A tiny village reviving Gaelic culture

A tiny village reviving Gaelic culture

Sally Coffey

The water ripples to the shoreline like a slow yawn as the little village of Eilean Iarmain on the Isle of Skye gently wakes up. There are deliveries for the hotel and pub, dog-walkers stop to greet friends with “Madainn mhath” (good morning) by the pier, and tourists breathe in the crisp air and sea views before deciding on their day’s adventure. The atmosphere is unhurried and inclusive, be you a local or visitor, as is the Gaelic way.

Since wealthy businessman and Gaelic language activist Sir Iain Noble became the landowner of a large part of Skye’s southerly Sleat Peninsula in the 1970s, the village of Eilean Iarmain has been at the forefront of a Gaelic revival in Scotland. The nearby college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, founded by Noble in 1973, has grown over the past five decades from a handful of students to become the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, attracting more than 1,000 students a year.

Gaelic, which had been the main language in Scotland for centuries, began to be dismantled from the early 17th Century onwards, beginning with The Statutes of Iona of 1609, under the reign of King James VI, which labelled it “barbaric” and called upon clan chiefs to send their heirs to English-speaking schools. Mass emigrations (some forced, some voluntary) of Gaelic speakers in the 18th and 19th Centuries didn’t help, and the language was further undermined in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden – the Jacobites’ failed last stand.

Eilean Iarmain (Gaelic for Isle Ornsay) was once the main port on the south of Skye (Credit: Christopher Drabble/Alamy)

Eilean Iarmain (Gaelic for Isle Ornsay) was once the main port on the south of Skye (Credit: Christopher Drabble/Alamy)

Nevertheless, in rural areas, particularly in the Western Isles and other parts of the Highlands and islands, Gaelic speaking remained strong, though increasingly by the 20th Century it was confined to the home.

Prior to Noble’s arrival, a lack of jobs led young people to leave Skye and look for opportunities elsewhere, and the Gaelic language was considered old-fashioned and at odds with this need to progress. Noble’s belief, however, was that the Gaelic language could be utilised to stem depopulation in Skye and actually become an economic driver in its own right.

Decades on, Noble’s theory has slowly been proven. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is now one of the biggest employers on the Isle of Skye and a third of islanders speak Gaelic as either their first or second language.

The college has spawned a new generation of Gaelic speakers skilled in TV, business and other industries that have enabled them to create more jobs on the island, but now it’s taking a more outward approach and thinking about how it can extend its Gaelic offering to visitors.

As a Londoner with Irish Gaelic heritage, I’ve long wanted to visit the village of Eilean Iarmain, and as expected it’s a picturesque, though unobtrusive place. The restored Victorian whitewashed Hotel Eilean Iarmain and its adjoining pub, Am Pràban, which also forms part of the late Noble’s holdings, dominate. If you arrive in daylight, you’ll be drawn to the water’s edge to look out across the Sound of Sleat towards the hills of Knoydart. It’s like a Hollywood depiction of Scotland.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has become the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture (Credit: Sally Coffey)

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has become the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture (Credit: Sally Coffey)

It’s hard to imagine, looking at the little pier, but Eilean Iarmain (Gaelic for Isle Ornsay) was once the main port on the south of Skye. In the 19th Century, everything coming into the south of Skye came through here, from coal to the post, fresh fish to the news. People also arrived and, more significantly, departed from here, whether they were heading on short trips to Portree, Mallaig or Glasgow for work or to collect provisions, or to seek new lives abroad. In 1837, the William Nicol ship left here bound for Australia with 332 emigrants onboard. According to the Sleat Local History Society, many of those on board were forced to leave their homeland due to hardship and food shortages.

Spend more than a passing hour in Eilean Iarmain – you can also visit a stony beach, a knitwear shop, a Gaelic whisky and gin shop, an art gallery and a clutch of houses – and Noble’s name will surely come up.

Not a native Gaelic speaker, Noble was initially met with some scepticism. Nevertheless, his love for the language shone through and today he is widely seen as the instigator of the resurgence of Gaelic culture in south Skye. This resurgence was no doubt aided by the deep sense of belonging so prevalent among Gaelic communities, passed down through the generations by those who left on the ships as well as those left behind.

“Because he was looking for Gaelic speakers [to teach at the college and work in the hotel], Iain would recruit from Skye and from the Outer Hebrides and then he would headhunt those whose families were from Skye but who, because there were no jobs, were working in Aberdeen, in London and further afield,” said Lady Lucilla, Noble’s widow. “So, he was reversing the brain drain really.”

Hotel Eilean Iarmain forms part of the late Sir Iain Noble's holdings (Credit: Sally Coffey)

Hotel Eilean Iarmain forms part of the late Sir Iain Noble’s holdings (Credit: Sally Coffey)

Today, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is still the only college in the world that delivers its learning programmes entirely in Gaelic. However, Eilean Iarmain is by no means the only part of Skye where Gaelic culture can be experienced: “Gaelic is strong throughout the island – and certainly in the north of Skye, there are speakers and families that have always spoken Gaelic,” Lucilla said.

But she believes the college and the hotel, which both provide a real hub for the community, were catalysts for changing perceptions of Gaelic across the island, which wasn’t seen as very progressive, particularly among young people.

What was amazing about the college and the young people going there, was that Gaelic became cool

“What was amazing about the college and the young people going there, was that Gaelic became cool,” she said. “I’ve seen some really cool youngsters who are very proud of their Gaelic, and they’re just full of the usual spirits of young people but absolutely revelling in what they have, which is a heritage going back hundreds of years.”

One of those young people is Emily Macdonald, a 15-year-old musician who has grown up around Eilean Iarmain and speaks Gaelic fluently, having attended a primary school in the Gaelic-medium.

As well as playing the bagpipes and the piano and being passionate about Gaelic song, Macdonald regularly converses with friends in Gaelic.

The Am Pràban adjoined to the Hotel Eilean Iarmain hosts traditional music sessions (Credit: Sally Coffey)

The Am Pràban adjoined to the Hotel Eilean Iarmain hosts traditional music sessions (Credit: Sally Coffey)

“At the age that we are now, I feel like we’re even more wanting to speak Gaelic to each other, just to keep it alive, because it is really important,” she said. “And to have this special language that we can speak to each other in, you know, is quite special.”

On my visit, I was lucky enough to see Macdonald perform a few songs at a cèilidh (a traditional social gathering with music and dancing) in the Eilean Iarmain hotel.

I feel like the whole area around me comes through in the songs.

Macdonald’s singing voice is pure and melancholic, but it’s the art of storytelling through song that seems to particularly drive her. “Most of the songs have been written by bards whose wives have gone away and such things, and they’re singing from the place that they come from,” she said. “So, I learn quite a few songs from Skye, because I feel like the whole area around me comes through in the songs.”

Alistair MacKay, a freelance filmmaker, studied at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and later returned to the island with his wife, Angela, to work at the college. They are now raising their three children on Skye.

As a student, he recalls many a happy night in the Am Pràban bar, where sometimes it was so packed with revellers that you couldn’t open the door. He also told me it was so much the place to be that he remembers a local lad who would walk home at the end of the night down the lonesome Ord Road, a journey of two hours or so that seems treacherous even in daytime.

How to live the life

Take a short courseSabhal Mòr Ostaig offers week-long Gaelic language courses over Easter and summer. There’s also a busy program of music, Gaelic song, song-writing, art and traditional step dance, alongside a social programme of concerts, cèilidhs, lectures and dances.

Attend a festivalThe Skye-based arts organisation SEALL hosts events across the island, including the autumn Festival of Small Halls and the summer Féis an Eilean.

Support localNearby Armadale Castle does a lot of work supporting local musicians. Pre-pandemic, it also hosted a Gaelic Arts Week, which hopefully will make a return in 2022.

Watch a session
Few experiences can be more authentic than toe-tapping or foot-stomping along to a traditional music session in the wood-panelled Am Pràban pub adjoined to the Hotel Eilean Iarmain. Hotel Eilean Iarmain is also planning more cèilidhs and can recommend local guides.

MacKay believes the island has so many stories that can help visitors connect to their surroundings and that finding a local guide who can bring the areas alive is crucial.

“Having someone there that says, ‘right that mountain there is Ben na Caillich, which means the mountain of the old lady, and legend has it she was a princess, the daughter of a Norwegian king, and she married a Mackinnon chief’ and then suddenly you’re like, ‘right’. You’ve seen something in front of you and now it means something,” he said. “It’s connecting the land, the people, the culture and the sense of place, rather than just driving through a landscape and thinking ‘oh well, it’s impressive but there’s no context there’.”

MacKay says that though Hotel Eilean Iarmain has long had a Gaelic association and has been rooted in the community, other organisations on Skye, such as Fèisean nan Gàidheal, the Aros Centre in Portree, and SEALL – which runs events such as Fèis an Eilein (Skye Festival), a 10-day celebration of music, literature and theatre – have also long promoted Gaelic culture and encouraged people to slow down and immerse themselves in the island’s rich culture.

MacKay isn’t the only one to see the potential of Gaelic tourism. Earlier this year, VisitScotland began to advise tourism businesses on how to capitalise on this aspect of their culture. 

“Gaelic and its rich culture are an important part of Scotland’s tourism offer and strengthens the authentic experience we know means so much to visitors,” said Rob Dickson, VisitScotland Director of Industry and Destination Development.

“We believe the language will continue to prove a valuable asset to Scotland’s identity, our tourism industry and entice Scots at home to experience something new in Scotland.”

Now that international travellers are finally able to return to Scotland, having a meaningful visit, particularly one that may tie-in with their own heritage, will help enrich their experiences.

For my part, I left Eilean Iarmain determined to find the time to return for a course in Gaelic song at the college and reconnect with my own Irish Gaelic heritage. I will never be as melodic as Macdonald, but I think I may just be able to find some of the enjoyment in the singing that she does, and if all else fails, it will make a good story one day.

Courtesy: BBC

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