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Thinking About Gaelic (In English)

Are We Saying Goodbye Too Soon?

By Eilidh McCartney

The ruins of Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven
Image by Andy Fotheringham via Pexels

Over the Easter break, I visited in Dublin for a few days, and I quickly noticed that Irish Gaelic was everywhere. More importantly, it was put first. Above the English translation on every signpost, bus stop, museum - you name it. Irish Gaelic was there.

The Gaelic Language Act (Scotland) was enacted in 2005 and no major changes have been made since. The act vows to command “equal respect” of Scottish Gaelic and English. Really, any respect for the language would be a push forward - I think we’re yet to even attempt to tackle the ‘equal’ part of the phrase’s promise. Whilst Gaelic does appear on some road signs and railway networks around Scotland, it doesn’t feature on most of them, and it certainly doesn’t come before the English translation.

But this isn’t news to any of us, so why does it matter now, especially when very few Scots know any Gaelic at all?

This topic has suddenly gained new relevance to University of Aberdeen and its students following the recent cuts in the modern languages department. In the last few weeks, it was announced that the university would no longer be funding the position of ‘Gaelic Development Officer’. As an ancient university with a Gaelic Language Plan, this decision is disappointing, however, it’s sadly unsurprising that more hasn’t been done to keep the language alive on campus.

Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
Image by Christine Taylor via Pexels

Since Aberdeen welcomes such a high number of international students, it would be nice to see Gaelic promoted to this diverse audience to gain more respect of the language internationally, not just at home.

But why bother saving a language that barely anyone speaks? Firstly, this common misconception is not true – the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS) has seen the number of Gaelic-speaking Scots (whether fluent or simply learning a few words) double in the last decade. That’s 30% of Scots who now know at least a little Gaelic. Even more encouragingly, 79% of Scots feel that Gaelic is important to Scotland’s heritage, and 65% would like to improve their Gaelic speaking. It’s hard to argue with promising figures like these, but, if you’re still not convinced, perhaps a history lesson is in order.

Gaelic is one of the oldest languages in Europe and is over 1,000 years older than English. Scots Gaelic originated from Irish Gaelic around the 4th century and was the majority language across Scotland until the mid 14th century. From there onwards, Gaelic speakers were effectively persecuted and compelled to learn English by the crown rule at the time. In the 17th century, the first schools were constructed in the Highlands, bearing a strict English-only policy. Gaelic was forbidden - not only in the classroom, but across school grounds throughout the 18th century. Those who wished for a modern education had to sacrifice their mother tongue. During the highland clearances, native folks were relocated to make room for a more profitable business – sheep. Down South, Gaelic had already been eradicated and the English had taken over. By the time the Scotland’s first ever census was conducted in 1881, only a mere 6% of the population could speak Gaelic.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, their native language was banned in any areas ruled by the English. This included in all legal systems, which meant that Irish people were excluded from court, and unable to give their own defence.

The Statutes of Kilkenny (1367) made it illegal for an English person to speak the Irish language, marry an Irish native, or even have an Irish name. The Welsh people faced similar prosecution as their language was banned in court proceedings and government office in the year 1536.

The very fact that any number of Gaelic speakers prevailed is simply remarkable - and this sacrifice must be honoured. Gaelic is worth saving in my eyes, but if we don’t do something about it soon, the language could very well disappear forever. And, though the SSAS does show hope in recent years, there is still a lot of room for improvement!

Two Bagpipe Players
Image by Kevin Bidwell via Pexels

However, the huge responsibility of preserving the language does not rely on universities alone. There is so much more that could – and rightfully should - be done to protect the native language of this land out with the Scottish educational sphere. One of the biggest difficulties of increasing Gaelic use in Scotland is that if even people like me, someone born and raised in the West of Scotland, learned to speak Gaelic fluently, the opportunities to speak the language in my everyday life would be very hard to come by. In fact, I do not know a single person who speaks Gaelic that I could converse with. The closest I ever came to knowing someone fluent was when my siblings were taught Gaelic briefly in primary school. I doubt that they remember any of it now.

The most contact I’ve ever had with Gaelic was whilst on holiday in the Outer Hebrides as a kid. It was the first time I’d ever seen my name on any of the touristy tat you get in gift shops; Eilidh across rulers, magnets, pencil cases, bookmarks. More importantly, my brother and sister (with fairly common non-Gaelic names) couldn’t find their names anywhere. The signs said ‘Failte gu’ instead of ‘Welcome to’. The concentration of fluent Gaelic speakers was much higher than on the mainland, and most of the locals speak to each other in Gaelic (particularly older folk in Barra), switching to English to speak to us.

Durness Beach, Highlands
Image by Alan Caldwell via Pexels

Theoretically, in areas like these, the population of Gaelic speakers would remain constant, but this is unfortunately not the case. Young people from the islands are migrating to the mainland more frequently and island populations are decreasing as a result. Thus, the opportunity for young Gaelic speakers to exercise their skills are becoming even more limited. Gaelic, therefore, becomes reserved for the home and rarely appears in social life.


Gaelic isn’t just a language, but a rich culture of long-standing tradition. Scotland is a nation of its own culturally, regardless of where you stand on the independence debate. Ceilidhs, Celtic music, shinty and tartan are just a few of the host of cultural traditions that could never have existed without Gaels. More recently, BBC Alba and Celtic Connections have helped to keep momentum going, but these initiatives are optional. With hundreds of other English-speaking radio stations and concerts available, I’m not sure the motivating incentive is strong enough for 5 million Scots to suddenly download Duolingo. After all, Scottish culture is more diverse than just the Gaelic language, and a variety of dialects exist across such a small nation, from Doric here in the Northeast to the Shetland dialect up North or Scots down South.

It’s important to celebrate everything in the melting pot, but I would love to see more opportunities for Scots to engage with Gaelic all over the country.

If the Gaelic language disappears, it won’t just be the language we miss out on – we’ll suffer the loss of the rich culture that comes with it. We need to do better as a country to preserve our language and tradition. There is so much beauty in Scotland, and subsequently in Gaelic and it would be a real shame to let it vanish into thin air.

Scotland would never have been what it is today without Gaelic, and I don’t know about you - I’m not ready to say goodbye to it yet.


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