Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
“An Tìr, an Cànan ’s na Daoine”,
which mean, “the land, the language and the people”, are on the masthead of the West Highland Free Press, the UK’s first employee-owned newspaper, which is based on the Isle of Skye.
It is a direct reference to the slogans of the Highland Land League and the Crofters Party of the 19th century.
It is good to celebrate the support that the Gaelic language has enjoyed from all parties over the past 30 years, and it is right to say that the language is part of the cultural richness of Scotland as a whole, but we should never forget the origins of the Gaelic language movement in the class struggles and land wars of the Highlands and Hebrides in earlier generations.
When Labour ministers introduced measures such as the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, they did so not only out of support for cultural diversity and inclusiveness, but to achieve, at long last, equal rights and recognition for what had been the culture of the common people of the Highland clans, which is just as important as rights over land and the right to a democratic voice in local government and national Government.
When Labour councils such as Strathclyde Regional Council and Glasgow City Council pioneered Gaelic-medium education outwith the Highlands, that was a recognition not just of the Highland diaspora but of the fact that Gaelic requires equal status right across Scotland if it is to be fully supported in its native-speaking communities.
Those views are shared across parties and public bodies today, so it is easy to forget the extent to which the right to speak Gaelic was denied and how significant that denial was.
When people were cleared from the land, in the 1700s and 1800s, it was not just the means to earn a living that were lost; the connection with the land and with past generations, through the language and the shared knowledge of people and place, was also lost. A few years ago, I was told about the workhouse in Tobermory by the son of a man who had been there. Gaelic-speaking Muileachs had sought refuge in the workhouse as late as the 1890s after being driven from their homes.
What struck my friend’s father was that those folk were not just destitute; they were utterly bewildered at the extent of their loss, which impacted on who they were as well as on what they had.
That story could be repeated again and again, from the straths of Sutherland to the banks of Loch Tay and to the most westerly of the Hebrides.
It is a story of cultural loss going hand in hand with material deprivation.
In debating Gaelic in the 21st century, it is as well to remember that history, which stretches back to when the statutes of Iona were approved by the Scottish Privy Council, in 1609.
Those laws effectively prohibited the Gaelic-medium education of the sons of chiefs, with just as clear a purpose as laws that are passed in support of Gaelic-medium education today.
As we have heard, that suppression of Gaelic in Scotland’s schools continued for more than 300 years.
We have a lot of ground to make up, and what is most remarkable about the Gaelic language is not its decline but its survival.
The national Gaelic language plan is right to seek
“to enable urban Gaelic communities to thrive”,
and real progress has been made on that in the past 30 years.
My daughter Iona enjoyed Gaelic-medium nursery and primary education in Aberdeen, studied and debated in Gaelic at secondary school and now, as a university student, keeps up her skills by working of an evening with Gaelic-speaking children in Glasgow.
She would want me to mention Mairi Morley, who was for a number of years the Gaelic officer at Aberdeen City Council with responsibility for Gaelic-medium education and who recently went back to her native Uist.
She has died too young, and her friends in Aberdeen will gather later today to remember her.
Mairi Morley made a real contribution to supporting and sustaining her native language into the present century and to promoting it across Scotland, and she should be warmly remembered for that.
Gaelic has made progress in urban Scotland and should continue to do so, but there is no substitute for the spoken language at the grass-roots level in Highlands and Islands communities.
Therefore, our first priority must be to sustain the health and strength of Gaelic as a community language in those places where it is still passed on as a first language from one generation to the next.
I welcome the focus on the Gaelic heartland areas in this third iteration of the national Gaelic language plan under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.
In conclusion, I ask ministers to say a bit more about how they will measure success in achieving that objective.
The future of Gaelic as a community language is inseparably bound up with the future of many of our communities on the edge, and a sustainable future for the language requires us to secure a sustainable future for those communities, too.
That would enable Gaelic in Scotland to take another step in the right direction.