Minority language progess must be based on enforceable rights

Anti-Gaelic attitudes "should be treated like any other prejudice"

ISLE OF SKYE, SCOTLAND (20 February 2004) -- Last weekend Brian Wilson MP visited Islay to witness the graduation of the first students to complete Gaelic courses at Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile. And he had some pertinent remarks to make about attitudes to the language, as we report here.

The strength of the connection between the Gaelic college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (on the Isle of Skye - editor) and the new satellite college on Islay, Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile, was emphasised last weekend when the first students to complete Gaelic courses there were recognised at an awards ceremony.

John Norman Macleod, director of studies at Sabhal Mòr, said it was remarkable that 100 students had already passed through the centre in its first year of operations -- for the immersion course, short summer courses and night classes. Many of them were present to receive their awards.

Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile is a beautifully-appointed building on the outskirts of Bowmore, the island capital. Formerly a fever hospital and more recently a roads depot, it has been substantially extended towards the shoreline of Lochindaal and commands magnificent views over land and sea -- a learning environment to dream of.

Brian Wilson -- who has strong family connections with Islay -- was guest speaker at the ceremony and recalled the origins of the project. As Scottish Office Minister for Education, Industry and Gaelic in 1997, he visited Islay and found the population in decline, the economy at a low ebb and Gaelic gradually receding.

Inspired by the example of what Sabhal Mòr Ostaig had done for Sleat, he set in motion the idea of a similar undertaking on Islay. "I could never think of Islay without Gaelic or Gaelic without Islay," he said at the time. But without an urgent transfusion of activity, both had become real possibilities.

Mr Wilson is unstinting in his praise of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig who, at his request, took the lead role in bringing the project to fruition. He says: "Norman Gillies, Donnie Munro and Lachie Dick became totally committed. It took us four more years to put the funding together and for the building to be transformed and ready for use."

All of that is now history. Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile is already a vibrant place, widely used by the community and home to Gaelic groups of all ages -- learners, fluent speakers and many who just want to renew contact with a language which is still within touching-distance of the ir own family experience.

The chairman of Ionaid Chaluim Chille Ile, local councillor Robin Currie, pointed out that the most recent census still showed a third of people on Islay as Gaelic speakers with over 40 per cent in his own part of the island -- a remarkable tribute to language loyalty in the light of how little has been done at official level by way of support or encouragement.

One great strength of the new centre is its position at the centre of the "continuing Gaidhealtachd" which connects Scotland and Ireland. It is hoped that Islay will once again become a vital link in that chain and will attract students and visitors from both countries.

With that in mind, the appointment of Domhnall Angaidh Maclennan as the new manager of Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile -- replacing Michelle Macleod, who has now gone to Bord na Gaidhlig -- is particularly appropriate, in view of his highly-successful experience in running the Scottish end of Iomairt Cholm Chille.

The success of the centre will be judged not only in terms of what it does for Gaelic but also what it contributes to Islay's fragile economy. Sleat may be the model but, as Norman Gillies pointed out, it has taken Sabhal Mòr Ostaig 30 years to get to the point at which it has been the major factor in turning round population decline and also creating a rising graph of Gaelic speakers.

Brian Wilson said on Saturday that the existence of Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile guaranteed nothing for the future of Gaelic on Islay. All it did was give it a fighting chance, which it would not otherwise have had, for another generation. But for all who were present at Saturday's event, it is already providing inspiration and hope, closely akin to the good example of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

There was a warning, too, from Mr Wilson who said negative attitudes towards Gaelic within Scottish government and institutions should be dismissed in the same way as "any other form of prejudice based on ignorance". If forthcoming legislation to give the language legal status within Scotland was to be worth anything, it had to lead to "tangible benefits" which would offer Gaelic a more realistic prospect of future growth.

Mr Wilson said: "Status is a difficult word to define. If it means ticking boxes and publishing a few more leaflets in Gaelic, it will be worse than useless. Status has to exist in the hearts and minds of those who are in a position, on a day and daily basis, to give it substance. This new legal responsibility towards Gaelic has to be integrated into the normal thought processes of Government and its agencies."

He continued: "It is forever being whispered that such-and-such a minister or official is 'very anti-Gaelic' and this is then treated as another obstacle which has to be circumvented. With legal status in place, such attitudes will simply have to be overruled and treated like any other form of prejudice based on ignorance.

"On policy areas such as education, broadcasting and public visibility of the language, progress cannot be left to a lottery of goodwill, based on the whim of whichever ministers or officials happen to be involved at the time. Any minority language, to stand a chance in the 21st century, needs to be underpinned by enforceable rights and a general acceptance in official circles that these have to be acted upon."

The Islay project, Mr Wilson said, offered a small taste of the potential if a positive approach was taken to what the language could contribute to Scotland, economically as well as culturally. He said: "This is a challenge for Scotland and for Scotland alone. The attitude towards a whole language and culture, which is uniquely entrusted to us, is a defining measure of how civilised a society we actually are."

West Highland Free Press

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