Gaelic war of words – Is Gaelic teaching in Scottish schools a waste of resources?

Welcome to Scotland sign at Scottish border
Welcome to Scotland sign at Scottish border

The passing of a new law at the Scottish Parliament has reignited debate about the costs of preserving Gaelic language and culture. The Education (Scotland) Bill means that every school now has to assess the need for Gaelic education if asked. But in these times of austerity budget cuts, is that a good use of resources? MICHAEL ALEXANDER investigates.

When Dundee West MP Chris Law joined half a dozen of the 56 newly elected SNP MPs at Westminster last May and affirmed his oath to the Queen in Gaelic as well as English, he said it was “partly to remind the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ that it needs to become more diverse”.

The name Dundee itself is of Gaelic origin, and although Gaelic has not been widely used in Dundee in recent times, scholars say it was likely the dominant language in Dundee between around 800-1200 AD.

It was still being spoken in 1791 when a Gaelic chapel was built in Dundee for ‘Highlanders recently arrived in the town’, probably from the Angus glens. The last Gaelic Church in Dundee met until 1923 in a building opposite the McManus Galleries.

Yet according to the last major census of Scotland in 2011, only 0.3% of the city’s population (474 people out of 148,000) can now speak the ancient language of the Scots, and fewer than 50 (0.04%) in the city use it at home.

Analysis of the Dundee figures reveals that 36 times more people now speak Polish in their homes than Gaelic, with 8,926 speaking other languages.

Some of its lowest use is in Angus and Fife where just 0.7% of residents are familiar with the language.

The census revealed that nationwide, only 57,375 people (1.1% of the Scottish population) speak Gaelic, with the stronghold being the Western Isles. The survey did show, however, that its use was on the rise nationally among the under-20s.

There’s no denying the history which records that Gaelic came to what became Scotland when Irish settlers came to Argyll around 500 AD.

By 1100 AD, Gaelic was at its height, being spoken from the Highlands to the Borders, and from Fife in the east to the islands in the west.

It was also the language of the kings of Scotland until Malcolm III married his non-Gaelic speaking Norse wife. Its biggest blow came after the Jacobites were routed by government forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the Scots tongue was made illegal. The Highland Clearances then almost wiped it out but never completely.

The establishment of Bord na Gaidhlig, under the 2005 Gaelic (Scotland) Act actively requires councils to prepare and publish Gaelic language plans, in a bid to keep the heritage alive. BBC Alba has even ensured that a generation of TV football watchers are familiar with its tone even if most don’t understand a word of what is being said!

But now, with the Education (Scotland) Bill containing a ruling that all councils should ‘assess the need for a Gaelic medium primary education following a parental request’, Mid Scotland and Fife Conservative MSP Liz Smith has questioned whether Gaelic should be given the same priority across Scotland.

She told The Courier: “Gaelic is an intrinsic part of Scottish culture and therefore it is important that the subject is on offer in areas where there is significant demand, most especially in the indigenous Gaelic communities which have faced real challenges in recent years. These communities need support, particularly when it comes to recruitment of Gaelic teachers.

“In times of severe budget cuts however, it is hard to defend the same level of support for Gaelic in schools where there is much less demand for the language and that is why it is easy to understand why some local authorities want to spend their scarce resources on other priorities. They should be entirely free to make these choices and respond to parental demand in the way they think best serves the educational needs of children in their schools.”

Fife, formerly the Pictish kingdom of Fib, saw heated political debate last February amid claims of “vile and bigoted” behaviour by some councillors as it prepared its Gaelic language plan. It even led one Gaelic-speaking consultant acute physician in Fife to threaten a move to the Highlands so his two young children could attend a Gaelic-speaking school.

The row centred upon proposals to use Gaelic in the council’s corporate identity and on boundary signs, enhancing the visibility of the language. After heated discussion, agreement was reached, in line with Scottish Government policy, and councillors called for regular monitoring of any costs associated with the promotion of the Gaelic language in Fife.

In recent weeks Fife Council has been calling on Gaelic enthusiasts to help them promote the language and is encouraging anyone wanting to learn to get in touch via workshops. Education Officer Peter Wright said: “When the Scottish Government consulted on the Gaelic Education Bill we confirmed that Fife Council will consider requests from parents for Gaelic education and work with them to see how best we may be able to provide it.”

A spokesperson for Angus Council said: “We have a Gaelic Medium Unit at Whitehills Primary School in Forfar, where seven pupils are currently enrolled and another P1 pupil will join them in August. Their teacher’s post is part-funded by Scottish Government. We are aware of the requirements of the new legislation and that it will be accompanied by detailed guidance.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Dundee City Council also pointed towards the authority’s first Gaelic Language Plan which states: “Since Dundee does not have a large number of people who speak Gaelic today, the council will take a positive but proportionate approach in our efforts to promote the Gaelic language.”

Perth and Kinross Council did not respond to The Courier’s request for a comment.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our aim with the Gaelic provisions of this Bill is to promote growth, strengthen provision, support parents and offer a clear process for authorities to handle parental requests that is consistent, transparent and timed. This Bill will give parents a right to request Gaelic medium education and place a duty on authorities to respond to and assess that request, where reasonable demand exists.

“Authorities with no Gaelic medium provision have been asked only to publicise the right of parents to request Gaelic medium primary education.”