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Stand up for Scotland and Scottish culture

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The Scottish flag in Pantone 300

Silicon Glen, Scotland, St. Andrew's Day 2005.
Campaign launches to revitalise Scottish education and promote the teaching of Scottish culture in schools (BBC coverage). Children in Scotland are studying the cultures of other countries as mandatory subjects, but the study of their own culture is optional and leaves many Scots children foreigners in their own land. Your contribution to the Scottish Executive's views of the people of Scotland, launched the same day, are welcomed.

Promoting Scottish confidence

For many Scots children, French is compulsory. Along with the study of the French language is French culture, customs, food and history. Should we not expect that the culture, customs, food, history and indeed languages of our country should also be part of the core curriculum too? Is the culture of Scotland really only worthy of optional status and getting a look in on St Andrew's day if it's lucky? The revival in recent years of Scottish music and ceilidhs and the runaway success of Celtic Connections have demonstrated it's OK to like traditional Scottish music, should we not be passing on this renewed confidence in Scottish culture in our schools as well? We have children who seem to know other cultures better than they ken their own! Celtic connections has not only showcased singers from the core traditions but also shows that these traditions can be combined with other cultures in a positive and interesting way. This is a role model for Scottish society as a whole, it is perfectly possible to welcome other cultures and combine with them whilst retaining core traditions and a sense of where we came from.

It's one country, and we're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns (try saying that in French!). The sentiment expressed by Burns in "A man's a man for a' that" of "That man to man, the hale world ower, Shall brithers be for aa that", is a statement of multi-culturalism that is just as valid now as it was when it was written in 1795. The excellent example of the Scottish Parliament with bilingual signing, the facility to use Gaelic and Scots, inclusion of Gaelic and Scots in the opening ceremony and information in a wide range of languages is a good example of the Scottish multiculturalism that needs to be rolled out across more of the country, especially the English medium educational sector.

Keep the Saltire Flying, Saltires for schools

When St Andrew's day has come and gone and the annual day of Scottish events and flags has passed, give a thought for Scottish culture and its optional status in the Scottish curriculum. Don't replace the Saltire with tinsel on 1st December; keep it up all year round. Given the prominence given to other cultures (e.g. French) in Scottish schools, we ask that as a minimum step towards equality for Scotland in the classroom that there is a prominent Saltire in every classroom. We are calling this "Saltires for schools", however we are not advocating a US style setup where pupils should be swearing allegiance to the flag.

Being Scottish isn't just for St Andrew's day (or even Hogmanay, Burns night and Tartan Day). Supporting Scotland is something, like this website, you can be proud to do all year round. Go to a primary school and count the number of saltires and French flags on a typical day and see where Scotland stands. Why should it say "Garçons" and "Filles" on the school toilets rather than "Lads" and "Lassies" or even in Gaelic and Scots "Lads/Balaich" and "Lassies/Caileagan" for a true One Scotland approach? Indeed, why does One Scotland not appear to recognise Gaelic and Scots as valid ethnic communities at all?

Foreign languages in nursery and primary school

The sidelining of Scottish culture has been ongoing for decades, especially the well documented persecution of Gaelic and Scots in school. The days of persecution have passed, but for English medium education in Scotland there is an ongoing neglect towards Scottish culture which I have observed first hand in the 1980s and again in recent years as my own children attend school. This is not the fault of teachers, but a fault of curriculum design.

In 2004, my daughter then aged 4 came back from nursery saying "Gung hay fat choy", which is a Happy new year greeting in Chinese (literally "May you become prosperous"). In 2005, she came back from primary school counting up to 10 in French. If it was Gaelic that was being introduced the barriers of "no one around here speaks that" or "that isn't a traditional language around here" would be raised - not so for Chinese and French. Would it not be appropriate, since this is Scotland after all, to hear our children say the equivalent in Scots ("Lang may yer lum reek") or learning even a few basic words of Gaelic. After all, if they can pick up Chinese why should Gaelic pose a problem? At Hallowe'en, the talk was all of "trick or treat" rather than the traditional "guisin. Whilst accepting that an understanding of foreign languages and culture is an important part of living in a multicultural world, why is there no place for Scotland in this multi-cultural melting pot? Our children when they sing in another language are more likely to be singing "Frère Jacques" rather than "Fear a' bhàta".

The Scottish Executive

"Gaelic is not a barrier to progress in the 21st century. We need to see a confident bilingual community as part of the modern Scotland. We want to see a growing Gaelic education sector and an expanding Gaelic economy." Jack McConnell, First Minister, 10th October 2003.

The Scottish Executive values Gaelic as an important part of Scotland's living cultural heritage. It has a vigorous programme to encourage the use of the language and its transmission to the next generation. [The Executive will] continue to support the production of education resources which encourage language diversity and learning about all the languages spoken in Scotland... Culture is significant, not only for its specialist content and knowledge, but also because many cultural activities enhance other important skills such as creative thinking and interpersonal abilities like team working and communication. Extracts from Scotland's national cultural strategy

It is excellent that the Scottish executive supports Gaelic. It is to be praised that the Scottish Education Department aims to "Increase the number of children in Gaelic-medium education year on year, and by 20% by December 2009" and also that one of the national priorities of Scottish education is that "Every pupil benefits from education, with particular regard paid to Gaelic and other lesser used languages."

However, all of the above are measured in terms of Gaelic medium education. What about the rest of Scotland that receives English medium education? This campaign is about the 87% of Scots with no knowledge of Gaelic and ensuring that English medium pupils do not miss out on the cultural benefits that a Gaelic medium education offers. Nor is it restricted to Gaelic, since clearly the Scots language and culture have much to teach us about our own country. Scots has given the us the world's most widely quoted poet Robert Burns who certainly deserves at least the prominence given to Shakespeare in the curriculum. Graeme Trousdale, a lecturer in English Language at the University of Edinburgh said that the [Study of Scots linguistics current and past] are central to a liberal arts curriculum and yet are currently marginalized in the Scottish educational system. This is a disgrace. Furthermore, 500 of Scotland's top writers are now calling for Scottish literature, history and language to be studied at every level of education.

Foreigners in their own land

A lack of knowledge in Scottish place names and language denies children from all ethnic backgrounds the opportunity to understand their surroundings. As such, they grow up effectively foreigners in their own country. Glen Eagles (see logo) is now associated with a bird of prey which is nothing to do with the origins of the name. Falkirk looks like it is from "fallen Kirk" but as explained here, is from the Scots word 'Fa' meaning speckled and has an identical meaning in its Gaelic name of "Eaglais Breac". We often mispronounce places such as Tomintoul as Tom-an-tool (meaning hill of the eye) rather than correctly as Tom-an-towel (meaning hill of the barn). We teach incorrectly that Loch means Lake, however Loch Fyne and Loch Linnhe aren't lakes and have more in common with a Norse Fjord. The Norwegians when translating Fjord to English don't use the word "lake", so why do we? Try this online Norwegian translator to see for yourself.

A broad, multicultural view of the world taking in Gaelic, Scots as well as French and other languages not only would give children a better sense of their own identity but would help them understand the links with other countries, many of which are not necessarily obvious to the English-only speaker. We see this in Galloway (Scotland), Galway (Ireland), Pays des Galles (French for Wales) and Gaul (Latin for France) all meaning "foreigner". Greater problems arise though with un-anglicised Gaelic names. The nearest hill to where I grew up in Dunblane is called "uamh bheag" and a nearby Munro, visible from as far as West Lothian, "Stuc a' chroin" both present considerable problems to the non-Gaelic speaker and render the average Scot unable to pronounce them or understand the name's significance. Despite this, in the 1980s I was denied an opportunity to learn Gaelic at school despite us having a native speaker of Glencoe Gaelic at the school. Shamefully for the Scottish educational system, he ended up teaching me Gaelic over 400 miles away in Essex instead. Moreover the school cited "lack of demand" as the reason, yet saw fit to run a Latin class for four people, a Russian class for four people and made French compulsory (and it still is). Why is the study of another country's culture compulsory in Scottish schools yet the study of our own country is not? Do we take it too much for granted?

For such a supposedly highly educated country, such a gap in not only understanding place names but even being able to pronounce them is not only surprising but highlights an opportunity to address this via education. Indeed some adults now turn to "Gaelic for hill walkers" classes to close the gap left by their education in school.

It isn't just place names however. A scan down the list of children in the school reveals a good number of Mac surnames. Names from Gaelic, Scots as well as furth o Scotland crop up. Do children get taught the meanings of their own names in school? Would teaching this and local placenames not give them a greater sense of their own identity and place in the world?

The way forward

I have nothing against the teaching of multiculturalism and children learning French, German, the customs of other countries and so on. The problem is the absence of Scotland in all of this and I seek equality of status for longer standing Scottish customs and language alongside those that have arrived more recently. For instance, at the time of writing this, the Executive has published an excellent guide to multiculturalism in Scotland under the welcome "One Scotland" initiative. However, whilst this is fantastic at helping to combat racism, excellent at promoting cultural understanding of recent immigrants and a great step forward to a broad and diverse society, but are ye no scunnered to see no mention of the Celtic festivals of Beltane or Hallowe'en in their list of cultural festivals in Scotland?. In the website's list of major immigrations to Scotland, there's also no mention of the Celts that settled from the 6th century bringing us a language that is still spoken to this day.

Not only is it important for existing Scots to understand about recent immigrants, but so it is also important for those recent immigrants to learn about longer standing traditions - why should we all be excluded from learning about Beltane, now celebrated in Edinburgh by 15,000 people?. Perhaps as many people in Scotland speak Scots as those in Wales who speak Welsh. Yet Welsh is confident and growing, with the number of speakers rising by 2% in the last ten years, enjoys legal status, and virtually every child in Wales has the opportunity to learn Welsh. Scots should be in no less a position based on speakers, and Gaelic should be in no less a position based on the overall influence it made on Scotland. A simple introduction to these and Scottish culture for English medium pupils would go a long way to close the cultural gap between what Wales has achieved and what Scotland could achieve in terms of cultural confidence and knowledge.

There is a related E-petition available to this campaign. The e-petition was launched by the Writers' petition to parliament. We encourage you to sign the e-petition as its aims are compatible with ours and we would like to speak with one voice rather than compete with one another.

This campaign in the news

BBC article by Craig Cockburn on Scottish culture
Learning and Teaching Scotland reported the BBC article
BBC Voices covered the article
as did the The Scottish Centre for Information on Language and Teaching
My letter was also published in the West Highland Free Press and the Scots Magazine

Messages of support

The following messages of support have been received. The opinions below are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily entirely reflect our own but are simply here to indicate the level of support this campaign is receiving and the views of other people on this subject

I feel this is an important issue; any pressure on the Scottish Executive can only be a good thing.
Alan Mackenzie

I agree wholeheartedly with much of your "Stand up for Scotland and Scottish culture" article, and would support a petition to improve teaching and general exposure to Scottish culture. At school (finished ten years ago) we did indeed study some Scottish lit (Scots Quair trilogy, Norman MacCaig, etc, to Laidlaw!), but this I suspect was due more to having a keenly Scots teacher, which others did not. I was disappointed to find, however, that the Gaelic class I hoped to take would involve a three hour round trip (for each one hour lesson) across Glasgow in my final years.
Graham Cumming

This is just a brief note to congratulate you on your excellent piece on Scottish language and culture found at

The sentiments expressed in the article are to be commended and your arguments irrefutable. Any sensible person can appreciate that true multiculturalism or an understanding of other people's culture is based first and foremost upon a solid grounding in one's own social and cultural background. I am, like yourself, too often dismayed by the basic lack of knowledge about Scotland's cultural and linguistic heritage amongst people who have spent their entire lives in this land.

As you refer to, there is a great deal of ignorance towards the origins of place names - something that can assist us in gaining a deeper understanding of where we come from, and our ancestors, the people who preceded us in that place. Anglicisation, although responsible for much of the misinterpretation of Scottish culture, history and polity, cannot be blamed for this. Many towns or places still maintain (or at least mainly reflect) their original Gaelic meaning, and the lack of knowledge of derivation is down much more to lack of understanding (or lack of desire to understand) than anything else. Although the unfortunate history of this country since union with England has had an indisputable impact on the position of our native languages, it is, as you state, the fault of our own education system that such anomalies are allowed to continue. We cannot allow government to ignore the significance of this. If we want to be "the best small country in the world" (to use a paradoxical unionist phrase), then we must equip our children with the knowledge and understanding of their own background, their own land, and their own people - first and foremost.

The reasons for this are not parochial or inward looking, but to act as a basis for the expansion of knowledge and the spirit of multiculturalism. How can we expect to fully understand other cultures if we don't understand (or even try to understand) our own? I agree with you that the Executive's moves to award Gaelic a more equal status with English are commendable, but they must also become tangible - children (and adults) the length and breadth of the country must be given the opportunity to increase their appreciation of who they are by having genuine access to Gaelic and Scots educatory media. This is not "mindwashing" or "petty nationalism" or anything of the sort - it is immersion in one's own culture, a healthy experience for anyone, and an experience that is repeated to the benefit of populations throughout the world. It is a simple fact that we cannot know and appreciate others until we know and appreciate ourselves.

Congratulations once again on your fine article, and on your website - let's hope that the writers' petition to Parliament brings furtherance of Scotland's culture and languages for all its people.
Innes Peter (Glasgow)

I found the link to your site through the BBC website. i had never really considered this concern but found the article very thought provoking. I am a third year politics student and have a strong interest in matters of this sort.

The teaching of Gaelic in schools is something I completely agree with and something I wish I had done at school. I attended a school in Perth where the teaching of Gaelic is available to any student but although it was available I don't feel it was promoted to a great enough extent.

As I'm sure you are aware the mod was recently hosted by Perth. With any event of this sort there is a huge amount of local promotion but this was the first time I had heard of the event-many of my friends were in the same position.

The university I attend puts on a huge St. Patrick's Day celebration however the only event yesterday was a small Ceilidh held by a charity society I hadn't even considered that there was anything wrong with this. We celebrate thanksgiving and a huge emphasis is placed on international events. After reading your article I'm questioning why this is the case and why a predominantly Scottish university in Scotland does not make a big deal of what is effectively the Scottish equivalent of St. Patrick's Day?

I would be willing to sign a petition regarding your campaign. I've printed off the article and I'm going to let some friends read it - I've no doubt that they will find it just as thought provoking.

Good luck with the campaign
<name withheld at author's request>

Just read your St Andrew's Day article on Scots culture in schools. Can I just say I'm right behind you. My eldest daughter is in a school nursery in and to my knowledge has been taught nothing of her history. A few weeks ago she learnt all about Diwali, made pictures and brought home a special Diwali candle but St Andrew Day wasn't mentioned and indeed little notice was taken of Halloween in case it offended anyone. I don't object to my children learning about other cultures and indeed believe it's a good thing in our multi cultural society but I would dearly love my children to learn more about their own country. At the moment it seems to be left to our family to educate them as best we can. I would back an e-petition to Holyrood and am keen to know how it all progresses.
Thanks for a good article.
<name withheld, (Falkirk)>

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Last updated: 27 March 2006 by Craig Cockburn