Scotland the brand is all around. In these heady days, terms such as 'the Scottish people' and 'Scottishness' are bandied about like drams at a Burns Supper. No-one expects politicians to be precise with their language, but surely educationalists have a responsibility to give our children an understanding of what it means to be Scots – what a rich and various culture they're inheriting. So why is Gaelic Scotland at times treated as second-class? Why are no Gaelic writers on the set text list for National 5 English?
'Second-class'? That may appear an absurd accusation. Online, in broadcast media, in support for Gaelic Medium Education (GME), the national landscape since the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 has palpably changed. There has been visible progress: an (achievable) target of 800 P1 pupils in GME by 2017; the splendidly internationalist, dynamic BBC Alba; and Gaelic’s greater profile, as in Disney-Pixar’s 'Brave' (Julie Fowlis et al), and 'Outlander' (where Lowland Scots do their best). The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey of 2012 further indicated that 76% of respondents considered Gaelic an important part of Scotland’s heritage.
But what of the cultural content of English courses pursued for the new qualifications in our secondary schools? Here lies a unique opportunity to impart deeper understanding of the breadth of our rich traditions. In this context, the Curriculum for Excellence enshrining 'increased Scots content' at National 5 and Higher English, compared with previous qualifications, guarantees pupils’ exposure to great Scots writing. Whether in prose, poetry or drama – the argument runs – there would be a Scots author of quality on the lists of options for set text study. To Roderic Gillespie of the SQA, launching the lists in 2013, they 'reflected Scotland’s rich culture and heritage and covered a range of geographical locations and time periods'.
But do they? Without any criticism of writers on the lists, what about our Gaelic tradition? At Higher, Sorley MacLean (in his own translations) gains a rightful place – well done SQA. But why was no Gaelic writer included at National 5? We are not exactly short of candidates: Meg Bateman, George Campbell Hay, Christopher Whyte, John Roy Stewart, Angus Peter Campbell, Anna Frater...
Here are lines from Aonghas MacNeacail’s 'Guthan Chalanais’ (Callanish Voices):
what were they counting, those who proved
through a particular arrangement of stones
that the moon would rise at the same
point each span of years and
that it would run, in a low dance
along that southern ridge, as
invisible god’s peregrination...
dè bha iad a’cunntas, a dhearbh
tro rèiteachadh àraid chlach
gun èireadh a’ghealach san aon
àirde, gach tomhas bhliadhna, 's
gu ruitheadh i, na dannsa ìseal
thar nan ruighe shìos, ann an
slighe dho-fhaicsinneach dè...
To take the reader through time, belief, place, with such evocative framing of sound and meaning: surely the young mind could find traction in poetry of this mettle? There are riches aplenty too, in prose and drama. This matter is a symbolic one too, when many perceive increasing government centralisation – not just a UK problem. Centralisation not only marginalises the periphery, it is inherently fragile and mistake-prone, trying to make a virtue of the ignoring of differences.
In the case of language, so core to our identity, it would be profoundly divisive for decisions taken in the central belt to reflect any of that 'neighbourly hostility' towards Gaelic culture which so animated Hugh MacDiarmid towards the English. Where he believed there was such a thing as a 'true Scot', we now surely understand a civic, plural Scotland only makes us richer, that 'Scottishness’ can take many forms.
'Self-evaluation' is a buzzword in Scottish education. We hope that the SQA will evaluate its set text lists against the criterion of Inclusion. What our children read and study in school matters; they should be aware of, and respect, all our cultural traditions. Gaelic is one of our national languages, and its 'normalisation’ alongside English and Scots remains unfinished business. What better way to start, than to include at least one Gaelic writer in the set text list for the National 5 exam in English?