Interview with Fiona Heatlie on World Gaelic Week

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Dr Fiona Heatlie


Hear from Fiona Heatlie, a member of the Young Academy of Scotland, on her involvement with Gaelic medium education and her journey with Gaelic.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m Fiona Heatlie. Born and bred in Glasgow. I’m the Head of Research Development for Social Science at the University of Glasgow, and I’m a very proud member of the Young Academy of Scotland. I left Scotland when I was 17, to go and see the world and returned when I was 37, with a small child in to! I’m thrilled to be back and building a life and career here. And making a contribution to life in Scotland, in whatever small way I can. What’s realistic? What do I care about? And where can I put my skills to use? That was important to me.

A close up of a woman
Dr Fiona Heatlie, Head of Research Development & Partner Engagement, University of Glasgow

What is your story with Scottish Gaelic?

Prepared to be amazed. When I was at primary school in Glasgow in the early 1980s, Gaelic medium education only started in Glasgow in 1985, so I was too early for that boat, and it wouldn’t have been something in my parent’s minds at all. But from primary two to three, my teacher was from Skye, and she taught us Gaelic off her own back. Not only that, but she took us to the Mòd, and still to this day, that’s the proudest certificate on my wall. That experience planted a seed in my head. When we were looking to move back to Scotland, with a child of our own, I discovered that Gaelic medium education was an option. It was like something exploded inside me. The opportunity for my child to be living in Scotland and to be immersed in a Gaelic-speaking community and have all those beautiful feelings that I remember from being little was too good to pass up.

Can you tell us more about your work in supporting the maintenance of education through the medium of Gaelic?

When my older son was transitioning from nursery to primary, my family had put two years of investment into learning Gaelic, becoming embedded in a community, and all those lovely things about making a contribution. At that point, it was the first oversubscription crisis for Gaelic medium education places in Glasgow. So that led me into this world of being an activist for it, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Gaelic medium education only exists because parents lobbied for it. And back in the 1970s and 80s. It was people power that brought it into place. And community activism supports the increasing pace because the demand goes up, and up and up every year, which is impressive. You sense the seismic change, and people are coming to value this unique treasure that we have in our country, and value the opportunity that everybody can be part of. I have volunteered for many years for Comann nam Pàrant, the national parent’s organisation. And I have been volunteering for Comann nam Pàrant Ghlaschu for more years than I care to mention.  If you’re Gaelic medium education curious, then join our group on Facebook.

Speaking of social media, how important is social media in promoting and encouraging the Gaelic language?

For our young people, social media is their world with Gaelic as a key part of what they’re doing. It’s bewilderingly sophisticated to me but wonderful to see. And in Ireland and Irish-speaking community, again, there’s a massive cohort of folk who do fantastic stuff across social media, and, it’s called influencing for a reason. It does change the tone of the conversation. And let’s not forget one of the top social media influencers in Scotland, a Gaelic speaker, Calum Maclean, and Gaelic is at the core of what he does. That is a positive sign of the times and hugely influential.

Why is it important for those outside Gaelic-speaking areas to engage with the language?

What’s a Gaelic- speaking area? That would be my question to you.

We need to change the narrative, Gaelic belongs to all of us. This isn’t a three-line whip for everybody to learn Gaelic, but I think there is maybe a call to action for all of us to put our fear down and step into the unknown. It would be a loss to all of us, to all of humanity, if Gaelic went. And even if you’re not interested in learning Gaelic, which is entirely fair, maybe challenge yourself about not fearing it

What’s been the best word you’ve learned in Gaelic? 

My favourite word in Gaelic, which has a counterpart in Irish Gaelic too, is the word for jellyfish. It sounds really stupid. In Irish Gaelic, the literal translation is seal snot, and in Scottish Gaelic, it’s seal vomit. It’s funny, but it tells you something about the commonality of human experience. There was a person thousands of years ago, standing on a beach in Kent, poking a dead jellyfish with a stick, and they said, jelly. And then there was someone on a beach in Donegal doing the same thing going seal vomit. That’s the beauty of learning any language, discovering how to look at the world in a slightly different way. There’s something human about that and connecting that crosses cultures and time.


What’s your advice to anyone wanting to learn Gaelic?

There’s often this perception that Gaelic is hard or it’s got these weird things on the letters, and there are loads of H’s everywhere. Gaelic is no more complex to learn than any other modern language. Lots of people say it’s easier to learn than English. So don’t be intimidated by it at all. Once you know how to read an H the whole thing becomes demystified. Please don’t be shy to try it on people. I think most Gaelic speakers would be absolutely thrilled if someone had a try. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake.  So, give it a try. Get on Duolingo and get started.

What are some common challenges in learning Gaelic?

When you’re trying to learn the grammar of another language, it’s always going to be hard to do. But I’ve been able to have everyday conversations in Gaelic for five years without knowing any of that.

Right at the very start, I was lucky to attend classes for parents where I got the basics. After that I went to the University’s Gaelic department to seek support, and, like it was the 1990s, I pinned a notice with little bits dangling at the bottom with my phone number.  I got a response! I asked one of the students to have lunch with me once a week, so they could talk at me, and I could try and talk at them.  The most wonderful thing is that the student was German. I was taught to speak Gaelic by a German, and if that doesn’t say modern Scotland to you, I do not know what does.


Agallamh le Fiona Heatlie

Beachdan bho Fiona Heatlie, a tha na ball de dh’Acadamaidh Òg na h-Alba, mu a ceangal le foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig agus an t-slighe ionnsachaidh aice leis a’ Ghàidhlig.

Innis dhuinn mu do dhèidhinn.

Is mise Fiona Heatlie. Rugadh is thogadh mi ann an Glaschu. Tha mi nam Cheannard air Leasachadh Rannsachadh airson Saidheans Sòisealta aig Oilthigh Ghlaschu, agus tha mi nam bhall moiteil de dh’Acadamaidh Òg na h-Alba. Dh’fhàg mi Alba nuair a bha mi 17, gus an saoghal fhaicinn agus thill mi nuair a bha mi 37 le leanabh beag nam chois – chuir mi seachad iomadh bliadhna taobh a-muigh na h-Alba. Tha mi fìor thoilichte a bhith air ais agus a’ togail beatha agus cùrsa obrach an seo. Agus a bhith a’ cur ri beatha ann an Alba ann an dòigh sam bith as urrainn dhomh, ge b’ e cho beag ’s a bhiodh sin. Dè tha practaigeach? Dè na rudan a tha mi a’ faireachdainn làidir mu dheidhinn? Agus càite an cuir mi na sgilean agam gu feum? Bha sin cudromach dhomh.

A close up of a woman
An Dr Fiona Heatlie, Ceannard Rannsachaidh air Leasachadh Gnothachais, Oilthigh Ghlaschu

Dè do sgeulachd a thaobh na Gàidhlig?

Cuiridh seo iongnadh oirbh. Bha mi sa bhun-sgoil ann an Glaschu tràth anns na 1980an, ach cha do thòisich foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig ann an Glaschu gu 1985, agus mar sin bha mi ro thràth airson a dhol air a’ bhàta sin, agus cha bhiodh mo phàrantan air smaoineachadh mu dheidhinn idir co-dhiù. Ach, sa bhun-sgoil anns an robh mi ann an chlas a dhà agus a trì, bha mo thidsear às an Eilean Sgitheanach agus bhiodh i a’ teagasg Gàidhlig dhuinn gu saor-thoileach. A bharrachd air sin, thug i chun a’ Mhòid sinn agus ’s e sin an teisteanas air mo bhalla às a bheil mi as moiteile. Chuir sin sìol nam inntinn. Nuair a bha sin an dùil tilleadh a dh’Alba le pàiste againn, fhuair mi a-mach gun robh foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig ri fhaighinn. Bha e mar gun do spreadh rudeigin nam bhroinn a bha air a bhith a’ feitheimh annam fad nam bliadhnaichean uile. Bha an cothrom mo phàiste a bhith a’ fuireach ann an Alba agus a bhith air a bhogadh ann an coimhearsnachd Ghàidhlig agus na faireachdainnean brèagha sin uile air a bheil cuimhne agam bho làithean m’ òige na chothrom nach b’ urrainnear seachnadh.

An innis thu barrachd dhuinn mun obair agad gus taic a chumail ri foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig?

Nuair a bha mo mhac as sine a’ gluasad bhon sgoil-àraich dhan bhun-sgoil, bha mo theaghlach – còmhla ri mòran theaghlaichean eile san aon suidheachadh – air dà bhliadhna a chur seachad ag ionnsachadh na Gàidhlg mar theaghlach, a’ fàs freumhaichte ann an coimhearsnachd, agus a’ cur ri cùisean a’ chànain. Aig an àm sin, thachair a’ chiad suidheachadh èiginn far an robh cus iarrtasan ann airson àiteachan ann am foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig ann an Glaschu. Mar sin thug sin a-steach mi gu saoghal an neach-iomairt Gàidhlig, a’ seasamh air guailnean fhuamhairean.

Tha foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig ann dìreach a chionn ’s gun d’ rinn pàrantan strì air a shon. Agus air ais sna 1970an agus 80an. B’ e cumhachd nan daoine a thug gu buil e. Agus tha gnìomhachd coimhearsnachd a’ cumail taic ris an fhàs mhòr ann am foghlam Gàidhlig a chionn ’s gu bheil an t-iarrtas a’ dol suas, agus suas is suas gach bliadhna, rud a tha iongantach. ’S e rud air leth math a th’ ann, a’ sealltainn cruth-atharrachadh cultarach mòr ann an Alba. Bidh thu a’ faireachdainn atharrachaidh seismic, agus tha daoine a’ tòiseachadh air luach a chur anns an ulaidh shònraichte seo a th’ againn nar dùthaich, agus air luach a chur air a’ chothrom seo sam faod a h-uile duine a bhith nam pàirt. Tha mi air a bhith ag obair gu saor-thoileach do Chomann nam Pàrant, buidheann nam pàrant, fad grunn bhliadhnaichean agus tha lìonra nàiseanta ann. Agus tha mi air a bhith ag obair gu saor-thoileach do mheur Ghlaschu airson barrachd bhliadhnaichean na tha mi airson innse. Tha buidheann mhòr fhosgailte againn air Facebook airson sgìre Ghlaschu, Comann nam Pàrant Ghlaschu. Agus tha e mìorbhaileach do duine sam bith a tha airson barrachd ionnsachadh mu fhoghlam tro Mheadhan na Gàidhlig. Chuirinn cuideam air cho fàilteach agus in-ghabhalach sa tha a’ choimhearsnachd.

A’ bruidhinn air na meadhanan sòisealta, dè cho cudromach ’s a tha na meadhanan sòisealta ann a bhith a’ brosnachadh na Gàidhlig?

Ma choimheadas sinn air na daoine òga againn, tha iad a’ tighinn beò ann an saoghal nam meadhanan sòisealta. Chì thu tòrr dhaoine òga, air feadh nam meadhanan sòisealta, le Gàidhlig mar phrìomh phàirt de na tha iad a’ dèanamh. Dhomhsa, tha e toinnte chun na h-ìre is nach eil mi buileach ga thuigsinn ach tha e mìorbhaileach fhaicinn. Agus ann an Èirinn agus coimhearsnachd na Gaeilge, a-rithist, tha tòrr mòr dhaoine ann a bhios a’ dèanamh rudan air leth math air na meadhanan sòisealta – canar influencing ris airson adhbhar. Tha e ag atharrachadh tòna a’ chòmhraidh. Agus cha bu chòir dhuinn dìochuimhneachadh mu fhear de na prìomh luchd-buaidh no influencers ann an Alba, Calum MacIlleathain, aig a bheil Gàidhlig. Tha a’ Ghàidhlig na pàirt mhòr bhunaiteach den obair aige. Tha sin na fhìor dheagh chomharra air mar a tha cuisean san latha an-diugh agus tha e air leth buadhmhor.

Carson a tha e cudromach do dhaoine taobh a-muigh nan sgìrean Gàidhlig a’ dol an sàs sa chànan?

Dè th’ ann an sgìre Ghàidhlig? Sin a’ cheist a bhiodh agam dhut.

Feumaidh sinn an aithris atharrachadh rud beag: buinidh a’ Ghàidhlig dhuinn uile. Chan e “cuip trì-loidhne” a tha seo airson a h-uile duine gus Gàidhlig ionnsachadh, ach tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gur dòcha gu bheil e gar brosnachadh uile gus cùl a chur ri ar cuid eagal agus ceum a ghabhail a-steach gu talamh neo-aithnichte. Leugh mi an abairt sgoinneil seo ann an artaigil mu mhion-chànanan, a h-uile turas a chailleas an saoghal cànan, tha e mar a bhith a’ leigeil boma air an Louvre. Bhiodh e na chall dhuinn uile, dhan chinne-daonna gu lèir, nan rachadh a’ Ghàidhlig à bith. Agus fiù ’s mura h-eil ùidh agad ann a bhith ag ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig, rud a tha gu tur cothromach, carson nach cur thu dùbhlan romhad gun eagal a bhith ort roimhpe,

Dè am facal as fheàrr a dh’ionnsaich thu sa Ghàidhlig? 

’S e am facal as fheàrr leam ann an Gàidhlig, aig a bheil co-fhacal ann an Gàidhlig na h-Èireann cuideachd, am facal airson jellyfish. Tha coltas gu math gòrach air. Ann an Gàidhlig na h-Èireann, ’s e smugairle róin (smiog ròin) a th’ ann, agus ann an Gàidhlig na h-Alba, ’s e sgeith ròin a th’ ann. Agus seadh, tha e furasta cuimhneachadh a chionn ’s gu bheil e èibhinn, ach tha e ag innse rudeigin dhuinn mu coitcheannas a’ chinne-daonna.  Bha neach o chionn nam mìltean de bhliadhnaichean, nan sheasamh air tràigh ann an Kent, a’ brodadh sgeith ròin marbh le bata, agus thuirt iad, jelly. Agus an uair sin bha cuideigin air tràigh ann an Dùn na nGall a’ dèanamh an aon rud agus iad ag ràdh “smugairle róin”.  Sin an rud a tha math mu bhith ag ionnsachadh cànan sam bith, ag ionnsachadh mar a choimheadar air an t-saoghal ann an dòigh a tha beagan eadar-dhealaichte. Tha rudeigin daonna mu dheidhinn sin, agus rudeigin a tha gar ceangal thairis air cultaran agus tìm. 

Dè do chomhairle do dhuine sam bith a tha airson Gàidhlig ionnsachadh?

Gu math tric tha beachd ann gu bheil a’ Ghàidhlig doirbh ionnsachadh. Tha na rudan neònach seo air na litrichean, agus tha mòran den litir H anns gach àite. Chan eil a’ Ghàidhlig nas toinnte ri ionnsachadh na cànan sam bith eile san latha an-diugh. Canaidh tòrr dhaoine ag ràdh gu bheil i nas fhasa ionnsachadh na Beurla. Mar sin na biodh an t-eagal ort idir. Aon uair ’s gu bheil fios agad mar a leughas tu H, rud as urrainn dhut ionnsachadh ann an leth uair a thìde, fàsaidh a h-uile rud soilleir. Feuch nach bi thu diùid do chuid Ghàidhlig feuchainn air daoine. Tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gum biodh a’ mhòr-chuid de luchd-labhairt na Gàidhlig air an dòigh glan nam feuchadh daoine an cuid Gàidhlig leotha. Chan eil e gu diofar ma nì thu mearachd. Bidh mi a’ dèanamh mhearachdan fad an t-siubhail. Chan toir i dha do bheatha ach luach, bòidhchead agus togail.. Mar sin, feuch e! Faigh Duolingo agus tòisich.

Innis dhuinn mu cuid de na dùbhlain chumanta le bhith ag ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig?

Tha mi a’ dèanamh cùrsa gràmair Gàidhlig le UHI, le pàrantan foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig eile aig an àm seo. Tha an emoji siud ann a tha na aghaidh a tha a’ leaghadh. Sin am fear a bhios mi a’ cleachdadh fad na h-ùine. Nuair a tha thu a’ feuchainn ri gràmar cànain eile ionnsachadh gu mionaideach, bidh e daonnan duilich a dhèanamh. Ach tha mi air a bhith comasach air còmhraidhean làitheil a bhith agam sa Ghàidhlig fad còig bliadhna is còrr gun fhios a bhith agam air gin dheth sin idir.

Aig an fhìor thoiseach, bha mi glè, glè fhortanach cothrom a bhith agam clasaichean a fhrithealadh a chaidh a chur air dòigh do phàrantan. Fhuair mi na bunaitean. Agus an uair sin, chaidh mi gu roinn na Ceiltis is na Gàidhlig aig an Oilthigh. Agus coltach ris na 1990n, chuir mi duilleag pàipeir air a’ bhalla, pìos pàipeir le tagaichean beaga aig a’ bhonn leis an àireimh fòn agam air. Agus fhuair mi freagairt! Agus dh’iarr mi air aon de na h-oileanaich lòn a ghabhail còmhla rium uair san t-seachdain. Mar sin b’ urrainn dhaibh bruidhinn rium, agus b’ urrainn dhomh feuchainn ri bruidhinn riutha. Agus chaill mi an t-eagal a bh’ orm. ’S  e an rud as iongantaiche gun robh an t-oileanach às a’ Ghearmailt. Chaidh Gàidhlig a theagasg dhomh le Gearmailteach, agus mura h-eil sin na chomharra air Alba an latha an-diugh, chan eil fhios agam dè tha.

Dr Fiona Heatlie, Head of Research Development & Partner Engagement, University of Glasgow / An Dr Fiona Heatlie, Ceannard Rannsachaidh air Leasachadh Gnothachais, Oilthigh Ghlaschu

This article was written for World Gaelic Week 2023.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Dr Fiona Heatlie
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