INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, EUROPE: In Scotland, a revival of Gaelic

8th December 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 respect 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 contemporary 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 Gaelic.

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.

by Iona Macdonald