2007 - 2021

On Gaelic Language Development Policy in Scotland

An open letter to the Scottish Government on Gaelic language development policy in Scotland by Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh:

As a young architect I was drawn to working in the Isle of Skye by my commitment to Scotland’s Gaelic language. Having been an active member of the SNP for over 15 years, joining shortly after turning 18, I have always had a passionate commitment to preserving Scotland’s unique language and culture. Scottish Gaelic is intimately linked to Scotland’s national image both at home and abroad, and historically played a fundamental role in the maintenance of an independent Scottish state and national consciousness. I was of the understanding the SNP shared this understanding;

“Gaelic is an integral part of Scotland’s heritage and the SNP recognises the strong cultural, economic and social value the language brings to our entire nation. We remain committed to increasing the use and visibility of the language to ensure its sustainable long-term future. Research by HIE in 2014 found that the use of Gaelic by businesses and organisations can generate up to £148.5m a year for the economy – supporting our heritage is about a lot more than that” (1)

Alongside my work as an architect, I am very much involved in campaigning for the Gaelic language in its heartland communities, teaching, using and promoting the language on Skye, as well as helping organise public meetings throughout the Highlands and Islands, in promotion of the voluntary campaign group Misneachd’s ‘Radical Plan for Gaelic’ (2) and ‘The decline of Gaelic: 5 key steps to tackle the crisis’ (3). It pains me greatly to contend daily with the many challenges facing the language and threatening its survival, including the connected issues of a lack of affordable housing and over tourism. It is abundantly clear, in my personal experience, but also in much of the research commissioned by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, that the language faces a crisis it will not survive without significant additional support from the Scottish Government alongside a change in policy priority, giving much greater emphasis to preserving and restoring the last remaining speaker communities in the islands.

Use of Gaelic in the home in the remaining Gaelic-speaking communities is declining, and fewer children are acquiring and speaking it as their first language. Detailed research commissioned by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and published in 2011, ‘The State of Gaelic in Shawbost’ (4) showed that the language had reached a tipping point in Western Isles communities and that it would be dead as a community language within one or two generations. This is to be followed up later this year by extensive research undertaken by the inter-university group Soillse which will show a very similar pattern throughout the Islands. My understanding of the challenges facing Gaelic is strongly routed in widespread international recognition among linguists that a living language is the language of home, community and of peer groups. As recognised by Joshua Fishman 5, higher order language props such as education, broadcasting and cultural activities are incapable of reversing language shift, as Dauenhauer & Dauenhauer state, “Languages can be learned by individuals but they are transmitted by groups” 6. There’s no recognition of this reality in Gaelic revitalisation which prioritises nationwide education and symbolic cultural activities rather than the essential preservation of the physical Gaelic speaking communities.

Conchúr Ó Gilleagáin, Gaelic Research Professor with the UHI, notes the 3 things a minority language speaker group needs are “density, density and density” (7). All language ability is a skill, and like all skills, practice makes perfect.

The greater the exposure to a language and the greater opportunity for its use, the greater the competency in that language. Very little that is being done in Scotland takes cognisance of this reality and money is distributed to GME schooling and to various cultural projects with no real assessment on what the outcome is in terms of language use. To even begin to address this, census information is needed, similar to that available in Ireland, to ascertain who is using Gaelic, where they are using it and in what contexts. Armed with this detailed information a concerted effort in funding and policy support needs to be directed at Gaelic as, firstly a home, and secondly a community language wherever that remains viable.

There is a perception among many city dwellers and policy makers that the island communities must do more themselves to protect the language. This fails to recognise the wide-ranging challenges facing rural and island based communities generally. Many of the difficulties faced, islanders feel powerless to resist; depopulation, young people unable to afford decent housing, over tourism, lack of diverse, well paid and permanent employment, a wider economic situation that leads to second home buying and older incomers that the language communities lack the means or resources to integrate. This powerlessness and disconnect from ‘ Gaelic development’ must be addressed and habitual, native island communities given ownership and connection to the levers of support aimed at protecting their language. While there are Gaelic speakers spread throughout Scotland, the area with the highest speaker density is the most economically marginalised and in need of the most support, but also the only place where Gaelic can realistically be preserved as a community language. Bòrd na Gàidhlig should be based in the island speaker communities they must represent and strengthen in order to maintain the language. Not only would this help address the lack of sustainable jobs in these marginalised communities, but it would help repair the current disconnect between national ‘Gaelic Development’ and the Gaelic speaking communities.

Among younger speakers generally, there is a vicious circle of reduced language use leading to reduced fluency and reduced confidence. The Scottish Government’s own language plan (2016 – 2021) partially acknowledges this: “This is a critical time for the future of Gaelic. The position of the language is extremely fragile and the declining numbers of those speaking Gaelic fluently threatens the survival of Gaelic as a living language in Scotland. It is essential that steps are taken to create a sustainable future for Gaelic in Scotland.” (8)

Despite this, the current policy framework for Gaelic is largely based on wishful thinking and for the most part does not acknowledge or tackle the problem. The government’s own unrealistic target is “to ensure the proportion of Gaelic Speakers in Scotland is restored, by 2021, to the levels recorded in the 2001 Census”. This target takes no account of where these speakers are, their abilities in the language, the situations in which they use Gaelic, and whether Gaelic is their primary home language. These numbers are not like for like. Current policy is attempting to hide the precipitous decline in habitual speakers in a specific geographic location, with GME pupils spread throughout Scotland whose only exposure to the language is through bilingual primary schooling, which is far from sufficient to equip them with a functional fluency in the language, again research shows the vast majority of these pupils do not use the language once they have left the school system.

We urgently need targets and full time development officers at the level of local communities, rather than a blanket national target which has no connection to sociolinguistic reality on the ground. At the turn of the century, campaigners were asking for ‘secure status’ for Gaelic. The reality is that this has not been achieved. The policies of the last two decades have been largely ineffective, despite modest advances in certain areas. The first step is to acknowledge the scale and nature of the crisis, and to commit to developing policy solutions based on evidence and international best practice, rather than wishful thinking. It would be to our great collective shame if, on the cusp of restoring our political independence, a Scottish National Party Government presides over the death, as a habitual living vernacular language, of our native language, which has given so much to the collective Scottish consciousness. The first time since the forming of the concept of “Alba” as a distinct entity that there will be no physical native speaker community in Scotland. We are frighteningly close to that reality.

While I recognise there are many pressing concerns facing politicians in Scotland, and internationally, including the climate crisis, Brexit, continuing austerity policies and Boris Johnson to name but a few, the crisis facing the Gaelic language is real and while some individuals and groups will undoubtedly continue to speak the language in years to come, myself included, no language can ultimately survive the death of its territorial heartland, where it is transmitted habitually in sufficient numbers – and that is why, and where, we must take action.


  1. https://www.snp.org/policies/pb-gaelic-language-in-scotland/
  2. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uvigW-dfunhxBB5mHqzb5rFCMfQpYaVS/view
  3. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1eb5okQ9pGadcl-V0toM7rKxmBtHgPt6-/view?fbclid=IwAR3jE3HUtnbNyM8hC91NT6_J_Hjy_O9hWn87_UViCJM27A6DkLXCB8NKeSs
  4. https://pure.uhi.ac.uk/portal/files/1582887/Munro_2011_The_state_of_Gaelic_in_Shawbost.pdf
  5. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lQ9UDgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA263&ots=DSPdJxCTUG&dq=fishman%20higher%20order%20props&pg=PA263#v=onepage&q=fishman%20higher%20order%20props&f=false
  6. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6BPWHQihzw4C&lpg=PP1&dq=Endangered%20Languages%3A%20Language%20Loss%20and%20Community%20Response&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false (pg 81)
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_L_-oQvllDU&t=2s
  8. https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-government-gaelic-language-plan-2016-2021/


Comments (31)

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  1. Iona Nic a' Ghobhainn says:

    Like a lot of what Misneachd proposes there’s a mixture of good ideas and half-baked ones here.
    It’s always been the case that larger economic and social neglect of the island communities in Scotland has had a disproportionate impact on Gaelic and that these elements badly need addressed if Gaelic strongholds are to maintain their population.
    However, it’s also been the case that it is in these communities where intergenerational transmission of Gaelic has been the weakest, resulting in the strongest communities being the ones undergoing the most significant decline in Gaelic speaker numbers.
    Gaelic will not survive in the Western Isles alone, indeed only a quarter of Gaelic speakers live there now, and around half living outside the traditional Gàidhealtachd. National strategies are required not only to build speaker numbers in areas where growth is happening but also to build support for further legislation and policy changes that will actually help the traditional communities.
    Gaelic development officers working in communities again would be a fantastic step forward, but again this needs to be balanced on a national level to communities that are active and growing on the mainland. But the million-dollar question I’m sure the Scottish Government would ask itself is what would such a programme cost? I believe any cost would be more than worth its weight in gold in terms of supporting a treasured part of Scotland’s cultural heritage, but I fear the powers-that-be in Edinburgh wouldn’t see it in the same light and a stronger case needs to be built here to, ironically, speak their language on this point.
    Misneachd have been a very important and necessary step forward in Gaelic campaigning in recent years, but a more realistic and actionable set of goals are needed to bring progress ceum air cheum.

    1. What does a more realistic and actionable set of goals look like Iona?

      1. Iona Nic a' Ghobhainn says:

        In terms of actionable I’d say it would be draft policies drawn up for some of the suggestions made, such as for Gaelic development officers, with details on how such a venture would be administrated and funded, and perhaps discussion of pilot programmes to begin with to measure effectiveness before a large-scale rollout.

        I think it’s important that Gaelic-use is promoted in the home, and Misneachd have suggested funding to encourage this: “Regular financial grants for Gaelic-speaking
        families.” (from 5 Ceumannan), but without detail on how much would be provided, how this would be monitored etc. Again some sort of draft policy or suggestion of a pilot would be achievable here rather than a blanket statement that sounds great but is unfortunately too easy for powers-that-be to ignore.

      2. Alistair MacKichan says:

        My son Calum is a competent linguist. He grew up in Dunbartonshire, and now works in Brussels, and is bilingual English and French, and conversationally able in Spanish. He was not always a linguist. He got a Ph D grant from EU Marie Curie foundation in Paris in an English speaking lab, and then attended international meetings where the aim was to learn each other’s languages in a social atmosphere. These clubs are active in European cities. If those who have learned Gaelic in school and are working in English language immersed situations in Scotland could gather at such clubs and share Gaelic as peers, that would be a step. My younger son has developed a real interest in Gaelic, and my wife has some inclination too. I think we could develop Gaelic as a family at home with a little more stimulus. Gaelic enshrines the experience of being in harmony with Scotland, English does not. My paternal grandfather spoke Gaelic at home as a child, but was the last person in my family to do so.

    2. Michael says:

      With the last few hundred years of incredible societal changes (colonialism, world wars, globalisation etc etc) largely driven by “innovation” in finance, allowing for rapid technological development, who could have foretold that it is AirBnB (and what it represents) that is the mechanism tearing up our social fabric and reshaping life as we know it!

      You say that an important aspect of the survival of our indigenous language comes down to money and those who make decisions about how and where to spend it.

      I’m afraid, until we as a people get to grips with how our monetary and financial systems work, and understand that the whole economy is being reshaped to serve the monetary system, its not just Gaelic that will continue to surfer.

      Our social fabric is being torn to shreds and the very nature of human experience is being reshaped. Welcome to the brave new world that is slowly coming into view.

      My questions is: are there ways to think about how the Gaelic speaking community could reduce reliance on central government for the survival of the language, and start to think about how local alternative financial systems could be put in place that support all aspects of community life, including supporting the language?

      Central government will always be beholden to international finance, or the county is pushed out into the cold to die a slow death-by-sanctions.

      The seeds of the current financial system can be trace back to the origins of the English East India company and the birth of modern banking in Florence. This should be warning enough :/

      1. Alistair MacKichan says:

        Great comment, Michael. An economic direction has had far-reaching results. However, that economic, internationally, is now being thrown into reverse, and the drivers are biodiversity, habitat preservation, sustainable living practives, changing energy usages etc. If pamphlets on these topics were prepared in Gaelic, and reviewed by speakers and discussion groups at Gaelic Speaking clubs, Gaelic could be linked to the new, subversive movement for human survival in Scotland.
        Could you do this?

  2. Micheal says:

    Why are the native Gaelic speaking parents in the Islands not passing the language onto their children?

  3. Duncan MacInnes says:

    In my view, the promotion of Gaelic through schools will not turn around the downward trend. It didn’t work in Eire and in Scotland we’re already seeing a shortage of teachers of Gaelic. A more effective policy would be to target pre-schoolers with nurseries and clubs where the ‘champions’ of Gaelic might well be only a step ahead of the children. Take it further at school-age with activity-based holidays and trips to the Gàidhealtachd. Keep it out of the schools. The aim would be to make Gaelic desirable for its ‘alternative’ qualities. Not understood by social workers, policemen and dare I suggest it teachers! A language which could become the patois of the streets where the kids would be motivated to learn more of it, because it would truly ‘belong’ to them.

    1. John McGowan says:

      Duncan, I wonder if you can point out a single example in history where a dying language has been revived? (Let’s leave aside the usual pedantic reference to the special case of Hebrew). The money being flung at Gaelic is money wasted, money that would be better used promoting teaching and learning of modern European languages. German and French are on their knees Scottish schools, yet the Nats are prepared to throw all they can get away with at this vanity project. Let Gaelic stand on its own two feet, let it be taught to the ever decreasing numbers of Gaelic speakers, but for God’s sake stop this massive squandering of our taxes now.

      1. Who’s taxes?

        Actually improved gaelic provision has widespread support as repeatedly tested in polling. Gaelic is an essential part of Scotland’s culture.

        Please take your casual cultural bigotry elsewhere.

        1. Stuart Jackson says:

          Well said, I guess he’s never been to Wales.

        2. John McGowan says:

          As I expected, the replies to my comments are intolerant, childish and irrelevant. The Gaelic language is dying, that is a fact, sad, I agree, but no force on earth can prevent that. No sane person would wish to undermine the language in those areas in which it is spoken – how could they? – but it is an other matter when it comes to spending scarce resources to keep it on an artificial ventilator in the rest of Scotland where it has no currency. What utter foolishness to waste money – million upon million – to appease a tiny, miniscule minority of militant nationalists with a political agenda. Meanwhile modern languages are going down the plughole in our schools. But never mind, we can console ourselves wit h the thought that at least our police cars and railway stations are adorned with Gaelic, that we spend ridiculous amounts on tv station no one watches, that we ferry, as where I live , half a dozen children to a distant town because they have pushy parents. Did you know that while Stirling council was spending a quarter of a million annually doing this, it was about to close a care home so save a smiliar sum, that is until a public outcry put an end to such an abomination?

        3. Calum Mac Dhomhnaill says:

          The public are entitled to ask how their
          money is spent without being called bigots. That’s the easy reach for those in the hipster bubble who adore diversity but not diversity of opinion. And these people have never had anything refused to them find it easy to dish out lectures. I’ve actually heard these middle class hipsters tell educated people from the Highlands they are so ‘oppressed’ that they do not know their own minds. They’re also generally not in tune with Gaelic speakers But love giving us a lecture on who ‘we’ are. A development officer? Please.
          We have ‘Gaelic poets’ from Seattle / wherever accessing public funds to talk about their liaisons in an alleyway. This is not what we want. A development officer job is likely to go to someone called Hermione who has a ‘passion’ for the language but zero understanding or empathy for those who speak it. The writer of this article is a middle-class spoilt bully who reaches for the word bigot if they are challenged. I , and many others, with whom I have spoken in private on this topic at great length, find it offensive that this sort of stuff is produced in the name of the Highlnads and the Gaelic language.

        1. John McGowan says:

          What on earth has my age got to do with this? Is that the best you can come up with, a childish playground taunt? Moreover, I note that you ask me to take my “cultural bigotry” elsewhere? What’s wrong, can you not take a challenge to your own so-called ideas? How thin skinned and intolerant. You recoil in snobbish horror at a mild contrary view yet you constantly pose as doughty fighters for your cause, seeing yourselves as warriors in the fight for independence. How pathetic, how bourgeois. By the way, a final dig at your ridiculous mongrel name, “Bella Caledonia” . Why don’t you just call it Brig a Doon and be done with it.

          1. Calum MAC Dhomhnaill says:

            I could not agree more. The behaviour of this publication brings the Gaelic language and Highlanders into disrepute.

      2. Duncan MacInnes says:

        This is an example of “mìorun mòr nan Gall” (the great ill-will of the lowlander for the highlander), but unfortunately it underlines John’s case. Gaelic may be an ‘essential’ part of Scotland’s culture insofar as it was spoken in a huge swathe from the South-West into most of the Highlands, but a ‘national’ language it was not. The SNP are undoubtedly harnessing the language for political ends and that’s the motivation for allocating funds.
        Look, its sad that Gaelic has been dying over the last century, and with it a communitarian, oral culture rich with humour (and you may be able to teach ’em Gaelic but you can’t teach ’em a sense of humour or the inclination to be community-minded), but attempts at revival are always going to be fraught with controversy. God knows we don’t want to all be American, but there’s elements to GME that are ethnocentric, if not downright divisive in communities. There are kids of the same age in dual-language schools who don’t speak to each other let alone play together. There’s no encouragement to overcome these barriers. I know at first-hand of which I speak. My daughter was deemed too old for GME on our return to the North and is only now accessing it as a secondary subject. It should have been made available to all pupils in my view, to avoid division. It’s why I say revive it in a ‘safe’ way by trying to introduce it organically which might go viral. Make it the language of the streets!

        1. Stuart Jackson says:

          You seem a bit melodramatic there Duncan, I for one aren’t in a panic about it, school and out of school are both valid avenues for Gaelic, but the fact remains it is the core culture of Scotland. Seems like more effort has to be made on getting teachers to meet the demand and having it used in an official capacity. I would also extend the program to coordinate with efforts in Atlantic Canada, could be a great source of language proficient teachers and professionals.
          I’m not sure John understands the correct context for pedantic. Catalonia, Hawaii, Wales, Micmac are a few good examples of language revivals.

        2. Stuart Jackson says:

          Your deffently right about access but that also needs a lot more teachers.

      3. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        “Embonpoint”. Found myself researching the various nuances of that term in French and English yesterday. Enjoyably elusive. A “nice” word in that sense. Reducing reality to finance is of course a venerable if ironically impoverishing mindset. I guess any value-shift vis-à-vis languages presupposes some kind of enlightenment that “arbre” and “Baum” and “tree” and “craobh” are only elusively interchangeable as designations. Enough for business transactions of course. Not so much for “epistemology” (word coined – unintended pun – by Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier in 1856, by the way). And certainly not exchangeable enough for poetry. The death of a language is arguably of far profounder consequence (involving irretrievable loss of a unique parsing of reality) than even the grievous extinction of a tree-species. And the death of a language under our own niggardly stewardship is even more poignant and reprehensible. So how many pennies is a threatened natural species worth? It all depends, I suppose. So many “nice” questions. But civilisation is rescued and sustained by wise answers and generosity of heart.

  4. Stiubhart Jackson says:

    Social policy based in the gealic medium in regards to housing and economic and business policy is essential. But the scale of Gaelic education has to be ramped up, when you look at Israel manged to reinstate Hebrew it looks like the next step for the independence movement should be a social and cultural one. For me personally I thought the SNP would have been more on board with this, but there seems to be an attitude of departmentalising the nation’s core culture.

  5. Gary Elliot says:

    Sin e gu dearbh.

  6. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Well worth reading in conjunction with the timely article above by Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh is today’s blog-post by Gaelic sci-fi novelist, the American Tim Armstrong –

    ‘Why I decided to become a Gael’


    1. Stiubhart Jackson says:

      Interesting article but you can’t detach the language from the culture, America is a colonial society Scotland isen’t there’s nothing wrong with associating Gaelic with its cultural core. The objective of the Gaelic revival should be to have the long-term goal of reenstating the national culture, I could go on but this isen’t the right forum, needless to say you’re no going to re-engage people with Gaelic unless you don’t engaged it in a cohesive relavance to the overwhelming majority of Scots. It’s about decolonization of the mind as much as anything, which is in Scotlands case re-evaluating our relationship with modernity. This is core to Gaelic and the independence movement. The two of which are now synonymous.

  7. Brian Wilson says:

    Leave aside party politics and this is extremely good, containing many truths. I was always suspicious of “official status” as an objective. Of course it is a good thing as a statement but not as the central plank of policy, often leading to a waste of resources and scarce personnel on symbols that don’t make much difference. Bord na Gaidhlig, as a centralised quango, has sucked in vibrant organisations with a life of their own, particularly from within Gaelic-speaking communities. It is puzzling that Bord na Gaidhlig should not have a presence in fragile communities where the language is in daily use and desperately in need of support. Targets are dangerous. It is relatively easy to get school numbers up in the cities where there is now a middle-class cachet to Gaelic-medium education. But how many fall off the cliff after primary school where secondary provision is often inadequate? How many places are there where there is still the living thread of the language but no provision whatsoever?Data is essential and I suspect it will not make happy reading. Widening the base is crucial but there has to be a balance. Of course there are great success stories but the overall picture and priorities for effective support are in urgent need of review. I don’t care what political motivation drives it but the reappraisal which the writer suggests is essential.

  8. jean Mackenzie says:

    As native speaker of Gaelic I think it’s very important that we keep our language alive it has been been declining over the years children don’t speak it anymore very important to revive it when you lose your language your identity it’s part of our culture and it needs to be kept alive

  9. Neil McRae says:

    Agree with everything Màrtainn says about current Gaelic policy being based on wishful thinking.


  10. Polly says:

    I have come to the conclusion that if Gaelic/Irish really is to come back, it has to be actively spoken in Parliament/the Dáil. It can’t just be the language of the powerless or those of school age.

  11. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Syme (du Service des recherches au Ministère de la Vérité) : « Nous détruisons chaque jour des mots, des vingtaines de mots, des centaines de mots. Nous taillons le langage jusqu’à l’os. (…) Ne voyez-vous pas que le véritable but du novlangue est de restreindre les limites de la pensée ? A la fin, nous rendrons littéralement impossible le crime par la pensée, car il n’y aura plus de mots pour l’exprimer. (…) La révolution sera complète quand le langage sera parfait. » (George Orwell, 1984)

  12. Martin MacGuire says:

    As a slightly older person (63) who has taken an interest in learning Gaidhlig, I have found it difficult to find opportunities to practice the spoken language in my area (Glasgow/Arran at weekends). Obviously the Covid situation isn’t helping classroom education and social gatherings, but when I contacted eSgoil to enquire about online resources for adult learners I didn’t even get a reply!

    I am fully supportive of efforts to sustain Gaelic speaking and my learning to date has given me a fresh insight into just how much of our traditional culture was wiped out in the post Jacobite era. However, if we are to have a groundswell revival, fluent Gaels perhaps all need to do a bit more to encourage willing learners and help them on the road to fluency?

    Just some small feedback from my own experiences which I hope may assist the conversation and I’m more than happy to hear from anyone with suggestions for learning opportunities in my areas.

    Best wishes for the current campaign!

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