Tapadh leibh, Presiding Officer. Unfortunately, I cannot replicate the language skills of my party colleagues the minister, Dave Thompson and John Finnie, all of whom are far more proficient in Gaelic than I am. However, as a fellow MSP for the Highlands and Islands, I know how important the continuing encouragement and development of Gaelic as a vital part of the nation’s identity are.
Last weekend, Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis followed her magnificent work for the film “Brave”, which has been referred to, with a stunning performance in front of a worldwide audience to herald the beginning of Scotland’s Ryder cup 2014 preparations. She was brought up in North Uist in a Gaelic-speaking community but, like others, she was not a fluent Gaelic speaker. She benefited first from the fèis movement and she went on to be a student of the language at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which is Scotland’s Gaelic college in Skye.
As with many lesser-spoken languages, the spread of Gaelic has been inhibited as English and other languages have become the lingua franca. Fewer than 60,000 Gaelic speakers, who are concentrated in the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and the Highlands, are estimated to remain in Scotland. They represent just over 1 per cent of the population. That must be a concern, given that, in comparison, more than 20 per cent of the population in Wales can speak Welsh.
If we are to witness a dramatic upturn in the number of Gaelic speakers across Scotland, we require a comprehensive and holistic approach to be taken by all the agencies whose remit is the furtherance of Gaelic. I particularly welcome the focus on early years and education in the national plan’s key outcomes. Evidence of success from that comes from my neighbour, nine-year-old Ruaraidh, who attends the local Gaelic school. He said:
“We don’t learn Gaelic, we live it—like the way you get to speak English”.
Promoters of Gaelic-medium education now focus on the benefits of bilingualism rather than the direct benefits of Gaelic, but we must never lose sight of the links to the past, people and places. We can think of all the effort that goes into curating artefacts that are of historical value. How much more precious is a living language? Common sense dictates that we must continue to focus on Gaelic-medium teaching in schools or at least on facilitating Gaelic lessons to maintain the language.
The role that artists and musicians such as Julie Fowlis play in promoting Gaelic is another reminder of how important the language is. Others acknowledge its importance. A local teacher who assumed that two Polish immigrants had arrived for an English as a foreign language course was amazed when they said that their English was fine and that they were interested in signing up to learn Gaelic.
We must never underestimate others. Scots sometimes have to be convinced by somebody else that something is a really good idea. I suspect that, across Europe, we would get massive support for our plan. In Europe, there is a determination to retain languages such as Gaelic, and we must endorse that.
I found out earlier today that the last speaker of the Cromarty dialect, Bobby Hogg, had died aged92, removing one of the more colourful threads of Scotland’s linguistic tapestry. I sincerely hope that the plan that we have will prevent similar headlines about the last Gaelic speaker in the years to come. As Ruaraidh said, we have to live it.