Gaelic culture as a lifestyle choice

18 Feb 2014 22:28 | Armelle Loghmanian

 Gaelic culture as a lifestyle choice

An interview by Rita Nasini


Aideen O’Malley

Member of Court, Board Member of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)

Aideen, how and why have you adopted the Gaelic culture?

When I married my husband, Neil, I realised I would very quickly have to learn Scottish Gaelic (1) to be able to fully share in the circle of friends in which I found myself in Inverness in the north of Scotland. I didn't want our friends to have to turn to English just because I was present.

So I set myself to learning the language. I had the big advantage of already having learnt Irish Gaelic (2) which is a closely related language, like Italian and Spanish or Dutch and German so I soon started to understand quite well but it took me a lot longer to actually speak correctly. My learning tactic was to stay quiet show that I was following what was being said and just add what little I could to the conversation. In that way, the Gaelic speakers around me didn't automatically switch to English as they normally would in the presence of a non-Gaelic speaker and so I had a chance to learn.

When our first child was born, in Inverness, we naturally decided to make Gaelic the language of the home and bring him up bilingually.
We continued to maintain Gaelic as the family language when we moved abroad, first to Belgium then later to Italy where we lived for eighteen years.

How did you get involved in the Academic world of Gaelic culture?

We returned to Scotland in 2006 and have lived ever since in Edinburgh, a fascinating city full of architectural and cultural interest.

In 2008 a friend of ours who was Chairman of the board of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (3) asked me if I would be interested in joining the board. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, on the Isle of Skye, is the national centre for Gaelic language and culture. It is an extraordinary institution, part cultural icon, part university, and I was delighted to accept. I have been involved ever since. The following year I was asked to represent the college on the Court of the University of the Highlands and Islands, the brand new university of the north of Scotland. This university is unique in Britain, being made up of 13 separate colleges and research institutes, spread over a vast area extending from the Shetland Islands in the north to the Outer Hebrides in the west, south to the Mull of Kintyre and east to the city of Perth.

Aideen, specifically what is your job and explain your role at the University of the Highlands and Islands?

My role as member of the board of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and of the Court of the university is similar to the role of member of the board of any publicly funded institution - we are answerable to the government for our use of public funds, and the good governance and management of the institution. It is a difficult task, give the inevitable stresses and strains of a complex federal organisation, and keeping up to speed on the many issues that arise takes a lot of time and mental energy!
Though we are not paid for what we do, it is a challenge I enjoy and, I feel, a very worthwhile use of my time.

What are the goals of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)? How many students attend the courses and what nationalities are they?

The University currently has 7000 students enrolled in the 13 colleges and research institutions that constitute it. Much of the impetus for the development of the UHI comes from the long history of emigration from the Highland area. The young go away to study in the cities and few return. The UHI hopes to reverse that trend by giving young people the chance to stay and continue their studies locally.

As you would expect from such an unusual institution, it offers an unusual and interesting range of courses, arising out of the natural landscape and culture of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Besides all the usual courses in accountancy, computing, business studies etc, at the UHI you can study Gaelic language and culture, traditional music, marine biology, textiles, Viking archaeology, aircraft maintenance, alternative energies.
You could find yourself on a student placement at the University of the Arctic in Svalbard (4), where the student induction includes learning how to defend yourself from polar bears with a rifle or in Dubai as a golf professional after graduating from the UHI's three year Golf Studies course.

Aideen, you lived some years in continental Europe, what impact did this have on you when you returned to Scotland? Was it a culture shock?

I lived in Belgium and Italy for twenty years. Each time I moved, first from Ireland to Scotland then on to Belgium and Italy, there was a new language to learn. I have always been fascinated by languages so I saw this as a wonderful opportunity. With five young children, however, there was very little time for attending classes so I learnt from the people around me as I had done with Gaelic years before.

Returning to Scotland I thought to myself that this was the time to put my language skills to good use and started looking for jobs that required languages.
To my astonishment, in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, no one was looking for language skills, they were regarded as irrelevant in the job market. In the schools few children take language studies seriously and the numbers studying languages at school and university are dropping steadily. Although as a nation the Scots are far more pro-EU than the English, still the links with Europe are commercial and political rather than linguistic or cultural and European languages are regarded as unimportant.

By contrast, the numbers of children enrolled in Gaelic medium education are rising year by year. The Gaelic primary school in Edinburgh is full, as are the schools in Glasgow and Inverness. Other Gaelic schools are opening up or are planned for other areas of the country. Scotland is rediscovering its Highland heritage, strongly supported by a nationalist government who hope to win a 'Yes' vote for independence in September's referendum.

Short Biography

I was born and raised in Dublin. I attended University College Dublin where I graduated in 1975 with an honours degree in Celtic Studies. I followed this with a National Teaching Diploma and then taught for some years in a Dublin school.
When I married Neil I moved to Inverness in the North of Scotland where he was working as a radio producer for the BBC Gaelic service. After a few years he joined the European Commission and we moved to Brussels. Three years later we moved again, to the EU Joint Research Centre in Ispra, on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy, where we lived for the next eighteen years and raised our five children.
In 2006 Neil was appointed EU representative in Scotland and we moved to Edinburgh. At the time of the move our two youngest children were still at school, one son with learning difficulties was in sheltered training, and the two eldest were at university.
I retrained and found work with a small Edinburgh property company while also doing voluntary work for a charity and sitting on the boards of the Gaelic College and the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Now my husband has returned to Ispra in a new role and I divide my time between Italy and Scotland.

Contact Details

Aideen O’Malley
Member of Court, Board Member of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)

University of the Highlands and Islands
12b Ness Walk, Inverness,
Scotland IV3 5SQ


(1) Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig)

(2) Irish (Gaeilge)

(3) Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

(4) Svalbard

Disclaimer -     
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of University of the Highlands and Islands, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.

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