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This small Scottish town behind the Gaelic revival

By
Sarah Pollok

Multimedia Journalist - Travel

If you were to imagine the most quintessential Scottish village, Eilean Iarmain probably wouldn't look far off. Gaelic for 'Isle Ornsay', the name means 'ebb Island or tidal Island' and through the 1820s was a thriving herring fishing port.

The iconic Ornsay Lighthouse, built in 1857. Photo / Joseph Cole, Instagram
The iconic Ornsay Lighthouse, built in 1857. Photo / Joseph Cole, Instagram

Today, the humble town is home holds a handful of shops selling knitwear, Gaelic whisky and art, a stony beach, a solitary hotel and a small set of houses.

It's also where a revolution of Scotland's Gaelic culture has quietly been taking place.

As with any cultural movement, one can't exactly mark the day Eilean Iarmain began leading the Gaelic revival in Scotland but historians seem to agree it happened after wealthy businessman and Gaelic language activist Sir Iain Noble arrived in the 1970s.

Leaving behind his career as a successful merchant banker in Edinburgh, Noble purchased a large section of Syke's southern Sleat Peninula and founded a college that would transform the future of the region and its Gaelic roots.

The fall of Gaelic culture

From the middle ages to the 17th century, Gaelic was the dominant culture in Scotland. Many factors would result in it's dismantling in Ireland and Scotland but the final straw would come in 1609 under the Statutes of Iona, which demanded Highland Scottish clan chiefs to send their heirs to English-speaking schools.

Naturally, the culture continued to ebb through the 20th century as new generations were raised without the rites and rituals.

Gaelic still thrived in some rural areas in the Western Isles and Highlands, however, a lack of jobs meant young people in Skye were leaving for the towns and cities. In addition, the culture was viewed as outdated and old-fashioned.

Noble's vision for the future

Despite being born in Berlin, Noble quickly became enamoured with Gaelic culture when he moved to Britain to study. Unlike the fleeing youths, he believed it wasn't an obstacle to progress and development but a tool that could be used to enliven the Skye and stimulate it's economy.

So, putting his money where his mouth was, Noble founded the college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 1973. With a handful of students, he liked to describe it as the first Gaelic college in Scotland since Columba.

A demonstration of Scottish Country dancing possibly at an open day for Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Photo / Skye and Lochalsh Archive, Instagram
A demonstration of Scottish Country dancing possibly at an open day for Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Photo / Skye and Lochalsh Archive, Instagram

Five decades on, Noble's original theory seems to have been proven right.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig now has a roll of more than 1,000 students, is officially the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture and is the largest employer on the Isle of Skye.

The key to the college's success has been diversification; not only teaching students the language and culture (one-third of islanders now speak Gaelic as a first or second language) but also given them skills in industries like media and business that enable them to create local jobs and help promote the region to tourists.

Aside from Gaelic courses, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig also train students in business, media, IT and technology. Photo / Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Instagram.
Aside from Gaelic courses, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig also train students in business, media, IT and technology. Photo / Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Instagram.

Naturally, given Noble's lack of Gaelic heritage, locals were sceptical about his advocation of the cause. However, his widow Lady Lucilla told the BBC that his passion for the preservation of the culture was clear.

Since Sabhal Mòr Ostaig delivers all of its programmes in Gaelic, Noble had to go to great lengths to find worthwhile teachers, sometimes chasing people down who had previously left Skye.

"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," Lucilla said.

"So, he was reversing the brain drain really."

Making Gaelic 'cool' again

Lucille said, while there are families on the island who have always spoken Gaelic and protected the culture, the college and hotel were crucial for helping transform the way younger communities viewed it.

"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 such youngster is 15-year-old Emily Macdonald, an Eilean Iarmain local who not only speaks Gaelic fluently with her friends and plays the bagpipes; but is excited to do so.

"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 told the BBC.

"And to have this special language that we can speak to each other in, you know, is quite special."

Like many large colleges, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig offers distance courses for students abroad. Photo / Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Instagram
Like many large colleges, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig offers distance courses for students abroad. Photo / Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Instagram

According to Alistair MacKay, being a student at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig was like any other college experience, full of fast friends and long nights at the pub. The freelance filmmaker now lives on Skye with his wife and three children and works at the college.

MacKay said as a young student many nights were spent at the Am Pràban bar, which would get so busy you would struggle to get in.

As for advice when visiting Skye or Gaelic regions, MacKay said a local guide was 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 told the BBC.

"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'."

Like Lady Lucille, MacKay said Skye was home to several other based organisations dedicated to Gaelic traditions and community like Fèisean nan Gàidheal, the Aros Centre in Portree, and SEALL.

Scotland Tourism gets on board

Scotland's tourism association 'VisitScotland' seems to have also experienced a renewed excitement towards its traditional roots and In July they launched a Gaelic toolkit to help the tourism industry better promote the language.

Riddell Graham, Director of Industry and Destination Development at VisitScotland said they believed "Gaelic will continue to prove a huge benefit to Scotland's identity and capture the imagination of Scots at home and around the world".

This benefit, according to Graham, has become even more important following the devastation of Covid-19 on the tourism industry.

"Finding ways to position Scotland as a unique and special holiday choice is vital," he said.

"This is because tourism is not just a holiday, it is a force for good, creating economic and social value in every corner of Scotland and enhancing the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it."

How to experience Gaelic culture

Fortunately, for those interested in experiencing the Gaelic way of life or language, you don't necessarily have to study a degree at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (although, if you can visit, you really should).

Take a short course
No matter where you are in the world, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig offers distance learning courses like their award-winning Gaelic beginners course 'An Cùrsa Inntrigidh'.

From there you can study various modules on traditional poetry, folklore and modern short stories.

Dance at a cèilidh
The traditional Gaelic dance is well known around the world, so if you're looking to get down like a Scot, look no further than a cèilidh (pronounced kay-lee).

Fortunately, the form of dance is popular in New Zealand, with monthly events in cities like Dunedin and Auckland, so have a search online for bars, pubs and halls that may be hosting one soon.

Visit the Hokonui Moonshine Museum
The McRae clan left a lot behind when they moved from the Highlands of Scotland to New Zealand's South Island but they didn't abandon their talent for making great whisky. Due to licence requirements, the McRae's distilled whiskey undercover amongst the Hokonui Hills.

Legend has it because they spoke in Gaelic at home so any eavesdroppers could never overhear the locations of their secret distilleries. While the museum is temporarily closed, you can still purchase a bottle made using the original recipe online.


Visit Dunedin
Referred to as the "Edinburgh of the South', Dunedin may not be specifically Gaelic per se but is still full of Scottish gems. Stop by the Robbie Burns Pub for a few pints, pay a visit to the fascinating Settlers Museum and don't miss a trip to The Scottish Shop for all your tartan needs.