Home » Audio only » Gaelic scholar and poet Maoilios Caimbeul of Skye, on Gaelic language and education

Gaelic scholar and poet Maoilios Caimbeul of Skye, on Gaelic language and education

image credit: Mike Mackay

 Click here to listen to scholar and poet, Maoilios Caimbeul of Skye, talking about education and the Gaelic language

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See below for a transcript of this conversation:

Ma-Well you know William Gillies said to me a couple of years ago, he made the comment that communities are disintegrating and even in the Western Isles and Lewis, and then he said but new communities are forming and some of them are diasporic communities and people that are, you know, parents may have left, like my dad, or whatever, and he said some of them are green minded communities and maybe they are the ones that will bring back the Gaelic, and yet yes and no, and I hear there is an ambivalence around that and there is a part that want’s to say “no, no” because, and I heard that in GalGael from young Seamus, when I mentioned that he said “oh, but they’ll never have it right and it’ll never be the same, and that’s true. 

Maoilios That’s true because it’s an organic thing, culture is organic and if you try and, you know, to artificially bring it back you’re going to get artificiality.

Ma- Yes, somebody else’s hybrid version of what they think.

Ma- Ah, yes, yes.

Maoilios And the difference is that if you learn Gaelic from the knee, you learn it with traditions and so on, you learn, you’re not learning, you’re just soaking it in as you grow up.  Whereas, if you learn a language you don’t learn it in that way you learn it in some other way.  It’s a different procedure isn’t it, learning? In a community of speakers that are doing it, just as a necessity as it were, you know, life as a necessity, they’ve got to earn a living, you don’t think about the language at all.

Ma- That’s right.

Maoilios But a part of life

Ma- So, we lose a great deal in that I think, you know, in that yes we can become semi-fluent in that, learning it at university or college or e-learning or whatever, but I hear this at home and this is part of what gave rise to part of my question there, was, well listen to these, especially with some of the male speakers at home and there, you know, their fluent as such, and they’ll strut their stuff, and they’ll stand and they’ll speak and they’ll know their [maori word?] customs or whatever, they’re proud young Maori males.  But often when I sit and listen I know that they don’t really know the meaning of what they are saying in a deeper sense or they would not be saying and doing the way they are saying and doing and they would be learning different ways of things and I see it and I hear it when I listen.  And I think, (sigh) I mean they don’t know what they don’t know, but with that though, is not knowing particular kinds of values and those values are missing in their articulations and all of their things.

Maoilios Well, my, I’m not the son of a crofter for starts.  My father was a, he came from a crofting family, my father, but

Ma- right

Maoilios but he was a missionary in the Church, in the Free Church of Scotland

Ma- Ahh

Maoilios In fact he was a missionary in Staffin(?) here

Ma- Ohh,

Maoilios My mother was in Staffin(?) and married

Ma- Right

Maoilios In fact he was from this croft here

Ma- Ah! How lovely!

Maoilios (chuckles) Yes, and that, so

Ma- yeah

Maoilios He, he, would be staying in a place for a couple of years, two of three years and then the church would move on to some other places, and so I started life in Staffin(?), I was in Uin/Uig(?) which is across the way, um….until I was four of five, and then we moved to Borve/Borgh (?) in Lewis and that’s when I went to school

Ma- ah huh

Maoilios A Gaelic speaking, um a Gaelic speaking village, uh district in Lewis Borve/Borgh (?). I went to school there, I couldn’t speak any English, it was just “Yes” and “No”, uh, any, I couldn’t speak any English, it was just “Yes” and “No”, but when I went to the school the teaching was done through the medium of English, so you soon learned the English.

Ma- Hmm

Maoilios So I became bi-lingual

Ma- Right

Maoilios And then, from Borve/Borgh(?) I went to Waterinshin(?) and I went to school in Waterinshin(?) for a couple of years. Until my father moved back to Staffin(?) when I was eight years old.  And we was here for four years, and I went to primary school for three years…umm…but none of these schools I went to taught the medium of Gaelic.

Ma- Ahh,

Maoilios Although the people, mostly, all spoke Gaelic, and we spoke Gaelic to each other

Ma- Hmm, hmm.

Maoilios and um

Ma- Was that frowned on?

Maoilios Um, not in my day, but you hear stories about people…generation before me being….maybe some of my generation as well, being reprimanded-

Ma- Wow.

Maoilios They used to grab a stick, not in my generation, before that, they used to use a stick on a person

Ma- (sighs)

Maoilios so a person, you passed it on if you spoke Gaelic, the person, the last person of the day to speak Gaelic got a stick down their neck (laughs)

Ma- (breaths in)

Maoilios yeah.  That was done, in, probably the beginning of the twentieth century, or in the late eighteenth(?), yeah.  And, so , I that’s the kind of life I had.  And then from Staffin (?) we moved to Glenelg (?) on the mainland which was the only I was in where Gaelic wasn’t the dominant language, and my father had to learn to preach in English there (laughs)….because, they couldn’t- not enough people understood Gaelic there
Ma- Right

Maoilios and so it was a bit awkward, though he managed.

Ma- Oh my goodness, right.

Maoilios Um….and there, from there we left, we left to go to Afmore(?) on Lewis again I went to Lewis Castle College in Stornoway and I was there until I was 16 and then I went off to sea.

Ma- There a teacher that’s speaking Gaelic in Stornoway at the time?

Maoilios Teachers?

Ma- Did they Gaelic, or did they teach in Gaelic?
Maoilios Not in, not in the college

Ma- right
My –It was a technical college, I did ma- I did navigation.

Ma- right

Maoilios Seamanship and in the Nickelson Institute, I was there for a term, there is a big school in Stornoway (? ) of course they had Gaelic there, they talked Gaelic there,

Ma- Right

Maoilios in Gaelic classes, not through the medium of Gaelic though as a subject

Ma- Ahh, ok

Maoilios Cause a strange sort of thing happens in secondary schools-


Maoilios You’re taught Gaelic, um, through the medium of English

Ma- I remember learning French like that (laughs)

Maoilios Um, I’m not sure…If it was, I suppose…If the natives, if there was a native speakers class they would uh, probably you know, speaking Gaelic I would think.  But even in University, when I went to EdinburghUniversityin the Celtic Department indeed, it was English that was spoken. And they kept, And that was the 1970’s, they were speaking, doing the Gaelic course through the medium of English.  It was a bit strange.

Ma- (laughs) that is a bit strange indeed.

Ma- So in the 70’s when you were a teacher training, that was as a Gaelic medium teacher?

Maoilios Umm…It was as a Gaelic teacher, and I was teaching in the secondary schools

Ma- right

Maoilios As I said before, in the secondary schools, uh Gaelic is taught through the medium of English funny enough (laughs) to learners, I’m talking about. 

Ma- Yes, sure.

Maoilios When learners come into the school, first year, second year-

Ma- Right.

Maoilios And…they don’t have any Gaelic, so you teach them from books and so on, and that’s the way it’s taught.

Ma- No wonder it doesn’t work.

Maoilios Exactly, it’s like they teach French, it’s like teaching a foreign language, and materials from the S.Q.A. are aimed at that. You know?


Maoilios The Scottish Qualifications Authority

Maoilios in the 80’s things changed you know?

Ma- Uh huh.

Maoilios In the 19- from about 1985 onwards there was a Gaelic medium school set up in Renayous (?). um, a primary school and um…so, that was, these were children being taught in the medium of Gaelic. And now things have moved on to the extent that in places like Portree, you’ve got 4-5 subjects in the secondary school being taught in the medium of Gaelic. 

Ma- Ahhh

Maoilios  So the children are coming through from the primary school into the secondary.  It’s not happening enough, there’s a lot of difficulties, particularly in getting teachers.

Ma- Ok. Right.

Maoilios Teachers who are subject teachers and can teach Gaelic, that’s a big difficulty.

Ma- Subject teachers teaching Gaelic is huge as the same with Maori at home, it’s just, and what we found is that Maori, well at one stretch they had a policy of taking a fluent Maori speaker off wherever, put them through a crash course in teaching, turned them out the other side as the Maori teacher, who taught Maori, taught in Maori, taught maths, geography, whatever, whatever, whatever, a series would be in Maori.

Maoilios Hmm

Ma- On the basis of a one year crash course in teaching, and, complete disaster.  And then of course the government would say, “Well we’ve thrown all this money, we’ve done all of this and it’s not working, so

Maoilios Hmm, hmm, I can imagine

Ma- Sounds very similar

Maoilios Sounds very similar, hmm, there are efforts being made to recruit teachers and some efforts are being made right enough, um. And, some people have learned Gaelic, at community teaching, there quite a lot, quite a lot of people, I think, have learned from community teaching, but maybe they’ve been learning Gaelic for years and years, and then come into teaching, um… and that is, that is a priority, it has been a while, with Bòrd na Gàidhlig(?) and so on, to try and…In fact I think it’s offered as a course for teachers, starting this year,

Ma- Right

Maoilios Where they can, get teacher training, Gaelic medium teaching, and Aberdeen as well, Aberdeen University, they train teachers, and of course, ______? University as well. So, there are efforts being made.

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