In a lecture last week Education Secretary John Swinney said that ‘hostility to Gaelic has no place in Scotland’. He really meant ‘should have’ rather than ‘has’, because hostility to Gaelic still has a prominent place in Scotland, as it has for many centuries. Minority languages are ‘despised languages’, wrote the late sociolinguist Robert Cooper, and Gaelic speakers have experienced what Cooper called ‘the ideology of contempt’ at least since the late Middle Ages. Some of the expressions of hostility seen today would have been familiar a century or two ago, while other inflections are newer. Some contemporary critics of Gaelic seem frustrated with what they perceive as a pampered minority receiving special privileges; but until very recently it was obvious that there was no pampering, indeed hardly any provision or support at all.
One line of attack that has become prominent in recent years, particularly in the sometimes febrile environment that has developed in the context of the independence debate, is that Gaelic is being aggressively promoted by the SNP as part of a nationalist agenda. This interpretation fundamentally misunderstands the politics of the SNP and, more importantly, the history of Gaelic policy in recent decades.
[Illustration copyright 2015 Emily McEwan-Fujita and Gaelic Revitalization.
Used with permission.]
To the small band of Scottish nationalists in the early 20th century, Gaelic was a prominent and important issue, and some even envisioned the ‘re-Gaelicisation’ of Scotland. But from its foundation in 1934 the Scottish National Party has never made Gaelic a priority, much in contrast to its sister party in Wales, Plaid Cymru, which has always placed a strong emphasis on promoting the Welsh language. As is the case with other political parties in Scotland, some in the SNP champion Gaelic, while others are indifferent or perhaps even hostile. It would be difficult to find any evidence of great sympathy or support on the part of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, for example.
Since coming to power in 2007, the SNP has actually taken very few new measures in relation to Gaelic. In fact, there has been substantial continuity in relation to Gaelic policy ever since the Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government laid the foundations between 1985 and 1990 by building a language development infrastructure and funding Gaelic-medium education and Gaelic broadcasting. Subsequent governments, from New Labour pre-devolution to the Labour/Lib Dem coalitions of 1997-2007 and the SNP from 2007 on, have effectively just taken a series of logical incremental steps following the historic leap forward of 1985-90.
In recent years, there has been an unfortunate mismatch between the taking of policy decisions in relation to Gaelic and the visible effects of those decisions. Particularly as the mainstream English-language media rarely cover Gaelic issues with any seriousness, this misalignment has helped create the impression that important measures were taken by the SNP government rather than its predecessors. For example, many public bodies in Scotland have begun to make much greater provision for Gaelic in the last few years as they develop and implement Gaelic language plans pursuant to the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. This Act was introduced by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition in 2004 and then passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in 2005; by no means is it a creature of the SNP.
The Gaelic Language Act has the general aim of ‘securing the status of Gaelic as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect with the English language’. The Act is deliberately Scotland-wide in scope, although less is expected of bodies serving communities or users with few Gaelic speakers or little potential to develop Gaelic. The first Gaelic language plans began to emerge from 2008 onwards, i.e. after the SNP came to power in 2007, and have gathered pace in the last few years, now including 26 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Similarly, the Gaelic television service BBC ALBA was launched in 2008, after the SNP had taken control of Holyrood, but the decision to establish the service was taken back in 2005, following complex negotiations between Westminster, Holyrood and the BBC that had dragged on for a number of years. In turn the decision to establish a dedicated Gaelic channel built on the key decision taken by the Conservatives in 1989 to dramatically increase funding for Gaelic television.
On the education front, Gaelic-medium education has grown very considerably since the first units opened in 1985, but the principal funding mechanism, the ‘Specific Grants’ scheme established by the Conservatives in 1986, remains in place. Since the mid-1990s Gaelic campaigners have worked to establish free-standing Gaelic schools instead of units within English-medium schools. The first primary school was established in 1999 (in Glasgow), the first secondary in 2006 (also in Glasgow), and four more primaries between summer 2007 and spring 2016. The then Scottish Executive provided special capital funding to assist in the development of the first Glasgow schools, and the SNP government has developed this policy further by establishing a formal Gaelic Schools Capital Fund. There has been no significant change of policy in relation to Gaelic education more generally, however. Certainly there has been no push (and no campaign from Gaelic activists) to make Gaelic a mandatory element in the curriculum, as happened in Wales in the early 1990s.
“support for Gaelic, including Gaelic signage, has nothing to do with promoting symbolic difference vis-à-vis England but involves recognition, respect and providing meaningful support for Gaelic speakers and Gaelic communities to allow their language and culture to survive”
Bilingual Gaelic-English road signs have attracted particular controversy in recent years, but these began to appear in the 1970s and proliferated in the 1990s. Under existing policy (unchanged since 2007), any decision to install bilingual signs on trunk roads is taken on a road by road basis. The only such authorisation that has been made since 2007 involves the A9, but no signs have actually yet been erected on this road. Instead, all the bilingual signs that have appeared on trunk roads since 2007 (e.g. on the A83 and A85) were authorised by the previous Labour/Lib Dem coalition. So far bilingual road signs are confined to the Highlands, and 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have none at all (besides the occasional ‘Fàilte gu . . .’ sign on the boundaries of towns or council areas).
As for the railway network, bilingual signs on station platforms (including those at Glasgow Queen Street, Scotland’s third-busiest station) first began to appear in the mid-1990s, and have become substantially more common since 2010, when First ScotRail extended bilingual signs throughout the network as part of a re-branding exercise.
One line of criticism has slightly more merit: the idea that bilingual signage sometimes involves a deliberate attempt to heighten the symbolic difference between Scotland and England. Large signs at border crossings such as the A68 at Carter Bar announce ‘Fàilte gu Alba’ below ‘Welcome to Scotland’. But this policy is actually based on a 2005 report commissioned by the Labour/Lib Dem government, First Impressions of Scotland, which recommended that ‘bilingual English and Gaelic signs should be used’ at international points of entry ‘to emphasise the sense of place’. And Scotland is not and never has been a monolingual place. English-only signage erases both the history and current reality of Gaelic in Scotland.
More generally, The limited measures taken by recent governments should be understood as minor steps to redress the damage done over the course of several centuries. It is unhelpful to turn Gaelic into a political football, especially if arguments and attacks are based on raw misinformation or tactical distortion.