitive neuroscientist, of German/Polish background (with a Spanish wife) making exactly your points about brain development with multilingualism. He claimed that dementia was postponed by an average of 4-5 years in polyglots ( far better than any drug available). People confident in their own heritage make better entrepreneurs. It’s win win win all the way.

  3. Tom Hubbard says:

    Many thanks for this piece.

  4. MBC says:

    Tapadh leat a charaid! Tha thu sgionneil!

  5. Rob Gibson says:

    Liz Smith MSP is a keen Munro bagger. Why deny young people understanding pronunciation and use of their own place names? Damage to their very roots, I’d say.

  6. H Scott says:

    Some great news for Gaelic there. Imagine if we had Scots-medium education – people like Liz Smith would implode.

  7. Fearghas Beag (Tha mi air ais!) says:

    Gàidhlig mar Laideann, cuspair sgoile.
    Veni, vidi, valtos.

  8. Arboreal Agenda says:

    Always worth remembering that the Welsh language was considered doomed several decades ago and certainly is a very long way from that now. Though it is very hard to attain real accuracy, best case stats suggest in 2019, 30% of the population of Wales can speak Welsh – in 1991 it was 19%. This is mostly put down to the increase in Welsh-medium education.

    Some years ago I was in the west of Lewis and took a local bus that went right up the west coast and ended up on Stornaway. I was alone at first but gradually it filled with people going on shopping trips. Conversations sprang up and it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying but the sound was like a beautiful, mellifluous music. Then it dawned on me that everyone was speaking Gaelic. I laughed inwardly at my ignorance and sat back and enjoyed what was to me, a special experience. It cemented the notion in my mind that this should not be lost.

    1. Gordon McShean says:

      I’ve just picked up a favoured book, A SCOTTISH POETRY BOOK, collected by Alan Bold and printed in Hong Kong in 1983 by Oxford University, I’d got it in a bookshop in New Zealand in 1984. I’d left Scotland in 1954 at 17 (some readers may know of my subsequent autobiographic works Operation New Zealand, 1970, and Retired Terrorist, 2009). All my books used standard English – despite me being crazy about Scots; I bought the Bold book for its various verses because of still having family being spread from Burns’ country to all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh and up to Orkney. I’ve always been interested in utilizing various speech roles and many mixed notes, although unfortunately not been able to get much Gaelic. Few of us are comfortable when forced to abandon the rich cultural and intellectual riches that inspire our talk and writing – and no one of us is likely to feel comfortable if required to confront the speech of ‘international’ communication. But language ‘native’ of diverse origins is likely to be all around us soon. If we limit our children to utilize only our native, comfortable literary speech and notes, their conversations are likely to bring little beyond our crofts !

  9. Angus says:

    Interesting article. Very much agree. Language and culture is deeply important to community and people’s sense of self.

    Was reading a book just the last year about the language unique to East Coast Britain that developed over the 200 years of the Herring boom. When the fishing fleets from NE. Scotland, to NE. England would follow the ‘Silver Darlings’ down the to Yarmouth ‘May till November’. The boats were followed by an army of 10,000 fish wives many of whom married and settled with locals. This gave rise to a very hybrid, Norse and middle Eng, Scots unique dialects that are specific to the East Coast fishing communities.

    Sadly this *true* cultural diversity is being sacrificed by people who regard culture a political tool and who think it neatly fits (homogenised) into artificial borders.

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      Your last sentence. Who? How? Examples please, or it’s just the shadow of a straw man.

  10. Iain says:

    It is astonishing that Liz Smith – a former teacher – should be ignorant of the advantages of bilingual education. Infant brains can cope with development of two languages much more easily than adolescent or adult brains can, and indeed an early competence in two languages facilitates the acquisition of a third. It plays a significant role in overall cognitive development. And no children are going to be disadvantaged in the learning and use of English. Smith’s opinion is quite staggering in its opposition to all the evidence.

    1. Clachangowk says:

      I can’t agree more.

      My 2 children were born in Vienna and spoke English with me and Russian with their Russian mother. Outside the home they learned and spoke German – I think they thought that growing up with 3 languages was normal.

      When my son was 6 years old we moved to Belgium and put him in the local French Lycee although he knew nothing of French. 6 months later he was practically fluent and now probably considers French his mother (?) tongue. My daughter followed on a couple of years later after a year in a Flemish speaking Kindergarten.

      They have done well for themselves and have particular enjoyment in conversing naturally in 4 languages.

      I have friends locally, parents of different country origin but who only spoke and speak English with their children. I know they regret now that they did not speak from early on in both their languages -their children are even more upset at an opportunity lost.

      I appreciate the article is about Gaelic ( which I studied with pleasure for several years after returning to Scotland after 30 years abroad) but I find the comment by Liz Smith simply ignorant and it is fortunate that she will never have any responsibility for education in Scotland.
      Re Ian’s comment on cognitive development I recall reading an article some years ago where a study was carried out on young dual language children in the Western Isles, in Switzerland( Romance/German speaking) and one other country. It was found that compared with single language children dual language children had greater cognitive understanding and a broader outlook even at that early age.

      I can only applaud each and every effort to ensure that Gaelic does not become one of the languages being lost every year world wide.

  11. SleepingDog says:

    I don’t speak Gaelic, but I can see broad benefits to learning Gaelic alongside English. However, I think we need a broader perspective than “languages, literature, history and antiquities”. I have been assured that there is no problem studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in Gaelic but I retain some scepticism. I found this discussion of (Irish) Gaelic computer terminology quite interesting:
    It is not so much having a vocabulary, it is about intuitiveness, having a rational system that accurately conveys a mental model, that avoids confusion, that is comprehensive, that handles abstractions manageably, that is practical and works with digital tools (and so on). I agree with the author’s point that there is (was?) an opportunity to create a much better technical Gaelic than English which is “poorly structured and often capricious” in computing, having grown up in an ad hoc and marketing-influenced manner. Having worked in a technical educational role, I encountered more universal problem-sets than typical subject-specialists would, and many of these issues were text-based, including mixed languages and technical symbols.

    Certainly, there are many kinds of modern literacy, and while bilingual children may have an overall literacy advantage in having a broader expressive capacity, I would be wary of a Gaelic-first approach if the STEM linguistics are not equivalent to (or better than) English in conveying essential concepts (this applies to all subjects, of course).

  12. Donald Urquhart says:

    Interesting image to use. It’s a project I was involved in as a collaboration with fellow artists Jake Harvey, Glen Onwin, Sandra Kennedy and the architects Sutherland Hussey on the Isle of Tiree. It’s called ‘An Turas’ – the journey.

    It got shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize and at the awards ceremony, in Bristol, I was appalled at the ridicule and disdain we got for giving it a title in Gaelic.

    As one London critic remarked to me at the dinner ” Oh you did that thing with the funny name. Beautiful project but why did you build it so far away?”

    1. Ah Donald, I love it. I was trying to capture something with a sense of perspective or movement.
      Thanks for helping create it.

  13. Malky Mack says:

    Pardon my previous ignorance of how widespread the Gaelic language historically was. I previously was of the opinion that Gaelic was the language of the western isles and the highlands and that historically Scots was the language of the lowlands. However I was corrected by Paul Kavanagh AKA The Wee Ginger Dug. I’m from Glasgow and was pleasantly surprised that many Glasgow and Southern place names are actually Gaelic in origin. Don’t misunderstand my intentions I’m not here to plug Paul’s work but I will quote him here and include the link to his blog. Oh and BTW I was more than surprised to find out that Ibrox is a Gaelic place name and means Badger Set or a place where Badgers live.

    The Wee Ginger Dug:

    “ When I was a child I discovered that the place names all around where I was brought up actually meant something in languages that people used to speak in my home area. Auchenshuggle, Barrachnie, Daldowie, Carmyle, Drumpellier, Gartcosh, they’re not just collections of nonsense syllables. They actually mean something. Achadh an t-Seagail The Rye Field, Barr Fhraoichnidh The Heather Ridge, Dail Dubhaidh The Black Meadow, Cair Mhaol The Fort on the Bare Hill, Druim Peildeir The Ridge of the Stakes, Gart Cois The Farm of the Hollow. That fascinated me, and sparked off an obsession with language and linguistics which remains with me to this day. The first thing I asked for when I found out that these names meant something was to ask for a map of my local area in Gaelic, only to discover that there wasn’t one. So I’m doing it myself.”


    Enlightening Thanks Paul and Bella Caledonia

  14. Malcolm Fraser says:

    All progress is made against reaction, but even Liz Smith says “Gaelic is a rich and beautiful language and one that should be encouraged at school…” before her reactionary grump. This is an almost wholly-good news piece, a long list of the braw. Nae bad.

  15. Interpolar says:

    This is a good piece, and a good-news piece. The kind of thing that Scotland needs. Thank you, Mike.

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