Da chanan, da chultar, iomadh cothrom, is written on her coffee mug: two languages, two cultures, many opportunities.

The new head teacher of Glasgow Gaelic School certainly practices what she preaches. She is fluent in Spanish and French, competent in German and can also have a chat in Mandarin.

Now, in common with more than 90% of pupils at the school, Gillian Campbell-Thow is learning Gaelic. She is the first head teacher of the city's flagship school for Gaelic Medium Education who is not a native speaker.

The Herald:

Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu opened in 2002 with a relatively small school roll, predominantly made up of pupils whose parents had 'heritage' Gaelic.

While the Ayrshire-born teacher's appointment might have raised eyebrows in the early days of the school, she says "for the most part" the reaction from the community has been positive.

Being able to lead a community and protect, encourage and develop a language is precious.

She is working towards an additional teaching qualification in Gaelic at Strathclyde University and has her own homework to do this evening. None of the pupils have been brave enough to correct her Gaelic so far, she says, only the staff.

READ MORE: Gaelic poet's parents were banned from registering his name in the language

"They are quite right to do so," says the head teacher smiling.

"It's strange because you are very much marked out as being a learner.

"Which wouldn't be something I'd experience as a French or Spanish teacher. As a linguist it's not an alien concept to me.

"Being in an immersive environment is great - you just have to use it. I love the fact that the children will come to speak to me in Gaelic. I still have a bit of hesitancy though, like any adult learner has."

The Herald:

She says her transition to GME was helped by the fact she was "moving in Gaelic circles" for years as quality improvement officer for Glasgow’s education services with responsibility for languages. Before that she was head of languages at All Saint’s Secondary.

"This is also about leading a school," she adds, "and the question is - would you take a Gaelic speaker who doesn't have the requisite qualifications to be a head teacher or do you go for someone who is completely committed and probably a bit obsessed with it.

"Being able to lead a community and protect, encourage and develop a language is precious.

"A language is so intrinsic to our identity, you do feel very privileged."

READ MORE: Why Gaelic is the talk of Scotland

The demographic of Glasgow's first Gaelic school has changed considerably over the years, the joint primary and secondary campus takes pupils from all over the city as well as placing requests from outwith the city.

Last year the school ranked eighth in Scotland for the number of pupil achieving the Scottish Government's 'gold standard of five highers in 2021. 

The Herald:

The head teacher is aware that some parents might be basing their decision to send their children to the school on its academic record rather than interest in Gaelic.

"The reasons for choosing Gaelic medium education (GME) has changed," said the 44-year-old who lives in Glasgow and has a daughter in her third year at Holyrood Secondary.

"We have families who are choosing GME not because of Gaelic but because of bilingualism or perhaps they think there might be smaller classes."

The drop-out rate of pupils from P1 to 7 is quite high at the school. She mentions that some parents are surprised that lessons are taught in Gaelic or that feedback on assignments is written in the language. They are encouraged to learn the language themselves.

"We have to do a lot of demystifying for what GME is," says the head. 

The Herald:

The pandemic was particularly difficult for pupils because the majority didn't have anyone at home speaking Gaelic.

While the school consistently does well in academic-based league tables, a major focus for her is considering the children "who are not on this trajectory."

She said: "You can't deny it's a good school, it does well academically [but] schools are not just about academic achievements.

"These are wee people we are talking about and not marbles as Maureen McKenna used to say [Glasgow's former head of education].

"The school is getting bigger, so therefore you are going to have bigger class sizes and a different demographic of children.

The Herald:

"One of the questions at the interview was, 'good kids will always do well at Glasgow Gaelic School but what about those that are not on an academic trajectory?

"That's a question that every head teacher should be asking."

READ MORE: Crisis over bid to keep Gaelic alive due to shortage of new teachers

The school is introducing ring-fenced time for wider achievement programmes through the medium of Gaelic with a range of options including Duke of Edinburgh and leadership awards and expressive arts offered.

She said: "This will give our staff and young people a chance to connect and communicate outside of classroom and use their Gaelic in a different setting.

"In order to normalise the language, we need to see and hear it more in everyday situations and not just in an academic context."

Scotland is facing a shortage of Gaelic teachers, which has led to some subjects being taught in English, but she says there is a balance to be struck.

She wants "outstanding teachers" and not just teachers who speak Gaelic. Any that don't must also commit to learning the language.

Glasgow's first Gaelic school opened in 1999 as a primary school only in Woodlands.

As the roll grew unused buildings at Berkeley Street, Sandyford (also a site used by Woodside Secondary School until 1999), were identified. 

Glasgow Gaelic School re-opened in August 2006, providing Gaelic medium education for pre-5, primary and secondary pupils.

Such is the demand for GME, the city now has three primaries and a secondary with another planned for the Calton area. The primary part of the shared campus will also be moved out to a new building and the head teacher notes that the coming year's first-year intake is the highest on record.

By 2028, the council says Gaelic will be more accessible, more widely spoken, more visible and more celebrated in Glasgow than in any other city in the world,

The school's new leader replaces Donalda McComb, who retired from teaching after 34 years in 2020.

Interviewed by The Herald before she left she described the negative discourse that follows Gaelic around as “water off a duck’s back”.

“It’s always been a battle,” she said: “It’s a waste of money. It won’t do anything for you - I’ve heard it all in my years of teaching and outside of teaching. We persevere.

"The vision is to normalise GME," says her replacement.

"It is special and it is precious but it is also a school and it is a Glasgow school."