Gaelic broadcasting’s wider role

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With reference to the current Gaelic Digital Service, discuss how the outcomes of Gaelic media broadcasting might extend beyond MG Alba’s objective of ensuring that “high quality television programmes in Gaelic are made available to persons in Scotland”. What evidence exists to support your answer?


Just as the advances in Gaelic Medium Education can be said to have dominated Gaelic development discourse through the 1980s and 1990s, the advances in Gaelic broadcasting have taken centre stage thus far in the 21st century.

At the heart of this development has been the creation of the Gaelic Digital Service, MG Alba, and the creation of a new Gaelic digital television channel in co-operation with the BBC.  This has brought Gaelic television to a higher visibility than it has ever had before and the language is now available in homes across the country.

This essay will discuss how successful the Gaelic Digital Service and MG Alba have been in not only achieving their objectives of creating “high quality television programmes in Gaelic” but also in furthering the development and status of the language in general across Scotland, and whether that has been enough to have a genuine and lasting impact.

The Gaelic Digital Service (or Seirbheis nam Meadhanan Gàidhlig) was formed as a result of the 2003 Communications Act “taking over from the Comataidh Craolaidh Gàidhlig… with an expanded remit”. (Cormack, 2004, pp. 2-3)  The change came about as the result of “The Report of the Task Force on the Public Funding of Gaelic” published in 2000 which called for a “more unified and coherent approach to Gaelic support” of which broadcasting was a crucial part. (ibid. p. 3)

Broadcasting had been a major part of the Gaelic language revitalisation effort for almost two decades at this point, with developments in the 1980s.  A report in 1982 for the Broadcasting Council for Scotland gave broadcasters, mainly the BBC, the impetus to fund more Gaelic programming, with the finding that “broadcasting can be a potent force for direct and indirect support of languages” and “an indigenous language and culture could reasonably claim some degree of protection and nourishment beyond the strictly proportional”. (BCS in MacPherson, 2000, p. 254) From there there was initial progress in creating children’s programming with shows such as Dòtaman and in the 1990s with current affairs programmes such as Eòrpa bringing the language to households across the country. (BBC, n.d.)

In the 1990s, Gaelic received support from the Government by way of creation of a Gaelic Broadcast Fund as part of a new Broadcast Act which granted £8 million to the development of Gaelic programming on both television and radio.  (Cormack, 1995, p. 277)

These were considered important steps in producing a framework through which the language could be used and engaged with by people with Gaelic across the country, particularly with children’s programmes complimenting the newly formed Gaelic medium education initiative.

From there, the advent of digital television in the UK began to shift the focus of Gaelic media as well, being welcomed very warmly as an avenue with massive potential for broadcasting in the language.  MacPherson said “the emerging digital world opens new vistas for minority language broadcasting….it’s the way forward for Gaelic” (MacPherson, 2000, p. 269)

Pre-dating BBC Alba by some 9 years: the first Gaelic digital television channel, TeleG, was founded in 1999.  However, in comparison with BBC Alba its’ impact and its’ scope were rather feeble, seen as more of a “staging post” towards a Gaelic digital presence than an actual platform itself.  It broadcast for only 30 minutes per day, repeating programmes that were already shown on analogue channels, and to an audience that was very limited with the poor availability of digital television in the Gaidhealtachd at the time. (ibid, pp. 269-70)

There had also been academic discussion of the importance of broadcasting in the revitalisation of the language before the founding of the Gaelic Digital Service.  Michael Bilig referred to broadcasting as being a key component of his “banal nationalism” thesis, (Billig, 1995) that the way in which a nation’s opinions and values are shaped by the media is crucial, with the implication for Gaelic being that its presence on national media was vital in maintaining its presence in national culture.

Therefore when the Gaelic Digital Service was established in the 2000s it was an accepted fact that more than simply providing programmes in the Gaelic language they were tasked with the more wide-reaching and important task of increasing the language’s cultural presence and exhibiting Gaelic to the public at large in a way that had never been done before in the media.

Prior to the launch of a digital channel, the UK’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom released a report into the work to-date of the Gaelic Digital Service and was generally supportive of its efforts, although it did suggest improvements to its plans for BBC Alba.

The report primarily assessed the service’s achievements and plans in a broadcasting context, saying that there would be “very significant positive market impacts arising from the proposal” of a Gaelic television channel.  (Ofcom, 2007, p. 5)

However, one of the overriding findings of the Ofcom report was their concern about the way in which Gaelic programmes would be commissioned.  With the output of Gaelic television being condensed in some senses into a single channel, it was noted by Ofcom that there could be a potential for a monopoly over the production of programmes in the language where the “BBC would stand to benefit most from the GDS with limited increase in commissions likely for independents” (Ofcom, 2007, p. 12), which would be counter-productive to Ofcom’s duty to promote competition within the industry.

The solution Ofcom suggested was that around 50% of BBC Alba’s content should developed independently by studios across the country. (ibid.) This suggestion has been put into practice which has not only served the economic and competition remit of the channel but also meant that the diversity and range of Gaelic across the country can also be capitalised on.  Studios in Stornoway, Inverness, Skye and Glasgow produce programmes in more distinctly Gaelic areas, but there also exists studios in non-Gaelic areas such as Aberdeen.

These studios not only bring a commitment to quality, as each studio needs to compete for funding and contracts from MG Alba to produce programmes for them, but they also bring another huge benefit to the Gaelic community – which is that of jobs.  The drive to create Gaelic jobs has been a major part of the revitalisation effort of the language in recent decades, and the development of the Gaelic Digital Service has created many new opportunities for those with Gaelic to get involved in the media.  The location of these studios across the country also supports the modern reality of the Gaelic language, that language communities are now dispersed outside the traditional Gaidhealtachd more than ever.  The availability of jobs with Gaelic in these new communities could well be a factor that drives further growth of the language base.

In 2000, it was estimated that there were around 316 full-time-equivalent jobs supported by funding for the Gaelic Digital Service’s predecessor Comataidh Craoladh Gàidhlig.  (Gaelic Broadcasting Task Force, 2000)  This report, in calling for a “more unified” approach to Gaelic, set in motion the progression towards the new Gaelic Digital Service.  As interest grew in this prospect, further research on behalf of Highlands & Islands Enterprise – who themselves were heavily invested in developing Gaelic jobs to further their own goals of revitalising the Highland economy – showed that as many as 800 jobs could be created by the new industry, which would have brought staggering growth to the “Gaelic economy”.  (EKOS Consultants, 2000)

However, while the Gaelic Digital Service and MG Alba have created a new avenue through which Gaelic jobs could be created, it has not been able to capitalise on the full potential that was identified back in 2000.  A 2009 study into the Gaelic labour market as a whole showed that while media jobs made up a significant proportion of Gaelic-only jobs, 18.5%, because the number of Gaelic-essential or Gaelic-desirable jobs was so low, with only 1,134 being identified, the number in employment was far below what was projected to be the case.  (Campbell, et al., 2008, p. 7)  It also appeared that there would be only limited room for growth for the foreseeable future, with the “economically active population” of people with some form of Gaelic ability being only 13,978, just 15% of the total Gaelic population of the time.  (ibid. p. 11)

While progress has been made by the Gaelic Digital Service in developing a Gaelic industry, that progress can be seen as weak compared to the potential that research has identified.  However, it may be a case that developments need to be made outwith the media sphere before MG Alba can properly expand its’ portion of the Gaelic jobs market.

BBC Alba has been wildly successful in terms of its’ main commercial aim of attracting viewers.  Initial forecasts of the channel’s reach were based around the Gaelic population and the reach of other existing Gaelic services such as Radio nan Gàidheal and TV programmes on other BBC channels.  Ofcom’s assessment, in conjunction with research from Lèirsinn commissioned by the BBC executive, was that the new Gaelic Digital Service would “achieve an increase in weekly reach among the target audience” which was estimated to be 82% of the 86,000 “Gaelic speakers and people who understand Gaelic” in Scotland.  (Ofcom, 2015, p. 21)  The BBC Executive also believed that a further “10 per cent of the Scottish population” could be reached by the channel. (ibid. p.22)

In reality, these forecasts proved relatively accurate although there has been significant success by MG Alba in increasing viewership above and beyond what was thought possible.  For the fiscal year 2014-15, BBC Alba’s weekly reach was estimated to be 73% of the Gaelic population and 16.2% of the Scottish population as a whole.  (MG Alba, 2015, p. 29)  These figures are exceptionally positive for the channel proving a sustained presence in Scottish public life and proving its success in producing content that people want to watch as well as expanding the visibility of Gaelic.

In comparison with other minority language broadcasting efforts in other Celtic efforts, the lack of a distinct focus on rehabilitating the language has been somewhat lacking from MG Alba and the Gaelic Digital Service until very recently.

Similar broadcasting efforts in Ireland and Wales have put language development goals at the heart of their efforts, with Radio na Gaeltachta in Ireland having the aim to  “support revival of the language” (Cotter in MacLeod, 2015) and an early manifesto for the future of Welsh broadcasting that had “justice to the national language” as its first goal, not too dissimilar to that of the Gaelic Digital Service, but secondly an aim that the service should be “effective in the struggle to halt any further decline in the position of Welsh as a living language”. (Planet in MacLeod, 2015)

While there are many other factors also involved, these stated aims for broadcasting in these countries have certainly been a contributing factor to their success.  TG4, the Irish language counterpart to BBC Alba, has a weekly reach of 37% (TG4, 2014, p. 9) while the Welsh equivalent S4C reaches a total of 360,000 viewers each week in Wales and almost double that across the UK. (S4C, 2015)  These figures are generally stronger than that of BBC Alba, given the comparative size of Scotland to both Ireland and Wales, and proof that a strong, language-focussed model can also bring broadcasting success too.

However, while not being as explicit in its’ initial responsibilities towards the Gaelic language, BBC Alba and the Gaelic Digital Service were found to have made a positive contribution to many areas of language planning as early as 2011.

Analysis of the channels impact found that in three of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s four “planning areas”, “acquisition planning, status planning, and usage planning”, BBC Alba had a “beneficial impact” that was “intended to ensure continuous and incremental progress towards RLS [reversing language shift] for Gaelic in Scotland”. (Milligan, et al., 2011, p. 359)

This research particularly highlighted the areas in which BBC Alba, and the digital service in general, were developing the language in a way that exists outside of broadcasting.  In terms of acquisition, Milligan et al. found “that the coupling of television programming with support materials [online] facilitates learning” and that “viewing BBC ALBA will help viewers to increase their fluency in Gaelic”.  (2011, pp. 352-53)  It also highlighted the important aspect of creating jobs, termed as “usage in production” but also in “usage in consumption”, with the belief that “engaging with BBC ALBA will help to foster the use of Gaelic in other areas of daily life”.  It was also positive of BBC Alba’s broadcasting of sports coverage saying that it was “fostering… the wider acceptance of the language” and “normalising” Gaelic usage.  (ibid. pp. 355-57)

Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s current Gaelic Language Plan sought to address the use of broadcasting in a language planning sense for officially by creating a stronger vision for the role of media within Gaelic’s revival.  They described it as “vital to the future of Gaelic in Scotland” and that it had “an important role in increasing the visibility of Gaelic, strengthening its appeal and maintaining loyalty to the language” as well as “supporting language acquisition”.  (Bòrd na Gàidhlig, 2011, p. 38)

This language plan also took the crucial step of encouraging further progress towards supporting Gaelic in a broader sense, saying:

“MG ALBA and BBC ALBA have a role to play in making Gaelic audible and visible to large sections of the population, in creating employment opportunities through their activities and ensuring the media supports Gaelic learning and virtual community communication via new technologies.” (ibid. p.39)

In response to the language plan, MG Alba committed to creating a new focus for their broadcasting efforts.  A recent consultation undertaken by the organisation produced overwhelming support for both their broadcasting objectives and their newly acknowledged wider responsibilities and aims for the Gaelic language.  These responses have helped them create a new set of objectives to measure their success.

These objectives clearly move MG Alba to a more language-oriented focus, with terms such as achieving “national impact in Scotland by creating social and cultural value through Gaelic content” (MG Alba, 2015, p. 4) and “Gaelic language maintenance and development”. (ibid., p.7)

While the publication of objectives was welcome, and if they are achieved there will be an undoubted benefit to Gaelic broadcasting and the language more generally, they can be criticised as being vague – with simple statements without any tangible markers of progress being set – which makes it more difficult for the public and the Gaelic population to hold them to account.   Despite being extremely well supported, with 94% and 96% agreeing with the above aims respectively (ibid. pp. 5-6), it is unclear at the moment exactly how these aims will be met, which is where the real effect of BBC Alba upon the language will be.

The conclusion that MG Alba reached with their consultation was that “users of Gaelic are highly committed to BBC Alba and feel strong bonds of ownership with their Gaelic broadcast media” and that “respondents…in general exhibited a shared desire for Gaelic television to be both a contemporary reflection of Gaelic language and culture and an instrument of recruitment, growth and development.”  (ibid. p. 16)  This is proof of the trust that the Gaelic public put into MG Alba in furthering the cause of Gaelic, but also of the responsibility upon them to deliver.

However despite BBC Alba’s widespread appeal there have been numerous criticisms of it in terms of how ‘Gaelic’ its content really is.  The channel’s best known programming across Scotland is its’ sports coverage of Scottish football or Pro 12 Rugby, rather than actual Gaelic television shows.  It has been estimated that as much as 70% of the channel’s content is broadcast in English. (Campbell, 2015)  Such a large amount of English is said to show that the Gaelic language is not being served adequately by a channel whose purpose was initially to provide “high quality Gaelic programming” and that consequently the channel is failing in its’ wider obligations to the language.

There is a growing amount of pressure upon MG Alba and Bòrd na Gàidhlig to redress the balance in languages that many feel that the channel has.  A pressure group known as Gà has been set up to campaign for an improved Gaelic service on the channel, with the group establishing a presence online via a website and social media as well as receiving coverage in print media.  The group is supported by prominent Gaelic figures such as Angus Peter Campbell, Lisa Storey and Alan MacDonald.  While they have been so far unsuccessful in forcing major change at MG Alba, their presence and campaigning is growing in momentum.

Another related criticism of BBC Alba, that Gà has been especially vociferous about, has been its use of English subtitling on Gaelic programming, which is seen by some to be a detraction from the channel’s role of promoting Gaelic as an equal to English.

BBC Alba is one of only six channels that will be exempt from new statutory requirements on providing access services i.e. subtitles, signing and audio description from next year.  (Ofcom, 2015, p. 2)  Gà have criticised this decision as it lessens the availability and access of the channel as well as not fully fulfilling the channel’s language objectives.

However, MG Alba’s consultation asked for opinions based on the issue of subtitling and found that 85% agreed that “having English subtitles encourages non-Gaelic speakers to view BBC ALBA” and 51% disagreed that “the subtitles on-screen are off-putting”. (MG Alba, 2015, pp. 16-17)  Such figures suggest that the majority of BBC Alba viewers are satisfied with the service that is provided and see no real need for the channel to shift its’ focus and that the criticism of subtitling is only a minor issue for MG Alba compared with its new self-improved remit for developing the Gaelic language.

Therefore, despite its’ criticisms, BBC Alba is still widely supported by the public and the issues that some sections of the Gaelic community have are not replicated on the whole.

BBC Alba and the Gaelic Digital Service is still in its’ relative infancy, but they have already provided the Gaelic language with a new foothold in Scottish culture that which has already proven successful in continuing the language’s revival.  The Gaelic Digital Service has created BBC Alba which has provided high quality programmes for Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers alike, and the channel’s widespread appeal has been an undoubted benefit to the language.  While there are several criticisms and areas of improvement for the service, their efforts have been massively positive in general and are supported throughout the Gaelic community as an exemplar of how Gaelic can be used in a modern context to provide real benefits to the economy and the language.


Word count – 3,140 (excl. bibliography)


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