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Fears for future of Gaelic language as community workers’ jobs under threat

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Gaelic-language campaigners and MSPs have protested furiously about plans to axe a network of Gaelic community workers, raising fresh fears about the survival of the language.

Up to 27 Gaelic development workers based in Hebridean islands, rural counties and Scotland’s major cities are being laid off after the Scottish government cut funding to Bòrd na Gàidhlig (BnG), the body charged with protecting and reviving Gaelic.

The job losses have alarmed activists, who said these development workers were essential to their efforts to promote and reinvigorate the language and Gaelic communities, after decades of decline.

Community leaders on Tiree, an island in the southern Hebrides where Gaelic was once the primary language, said losing their two development officers would have “significant negative implications” for the island.

“The decision is shortsighted and deeply damaging to island communities,” said Tiree community council and Tiree community development trust in a joint letter.

Wilson McLeod, an emeritus professor of Gaelic at Edinburgh University, said the city’s part-time officer would be laid off in September, damaging plans for a new Gaelic language hub for Edinburgh. “People are really fired up,” he said of the cuts.

One senior source said many felt “betrayed”, partly because the cuts had been imposed by Scottish National party ministers, who many assumed would be particularly attuned to the cultural and political case for protecting Gaelic.

Scottish ministers argue that they are championing Gaelic. Holyrood is weighing up a Scottish languages bill to provide legal recognition to Gaelic and Scots, to boost Gaelic education, and establish an official Gaelic cultural region across the Highlands and western islands.

Yet Bòrd na Gàidhlig and MG Alba, a government-funded agency for Gaelic-language television, film and radio, have warned that they have shouldered consistent cuts in real-terms funding, putting their services under severe strain.

Leaders on Tiree said preservation of the Gaelic language was vital for their cultural heritage and for the ‘vibrancy and future’ of their community. Photograph: Stephen Finn/Alamy

The University of Aberdeen faced strike action by lecturers on Tuesday after heavily cutting Gaelic and modern languages teaching following a slump in student numbers. The strike was called off last week after two lecturers quit and a third was promoted, leading the university to lift the threat of compulsory redundancies.

Ministers have defended the budget for Bòrd na Gàidhlig by arguing that the development officers were paid for by top-up funds. Its core funding, the government said, had remained the same “despite the extraordinary financial challenges facing the Scottish government”.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig challenged that assertion in a strongly worded submission on the bill’s financial provisions earlier this month. It said it had £5m funding in 2007, and 17 years later its budget for 2024-25 stood at £5.125m. If its grant had kept pace with inflation, it should be receiving between £8.5m and £10m a year.

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“Every year where a standstill budget is delivered reflects a real-terms cut in available resources, the impact of which is felt across Gaelic-speaking communities,” it said. Its development budgets were “already significantly oversubscribed with known demand exceeding the budget available”.

Tiree’s leaders agreed. “The reduction in funding for Bòrd na Gàidhlig exacerbates an already dire situation for the Gaelic language, whose preservation is vital not only to our cultural heritage but also to the vibrancy and future of our community,” they said.

Kate Forbes, the Gaelic-speaking MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and a former Scottish finance secretary, said she had been “inundated” with complaints. “The Scottish government and the rest of Scotland need to do far more to save the language,” she said.

She said part of the problem lay with Gaelic sitting in the government’s education portfolio rather than having the wider status it needed. A working group she set up as a minister called for Gaelic policies to be integrated into housing and economic policy; community development should be one of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s core duties and funded as such, she said.

A government spokesperson said it had written to Bòrd na Gàidhlig asking it to “bring forward alternative proposals” to fund the threatened posts. “We recognise the significant part Gaelic plays in Scotland’s culture and we want to support the language to thrive and grow,” he said.

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