THERE is so much more on the table today at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh than a couple of cups of coffee. Professor of Celtic and Scottish Studies Wilson McLeod, despite a warm smile and equally warm handshake, has brought with him a flashlight, to lead me out of the darkness.

Why? My column – in particular its criticism of Gaelic funding (the peg for which was a new £2.5 million Gaelic dictionary) – resulted in a barrage of letters, emails and Tweets from the Gaelic community claiming I was a racist and an inveterate idiot. They argued it was cliche ridden and rammed full of stereotypes. And my comment that a Darwinist approach to the Gaelic language – if it can’t survive without funding, switch off the life support machine – was seen as something close to genocidal.

In turn, what I’ve brought to the table is a list of questions about the language and, hopefully, a willingness to learn.

Let’s get down to it. I start with a biggie. If Gaelic is likely to die without funding, as Bord na Gaidhlig maintains, why battle to keep it alive?

“I think most people wouldn’t think it is so important,” says Mr McLeod, surprising me. “There have been surveys in recent times that say most people see Gaelic as important and valuable in terms of history and culture but perhaps isn’t relevant to their own lives. It’s something distant to them. And a substantial chunk of people will say they don’t have an opinion about Gaelic. It’s seen as ‘nice’.”

Nice? Just nice? Isn’t this an argument against resuscitation? “No, because you have the likes of the 2012 poll that revealed 44 per cent (of parents) were in favour of children being taught Gaelic in schools. Now, this idea is often presented as being of the quintessential, ludicrous, lunatic fringe position of Gaelic. Yet, it seems the public would quite like that.”


But if the public would “quite like” Gaelic to be taught in schools, why hasn’t it happened? Is it a lack of Gaelic teachers?

“Spreading the resources is one of the most controversial issues with Gaelic,” he says. “Edinburgh has one Gaelic primary school, Glasgow has two, with a third on the way. In Edinburgh and Glasgow there is just one secondary school that teaches Gaelic. The focus is concentrated. So, instead of teachers doing everything in one school, should we send the teachers out to several schools and give a wee bit more Gaelic to a lot more kids?”

Why doesn’t the government grow more Gaelic teachers, as it would by offering say, £25,000-a-year grants to produce physics teachers?

“That’s a very good question,” he says, smiling. “I think that would be very helpful. However, particularly since the independence referendum, a myth has developed of some form of association between Gaelic and the SNP. In fact, going back to the 1930s, the SNP has never been interested in Gaelic. It has never been a priority. If you look at their track record in government since 2007, it’s just about ticking over, continuing the previous policies.”

He adds: “The SNP is rolling out the One Plus Two policy that children should learn two languages in primary school. If the SNP had said one of those new languages had to be Gaelic that would represent a major change, and be deliverable. But, as far as I’m aware, it was never even contemplated.”

Does he believe the SNP considers Gaelic introduction in schools to be a vote loser? “Yes, that’s one of the quandaries. Sometimes politicians do things for obvious pay-off. If you look at the history of Gaelic policy, huge steps were taken in the 1980s under the Tories, and it was they who laid the foundation for development.”

Why? “The Tories love choice. They promote consumer choice for parents, so they logically support it more.”

Mr Wilson McLeod brings a wide perspective to the Gaelic language argument. Born in Boston, his grandmother was a Gael who had emigrated to Nova Scotia. His family moved to England when he was three and later holidays to Scotland produced a fascination for Gaelic. Harvard educated, he studied English Literature and French and Italian, going on to study Gaelic.


So where are we now with Gaelic? If there isn’t a political will for expansionism, and if the public has softly declared it would “quite like” teaching of Gaelic in schools, how has this manifested into a very loud voice for Gaelic funding? Is funding fuelling the demand?

He circles the question and counters with a side argument. “The thing about education is the money would

be spent on the kids anyway. Meanwhile, Creative Scotland funds some Gaelic arts groups, but would it make a difference to the overall spend? The issue is about creating pathways for the language.”

Who is insisting these pathways being cleared? Are they parents such as himself who love the language (his son attends Gaelic primary in Edinburgh and his German wife also speaks Gaelic). “I know of Germans and Turks, even a Tibetan, sending children to the Gaelic schools. They are multicultural.”

But if Gaelic is primarily being grown in the sons and daughters of non-Gaels in Glasgow and Edinburgh schools does this create a whole new cultural form, far from the traditional Gaidhealtachd?

“That’s a good question, and a very complicated one,” says the former lawyer who worked on the Gaelic Language act of 2005, preparing briefing papers. “The term we use in the academic literature is ‘new seekers’, learners of Gaelic who don’t have links to the traditional Gaelic communities. And there is a paradox. You could have a child of two Nigerian parents who goes on to speak Gaelic perfectly well. But how do they see themselves in terms of community? We don’t know yet. And yes, you might end up with a more hybrid, variegated form of Gaelic.”

He adds: “The overwhelming majority of the parents [of children in Gaelic schools] don’t speak Gaelic. The children in Gaelic schools don’t speak to their parents. Or to each other. That’s one of our huge challenges. This is also huge problem in Wales.”

So, is Gaelic a language? Or is it an understanding of a history no longer shared? “Yes, it’s complicated,” he admits. “People have different relationships to it. For some, it’s the language of their families, it’s just life. Others have very romantic notions, of Brigadoony stuff or dreams of what Scotland might be, or something quite exotic. For many it’s about social networks.”


In my column, I pointed out there are more speakers of Polish in Scotland than Gaelic. Mr Wilson’s calm leaves him, just for a moment. “Look, the classic argument we hear is ‘Why should we have Gaelic schools? We should have Spanish or French-speaking schools...’”

His voice runs close to angry and his hand dunts the table with a couple of little thuds, “but when the French go out and lobby for 20 years friggin’ years like we had to do they will get their school. But there is no organised pressure for it.”

So the loudest voice wins out? “Yes, but we need to shout very loud. We need language centres, the cultural spaces as you have in Belfast for Irish language. We need the bookshops, cafes, theatres, performance spaces … a big hub.”

But Gaelic promotion in Northern Ireland has widened the schism there. Could Scotland go the same way? “Conceivably,” he agrees. “Going back to the politics of it, there is cross party support to the Gaelic language act of 2005 but

it’s not really political support. It’s about individuals who feel language development is important.”

The more we chat, the more it becomes obvious the pursuit of Gaelic language expansion, or even helping it survive, is so much about the passion of the individual. It’s about using whatever means are available to keep the remains of what was a powerful culture alive.

Gaelic is the indigenous language of Scotland but by the 18th century Lowland Gaelic was replaced by Lowland Scots. The development of English saw Gaelic contained to the Highlands and Islands and migration to the industralised west of Scotland helped sustain the language.

Now, just 1.1% of Scots speak the language. And it’s arguable there could be fewer had the Highlands and Islands development strategy not been introduced, a motor for economic and social development.

Part of the development programme involved the creation of Gaelic television but it’s hard to judge its impact on language promotion. (BBC Alba is granted £20m a year from the BBC and the Scottish Government.)

However Mr McLeod believes it to be an essential building block. “The funding is very thin. It’s been a shoestring operation and there is not enough money for production of different programmes. Yet, people watch it. About 700,000 a week, which is about 15% of the population, considering a speaker base of 1.1% of Gaelic speakers.”

But, if you took the football away, what audiences would you be left with? “Yes, who knows?” he wonders. BBC Scotland say they don’t separate the figures.

“The plus is we are bringing in non-Gaelic speakers but the downside [of the viewing success] is we don’t always cater for the core audiences.”


What about the long-standing Scottish media grudge that BBC Scotland employs a disproportionate amount of young people from Stornoway and Lewis? “Yes, the Gaelic mafia argument,” he says, smiling. “Well, there is a claim Gaels look after their own but we have no evidence for that theory. But there are some really top people working in Gaelic in the BBC, such as Cathy Macdonald and Kenny MacIver.”

Does he believe in positive discrimination? “I wouldn’t say that but I would like to see a development of jobs seen to be Gaelic-essential, as the Welsh Assembly has created, such as in press and media offices in council offices or television.

“I wouldn’t call this positive discrimination, rather it’s organisation building, which is the rational thing to do. But this should apply to other languages too. We need to tackle this mentality that monolingualism is embedded.”

We chat more, about minority languages across the world, about Maoris, about the Sorbs. We talk about the media in general. The column, it transpires, was something of a straw that broke the Gaelic camel’s back. “The negative stuff in the press is systematically relentlessly negative,” he says, shrugging. “It’s overwhelming and one-dimensional.”

Why does he think this is, I ask, (really asking what he felt my own motives were?) “The idea has got out that Gaelic is some sort of molly-coddled, pampered unaccountable special interest group,” he says, in frustrated voice.

“And when you wrote the line about Gaelic ‘Sounding like someone gargling with Irn Bru’, well, it’s a 500-year-old joke. Yes, you can say Gaelic has a distinctive spelling system that takes a long time to master. But cheap shots are tedious.”

I can accept tedious. “And there’s a feeling that anti-Gaelic columns are really a proxy for those who would really like to write a column about Asian curry shop owners taking over. They can’t criticise Jews or Muslims or blacks, or they would get sacked, so they write about the Gaels instead.”

Gosh, that’s a bit extreme, Wilson. “Regardless, they are a group that’s been stigmatised, denigrated, stereotyped for centuries, since the Middle Ages. That sentiment is very deeply held. And that’s probably what you were tapping into with your column.”


Is this why Gaelic speakers have developed a stronger voice which may sound fundamentalist? “No, Gaels tend to be lacking in confidence, non-aggressive people. For them, it’s about community, not promoting the self. It’s about not speaking out or pushing your own views.”

Perhaps what we can agree on is that whatever Gaelic has become it’s a force that won’t allow itself to die. Gaelic isn’t now about attachment to the land, it’s attachment to a belief, to a romantic language, to a soulful sense of the past. It’s also about an attachment to a future, that for 1.1% of the population, would be unspeakable without Gaelic.