KATE Forbes will admit herself she’s not always entirely comfortable speaking Gaelic.

“I went through high school, I did advanced higher native speakers Gaelic and I’m not always comfortable but I do it because it’s important,” the Deputy First Minister tells the Sunday National from her office in Holyrood.

“There’s probably people who would be able to pick holes in my Gaelic.”

Understandably, when the new First Minister announced his Cabinet, much was made of Forbes taking on the second-most powerful job in Government.

But her responsibilities also extend to protecting Scotland’s traditional languages – Gaelic and Scots – as well as British Sign Language.

“It was extremely exciting,” Forbes says as she casts her mind back to when she found out she had been given the role.

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“I have wanted to be the Gaelic Secretary since I was first elected. It had always been within the education portfolio so I was really pleased when he offered me the job.”

When it comes to this part of the role, her main focus is on the Scottish Languages Bill which has a number of key commitments, including the following:

  • Establishing a new strategic approach to Gaelic medium education (GME)
  • Exploring the creation of official Gàidhealtachd areas
  • Reviewing the structures and functions of Bòrd na Gàidhlig
  • Taking action on the Scots language

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday National, Forbes speaks on a range of issues, including how to boost the number of Gaelic speakers and making use of our traditional languages, and gave a message for those who doubt their importance.

Giving languages a boost

Last week saw the release of the latest Scottish census data and it revealed some key facts surrounding Gaelic.

It found that it is now a minority language in the Western Isles for the first time despite an overall uplift across Scotland.

Here’s some of the key stats:

  • Just 45% speak Gaelic in the language’s heartland, compared with 52% in 2011 and 60% in 2001
  • However, the majority of people in the Western Isles still had some non-speaking Gaelic skills (57.2%)
  • This was far greater than the next highest council areas – Highland with 8.1% and Argyll and Bute with 6.2%

Some have expressed concerns about the trends here, with language campaigner and Sunday National campaigner Rhoda Meek saying the language was “still in crisis” and that the numbers provided in the census were almost “entirely useless”.

“The question was so lacking in nuance it’s laughable. It’s almost like we want to make ourselves feel better while ignoring the broader issues,” Meek says.

It might seem an obvious answer to say that Gaelic education needs to improve – and this is something Forbes is keen to see happen – but it’s also about what happens away from the classroom.

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She explains: “We do have to ensure the capacity is there so over the last 15 years in particular there’s been a huge increase in capacity in the number of primary schools.

“Glasgow is on the verge of its fourth GME primary and we’ve had new schools in Portree, Fort William and Inverness.

“When I started out, I was in a Gaelic unit that was attached to an English school. And now most of the Gaelic medium primary schools are full, showing the appetite there.

“There’s huge desire among people in Scotland to go to Gaelic medium schools. It’s on local authorities and the Scottish Government to ensure that we can meet that demand.”

Away from the classroom

Forbes believes that just as important as the opportunity to learn and immerse pupils in Gaelic in school is what happens away from this.

“You can do a language at school but outside of school really matters as well,” she says.

“That’s where being immersed in it really matters as well. I think it’s looking at how we support for example youth work and all the services that sit around school.”

The National: SNP’s Kate Forbes arrives at the main chamber for the vote for the new First Minister at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Picture date: Tuesday March 28, 2023.Ultimately, she accepts that not everybody is going to be able to come out of school speaking fluent Gaelic but points to a model in Ireland she believes serves as a useful example.

“In Ireland, you might not leave fluent in Irish but you will have been exposed to a lot of Irish teaching,” she explains.

“For the fluency point, for those from a non-Gaelic background then the earlier they can start is key.”

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She continues: “When you see the receding of Gaelic-speaking communities, there’s not an example where it’s come back.

“In the 1940s, there are clips of my great-grandmother speaking fluent Gaelic from Strathnairn just south of Inverness. You just wouldn’t get that today.

“What’s incumbent on us is to protect that from receding further. How do you get the numbers higher? Well, you support the communities that currently exist, you make sure that it doesn’t recede further and you have a big group of young people coming through.

“The only way for it to go up is if that community feels confident and comfortable speaking Gaelic when they leave school.”

Forbes is keen to stress that community work is just as vital.

She points out that the Scottish Languages Bill gives provisions to Bòrd na Gàidhlig to “support any group or individual who approaches them looking for help to strengthen Gaelic in the community”.

“If you have an idea to create a lunch club for older folks, for example, who can then speak in their language of birth, the board could support you,” she says.

“It thrives at the grassroots level and therefore local authorities are key. This is not about the Government imposing anything but enabling this work to thrive.

“Local authorities hold most of the levers with community work and education in particular.”

Sending a message

There will always be those who question the importance of Scotland’s traditional languages and Forbes herself admits that “there is an age-old stigma attached to Gaelic which means we do ignore it and we could make more of it”.

Forbes says it “incenses” her to think that the language might ever be used as a “political football”.

“As a language, it’s a means of communicating for all people,” she continues.

“If you care, whatever your view on the constitution or politics, if you care about people, about them being able to live in and use their language, then I think the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland have a duty to protect that.

“These are Scotland’s languages, they’re nobody else’s.

“If Scotland is not going to recognise and protect its languages, nobody else will.”