Can TV's evolution ignite a Gaelic revolution?

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FRIDAY will see a milestone in Scottish media history: at 9pm BBC ALBA, the UK's first Gaelic-only channel will begin broadcasting. Epochal as it will be, this event may pass unnoticed by the casual viewer as it will only be accessible to those with cable or satellite. Neither terrestrial nor Freeview viewers – until 2010 at the earliest – will be able to enjoy its content.

Certainly, for those tuning in, ALBA will attempt to exceed expectations about what constitutes Gaelic television.

Among its programmes will be a docudrama recreating the story of infamous 1950s Glasgow mass-murder Peter Manuel; a comedy of a 17-year-old boy recovering from a suicide attempt who discovers he has Elvis, played by Still Game's Greg Hemphill, as his mentor; as well as coverage of a party to mark the channel's opening.

However, there remains a question mark over whether ALBA will have the impact of S4C, which helped spark a resurgence of the Welsh language.

Indeed, the Welsh channel is part of the national culture, helping broaden the reach of the language from rural northern communities to cities like Cardiff and the professional classes.

Certainly, there are those who have complained that Gaelic has received short-shrift from the main channels: relegated to less-than-peak viewing times on both BBC2 and STV.

However, conversely, there are those who have argued that Gaelic is a minority language – estimated to be spoken by 60,000 people, or 1.2 per cent of the population – and therefore the amount of money and exposure should be limited.

Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication and Head of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, says for ALBA to have the same impact as S4C, it would need to bring in mainstream English programmes.

He said: "S4C's initial success partly came out of its link to Channel 4, because it was a bilingual channel in its terrestrial days and a lot of popular Channel 4 programming appeared there, though most of the prime-time slots were Welsh.

"So you would have audiences built up by the Channel 4 programming and a lot of those, surprisingly, would carry over into S4C, because you could access them by subtitles, so there was a lot of cross-over audience. Since digital that's gone away a bit, but they have built up an audience.

"I think that's the danger with a Gaelic language-only channel, you need something else to get people there, particularly in terms of bilingual, as there are very few if any Gaelic-only communities. So why go to that channel?"

Head of content, Alan Esslemont, who worked on the Irish language channel TG4, insisted there will be bilingual elements, both in terms of un-dubbed English and subtitles, stressing one of the key parts of ALBA's success will be the extent to which it can reach out to non-Gaels.

"There's only about 70,000 Irish speakers in Ireland and the channel I worked for had to face towards both the native speaking and a broader audience. It was seen to be the most successful of all the Irish government's interventions towards the language. Both S4C and TG4 were about changing the image of the language.

"How BBC ALBA will work, we will have to find our own model. It will be closer to the Irish model, because the Welsh-speaking population is very strong. Part of what has to be done is for the majority language to become more supportive of the minority one. What happens then is the minority one grows more self-esteem and creates a better self-image because of the positive feedback."

Rosemary Ward, interim chief executive of Brd na Gidhlig, the national Gaelic development agency, said the channel can only be good news for the language and that it could have a similar impact to S4C.

She said: "We are delighted about the launch of ALBA. A TV channel dedicated to Gaelic is a marvellous boost not only for those who already speak the language but also for those who support and want to learn it. SC4 has done a huge amount for the Welsh language and there is absolutely no reason why, in time, this new channel will not do the same.

"There is a great deal of talent among Gaelic writers and broadcasters who can produce innovative and educational programmes worth watching.

However, even among Gaelic speakers there are concerns about the channel. Angus Peter Campbell, a Gaelic author and broadcaster, voiced his scepticism about the channel's chances of repeating S4C's success: "It means there is a daily exposure to Gaelic for those that are interested in it which is welcome. However, it is light years away from the Welsh situation.

"I'm also sceptical about the notion of connecting a television channel to the revival of Gaelic. It will help, but there have been some over-the-top comments made about this being the dawning of the new Heaven and Earth."

Ted Brocklebank, a Conservative MSP and former broadcaster, also sounded a note of caution: "We need to remember that there are only 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, whereas 500,000 people speak the native language of Wales.

"That said, BBC ALBA is a part of the revitalisation of the language and certainly has a key role to play.

"My view is that it's important to maintain it as part of Scottish cultural heritage and therefore a channel to promote and maintain that and give Gaelic speakers a chance to produce in Gaelic and consume media is good."

But as Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Strathclyde University, points out, any eventual impact beyond the existing Gaels will be predicated by the quality of productions: "It will depend on its ability to reach out to a wider non-Gaelic-speaking audience. I don't speak Gaelic and I don't intend to start learning, but I would be willing to watch a programme on a Gaelic channel if it was interesting and relevant to the wider Scottish population. But they will only ever be marginal, the language is a minority."

In the end, though, the time BBC ALBA will have to make its mark will be short. Mr Esslemont has said that they can sustain the current output for just two years, during which it will have to show that it is more than just a "ghetto for Gaels".

"When S4C came on they were one choice out of four. We're coming on and it's one choice out of 400. The one thing I would say is that if you are looking for prime-time Scottish-made material, we are the one out of 400."

Generations punished in school for not using English

NOT so long ago pupils were punished for speaking Gaelic in the classroom, but now there are more opportunities than ever to learn the language.

The most recent Census figures, from 2001, showed that Gaelic was both declining and thriving.

In 1881 there were still more than 250,000 people in Scotland speaking Gaelic – seven per cent of the population – but by 1901 the figure had dropped to 230,806 and the fall has continued.

The number of speakers dropped to less than 100,000 by the 1950s as generations of Gaels were punished in school for not using English.

In the 1980s numbers were down to 79,307 and moves to redress the situation eventually began, including the introduction of Gaelic medium education (GME). But by 2001, numbers had fallen to 58,652, just 1.2 per cent of Scotland's residents.

However, amid the gloom there was cause for optimism. The rate of decline was slower than previous decades and 33,744 said they could read, write or understand Gaelic, while the number of young people interested in the language was growing.

Two GME units opened in Glasgow and Inverness in 1985 with just over 20 pupils, but now there are 3,086 children being taught in Gaelic across the country, including dedicated schools in Glasgow and Inverness, and hundreds more in Gaelic nurseries. Another 3,641 take Gaelic as a subject at secondary school.

A shortage of qualified teachers has held back the fight to safeguard and develop the language, but a record 20 primary and nine secondary Gaelic teachers graduated this year. They will join the 169 already teaching in primary schools and 71 in secondary schools.

Last year a national plan for Gaelic was launched to raise the profile of the language in everyday life.

It envisages stabilising the number of speakers by 2011, and to reach a target of 100,000 speakers by 2041.

It is hoped to follow the Welsh lead. Welsh was in decline until the early 1990s when there were 508,098 speakers – 18.7 per cent of the population.

The introduction of the Welsh Language Act in 1993 helped reverse the trend and by 2001 the number of Welsh speakers had risen to nearly 21 per cent of the population.

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