A casual visitor to Scotland might assume that the Gaelic language is thriving, with every police car carrying the word poileas and every ambulance ambaileans. Yet in the few places where it is spoken, the language is in a profound, potentially terminal crisis.
Without radical action, Scots Gaelic will be dead within a decade, according to a study. The language is rarely spoken in the home, little used by teenagers, and used routinely only by a diminishing number of elderly Gaels dispersed across a few island communities in the Hebrides.
The study by a team of Gaelic experts and socio-linguists at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) found that only 11,000 people were habitual Gaelic speakers, after a rapid decline during the 1980s when the density of native speakers fell below 80%.
It forecasts that next year’s national census will find the proportion of people in the Western Isles who speak Gaelic has fallen to nearly 45%, a figure the experts believe puts the language on the verge of non-viability.
“We are in the position where the remaining vernacular networks are in the process of collapsing,” said Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, the lead author of the study and an expert in Irish and Scots Gaelic.
He said an urgent overhaul of policy was needed, with a far greater emphasis on restoring Gaelic as a living, everyday language in its core communities. He suggested there should be a new community-led Gaelic-language trust based in the Western Isles.
“It is imperative we have an open and honest discussion,” he said. “The situation is so critical; the vernacular community is falling apart and those charged with supporting Gaelic need to face up to these issues. More of the same [policies] will give you more of the same crisis.”
The study will reignite long-running controversies over the status of Gaelic and government strategies. The Scottish government has put heavy emphasis on increasing access to Gaelic education, specifically funding the construction of primary and secondary schools in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Over the last year the Western Isles council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, has increased Gaelic education in all schools and made it the default language for all children starting primary, provoking clashes between the Conservatives and the Scottish National party and Scottish Greens at Holyrood.
Ó Giollagáin said far greater energy should go into ensuring Gaelic is spoken at home and in every social situation, not just at school. Parents should be “encouraged to speak it to their children, in social and family settings,” he said. Gaelic should be embedded in all aspects of day-to-day life.
The study, which involved research throughout the Western Isles, in Staffin, a Gaelic-speaking district of Skye, and Tiree, an island in Argyll and Bute, found that even in Gaelic-speaking families, English was the default language. There was “general indifference among the young regarding the place of Gaelic in their lives,” it found.
Ó Giollagáin said there was a similar crisis in Ireland, where only about 17,000 people use Irish habitually, despite official figures showing it is spoken by 1.7 million people. Gaelic is in a stronger position in Wales, where about half of the 500,000 people who can speak Welsh do so routinely.
In both Scotland and Ireland, the trend of putting Gaelic on public signs and official vehicles has masked deep-rooted institutional indifference, Ó Giollagáin said. These were “pyrrhic, symbolic victories”, where Gaelic was given superficial recognition but remained peripheral to organisations’ work, or where “the actual speakers’ group is completely marginalised”.
Mairi MacInnes, the chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the board charged with promoting Gaelic, said the study’s findings about a generational divide “will come as no surprise to anyone”. She said the current strategy, focusing on schooling, had been agreed after widespread consultation.
Even so, she said, the board was “willing to discuss with island communities what else they want to happen, in addition to the many positive things which are already in place.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said ministers were interested in the study’s conclusions, including its call for new structures. “The Gaelic language is a vital part of Scotland’s cultural identity and ministers support efforts to improve access for speakers to learn and use the language,” the spokeswoman said.
“Although the Gaelic language is in a fragile condition, there are a range of policies and interventions in place to promote the learning, speaking and use of Gaelic in the islands and these are constantly kept under review.”