Sabhal Mòr Ostaig
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
21 October, 2015
It’s a great pleasure to speak here this morning. It’s 25 years this year since the first Sabhal Mòr Ostaig lecture was given by Dr James Hunter, and I’m very acutely aware that I am following in a very distinguished tradition – one which includes, among many others, three of my predecessors First Ministers and also Mary Robinson, who when delivered the lecture was the then President of Ireland.
During the 25 years of this lecture, it is no exaggeration that Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has gone from strength to strength and a real joy to watch over the years. There are currently over 200 students enrolled in higher education courses. Many more people take its shorter courses. And of course the college is now an integral part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. Much of its research into Gaelic and Celtic studies has been assessed as being internationally excellent.
The College has had a hugely beneficial effect on the Sleat peninsula and Skye more generally – doing a great deal to bring in visitors, businesses and residents to the area. That’s especially obvious today, as of course we celebrate the opening of the first stage of the Kilbeg development. Kilbeg will become the first new village on Skye in almost 100 years. That is quite staggering and a massive achievement. It is further tangible evidence of the huge success that the College has been in itself but also the huge success has been to Skye.
It’s also a real testament to the vision of Sir Ian Noble, the college’s founder. It is absolutely fitting that the first new building of the Kilbeg development which I have just had the privilege of officially opening should be named after him, and I’m delighted that his widow Lucilla is with us today.
When Sir Ian established this college, his vision was partly based on the view that cultural regeneration would encourage economic regeneration. The two go very much hand in hand. That vision really has been vindicated here on Sleat over the last four decades, and it provides the underpinning my message this morning.
I’m going to focus very specifically today on how the Scottish Government will support the Gaelic language – especially through education and culture. But I also want to talk more broadly about how we see that support for Gaelic as being just one element, all be it vitally important one of a wider programme of growth and regeneration for Skye and for the Highlands and Islands as a whole.
The opening of the Kilbeg development is an ideal time to speak about that. The establishment of a new village on Skye has undoubtedly got some very special historical resonances.
When this college was founded back in 1973, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the great barn of Ostaig, was a derelict building dating from the 1820s. It belonged to one of the farms established during the 19th century. And these farms had largely taken the place of communities, which had emptied during the course of the Highland Clearances.
In the decades after the barn was built, many people would have passed it on their way to make new lives in lowland Scotland or indeed the new world.
One of the great Gaelic poets of the late 19th century was Mary Macpherson of Skye. In Nuair bha mi ogor When I was young, she reflected on the communities of her youth and she said
“These fields and plains under heather and rushes,
Where I often cut a clump and a sheaf of corn,
If I could see them peopled, and houses built there,
I would become joyful, as I was when young”.
So it is, I think a genuinely joyful occasion today to see new people, new buildings and new development take shape here at Kilbeg. It is evidence of the importance of this college’s work over the last four decade. And it also demonstrates that wider - the significant opportunities we have to encourage Gaelic and develop the Highlands and Islands in the decades to come.
Because my starting point for this lecture is that the Gaelic language in Scotland – for all the undoubted challenges it still faces - and it does – is in many respects today in a much better position than it was in 1973 when this college was founded.
Much of that is due to the efforts of individuals and local organisations right across Scotland – Sabhal mor Ostaig is an outstanding example of that.
But another reason I think is Gaelic has stronger political and institutional backing than at any time in centuries. We’ve come a long way since the 1970s, when Sir Ian Noble had to campaign to get a single bilingual road sign established on the road to Portree.
Support for Gaelic now spans across the political spectrum. The legislation to establish Bord na Gaidhlig - passed under the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Government - received at the time unanimous support in the Scottish Parliament.
And of course Gaelic is also starting to benefit from a wider change in cultural attitudes. It’s something which Mary Robinson picked up on in her lecture here, almost 20 years ago.
She made the point, of course in relation to Ireland, that when she was growing up people had often seen Gaelic as being a language of the past. It wasn’t seen as relevant to the modern world; in fact, it was often seen as somehow something to hold you back.
That’s not the case now. We know that there is no contradiction between traditional heritage and modern culture. In fact, having a distinctive heritage, and being proud of it, I think is a massive asset in the modern world.
There are several reasons for that shift in perspective. They include modern technology, greater economic confidence and – as Mary Robinson argued – membership of the European Union, because it encourages different nations and different cultures to interact as equals.
All of these factors make it a bit easier for people to realise – through their real-life experience – that Gaelic is part of our future as well a very proud part of our past. That has big implications for encouraging young people to take up the language.
For all of these reasons – cultural trends, political backing, and community efforts - the census figures for Gaelic now giving some grounds for hope. The number of Gaelic speakers under the age of 20 actually increased between 2001 and 2011. Now I should say it was a very moderate increase giving no room at all for complicities – but it is almost certainly the first time in more than a century, that we have seen an increase in the number of young Gaelic speakers.
Partly because of that, we have also seen significant slowing down of the overall reduction in Gaelic speakers. Between 2001 and 2011 there was a decline of 1,500 people. In the 1980s, it was 17,000 people. I should say that this should not be seen as a cause of celebration.
The more recent figures still aren’t good enough. A decline of 1,500 is still 1,500 too many. But major progress has been and is being made.
And now, having slowed the decline, now of course the challenge of the future is to reverse it.
And the first and most fundamental way of doing that is through the growth of Gaelic medium education.
We’ve made good progress there in recent years. Since 2007, the number of primary one children starting Gaelic medium education has increased by almost a half. It is now offered in 59 primary schools across Scotland.
That growth is not confined to the north west of the country. The Gaelic Schools Capital Fund has benefited schools across the country, from Portree to Kilmarnock and from Bowmore to Cumbernauld.
In Glasgow Southside, the constituency I represent in Scottish Parliament, a new Gaelic primary school will open in Pollokshields in December. It will accommodate up to 200 children.
The Scottish Government also introduced the Education Scotland Bill into parliament in March. We are now preparing amendments to strengthen that Bill.
We don’t think it would be appropriate for the Bill to require all local authorities to provide Gaelic medium education.
But what the Bill does do is give parents a statutory right to ask local authorities to assess whether there is a need for Gaelic medium education in their area. And it requires local authorities to respond to that request.
The Bill will be the first time that local authorities have been required to consider local demand for Gaelic in this way. And I think that represents a landmark in the provision of Gaelic in schools.
In the past, the health of Gaelic has been very closely linked to our education system. Most notably, the 1872 Education Bill - which made elementary education compulsory, but effectively excluded Gaelic from schools - is often seen as being a major factor in the language’s decline.
So what we’re trying to do now is to ensure that our education legislation and schools system helps rather than hinders the development of Gaelic. So we’re adopting what is a proportionate and practical approach which will help to secure the future of the language.
And in doing that, we're not just emphasising school education.
The more we do to support our children’s learning from the earliest possible age, the better. So if we want to ensure more children learn Gaelic, it makes sense to do more support it during the early years.
That’s particularly important because by 2020 the number of hours pre-school provision that children are entitled to will match primary school provision for all three and four year olds, and the most disadvantaged two year olds. That means that the level of care being made available will almost double - from 600 hours a year to 1150 hours by 2020.
That doubling of care represents a major investment during what will still be an immensely tough financial climate. It will give our young people the best start in life; it will provide parents and families with the flexibility they need to support their working lives. And of course it means that young children in Gaelic early years settings will have more opportunities to speak the language.
So we want to ensure that Gaelic pre-school providers can take advantage of that opportunity. Today, I’m announcing how we are allocate just over £100,000 of support for 41 Gaelic pre-school education providers.
The funding will assist them with day to day running costs such as accommodation, and it will also help them to use more Gaelic speaking leaders to help children’s language development. Four of the groups to benefit are based on Skye – in Broadford, Dunvegan, Kilmuir, and Portree. The grant to each organisation will often relatively small, but can make a significant difference to the sustainability of their services being provided.
The funding is further evidence of our determination to encourage the next generation of Gaelic speakers.
And alongside our work to support Gaelic education, we will also continue to support Gaelic culture and Gaelic media.
Broadcasting is for many obvious reasons an essential part of our plans. Because it’s so well established, it’s difficult to remember that BBC Alba only started broadcasting in 2008, and only became available on Freeview and Cable in 2011. It now produces almost 500 hours of original programming a year, supports almost 300 jobs, and reaches approximately 700,000 viewers every single week.
Its services are valued across the country. Its programming – from news and sport, or the drama series Bannan, to special events like last week’s Mod coverage – they all meet a distinctive and very important need. And its website for learning Gaelic received more than a million page views last year. Which I think in itself tells us of the demand is out there of people who want to know about the language.
MG Alba is also helping many young people to gain important skills in broadcasting and digital technology. The production facilities it operates here in partnership with Sabhal Mor Ostaig are a major resource for film-makers and producers.
They demonstrate that BBC Alba has become a really important part of the creative economy – not just of Skye and the Western Isles, but across all of Scotland.
But that is what we are doing to support Gaelic education and Gaelic media and culture. But I think it is fair to say the support for Gaelic education and culture has much greater impact if it is also accompanied by economic opportunities for Gaelic speakers.
Again, though, there are hugely encouraging signs for the Highlands and Islands, and therefore for Gaelic notwithstanding the challenges we all know to line ahead.
Next week will see the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Highlands and Islands Development Board – now Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
When the board was established 50 years ago, there was considerable doom and gloom about the economic prospects of the Highlands and Islands. The population of the area had been in decline for more than a century.
I think it is really important for all of us to recognise and reflect that times have changed dramatically since then. The Highlands and Islands have a stronger, more diverse and productive economy than ever before.
And you can see the consequences very clearly in the census returns. The population of the Highlands and Islands is now at its highest point in more than a century. In fact, the Highlands accounts for 4/5 of Scotland’s total population growth since the 1960s.
And prospects look bright for the future too. If you look at our national economic strategy, you will see that several of the key economic sectors that we’ve identified as important to Scotland – tourism, food and drink, renewable energy – are ones where the Highlands and Islands are well placed to prosper.
The University of the Highlands and Islands has also created new learning opportunities across the whole of north of our country.
And broadband technology will bring new economic opportunities as well.
I’m well aware that at the moment, virtually no properties on Skye have access to superfast broadband. This college is an exception to that. But later this year, the first exchanges in Portree will go live and more will follow in 2016.
In 2013 only 4% of properties in the Highlands had access to Superfast broadband. By the end of next year, across the Highlands it will be 84%.
But we know we need to do more. 84% still isn’t anywhere near good enough. And Skye of course is a good example of an area where additional progress needs to be made.
That’s why we’re funding Community Broadband Scotland to find solutions for communities like Skye which aren’t part of the 84%.
The organization is currently helping Sleat Community Trust with its Skyenet project, which is bringing superfast broadband to more than 100 households across this peninsula. It’s a good example of how government investment can help a committed community group, which Sleat Community Trust undoubtedly is to make a major difference to the local area.
Our broadband programme is part of a much wider investment in infrastructure. Last week we signed a £100m contract for two new ferries – including one for the Tarbert, Lochmaddy and Uig triangle. Last month work began on the dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness. It’s the largest road infrastructure project in a generation, and will bring benefits across the north of the country.
And we know that economic development requires much more than central or local government investment. As Sabhal Mor Ostaig shows, it’s often much more about local initiative and local enterprise. So we’re also seeking to give local communities more power to take their own decisions.
When the previous First Minister spoke at this college a couple of years ago, he announced our intention to ensure that 1 million acres of land were in community ownership by 2020. We have set up a group to help us to achieve that target. We’re also currently introducing a Land Reform Bill, and trebling the size of the Scottish Land Fund, which supports community buy-outs.
The Parliament passed a Community Empowerment Act earlier in the summer– among other things, that requires public bodies, including the Scottish Government, to consider how to engage with local communities.
And we are taking very specific steps to give more powers to islands and coastal communities. Last year we set out the most comprehensive package ever put forward by any Government for empowering Scotland’s 93 island communities.
Last month we published a consultation paper seeking views on specific proposals for an Islands Bill. The Bill will be an important additional step in empowering island communities. I encourage everyone here with an interest to respond.
We’re also ensuring that when Crown Estate lands are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the parliament will in turn devolve power down to local communities.
We will consult widely on the best way of doing that. But we have already made it clear that Coastal and island communities will benefit from the net revenues resulting from offshore activities within 12 miles of their coast. And that’s a further way in which we will ensure that local communities benefit from their natural resources.
It is consistent with, I think a wider vision for Scotland – as a nation which is proud of its past, confident in its future, and a nations whose natural resources bring prosperity to every corner of the country.
Our support for Gaelic is another integral part of that wider vision. We want more people to learn Gaelic, to use it, and to see its relevance to their everyday lives. And in doing that, we will ensure that Gaelic contributes positively to the social and economic wellbeing of local communities.
I began this speech by quoting the great poet Mary Macpherson. I want to end by quoting another - Sorley Maclean.
Sorley Maclean was of course a founding board member of Sabhal mor Ostaig. When he wrote “a Waxing Moon Above Sleat” in 1973, he spoke about the new college here and claimed to see “a light,/sunbeam of the Gael’s hope,/ about its old and new walls.”
That “Gael’s hope” of 1973 has been vindicated. The new walls of the Kilbeg development demonstrate the massive contribution Sabhal Mor Ostaig has made to Gaelic learning; to the regeneration of the Sleat peninsula; and to the culture and economy of the Highlands and Islands as a whole.
Partly because of the work done here, we have the opportunity in the coming decade to reverse, not just slow down the decline in Gaelic which for generations has seemed almost inevitable.
And the key message I want to give you as First Minister and leader of the Scottish Government we will do everything we can to seize that opportunity. We know that if do that we will protect our heritage, enrich our culture and boost our economy and frankly make this country a better place.