Open Book Uses New Technology to Share the Love of Scottish Gaelic

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Singer Kathleen MacInnes teams up Scottish charity to encourage Gaelic conversation, reading and creative writing via Zoom

Kathleen MacInnes, trad singer and champion of Scottish Gaelic, is joining poets, academics and a bookshop owner in using online communications to nurture one of Europe’s oldest languages.

Lockdown is feared to have had a damaging effect on the language as speakers, who are widely dispersed in many areas, have been less able to meet and talk. Some of the Gaelic’s remaining strongholds are also in Highland and Island communities that have experienced other severe pressures during the pandemic due to their fragile economies.

Open Book, a Scottish charity that runs more than 70 English language and a Scots groups for shared reading and creative writing, is now aiming to amplify Gaelic voices and allow them to be heard. Supported by around £4,000 from Bòrd na Gàidhlig it is offering one monthly creative writing and four regular shared reading groups for anyone with an interest in Gaelic, from beginners to native speakers.

Kathleen, who was raised in South Uist and is the Gaelic officer at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre on North Uist, is supporting a newly launched Zoom-based Gaelic shared reading group. The next online Gaelic session will be held on 21 April.

Kathleen MacInnes

She said: “I was lucky, it was the language of the playground and my home when I was growing up and I was surrounded by Gaelic culture. I love the language very much, whether it’s speaking, reading or singing. It’s a beautiful language and it takes me into another world. 
“The feedback I’ve had about the idea has been very enthusiastic. I think people who have the same passion that I have will really enjoy the sessions. And it doesn’t matter whether they are beginners or fluent, they will be warmly welcome. And the wonderful thing about doing it online is that it doesn’t matter where in the world they are.” 

Andrew Wilson, the proprietor of Wigtown’s Beltie Books, will be the Lead Reader for another shared reading group, and hopes it will be a digital link for far-flung Gaelic speakers.

He said: “There aren’t many Gaelic speakers in Dumfries and Galloway, they are quite isolated from one another, and it’s been very difficult to meet and speak Gaelic over the past year. When I heard about this it seemed blindingly obvious that it was a brilliant idea – you can have someone in Langholm chatting with someone in Stranraer and they don’t have to leave their homes and drive for hours to meet.” 

Andrew is a former council Gaelic Development worker who learned the language over the last 25 years, wishing now he had studied it at University– nevertheless has fallen in love as much with the culture as the tongue.

He values the fact that Gaelic is Scotland’s oldest indigenous language and is linked to a rich tradition of music, song, literature and stories – and what he believes are a set of cultural values that put community, sharing, nature and the environment above individualism and materialism.

Heather Clyne, a Gaelic academic based near Inverness, has already successfully piloted Gaelic sessions for Open Book. She said: “To me it seems like a win-win – there are huge benefits in being bilingual, and knowing Gaelic helps you understand more about the country you live in. 

“It’s a wonderful language – when I speak Gaelic, it does something to me, it is like when I am playing music with someone else. It’s like coming home. It’s like being in tune.” 

The survival of Gaelic is under threat, and Heather feels that the Open Book initiative is a welcome source of support for the language and its widespread speakers.

Open Book was originally based round physical groups that met in libraries, care homes, community centres and a multitude of other settings. COVID-19 forced activities online, something it has now embraced.

When restrictions allow, it hopes that places like Uist, at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, and Dumfries and Galloway may be able to have groups that meet in person as well as in the virtual world.

Open Book was co-founded by Claire Urquhart and the poet Marjorie Lotfi as a gentle, fun and informal way to bring people together around reading and writing. Unlike book clubs there is no homework or set reading. Reading groups meet up, share a text such as a short story, and use it as a way to spark conversation. The creative writing groups come together to talk about prose and poetry and to create their own work in response, in groups or individually.

Claire Urquhart, Open Book director and co-founder, said: “Our shared reading and creative writing models are ideally suited to support and promote Gaelic usage. They are a great way to share a love of the language, drawing out less confident participants and giving beginners more exposure to the language by providing an opportunity to read Gaelic texts aloud and discuss them in Gaelic.” 

Three specific aims are to promote intergenerational transmission of Gaelic in the community, promote Gaelic in the home and support opportunities for adults to use and learn Gaelic.

Shona MacLennan, CEO, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said: “Bòrd na Gàidhlig are delighted to support this project which aims to strengthen Gaelic communities across the country and allow their voices to be heard. We look forward to seeing this project have a positive impact on communities, specifically in promoting the intergenerational transmission of the language.  
“The projects also contributes significantly to the National Gaelic Language Plan’s main aim of increasing the use of Gaelic, by more people, in more situations, and also supports the learning of Gaelic in adults and in the home. We wish Open Book every success with the project and look forward to seeing the growth of Gaelic speakers across the country.”

About the Gaelic Groups 

Groups will meet regularly online and will initially run from April until August. Spaces are free but limited so it is essential to register in advance.

The groups are for:

  • Intermediate shared reading online
  • Beginner shared reading online (Bord funded)
  • Creative writing online (Bord funded)
  • Shared reading on Uist and in WigtownFor details go to or @openbookreading on twitterAbout Open Book 
  • Open Book is a charity that runs shared reading sessions for a diverse range of community and public participants across Scotland. Part of a book and a poem are read aloud during these relaxed and informal sessions, with an Open Book Lead Reader on hand to help guide the discussion.
  • It regularly runs creative writing sessions for readers, using the material the group is reading as inspiration to create new writing.
  • Open Book also arranges and funds visits for its participants to book festivals and other literary events.
  • Open Book regularly works in partnership with other national arts organisations, including the Scottish Book Trust, National Library of Scotland, EIBF, Wigtown Book Festival, and the Edwin Morgan Trust.
  • See Bòrd na Gàidhlig 
  • Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the Bòrd) is an executive non-departmental public body established under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. It is the principal body in Scotland responsible for promoting Gaelic development and providing advice to the Scottish Ministers on Gaelic matters, including education.

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