Associate feature: A chance to chat with Bòrd na Gàidhlig
October is a bright spot in the calendars of Gaelic speakers across Scotland, with the cultural festivities surrounding the Royal National Mòd.
In more normal times, the festival goers would gather in the location picked out to host the annual week of ceilidhs, competitions, performances and workshops built around Gaelic literature and song and traditional Scottish music. In 2020, the location was supposed to be Inverness.
But, as with all best laid plans for this year, the coronavirus pandemic forced a rethink. The first ever virtual Mòd closed on the evening of 16 October and was a success.
For Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which is a key funder of the Mòd, lockdown brought new challenges in promoting the development of the Gaelic language, which required creative responses.
“A year ago at the Mòd in Glasgow we launched the #cleachdi initiative to promote using Gaelic,” says Shona MacLennan, the ceannard (CEO) of Bòrd na Gàidhlig (BnG).
The campaign, which can be translated as ‘Use it’, encouraged people to be more visible using Gaelic in various settings, particularly on social media. BnG also created posters and stickers for displaying in public places where Gaelic could be spoken.
“When it came to lockdown,” MacLennan says, “school learning went online and we recognised that there needed to be a lot of activities to support particularly those pupils who are not in Gaelic-speaking families, to ensure they had opportunities to continue using their Gaelic.
“We wanted to make sure it was still enjoyable, that it was not just formal learning.
“So we, with partners at Comunn na Gàidhlig, Fèisean nan Gàidheal and others, developed the ‘#cleachdiaigantaigh’ [use it at home] campaign and we also provided some financial support for some of the organisations to move their activities online.
“It was very much a partnership approach, and the Mòd was part of that as well.”
There was a focus early on in lockdown to make sure that Gaelic-speaking children had access to activities and resources to meet the challenge posed by losing the immersive classroom environment.
As well as different events, organisations like Comhairle nan Leabhraichean deliver Leugh is Seinn le Linda (Read and Sing with Linda) sessions for children online. Many Gaelic playgroups also ran Bookbug sessions online as well.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig also funds a network of 15 regional community ‘iomairtean’ development officers through Commun na Gàidhlig who create out of school activities for young people. These also went online.
“It did really help to build a sense of community, particularly when folk were feeling isolated at the start, when there was no travel and no mixing,” MacLennan says.
The Gaelic community is a little stronger as a result of what has happened. And I think Bòrd na Gàidhlig in its own way is stronger as well
Mairi MacInnes, the chair of BnG, says the organisation has “extended the hand of leadership” to Gaelic organisations in recent months.
“I think lockdown actually enabled the Gaelic community to step up in many ways, particularly in terms of working together,” MacInnes says.
It also put Bòrd na Gàidhlig in the position to help community organisations with their own creative responses to the pandemic, distributing over £200,000 to various groups for lockdown projects.
“That helped instil a real sense of community among the Gaelic groups,” MacInnes says.
“It’s amazing the amount of work that has been going on – ceilidhs, classes, all sorts of things. People have been very stoic in their support of each other, as much as anything else.
“The Gaelic community is a little stronger as a result of what has happened. And I think Bòrd na Gàidhlig in its own way is stronger as well.”
This year more than any, deriving strength from adversity is something the Gaelic community has resolved to do, and not only because of the pandemic.
A study titled The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community was published in July by the Gaelic Islands Research Project at the Soillse partnership, a research collaboration that includes the University of the Highlands and Islands.
In a sense, its data was not a surprise to anyone who lives in the language. But its findings made stark reading in black and white. One headline prediction was that, at current rates of decline, Gaelic-speaking communities in the islands could all but vanish in 10 years.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig faced the news head on, MacInnes says, addressing the findings with the Scottish Government. Education and Gaelic minister John Swinney has held community meetings on the issue.
But lockdown and its insidious effect on community spirits everywhere poses a particular challenge for Gaelic, which is most vulnerable as a community language. An alternative to people getting together and ceilidhing in their houses and at gatherings needed to be fostered, MacInnes says.
“There were lots of messages then that did not surprise us at all. We know that the rural areas are being depopulated, we know there are issues around not having enough children...We’re not blind to these,” she says.
It gave an opportunity to reflect on the current National Gaelic Language Plan, which BnG is responsible for developing every five years, MacInnes says.
“What it says there is exactly addressing what the Soillse report said. That more language is needed in the community,” she says.
While much remains to be done, MacInnes says, it is worth considering how much worse the situation might have been without the work that has been done.
For such a complex issue, MacLennan says, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
“You need, to some extent, different strategies for different communities,” she says.
“If you look in the national plan, we talk about three broad strands of communities: those in the islands and rural communities, the traditional communities; the growing communities in the towns and cities; and the online community.
“That’s the one that has just expanded phenomenally since lockdown.”
It’s not just something that sits in ‘culture’ – it’s about how you live your life
There are formal measures Bòrd na Gàidhlig looks to for signs of progress. But grassroots initiatives show evidence of a flourishing interest in the language, too.
“One [sign] that’s blown everyone away is the number of people signing up for Duolingo,” MacLennan says. The app has registered nearly 500,000 Gaelic learners in Scotland since its launch. This appears to be translating to an uptick in people registering for formal courses, MacInnes says.
There’s also been a surge in younger people being creative on social media, spurred on in the spirit of defiance following the Soillse report.
“For me, I think it’s been particularly young people on things like Instagram,” MacLennan notes.
“That’s really grown and that’s where people are doing it for themselves. They’re being very active about ‘I want it to grow, I want it to survive, so I’ll take personal responsibility and I’ll do something about it.’
“And it’s just been great.”
In addition to work to promote the language in education and cultural settings, Bòrd na Gàidhlig also represents the interest of Gaelic communities in wider policy discussions.
Responding to consultation on the Scottish Government’s incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, MacLennan noted that there’s an emphasis in the convention on linguistic and cultural rights.
“It’s not just something that sits in ‘culture’ – it’s about how you live your life,” she says. “It’s not just about culture and heritage, it’s about your rights.”
Recently, BnG submitted evidence arguing against the move being considered by the Scottish Government to remove the requirement that the Scottish Land Court have at least one Gaelic-speaking member.
“Gaelic’s got few enough rights without reducing them,” MacLennan says.
“There’s a Gaelic Language Act, and to reduce the status of that [Land Court] requirement goes, in our view, against that.”
Looking to the future, BnG is already beginning planning the next national plan.
With positive signs such as the higher numbers going into Gaelic-medium education this year and the general sense that the language is finding its footing in cities as never before, there comes increased responsibility too, MacInnes says.
She adds: “The more that Gaelic belongs to all of Scotland and the more it spreads out, the stronger it becomes. It’s really important, I think, that people are mindful of how much more also needs to be done.”