Gaelic Speakers of Scotland

Name: Gaels
Location: Throughout Scotland, particularly northern highlands and western islands
Population: 79,307 bilingual (Gaelic/English) speakeis
% of population: 1.64% (bilingual)
Religion: Protestant, Catholic
Language: Gadhelic (Gaelic), English

Scottish Gaels are found throughout the country but the largest concentration is in the Western Isles Region where in 1981 79.5% were Gaelic-speaking, and in Skye and Lochalsh, 53.6%; while smaller but significant minorities are found in the sparsely populated areas of Sutherland and Argyll. Significant numbers are also found in the major towns and cities but in most Scottish communities Gaelic speakers are in a tiny minority.

Gaelic was the dominant language in Scotland between the ninth and thirteenth centuries but gradually declined thereafter, a process assisted by a certain amount of active repression. The Statute of lona (1609), for example, sought to direct chiefly families towards English schooling for their children; during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Gaelic was either regarded as an anachronism to be eradicated or an irrelevance to be disregarded. The crushing of the Jacobite rising of 1745, the enforced clearances of the Highland peasants to make way for sheep and the subsequent emigration of thousands of Gaelic speakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brought about a severe reduction in the number of Gaelic speakers in the central highlands, leaving only the coastal areas of the Highlands and Islands Gaelic-speaking. The Gaelic cause was promoted in 1891 with the founding of The Highland Association which has acted as a pressure group helping among other things to re-establish Gaelic in the educational system.

The political climate for the maintenance of the Gaelic language is better now than it has been for several hundred years. Whilst Gaelic is not used in courts or in public business there has been a resurgence of interest in the language, partly an outcome of the growing mood of nationalism in Scotland, and official attitudes are no longer actively repressive. The Western Isles Region now has an official bilingual policy which is being gradually and selectively implemented in schools and in business. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 specifies an obligation on the education authorities to make provision at all stages for Gaelic in Gaelic-speaking areas. The Scottish National Party has a comprehensive Gaelic policy. Gaelic is well established on radio and is also featured on television, and a Gaelic Repertory Theatre Company has been formed. The Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, founded in the 1930s, has published a series of Gaelic publications, and the government has provided funds for further publications. Gaelic continues to have a strong base in the Free Church and Free Presbyterian Church.

Yet it appears that although the new interest in Gaelic language and culture will continue, the narrowing economic base in the Highlands and Islands, the drift southwards and the deaths of the last of the monoglot Gaelic speakers, will make it difficult for numbers to expand and for the language to survive outside the outer islands.

(See also )

1Some set up Gaelic speaking communities in Canada, in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, which survive today.