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‘You have to be optimistic:’ The Royal National Mòd’s new Bard on Gaelic’s future

Dr Peter Mackay, who works as a senior lecturer in literature at the University of St Andrews, was appointed to the position in recognition of his contribution to the Gaelic literary world. 

Part of the role will see Mackay promote the language both at home and further afield. 

Speaking to The National, he said: “The position of Bard will be 100 years old next year. It used to really just be a ceremonial position. 

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“In the past, they’d put a crown on someone and give them robes for their contribution to Gaelic literature without that much expectation.”

He takes over from Rody Gorman, who Mackay says did lots of “mentoring” when it came to promoting Gaelic.

“I want to be writing some poems and songs, I’m going to be doing a little bit of advocacy for Gaelic literature overseas in the Republic of Ireland and the Czech Republic”, Mackay adds. 

He continued: “I’d also like to do some mentoring and use this as a way of giving a platform to Gaelic speakers and writers.”

Raised on the Isle of Lewis, Mackay has been bilingual from his earliest days. He has published two collections of his own poetry and has also worked on two larger anthologies. 

He also worked on the Gaelic elements of The Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse – a series of over three-hundred poems ranging from the early medieval period to the modern day. 

Mackay said: “Part of my academic life is re-thinking and understanding Gaelic poetry in the UK and looking across from Scotland to Ireland.”

Although there has been a decline in the number of Gaelic speakers over the last century, the academic says there is plenty of reason for optimism. 

The National: Peter Mackay has been bilingual all his life - Image Credit - Annette MueckPeter Mackay has been bilingual all his life – Image Credit – Annette Mueck (Image: Annette Mueck)

“There’s a strong interest in the Gaelic language at the moment, partly because of the unexpected and hugely successful Duolingo.

“Over half a million people are learning through that, which is almost ten times the number of speakers we have”, Mackay explains. 

Duolingo is an online resource which allows people to learn a language, often by only spending a few minutes a day doing so. 

Gaelic is very much part of Mackay’s heritage. His great-great-grand-uncle came second in the Mòd‘s literary competition in 1909. 

At that time, there were around 200,000 speakers across Scotland compared to around 58,000 today. 

Mackay continued: “If you look at the numbers, it’s a slow and steady decline. But in the last 40 years there’s been a huge effort to provide infrastructure. 

“There’s been a great exporting of Gaelic music and Gaelic song is much more central to Scottish life. 

“You look at Julie Fowlis being on the Brave soundtrack. BBC Alba is so important as well in raising the language’s profile and bringing it into people’s homes. 

“I think the Gaelic channel was one of the early supporters of women’s football across Scotland.

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“For some people, it’s their heritage. For a large enough area it’s the language they were born and raised in. 

“For other it’s more practical. This wasn’t the case about 40 years ago but it helps you to get jobs now.”

Although he’s optimistic about the language’s place in the world, Mackay says there can still be more done to give it the recognition it deserves. 

“I think we are moving to a position where we need to maintain Gaelic as both a community language and also find ways to support it as a language being spoken everywhere in the country. 

“We need to make use of initiatives where we can map the language onto things we don’t celebrate enough. 

“There’s a huge amount that can be done, a huge amount of cultural life that isn’t covered and if we do it in Gaelic that brings more people to the language.”

There are of course some who don’t take Gaelic seriously. Only recently, David Dimbleby claimed Gaelic programmes were robbing the BBC “by stealth”

Despite that though, Mackay has a positive outlook for the language’s future. 

Mackay added: “I think one has to be optimistic just because otherwise you don’t do anything. It’s very, very easy to be pessimistic about it. 

“I think back to the first time I was told I was part of a dying or dead culture. I was only nine or 10. It’s a strange responsibility to put on children or anybody and give them these sense you are fighting against time or the sea. 

“I think the only possible attitude is to be defiant, to be optimistic and to sing for the hell of it even if there is a narrative about it being a dead language. 

“You just have to block that out and make a strong positive case for what you’re doing.”



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