What next for Gaelic – new parliament, new start?
In the second in our new series on Identity Language & Power Gille-chrìost MacGill-Eòin from the campaign group Misneachd explores the next steps in the bid to save and restore gaelic. This is a long-read for the weekend.
This week has seen a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the future direction of Gaelic policy, on a backbench motion tabled by Alasdair Allan, MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), with significant cross-party support. According to Allan, ‘The next parliamentary term will be important in securing the status and vitality of the Gaelic language. The SNP outlined the most ambitious commitments for Gaelic in the history of the Scottish Parliament in our 2021 election manifesto.’ To what extent is this true, and what kinds of progress in Gaelic development can we hope to see in the next few years?
The 2021 Scottish party manifestos certainly saw surprisingly detailed commitments to advancing Gaelic policy, at least from the very low bar of the level of engagement of politicians with the issue in the recent past. Although many of the promises raise as many questions as they answer, there has certainly been a considerable rhetorical shift, and in my view, Gaelic activists should be cautiously optimistic that some significant advances can be achieved in the course of the next parliament. Much will depend, however, on how organized and strategic both activists and the established Gaelic organizations are in leveraging the political and social capital they have. It will also require individuals and groups with relatively minor ideological disagreements to recognize common ground and avoid straw-man arguments.
The most significant recent development in the public discourse around the future of Gaelic in its heartland areas has, without a doubt, been the publication of the Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community (2020, Aberdeen University Press) by a research team led by Irish sociolinguist Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and based at the University of the Highlands and Islands. This report provides a very detailed, data-driven analysis of the current vitality of Gaelic as a community language in the Hebrides, concluding that social use and transmission of the language has reached a critical point of decline, and arguing for an urgent rethink of Gaelic policy towards community empowerment at the local level, and strengthening intergenerational transmission. Summaries of the conclusions and recommendations can be found here.
Although other research had come to similar conclusions over the years, it is fair to say that the Gaelic Crisis publication achieved a level of cut-through, national and international media attention and public engagement and debate which is rare for academic research. That the book itself is comparatively affordable certainly helps (£25 for a 500-page scholarly tome). A number of new voices and initiatives from within the Hebridean Gaelic communities emerged during the debate which followed, including an important series of articles in Bella Caledonia. The recommendations of the book have been broadly endorsed by Gaelic pressure groups such as Misneachd and Lewis-based Guth nan Siarach.
The response of the Gaelic establishment, in particular Bòrd na Gàidhlig, has been muted, although some modest steps forward have been taken, such as the establishment of a professional support network for Gaelic community development workers. Such steps are to be welcomed, though they should not be presented as solutions anywhere near the scale and radicalism required. However, the debate has attracted a greater degree of attention and sympathy from certain politicians, including Alasdair Allan, who initiated a series of community conversations on the issue of the Gaelic crisis. This process resulted in a report concluding that the key policy proposal of the Gaelic Crisis team — a Gaelic community co-operative trust (‘Urras na Gàidhlig’) to be based in the islands — should be taken seriously and investigated further, and more generally, that a more holistic, co-ordinated and local approach to tackling the issue of language shift in Gaelic communities is needed.
Aside from quibbles about certain details of policy and messaging, the broad message of the Gaelic Crisis and Allan reports appear to have achieved a wide consensus among those who speak or are interested in Gaelic, including among those who were not the primary subject of the research. After all, although their circumstances and needs in some respects are very different, community empowerment is an agenda which is potentially of equal relevance to the networks of Gaelic speakers, learners and supporters in the cities of Lowland Scotland as it is to Hebridean communities, and indeed, to the communities of all kinds throughout the country, regardless of the language issue. More generally there is a wide consensus that UK and Scottish institutions are too centralized, and policy and funding too vertical and clientelistic. The current Scottish Government is, to some extent at least, committed to an agenda of decentralization and community empowerment as seen in measures such as the Islands Act, and the ongoing consultation process around reform of local government, intended to culminate in a ‘Local Democracy Bill’ (SNP Manifesto 2021, p. 40), not to mention to the increasing prominence of the concept of the citizens’ assembly in relation to the climate and ecological crisis and other policy areas.
Vernacular and Sustainable
The following discussion looks primarily at the manifesto commitments of the SNP (also available in Gaelic), given that, as expected, they won the election. However, it is important to point out that a similar shift in language and priorities can be seen in most of the other parties’ manifestos. Over the past few decades, Gaelic policy has by and large proceeded by cross-party consensus, and while there are downsides to this — it’s not so difficult to achieve consensus on relatively modest and symbolic levels of support and funding — keeping the different parties on board at least to some extent will certainly make the process smoother, and allow a wider space for different ideas and perspectives to come to the fore.
In 2016 the SNP’s manifesto offer on Gaelic was paltry: three brief mentions of the language in passing, only one specific commitment (a very weak advance in ‘rights’ to GME), and no explicit acknowledgement of the massive social challenges facing Gaelic as a community language. In contrast, the 2021 manifesto has an eleven-paragraph, page-length section on ‘Supporting Scotland’s languages’ (pp. 65–66), mostly concerning Gaelic. The section opens with the statement, ‘Gaelic is an integral part of Scotland’s culture and we remain committed to ensuring it has a sustainable long-term future.’ The word ‘sustainable’ here is key, echoing the title of Misneachd’s own manifesto Coimhearsnachdan Gàidhlig seasmhach / Sustainable Gaelic communities.
It continues, ‘[i]n particular we will have a focus on arresting the intensifying language shift in the remaining vernacular communities.’ The explicit recognition of the issue of language shift and the use of precise terminology, rather than the kind of vague PR hype more familiar in official discourses on the topic, is refreshing and an important step forward in recognizing the crisis. The use of the word ‘vernacular’ shows the impact of the Ó Giollagáin et al. publication, and that it is being taken seriously at least in certain official circles. The next step will be to ensure that the Scottish Government as an institution speaks in such terms, and gives a clear indication that sustainable vernacular communities will be a guiding principle and priority for Gaelic development throughout the term of the next parliament.
The next seven paragraphs, and the bulk of the section as a whole, concern education, which is unsurprising given that this has been the focus of most Gaelic development and public spending since the 1980s (along with broadcasting). Parents and campaigners for Gaelic medium education will welcome the explicit recognition that ‘GME education is at its most successful when it is fully immersive for pupils, and when an entire school career can be delivered through the medium of Gaelic’. This recognizes the two greatest structural weaknesses of Gaelic-medium sector at present: most GME is delivered through units within English-medium schools, where it is difficult to maintain an immersive Gaelic environment; and Gaelic-medium primary education is much better developed than secondary provision, resulting in pupils dropping out of the sector in early adolescence, and in many cases drifting away from Gaelic entirely.
In order to address these issues, the SNP manifesto promises ‘a general presumption against co-locating GME schools with English medium schools’ and to ‘encourage the creation of new GME primary and secondary schools across Scotland, backed by investment to increase the number of teachers who can teach in the medium of Gaelic … with a view to strengthening the range of subjects that can be taught in GME for both a broad general education and in the senior phase of secondary school.’ This implies significant investment in building or converting new schools, as well as in attracting, recruiting and training teachers and support staff, including expansion of schemes to allow English-medium teachers to achieve fluency in Gaelic and transfer to GME. Gaelic activists should also press the argument hard that wider investment in support for Gaelic as a vibrant community language will be essential to produce the Gaelic speakers of the future who can fill teaching and other key roles.
The next two paragraphs are perhaps the most unexpected part of the Gaelic section of the manifesto, involving specific commitments to a stand-alone Gaelic secondary school in central Edinburgh. This is a long-running demand of GME parents in Edinburgh and the Lothians; they are currently locked in a stalemate with the SNP and Labour-led Edinburgh City Council who are pushing a proposal for a Gaelic-English school on a joint site in Liberton in the south of the city. It is unusual for a governing party at the national level to tread on the toes of a local authority so directly, especially one where their own party is in power, and the backroom politics behind this commitment remain unclear. Since the election the new education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, has appeared to backpedal on the manifesto commitment and give support to the council’s proposal, although at the recent debate she at least stressed the ongoing consultation and the importance of listening to parent’s views. This has led to scepticism among Gaelic activists as to whether any of the party’s promises on Gaelic will be honoured. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it. The issue of the Edinburgh school is a specific case because of the local dynamics involved; it remains to be seen how far the Scottish Government can be pushed on its wider commitments to the Gaelic community, as I will discuss below.
A further two paragraphs in the SNP manifesto deal with broader education-related topics, including the digital distance learning initiative e-Sgoil, run by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and the Gaelic higher education college in Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, including ‘dedicated funding’ for Sabhal Mòr ‘to offer FE/HE courses through and for Gaelic’, although it is not clear if this refers to new and increased funding, or maintenance of current levels of support. One item conspicuous by its absence which will be a disappointment to GME campaigners is any mention of strengthened legal rights to Gaelic medium education. This was a key demand in the original campaign for a Gaelic Language Act in the early 2000s (McLeod 2020: 305), and has only been partially fulfilled by the 2016 Education Act with a weak and complex ‘entitlement’ to a consultation process in which local authorities retain wide discretion to say ‘no’. Those sceptical of the feasibility of stronger rights in this area cite the difficulty of teacher recruitment to meet potential demand; the counter-argument is that a legal right to GME would force councils and government to find solutions.
The final three paragraphs of the section are perhaps the most interesting and potentially transformational, as they concern wider issues of Gaelic policy beyond education, and sketch out a number of new policy agendas, including new legislation, which could open the door to the biggest new departure in Gaelic policy since the 2005 Gaelic Language Act. A lot will depend on how much pressure can be brought to bear on the government to follow through with more than just the bare minimum of cosmetic rebrands, of course.
The first new commitment is to ‘explore the creation of a recognised Gàidhealtachd’, presumably meaning legally defined Gaelic-speaking geographical areas with specific support structures similar to the Irish Gaeltacht; indeed the Gaelic version of the manifesto explicitly frames this as ‘[a]g ionnsachadh à Èirinn’ (‘learning from Ireland’) and describes the concept as ‘Gàidhealtachd cànain’ (‘a language Gàidhealtachd’, as opposed to the more conventional use of the Gaelic term in Scotland as an equivalent to ‘the Highlands’, or the Highland council area, very little of which could now be described as a Gàidhealtachd in the linguistic sense).
The next commitment is to ‘review the functions and structures of Bòrd na Gàidhlig to ensure Scotland has an effective leadership body and network of organisations for the promotion of Gaelic’; and finally, ‘[w]e will also bring forward a new Scottish Languages Bill which takes further steps to support Gaelic, acts on the Scots language and recognises that Scotland is a multilingual society’. The potential content of such a bill is unclear, but the commitment is significant in that it states unequivocally that such legislation will be introduced, in contrast to some of the other proposals, which are simply to ‘explore’ certain possible steps (although . In the next part of this article, we will look at these three proposals in more detail.
A Gàidhealtachd Policy
A demand for Irish-style recognition of and support for Gaelic-speaking regions has been part of the policy platform put forward by Misneachd in the Radical Plan for Gaelic (2018) as well as their manifesto for the recent election, and more recently in a new discussion paper released ahead of Alasdair Allen’s debate. The outline given below as to how this could be implemented is based on the Misneachd proposals, which I helped to draft, but the commentary and opinions expressed are my own.
What exactly the SNP mean by the ‘Gàidhealtachd’ concept remains to be seen, however. Campaigners Guth nan Siarach have warned that it must have concrete benefits, and not simply be a vague symbolic status, and should not be imposed without further consultation at community level. Taking the SNP at their word, however, this structure could be the main delivery mechanism for their stated priority of strengthening Gaelic as a community language:
We will also explore the creation of a recognised Gàidhealtachd to raise levels of language competence and the provision of more services through the medium of Gaelic and extend opportunities to use Gaelic in every-day situations and formal settings. In particular, we need to ensure specific support that makes it possible for the Gaelic language to be used more often in the home and community.
This is a rather wide range of functions and objectives, so if this idea goes ahead, it will certainly need a significant budget and new administrative structures.
The mention of ‘more services through the medium of Gaelic’ recalls the current policy architecture of institutional language plans aimed at providing services such as replying to correspondence in Gaelic, which is largely symbolic and nominal in the case of national bodies, and has little or no impact on day-to-day language use. Indeed, this current system is based on a model formerly used in Wales and Ireland, but which has since been replaced in Wales due to its ineffectual nature, which has also become apparent in Ireland.
Nevertheless, in the context of the Western Isles especially, increased requirements on the council and other local public service bodies such as the health service to provide frontline services in Gaelic, hire Gaelic-speaking staff, conduct internal administration and meetings in Gaelic (including with simultaneous interpretation), answer the phone in Gaelic first (‘active offer’), and enable existing staff to acquire or improve Gaelic skills — together with support and funding to achieve such aims — would all have substantial practical benefits for language use in communities where the council and wider public sector are the most significant employer. All of this could arguably be achieved to some extent if Bòrd na Gàidhlig were to insist on more ambitious Gaelic language plans from these bodies; but if this hasn’t happened in the past sixteen years, we may well conclude that additional resources, structures and supports are needed.
More promising, though, are the other stated aims of the proposed ‘Gàidhealtachd’ policy, especially the mention of ‘specific support that makes it possible for the Gaelic language to be used more often in the home and community’. This implies considerable new provision in the community beyond the institutional sphere, and could mean proactive support schemes in areas where there is very limited or patchy provision at present, such as targeted support to help parents raising their children through Gaelic, learning from examples in Ireland, Wales and elsewhere; significant expansion and consolidation of the existing network of Gaelic language community workers, including expansion of their remit beyond the current (and vital) primary focus on youth work; development of intergenerational schemes which bring older Gaelic speakers together with young people as well as committed learners, such as the Bun is Bàrr ‘master and apprentice’ schemes which have been successful in Canada, and trialled in Lewis and Uist; and a more integrated, holistic and ambitious system to enable adults to learn Gaelic, as well as specific support for the significant demographic of heritage speakers of Gaelic to attain, or regain, active fluency, literacy and confidence.
At the member’s debate on 23rd June, Shirley-Anne Somerville, in her role as the incoming minister with responsibility for Gaelic, reiterated the SNP’s manifesto promises (with the exception of the Edinburgh school issue discussed above), thus conferring them with greater standing as government policy. It was encouraging that the ‘Gàidhealtachd’ policy, albeit still only a commitment to ‘explore’ the idea, without further details given, was the first specific item she mentioned, followed by (more questionable) measures to address depopulation and housing, and promises to strengthen the somewhat better developed existing policy area of Gaelic-medium education (GME), in particular at secondary school level. Although all these areas are important, the rest of this article will focus in particular on the potential of the ‘Gàidhealtachd’ policy and wider issues of community language development, both in the islands and in the networks of Gaelic speakers elsewhere in Scotland.
Language Planning Areas
To help us imagine what a recognized ‘Gàidhealtachd’ could mean in Scotland, it is worth looking more closely at what the Gaeltacht means in practice in Ireland. Shortly after independence in the 1920s, Gaeltacht regions were recognized in a wide swathe of the south and west of the country which at that time had local native speakers of Irish; in the 1950s the boundaries were drawn more restrictively to include only areas where Irish could be said to retain a significant level of community use and inter-generational transmission. Since then the boundaries have changed little, although the language has declined substantially in many of the areas. The strongest and most significant districts are the Connemara coast and the Aran Islands west of Galway City, parts of County Donegal in the north, and Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle peninsula) in Kerry in the south-west. Smaller and/or weaker Gaeltacht areas exist in other parts of these three counties, and also in Counties Mayo, Cork, Waterford and Meath (the latter consisting of two small Gaeltacht ‘colonies’ founded by the Irish Land Commission in 1935, mostly with residents originating in Connemara).
There is sometimes a misconception that Gaeltacht status is largely symbolic, or has been entirely ineffective. Although there have been many weaknesses in Irish language policy in different periods, there is no doubt that the Gaeltacht system has made a significant difference, at least in slowing decline of the language. It is rarely remarked upon that in the early twentieth century, Irish in what became the Gaeltacht was in a much more fragile position than Gaelic in the Highlands and Islands; a glance at the map will show that Irish-speaking districts are mostly small, seemingly random puddles in a vast sea of English on all sides, in contrast to the large contiguous Gaelic-speaking territory of the Hebrides and much of the mainland West Highlands which existed in the first half of the twentieth century. Even today, the Western Isles would be by far the largest contiguous Gaeltacht region if they were part of Ireland, and are (or were in 2011) the only majority Gaelic or Irish-speaking local authority area in either country. That Gaelic in the Western Isles survived relatively intact as a community language into the second half of the twentieth century, with hardly any institutional support beyond the churches, certain cultural organizations and very limited provision of Gaelic as a subject in education, is largely reflective of the fact that the forces driving language shift were at least fifty years further advanced in Ireland than in the Highlands at the point when state policy supporting the language was put in place.
These supports have included Irish-medium education (with no English option) in most Gaeltacht areas since the 1920s; targeted economic development with a view to retaining population levels and local employment; a dedicated government department and minister of the Gaeltacht between 1956 and 1993, albeit since combined with other portfolios; a dedicated language and socioeconomic development agency, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which is involved in running or funding many of the kinds of support schemes lacking in Scotland, as well as more general economic and infrastructural development (à la HIE) in the Gaeltacht regions — everything from business parks to mending potholes; financial incentives in the form of a Gaeltacht housing grant and a grant for Irish-speaking families (albeit abolished as part of austerity measures in 2011); and democratic elections of board members of the Údarás, abolished in 2012 but set to be reintroduced. A number of Irish-medium institutions have headquarters in Gaeltacht areas, including the office of the language commissioner (who has regulatory functions similar to part of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s role), as well as the various offices of the Údarás itself.
As some of the caveats above hint, Gaeltacht schemes along with many aspects of public policy in Ireland have been severely weakened by deep funding cuts as a result of EU / IMF-imposed austerity and bank ‘bailouts’ in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, in addition to the impact of ongoing neoliberal restructuring since the 1980s. Nevertheless, the somewhat sobering reality is that even in hollowed-out form, the supports in place for the Gaeltacht in Ireland still go far beyond what has been achieved for the Gaelic heartlands in Scotland, both in terms of specific targeted policies and overall funding levels.
Taking the longer view, without the supports that were put in place by the Irish state, even the stronger Gaeltacht areas would very likely have undergone rapid language shift in the middle of the twentieth century, and now be on the point of losing their last remaining elderly speakers. Even if the long-term prognosis for the Gaeltacht is very challenging, the twentieth-century Gaeltacht policies demonstrate that language shift can be halted or at least slowed, and whatever the future may hold, that is something which is meaningful and precious to individuals in particular times and places whose language and culture received support, affirmation and dignity, as well as material support, which would otherwise have been denied. Language policy should first and foremost serve the needs of existing speakers and communities in the here and now, although of course long-term sustainability should be one of the considerations. This is sometimes overlooked in discourses which focus on the ‘survival’ or ‘viability’ of languages as abstract, unified entities, rather than on speakers and communities.
Although there have been steps backward, there have also been new developments in Irish language policy, which are particularly relevant in assessing what the Scottish Government is likely to consider as a model, and what Gaelic activists might plausibly fight for, at least as a first step. Of particular interest is the 2012 Gaeltacht Act. This is generally viewed negatively by the Irish language community for the way in the which the austerity government at the time pushed it through the legislature without accepting any opposition amendments; the fact that it abolished the direct elections to the Údarás board; and the fact that no additional funding was provided by the government for implementation of the new language planning structures it introduced. Instead, Údarás na Gaeltachta had to take money out of its infrastructure budget; in essence, community language development workers have been funded by cutting spending on repairing roads. Clearly, these particular aspects should not be directly imitated in Scotland!
Nevertheless, the structures established under the Act have a number of features which, if replicated and improved upon in the Scottish context, could be a significant step forward for Gaelic language planning at the community level. The whole Gaeltacht is divided into twenty-six Language Planning Areas, arranged on the basis of geographically meaningful units (so the populations of the areas differ considerably from a few hundred to several thousand residents). In each area a lead organization, usually a local voluntary group or existing community co-operative, is recognised by the Gaeltacht department, and is given time and some resources to produce a language plan which is then approved by the government and implemented for a period of seven years. For the ongoing implementation of the local plan, each of the Language Planning Areas receives a budget of around €100,000 per year, of which about €40,000 goes to the salary of a language officer, and the rest is spent on community language initiatives. If the Irish system sounds rather bureaucratic and unexciting, it still has three elements lacking in the Scottish context, in addition to significantly higher targeted expenditure:
(a) an explicit and developed policy framework focused directly on community language development, rather than simply vague aspirations;
(b) an established local mechanism for holistic community input, planning and decision making (not powerful enough in the Irish system, but largely absent in Scotland);
(c) a central body (Údarás na Gaeltachta) providing funding, support and co-ordination, but whose remit is nevertheless focused specifically on the Gaeltacht, and whose offices and employees are physically located in Gaeltacht areas (in contrast to Bòrd na Gàidhlig with its head office in Inverness and no staff at all based in the Western Isles).
In addition, under the provisions of the Gaeltacht Act there are Gaeltacht Service Towns, urban areas near Gaeltacht regions required to produce language plans and provide Irish-medium public services to Gaeltacht regions; and Irish Language Networks, recognized networks of Irish speakers in non-Gaeltacht areas who also produce and implement local language plans. The latter concept could be particularly of interest for Gaelic development in urban settings such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness, and is incorporated into the Misneachd proposals. As mentioned above, there is no reason why more localized and holistic, community-focused decision making couldn’t be of benefit throughout Scotland. Having been involved in grassroots Gaelic development in Edinburgh myself, it was very clear to me that the lack of integration, co-ordination and localized access to budgets between different groups and initiatives is a severe hindrance. The sectoral, piecemeal and vertical relationship with distant central bodies and the short-termism of a focus on individual projects is perhaps even more acute in the rural and island setting, in communities already facing massive economic, infrastructural and demographic challenges.
How might developments on these lines take shape in Scotland? Gaelic campaign group Guth nan Siarach have expressed disappointment that the SNP manifesto did not contain an explicit commitment to consider the Gaelic Crisis proposal to establish a Gaelic community trust (provisionally named ‘Urras na Gàidhlig’), and the government has seemed lukewarm at best on the idea so far. It is perhaps too much to expect politicians and civil servants to warm immediately to the idea of establishing what will be viewed as essentially another quango — even if, as proposed by Ó Giollagáin’s team, a more radical and democratic structure is envisaged. This will be especially the case when the existing Gaelic quango is less than twenty years old and has been mired in controversy and bad press regarding its internal workings and effectiveness (although some progress has been made in addressing these problems). Donald Cameron MSP also made the point in the recent debate that setting up a new institution could take a lot of time when urgency is of the essence. Misneachd addresses this challenge by outlining immediate steps that could be taken under existing structures and legislation over the next two to three years, transitioning gradually to a new framework on a new statutory basis (‘Empowering Gaelic Communities’, §15), and with a number of options for the delivery mechanism.
Perhaps, at least as an incremental first step, the role of the central co-ordinating agency (corresponding roughly to Údarás na Gaeltachta, or to Urras na Gàidhlig in the Gaelic Crisis scheme) could be given to a new unit within Bòrd na Gàidhlig; provided, of course, that substantial additional resources and staffing were made available to the organization, and subject to the crucial red line that the new unit be based in the Western Isles, concentrating the direct linguistic, economic and social benefits of the jobs themselves where they are most needed, as well being rooted in the communities served.
Within the Bòrd’s current corporate structure, this would mean splitting the current role of Director of Language Planning and Community Developments and creating a Director of Community Language Planning, leading a team of several additional staff members, working from an office or offices within the Western Isles. This unit would have the role of co-ordinating and providing support services to the local lead organisations involved in the process of community language planning across Language Planning Areas covering the core Gaelic-speaking areas surveyed in the Gaelic Crisis publication (the whole of the Western Isles, Staffin in northern Skye, and Tiree), as well perhaps as certain other areas (such as the wider Trotternish area, and Sleat), and Gaelic Language Networks in other parts of Scotland where there is an established infrastructure of Gaelic institutions and community groups (most obviously Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen).
The unit would also co-ordinate and support a network of community language development officers working in each area to implement the holistic local language plan. Each Language Planning Area would receive an annual budget at the very least comparable with the Irish system (£150,000 in the Misneachd proposals), but increased in communities with larger populations or other specific requirements. The structure and activities of the Language Planning Areas could build on the local Iomairtean co-ordinated by Comunn na Gàidhlig where these exist. Note that the rest of the Language Plan and Community Development department within the Bòrd would continue alongside the new unit; the existing system of institutional language plans and funding support for Gaelic organizations throughout Scotland would continue, and itself requires additional resources in order to fulfil its objectives. (Although separately, aspects of the system should be reformed, especially in regard to regulatory enforcement powers, and some would argue for reviewing the language plan concept itself.)
In time, the new Community Language Planning unit might be developed into an autonomous institution, taking on more of the characteristics envisaged in the Urras na Gàidhlig proposal; this will depend on a number of factors, including political will and the continued efforts of Gaelic activists in the coming years. Alternatively, the existing Comunn na Gàidhlig could fulfil this role if given a much larger budget, an adjusted remit and constitution, and a clear statutory basis for its activities. Simply being located in the Gaelic heartland, employing local people, and having a specific remit for community language development and tackling the challenge of language shift will help address some of the current complaints about the ineffectiveness and overcentralization of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the wider Gaelic development sector. Preferably, however, the new system should seek to incorporate more democratic elements, both at the local level of the lead organisation in each Language Planning Area (some kind of co-chomann or local co-operative might be the preferred model, involving direct participatory democracy open to the whole local community, and participatory budgeting), and at the level of the co-ordinating structure.
The initiative for moving in this direction cannot be expected to come primarily from Bòrd na Gàidhlig itself. Even if the Bòrd were considerably bolder and more imaginative than it has hitherto shown itself capable of being, it simply doesn’t have the remit or resources even to lay the groundwork for a Gaeltacht-style framework. This will require the intervention of the Scottish Government, providing a larger budget and using the powers of the 2005 Gaelic Language Act to adjust the Bòrd’s responsibilities and functions, using the discretion granted to ministers in section (1), subsections (4) and (5) of the Act: ‘[t]he Scottish Ministers may give the Bòrd directions (of a general or specific character) and guidance as to the exercise of the Bòrd’s functions’ and ‘[t]he Scottish Ministers may vary or revoke any directions or guidance given under subsection (4)’. Arbitrary executive interference is not necessarily the ideal mechanism for reforming a nominally arms-length public body (see McLeod 2020: 287), but in view of the scale of the urgent challenges faced by Gaelic communities, all available powers must be used to the full extent, until such time as a more developed statutory framework is in place. Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s consultation process for the 2023–27 National Gaelic Language Plan has already begun; intervention on the part of the Government to redirect this process may also be required, possibly using the powers they possess under section (2) of the Act to order the Bòrd to prepare an extraordinary national plan ‘whenever required to do so by the Scottish Ministers’, or to amend the Bòrd’s draft plan.
I will not go too far into the implications of the manifesto commitments to review the functions and structures of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and a Scottish Languages Bill. Some of the areas that might be relevant here are outlined in the preceding paragraphs. It is to be hoped that the Gaelic content of the Bill would put any new Gàidhealtachd and community language planning system on a firmer statutory footing; strengthen the currently largely toothless regulatory functions of Bòrd na Gàidhlig to require and enforce Gaelic language plans, including consideration of a new Language Commissioner role; extend Gaelic language plan requirements to private companies providing essential services to Gaelic speakers (e.g. utility firms, supermarkets); establish basic language rights and standards in both the public and private sector; strengthen aspects of the GME system, including fulfilling the long-term demand for a proper right to Gaelic education mentioned above; and possibly address the issue of language-based hate crime and discrimination, and the status of Gaels as an indigenous ethnolinguistic minority. Beyond Gaelic, the explicit commitment to support Scots within the legislation is long overdue, and the commitment to ‘recognise that Scotland is a multilingual society’ should address the scandalous neglect of migrant community languages, including ‘Saturday schools’ and heritage language qualifications.
Grassroots Community and Co-operatives
Can we realistically hope that any of the above will actually happen? Maybe, but it depends on a number of factors. However cautious we might be about the SNP’s promises, there is more chance of getting politicians to do things they have said they will do, than to get them to sign up to something that they can’t at least present as their own idea. The recent parliamentary motion and debate were a good start in keeping pressure on the government to deliver. And an organized alliance of voices both within and outwith formal institutions is more likely to succeed, than isolated individuals putting forward the odd idea here and there. The current Gaelic activist base is considerably more energized, united and experienced than was the case only a few years ago, and broader opinion within the Gaelic and Gaelic-interested public seems to be largely on board with the need for substantial action.
My sense is that there is sufficient momentum and political capital behind the agenda outlined in the SNP manifesto that they will feel obliged to follow through with it in some form. My expectations for the manifesto were modest. I suspected there would be one or two sentences with some rhetorical shift towards supporting Gaelic as a community language, in addition to reaffirming their commitment to GME. As I have discussed, the detail and specificity of the commitments go considerably further than this, while still leaving plenty of wiggle room for backsliding: it is up to Gaelic activists and stakeholders to seize the initiative and put some more flesh on the bones, before others do this for us. As the notorious right-wing economist Milton Friedman put it, ‘When [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’. It is up to all of us who care about the future of Gaelic communities to make sure it is our ideas that are ‘lying around’ when the politicians and civil servants get round to figuring out what to do next.
My view is that pushing the Irish Gaeltacht-based model as a broad framework is also strategically wise: a cautious, centrist liberal government is more likely to listen to proposals based on policies already implemented by a fellow cautious, centrist liberal government in a country which many on the vaguely progressive and pro-independence side of Scottish politics already look up to in some measure (let’s not get into the reality of a hundred years of non-stop centre-right government in Ireland, or mention the ‘Arc of Prosperity’!). Ministers and civil servants are more likely to be attracted to a relatively ‘off-the-shelf’ package at least as a starting point. For better or worse, all language policy in Scotland to date has been derivative, based largely on now out-dated models from Canada and Wales (Ó Giollagáin et al. 2020: 396–7), and is likely to remain so.
Despite the vast difference of scale between language policy at the national level in Ireland and Scotland (especially in education), the situation addressed by the Gaeltacht model of community language planning (including also the Language Networks outside the geographical Gaeltacht) is much closer to the societal reality of Gaelic in Scotland than to the demographically much stronger French Canadian and Welsh language contexts. The devil, of course, is in the detail, and it will be important to highlight the weaknesses and gaps in the Irish system right from the start lest they be replicated mechanically in Scotland. I have concentrated on the state-sponsored institutional structures, but there is of course also much to learn from the grassroots community level, such as the comharchumann co-operatives and the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement; Irish Gaels have been far from merely passive recipients of state policy.
Pitfalls and Hazards
There are a number of pitfalls and hazards that Gaelic campaigners should be wary of. One is excessive cynicism, thinking that no progress is possible, or that there is no chance of holding politicians to account and forcing them to deliver. This is a very understandable feeling, but ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. If it were true, none of the existing supports for Gaelic – GME, BBC Alba, Radio nan Gàidheal, the Gaelic Language Act, Comunn na Gàidhlig’s community language officers – would have been achieved. All of them were won through a combination of popular pressure and protest by Gaels in the islands and throughout Scotland, canny campaigning and lobbying, putting clear proposals on the table, and making them ultimately impossible to ignore. The key is a realistic and shrewd assessment of the balance of political forces, where the possible inflection points are, making strategic alliances, and knowing when to compromise and when to put your foot down. None of this is easy, but it is not impossible, and the more experience campaigners gain, the more likely they are to make further gains down the line.
Another type of counter-productive cynicism is to assume even if some progress is made, that it won’t make any real difference. However imperfect the current supports are, without them, Gaelic in the islands would almost certainly have declined even faster and more catastrophically, as indeed was the case in other parts of the Highlands in previous generations, and the modest growth of Gaelic in other parts of Scotland wouldn’t have happened either. Still another risk is to make perfect the enemy of good, to insist on only one policy and reject more incremental steps in the right direction. You might not get everything you want all at once: but once you have won something that is a solid material gain, that needn’t be the end of the story. You can keep an eye on the new development, and keep the pressure on to further develop and expand it in the future, or make fresh demands. As to whether a proposal is worth supporting, at least conditionally, the test is simple: does it bring funding, jobs, and power closer to the communities?
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Gaelic development scene after the 2005 Language Act and the 2008 introduction of BBC Alba has been the relative lack of organized grassroots activism. Gaelic campaigners largely went quiet (with the important exception of specific local campaigns for GME) or were ‘co-opted’ into the organizations and structures they had helped establish (McLeod 2020: 52), so there was little public pressure to strengthen and build on the general Gaelic policy framework, beyond isolated lone voices. Obviously there are structural reasons for this, related to the overall numerical strength of Gaelic speakers within Scotland, and burn-out from the early campaigns. It isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault in particular; but it is a dynamic to be aware of and avoided in the future. We should look to Wales, where Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) have kept their independence and their campaigning activities going non-stop since 1962, with many incremental wins over the decades. There have been peaks and troughs in their activities, of course, but they haven’t given up, and they are always on the look-out for the next campaign and the next plausible incremental win. This is the structural role in the ecosystem of Gaelic organizations that Misneachd aspires to fill; though equally more local and topic-specific campaigns have an important role to play, as do the organizations delivering Gaelic policy and services on the ground.
Another thing to be aware of is the methods the powers-that-be will use to deflect and shut down debate. Generally, the first step will be to fob campaigners off with a claim that whatever is being asked for is already happening, to boast of existing or already announced initiatives and expenditure, and perhaps a vague promise to continue ‘listening’. There is little point being too outraged or cynical about this: the individuals concern likely feel they are doing what they can, and may rightly be able to point to evidence that their projects are bearing some (limited) fruit. It is human nature to be defensive about a status quo that you yourself are a part of, especially in the absence of a vision of how things could be better.
In some cases, especially regarding senior politicians or civil servants for whom Gaelic is only a small part of their remit, the reality is that they are trying to keep numerous competing interests happy, both within their own party, cabinet or department, and in wider society, and the Gaelic voice will be a relatively small one. It is also important sometimes to reassure institutional interlocutors that we are not necessarily condemning what is already happening — but pointing out that it is not nearly enough. Still, it is important to come back strongly against deflection tactics, especially in terms of contextualizing and clarifying the claims they make (and correcting them if they are straightforwardly wrong), as well as putting concrete, constructive proposals on the table.
For example, in response to claims of inaction by the Gaelic Crisis authors, the Scottish Government recently responded that ‘[s]ince the introduction of the Gaelic Language Act, annual Scottish Government investment in Gaelic has almost doubled from just over £15 million in 2005/06 to around £29m last year.’ This may sound great at first glance, until we examine the reality more closely. There was indeed a significant increase in expenditure between 2005 and 2007 as the Gaelic Language Act came into force, but since then there has been stasis and indeed a real-terms cut. According to Scottish Government figures, the total Gaelic budget for 2006/7, the first full year since the commencement of the Act, was £22.09 million, reaching £24.85 million in 2008/9. If this sum had risen in line with inflation, the total a decade later would have been £33.58 million, as opposed to the actual 2018/19 budget of £28.48 million — a real terms cut of 15.19%. The biggest items of this budget are Gaelic education and broadcasting, both of which have nominally risen a little over the past decade, but not enough to avoid a cut in real terms.
The situation of Bòrd na Gàidhlig — and in turn the community organizations and initiatives it funds — has been more challenging. Its budget has sat at just over £5 million since 2006/7, and indeed was cut slightly in nominal terms after 2010/11, so that by 2018/19 it had faced a real terms cut of just over 30% over the preceding decade. If the Bòrd’s budget had risen in line with inflation (without any additional funding) it would have stood at £7.38 million in 2018/19 rather than the actual figure of £5.15 million. Within this very limited budget, around £2.5 million is spent on community development. And it gets worse. The £5 million a year Bòrd na Gàidhlig has been operating on is only half of the £10 million budget recommended by the Macpherson report in 2000 ‘in order to create the minimum conditions that will stabilise and develop the language’, and reiterated by the Meek report in 2002.
These expert reports, commissioned by the Scottish Executive, laid the groundwork for the Gaelic Language Act and the structure and functions of the Bòrd. Allowing for inflation, the 2000 recommendation of a £10 million budget would suggest an expenditure of around £17.2 million today. In other words, Gaelic community development, and the Bòrd’s other statutory functions as well as its internal running costs, are currently operating on less than a third of the budget which two expert panels deemed was the bare minimum necessary. Of course, throwing more money at a policy area is not the whole solution; significant policy and institutional changes are also clearly needed. Nevertheless, the impact of chronic underfunding cannot be overstated. What is more, the short-term, piecemeal nature of most of the existing funding administered by the Bòrd means that a lot of the existing budget is probably spent inefficiently: more generous and stable funding will enable many initiatives to be delivered more cost-effectively, and in some cases to move towards greater financial independence.
Gaelic activists need to be aware of this and be shouting these facts and figures from the rooftops, and the Government needs to get real about the level of expenditure Gaelic communities require and deserve, especially given the Scottish state’s centuries of complicity in the oppression and erasure of Gaels and their culture, at times as deliberate policy, at times by ‘benign’ neglect.
And by the way, we shouldn’t care too much about the anti-Gaelic bigots in the comments sections of newspapers who will scream blue murder about every extra penny. And frankly, neither should the SNP government, who have tended to be overly cautious about all sorts of progressive changes, presumably for fear of scaring off the more moderate voters in their bloated electoral coalition, and endangering the 50%+1 majority needed in a future independence referendum. The vocal minority who express contempt for Gaelic and Scots, and oppose every other progressive cause, belong to the most reactionary segment of the population and will never vote for the SNP (or independence) anyway. We must be confident and unapologetic in pushing for the empowerment of Gaelic speakers as a progressive, social justice issue, and be confident that we will carry public opinion with us, so long as we have a positive, clear message. Surveys show that most people in Scotland are in favour of the current support for Gaelic, or want to see it strengthened; appealing to and strengthening this latent support should be a strategic priority.
A further example of deflecting criticism by spinning rather modest developments comes from the Government’s response to Guth nan Siarach’s recent petition:
Recent announcements by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, including Gaelic development officer appointments, a fund to support Gaelic projects in community trusts and a network to support Gaelic development officers, are building on this work to help deliver a sustainable future for the language.
While, as I acknowledged above, these are welcome developments (which probably wouldn’t have happened without the public pressure and momentum following the Gaelic Crisis publication) they are on nowhere near the scale required to put community language development on a secure footing in Scotland. Apart from the professional support network, to be jointly delivered by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of Aberdeen and Comunn na Gàidhlig, only £150,000 of new expenditure for Gaelic development officers was announced. To put this in perspective, this is less than the budget over two years for a single Language Planning Area in Ireland, and most of the existing Gaelic officers have little in the way of a budget beyond their own (modest) salary to support their activities.
There are around 40 Gaelic officers at present across Scotland, with the bulk in the Western Isles and Highland council areas, and some in Argyll and Bute, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many of them only part-time, and employed on precarious, one- to three-year contracts, across an eclectic range of community organizations, public bodies, and of most significance, Comunn na Gàidhlig (CnaG), with very different remits. In recent years CnaG has focused mostly on youth work in close co-operation with schools, including its subsidiary Spòrs Gàidhlig which delivers Gaelic-medium outdoor pursuits. While this is clearly vital work and may represent an understandable strategic prioritization in the face of budgetary constraints, many individuals involved in Gaelic development over the longer term have remarked that they miss the more holistic community development remit which CnaG once had.
Some of these posts are often only part-funded by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the employing body having to scrape together the rest from already tight budgets, or from the largesse of other cash-strapped agencies, such as local councils. Although many of the individual officers no doubt go above and beyond in discharging their duties, there is little coherent, long-term planning (beyond the level of the employing organization), democratic input, or wider policy infrastructure and financial support at the local level of the kind which a statutory community language planning framework of the kind outlined above would provide.
While surely challenging, these jobs should be among the most rewarding and potentially transformative roles in saoghal na Gàidhlig, but they struggle to attract applicants, beyond the youngest and most inexperienced individuals who will soon be looking for more secure career options. And who can blame them? Why stay in a sector with such precarious employment conditions, where there is little chance for promotion and career progression, when with similar qualifications you could get a permanent, secure contract at the BBC or in teaching, or else outwith Gaelic development altogether? Again, these are structural problems, not the fault of the Bòrd, CnaG or the other organizations, who are trying to squeeze what benefit they can out of the funding they have at present: but they must be front and centre in any campaign to improve the situation.
Another couple of dangers should be mentioned before we conclude. One is linguicentrism, thinking about Gaelic simply as a language issue and not in its wider social, political and economic context. The Gaelic Crisis authors, the activist groups and other voices who have come to the fore in the past year have strenuously argued the case for the holistic view on this, so perhaps at the moment there is more risk in the other direction, an oversimplified view that any kind of local economic development will automatically strengthen Gaelic. Some of the party manifestos displayed this kind of economism, such as the Liberal Democrats’ contribution:
We want a holistic approach to supporting Gaelic. Housing is tied to the Gaelic crisis in our communities. We recognise that there are barriers to Gaelic being spoken in the home, even though that keeps the community vernacular strong. One barrier is people forced to move out of their Gaelic-speaking communities because there are no homes they can afford, or there are simply no jobs. Our land reform and plans for community housebuilding will help local communities put this right.
The Liberal Democrats’ acknowledgement here of the crucial need for intervention in the housing market as part of the path to maintaining vibrant Gaelic-speaking communities is important — indeed stronger, rhetorically at least, than the SNP’s Gaelic section — but they offer less in the way of detailed language planning proposals. If Gaelic is to be maintained at any level anywhere in Scotland, but especially in the heartland communities, then specific linguistic measures are crucial, such as support for intergenerational transmission in families; empowerment of heritage or partial speakers and understanders to reclaim and use the language; strengthening literacy and specific language skills; a coherent approach to adult learning; continued and expanded youth work beyond the classroom; and intergenerational work in the community; promotion of events and ‘safe spaces’ where Gaelic is afforded positive discrimination; dissemination of simultaneous interpretation technology and training to allow meetings and other events to be held in Gaelic when non-speakers are present; as well as technical issues such as development of learning and reference resources (dictionaries etc.).
On the other hand, Wilson McLeod in his recent book on the history of Gaelic policy and activism has expressed scepticism about the efficacy of ‘support programmes involving employment or housing’:
“Today, even in the rural districts more than a third of the local population does not know Gaelic, so that broad-based community-level interventions or support programmes involving employment or housing, such as those proposed by the campaigning group Misneachd (2018), become ever-more impracticable as mechanisms to secure language maintenance and transmission.” (McLeod 2020: 333–4)
Presumably McLeod here is warning of the reductive economism discussed above. As one of the contributors to the Misneachd proposals cited here, I can confirm that we were not so naïve as to think that solving the housing crisis or improving the employment situation in the islands would automatically strengthen Gaelic as a community language. Indeed, given the age skew in Gaelic proficiency, retaining or attracting more of the younger age cohorts, without other policies to support and expand Gaelic knowledge and use, will inevitably have the opposite effect, at least in terms of overall proportions of Gaelic speakers and the balance of power between the dominant and minoritized language.
However, communities in seemingly inexorable demographic decline, increasingly unable to retain a sufficient working age population to keep basic amenities going, and where those who do remain struggle to make ends meet in precarious, seasonal or part-time work, are not communities with the time or energy to spend on language and cultural development, especially if the burden falls on volunteers who are already trying to keep a dozen other things going. It is no good keeping the Gaelic-speaking percentage of such areas artificially high for a decade or two, by virtue of the fact there are hardly any young people left, only for the place then to be largely depopulated, or left entirely in the hands of second-home owners. Only vibrant, economically secure communities with a healthy age balance will have the capacity to engage extensively with language restoration; and even apart from the language issue, addressing these challenges and injustices is the only right thing to do.
Participatory Local Democracy and Radical Devolution of Power
I will end on a note of optimism. I am considerably more hopeful than I was a year ago that substantial advances in real support for Gaelic communities might be achievable, after over a decade and a half of relative stasis. The political clout of Gaelic speakers and their allies will always be relatively small, but we are more organized and have more leverage and half-open doors than we have had for some time. I hope that the Misneachd proposals on community language development will be a useful contribution to the conversation. Beyond campaigns focused on Gaelic specifically, we can amplify our voice by seeking strategic alliances and solidarity with those campaigning on other crucial issues of significance to Gaels, including community empowerment and local democracy, housing, land, crofting, infrastructure, wider economic development, Covid recovery and a Green New Deal. We also have allies in the Scots language movement who have recently found renewed vyce. The issue of Scotland’s indigenous minority languages are higher up the political agenda than they have been since the passing of the 2005 Gaelic Language Act.
We can also make the argument that Gaelic communities have the potential to be at the forefront of the most progressive and promising areas of the current government’s agenda, including experiments in new models of participatory local democracy and radical devolution of power, which will have relevance and applicability to other communities throughout Scotland and beyond. And when it comes to questions of public spending, we can point out that the alternative to a new vision for the island and rural areas where Gaels are concentrated — managed decline — is itself extremely costly in both a fiscal and social sense, without producing any return in the form of vibrant, confident and productive communities. And the short-termism and piecemeal, one step forward, two steps back nature of much Gaelic development to date itself wastes as much money as it saves. So there is a lot of potential to win the change we want to see: let’s work together make sure this potential bears fruit.
McLeod, Wilson. 2020. Gaelic in Scotland: Policies, movements, ideologies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ó Giollagáin, Conchúr et al. 2020. The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.