Am Bratach No. 231
January 2011

Shot in arm for Gaelic in North West
by Mandy Haggith

The revival of the Gaelic language in North West Sutherland has been given a big boost through a tutor training programme in Assynt. The six-day intensive course, which was run by Deiseal from December 13-18 in Stoer hall, trained five people to become Gaelic tutors using the Ùlpan system. Eleven local people attended the course as “guinea-pig” students, braving snowy weather to take advantage of the opportunity.

Dàibhidh Grannd, director of Deiseal, who led the course, was impressed by the group. “With this level of enthusiasm,” he said, “there is a real chance of reversing the Gaelic language’s decline in Assynt.”

Most of the students were beginners and everyone learned a lot of Gaelic from the intensive classes. Plans are underway to enable these students to continue the Ùlpan Gaelic course and to allow more people to begin. James Graham, one of the newly qualified tutors and a fluent Gaelic speaker, will be starting to tutor locally in January.

Mr Graham said: “I loved the course, and love the structure of Ùlpan. The group was a really enthusiastic bunch and that’s what’s needed.” Well known as a Gaelic singer, James is now based in Assynt and currently working for An Comunn Gàidhealach, primarily involved in organising the Mod. He said that he decided to train as a Gaelic language tutor “because I want to increase the number of Gaelic speakers in the area. There used to be so many. It’s the language of this place.”

As well as James Graham, Assynt now has two other qualified Gaelic language tutors: Claire Belshaw and Morag Mackenzie. Lisa MacDonald, from Scourie, also qualified.
Morag Mackenzie said: “I’ve always been interested in Gaelic. I trained because I really want there to be tutors in Assynt. For years we have had to bring tutors in from elsewhere, which makes it so expensive and they sometimes spend more time travelling than actually teaching the language.” Efforts to bring tutors into the area have been beset by difficulties for years.

A fifth tutor, Tom MacAilpein, came all the way from Oban to do the course. Just as here, in Argyll there are more people wanting to learn Gaelic than tutors can cope with, so Tom’s skills will be in demand. He starts teaching in Oban in January. He learned Gaelic after school and said: “I feel a real connection to Gaelic. It’s been in my family for generations. The more you learn the more you love it.”

Several of the Assynt students also had Gaelic in their family. One of them is Carol Ann Macrae. Her mother is a Gaelic speaker, but because her father was not, it was not spoken much in her home while she was growing up. She said: “I have the heritage, but don’t have the Gaelic! I have wanted to learn for a long time, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had. The Ùlpan course has been great. I did an O level in Gaelic thirty years ago, but this is very different, because the emphasis is not on grammar. It really recognises the musical nature of the language.”

Dàibhidh Grannd says: “The traditional approach to teaching Gaelic has been to take advantage of adults’ literacy skills, but this often produces grammarians rather than speakers. This is because students are taught to view Gaelic meta-linguistically, i.e. as a giant puzzle to be solved through the acquisition of complex grammatical rules. This excludes the non-academically minded and those without sufficient time to study in the traditional sense.”

Ùlpan, by contrast, focuses on speaking, with an emphasis on the rhythms of whole phrases repeated over and over until they become familiar. It also involves lots of games, jokes and humorous dialogues. Having fun is built into the course as part of the learning experience, surely a big reason why the students were so keen, despite the weather, to keep coming back for more.

Andy Summers, one of the students, said at the end of the week: “I’m tired, but it was good. I’ve always wanted to learn and started ten years ago but got bogged down. This approach frees you. It’s quite hard work at times, but there’s been great camaraderie and it’s a great way of learning.” He is looking forward to being able to use his growing language skills in his job. “I’d like to use more Gaelic in interpretation. It helps you to understand and pronounce place names and to understand maps.”

There are also practical benefits. Helen Steven, another student, said: “I now know enough Gaelic, when asked if I’d like a coffee or a dram, to be able to say I’d prefer a dram!”

The students covered the first sixteen units of the Ùlpan course during the week. There are a total of 144 units, involving 216 hours of classes in total. Students can achieve fluency after a couple of years with regular twice-weekly (or more frequent) classes, and there are also more intensive courses at Lews Castle College in Stornoway and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye. Deiseal has now trained 119 Ùlpan tutors all over Scotland, and there are 1,400 registered learners. Thanks to a contract with Bòrd na Gàidhlig, many thousands more learners are likely in the next few years.

Encouraging more people to speak Gaelic is important, says Dàibhidh Grannd, “because no other country produced Scottish Gaelic. It’s our main vehicle for the transmission of what is distinctive in our culture. The landscape and the environment have shaped the language and the people.”

However, with so few native speakers left in the North West the language‘s survival is precarious. “It is most important to set up support systems for the last native speakers,” Mr Grannd said. “We’re at last orders for Gaelic now.”


CLICK to buy a postal subscription online

Go back to Home Page