WHFP EDITORIAL 1.9.23: Community-centred Gaelic projects have much to offer

A community cèilidh in Kilmuir, North Skye

It was once remarked that in Harris there would be as much sense in starting a society for breathing as there would in one for Gaelic, given the language’s status as natural mother tongue to just about everyone who lived there.

As recently as a generation or two ago you might have said the same in north east Skye, had someone suggested a development officer was required to bring locals together for the purpose of encouraging them to use their Gaelic.

But that was then, and these communities are much changed from what they were 50, 30 or even 20 years ago. 

Gaelic is not as widely spoken as it once was.

Its survival as a community language rests on finding as many ways as possible to encourage intergenerational transmission – the practice of passing it on from the old to the young, that was once the hallmark of places like Trotternish.

With that in mind it is encouraging to learn this week of a thriving project taking root in Kilmuir.

The area trust has obtained funding to employ a development officer, a local Gaelic speaker, to organise events – concerts, crofting talks, cèilidh dances, children’s holiday clubs, psalm singing – centred around the local community hall.

It is a simple idea, but an effective one because the initiative harnesses the knowledge and expertise of an already active volunteer base.

And due to the nature of those involved it manages to be both authentic and inclusive at the same time. 

As development officer Eilidh Rankin notes: “Some people might ask ‘what are soup and rolls doing for Gaelic language?’

The answer might not be as headline grabbing as efforts to reach 300,000 intermittent users of Gaelic Duolingo, but as far as Gaelic’s future prosperity in the west Highlands and Hebrides goes, it has more relevance.

“What we are doing is, hopefully, bringing local Gaelic speakers together,” she added.

Three years ago a landmark study warned that Gaelic could die out within traditional island communities within a decade, without a radical shift in public policy.

The authors of the Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community urged authorities to adopt an islands-first approach, and focus efforts on communities rather than on national targets.

Both the government and national Gaelic agency Bòrd na Gaidhlig have shied away from the research findings, insisting that policy approaches will reflect their commitments to Gaelic as a language for all of Scotland, and for anyone who wants to learn it.

Nevertheless, the Bòrd have since raised their level of commitment towards programmes like that which fund local development officers – the vast majority of whom are centred in Hebridean areas.

It is still not as bold a change as the architects of the recent research have demanded.

But Kilmuir hall is good example of what can be achieved from small scale and targeted intervention with the result bringing many benefits for communities, as well as for the Gaelic that is still spoken within them.