Litir bho Alba PDF Print E-mail

(a Letter from Scotland)
Roddy Maclean, a Gaelic journalist, broadcaster and writer, reports on how his language is struggling to survive against the onslaught of English in Scotland.

On the one hand,Scotland's Gaelic-speakers should feel, as they say in their own Celtic language,"misneachail" - in good heart - about the future of their tongue.With some sixty thousand speakers it has, after all, many more than any native Australian language.

 It exists in a rich democracy and no child is beaten by a teacher any longer for uttering a Gaelic phrase in the schoolyard, as was once the case. The Highland clearances, in which landowners drove the people off their ancestral lands, forcing many of them to emigrate to Australia and other countries, are in the past, and the poverty which was once endemic in the linguistic heartland is no longer. The downside of the situation, however, might be summed up in the wag's oft-quoted observation - "yeah, nice country, pity about the neighbours..!" Joking aside, Scotland's Gaelic-speakers, who could all fit into Stadium Australia with room left over, have to try and coexist in a United Kingdom in which an Anglophone mentality has achieved near-hegemony, not only in England, which dominates the Union, but even in today's Scotland (population 5 million). Our distant Celtic cousins, the Welsh, with greater numbers of speakers and a different history, are making a better fist of maintaining their language and they are at least a generation ahead of us.

But we have not given up the struggle - far from it! The heartland of the language was historically the Highlands and Islands (bar Orkney and Shetland), the northern two-thirds of the country which we call the "Gaidhealtachd" (the land of Gaelic), and this is attested by a fantastic heritage of place names, legends and folk memories throughout the region. However, a long process of decline means that the only places where Gaelic remains a dominant community tongue are some of the islands off the west coast, most particularly in the Outer Hebrides between Lewis and Barra, in which traditional crofting (small-scale stock-rearing) and fishing dominate the lifestyle.

However, important pockets remain elsewhere, particularly in the Highland capital, Inverness, and in other mainland cities. In contrast to the Irish, where our sister language, Irish Gaelic, was afforded a legal primacy in specific localities, the UK and Scottish authorities (a devolved Scottish Parliament now has primary responsibility for the language) have been unwilling to enact legislation to ensure any such situation obtains here.This entails a great risk, for the loss of any language's heartland must surely spell its ultimate demise, and there is still language loss taking place in the Western Isles.

The main hopes for the language come from the advances made in education.A large number of schools in most parts of the country now offer units in which children receive the bulk of their primary education through the medium of Gaelic. Many of them speak no Gaelic at all when they enter the system indeed, a lot come from homes where there is no Gaelic - but they reach fluency in reading, writing and numeracy by the end of Year 7 in both Gaelic and English.An independent academic study gave the system the educational thumbs up (it often produces a higher standard of English, let alone Gaelic!), and some two and a half thousand children are now in Gaelic-medium education. However, the expansion of this sector has been stymied by a lack of fluent, qualified teachers, particularly in more remote areas of the northern Highland mainland. Recently, the new minister with responsibility for Gaelic said that he accepted that more money would have to go into teacher training and development.

There is currently a drive on for more all-Gaelic primary schools in Scotland, rather than units within Anglophone schools, notably in the capital, Edinburgh, and in Inverness. Glasgow currently boasts the only such school, and it is enormously successful, but the Edinburgh City Council has just knocked back another request for one there. So, with Gaelic, it is two steps forwards and one backwards all the time.

The momentum, however, is forwards.With a significant broadcasting sector (the UK government a decade ago decided to plough money into Gaelic television), and a growing number of young Gaels educated in their own language, there is a notable and distinct improvement in Gaelic literacy. There is also a noticeable hardening of attitudes within the Gaelic community which has been pressing government for much greater investment.The outdated supplicant mentality is disappearing with the older generation and a  younger elements emerging, notably in the cities, and boasting non-native speakers in its ranks, which bases its case on a demand for the recognition of their fundamental human rights, among which are linguistic rights. A new lobby group, composed entirely of the "new guard" has just been established to fight for Gaelic rights in Edinburgh.

The Scottish Executive (the government in devolved Scotland) is being served notice that the Gaelic community expects much more from it, and that does not mean the time-honoured device of setting up yet another committee to write yet another report, recommending some possible future action (we are awash with reports!) Patience is wearing thin. I returned to live in Scotland a decade ago because I believed in my language, in its intrinsic beauty and its future in a multilingual, multiethnic, word, multireligious wood, in its special relationship with the landscape of the Gaidhealtachd (which is a very beautiful land of glens, mountains, lochs and islands), and because I wanted to ensure that my children would be brought up Gaelic-speaking and to know and understand their heritage. I could not face the thought that I would be responsible for bringing all of that ancient and wonderful history and heritage to an end by raising my children as monoglot English-speakers. I was thoroughly supported by my wonderful wife, who hails from Melbourne, who also now speaks the language fluently, and I must say that I have never regretted the decision.

But the saving and development of one minority language is never an act taken in isolation. We are inspired by the struggles of native peoples in many countries, Australia among them, and hopefully our own successes (and we shall have them yet!) will inspire others. I can think of no better motto than that which motivated conservationists in earlier decades.We might put it, in our own language,"smaoinich air a' chruinne, ach dean rudeigin gu h-ionadail." Or, as you might recognise it in that other tongue - "think globally, act locally."