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BBC Alba And The Success Of Scottish Language Broadcasting

BBC Alba

The Scotsman newspaper has an in-depth profile of Maggie Cunningham, the new head of BBC Alba, the Scottish language television service. Like Ireland’s TG4, Scotland’s BBC Alba has experienced a marked increase in audience figures over the last year despite its (extremely) limited funding and coverage. As with the Irish language many new Scottish speakers are urban dwellers and in the future the station’s programming will need to better reflect this demographic change.

“Farpaisean Chon-Chaorach is unlikely to trouble Downton Abbey in terms of ratings or audience share, but BBC Alba’s coverage of furry bullets rounding up their bleating foes has succeeded in corralling me as a fan. I came upon the Sheepdog Trials, in its English translation, while randomly stabbing the remote one Sunday evening. And there they were. Man and beast in perfect lock-step, separated by hundreds of yards, but in constant communication through the iPhone of the canine world: a symphony of whistles and the occasional cry of “come by”. Those Cheviots didn’t stand a chance. On screen were collies with the dribbling powers of Ronaldo, and so smart that after snaring the sheep in the pen I half expected them to settle down with the FT and prepare their owners’ tax returns. The programme had a contented, soporific feel with Donald MacSween and Catriona Macphee introducing us to the owners of these four-legged wonders. Yet there was one thing missing from the television coverage: head cams. In these days of miniature cameras why weren’t they fitted to the dog’s head so that the viewer could follow the action eye-to-eye? Surely it would revolutionise the sport and farmers would soon be driving Porsches and wearing Red Bull logos on their smocks.

So when Maggie Cunningham, the new chairwoman of BBC Alba, agreed to an interview it is among the first questions I put to her. Sitting in a booth in the bar of the Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow, the former joint head of programmes at BBC Scotland thinks for a second then replies: “That is a very good idea. I will be sure to tell them about it.” So if Farpaisean Chon-Chaorach looks a little different next season viewers can direct their e-mails of praise this way.

Having contentedly put a big red tick next to “dog cam” on my list of questions, I could then move on to one every journalist is required by law to ask whenever the subject of Gaelic is raised: “Maggie, why, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, are we spending £20 million a year promoting a language spoken by just 55,000 people?”

The idea of yanking the life-support of public cash from Scotland’s Gaelic television channel would clearly not be considered a “very good idea” by Maggie, who says of the question: “It’s boring, that is the first thing I would say, and secondly it’s not for 55,000 people, it is for 500,000 people (BBC Alba’s average weekly viewers) as you can see. We are talking about austerity but we are also talking about identity in lots of different ways and Gaelic is core to Scotland.

“If you look back at our history, it is the only place in the world where Gaelic is an indigenous language. I am very pro language-learning and very pro supporting people coming to live in Scotland and bringing their own indigenous culture, but basically Gaelic is the indigenous culture of Scotland. It is so fundamental to everything we are trying to preserve that nobody would challenge that we preserve Edinburgh Castle or the Wallace Monument or some of our great paintings, so why challenge the importance of keeping a language alive?”

It is four years since BBC Alba was launched and now that it is available on Freeview it is attracting a healthy audience of 500,000 per week, with nine out of ten viewers unable to speak Gaelic but drawn to the channel’s mix of documentaries, the occasional drama and, most popular of all, sport. Yet Cunningham is concerned that viewers will begin to switch off unless the channel can offer more than just 90 minutes of original programming each night. “Why will it be hard to hold on to that audience? Well, unless we can get additional funding we cannot sustain a channel on an hour and a half (of original programmes) every night. I don’t think an hour and a half a day is enough to hold an audience over time. The last four years, it has started well, it has exceeded expectation but once you start exceeding expectations, the expectation gets greater so the audience will keep wanting more. They have been happy to have what they have, but people will want more. I do think that at an hour and a half over a long period, the channel is unsustainable, basically.

“What we require is more origination (original programming) and maybe different ways of looking at the schedules and more content. How that plays out over the next four years, God knows, but we do need more original content. Ideally by 2017, if the BBC charter gets renewed, I would like to see us having three hours of original content per night, double where we are just now. On the same budget or finding clever ways to enhance the budget. There is no getting away from the fact that people want to watch the telly, and the big challenge is ‘How do we get people to stay watching us?’ They do watch us: 500,000 is good. The challenge is ‘How do we continue to deliver?’”

My other brilliant idea is that BBC Alba develop a new detective series, since the chattering classes are happy to watch murder if it comes with subtitles. We agree that subtitles are no longer the barrier they were in the past. “If you look at the success of The Killing or Montalbano. I’m just back from Sicily and part of the reason I went was Montalbano. If we could do something maybe like Montalbano, it would be universal.”

The channel is already in discussions with Chris Young, the producer of The Inbetweeners, the comedy series which became a monster hit when released on the big screen. “I am not responsible for commissioning, but I know that our guys are talking to Chris Young. He is based in Skye and video-conferences with LA, who are now doing an American version of The Inbetweeners. He doesn’t see the point of flying over all the time. He is very keen on Gaelic. His wife is pretty fluent and he himself is learning. The key is to use talent and also to allow the creativity to come through and not say ‘we need to have a drama and this is what it needs to be’. We want to see what we can do if we put a few creatives together.”

BBC Alba is unique in that it is a partnership between the BBC and another company, MG Alba, and could, in an independent Scotland, be the core around which any new post BBC channel is formed.”

Let us hope that any independent Scottish public broadcasting service makes a better job of serving its nation, and the two linguistic communities that form it, than RTÉ has made of serving the two language communities of Ireland. A job RTÉ did so poorly (and with such obvious anti-Irish bias) that in the end it had to be given to an entirely new broadcaster – TG4!

8 comments on “BBC Alba And The Success Of Scottish Language Broadcasting

  1. “If you look back at our history, it is the only place in the world where Gaelic is an indigenous language”
    Bit wide of the mark I would have thought!


    • I believe Maggie Cunningham meant Scottish Gaelic or Scottish. As you indicate, Gaelic is a term equally applicable to Irish and Manx, as well as an overall descriptive term.

      That is why I use “Irish”, “Scottish” and “Manx” as descriptive terms alongside “Gaelic”.


      • She did not use the descriptive term which makes me wonder why or why not! Irish and Scottish history are so intertwined in many aspects but especially and very importantly in the Gaelic language. Will we (the Irish) be written out of the language history of Scotland?


        • Mmmm… what does this mean? I am aware of the classical Goidelic which was shared, by the learned classes anyway, until the year 1000 or thereabouts. However, I think I’m also right in saying that the old adage that Scottish is just ‘Erse’ has been proven incorrect. As far as I’m aware, recent evidence points to Earra-Gaidheal/ Dail Riata being settled much earlier than previously thought hence to say that ‘Scottish Gaelic comes from Irish Gaelic’ may not be correct. Scottish is indigenous to Scotland.

          Dr Fiona Watson covered this briefly in her ‘Scotland’s History’ series on the BBC some years ago and Stuart McHardie touches upon it in ‘A New History of the Picts’.

          Maybe that’s not what you mean? Either way, I don’t think anyone – at least from the Scottish language side – is seeking erase the links between Alba and Eire.


          • In relation to the historic and contemporary links between the Irish and Scottish languages I don’t believe Margaret meant anything significant by her wording. More just a colloquial phrasing. She simply meant that Scottish Gaelic is indigenous to Scotland. Which, technically, it is. That’s my interpretation anyway 🙂

            Tocasaid, I quite agree. The “Celtic from the West” theory put forward by Cunliffe and Koch suggests that the Celtic languages of western Europe emerged in situ amongst the agricultural, farming and trading communities of the late Neolithic – Bronze Age. The old theory of gradual Celticness in a much more academic form.

            This indicates that the Gaelic languages of Ireland and Scotland developed locally (and indeed as the oldest branches of the Celtic languages). They formed a single linguistic continuum, albeit in several dialectal groups, only much, much later splitting off into distinct languages, though still mutually intelligible to the present day – with a wee bit of effort 😉

            I would place the division somewhat later than 1000. Certainly in the 1500s Irish and Scottish poets were still speaking of both nations as single cultural unit.

            The greatest separation of Irish and Scottish was the reformed spelling of Irish in the 1950s (the success of which is highly debatable. Did it refresh the language or cut it off from its literary roots? I tend towards the latter point of view). The changes in Scottish spelling in recent times with the codification, etc. has also contributed towards this division.

            A case could certainly be made for both nations reversing the divisions of the last century or so and working towards a mutually agreed and supportive convergence in spelling, grammar, etc. overseen by qualified academics, scholars, educationalists and speakers. A pooling of resources makes more sense than further separation.

            But it will never happen 😦


  2. Se obair ionmholta a tha BBC Alba a’ dèanamh. Excellent work indeed.

    And as the ‘Royal’ National Mòd rolls into another town, its worth thinking about what the Mod and An Comann haven’t acheived in more than a century:


  3. James Todd

    “…nobody would challenge that we preserve Edinburgh Castle or the Wallace Monument or some of our great paintings, so why challenge the importance of keeping a language alive?”

    Very well said. However, the impression I’ve gotten is that the majority of Scots don’t really identify with the Scottish language or Gaelic culture in general – not in the way that they regard Edinburgh Castle or the Wallace Monument as important symbols of their country. And not without some reason I suppose. The Lowlands have been thoroughly anglicized for a very, very long time.

    I understand the purpose of BBC Alba, I understand and support the Scottish Government’s attempts, however meager they might be, to support Scottish, and I have nothing but admiration for those Scots still speaking their country’s ancestral tongue. But when most people in Scotland seem to be at best apathetic about Scottish, and at worst outright hostile to the “teuchters” in the Highlands, I have to wonder if all these efforts, however much I sympathize with their intentions, are in vain.


    • I agree about the hostility, or more often apathy and indifference towards Scottish by some Anglophones in Scotland. But that situation was man-made. So the solution can surely be man-made too?

      Look at the success of Scottish Gaelic in urban areas like Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. New schools, new speakers, new support groups.

      I’m a firm believer that history is MADE, not something that just HAPPENS to us. History made Scotland majority English-speaking, history can be made to make Scotland majority Scottish-speaking. It simply takes the will and people to make it so.

      It took 600 years to make Ireland majority English-speaking. We’ve been trying to reverse that for 90 years. It will take time, but compare one against the other, one must accept that it will be a slow process.

      Scotland will be no different.

      Politics is the art of the possible – even when it seems impossible! 😉


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