of 1,000 signatures
To Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Scotland
Subject: Vernacular Gaelic Community Trust for the Western Isles
Dear Cabinet Secretary Somerville,
First of all, welcome to your new post as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. We wish you well during this period of recovery.
Guth nan Siarach is a community activism group formally constituted in February 2021, composed of Vernacular Gaels resident in the Western Isles and in our Diaspora as well as allies from New Speaker communities in the Islands, Scotland and Overseas.
We write to remind you of the research findings from the University of the Highlands and Islands [Ó Giollagáin et al (2020) The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community], which recommended that a Community Trust be established as a matter of urgency to support Gaelic Vernacular Speakers Communities in the Western Isles through our period of severe language crisis.
Despite lockdown restrictions, community meetings were held last year on this matter, and in his report of December 2020, Community Conversations on the future of the Gaelic Language within the Vernacular Community, Alasdair Allan MSP recommended that the Scottish Government engage in further discussions with the community as to how best to establish some form of Trust to allow our democratic voice to be heard. This did not happen.
Instead, your civil servants, despite being neither cultural nor language specialists nor overly familiar with our communities, spoke very negatively of such an initiative and questioned the need for any intervention. Finally, prior to election, Secretary Swinney replied to our MSP, who had again requested consideration of a Trust, declining to engage with the concept. In your manifesto a week or two later, we as a community were surprised to learn that an undefined Gaidhealtachd model was on the cards as a potential next step for Gaelic in our region.
Clearly, this response sidelined our crisis in a very high-handed way, and has only added to the alienation already felt by many islanders with regard to our native Gaelic more than any other aspect of our already challenging lives.
Furthermore, Gàidhealtachd status, if it is ever to happen and indeed whatever it means, will take many years to establish and as we know from Ireland the success of such a status with its related infra-structure is variable, often disproportionately costly, largely symbolic, and generally benefits its incumbent state officials more than those they serve. While establishing another expensive mechanism on this scale may serve to secure tenure for any number of socio-linguists and public servants it is not likely to serve our needs. It is critical to us that any officially backed re-organisation of Gaelic be focused on our communities and the challenges we face, as well as on the quite separate progression of Gaelic as a national language.
The Outer Hebrides is still in the unique position of having a rooted and self-sustaining Gàidhealtachd within its shores and on its seas, a Gàidhealtachd that has persisted despite centuries of cultural and linguistic oppression, a Gàidhealtachd rich in culture and ecology. While Scotland, its academic institutions and its tourism sector benefit enormously by association with our linguistic cultural group in our Islands setting, we are effectively excluded from the decision-making processes for our native language in its own place. Indeed it is becoming increasingly clear to us that the decisions taken on our behalf, and often to our detriment, are not driven by those we vote for but by public servants often supported by networks of academics in a manner suited to their own settings and circumstances rather than ours.
That is good and well to a point, they may do as they wish with their locally determined and centrally supported systems to revive Gaelic in their own regions, but they should not be allowed to dictate terms for our specific linguistic context and region where Gaelic, even in decline, is far stronger among its native speakers. This is even more distressing for those of us who have independently sustained Gaelic within our families for tens of generations.
To that end, we ask that you revisit the concept of the Community Trust as a matter of urgency and with a willingness to take your guidance on the efficacy of its various aspects from us, the people for whom it has been posited as a solution and whom it will affect. We ask that you do so through open discussion and due process, rather than on the advice of academics, public servants or their networks who seem intent on maintaining a status quo that sacrifices our autonomy and threatens us with language death. It would be a sad end for Gaelic if such paternalistic approaches were allowed to hold sway over plurality and democracy.
We ask you to consider a second round of local talks - to follow on from Dr. Allan’s original lockdown zoom meetings - as a first step now that we are free to begin to connect again to discuss Ó Giollagáin et al’s findings and recommendations, as well as ideas of our own, incrementally and in depth. We ask you to ensure that this process goes to lengths in its attempt to include the Western Isles Vernacular Speakers community as a whole through an open process of civic assembly to promote a free and open exchange of ideas, and we ask that this process should include measures to protect participants and to prevent such discussions from being either led or dominated by existing networks of tenured appointees, here and elsewhere, with vested interests in thwarting our democratic voice.
We would also appreciate very much if you were to note that there are other fields of scholarship that could serve our cultural group and your Government as well as and perhaps better than Socio-linguistics which, apart from one or two current notables, seems designed principally to provide tenure and publications for those who wish to preside over the demise of languages rather than to roll their sleeves up to do the work of maintaining those languages in place. We are not here to infuse socio-linguistics with our vitality or to transfuse the field in our death-throes. We pre-exist these external interventions and would hazard that we are of more importance and value to Scotland, though by recent academic account they might well outlive us, briefly.
We ask that you support us in our endeavour to save our mother tongue by agreeing in principle to a discussion with us, as a cultural and linguistic group, of the value of establishing a Community Trust for Vernacular Speakers of Gaelic in the Western Isles, in whatever form we deem suited to our needs.
Finally, and this is not a small point, we are a committee of volunteers struggling to find voice about our very identity, whilst being thwarted by a well-funded and largely unaccountable external system that does not seem to either like or respect us despite being entirely dependent upon us for its own success and validation. We ask that you please bear in mind ways to mitigate this effect as you consider your next steps.
Guth nan Siarach
The Western Isles Vernacular Gaels Community Activism Group
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