Gaelic teacher takes tradition to the wee bairns of Mull

When Angus MacNeil steps off the MacBraynes ferry on to the shores of the Isle of Mull this week, he will make history. He is the Hebridean island's first Gaelic-medium teacher for centuries and one of a growing band encouraged by activists resurrecting the fading Gaelic language in Scotland.

Mr MacNeil (Aonghas Briannan Macnill in Gaelic) will begin the autumn term at a primary school in Salen, a small village of grey-slated houses and crofts on the island's east coast, where he will teach the entire school curriculum in Gaelic as well as in English. Although few of his pupils come from Gaelic-speaking homes, some will already have grasped basic words from attending a Gaelic playgroup run by enthusiastic parents in Mull's harbour town of Tobermory,

"I grew up speaking Gaelic, it's my language, so I'm very proud to be the first Gaelic-medium teacher on Mull," he said from his home on the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, 70 miles west of Mull. "Gaelic is not a dead language. You should have been here in the pub last night - it certainly wasn't dead then."

For years those loyal to the language (dubbed the Gaelic Mafia) have heralded a Gaelic renaissance. But it has been slow in coming and the number of Gaelic speakers continues to fall. The latest figuresshow that only 60,000 speak it, less than 1 per cent of Scots.

However, the activists, led by Comunn na Gaidhlig, an Inverness-based cultural group funded by the Scottish Office and local authorities, have increased the number of playgroups and schools that teach in Gaelic. Their predictions show that by weaning a new generation on the language, its decline will bottom out in the next 10 years.

There were just two Gaelic-medium schools in 1985. Now there are 50, and 142 Gaelic playgroups, compared to four in 1982.

Roy Peterson, of Comunn na Gaidhlig, insists the language will survive, and said a key task would be to turn around the age profile so "Gaelic will become increasingly spoken as the language of young people".

The expansion of Gaelic education is one of several signs that Gaelic is being taken more seriously. The Governmentspends pounds 13m on the provision of services and development through Gaelic, and Gaelic in tourism is growing.

But, for teachers and parents of children at the Gaelic Playgroup in Tobermory, Mr MacNeil's appointment is the highlight of the summer.

"It's great news," said Chrissy McDonald, who teaches at the playgroup. "We can't waitfor him to get here. As well as being our first Gaelic teacher, he's also very handsome, so he's bound to be popular."

Words ancient and modern

Gaelic originated in Ireland and was carried to Scotland in the 5th century, where it developed into a separate dialect. Whereas Irish Gaelic is an official language of the Republic of Ireland, its Scottish derivative enjoys no such status. The classic black-and-white comedy film Whiskey Galore, about the ship-wrecking of a cargo of whiskey off the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, is aptly named. Both words in the title are Gaelic, as are several other present-day words including glen, loch, ptarmigan, clan and slogan.

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