Gaelic Language Plan speech Scottish Parliament 29/01/09

I have the honour of contributing a very small footnote to the history of this young Parliament—indeed, to the history of the Scottish Parliament in general—as I was the first person to speak in a debate in the Scottish Parliament in the proud language of my forebears.

It is a language that played a critical part in the soundtrack of my childhood in Glasgow and Tiree.

In my maiden speech in 1999, I made the point that I spoke haltingly in Gaelic—and I speak it even less well now—because of attitudes to Gaelic in the Scotland that I grew up in.

Active decisions were taken to minimise the use of Gaelic and to make no real provision for Gaelic education for the island and Highland diaspora in our cities.

There were many like me who lost the language that they listened to and lived with every day, and there were people such as my grandmother, who through politeness and good manners often spoke in not her first but her second language, believing somehow that she needed to be the person who reached out in order to engage with other people.

During my childhood in Glasgow, the only provision for children like me was to go to interminable Gaelic classes, at which we learned exactly where Mary was—in front of the house, to the side of the house, or on the other side of the house—but which bore no relation to, or gave me any capacity to speak to my family in, the language in which they spoke to one another all the time.

I am glad that there seems to be a consensus on the need to address the question of Gaelic.

Things were not always this way, and we should remember that.

There was hostility, discrimination and lack of understanding that led to people losing the language that their forebears had treasured.

While recognising the progress that has been made, we must recognise those problems, and we need to learn from the journey rather than presume that victory has been won.

I commend those who continue to put pressure on Government at every level in the fight to sustain their language.

They have been innovative and creative in how they have tried to take the language forward.

They have demanded that the needs of Gaelic-speaking communities be met both in the Highlands and in the cities.

They have understood the power of harnessing Gaelic and its culture to address modern culture by giving the language a modern face in music, song and the arts.

That has not just provided a renaissance in traditional Gaelic culture but enriched that culture and, indeed, all our cultures.

That shows the diversity of cultures that have shaped modern Scotland.

On Ted Brocklebank's point, I think that Gaelic has a richness that Scotland can present to the world.

It provides an economic interest for the tourism industry, which is helped by the fact that we have that diversity.

As the very proud auntie of a nephew who is the Gaelic voice of Charlie in the children's television programme "Charlie and Lola", I know that Gaelic can exist in many places beyond the traditional ceilidh.

We must listen to those who understand the connection between the need to sustain Gaelic and the need to will the means for that to happen.

There is a critical connection between the survival of Gaelic and support for Gaelic-medium education, and at the core of my speech is the recognition that Gaelic's fragility is not accidental and that making it secure cannot be accidental either.

That presents a real challenge to every level of Government about how to act.

This is not a time to be feeble.

I welcome the draft language plan, but I caution the minister not to listen to the quiet impossibilists who sometimes give advice to ministers.

What we need is not assertion or appearance but some guarantees.

The phenomenal progress in Gaelic-medium education and the consequential optimism for the language was due to active political decisions by the previous Administration, which are now being built on, and the courage of local authorities such as Glasgow City Council, which now has a Gaelic-medium nursery school, primary school and secondary school.

In particular, we should recognise that the introduction of free nursery places accelerated the development of Gaelic by offering a critical place for Gaelic-medium education that has reached out not only to families in which Gaelic had been lost but, in a wonderful way, to families that had no prior connection with the language.

The minister will acknowledge the pressures that are on local government and the anxieties among equality groups generally about the vulnerability of soft budgets during a time of pressures.

It is understandable that there is an anxiety about culture budgets, education budgets and other budgets that have supported the development of Gaelic, and I urge the minister to recognise the vulnerability of traditional Gaelic culture and how young people are reshaping it.
Support is required at every level.

In my final minute, I want to make one or two points about BBC Alba.

We celebrate the channel's early success, and we recognise its critical role and its potential in sustaining the language.

I commend Alasdair Allan—I am not one who is often gracious in the chamber—for becoming an accomplished Gaelic speaker from a starting point of zero.

The minister is a gracious person, but I regret her ungracious remarks about the public appointment of Alasdair Morrison as chair of MG Alba.

Whatever her views on his politics, I am sure that she recognises his intelligence, energy and abiding passion for his native tongue.

I hope that she will assure us today that the Scottish Government will do everything that it can to support BBC Alba, given its potential to normalise Gaelic in our communities.

The minister must recognise that the evident awareness of Scottishness that Gaelic presents is as much about celebrating the differences in our culture as recognising the commonality of some of our traits and characteristics.

This is an opportunity to reaffirm the important role of Gaelic in celebrating what everyone brings to the table and what makes us different and distinct—that is critical to our capacity to celebrate all of Scotland's cultures.

I commend the minister for the consultation on the draft language plan, and I look forward to her continuing energy in supporting this precious language.