Gaelic 'disappearing' from Scottish island communities
Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent
The number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland’s island communities has plummeted in less than a decade, according to a leading Highland researcher who believes the language is on the point of “societal collapse” across Scotland.
Although just over 58,000 people reported themselves as Gaelic speakers in the 2011 Scottish census, Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, the director of the Language Sciences Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, will publish a study next year following extensive fieldwork in the Western Isles, Skye and Tiree that estimates that the vernacular group on the islands, where speakers are most heavily concentrated, does not exceed 11,000.
Ó Giollagáin believes that existing policies to promote Gaelic focus too heavily on encouraging new speakers, mainly in urban areas, or promoting it as a heritage language, and that without a significant shift to supporting existing speakers, Gaelic “will continue as the language of school and heritage but not as a living language”.
Most of those working with Gaelic agree that the language is at a crossroads. In one sense it has never been more visible, from the dual language street signs across Scotland to the time travel blockbuster series Outlander, in which lead actors have learned conversational Gaelic for their roles. Last week, the Scottish government announced £2m funding for a fourth Gaelic primary school in Glasgow, while the city is hosting the Royal National Mòd, Scotland’s foremost Gaelic literature, song and traditional music festival, for the first time in nearly three decades, ending this Saturday.
Brian Ó hEadhra, the arts and culture adviser at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the public body with responsibility for the Gaelic language, counters the pessimism. “We need more people to use it more often, but we can’t keep focusing on the negatives. We also have to be realistic about the numbers, because this is not just about language but societal shifts, with ongoing population decline in the Gaelic heartlands.”
This partly informs the Bòrd’s enthusiasm for technology that offers access to a community of fellow speakers across Scotland and indeed the world. Earlier this week it launched a campaign based on a similar Welsh-language initiative to encourage Gaelic speakers to use the hashtag #cleachdi – or #useit – to indicate their willingness to converse in the language, and on Thursday the language learning app Duolingo announced that it was making Gaelic available to its 300 million-plus users.
But Ó Giollagáin remains sceptical: “This is about what gets attention: the focus is on media, schools, the arts, but there is no social policy supporting the speaker group itself. For example, we know that the most important thing for continuity of a language is transfer from one generation to the next, but there is no family support scheme for speakers.
“Encouraging people to learn Gaelic is, of course, to be welcomed, but emphasising this to the detriment of the obvious concerns of the existing vernacular community only serves to undermine the credibility of Gaelic policy in general.”
While there has been a huge increase in children attending Gaelic-medium education, and there are now almost as many doing so in Glasgow as across the Highlands, the numbers are still relatively small – 1,032 in Glasgow, 427 in Edinburgh and 1,145 in the Highlands in 2018 – and it has yet to translate into more taking Gaelic language qualifications at secondary school level.
Critics have suggested that Gaelic schools often benefit middle-class children whose parents are taken with the educational advantages of dual language learning.
Fiona Dunn, Glasgow University’s Gaelic development manager who ran a recent conference on Gaelic in the global and digital age, said: “A lot of parents are drawn to Gaelic schools in the cities because they have a very good reputation and the full support of the local authority which is so important, and not always evident across the country. It is critical that we have strong leadership from Gaelic policymakers that supports the needs of more rural areas too.”
Meanwhile, the first generation of children from non-Gaelic speaking backgrounds to benefit from Gaelic-medium education are coming of age, and some are struggling to integrate the language into social life.
Frances Driscoll, 20, is an art student at Edinburgh University and attended Gaelic-medium education from nursery level in Glasgow, along with her two sisters.
She describes encountering the Gaelic Society at freshers’ week, which offered a tartan-themed pub crawl and a mixture of traditional music players and “Americans interested in Outlander”. She added: “I hardly ever use Gaelic now, and none of my social group speak it.”
Bòrd na Gàidhlig acknowledges the challenges faced by “scattered speakers”, and hopes to progress to the kind of network of walk-in language hubs under construction in Ireland.
But Driscoll warns: “There’s going to be more and more kids having the same experience. Traditional Gaelic culture is really rich but there has to be an alternative way of using the language in a social setting. There should be more emphasis in schools on trying to normalise and promote it as a way to communicate, otherwise it is just associated with essay-writing.”
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