Decline of Gaelic

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 16 14:12:22 UTC 2006

The terminal decline of Gaelic
February 13, 2006

More people speak Urdu in Scotland than Gaelic. Where will it
all end? Alan Taylor investigates.

When a language dies, it is not with a bang but with a whimper, as if it
has been suffering from an incurable but non-aggressive illness. Its
decline is gentle and slow, like the retreat of a glacier. At first it is
unnoticeable, but measured over time, it is undeniable. The number of
people who speak it drops - it becomes suffocated under the weight of a
majority language. Eventually it is silenced, another victim of
homogeneity. This, I fear, may be the fate of Gaelic. In the late 1920s,
H. V. Morton, the inveterate traveller, visited Skye in the west of
Scotland. On the boat from the mainland, he heard all around him Gaelic -
"a live, vivid language" - being spoken. Were he to go there today he
might catch a phrase or two of Gaelic.

The language was introduced to Scotland from Ireland around the 6th
century and has long suffered persecution. In 1616, for example, James VI
decreed that Gaelic should be "abolisheit and removit" and replaced with
"the vulgar Inglishe toung". This policy was to continue till modern
times. The main reason appears to have been religious. Many of the
Gaelic-speaking clans were Catholic and politically disaffected. In
schools, English was the preferred language, but it was hard to police
when the children spoke nothing but Gaelic. Thus they were taught in
Gaelic until they had learned enough English to switch. But in the 19th
century, the language's decline was hastened by the Highland Clearances,
when the glens were depopulated for sheep. Moreover, the 1872 Education
(Scotland) Act did not recognise Gaelic. Children were taught only in
English and punished if they lapsed into Gaelic. In the meantime, more and
more people fled the Highlands, which were once home to a third of
Scotland's population, into the cities, further adding to Gaelic's woes.

As with a wilting flower, there were attempts over the years to
resuscitate Gaelic, not least by BBC Scotland, which it was often rumoured
was run by a Gaelic mafia that, like its Sicilian counterpart, was
regarded as a byword in cultural nepotism. At the end of the 1970s, for
instance, there was a beginners' program deemed successful. There was also
the founding of the Gaelic Books Council and a publisher devoted to
producing Gaelic books, and a Gaelic college on Skye. In 1975 came the
Western Isles Council, Comhairle nan Eilean, which soon established a
bilingual policy in its administration. Street signs and road directions
were printed in Gaelic and in English and newspapers published Gaelic

But it was a little too late. The 1991 census confirmed what many had
suspected, that the language was on a ventilator gasping for breath.
Between 1981 and 1991 Gaelic went from 80,000 to 65,000 speakers. The
brutal truth was that with so few speakers, Gaelic appeared to be in
terminal decline. At the most recent census, in 2001, the number of Scots
who said they speak Gaelic was 58,650. These days there are said to be
more Urdu speakers in Scotland. It is against this backdrop that the
latest chapter in the sad Gaelic saga is being enacted. Its focus is a
primary school at Sleat, in the south-west of Skye, one of the most rugged
and seductive parts of Britain.

The school has 82 pupils who can choose to be educated in Gaelic or
English. Forty-nine prefer Gaelic; 33 English. Now parents whose children
are taught in Gaelic want the school to be monolingual and have put
forward a proposal to that effect to Highland council, which will decide
later this year. If it decides that Sleat's school will be exclusively for
Gaelic students, those want to be taught in English will have to make an
80-kilometre daily round trip to another school on the island. In the
meantime, tempers are fraying, words such as "apartheid" and "fascist" are
being bandied about and the temperature at public meetings is bubbling at
boiling point. The locals blame the incomers, because the irony is that it
is principally the latter who want their children to be taught in Gaelic.
For the pro-Gaelic lobby, English is a pollutant diluting the purity of a
language they are determined to keep alive.

Where it will all end, who knows. What does seem certain is that a gulf
has opened up in a community hitherto regarded as "close". One is reminded
of Jorge Luis Borges' remark on the war between Britain and Argentina over
the Falkland Islands: "Two bald men fighting over a comb." If, eventually,
Gaelic does die, the battle over Sleat school may just make a final,
farcical footnote.

Alan Taylor is a British journalist.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list