Alasdair H Campbell had a chance to speak to Farquhar MacIntosh last Friday, on his last day as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Sabhal Mòr Osataig…

It’s not every day that MacIntosh has a Mòd as Farquhar recalled form Gaelic proverbial wisdom last Friday at a dinner where the great and the good from the Gaelic world gathered to honour and, show their appreciation for, a Skyeman who has contributed massively to education and Gaelic over many years as a teacher, headmaster and as a key advisor and board member for several organisations and advisory groups.

It was a mark of the esteem in which this energetic octogenarian from Elgol, born in the village in 1923, is held that there were no less than two former Ministers for Gaelic among the dignitaries assembled at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig for the dinner. Friday was his last day as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, a post he assumed in 1991, and before that he was a member of Education Committee at Sabhal Mòr from 1985. Indeed, Farquhar’s links to Sabhal Mòr go back still further as he was on the Advisory Committee of the then Highlands and Islands Development Board in the early 1970s when the idea of a Gaelic college on Skye was first proposed.

As he explains: “Two or three years ago, when Roger Hutchinson paid me a visit at the time when he was writing a book on the history of Sabhal Mòr, I started to go through my papers in order to find out how Sabhal Mòr began, and I found two or three letters among those papers from Sir Iain Noble and my own replies. And I recall saying in one of those letters to Sir Iain that I envisioned the college he was proposing, not simply as a stand-alone institute, but as part of a greater University of the Highlands.

“And I had at the same time sent a letter to the HIDB, I was on a committee which was advising the HIDB at the time, and I said in this letter in 1976 that I was not sorry that Stirling had been awarded the university instead of Inverness. I said that I could not envision a university in Inverness that would be appropriate for the Highlands and Islands: what I had in mind was a university based on the network of further education colleges that were already dotted throughout the Highlands. However, it would not have worked at the time, as they did not have the technology that they have today to connect the various campuses.”

It is with great pleasure and pride that Farquhar looks back on how Sabhal Mòr has grown from its humble beginnings in a former farm steading to being Scotland’s principal Gaelic Higher Education Institute and a national centre for Gaelic development. However, although Farquhar has had a strong connection with the college for over 20 years, many will remember him as a teacher and headmaster. After he served at sea in the Second World War, Farquhar graduated with honours in History at Edinburgh University and then qualified as a teacher at Jordanhill Teacher Training College. He spent a several years teaching history at Glasgow Academy and Inverness Royal Academy before he was appointed headmaster of Portree High School. Farquhar then went to Oban High School as headmaster, before finishing his teaching career as headmaster of the Royal High School in Edinburgh, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Britain, where he spent 17 years.

Many boards and organisations have benefited from Farquhar’s knowledge and experience, and one of his principal roles in the past was that of Chairman of the Scottish Examination Board. Although Farquhar has been involved in many initiatives and with many organisations over the years, it is clear that he especially fond and proud of Skye’s Gaelic college: “I am of the opinion that this college has done more for the future of Gaelic than any other place, because not even the Gaels themselves thought much of Gaelic as a medium for teaching in the past. And that is of no surprise, as the Education Act in the 19th century effectively excluded Gaelic from the classroom altogether, and English was the only medium of tuition people were offered. Take for example myself, when I was in school in Elgol, a place where you were surrounded by Gaelic, there was no mention of Gaelic in the school. I was not taught in Gaelic until I went to Portree Secondary School, despite the fact that my mother and father were Gaelic speakers.

“In my view, the biggest boost Sabhal Mòr has given to Gaelic is that it established Gaelic as the only medium for teaching at the college, and thus given Gaelic a status which it has never before enjoyed.”

According to Farquhar: “When I was young many people thought that English was by far the best means for you to progress in the world, there was a  belief that Gaelic was of no use for making your way in the world. And so, when Sabhal Mòr began to use Gaelic as the medium of tuition the college greatly increased the standing and status of the language, and it had a tremendously positive effect on Gaelic’s image, and nowhere more so than in the eyes of Gaelic speakers themselves.

“Neither the Gaels nor the government saw any value in the language. When I was the chairman of the Exam Board I would meet Ministers and civil servants, many of whom had very little respect for Gaelic. But now things have changed. We have won the government over, and they now support and appreciate Gaelic in a way they never previously did. One thing that worries me, however, is that no enough Gaels value their own language and accord it the status they should. We still have some work to do there.”

Farquhar certainly now feels that the Government and other authorities are more supportive of Gaelic than they were in the past, but he still feels that progress has to be made in recruiting teachers and with regard to the Gaelic school system.

“That is one of the key stumbling blocks at the moment, and that is one of the changes I would like to see happen here, that the college and UHI would run a teacher training course,” Farquhar explains. “And that is now going to be implemented, in the next term I hope. There will be a course to train teachers through the medium of Gaelic, a course that teaches and trains them totally in Gaelic, not just partially in Gaelic and then the rest of the tuition in English.

“And hand in hand with that, I would like to see the model we currently employ in the primary schools change. It worked well to begin with when there were Gaelic units in the English schools, but that model is no longer what is required, nor will the model of an English unit in a Gaelic school, such as the one proposed in Sleat, work. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Gaelic or an English unit, once the children are in the playground English will become the dominant language. The model that is required is that of the Glasgow Gaelic School, which offers complete primary and secondary education in a solely Gaelic school. In the Glasgow school from three-years-old to eighteen you are surrounded by Gaelic at all times, you are totally immersed in the language, and that is what is required elsewhere. However, this total immersion cannot be achieved until enough teachers have been recruited and appropriate training opportunities are being offered.”

Despite being 83 years old, there are no signs of Farquhar taking it easy. Even at his farewell dinner on Friday night marking the end of his tenure as Chairman of the Trustees, he was being asked to join the Library Committee of the college and to maintain his strong links with Sabhal Mòr.

As Farquhar has already proved to be something of a prophet when in 1973 he put forward the idea of a University of the Highlands and Islands based on the existing further education colleges in the area, I asked him how he envisaged Sabhal Mòr developing in the coming years.

“I see the college growing in size and stature and it will continue to contribute to the revival of Gaelic as it must if that revival is to continue. The students numbers must rise, I do not envisage a very large institute, but I would at least like to see the numbers double to something like two or three hundred. If the college is going to grow in this manner, then they will have to buy more land. I would like to see Àrainn Chaluim Chille and Àrainn Ostaig connected as one attractive, vibrant campus.

“We must also expand the research programmes and opportunities at the college – we must strengthen and build upon the work of groups such as Lèirsinn. Research must inform our policymaking which in turn will contribute to the growth and success of Gaelic. We must for example have better information on how best to encourage parents to raise their children with Gaelic in the home, as that is the best way to keep Gaelic alive.”

Farquhar, as you would expect, has many other hopes for the future of Sabhal Mòr, and he foresees that, through the new Fàs centre and best practice in all other areas of the work of the college, Sabhal Mòr will become renowned throughout the world.

I am sure Farquhar was a little sad last week as he chaired his last meeting of the Trustees of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, a place which has grown tremendously since Farquhar first became Chairman.

And which memory will Farquhar cherish most from his time as Chairman?

“The one thing which I will remember most is how lively the place is every time you come here, it reinvigorates me,” Farquhar says. “I don’t think I would have lasted so long if I had not been Chairman here. I remember Bob Greaves, the first Director of the HIDB, telling me that the best advice he ever received was: keep your brain going and you legs moving!”