2007 - 2021

Gaelic Promotion as Social Justice, part 3: Anti-Gaelic Bigotry, and Why it is Wrong


In light of the historical evidence showcasing the long-term subaltern status of the Gaels, their marginalization by both the Scottish and British establishments over the course of centuries, it becomes clear that the Gaels are, indeed, a minoritized people. Therefore, standing against the revitalization of their culture – including their language – is an act of bigotry; whereas promoting that language and culture is socially just. Even so, many people in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK continue to resist the promotion of Gaelic and other local minority languages. The following paragraphs will explore and address some of the motivations for this bigotry.

Some Scottish people seem to fear or hate Gaelic because they don’t like the idea of there being a ‘Scottish’ language that they can’t speak. Although the obvious solution to this problem would be simply for them to learn the language, some people balk at the suggestion, saying that those who encourage the learning of Gaelic are just trying ‘impose’ it on the people of Scotland. As it happens, no one who knows Gaelic, or who encourages others to learn it, can force anyone to learn the language, and most of us wouldn’t do that even if we could. In any case, promoting Gaelic has never been about creating a culturally homogenous identity for Scotland – that’s what the English language has been doing for the last 300 years, and the very thing we would like to stop. People need to understand that creating a ‘Scottish’ identity, of any kind, isn’t the point of Gaelic promotion. Although Gaelic is a language of Scotland, it is the language of the Scottish Gaels, and its revitalization is for their sake, more than for anyone else’s. When a Gaelic activist proposes that civil servants in Scotland should be able to interface with the public in Gaelic, it is not for the sake of forcing civil servants to learn the language, but so that the tens of thousands of Scottish people who speak the Gaelic language natively can interact with the government of their own country without using what is to them a foreign language. Similarly, when Gaelic speakers demand Gaelic road signs, even in the Lowlands, it is not to force non-Gaelic-speakers to try to read Gaelic, but so that Gaels travelling outside the Highlands have the option of reading the local placenames in their native language.

Some people object that almost all Gaels speak English anyway, and should therefore be content to use English like everyone else. While it is true that the vast majority of Gaelic speakers are also fluent English speakers, the assertion that they should therefore abandon the public use of their native language misses the point of public Gaelic promotion. Public services in Gaelic for the benefit of Gaelic speakers do not give them unnecessary or excess benefits – rather, they give them a degree of equality with English speakers which they have historically been denied. To use a comparable example, consider civil provisions for the physically disabled: public buildings have handicap access – or at least always should have handicap access – even though the people that use them could instead send friends or relatives to run their errands, or could ask passersby to help them up the stairs; and even though such people make up a minority of the population. This is because concessions to disadvantaged minorities don’t exist for the sake of utilitarianism; in a truly utilitarian system, in which all decisions were undertaken only to provide the most good to the most people, all minorities – disturbingly – would be more or less ignored. The reason that these concessions exist is to guarantee the human dignity of individuals and groups who have been wronged by circumstance: they receive special consideration because either society or nature has withheld from them – or even taken from them – much more than the ‘average’ person has to do without. It is a question of fairness – of justice. That is, of course, why we call it ‘social justice’ to begin with.

A common objection raised at this point is to ask about other minority languages in Scotland, like Scots – and, for that matter, Polish, Spanish, and Urdu. Aren’t they minoritized languages? Yes, indeed they are: Scots, along with Gaelic, is an indigenous minority language of Scotland; and Polish, Spanish and Urdu – although originating elsewhere – are each spoken by a minority of the Scottish population. As it happens, most Gaelic speakers – including myself – see no reason why these languages shouldn’t be promoted as well, but to urge the promotion of minority languages in general as an argument against promoting one minority language in particular is a highly disingenuous argument. If someone says ‘Gaelic should be promoted in Scotland’, and someone else says ‘Every other minority language should be promoted in Scotland’, then the second speaker usually doesn’t really care about the other minority languages – they just want to use those languages as a prop to silence Gaelic activists so that Gaelic will continue to decline. If the people who use non-Gaelic minority languages to argue against Gaelic really were concerned about the well-being of these other languages, then they would try to promote the languages in question – an action with which the Gaelic community would happily assist them – rather than saying that they would sooner have a universal English-only policy in the interest of ‘fairness’ than a Scotland in which any one minority language was allowed to survive.

In a further response to this point, it should also be stated that Gaelic revitalisation – and, to a similar but less urgent extent, the revitalisation of Scots – does have a greater right to assistance from the Scottish public than other minority languages in Scotland, for the simple reason that Scotland is both the region in which the language originated, and almost the only place on earth in which it is still spoken on a regular basis. This is not a question of nativism, but triage: those language communities which are in the most desperate need of help should be helped first, and, in Scotland, the need of the Gaelic community is greatest. Take for comparison the aforementioned examples of Polish, Spanish and Urdu: Polish is an official language of the country of Poland, and is spoken fluently by 50 million people world-wide; Spanish is an official language not only of Spain, but of almost every country on the American continent and of several countries elsewhere, and is spoken fluently by more than 570 million people worldwide; and Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, with 170 million fluent speakers worldwide. If any of these languages ceased to be spoken in Scotland – and I hope they do not, as I advocate for the wellbeing of all minority language communities in Scotland – then the languages themselves, and almost all of the speech communities that depend on them for linguistic identity, would continue to thrive on a global scale. Now, let’s examine the condition of Scots and Gaelic. While Scots – or at least one of its dialects, Ulster Scots – has limited recognition in Northern Ireland, it has no official recognition in Scotland and boasts fewer than 2 million fluent speakers worldwide, most of whom live in Scotland itself. Scottish Gaelic, although at long last an official language of Scotland on paper, sees very little use by representatives of the Scottish government; and has fewer than 60,000 fluent speakers worldwide, almost all of them residing in Scotland. It is plain to see that if the revitalization movements for Gaelic and Scots fail in Scotland, then both of these languages will almost certainly die. Consequently, and as a matter of course, their revitalization should be a higher priority in Scotland than the revitalization of languages that do not require Scottish revitalization in order to thrive. Thus, while I support the promotion of all minority languages in Scotland, it is an imperative of social justice that Gaelic and Scots should take precedence.

At this point, some raise the argument that it must surely be racist to promote a ‘white’ language of the UK. In the next article in this series, I will discuss why Gaelic promotion does not reinforce global whiteness, but instead has the potential to serve as a tool in dismantling white oppression.



Comments (27)

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  1. Welsh Sion says:

    For ‘Gaelic’, read ‘Cymraeg/Welsh’.

    I am 100% in agreement with your article.

    I presume you a familiar with this:

    The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic, Conchúr Ó Giollagáin et al. (Aberdeen University Press, £25)

    – Professional mother tongue linguist in Welsh and language campaigner-activist.

  2. Liz Summerfield says:

    I take issue with your assertion that Disabled people could access services by asking others, even passers-by, for help. That is reducing them to a lower status, and denying them autonomy and privacy. Would YOU like to have to depend on a third party, no matter how close or trusted, to deal with your financial business? Would YOU like to communicate with your doctor through an intermediary? Gaelic speakers fluent in English are not in the same category.

    1. John says:

      Did you read the article?

  3. Calum H says:

    Brilliant article. And the line:

    “This is not a question of nativism, but triage”

    Is perfect.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I do not speak Scottish Gaelic but I am happy (as a taxpayer) that the Scottish state is supporting it, and completely fine with bilingual road and station signs. However, I am not sure if the arguments presented in this article really do the case justice. If you are going to make comparisons it might be better to concentrate on accurately representing the complexity of state linguistics with helpful examples rather than making sweeping comments about ‘the American continent’. In fact, this is another opportunity missed to discuss the languages of the current British Empire, including its overseas territories. Why not, for example, bring up Pitkern?
    Or familiarise readers with British territories where Spanish is commonly spoken?

    Anyway, the article misses out one of the most common reasons to keep a language alive: that valuable texts are written in it which would lose significant meaning in translation. To some extent this goes for other cultural artefacts too. So whenever I hear such arguments for Scottish Gaelic but no actual works are mentioned, I get curious as to whether any such works exist or not. Does Scottish Gaelic have its Shakespeare or Burns or Cervantes, its prose or poetic epics like Irish, Welsh or Anglo-Saxon that have survived? Wikipedia has a list of National Epics. Discounting the two non-Gaelic ones, it leaves Ossian by James Macpherson, which is a bit of a problem.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      No, but it does have Meg Bateman, Maoilios Caimbeul, Rody Gorman, Aonghas MacNeacail, and Angus Peter Campbell, who produce significant work out of the Gaelic language. The same work couldn’t be produced out of any other language.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Though Gaelic isn’t exceptional in this respect; it could be said of any of Scotland’s languages.

        1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          It’s exceptional in that it’s *the* language of the Gaels.

          1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            It all boils down to ethnicity.

    2. Anna says:

      Scottish Gaelic has Sorley Maclean. Have you read any of his poetry? He translated many of his own poems into English but Gaelic was his first language.
      He also turned down one of those Empire awards which made me love him all the more.

      1. Anna says:

        Sleeping Dog:
        Gaelic also has Duncan Ban Macintyre who was illiterate; another illiterate poet was Rob Donn – see “Songs and Poems in the Gaelic Language”. Both were composing in the 18th century.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Anna, thanks for the information, I had heard of Sorley MacLean, though none of the others mentioned rings a bell. I was really asking if there was a work or set of works in Scottish Gaelic that are both widely popular and respected, that are exemplars of the language, and say something culturally profound about past, present and future. Past national epics have been credited with saving languages and forging national identities, and even maintaining them through diasporisation (dispersal?). They often contain something of an origin or a-people’s-survival-against-the-odds or successful-invasion myth, and perhaps a future prophecy (good or bad).

          If oral traditions are going to help a language survive, I think they have to adapt to new technology (I remember seeing a short clip on a successful teacher of traditional Chinese musical instruments who used the Internet to help revive the skillset locally, which is something along the same lines, I think). Language itself is a technology, and it has be useful to survive, not just pretty.

          1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            All the guys mentioned are part of the canon and are widely popular and respected within the Gaelic language community. The problem is that this community has shrunk over centuries of cultural change, even in the northern part of the British Isles, where it originated.

          2. Calum H says:


            When you say the northern part of the British Isles, where do you mean? And when you say “where it originated”, where do you mean?

          3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            ‘The northern part of the British Isles’ refers to the northern part of the British Isles; i.e. the part that lies north of the southern part.

            ‘Where it [the Gaelic language community] originated’ refers to the place in which the history of that community, as a distinct community, began; namely, the northern part of the British Isles.

          4. Calum H says:

            Do you mean what is today called Scotland?

          5. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Called ‘Scotland’ by whom? There are lots of ‘Scotlands’.

            I thought we’d agreed elsewhere that ‘Scotland’ is a state of mind – a cultural artefact – rather than a simple toponym; more an expression of one’s social hopes than a description of some quasi-natural ‘given’ fact.

            We’ve already established that my cosmopolitan civic ‘Scotland’, which you abhor as a mongrelisation of the native, is radically different from your hospitable ethnic ‘Scotland’, a ‘Scotland’ in which ‘others’ are welcomed as ‘guests’ but who are never quite admitted to the family, which I abhor as socially unjust in its unequal attribution of status among the diverse constituent communities that comprise our polity.

            No, here I had in mind more the northern part of the European archipelago, where Gaelic first appeared and, for a while, flourished as a language community and, hopefully, might flourish again as part of a cosmopolitan Scotland.

          6. Calum H says:

            Foghorn, whatever ‘your Scotland’ is, your allegiance to it apparently renders you incapable of answering even the most simple of questions, or even stating the name of the country.

            When someone avoids saying Scotland and prefers instead to say, essentially, “North Britain”, it is eerily reminiscent of previous attempts to eliminate Scotland as a distinct entity.

            I still don’t know precisely what geographical area you are referring to and can’t quite understand your objection to beng clear.

          7. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Nope, ‘North Britain’ is as much a cultural construction as ‘Scotland’ is; I’ll stick with the less ethnically loaded toponym ‘northern part of the British Isles’, where Gaelic originated as a language community.

            I’ve no problem with the use of ‘Scotland’ when it’s used to designate the extent of a legal jurisdiction or even when it’s used as a synonym for ‘the northern part of the British Isles’. It’s when it’s used to stake a higher-status ethnic claim on such domains that I struggle with.

          8. Calum H says:

            Foghorn, let me try again.

            I’m wondering if you meant that the present Gàidhealtachd – after having expanded out from Argyll to encompass (and create) Scotland, has over the centuries receded back to it’s point of origin. Is that what you were saying?

        2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          Yes, if by ‘Gàidhealtachd’ you mean the Gaelic language community.

          But I’m thinking in terms of numbers and influence rather than territory. The Gàidhealtachd, as a language community, has shrunk in numbers and influence, to the extent that it’s become ‘endangered’.

          The geography is irrelevant; the Gàidhealtachd is a community of interest rather than a community of place. As such, it has no special claim to ‘Scottishness’; it’s entitled to the same (no more or less) consideration and respect in a civic Scotland than any other community of interest.

  5. Samantha says:

    “To use a comparable example, consider civil provisions for the physically disabled: public buildings have handicap access – or at least always should have handicap access – even though the people that use them could instead send friends or relatives to run their errands, or could ask passersby to help them up”.

    Okay wow, hold up. This is a very poor argument and a very ableist opinion of disability. If you’re going to advocate for the social justice of one community, then at least show other communities respect instead of resorting to cherry-picking as a basis for arguement.

    Also, coming from the Traveller community myself, I think you really have no idea what constitutes oppression. While I agree language discrimination is a real and rife problem, discrimination is a much more complex issue, and it boils down to more than ones own mother tongue.

    Also, I feel your downplaying other communities issues and their needs by making unnecessary comparisons.

    Your understanding of identity is actually quite poor when you lump the needs of Gaelic speakers with those who speak Urdu or Polish.

    These communities have been made to feel like they’re alien, or invaders because they’re not seen to be homogenous. I don’t see Gaelic speakers being racially abused whereas anti-Polish, anti-Muslim and anti-Traveller sentiment is rife.

    I myself have been subjected to racist abuse for my identity. And before you cry that we’re not a culture, Travellers ( called.Nacken in our language) are a recognised ethnic minority with a separate culture and language to the settled population.

    Your privilege is showing here and it’s disappointing.

    I commend your passion for Gaelic but I’m sorry, you need to step back and realise your own privilege because you don’t really understand what social justice means.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:


  6. Calum H says:

    Having applauded the article and praised what I thought was an inspired statement, I do have criticisms.

    The Gaels – if you mean those Scots who still speak Gaelic – are not “a people”. They are Scots … who still speak Gaelic. They are a Scottish language community, certainly. That a Scottish language – the original Scottish language – was suppressed by Anglicised and Anglo-centric Scottish rulers doesn’t make those Scots who spoke and still speak Gaelic a different “people” to the Scots in positions of power who were oppressing them, or to the rest of the Scottish people. In fact, as that suppression and oppression did it’s work, the Gaelic speaking Scots became the English speaking Scots, and so according to the authors narrative, the oppressed would presumably have to shift into the camp of the oppressors. But that doesn’t create different “peoples” it just illustrates an internal dynamic and internal tensions. Speaking of different “peoples” is in this case a result of an unrestrained “othering” among one people, one nation, based on shifting linguistic and cultural patterns.

    Thus, Gaelic is not exclusively the language of those who currently speak it. It’s not “theirs”, alone. It belongs to Scotland and the Scots. Some might disagree, but the inconsistency of this position is shown in refering to “the Highlands” as “An Ghàidhealtachd”, despite it including areas which have been Scots or English speaking for centuries. If some Scots can be allowed to lay claim to the Gaelic identity yet not speak the language for generations, then on what grounds are any Scots to be excluded?

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      What is it, then, that makes the Scots, if not the Gaels, ‘a people’?

      I’d say that nowadays it’s nothing more than a shared citizenship or participation in the civic life of a polity that nominally goes by the name of ‘Scotland’; if ever it did have, ‘being Scottish’ no longer has anything to do with ethnicity. Whatever our origins or heritages, if we participate in the civic life of Scotland, we’re Scottish, just as participation in the civic life of the UK makes us British and participation in the civic life of the EU makes us European.

      And while Gaelic originated in the territory that now also goes by the name of ‘Scotland’, this doesn’t make it ‘the original Scottish language’. Just as today’s Scotland, as a polity, originates equally in the plurality of its citizens, as a culture today’s Scotland originates equally in the plurality languages, practices, and inheritances of all its people, and not just in those of ‘oor ain folk’.

      The Gàidhealtachd, as a language community, has over centuries shrunk in numbers and influence, to the extent that it’s become ‘endangered’. To survive, it needs urgently to attract new members.

      But don’t see how ensuring that civil servants in Scotland can interface with ‘the tens of thousands of Scottish people who speak the Gaelic language natively’ and/or that ‘Gaelic speakers travelling outside the Highlands have the option of reading the local placenames in their native language’ will help to promote the language among potential new members.

      1. Calum H says:

        Replies not appearing. :/

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Official languages are required for conducting governance and communicating between people and government. You might say they are a practical necessity. Many international (global and regional) civil organisations have ‘official’ or ‘working’ languages for these practical purposes.
    And given the widespread global adoption of English, it would be highly inefficient for a Scottish government not to make that the language of government here. But that does not mean that government is ‘nationalist’ by supporting indigenous languages, any more than if it made special efforts to preserve native species that had little purchase anywhere else. If unicorns roamed the forests of Scotland and few places else, even if they were adopted as the national animal and incorporated into crests, it would not be ‘nationalistic’ for the Scottish government to try to preserve and keep viable populations. Actually, bombastic nationalism is often concerned with the symbol rather than the substance, as when USAmericans nearly wiped out their own national animal (the bald eagle), according to National Geographic. English royalty often emblazoned themselves as animals, while continuing to persecute and kill them off in Britain (Tudor War on Nature etc.), and Scottish aristocratics keep up this tradition too.

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