Respected Scottish writer and historian Professor James Hunter CBE is calling for an internationally renowned college on the Isle of Skye to become Scotland’s first Gaelic University.
The move, which would require the backing of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council (SFC), would give Sabhal Mòr Ostaig its own degree-awarding powers.
Based in the Sleat peninsula, in the south of Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, is currently a college delivering both Further and Higher Education, and an independent academic partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).
With the unique distinction of having Scottish Gaelic as the sole medium of instruction on its courses, the college is regarded as having played a crucial role in the linguistic and cultural renaissance of the Gaelic language in Scotland.
Prof Hunter, author of 14 books about the Highlands and Islands and the region’s world-wide diaspora and the first director of UHI’s Centre for History, will make his call when he delivers Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s Annual Lecture today (Nov 10).
He will tell the audience that, while the pursuit of university status would involve “no end of difficulty,” the college could follow in the footsteps of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow, which in 1993, became the first Higher Education establishment of its kind to be granted its own degree-awarding powers.
Prof Hunter said: “Already there’s a precedent for such recognition in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which is firmly inside the Scottish higher education sector, but with its own cash allocation and its own degree-awarding powers in areas like music, film, dance, drama and arts production.
“In the sphere of Gaelic language – Gaelic culture, history, heritage in the widest sense – Sabhal Mòr Ostaig occupies a role analogous to that of the Conservatoire and surely merits the same treatment.
“Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, to speak plainly, needs to be seen, needs to be funded, as Scotland’s first Gaelic University.”
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig was founded in 1973 in old farm steadings at Ostaig, with a mission to contribute to the revitalisation of the Gaelic language and culture.
In 2015, Ionad Iain Nobail, the first building in the college’s Kilbeg development was officially opened by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Built as a centre for academic research, knowledge transfer and enterprise, it was named in memory of the late businessman and Gaelic activist, Sir Iain Noble.
Kilbeg is the first new “planned village” in Skye in around 100 years and builds upon the significant socio-economic impact Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has had in the region since its establishment. Future phases of a wider master plan include a range of housing, retail and enterprise units, a small hotel and sports and recreation facilities for the college and wider community.
Looking to the future, Prof Hunter said: “I hope that Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, this transformative institution, continues to amaze, with a larger student body, bigger staff, a growing campus and a new status.
“That status will, I trust, maintain some linkage to the University of the Highlands and Islands, but embody recognition of the remit and the purposes that makes Sabhal Mòr Ostaig so distinctive.”
Prof Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. In the mid-1980s, he became the first director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation. He was chairman of the north of Scotland’s development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) between 1998 and 2004 as well as an award-winning journalist.