In Scotland, a revival of Gaelic

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 11 13:51:54 UTC 2006

In Scotland, a revival of Gaelic
By Iona Macdonald

Friday, December 8, 2006

 ISLE OF SKYE, Scotland

Scotland's first contemporary feature film in Gaelic is in
post-production. The BBC has begun broadcasting live sports coverage in
Gaelic. A Gaelic-only high school has opened in Glasgow. A leading
Scottish politician is seeking, via Brussels, to ensure Gaelic's place as
a European language. Currently spoken by fewer than 2 percent in Scotland,
Gaelic is enjoying a revival here that has blossomed since the country
held elections in 1999 to create a Scottish Parliament for the first time
in almost 300 years.

Last year, the Parliament passed a Gaelic Language Act that recognized
Gaelic as an official language of Scotland and granted it equal status
with English. In August, the Parliament introduced a National Plan for
Gaelic under which public bodies are obliged to offer provisions for
Gaelic speakers. Such efforts have not been universally applauded: Many
question the benefits of investing in a language that, in their eyes, is
ostensibly dead. There has been a rancorous exchange in Scotland's
national press, with letter writers and commentators pointing out that
more Scots speak Urdu than Gaelic and asking why Gaelic was getting more
attention than other indigenous languages like Doric, a dialect of Scots
spoken in the northeast.

But ask anyone from the western isles, where 70 percent of the population
has some knowledge of Gaelic, and they will tell you that the language is
very much alive. Scottish Gaelic differs in spelling, pronunciation and
vocabulary from Irish Gaelic, but the two are mutually intelligible. In
Ireland, there are more than 1.5 million speakers, and the language is
widely used on the airwaves. In Scotland, Gaelic's renaissance is perhaps
most vibrant in the arts.  More than 2,000 competitors a record gathered
last month in Dunoon, western Scotland, for the Royal National Mod, a
festival of Gaelic language and culture with events like poetry readings
and bagpipe contests.

In Portree, Isle of Skye, the film "Seachd"  Gaelic for "Seven"  will
debut in late March as Scotland's first Gaelic feature. Produced by
Christopher Young, it tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather,
who claims to be 800 years old and who tells the lad magical tales. The
boy's parents have been killed in a climbing accident on the notorious
peak known as the "Innaccessible Pinnacle," also the English name of the
film. Also on Skye, the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, began work last
month, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and the BBC, on a
project, valued at 3 million, or about $5.9 million, to create an online
archive of Gaelic and Scots recordings.

The BBC itself recently announced plans for a "significant" increase in
spending on Gaelic broadcasting and a proposal for a Gaelic digital
channel. In October, the BBC's Gaelic radio station broadcast the European
Championship qualifying game between Scotland and France, the first time
in 20 years that soccer fans have been able to hear live commentary in
Gaelic on an international match. A Celtic language that originated in
Ireland, Gaelic spread to northwestern Britain no later than the 6th
century A.D. and thereafter came to be spoken throughout most of Scotland,
according to scholars. But the language was gradually supplanted by
English. In 1891 there were more than a quarter million Gaelic speakers in
Scotland; the 2001 census put the number at 58,652, just 1.2 percent of
the population.

But the number of younger speakers of Gaelic has been increasing, largely
due to education in the language. Katie White, 19, is one such success.
She was educated in Gaelic during primary school in Portree, took a number
of high school classes in Gaelic, and is now fluent. Neither of her
parents is Gaelic speaking indeed they are not Scots. White wants to pass
on the language to her future children and to use it in her work. She sees
the media as "a good way to revive the language."

Schools began teaching in Gaelic in Inverness and Glasgow in 1985, and
this generated demand. As of last year, there were 61 primary schools
across Scotland with classes in Gaelic, and 36 high schools made provision
for pupils fluent in Gaelic to continue their studies in the language.
This summer, the country's first Gaelic-only high school opened in
Glasgow. Now Gaelic is spreading to more public institutions. Under the
terms of the 2005 language act, the Gaelic Development Agency, or Bord na
Gaidhlig, can require public bodies like regional and city councils to
formulate language plans for providing more services and resources in

Again, this has proved contentious. News that Edinburgh a city of 450,000
with 5,000 Gaelic speakers might have to erect bilingual road signs by
2008 prompted one columnist to suggest that, given the number of doctors
and lawyers in the city, it might make as much sense to post the signs in
Latin. However, counters Allan Campbell, chief executive of the agency,
the effort "is about facilitation, not coercion." According to Arthur
Cormack, director of the National Association of Gaelic Arts Youth Tuition
Festivals, funded in part by the agency, attitudes toward Gaelic have
changed enormously in recent years.

In research carried out by the agency and the BBC in 2003, 66 percent of
1,020 people questioned saw Gaelic as an important part of Scottish life
that needs to be promoted. Although 87 percent were not Gaelic speakers,
nearly 90 percent were in favor of children learning Gaelic in schools.

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