This is an interesting time to write about Gaelic language and culture in Scotland. Our community currently stands at a crossroads – perhaps even a precipice, to put it in some researchers’ more pessimistic terms. 

Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) was the dominant language in Scotland when the country first came into existence in the early medieval era. Gaelic as a spoken, community vernacular has gradually withdrawn to the north and west since that time. The remaining communities where a majority of the local population can speak Gaelic are now found in the Western Isles. These islands lie off the western seaboard of the mountainous Highlands, where the language also remained strong until relatively recently.

Decline, revitalisation and renewal 

We know that formerly Gaelic-dominant communities in the Western Isles have continued to decline in recent decades. This decline has come in spite of official policy in Scotland to revitalise Gaelic. Research recently produced by the inter-university network Soillse (www.soillse.ac.uk) has provided further evidence for this long-term attenuation. 

At the same time, policy initiatives which aim to grow the language, such as Gaelic-medium education (GME) continue to expand. Some 6,200 children currently receive their education through this Gaelic immersion model, compared with the total of 58,000 reported speakers. GME students are an increasingly diverse cohort, drawn from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, particularly in Scotland’s cities.

Immersion models of language education

My research on long-term outcomes of GME found that former students don’t generally speak much Gaelic as adults. On the one hand, activists and policymakers should be cautious about relying on schools for creating new generations of speakers. This message was a key refrain in Joshua Fishman’s scholarship over a career spanning half a century. Those of us engaged in minority language planning and research would all do well to bear it in mind. 

On the other hand, effective policy responses that aim to reverse community and linguistic decline remain elusive. Language learning – in home, school, rural communities and cities – will remain crucial to securing a future for Gaelic. This is of course equally true for many other minority languages internationally.

Language, community, life and ‘death’

Research that I have undertaken in Cornwall, UK and Nova Scotia, Canada provides some useful perspectives in this regard. The Brythonic Cornish language was virtually obsolescent by the 19th century, as its remaining native speakers died out. Yet it continued to play a symbolic role in local identities into the early twentieth century. It was at this time that the revival of Cornish as a spoken language was first attempted.

Today, native and ‘new’ Cornish speakers are raising children in the language, for perhaps the first time since the early-1700s. Undoubtedly, numbers of fluent speakers remain small by comparison with Welsh or Gaelic languages elsewhere in the UK. Yet it seems that reports of the ‘death’ of Cornish in the late-1700s were greatly overstated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

Linguistic practice and social reproduction

Of course, languages never really ‘live’ or ‘die’. They exist as social practices that people perform, and as repositories of their culture and identity. Languages change from generation to generation and can vary substantially from one community to the next. 

Sometimes social and economic pressures combine to contribute to community processes by which a language goes out of use altogether. In late modernity, global language loss is accelerating fast. Fortunately, communities throughout the world have recognised this risk, and are motivated to do something about it.

In Nova Scotia, Gaelic has been continuously spoken by Scottish emigrants and their descendants for almost 250 years. Yet the vernacular community of older native speakers is now on the verge of disappearing. Community efforts to revitalise the language have turned increasingly to acquisition activities that prioritise contact between learners and fluent speakers. 

As in the case of Cornish, Nova Scotian families are once again raising children in the language. Although Gaelic immersion education has not yet been established, efforts are afoot to secure availability of GME within the community. The optimism of Nova Scotia Gaels mostly eludes us in Scotland, as we survey the ongoing decline of heartland communities. 

A future for Gaelic in multicultural Scotland

Meaningful policy engagement is urgently required in Western Isles communities to inform language planning at a local level. We don’t yet properly understand how to prop up community use of Gaelic in these islands. There is compelling evidence, however, that challenging socioeconomic circumstances continue to undermine local communities there. If young people can’t make a living in the Western Isles, there is no question of them raising families there. 

At the same time, many young people in Western Isles communities weren’t raised with the language at home. As such, they didn’t have the opportunity to become ‘native’ or ‘vernacular’ speakers. If they do wish to raise families through Gaelic, such individuals will clearly require support to do so. This is also the case for families such as my own, attempting to raise children in Gaelic in urban areas. 

Furthermore, GME students and parents have recently emphasised that people of colour in urban Gaelic communities face distressing additional challenges. This is unacceptable in our multicultural society, and people of colour make major contributions to our community. I hope to explore this important issue through my involvement with the Speaking Citizens project in the coming years.

Confidence and community renewal

Bridging the current social and geographical divides between native Gaelic speakers and new speakers is a key policy challenge. This is as much the case for communities in the Western Isles, mainland Highlands or Lowland cities. Opportunities that technology and online resources provide may assist in undertaking the important work of community renewal that lies ahead. 

We in Scotland can learn much from other language communities about bringing different constituent parts of our community together. Gabhamaid misneachd – wherever we are, let’s have confidence to speak our languages and grow our cultures once again.

Do you enjoy reading about different cultures? If so, you might enjoy reading "Migration: A snapshot from South Africa, the Rainbow Nation." 

Author: Stuart Dunmore

I am a researcher in sociolinguistics and currently teach in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. My research has focused on minority language use, education, and cultural identities, with particular reference to Celtic language communities in Britain and Canada. I published my first book ‘Language Revitalisation in Gaelic Scotland’ last year.

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