Big Questions ahead for Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Bòrd na Gàidhlig: Innsidh na geòidh - Time will tell

(Published in The Herald, Sat. 18th April 2020)

By Michael Gregson

The State’s unprecedented intervention, to mitigate the worst effects of the lockdown, has been welcomed, even if its coverage dissatisfies many. But the repercussions for public expenditure when we eventually, with a shrunken economy, emerge from lockdown deserve attention.

One organisation likely to see tough times is Bòrd na Gàidhlig. In an Audit Scotland Report in December, BnG was criticised for “ineffective leadership, inadequate workforce planning, a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities and poor relationships and organisational culture.” MSPs Alex Neil, Colin Beattie, Liam Kerr and Jenny Marra weighed in, pointing to a small Gaelic-speaking talent pool, leading to cronyism; top-heavy management; lack of transparency; and poor scrutiny and accountability.

While Chair Mairi MacInnes welcomed the Report, promising to address the problems, it is hard to see the organisation’s £5.3m budget surviving without considerable change to the status quo. With Chief Executive Shona MacLennan’s pay at £85k, and the 5-strong senior leadership team taking some £300k in remuneration, there will be much interest in a forthcoming UHI Report on Gaelic’s state of play. The 2018-23 National Gaelic Plan depends on many organisations across Scotland walking the walk, as well as talking the talk.

Another key benchmark will be the 2021 Census. In 2011, 57,000 stated they were Gaelic speakers. Given the years of investment, if this figure hasn’t risen, a major rethink of national strategy towards the language is inevitable.

And things seemed to be going so well. Over 11,000 children are now learning in or through the language; the National 1+2 Languages Policy will increase this number. Our schools and Universities are producing skilled, enthusiastic Gaelic speakers, able to contribute to society and the economy. Highlands & Islands Enterprise have identified four key sectors – the Creative Industries, Education, Public Administration and Tourism – where Gaelic could enrich the economy by £148m. But, HIE also urge “a step change needed in our overall population's attitude towards Gaelic, to ensure its relevance, vibrancy and future.”

Gaelic media has been a growing strength, too. 530,000 watch BBC Alba regularly, enjoying men’s and women’s football and rugby, a lively schedule, and wide digital availability. The always excellent Eòrpa and Bannan typify the varied and strong output of MG Alba, whose Chairman, Allan MacDonald – former Chair of BnG – spent 2019 calling for parity of expenditure with Wales’ S4C.

Some see deeper issues. Pressure group Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic diagnoses “cultural genocide,” and urges serious social and economic measures to address Gaeldom’s “sociolinguistic crisis.”

Fifteen years after the 2005 Gaelic Language Act established the Bòrd, perhaps it cannot be called an unalloyed success. But was the revitalisation and ‘normalisation’ of Gaelic always too big a challenge for such speedy results? Edinburgh University’s Professor Wilson McLeod suggested, in 2006, that the issue was not institutional, but about language use in families and communities, especially the poor level of ‘intergenerational transmission.’

Which begs several other questions for a minority language in a very dominant English-speaking society. But we are, as they say, where we are. Many Gaelic organisations, and jobs, are dependent on what has been a pretty consistent direction of travel: Comunn na Gàidhlig, Fèisean nan Gàidheal, Am Baile, An Comunn Gaidhealach, Spòrs Gàidhlig, FilmG... Whatever happens to Bòrd na Gàidhlig in a world of reduced public spending, Government commitment to the language will ensure the continuation of much very good work. All those of us working in the field need a healthy and effective Bòrd, and a sympathetic John Swinney.


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