News & Updates
Iona Whyte Explores Impact of Gaelic Medium Education in Law Ahead of the MOD
Ahead of the Royal National Mòd 2023, a week-long event which starts in Paisley on Friday and which Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP sponsors part of, Iona Whyte, a senior solicitor in family law at our Glasgow office, explores the impact Gaelic culture has had on her and how parents decide if Gaelic medium education (GME) is the right path for their children.
Gaelic has been a huge part of my life since I was a child – and it’s still a cornerstone of who I am today.
While neither of my parents are native speakers, I was blessed with a language-obsessed father who learned Gaelic as an adult.
All my brothers speak it, too, and it permeates many areas of my life, whether that be my broadcasting pursuits with the likes of BBC ALBA and Radio nan Gàidheal, or my social life in Glasgow and my work here at WJM.
Despite the relatively low number of speakers in Scotland – just over 1% of the population – Gaelic follows me everywhere.
While it may only be a fleeting conversation, like those with Partner Angus MacLeod from the Inverness office, I feel very lucky to have these interactions.
Next week, Gaelic comes to Paisley for one of the biggest events in the calendar – The Royal National Mòd.
From singing and poetry competitions to live concerts and shinty matches, The Mòd is Scotland's premier celebration of Gaelic music and culture.
For WJM to be sponsoring the men’s and women’s traditional gold medal events, a long-standing partnership set up by former Mòd medal winner, the aforementioned Angus MacLeod, it’s nice to see the synergy between my personal and professional life.
For me, this event holds a special place in my heart, having performed at the Mòd throughout my primary education and into my secondary school years – notably singing Cearcal a' Chuain, the Scottish traditional song by Skye icons Runrig, as a duet with my brother .
An event that was so important in my youth, and continues to be as an adult, now has me considering how the presence of Gaelic throughout my school years impacted my worldview.
While I get to use my Gaelic in many settings, this can often be the exception to the rule. Celebrations like the Mòd may be the only chance some speakers get to come together and use the language.
Since birth, I have been exposed to it and, having gone through Gaelic medium education (GME) at the Glasgow Gaelic School, it’s all I’ve ever known.
Despite my mum being an English-speaking Londoner and my dad a Gaelic-convert Weegie, they were always in agreement that having both English and Gaelic language skills was the best path.
Learning through GME and being part of a different community has widened my world view and allowed me to practice skills that have become core to my law career.
As Gaelic culture is embedded in song and poetry, performance was a huge aspect of my education, something that has served me well since stepping into courtrooms.
Furthermore, you find yourself gaining an appreciation for and a knowledge of another side of Scottish history that isn’t often told or heard as in depth as it maybe should be.
And, of course, the language skills are useful when communicating with clients whose preferred language is Gaelic.
Indeed, we have some on our books at the Inverness office, including broadcaster MG ALBA, who facilitate content for the BBC ALBA channel, and Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.
Regardless of what language it is, I think we see a lot more bilingual clients coming in, not necessarily with Gaelic, but I think there is an appreciation there for the benefits of bilingualism and advisors that share that.
Nowadays, parents are becoming more familiar with the benefits of GME and we are seeing an explosion in Gaelic’s popularity, particularly in Glasgow.
However, this can present problems for families when things break down.
The most prevalent challenge comes when parents decide to separate and a disagreement over where their children are educated comes into legal play.
The last twenty years have seen enhanced support for Gaelic Medium Education and the statutory guidance gives parents the right to request Gaelic Medium Primary Education for their child. In particular, the Education (Scotland) Act 2006 places a duty on education authorities to actively promote Gaelic Medium and Learner Education and support Gaelic Medium and Learner Education where it is provided. but parents have the ultimate responsibility in deciding how their child is to be educated.
I note a case from 2019, where a five-year-old girl was at the centre of a dispute between separating parents in Edinburgh.
It was ruled that Gaelic medium education was not in the girl’s ‘best interests’, despite her North Uist-born mother’s desire for her to attend Edinburgh’s Gaelic school for her primary education.
Attending a school closer to her father’s home was seen as more beneficial to the child’s welfare and she began an English medium education.
Like most legal issues, when it comes to parental agreement over a child’s education, nothing is cut and dry.
However, ahead of the Mòd, as a topic that is so often politicised, I’d like to urge people to consider the humans behind the Gaelic, the impact such debates and news stories have, and, ultimately, to remember the right and responsibility everyone has to choose what they feel is best for them and their families.
In embracing Gaelic at WJM, I am pleased to see us championing a rich, cultural heritage that deserves to flourish and thrive.
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