Western Isles ‘Gaelic First’ policy a good first step

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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.