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19 June 2022

Time is running out to save Gaelic

The ancient Scottish language is wrestling with new and old identities.

By Rachel Ashcroft

The Hebridean Baker has more than 243,000 TikTok followers. Among his recipe clips are videos of Scottish Gaelic tongue twisters and lessons featuring his cù beag (wee dog) Seoras. The baker is one of several TikTokers introducing Gaelic to their fans. Over on Duolingo, the language learning app, its Gaelic course is thriving. Company data reports that more than 429,000 active users are brushing up on their Gàidhlig; 66 per cent of learners are from outside the UK, with some logging on from Tonga and Zambia. Alongside a growing digital presence, Gaelic is increasingly visible to Scots in everyday life: it now appears on Scottish emergency vehicles, public buildings and railway signs.

Seeing and hearing an ancient language adapt to modern platforms can only be a good thing, particularly for Scottish Gaelic speakers. Yet therein also lies the problem. Gaelic’s increased visibility disguises an unfortunate truth: the number of fluent Gaelic speakers is in decline. This was true in 2005 when the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish parliament. Back then the Scottish government warned that “the declining numbers of those speaking Gaelic fluently… threatens the survival of Gaelic as a living language in Scotland”.

Arguably this assessment still stands today. In the 2011 census 57,000 people (roughly 1.1 per cent of the Scottish population) said they spoke the language, a decrease of 2,000 from the previous census. The densest populations of Gaelic speakers are concentrated in Eilean Siar (the Western Isles), the Highlands and Argyll and Bute. These rural communities form part of the Gàidhealtachd, the region where Gaelic has a long history as a living language. Social media is introducing Gaelic to a wider audience than ever before, yet the sad irony is that its existence among traditional communities is under threat.

It’s not like the Scottish government has been asleep at the wheel. The 2005 act created Bòrd na Gàidhlig, a public body responsible for promoting the language and preparing a National Gaelic Language Plan every five years (the current plan runs until 2023). Gaelic-medium education (GME), in which children are taught almost entirely in Gaelic, has been the biggest success story. In 2019-20 just under 6,200 Scottish pupils of all ages were enrolled in GME. These numbers have increased each year, and demand is at an all-time high. Glasgow has four GME schools while Edinburgh and Aberdeen offer GME at primary and secondary level.

Such efforts have also usually enjoyed cross-party support. The SNP MSP Ruth Maguire has emphasised that the language, far from being a purely nationalist concern, “is not owned by one political party or one bit of Scotland”. The 2005 act was, indeed, a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition policy. However, there is growing disagreement over the future of language policy, and criticism tends to fall along independence fault lines. In some quarters, for example, Gaelic’s presence on signage and official logos has provoked irritation.

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Meanwhile, academics have been embroiled in acrimonious debate about the extent to which Bòrd na Gàidhlig is adequately balancing the needs of Highlands and Islands communities with “new” speakers from elsewhere in Scotland. Some academics are calling for the establishment of an Urras na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Community Trust) to replace the Bòrd. The Urras would be located somewhere in the islands and its direction would be set by community members, thus prioritising action within the Gàidhealtachd. Others have questioned why existing Gaelic bodies cannot adapt to perform this work.

Indeed, the success of GME highlights the urgent need to build Gaelic communities outside the Highlands and Islands. While the number of Scottish pupils in GME is increasing, most of them don’t speak Gaelic at home, so their chances of retaining fluency are limited. Increasing numbers of children may be being educated in Gaelic, but the lack of opportunity to nurture the language outside the classroom risks undermining its growth.

Work on the National Gaelic Language Plan 2023-2028 is now under way. It it likely to contain commitments to increase Gaelic-medium youth clubs, arts events and other extracurricular activities. Some Gàidhealtachd residents will also welcome a commitment to review the functions and structures of the Bòrd.

In the meantime, it would be useful to have an accurate picture of how the identity and location of Gaelic speakers is evolving. After all, much has changed since the 2011 census. Future policy must find a way to respond to all Gaelic identities, new and old. Unfortunately, the Scottish government’s poor handling of the delayed 2021 census threatens to hamper future progress. With a national return rate of only 87.5 per cent, plus badly worded questions on Gaelic language proficiency, it’s unclear how accurate this information will be.

An old Gaelic proverb says: “Get you patience, and you’ll get fish.” Still, patience is wearing thin among Scotland’s diverse Gaelic communities, for whom there is little time to lose.

[See also: In Ukraine, Russian is now “the language of the enemy”]

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