Editorial: Gaelic needs to appeal to young islanders, and island life needs to appeal to young Gaels

WHFP Editorial 11.7.20

New research into Gaelic usage in island communities prompted some alarming recent headlines, but the response the story has triggered should also carry encouragement for those keen to see the language prosper in the future.

There are still plenty of people around to make sure Gaelic won’t be dead in 10 years, but the main focus of this study was not just to look at the number of speakers but on the prevalence of the language in places still considered its heartlands.

The researchers’ conclusions were sobering, if not surprising for those who live in areas like Tiree, Grimsay or Staffin.

Nevertheless, the publication of such a thorough body of work is welcome as it gives the chance to focus minds and target resources to where they might best be effective.

WHFP columnist Aonghas Phadraig Caimbeul offers a comprehensive initial analysis of the study this week.

Central to his argument – and the findings of the Soillse researchers – is that it makes sense to prioritise for action the areas where the language is still at least relatively common in daily life.

Aonghas Phadraig writes: “That is not ‘special pleading’, but recognition that a considerable amount of our strength remains rooted in the islands.

“Why don’t we build on that strength, while we still have it?”

What might this mean in practice?

Island jobs

The dispersal of jobs in Gaelic development, from cities likes Edinburgh and Inverness, seems like an obvious place to start.

An island-based, and community-controlled development trust for Gaelic-speakers – for which the researchers argue – might also provide better support to adult learners as well as families who don’t use the language at home, but are keen for their children to do so at school.

The growth of Gaelic in the cities has been a huge boon for the language in terms of its status and expansion there.

In Glasgow, the very first place to introduce a Gaelic medium unit, some 900 of its young citizens are educated in Gaelic in schools rated among the best of any, anywhere in Scotland.

Who could fail to celebrate that achievement or seek to limit the opportunities which derive from it?

Yet there is an argument that more island (and Highland)-proofing could apply when it comes to the continuing scramble for resources.

Does it make sense, for example, to rush to open a Gaelic medium unit in Ayrshire when Highland Council has several teaching vacancies unfilled?

A golden hello, funded university places, targeted recruitment and the offer of guaranteed accommodation might be needed. But would it be wrong to insist that, as part of their training and professional development, all Gaelic teachers have to spend a period of their careers in a rural Highland or Island setting?

If we’re being ambitious the same principle could apply to any job that requires Gaelic.

Similarly, while a Gaelic college in Skye – perhaps the clearest example of targeted Gaelic funding bringing wider social and economic benefits to a Gàidhealtachd area – is struggling to attract students to its immersive environment, is it pragmatic or fair to award £500,000 for a project claiming to offer the same experience but in Glasgow?

If it is purely a numbers game, these questions can be dismissed.

But if there is recognition that the language and community are intrinsic to areas like the Hebrides then the islands-first approach, as advocated by Soillse’s research, deserves consideration.

Young people

One of the study’s worrying conclusions was that younger people within island communities did not see the language as important to their daily lives.

That trend paints a bleak picture, and it would be sad if a point was reached where Gaelic’s appeal is as irrelevant to young islanders, as island community life is to young urban-based Gaels.

But advocacy for Gaelic alone won’t re-invigorate Gaelic communities.

For that there needs to be people, and that means opportunities, jobs, housing and the policies and funding to encourage them.

More positively Gaelic continues to enjoy significant goodwill, reflected in cross party political support, the growth in the number of parents who want their children to learn it, initiatives like Duolingo and in the popularity of the music and culture with which the language is associated.

Gaelic’s community survival will also depend on the most basic factor of all – getting people to speak it.

Languageless Gaels

Researchers recognise the islands still have a significant number of people with some ability in the language but who don’t use it to any regular degree.

Their reticence can be down to any number or reasons – little contact with fellow speakers, embarrassment or a lack of confidence in their ability.

In an excellent social media post this week one island woman candidly described how – despite her roots, education, courses at Sabhal Mòr and 10 years at the BBC’s Gaelic department – for years she felt like a fraud when it came to her Gaelic proficiency.

That woman’s journey was a good indication of the challenge that awaits those seeking to speak the language, but there was a happy conclusion in that eventually her fraudulency gave way to fluency.

A family connection to the language dating back generations was restored. 

That experience would strike a chord with many from the Highlands and Islands – the army of Gaels with Gaelic in their heads and tongues, but not on their lips.

The language’s grass-roots survival, and revival will depend on them.

But they won’t do it on their own.

People will need reason to stay, settle or return to the type of places on which Soillse’s research shines an illuminating light.