Being 'Gaelic-critical' is a bit like being 'gender-critical'. You can fully support the Gaelic language's right to exist, develop and flourish but still be uncomfortable when it is weaponised to push a political agenda or demonise those who dare to raise questions.
Gaelic is not the national language of Scotland. It is a long-established minority language in Scotland, spoken by about 1% of the population concentrated in the Highlands and Islands. The language gains nothing from being used as a political football by nationalists. That results in a tribalism of taking sides that has little to do with the language at all. We have seen that at its worst in Northern Ireland where the government at Stormont was put into limbo because of an absurd stand-off over the status of the Irish Language – a language widely spoken across Ireland.
The SNP Government's efforts to submerge the whole country in Gaelic signage and logos is almost like government sanctioned graffiti. It does little for the development of the language or culture. Of course, to say that invites being accused of racism: 'You wouldn't say that about translations into Urdu, Arabic or Polish'. But they are for people whose first language isn't English.
As far as I know, no-one has ever missed their train stop at Prestwick Airport because it is one of the few stations on the network that hasn't got a Gaelic translation on the platform signage.
One of the most effective ambassadors for Gaelic over the years has been the former Labour MP and minister, Brian Wilson. It is somewhat ironic that he has also been a scourge of nationalism and a long-standing devolution sceptic. Brian has argued that Gaelic is best served by ensuring the sustainability of those communities where the language survives and by the targeting of resources to achieve that rather than the mere spouting of political rhetoric.
His legacy includes the indomitable West Highland Free Press – still flourishing 50 years after it first appeared. The slogan on its masthead: 'An Tir, An Cänan, 'S na Daoine', 'The Land, the Language, the People', is borrowed from the Highland Land League which was a 19th-century champion of crofters' rights.
He has put his words into action by championing throughout the world the indigenous Harris Tweed industry. He was also the first ever government Minister for Gaelic, initiating a process in 1998 that should have led to a digital satellite TV channel within five years. Earlier, in the 1980s, he had written a Gaelic policy for the Labour Party around the three priorities of education, broadcasting and status. He worked hard to see the education element taken forward by the Labour-run regional councils in cooperation with An Comunn Gaidhealach.
Brian Wilson's driving belief is that Gaelic only benefits when it is taken out of the party political arena. In the 1980s it was Tory Secretary of State, George Younger, who created a ring-fenced budget within the Scottish Office to allow for the development of Gaelic-medium education. This has survived and developed to the present day. The Tories also created the Gaelic Broadcasting Fund which was the first vital step towards the creation of a television channel. It was the Labour/LibDem-run Scottish Executive that passed the Gaelic Language Act in 2005 which established a language-development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
The Minister for Education, Peter Peacock, who, at the time of the act coming into force, had ministerial responsibility for Gaelic, said: 'This is a momentous day for Gaelic as we open a new chapter in the language's history. We have come a long way since the dark days of 1616 when an act of parliament ruled that Gaelic should be abolishit and removit
from Scotland'. However, all those solid foundations and the progress that has flowed from them shouldn't blind us to the mistakes that have been made or the fragility of the state of the language today.
The position of BBC Alba is far from secure. It doesn't have the status of a channel like the Welsh Language S4C, which is one of the Public Service Broadcasting channels. It is run as a partnership between the BBC and MG Alba. There is a big debate raging over the future of broadcasting and Gaelic broadcasting will have to fight its corner very hard. Its viewing figures are inflated by an average of three hours a week of sport watched by many with little or no interest in the language. Fortunately, viewing figures alone are no longer king in the world of digital broadcasting.
Gaelic-medium schooling is very much at the centre of the Scottish Government's promotion of Gaelic. It has grown from 24 pupils in 1985 to over 5,000 today enrolled in Gaelic-medium nursery, primary and secondary schools. It is most effective in the Western Isles, Skye and parts of the Highlands where there are Gaelic speakers at home and in the local communities. Students from schools in the cities and the central belt show little evidence of taking their knowledge of the language beyond school into adult life. Gaelic for them is a bit like the French or German we learned at school. The report of the project, The Output of Gaelic Education
, funded by Bòrd na Gàidhlig (2010), found evidence that it has become very attractive to a group of middle-class parents in the cities.
The report quoted one parent as saying: 'The Gaelic-medium secondary is a very good school... you are not going to turn down a place there… our catchment secondary school where we lived is one of those within a really deprived area, totally unsuitable, and I wouldn't say that was the only reason he has gone to Gaelic-medium secondary, but it's certainly helped'.
Another said: 'Well I mean, you know, we are looking at either paying private or a secondary school with Gaelic-medium provision'.
That's not to say that Gaelic-medium education has no role to play outwith the Gaelic speaking areas. There is a long and honourable tradition of teaching Gaelic in Glasgow, for example. However, we should acknowledge that prioritising and targeting finite resources is very important.
There was a sketch in the popular BBC Scotland programme, Scot Squad
, where police chief Cameron Miekelson unveils a plaque in Gaelic only to find out it doesn't say what he thought it said. He admits he sent an email asking for a translation into Gaelic of a statement of cooperation between the Police and the Gaelic community, and that he has had the signs put up in every police station in Scotland. What it actually says is something about 'being out of the office at the moment but will give it my full attention when back'.
Let's hope when it comes to their policy on Gaelic, the Scottish Government don't get lost in translation.