Keeping a language alive: the past and future of Gaelic in Scotland

By Angela de Bruin (Staff Writer)

A couple of weeks ago, another edition of the Seachdain na Gàidhlig (‘Gaelic week’) took place in Edinburgh. The University of Edinburgh introduced this week of events last year to promote and celebrate the Gaelic language. Three centuries ago, Gaelic was a flourishing language spoken by approximately a quarter of the Scottish population. Nowadays, this has dropped to 1.1% [1]. The majority of Gaelic native speakers live in the Highlands or Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. Why did this language lose so many speakers? What are the consequences for the older generation of native speakers? And how effective are attempts to revive this language?

For my PhD project, I study the effects of bilingualism on cognitive and lexical tasks. Part of my project included recruiting and testing Gaelic-English bilinguals on the Hebrides. I spent five months on five different islands and this gave me a good idea of the current status of Gaelic language use. Especially on the Outer Hebrides (the westernmost islands), most older adults grew up with Gaelic as their native language. A poignant story I heard many times concerned the first days at primary school. Many children only acquired Gaelic at home and thus had very little knowledge of English when they went to school at the age of 5. In some cases, their English vocabulary was limited to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Yet at school, students were forbidden to speak Gaelic. In some extreme cases, they were literally beaten by their teachers for using their native language.

The regulations regarding English language use at schools started in 1872. The Scottish Education Act was introduced, which announced compulsory schooling for Scottish children. Until that point, Gaelic was not only the language used at home and in local communities, but also in churches and schools in the Hebrides and Highlands [2]. This changed dramatically with the new education guidelines as Gaelic teaching was now banned from schools. It was genuinely believed that speaking Gaelic would interfere with mental functions. Parents were warned not to raise their children in Gaelic, as it would hold them back and hinder their development.

This discouragement did not only affect Gaelic. Until a few decades ago, bilingualism was commonly believed to damage a child’s intelligence [3]. Whilst Gaelic was banned from classrooms and generally discouraged, the presence of English increased. Gaelic speakers started moving to more industrialised areas while English speakers moved to Gaelic-speaking areas. In this way, Gaelic use also decreased in informal settings. This process occurred earlier on the Inner than Outer Hebrides due to their proximity to the mainland. Nowadays, the largest numbers of Gaelic speakers can therefore be found on the Outer Hebrides. Even though the language is still considered a native tongue, Gaelic monolinguals no longer exist.

What are the consequences of decreasing numbers of speakers for the use of this language? In my own project, I realised that there are different patterns of language use for older adults that grew up with Gaelic as their native language. Whereas some still speak both languages on a daily basis, there are also many ‘inactive’ bilinguals. These inactive bilinguals acquired Gaelic during their childhood and used the language at home. However, in their later life, they were often obliged to use English at work or even at home. In some circumstances this was related to family members not speaking Gaelic. For example, some people reported marrying a non-Gaelic spouse and thus English became the language of the home. In other cases, there were simply not enough other Gaelic speakers left to speak the language with. The emotional impact of not being able to speak their own language was clear in many cases. Not unusually, people would tell me their stories with tears in their eyes.

While bilingualism was considered to harm a child’s development a few decades ago, this view has changed dramatically in the past ten years. Similarly, Gaelic is now promoted in an attempt to keep the language alive. This is done in several ways. In 2005, the Scottish Government introduced the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act to secure ‘the status of the Gaelic language as on official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language’. [4] The law aims to improve the use and knowledge of this language, and promote Gaelic culture and education. This is done through promotional activities such as the ‘Seachdain na Gàidhlig’, but also through Gaelic-medium education.

Two years ago, the first fully Gaelic school opened in Edinburgh, originating from the Gaelic-medium education unit that had been around for more than two decades. The school has more than 300 pupils now. Similar schools exist in many places in Scotland, including the Hebrides and Highlands. This could be a good way to promote Gaelic use in children. Yet, this does not always allow for communication with the older generation of native speakers. Gaelic is predominantly a spoken language and many native speakers have limited exposure to the written version.

Furthermore, although we speak about ‘Gaelic’ as if it is one language, it has many different variations. To teach a language, however, a standardised, written form is needed that may not resemble the language traditionally spoken. In one instance, a grandmother (and native speaker) reported not being able to help her grandchildren with their Gaelic homework as she did not know the language that they were taught. However, other efforts appeal more to the older generation. For example, the introduction of BBC ALBA was generally valued as very positive. This Gaelic TV channel was introduced in 2008 and, together with Gaelic radio programmes, was often mentioned as a main source of Gaelic language input by both native and non-native speakers.

While these plans promote Gaelic use and understanding of the language and culture in the cities, the impact on the native speakers in the Hebrides and Highlands is unclear. Generally, I observed much scepticism regarding the government’s attempt to keep the language alive. It is important to strengthen the status of traditional languages and cultures, especially when they have been looked down upon for so long.

All the stories I heard on the Hebrides emphasise how important a language can be for cultures and individuals. The decline or death of a language can cause much pain for its speakers. It is therefore very important to emphasize the value of Gaelic. For decades, native speakers were told that their language was inferior and they were often forced to give up their native tongue. They should now be encouraged to appreciate their language and to share it with their children and grandchildren. At the same time, we have to ensure that plans to keep a language alive are not just part of official governmental proposals. We should not aim to create an artificial language. Rather, language revival plans need to be valuable for both the older generations of native speakers as well as for the next generations.

[1] National Records of Scotland, 2011 Census: Aggregate data (Scotland). UK Data Service Census Support.

[2] Stockdale, A., MacGregor, B., & Munro, G. (2003). Migration, Gaelic-medium education and language use. Sleat, Isle of Skye: Ionad Naiseanta na h-Imrich, Sabhal Mor Ostaig.

[3] Peal, E., & Lambert, W. E. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs: general and applied, 76(27), 1-23.