Bòrd na Gàidhlig chief: There is ‘real anguish’ about situation facing Gaelic

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WITH warnings it could die out as a community language within a decade, the precarious position of Gaelic in Scotland has come under the spotlight in recent months.

Shona MacLennan, chief executive of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the quango responsible for promoting the language, is among those entrusted with making sure it has a future.

But in an interview with The on Sunday, the 58-year-old said saving Gaelic is bigger than any one organisation. 

She said Gaelic speakers feel “real anguish” over the state of the language, with a range of complicated socioeconomic factors contributing to its difficulties in rural and island areas.

 The Big Read: From Gaelic-only housing to second homes, the fight to save a language

However the future offers opportunities as well as challenges, she said.

MacLennan also strongly refuted any suggestion her organisation – which has been the focus of robust criticism in recent months – has been complacent in the face of Gaelic’s plight.

“If Gaelic is going to be saved, it’s not one organisation that’s going to achieve that,” she said.

“It’s going to depend on lots of organisations and individuals all working together and creating a culture and an atmosphere where people feel encouraged to use Gaelic where they have it, and encouraged to learn it if they don’t.”

She added: “Saving the language is far, far wider than one organisation.”

A comprehensive academic study published last year found Gaelic-speaking communities are unlikely to survive anywhere in Scotland beyond this decade unless urgent action is taken.

Researchers based at the the University of the Highlands and Islands said the social use and transmission of the language is at the point of collapse in the remaining “vernacular” communities where it is still in regular use.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, who co-authored the research, insists the status quo is not an option.

He previously warned Bòrd na Gàidhlig and other public agencies “will lose credibility” if concrete action is not taken this year, and said a starting point would be a “clear admission that we’re in crisis”.

MacLennan said the language “has a lot of challenges, and it has a lot of opportunities”, adding: “I think the people who speak the language as a community language in island and rural areas have significant challenges, and I think that’s about demographics as well as language.

“So there’s a range of issues that are affecting the rural and the island communities, of which language is just one, but there’s also the wider socioeconomic issues.”

Asked if she would use the word “crisis”, she said: “It’s not something that we use. It’s a difficult situation. It’s a challenging situation.”

She said there is “real anguish about the situation but there is also positive action that can be taken”.

Asked if she was surprised or shocked by the study published last summer, MacLennan said research previously carried out in Lewis drew similar conclusions. 

She added: “The messages weren’t as shocking as they might have been to people who weren’t involved in Gaelic.”

 Gaelic communities ‘unlikely to survive beyond this decade’ unless action is taken

Housing, jobs, economic opportunities, transport and digital connectivity are all important in retaining and attracting young people to rural and island communities, she said.

“Without those things in place, then those communities are going to continue to decrease in size and become less sustainable.”

MacLennan, who lives in the village of Dornie in Kintail, said she is “well aware” of the housing challenges in the Highlands and islands. 

She said: “I think the way we need to look at it is by saying, how can we work with partners who are responsible for these things, because Bòrd na Gàidhlig is not responsible for housing or economic development, but how can we work with partners to ensure that Gaelic is considered and normalised within that?”

She added: “What we need are houses in the right places and available and accessible to young people, so that communities can not just survive, but thrive.”

MacLennan said it is about “trying to influence and change policy so that those people who speak Gaelic are better represented in the decision-making”.

SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes previously said she would support the idea of housing developments where residents must speak Gaelic or commit to learning it, although she flagged issues around “perceived discrimination”.

Campaigners have pointed to similar schemes in Ireland.

But MacLennan said this is not something Bòrd na Gàidhlig has looked at, and echoed Forbes’ comments about the “challenges” around this.

She said policies that recognise the needs of rural and island communities are critical.

“It’s about language, but it’s also about the demographics of communities,” she said.

“We’ve got a very mixed picture. We know that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Western Isles Council, for a number of years have been concerned about their demographics and demographic projections for the islands.”

The decision to make Gaelic schooling the default for children starting primary school in the Western Isles is “the kind of change that starts making a big difference,” she said.

MacLennan referenced the “old saw” about “no houses, no jobs, no people, no language”, adding: “It is important to act, to move at pace.”

Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s own approach has been criticised by those who see the organisation as complacent.

MacLennan rejects this.

“I would refute completely the challenge that we’re complacent,” she said.

“We work hard and we work willingly with many partners, communities and public authorities to address the challenges, because you’re right, there’s huge challenges.”

The quango was branded a “total disaster” last year after a damning audit exposed a catalogue of failings, including a lack of transparency and ineffective leadership. 

MacLennan said it has done a significant amount of work to improve since then, while continuing to deliver for Gaelic.

She said all board meetings and papers are now accessible online, adding: “In that way we’ve become extremely open and transparent in our workings.”

She said there is “more to do” but stressed: “I do believe that we did face significant challenges and we’ve come through them, and that we are a stronger organisation because of it.”

 Alistair Grant: Gaelic faces an uphill battle, but is this the turning point?

MacLennan said encouraging the use of Gaelic is key to its future, and referenced a desire among young people to engage with older speakers.

She said Bòrd na Gàidhlig funds community development roles in the Western Isles focused on increasing the language’s use.

And she insisted the future holds new opportunities, not least around tourism. 

VisitScotland previously conducted research into whether visitors are interested in the language, she said.

“They were blown away by the kind of response they got to that.”

MacLennan added: “When life goes back to some sort of normality, people want to experience authentic cultures, and Scotland’s Gaelic culture is fascinating.”

She added: “There are opportunities. At this point I can understand people finding it difficult to believe that those opportunities can be realised.

“But ‘build back better’ is a very appropriate phrase and I think that’s where we have an opportunity for Gaelic as well.”

Elsewhere, MacLennan pointed to the growth of Gaelic medium education in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness.

Asked if she personally worries about the future of Gaelic, given the complicated socioeconomic factors impacting on it, she said: “I think as you get older, you’re more aware of change and how things are not like they used to be.

“Even though you look forward, there are things you miss about the way things used to be. 

“I think that Gaelic will survive but it will probably be different. 

“There will be things that we miss about it, but there will also be new things that we welcome.”

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