An Isle of Skye sunset. The Hebridean island is a centre of the Gaelic resurgence
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Language as activism: the big Gaelic comeback

The native tongue of the Highlands and islands seemed to be dying out – until the latest figures were released.

Gaelic is a remnant from Scotland’s independent past. Until the 18th century it was widely spoken in the Highlands and Islands – for 290,000 Scots it was their first and only tongue – but a government ban on all elements of Highland culture after the Jacobite rebellion started 350 years of decline. Since then the number of Gaelic speakers has dwindled year by year. The 1991 census showed a drop of more than 20 per cent in a single decade. By 2001 the number had fallen another 11 per cent, to just 59,000. Gaelic speakers were ageing, then dying, and their language was dying with them.

When the latest figures were released in September, naysayers were preparing to sound the knell. But the new total (58,000) had barely dipped and closer inspection revealed new growth: in every age group under the age of 20, there had been a rise.

There is a Gaelic revival under way. Increasing numbers of parents – even those who don’t speak the language – are opting to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools, where all subjects are taught in the language. In 1985 there were only 24 primary school children being taught in Gaelic; last year the figure was 2,953. Sixty-one schools across Scotland now offer Gaelic-medium education. The expectation is that, as time passes, these young Gaels will revitalise a language that is intricately tied up with their country’s identity.

My two-year-old nephew Daniel will be one of them. His parents – my brother Rory and his wife, Claire – speak only English, but have chosen for him to attend Fàs Mòr, a pre-school in Sleat on the Isle of Skye where staff speak to the children entirely in Gaelic. He chatters away happily in English, producing new and unexpected words like rabbits from a hat. He sings to himself as he plays: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle”. But sometimes he rattles off one I don’t recognise. “Nee-naw, nee-naw,” he calls out suddenly one morning, “einnsean-smàlaidh.”

“Oh,” says my brother, noticing my confusion, “it’s a Gaelic one. Something about a fire engine.”

I’m intrigued by Daniel’s secret school language. The Fàs Mòr building perches on a windy hillside next to the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, two miles north of the Armadale jetty, from where the ferry runs to Mallaig when the weather’s fine. We bundle down the steps past a cheery paper display full of words I don’t recognise. Càirdeas, it says. Toileachas. Iongnadh. Spèis. Friendship; happiness; wonder; love. The windows look out across the Sound of Sleat to the mountains of the wild Knoydart Peninsula beyond. A distant fishing boat trawls slowly across the view from left to right.

Madainn mhath, Daniel,” says a dark-haired woman, smiling at him. “Ciamar a tha thu?” Daniel comes over all shy, looking up at her through his blond forelock. The teaching assistant continues to talk to him in Gaelic as he listens, quietly.

“He understands a lot more than he says,” Rory tells me. Sure enough, when she asks another question, Daniel nods and follows her to play in the corner of the room.

Little Caitlin is already here. Her mother, Gwen Culbertson, is the head teacher at Bun-sgoil Shlèite, the primary school next door. There, the parents can choose which language they would like their child to be taught in. Fifty children are taught in Gaelic, only 12 in English.

The benefits of bilingualism are well known: improved mental agility, faster learn­ing of tertiary languages, protection against age-related memory loss. But it strikes me that, in an increasingly international society, educating your child in a hyper-local language – one that’s in decline – is an unusual choice for young, professional parents.

About this, Rory is sanguine: “Yes, it would provide more international opportunities if he was being taught in Spanish . . . but to be immersed in Gaelic for the first years of his education will give him an understanding of language that will become instinctive later in life. It’s the language of our area: what is spoken in the pub, at meetings, and so on. There has always been an impression that Gaelic is a bit of a nostalgic, inward-looking culture, but it seems to have a lot of energy and passion behind it now.”

Not speaking the language themselves can cause problems for my brother and Claire. For one thing, they will be unable to help Daniel with schoolwork when he is older. But new resources have been developed for parents in their position, such as Gaelic4Parents, a website that offers help with homework by instant messaging between 5pm and 7pm during term time.

Three-year-old Seonaidh (pronounced “Shaunnie”) is another regular at Fàs Mòr. His mother, Floraidh Forrest, has spoken Gaelic since she was a child and runs a bilingual creative agency in Sleat, but her Californian husband, a musician, learned the language only after they moved to Skye. “Decker and I both exclusively speak Gaelic to the boys,” she says, “though we don’t always speak it to each other.

“I am, I suppose, strict with Seonaidh: if he speaks to me in English I ask him to repeat it in Gaelic. I’m not one of those crazy Gaelic mums – I’m certainly not anti-the English language – but it’s a gift I can give my kids for free that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.”

Gaelic skipped two generations in my family, but Daniel’s enrolment at Fàs Mòr has sparked an interest among all of us. My mother, who last spoke Gaelic in school, now plans evening classes, so she might talk to her grandson in the language her own father loved.

And, across the country, Daniel’s pre-school peers are inspiring their own families into action: a new generation of tiny Gaelic activists.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at www.calflyn.com and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here