Spreading the Gaelic tongue from sea to Skye

Sabhal Mor Ostaig's new head has devoted his life to preserving his language. Olga Wojtas reports

January 29, 2009

When Boyd Robertson was 14, he had to leave his North Uist home in the Outer Hebrides to continue his education, since the local school was only a junior secondary.

He was sent to Portree High School on Skye, a journey made via a series of island ferries that took almost a day.

Pupils returned home only for the holidays, and in an era before mobile phones, communication was largely by letter. He lived in a hostel with 50 other pupils.

"One of the quirks of the system was that you either went to Portree or Inverness Royal Academy, determined by the availability of hostel accommodation.

"The year I moved, (local) girls went to Inverness. I think it was a very unfortunate development, because you grew apart from the people you'd grown up with."

Hostel life was spartan. The pupils were allowed out only for a short time after school and before the evening meal, followed by two hours of mandatory study.

"But on Saturdays we were allowed out to what we called 'the flicks'. That was a bit of relief," he said.

Following a decade as a teacher and almost 30 years as an academic, Professor Robertson is now back on Skye as director of the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig, part of the network of the UHI Millennium Institute.

He succeeds a former schoolmate, Norman Gillies, who spent 25 years at the college and who has just been appointed professor emeritus at UHI.

Professor Gillies last year oversaw the college's first-ever submission to the research assessment exercise and Professor Robertson is delighted with the results, which he said were a strong base to build on.

Sabhal Mor is unique in the world in teaching in Gaelic at tertiary level.

It began in 1973 by offering vocational further education to native speakers, while giving the growing number of Gaelic enthusiasts a chance to learn the language.

But since joining UHI, it has established a wide range of degree programmes, from broadcasting and business management to music and literature. This year it has 200 full-time equivalent students, its highest enrolment yet.

Changing status

Professor Robertson has seen a dramatic change in the status of Gaelic, his own first language.

When he was young, all the teaching was in English and, as his father was pier master in Lochmaddy, he frequently interacted with non-Gaelic speakers.

His first exposure to Gaelic in education was an hour on Friday afternoons in the last two years of primary school. Even at Portree, it was taught only three hours a week, but, inspired by his secondary school teachers, Professor Robertson graduated in Celtic studies from the University of Aberdeen.

"At that point, the options were still quite limited, largely teaching and broadcasting, and I went to Aberdeen College of Education," he said.

Professor Robertson applied for two Gaelic teaching posts. A fellow student had done the same, and when they turned up at the first interview, the Education Directorate representative left them to decide over a coffee who would take which job.

Professor Robertson went to Oban High School, a key post in Gaelic teaching, since the school took in pupils, often fluent Gaelic speakers, from many of the Scottish islands such as Mull, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree.

A crucial development was local government reorganisation in 1974, creating Comhairle nan Eilean, the Western Isles Council.

"For the first time since the Lordship of the Isles in the 14th century, islanders were ruled by Gaelic-speaking islanders," Professor Robertson noted.

The council promoted a bilingual policy, but there was growing awareness that, given the strength of English, a shift was needed to exclusive Gaelic-language education.

"In Oban, we established one of the first Gaelic playgroups in Scotland," Professor Robertson said.

He then took up a post at Jordanhill College of Education, now part of the University of Strathclyde, where he became head of language education and acting head of the department of curricular studies.

He has trained most of the teachers in the 40 secondary schools that teach Gaelic to both fluent speakers and learners.

"Higher education unfortunately hasn't had the benefit of the system of specific grants for Gaelic education that schools have had, and there hasn't been development in terms of Gaelic-medium education with the singular exception of Sabhal Mor Ostaig."

But he is heartened by the Scottish Funding Council's recent £250,000 boost for the language.

"One aspect they want to support is allowing students who take Celtic studies in traditional universities to spend time in Gaelic-speaking areas, in the way students of modern languages spend a year abroad."

He believes that greater interest in the Gaelic language could be stimulated if schools promoted Celtic studies with the enthusiasm currently reserved for the Vikings and Romans.

"I can think of no other country on earth that would overlook such an important part of its heritage as we in Scotland do with Gaelic and Celtic elements," Professor Robertson said.

"Scotland would lose greatly if Gaelic were to suffer a demise and the world would lose a language unique to this part of Scotland. We can ill afford as a nation and citizens of the world to lose elements of diversity at a time of increasing globalisation."


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