scrabble in scottish

Last week the National Records of Scotland released long-awaited data from the 2011 census concerning Gaelic, Scots and other languages used in Scotland.

Although the Scottish census data is a rather crude instrument for measuring language skills and language use – it is not possible to differentiate between fluent and non-fluent speakers, to measure the relative frequency of language use, or to validate respondents’ claims – this information is nevertheless extremely valuable. Politicians and the media set great store by the census results, so their policy significance can be considerable.

Gaelic organisations and campaigners had been bracing themselves for a significant drop in speaker numbers, possibly below the psychologically challenging threshold of 50,000, and were mildly encouraged by the census results. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of Gaelic speakers declined by 11.1%, following a 16.8% drop between 1991 and 2001. The decline between 2001 and 2011 was much smaller, only 2.2%, from 58,652 down to 57,375. Promisingly, the proportion of Gaelic speakers in the younger sections of the Scottish population (those between 3 and 19 years of age) is increasing, with the decline concentrated in the older sectors of the population.

The drop-off in the older age groups was inevitable, as almost a quarter of all Gaelic speakers recorded in 2001 (14,357 people) were aged 65 or over. While the growth in younger speakers is a positive indicator, it would be a serious mistake to equate children who acquire the language in schools in urban areas, living in homes and communities where there are few opportunities to use Gaelic, with older, first-language speakers living in predominantly Gaelic-speaking areas where Gaelic is widely used in the community. The fact that only 52% of people in the Western Isles can now speak Gaelic is profoundly discouraging. The distribution of Gaelic speakers has become increasingly national rather than regionally concentrated; only 51.7% live in the main Gaelic areas (Argyll & Bute, Highland and the Western Isles), down from 56.8% in 1991.

On closer inspection, however, the pattern of increases and decreases is difficult to understand. The number of Gaelic speakers went up in 20 local authority areas and went down in the other 12. Unfortunately, the other 12 included all the heartland areas, including most strikingly the Western Isles, which lost 1,657 Gaelic speakers, a 10.5% drop. Disappointingly for Gaelic policymakers, there seems to be little obvious correlation between local Gaelic promotional activity and changes in speaker numbers. Despite the impressive growth of Gaelic education and a thriving Gaelic arts scene, the number of Gaelic speakers in Glasgow went up by only 0.03%; in Edinburgh the increase was a mere 25 people, 0.008%. The number of people claiming to be able to speak Gaelic actually increased most significantly in areas where there is very little local provision for Gaelic: up by 35.4% in Moray, 37% in Orkney and a remarkable 59.7% in Aberdeenshire.

The data in relation to Gaelic literacy is also mixed. While the total number of people who said they could read Gaelic declined by 5%, the number of people who could speak, read and write Gaelic increased by 3.1%. The written word has become increasingly important for Gaelic, partly due to the impressive growth of Gaelic prose writing in recent years, partly to the expansion of electronic communication such as social media. Improving Gaelic literacy and increasing the number of people who can participate in these activities is vitally important.

Some of these apparent disparities and anomalies may be clarified once more detailed information is released, particularly in relation to patterns of skills among different age groups. Some slight upward adjustment to the speaker numbers quoted here will also be required, as the data released to date include an undifferentiated category of 1,678 people with unusual combinations of competences in Gaelic, such as being able to speak and write the language but not read it (a peculiar skills set claimed by 319 people in 2001).

The census also produced data on Scots for the first time, following a successful campaign by Scots organisations for the inclusion of a question in this area. The headline figure of 1,537,626 speakers (30% of the population) was much in line with expectations, and in particular with a comprehensive estimate carried out in 1996 by the General Register Office for Scotland. The geographical concentration was also plausible, with the highest proportions of speakers in Aberdeenshire (49% of the local population), Shetland (49%) and Moray (45%).

However, as was pointed out in the pre-census report prepared for the National Records of Scotland to test the census questions, there is still significant confusion in the Scottish population concerning the precise meaning of the term ‘Scots’ and in particular in relation to the boundary between Scots and Scottish (Standard) English. In light of this problem, the question testers warned that the census question ‘will not yield any meaningful data on Scots and potential data users should be made aware of this’.

The census data certainly reveal a number of anomalies in relation to Scots. Almost 80% of those who said they could speak Scots also claimed that they could also read and write Scots. This figure is highly implausible given that these literacy skills are very rarely taught in Scottish schools. Another anomaly is the low proportion of respondents who said they could understand Scots but not speak, read or write it, as compared to those who claimed all four skills. In Scotland the the number of ‘understanders’ was only a little more than a fifth the size of the ‘speak, read and write’ group, while in Northern Ireland the proportions were very different: the number of ‘understanders’ of Ulster-Scots was almost six times as high as those who claimed they could speak, read and write it.

More generally, it was remarkable that 62% of the Scottish population claimed they had no skills in Scots and could not even understand spoken Scots. In preparation for the census, the Scots Language Centre ran an effective informational and promotional campaign to illustrate different varieties of Scots from different parts of Scotland. The speakers chosen could by no means be considered challengingly ‘broad’ and it would be surprising if anyone who had lived in Scotland for any amount of time would genuinely be unable to understand these examples of ‘Scots’.

In addition to asking specific questions about English, Gaelic and Scots, the census also included a new, open-ended question asking ‘Do you use a language other than English at home?’. 93% of respondents indicated that they used only English. The ten most widely used languages identified were, in order, Scots, Polish, Gaelic, Urdu, Punjabi, Chinese, French, British Sign Language, German and Spanish, all with over 10,000 speakers.

This question gives rise to difficulties of interpretation. The most obvious way to understand the question is whether the respondents uses a particular language with other people who live in the same home. Interpreted in this fashion, none of the 832,000 Scots who live on their own could give an affirmative answer to the question. On the other hand, if an affirmative answer is permitted when the language is used with regular or occasional visitors, then there is a problem with comparability: a person who speaks almost exclusively Gaelic in their daily interaction with their partner and children is equated with someone who uses only English for these purposes and only speaks Gaelic to relatives who visit on Sunday afternoons.

Again there were specific anomalies. For example, while the number of Polish users (54,186) tallied neatly with the number of people born in Poland (55,231), the number of Russian users (6,001) was almost three times as high as the number of people born in Russia (2,180), while the number of German speakers (11,317) was less than half the number of people born in Germany or Austria (23,275).

The most striking anomaly was the figure reported for Scots, for which there were only 55,817 responses. This represents only 3.6% of the total number of recorded Scots speakers. As it is nonsensical to imagine that 96.4% of Scots speakers do not use Scots at home, the most plausible explanation would seem to be that respondents did not perceive Scots to be ‘a language other than English’ for the purpose of this question. This interpretation aligns with a key finding from the Scottish Government’s report on Public Attitudes to the Scots Language in 2010, in which 64% of respondents agreed with the proposition ‘ I don’t really think of Scots as a language – it’s more just a way of speaking’.

The figure for Gaelic, 24,974 users, was more plausible, bearing in mind that few Gaelic speakers live in all-Gaelic households. More detailed data – through a focused survey of the kind recently conducted in Wales – is needed to obtain a more meaningful picture.

The policy implications of the census are less than entirely clear. Although the Sunday Post duly ran a hostile article with the headline ‘£400m pumped into Gaelic, despite fall in speakers’, much worse could have been expected had the census results been less promising. The official target set out in Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s National Gaelic Language Plan 2012-17 is that speaker numbers in the 2021 census should return to the 2001 level of 58,652 and increase thereafter. This now looks achievable. Particularly in light of the growth among younger age groups, the Bòrd and Gaelic campaigners can be expected to argue that the current policies, especially the promotion of Gaelic in the education system, are working, albeit slowly, and that additional support will only improve these results.

The ramifications for Scots are less clear. Since the SNP came to power in 2007, the Scottish Government has expressed support for Scots and established a Ministerial Working Group on the Scots Language, which issued a set of (fairly mild) recommendations in 2010. Yet the SNP government has taken no major initiatives in relation to Scots (or, indeed, Gaelic), with the relatively minor exception of appointing a number of Scots Language Co-ordinators to work in schools. Although the census results are much in line with the assumptions that have underpinned government policy on Scots since the late 1990s, it can be anticipated that some Scots language campaigners will now use the concrete data from the census to press for improved provision. Already the Scots Language Centre has written to Transport Scotland to ask how signage in stations might be adapted to reflect local data on Scots language ability.

Finally, the finding that 12,533 people use BSL at home will certainly encourage campaigners for legislative recognition for BSL. Following a formal consultation earlier this year, Mark Griffin MSP will shortly be introducing a bill in the Scottish Parliament to promote the use of BSL by requiring the Scottish Government and public authorities to prepare BSL plans.

Much has changed in Scotland’s linguistic makeup, with the transformation in the prospects for Gaelic particularly striking. Writing in 1958, the eminent scholar Kenneth Jackson, Chair of Celtic in the University of Edinburgh, expressed his belief

‘that Scottish Gaelic will be quite extinct by the middle of the next century, unless some new factor is introduced which radically alters the present situation’.

He foresaw that Lewis would be ‘the last refuge of the language, and those who wish to study it in the middle of the next century may still find there a few people who can remember it’.

In 2013, the 61 Gaelic primary schools and units across Scotland welcomed almost 500 incoming primary 1 pupils – children born in 2008, or fifty years after Jackson made his prediction. Whether this transformation is radical enough remains a matter for debate, but there is certainly a good deal to celebrate.