Scottish Gaelic supporters seek to reverse the language’s rapid decline


When John Finlayson was growing up, almost everyone in his community on the Isle of Skye was fluent in Gaelic. Today, despite decades of official support for what was once the dominant language of most of the Highlands and Scottish Islands, Finlayson can only think of one neighbor of the island’s family farm that speaks it.

“We have been trying to make Gaelic sustainable for many years. So why are we failing? That’s the big question, ”said Finlayson, 63, a former principal who chairs the Highland Local Council’s education committee.

This is a growing political emergency amid signs that Gaelic’s long linguistic retreat has turned into a rout.

A study of areas where Gaelic is relatively strong published last year found that the ancient Celtic language may “soon cease to exist as a community language in any part of Scotland.”

“The remaining vernacular networks will nowhere survive to any appreciable extent, under current circumstances, beyond this decade,” said study, led by Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Gaelic Research Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

John Finlayson can only think of one neighbor of the family farm who speaks Gaelic © Charlie Bibby / FT

The Scottish National Party government is now considering emulating Ireland – where the Irish linguistic brother of Scottish Gaelic is also under pressure – by grouping areas where the language is relatively strong into a ‘Gàidhealtachd’, an area that would benefit from special treatment to support the tongue.

There is all-party support for Gaelic, which by the 11th century was spoken across Scotland before being eclipsed by the Scottish language and later by English.

Scotland 2011 census found just over 1 percent of people could speak Gaelic.

On Skye, a historic center of Gaelic culture, the challenges and complexities of halting the language’s decline are clear.

The Quiraing Range at the northern tip of Skye
The Quiraing Range at the northern tip of Skye © Charlie Bibby / FT

Young people who have learned the language at home or in the Gaelic middle school system find it difficult to find employment or accommodation on the island, where houses are often occupied by southerners eager to try island life. .

Remote work allowed 30-year-old Katie Kroll to return to Skye after a decade of absence, which severely reduced her Gaelic skills. Now, the lack of fluent local peers makes the job more difficult.

“I have a lot of friends my age who speak Gaelic who would like to come back to their community, but they can’t because there isn’t a lot of work aside from hospitality and there is absolutely no accommodation, ”Kroll said.

Katie kroll
A decade away from Skye has sharply reduced Katie Kroll’s proficiency in Gaelic © Charlie Bibby / FT

In Staffin, on the north coast of the jagged ridges of Skye, nearly half of residents reported some proficiency in Gaelic in 2011. But Aonghas Ros, a founding member of the Local Community Trust, a local development charity, said that maintaining its routine use was a huge challenge.

“English is all-powerful, ubiquitous, totally dominant. Unless you’re bossy, Gaelic is just put aside, ”Ros said.

Aonghas Ros
Aonghas Ros: “English is all-powerful, omnipresent, totally dominant” © Charlie Bibby / FT

Since Scottish Gaelic speakers also speak English, the growing number of monolingual English speakers in a community has a dramatic impact on the language used in social situations.

When only Gaelic speakers sit on the Staffin Trust board, meetings are held in Gaelic, but that changes if even a board member does not understand the language.

“You always tend to rely on the fact that someone is just an English speaker, a monoglot person, otherwise you would be excluding that person,” Ros said.

Calum Munro, chairman of the Gaelic Highland Council committee, said researchers’ predictions of the collapse of the vernacular were true.

“It’s getting late. We know the situation now, so I think morally we have to take up this challenge and try to do something,” he said.

What to do is contested. The UHI study called for the creation of a new grassroots cooperative that would take on some of the responsibilities and resources of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the body responsible for promoting Gaelic.

Calum Munro
Calum Munro, Chairman of the Gaelic Committee of the Highland Council © Charlie Bibby / FT

But Wilson McLeod, a professor of Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, said the study was unfair in its condemnation of current politics and did not provide evidence for its proposals.

Much may depend on the judgment of Shirley-Anne Somerville, who, as Scottish Secretary for Education, is responsible for Gaelic politics.

Somerville has promised new legislation to support the language and a revision of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. But the cabinet secretary has yet to detail how a Gaelic-speaking Gàidhealtachd works or indicate what other new policies could help save the language.

Officials have held discussions on the matter for a more formal consultation. “I approach this with a very open mind,” Somerville told the Financial Times in August.

Post office sign in English and Gaelic in Portree
Post signs in English and Gaelic in Portree on the Isle of Skye © Charlie Bibby / FT

As some English-speaking Scots bristle at any additional spending on Gaelic, bold steps will be needed to reverse its decline.

Mairi MacInnes, president of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said rights to education in Gaelic should be strengthened, almost all policies that affect island communities revised and much more resources made available.

The UHI study criticized the official focus on teaching Gaelic as a second language – suggesting that more attention should be paid to supporting native speakers – but MacInnes praised the growing number of people learning Gaelic. language in Scottish towns.

“The use of the language is just as valuable, whether it’s by someone who is learning it, someone who has learned it fairly well, or someone who has always had it,” MacInnes said.

A children's book in Gaelic
A Gaelic children’s book used in a nursery on Syke Island © Charlie Bibby / FT

Some residents of Skye are reassured by the growing use of Gaelic by young native speakers and learners in everyday life and on social media.

Anna Pelikan, 28, runs a Gaelic Instagram page and runs a playgroup that introduces children to the language.

Pelikan blamed the decline of Gaelic on linguistic oppression and the infamous clearing of the populations of the Highlands and Islands in the 18th and 19th centuries for more profitable sheep.

But she thinks enough young people now care about the language for it to come to life. “I am optimistic,” she said. “We are slowly going up the hill ourselves. “

Anna Pelikan and young children in a playgroup
Anna Pelikan’s playgroup introduces children to Gaelic © Charlie Bibby / FT

Younger speakers are also often more willing to speak Imperfect Gaelic than their more timid and picky elders, an approach that raises the profile of the language and encourages others to use it.

“Even if your Gaelic isn’t perfect, you better talk about it a bit,” said Raghnall Robertson, a 36-year-old entrepreneur from Skye.

“Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste,” said Robertson, citing a proverb. “Better to have broken Gaelic than Gaelic dead.”


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