Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland

Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland

The issue of Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland has acquired some considerable symbolic importance. Opinion polls show that the vast majority of Gaels feel they have been ill-served by broadcasting media, and the ideal of a dedicated BBC Alba TV channel has been a goal of minority language pressure groups for many years.

Early history

The first BBC radio broadcast in the Gaelic language was aired throughout Scotland on Sunday 2 December 1923; this was a 15-minute religious address by Rev. John Bain, recorded in the High United Free Church in Aberdeen. Two weeks later, a recital of Gaelic singing was broadcast, though it was introduced in English.

The first regular programme was singer Neil MacLean's Sgeulachdan agus Oran ('Stories and songs'), broadcast from the Aberdeen studio. The first Gaelic radio play, entitled Dunach, was aired in 1933. It is perhaps indicative of the status of Gaelic broadcasting at this time that the producer of Dunach knew no Gaelic.

In 1934 a series of lessons for Gaelic learners was broadcast. In 1936, Scotland's first outside broadcast was a Gaelic service from Iona Abbey. In 1939 a weekly Gaelic news review was launched.

In 1935, Hugh MacPhee was appointed head of the BBC's first Gaelic department, which moved to Glasgow in 1938; this seems to have been the first attempt to put Gaelic broadcasting on a serious footing.

In 1940, An Comunn Gàidhealach requested an increase of output to two news programmes and a children's programme each week. This was refused, which resulted in questions being raised in the House of Commons.

The post-war years

After the second world war, Finlay J. Macdonald (later founder of Gairm) joined Hugh MacPhee in the Glasgow studios; he was replaced in 1954 by Fred Macaulay. With two full-time producers, the regular programming was expanded to 90 minutes per week. There was a Friday evening news slot which George Orwell, writing at that time in Jura, criticised for its "amateurishness". A number of radio plays were produced, including An Tunnag Fhiadhaich, a translation by Lachlan MacKinnon of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck (1951).

In August 1957, a funding crisis resulted in the weekly news programme being cut back to once a month, but the weekly slot was reinstated as a result of strong protests from listeners. At this point, the first attempt at audience research was conducted, and indicated that a huge majority of bilingual Scots preferred to hear the news in Gaelic, and also that many learners of the language valued Gaelic broadcasts.

Early television

Because few areas of the West Highlands and virtually none of the islands could receive television signals before the early 1960s, Gaelic TV was at first not an issue, though there had been coverage of the Mod. As with radio, Gaelic TV broadcasting began with Gaelic songs introduced in English, such as Ceòl nan Gaidheal ('Music of the Gaels'), introduced by James Shaw Grant (1962). The first genuine Gaelic TV programme was in the light entertainment category: Se Ur Beatha ('You're welcome') in 1964. The first current affairs television series, Bonn Comhraidh, was launched in 1970. Gaelic schools programmes began in 1975. The first Gaelic children's TV programme, Bzzz was aired in 1981, followed in 1982 by the first programme for pre-school children, Mag is Mog.

Radio Highland

In 1976, BBC Radio Highland began broadcasting from Inverness. In 1979, BBC Radio nan Eilean opened in Stornoway with Radio nan Gaidheal starting in October 1985.

Conservative policies 1979-97

The Thatcher years saw an increase in funding for Gaelic broadcasting. This was largely because of Scottish Secretary George Younger's personal enthusiasm for the Gaelic community.

Labour policies since 1997

Despite pre-election promises, funding for Gaelic broadcasting has dropped in real terms during the years of the Blair government. Although the establishment of the Scottish Parliament has resulted in policies favourable to Gaelic generally, broadcasting remains the responsibility of Westminster.

Broadcasting for Gaelic learners

The broadcasting media have also carried Gaelic lessons for learners of the language. The first was a short radio series in 1934, six fortnightly Gaelic lessons in Gaelic by J. Nicolson. The weekly series Learning Gaelic by Edward Purcell with John M Bannerman and Archie Henry began in 1949.

Among the early BBC TV courses for beginners' Gaelic was Can Seo.

With the spread of Gaelic-medium units in primary schools, attended also by children from English-speaking households, there was a need for education series aimed at children in the early stages of immersion-phase language-learning: Baile Mhuilinn (TV) and Fiream Faram (Radio) both appeared in 1988.


  • Mike Cormack, ‘Programming for Gaelic Digital Television: Problems and Possibilities’, in Towards Our Goals in Broadcasting, the Press, the Performing Arts and the Economy: Minority Languages in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, ed. by John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill, 83-87. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2003.
  • Mike Cormack, ‘Gaelic in the Media’. Scottish Affairs, 46 (2004), 23-43.
  • Robert Dunbar, ‘Gaelic-medium Broadcasting: Reflections on the Legal Framework from a Sociolinguistic Perspective’, in Towards Our Goals in Broadcasting, the Press, the Performing Arts and the Economy: Minority Languages in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, ed. by John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill, 73-82. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2003.
  • Roger Hutchinson, A Waxing Moon: The Modern Gaelic Revival, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 2005. ISBN 1-84018-794-8.
  • William Lamb, 'A Diachronic Account of Gaelic News-speak: The Development and Expansion of a Register', Scottish Gaelic Studies, 19 (1999), 141-171.
  • Chronicle of Gaelic broadcasting on the BBC website

See also

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