Transformation of education is needed to safeguard Gaelic

Boyd Robertson
Boyd Robertson

A RADICAL change in the education system of the islands is needed to safeguard Gaelic, said Principal of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Professor Boyd Robertson as he delivered this year’s Angus Macleod Memorial Lecture, writes Michelle Robson.

Professor Robertson said ‘Vision’ and ‘Confidence’ were needed to transmit Gaelic to the next generation and that there was a need to alter the education system so that ‘each product of the system is able to communicate in the two languages of the area’.

‘Language, Culture and Community’ was the topic of the lecture which was delivered with passion on the importance of maintaining the Gaelic language for future generations.

Prof. Robertson spoke of the difficult history of Gaelic over the years from the inception of An Comunn Gaidhealach but looked forward with some optimism that things were moving in the right direction.

A turning point he remarked was the creation of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in 1975.

“Not only did it bring the Outer Isles together as one local authority but islanders were ruling a Gaelic domain for the first time since the Lordship of the Isles 500 year before,” he said.

Prof. Robertson added that the council had adopted a bilingual policy and a Bilingual Project was intiated in a number of local primary schools.

“In contrast to the previous situation where the education system was working against the language, the language was now being recognised and deployed in the schools.

“Education had eventually began to work in favour of the language. The Wheel of Fortune was turning. The language and culture of the community was being acknowledged and getting its place in the formal education system.”

He also talked about the renewal of vitality in Gaelic literature with poets such as Derek Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith and Donald MacAulay.

The establishment of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, increase in broadcasting, the Feisean movement and other projects all led to some revival.

He said more education of parents was needed regarding the advantages of bilingualism and the disadvantages of monolingualism, a condition known only to a minority of European citizens and a state that could impair the prospects of youngsters growing up and making a living in an economy that is becoming increasingly global.

“Until a transformation, like that of the education system, takes place, we can expect further and further diminution in the number of Gaelic speakers at each Census,” Prof Robertson commented.

He welcomed the Scottish Government’s plan to bring in Scottish Studies as a subject in schools but said it should be not only secondary but primary too.

Looking to the future with some optimism, Professor Robertson ended with a quote from the Song by Murdo MacFarlane, Canan nan Gaidheal/ Language of the Gael.

He concluded: “It is up to us to make sure that his first language, and that of Angus Macleod survives and that there will be people who can speak Canan nan Gaidheal as their mother tonuge when the National Mod of An Comunn Gaidhealach returns to Lewis 50 years hence.”