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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.