SABHAL MÒR AT 50: Celebrations for Gaelic’s ‘unique experiment’ which has stood the test of time

Students at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 2023

Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is marking its 50th anniversary today (Friday) with a special day of celebrations around its campus in Sleat, south Skye.

The date coincides with the week in 1973 when the West Highland Free Press first brought news of a plan to establish a seat of learning in what had previously been a disused barn.

Since then, the college has expanded to become the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, offering several degree courses, all through the medium of Gaelic.

Thousands have attended its annual short courses, over 4,000 learners completed its flagship online Gaelic course, An Cùrsa Inntrigidh, and there have been nearly 1,400 graduates since full-time courses began in the 1980s.

Today, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is one of the biggest employers in south Skye and it has widened its reach across the globe, attracting students from Scotland and over 25 other countries worldwide each year.

Helping wash the college bus as the facilities expanded in the 1980s

The humble beginnings were noted on 21st September 1973, with a Free Press article which read:

“Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Sleat is to be established as a charitable foundation and plans are well advanced for establishing an educational institute, with a special emphasis on Gaelic educational functions.

“Four urrasairean or sponsors have been adopted – they are Gordon Barr, DR Macdonald, Sorley Maclean and Iain Noble.

“As educational institutes go, Ostaig will be unusual in that it will cater for every age group from toddlers and schoolchildren to graduates, postgraduates and people of all ages.

“In addition to its role within Skye and the islands, the sponsors hope that it will act as a place where people from all parts of the globe can further their interest in Gaelic….”

The original campus at the former farm steading

The article noted the potential of the facility, despite the fact that Inverness county council had been ‘less than enthusiastic’ in its support.

“Other activities envisaged are the holding of short courses and eventually full length one-year courses, perhaps with diploma status,” the article read. “A link with the Celtic departments of the Scottish universities will also be sought.

“The developments have arisen within less than a year of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig opening its doors as an occasional social centre.

“It would seem a safe bet that further points of interest will continue to emerge as this unique experiment continues….”

This Friday’s event will share memories of people involved in that ‘unique experiment’ over the past five decades.

There will Gaelic musical performances, Sabhal Mòr will publish its new five-year strategy and Acair will launch a new book about one of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s original trustees, the poet and teacher Sorley MacLean.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain – Na Bhriathran Fhèin will be launched early on Friday evening and later, electro-folk duo Valtos will headline a special concert.

How Sabhal Mòr Ostaig looks today

In 2022-23 Sabhal Mòr welcomed its highest number of students ever with 1,600 learning both on campus and online, on full-time, part-time and short courses.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s new strategic plan 2023-28 will aim to help significantly increase the number of people speaking, learning and valuing Gaelic, by:

•             Delivering Gaelic education in an immersive Gaelic environment, both on campus and via distance learning

•             Researching and contributing to scholarship and knowledge exchange in, and about, Gaelic

•             Working in the Gaelic arts

•             Being sustainable and self-governing, through the medium of Gaelic

•             Working in collaboration with individuals, communities and partners, for the good of Gaelic

Aonghas S MacLeòid, chairperson, said: “Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s 50th anniversary is a testament to our enduring commitment to Gaelic language and culture.

“We have evolved to meet the changing needs of our community and students and this is reflected in our success.

“This milestone is a tribute to the dedication of our staff, students, and the unwavering support of the Gaelic community.

“We look forward to the next 50 years as a leader in Gaelic learning, research and cultural opportunities: working with our partners to achieve Scotland’s wider ambitions for Gaelic as a living language and a thriving culture.”