Editorial — 18th July 2014

Telling the truth about Gaelic

A visitor from abroad, or Edinburgh, who picked up a Scottish national newspaper last week would have gained the happy impression that all is well with the Gaelic language.

He would have read that there may be a few tricky, recalcitrant areas, but otherwise in 2014 Gaelic’s future is rosy.

Our foreigner would have got that news from the entirely uncritical and largely uninformed Scottish media coverage of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s annual report.

In fact the report itself is not entirely glowing. As we report this week, Bòrd na Gàidhlig does point a finger at the Western Isles for failing to get with the programme and establish the kind of Gaelic-medium schools that grace Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness and will soon be built in Fort William and Portree.

But otherwise we are told of a “positive and productive year”. That analysis — which led to those “Gaelic Success” headlines — is chiefly based on a small rise in Gaelic-medium primary pupils and an even smaller rise in secondary Gaelic-medium pupils.

The same could, and has, been said of any year since the 1980s. Meanwhile in the real world, an alternative report would report that the overall number of Gaelic speakers continues to decline.

The number of Primary One pupils entering Gaelic-medium schools or units is still only half of the Scottish Government’s modest 2017 target of 800. Only 1,000 out of 300,000 secondary students in the whole of Scotland are in Gaelic-medium classes. Respected organisations such as Comhairle nan Sgoiltean Araich, the Gaelic Pre-School Council, have been put out of business.

There is now vanishingly little Gaelic to be heard in communities where 30 or 40 years ago you would hear no English. It is proving perennially impossible to appoint a Gaelic-speaking head teacher at Inverness Gaelic School… the list goes on and on, and anybody with any serious first-hand experience and knowledge of the old Gaidhealtachd and its language could add to it without difficulty.

Talking the language up was once necessary, if only to inform the rest of the country that Gaelic still existed. That time has passed. It now looks more as if Bòrd na Gàidhlig is talking itself up.

That was always a danger. Ten years ago, when pressure was building for a Gaelic Language Act, this newspaper suggested that, while it was welcome as a small building block, such legislation might not provide the panacea that was being claimed.

The result was a flood of angry letters. We would ask those letter-writers how they feel now, nine years after the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 became law and Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established. Has the miraculous revival occurred? Or do we merely have one more quango to support?

We do not think that the Gaelic Act should be repealed, or that Bòrd na Gàidhlig should be dismantled.

But we do believe that instead of telling its political masters what they want to hear, Bòrd na Gàidhlig should show some fire in its belly and start speaking truth to power.

That involves hard work. It involves finding out how many of those primary and secondary Gaelic-medium pupils are in the Lowlands or Inverness, and how many of them will use more than a few words of Gaelic after they leave school.

It involves breaking down the 2011 census returns into comprehensible tables and maps, so that we can see exactly where are the areas of serious decline.

It then involves preparing an action programme for those districts and islands which would necessarily include Gaelic-medium education but would not see it as the only answer.

It involves the voluntary relocation of Bòrd na Gàidhlig from its little language bubble in Inverness to somewhere such as Uist in the north-west, where its staff would be reminded on a daily basis why they exist and the enormity of the task before them.

Above all, it involves facing rather than glossing the facts. As an everyday community language, Gaelic is still in serious decline. Telling the Scottish Parliament and the Central Belt media that Gaelic is a success story does more harm than good.

Stornoway: the gateway to Outer Space

Stornoway Airport currently advertises itself as “the gateway to the Western Isles”. It might have to lift its sights.

The United Kingdom intends to build a spaceport by 2018. The government has published a shortlist of eight prospective sites. One of them is Stornoway Airport.

This is neither 1st April nor a lost Compton Mackenzie novel. We do not know why Stornoway has been shortlisted. Its current runway and other facilities are not best suited to spacecraft.

Stornoway’s more routine transport connections, by air or sea, are frequently unreliable — although we assume that if the Ullapool ferry was given the job of transporting the 21st century equivalents of Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 it might brush up its act. And the weather in Lewis is not always as balmy as in, say, Cape Canaveral.

We nonetheless think that it is a very good idea. We are not encouraged by the fact that in its news release the Department of Business could not spell “Stornoway”. But our hopes are high.

The construction work involved, assuming the spacecraft are built on site, would keep Arnish busy for years. Agreement could surely be reached with local churches to keep space travel a six-day-a-week exercise.

There could be no serious argument against spacecraft with Gaelic names, and indeed Gaelic-speaking crew. Leodhasaich who are presently unable to fly to Barra could console themselves with trips to Mars. And what a bragging right over Skye, which would be left languishing without so much as a Twin Otter connection to Glasgow while Lewis becomes the UK’s answer to NASA.

It would be one small step for the government but a giant leap for the Outer Hebrides. We urge business secretary Vince Cable to fly past the other shortlisted sites of Newquay, Lossiemouth, Leuchars and Prestwick and settle on Melbost. If nothing else, he’d be sure of a few quid from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.