PERFORMING at the Royal National Mod more years ago than I would like to dwell on, my sister and I popped into the ladies for a last-minute rehearsal of our Gaelic duet.

Imagine our surprise when - despite us singing with gusto - two women burst into the closed but unlocked toilet and apologised, saying they “hadn’t realised” it was occupied.

We immediately scarpered, intimidated by this surprising intrusion.

It turned out the pair were also performing in the duets category and, as I remember, went on to win the event.

I can’t remember what our placing was, but given we are both Gaelic learners and almost certainly didn’t put as many hours of practice as we should have I’m sure it was a solid effort.

We can also console ourselves with the fact our impromptu performance in that school toilet must have engendered a bit of fear in our rivals.

The Gaelic festival of music and culture will make a welcome return next month, in Inverness and is expected to generate about £4 millon for the city. 

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The older I get, the more I enjoy attending, particularly the choral events, but my memories of performing are clouded by the intimidating experience of competing against school pupils who, despite being classed as novices, were considerably more advanced in the language.

Perhaps both parents were fluent and so there was a far greater chance of the language being spoken in the household, but they did not meet the criteria to be placed in the native speaker category.

I had a good foothold into the language, my grandparents on my mother’s side were both fluent and there is always a Gaelic voice coming out of the kitchen radio, but she didn’t teach us, as such, although her sentences were peppered with dearly remembered and cherished words and phrases.  

That’s probably symptomatic though, of her experience of going to school in the Highlands, where pupils were disciplined for speaking Gaelic. 

It remains an important part of my history and one I am keen to preserve. 

I studied the language along with German and music at university and my niece is a pupil at Glasgow Gaelic School.

Not being a native though, I can sympathise with the man who is apparently facing a backlash for proposing to open a Gaelic medium cafe on the Isle of Lewis.

Stornowegians are said to have railed against the “faux-community” cafe, saying that far from being an excellent tool for encouraging conversation (the very thing that accelerates the learning of any language) it is, in fact, sounding its death knell.

READ MORE: Scotland's official bodies 'in denial' about Gaelic crisis, expert warns 

Charles Wilson moved to Lewis after completing a PhD in Gaelic  and has launched an online fundraising appeal to fulfil his dream of opening a cultural hub called An Taigh Cèilidh in which every interaction would start in Gaelic.

The apparent lack of support of his venture is perhaps not widespread but it’s hard to imagine anyone facing any antagonism overseas in say Germany or Spain, where even a word or two in the native tongue by visitors is warmly welcomed.

The two islanders who were quoted in The Times’ article insist that Gaelic speaking in the community is widespread and there is no need for such a venue.

Yes, that should be the default but is it the reality?
It’s a long time since I’ve been to Lewis but my recollection of the visit was hearing mainly English spoken in public spaces.

A friend and native speaker told me there is a “keen sense of shame and regret” that Gaelic is no longer the first language of families growing up in the rural areas of the Western Isles, which she said was “inhibiting islanders from addressing their lack of fluency in their own language.”

It’s a moot point anyway as the arts centre is not really aimed at native speakers, although Mr Wilson (we aren’t related by the way) has said everyone would be given a very warm “failte”.

READ MORE: Concerted effort needed to protect future of Gaelic as consultation launched 

He says he had a “genuinely immersive experience” in the culture and languages of Italy and Poland while living there, but found there were few such opportunities for learners of Gaelic in Scotland.

It seems incongruous there are far more opportunities to become immersed in Gaelic in Glasgow than the islands that are the heartland of the language.

Ceòl is Craic was a hugely popular monthly musical event held at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary for Creative Arts, before the pandemic struck, attracting a wide audience despite very little English being spoken.

Glasgow’s Gaelic schools are a model of inclusion. The majority of parents 
who send their children are not native speakers and from every corner of the city and I’m sure their educational performance compares favourably with those who hear it every day in the home.

I doubt very much if pupils feel in any way inadequate to those with a more solid grounding in the language.

BBC Alba produces interesting and unusual documentaries that aren’t replicated anywhere else and probably don’t get the viewing figures they deserve. My father, despite being an Ayrshire man derives as much pleasure from Mod musical events as my mother despite speaking barely a word of the language.

I wonder if the opposition to Mr Wilson’s venture is really about the language but the small-town mentality that is not always entirely supportive of newcomers coming in and having the audacity to try to improve amenities or the visitor experience.

Perhaps not surprisingly, younger people from Stornoway were more supportive of his plan including Peigi Ann Scott, a crofter, who said: “He’s just trying to open a nice place where Gaelic is welcome.

As a young Gaelic  speaker in Lewis, I don’t see  anything wrong with it.”

Whatever your views on Gaelic (will this article escape another, wearying mention of road signs I wonder)  preserving the language is no easy fix but Mr Wilson should be praised rather than lambasted for his enthusiasm.

Given it’s people like Peigi who will shape Gaelic's future, I would say her support is a very positive sign.