SABHAL MÒR SEMINAR: Debating the path forwards for Gaelic

Next week sees a seminar at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig discussing ‘the way forward’ for Gaelic. IAIN MACKINNON of Coventry University, whose work examines cultural development in the Gàidhealtachd, looks at some of the issues raised by the event…

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is stepping into the new year by hosting a timely event on an important topic.

The Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye is hosting a panel discussion entitled An t-Slighe air Adhart, ‘the path forwards’ for the Gaelic language.

The discussion will be chaired by the Principal of the College Gillian Munro, with contributions from the likes of Feisean nan Gàidheal chief executive Arthur Cormack, the manager of Gaelic publisher Acair Agnes Rennie, the chief executive of Comunn na Gàidhlig, Donald MacNeil, and the head of An Comunn Gàidhealach Allan Campbell, as well as several academics who study the Gaelic language.

The event, which is also being organised by Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, is to focus on successful language initiatives and on how to maintain their success in coming years.

It will also look at how to strengthen all the different communities focussed on Gaelic, and at how to create language initiatives that are both inclusive and diverse.

The need for an event to chart ‘the path forward’ for the language is a result of the challenging findings published in 2020 as part of the ‘Gaelic Crisis’ report.

This was a comprehensive socio-linguistic study of language use in communities of speakers in the islands where Gaelic’s social use is currently strongest – Tiree, the north of Skye as well as most of the Outer Hebrides.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig will host the event

The study, undertaken by a team of academics from the Soillse language institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, concluded that on current trends Gaelic will no longer be used as a community language anywhere in Scotland in around a decade.

Although the Soillse team’s analysis was hard-hitting, they concluded with a hopeful message that there is still a window of opportunity to maintain Gaelic as a community based language in heartland areas, and they recommended a radical new policy: the creation of a community trust to democratise decision-making on the language and to empower communities.

However, other Gaelic language academics have disagreed with Soillse’s analysis. Recently, Sabhal Mòr lecturer Tim Armstrong, who is an organiser of the forthcoming event, argued that the days of ‘natural’ transmission for Irish and Scottish Gaelic are simply over, and he believes Gaelic should be considered as a dispersed ‘network’ of speakers rather than a community language.

Wilson McLeod, who will speak at the Sabhal Mòr event, concurs. In a book published last year he argued that Gaelic language revitalisation initiatives in Scotland are ‘too little too late’ and that broad-based interventions to support the language are ‘ever-more impracticable’.

McLeod drew a parallel with Latin as ‘an ecclesiastical and intellectual language long after it went out of popular use’.

This fundamental disagreement about future possibilities for Gaelic presents a problem for a lay-person trying to understand the situation, and also for policy makers seeking to protect and promote the language. Policy makers look for clarity as a basis for prioritising actions to create a path forward. However, they currently face basic disagreement and lack of clarity amongst language scholars on the future potential for Gaelic in society.

In the absence of agreement, the usual recourse is for the different views to engage in constructive dialogue. This has proved difficult in the Gaelic context. Aside from an exchange stimulated by a special edition of the journal Scottish Affairs last year called ‘Scotland’s Gàidhealtachd Futures’ there has been little productive debate between the different positions, and a degree of antagonism appears evident in some of the discussion, particularly on social media.

Last month the Free Press described the Soillse study as ‘perhaps the most important Highland book of the twenty-first century’. Unfortunately, the Sabhal Mòr organised event has not found space for any of the Soillse authors in the An t-Slighe air Adhart panel.

Gaelic road signs in Skye Pic, Willie Urquhart

However, there will be an opportunity to get a clearer understanding of what the book’s critics believe, as three of them have been selected for the panel.

The three – Michelle Macleod, Stuart Dunmore and Wilson McLeod – reject Soillse’s proposal for a Gaelic community trust and argue instead that the language can be better supported by strengthening existing policy structures.

Working with James Oliver, who is originally from Glendale on Skye, I was a co-editor of last year’s Scottish Affairs special edition. Although ‘Scotland’s Gàidhealtachd Futures’ included discussion about Gaelic, it also sought to broaden the academic debate beyond language use to consider the real world contexts of people from a diversity of backgrounds who are connected with the Gàidhealtachd in Scotland and elsewhere.

We took this initiative because we feel that deeper consideration of lived experience and memory among speakers and non-speakers of Gaelic may be helpful in supporting regeneration of community, culture and language in Gàidhealtachd areas.

Regardless of our efforts to broaden the debate, it is clear that a sustained, respectful dialogue and exchange of ideas between the language specialists is urgently needed. 

The process of dialogue will be assisted if a forum for debate can be created that facilitates the equitable inclusion of the full range of informed voices and opinions.

This forum should be set up in such a way that all of these voices have the opportunity to listen to views that differ from their own, and to respond respectfully in ways which acknowledge the concerns of dissenting voices while impressing what matters in their own point of view.

In this way we might begin to clear the thickets of confusion which continue to impede a path forward for the Gaelic language within wider community and cultural development in the islands and other areas of Scotland.

One thing that nobody is in disagreement about is that the situation is urgent.

An t-Slighe air Adhart will be held online on Friday 14 January between 10am and 1pm. It is free to attend and interested parties can register via this link .