Language as activism: the big Gaelic comeback

The native tongue of the Highlands and islands seemed to be dying out – until the latest figures were released.

An Isle of Skye sunset. The Hebridean island is the centre of the Gaelic resurgence
An Isle of Skye sunset. The Hebridean island is a centre of the Gaelic resurgence

Gaelic is a remnant from Scotland’s independent past. Until the 18th century it was widely spoken in the Highlands and Islands – for 290,000 Scots it was their first and only tongue – but a government ban on all elements of Highland culture after the Jacobite rebellion started 350 years of decline. Since then the number of Gaelic speakers has dwindled year by year. The 1991 census showed a drop of more than 20 per cent in a single decade. By 2001 the number had fallen another 11 per cent, to just 59,000. Gaelic speakers were ageing, then dying, and their language was dying with them.

When the latest figures were released in September, naysayers were preparing to sound the knell. But the new total (58,000) had barely dipped and closer inspection revealed new growth: in every age group under the age of 20, there had been a rise.

There is a Gaelic revival under way. Increasing numbers of parents – even those who don’t speak the language – are opting to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools, where all subjects are taught in the language. In 1985 there were only 24 primary school children being taught in Gaelic; last year the figure was 2,953. Sixty-one schools across Scotland now offer Gaelic-medium education. The expectation is that, as time passes, these young Gaels will revitalise a language that is intricately tied up with their country’s identity.

My two-year-old nephew Daniel will be one of them. His parents – my brother Rory and his wife, Claire – speak only English, but have chosen for him to attend Fàs Mòr, a pre-school in Sleat on the Isle of Skye where staff speak to the children entirely in Gaelic. He chatters away happily in English, producing new and unexpected words like rabbits from a hat. He sings to himself as he plays: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle”. But sometimes he rattles off one I don’t recognise. “Nee-naw, nee-naw,” he calls out suddenly one morning, “einnsean-smàlaidh.”

“Oh,” says my brother, noticing my confusion, “it’s a Gaelic one. Something about a fire engine.”

I’m intrigued by Daniel’s secret school language. The Fàs Mòr building perches on a windy hillside next to the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, two miles north of the Armadale jetty, from where the ferry runs to Mallaig when the weather’s fine. We bundle down the steps past a cheery paper display full of words I don’t recognise. Càirdeas, it says. Toileachas. Iongnadh. Spèis. Friendship; happiness; wonder; love. The windows look out across the Sound of Sleat to the mountains of the wild Knoydart Peninsula beyond. A distant fishing boat trawls slowly across the view from left to right.

Madainn mhath, Daniel,” says a dark-haired woman, smiling at him. “Ciamar a tha thu?” Daniel comes over all shy, looking up at her through his blond forelock. The teaching assistant continues to talk to him in Gaelic as he listens, quietly.

“He understands a lot more than he says,” Rory tells me. Sure enough, when she asks another question, Daniel nods and follows her to play in the corner of the room.

Little Caitlin is already here. Her mother, Gwen Culbertson, is the head teacher at Bun-sgoil Shlèite, the primary school next door. There, the parents can choose which language they would like their child to be taught in. Fifty children are taught in Gaelic, only 12 in English.

The benefits of bilingualism are well known: improved mental agility, faster learn­ing of tertiary languages, protection against age-related memory loss. But it strikes me that, in an increasingly international society, educating your child in a hyper-local language – one that’s in decline – is an unusual choice for young, professional parents.

About this, Rory is sanguine: “Yes, it would provide more international opportunities if he was being taught in Spanish . . . but to be immersed in Gaelic for the first years of his education will give him an understanding of language that will become instinctive later in life. It’s the language of our area: what is spoken in the pub, at meetings, and so on. There has always been an impression that Gaelic is a bit of a nostalgic, inward-looking culture, but it seems to have a lot of energy and passion behind it now.”

Not speaking the language themselves can cause problems for my brother and Claire. For one thing, they will be unable to help Daniel with schoolwork when he is older. But new resources have been developed for parents in their position, such as Gaelic4Parents, a website that offers help with homework by instant messaging between 5pm and 7pm during term time.

Three-year-old Seonaidh (pronounced “Shaunnie”) is another regular at Fàs Mòr. His mother, Floraidh Forrest, has spoken Gaelic since she was a child and runs a bilingual creative agency in Sleat, but her Californian husband, a musician, learned the language only after they moved to Skye. “Decker and I both exclusively speak Gaelic to the boys,” she says, “though we don’t always speak it to each other.

“I am, I suppose, strict with Seonaidh: if he speaks to me in English I ask him to repeat it in Gaelic. I’m not one of those crazy Gaelic mums – I’m certainly not anti-the English language – but it’s a gift I can give my kids for free that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.”

Gaelic skipped two generations in my family, but Daniel’s enrolment at Fàs Mòr has sparked an interest among all of us. My mother, who last spoke Gaelic in school, now plans evening classes, so she might talk to her grandson in the language her own father loved.

And, across the country, Daniel’s pre-school peers are inspiring their own families into action: a new generation of tiny Gaelic activists.