Western Isles ‘Gaelic First’ policy a good first step

Photo: Sgoil Lionacleit, Benbecula.

You may have recently learned that Scottish Gaelic-medium education is now the “default” option in Scotland’s Western Isles, the contemporary heartland of the language. What may surprise many outside Scotland is that this wasn’t already the case — after all 52% of people in the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides aged three years or older are Gaelic speakers, according to the 2011 UK Census.

But Gaelic-medium education has been an option in na h-Eileanan Siar only since 1987, and English-medium has been the default. The decision by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) to make Gaelic-medium the default choice, while allowing parents to opt for English-medium instruction, is an important step for a community fighting to keep its language alive.

But it’s only one step. Gaelic-medium education has grown rapidly in recent decades, and that’s given the language and its speakers a big boost in terms of confidence and visibility. The overall number of students enrolled in Gaelic-medium units is still small, however, and the challenges facing Gaelic speakers include a lack of economic opportunities for young people in traditional Gaelic communities.

How many students are in Gaelic-medium education? In 2018, the last year for which data are available, there were 4,343 students receiving Gaelic-medium education throughout Scotland, according to the Scottish Government’s pupil census. That’s out of a total of 693,251 pupils at primary, secondary, and special schools in Scotland. There were another 6,555 students in Gaelic classes, learning Gaelic as a second language.

In the Western Isles, 1,050 out of 3,326 students were in Gaelic-medium units, including 731 primary-school students and 319 secondary school students. That’s just about a third of the total. However, another 2,060 students — 62 percent of the total — were reported to be enrolled in “Gaelic learner classes,” with only 216 secondary school pupils reported in programs with “no Gaelic.”

There’s another key number in the 2018 Scottish Pupil Census, however: The number of students with a language other than English as their main home language. In that census, only 520 students claimed Scottish Gaelic as their main home language — not just in the Western Isles but in Scotland. For those who believe language transmission starts at home, not in school, that’s a bad number.

The Western Isles policy to make Gaelic the default language of primary and secondary education is the right step and corrects more than a century of neglect of Gaelic in the schools at best and outright persecution at worst. But much more attention must be paid to the use of Gaelic in the home, and to the creation of economic opportunities in Gaelic-speaking communities.



James Graham named CEO of An Comunn Gàidhealach

Seumas Greumach (James Graham), ACG's new CEO.
Seumas Greumach (James Graham), will be ACG’s next CEO. Photo credit: An Comunn Gàidhealach.

James Graham (Seumas Greumach), a Royal National Mòd Gold Medal Winner and a frequent  instructor and adjudicator at ACGA events, will become the new chief executive officer of An Comunn Gàidhealach in Scotland in March, after the current CEO, John Morrison, retires.

Graham has been An Comunn’s Mòd manager since 2010, tackling the varied management challenges of national and provincial mòds throughout Scotland. He won the men’s Bonn Òir or gold medal at the Royal National Mòd in Lochaber in 2007, and was a special guest at the US National Mòd in 2008. He also has been an instructor at the ACGA Grandfather Mountain Gaelic Song and Language Week and an adjudicator at Mòd nan Lochan Mòra, the Great Lakes Mòd.

“It is a very great honor to be taking over in this post and I am very much looking forward to maintaining the outstanding work which John Morrison established, but I recognize this will be challenging,” Graham said in a statement. 

“My ambition will be to strive to develop and strengthen the organization further in the future,” he said. “As a participant in Provincial and National Mods since boyhood and through my management work over the past decade, I have become increasingly aware that the Mòd is a foundation for Gaelic culture and its arts.”

A mòd is a competition and showcase for Gaelic song, storytelling and music. An Comunn has organized Scotland’s Royal National Mòd, as well as regional or provincial mòds, since 1892. ACGA, founded in 1984, has held 30 U.S. National Mòds and supports regional mòds in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

A list of this year’s provincial mòds in Scotland may be found here:



Rachel Walker coming to Ligonier Mòd in September


Rachel Walker won the women's gold medal at the 2017 Royal National Mòd.
Rachel Walker won the women’s gold medal at the 2017 Royal National Mòd. Photo courtesy Rachel Walker.

Acclaimed Scottish Gaelic singer Rachel Walker is returning to America, this time to judge the Gaelic song competition at Mòd Ligonier 2019 in September.

The Mòd is a celebration of Scottish Gaelic song, music, poetry and storytelling based on Scotland’s Royal National Mòd and provincial Mòds. ACGA has held 30 National U.S. Mòds, many of them at Ligonier in western Pennsylvania.

Mòd Ligonier will be held Sept. 13-15, with the song competition taking place at the Ligonier Highland Games Sept. 14. More information will be available soon.

The Mòd continues ACGA’s tradition of welcoming Royal National Mòd Gold Medal winners to the United States. Walker, a singer, songwriter and tutor, won the prestigious medal in 2017. She was voted Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards in 2013 and nominated as Composer of the Year in 2015.

She is the conductor of the Lochaber District Gaelic Choir, which has won the Margrat Duncan prize for District Choirs at the last three Royal National Mòds.

In addition to teaching music at the West Highland College, University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI,) Walker performs with the groups Cruinn and Skippinish.

She recently adjudicated the song competition at Mòd nan Lochan Mòra/The Great Lakes Mòd in Ohio.