In the year 1891 it was estimated that over 210,000 people in Scotland spoke gaelic, with gaelic being the only language that just over 43,000 people could speak. Fast forward 120 years to 2011 and that number had massively decreased to a mere 87,000 people with just over 57,000 being able to speak it fluently. These statistics obviously show that within that time period there was a massive decline in Gaelic speakers, but will that decline continue to happen over the next 120 years? I decided to do a little research and to my surprise, I discovered that Scottish Gaelic is going through a bit of a revival at the moment.
The decline of speakers is due to a vast amount of factors which have each played their part for hundreds of years. The school establishment act of 1616 was probably where it all began though, the act which said Gaelic should be “abolished and removit” from Scotland also claimed that Gaelic was the reason for “barbarity and incivility” in the Highlands and Isles.
When the jacobite rebellion of 1745 had ended, it would become one of the major downfalls of Gaelic. Many speakers had died in battle, were captured and murdered or were held prisoner/sent as Indentured servants to the colonies after the battle of Culloden. In 1747 in response to the rebellion the British government introduced the heritable jurisdictions act which ultimately lead to the Highland clearances. This led to an estimated 200,000 – 270,000 Highlanders being displaced from their homes and/or emigrating abroad with many of the settlers arriving in Nova Scotia (new Scotland), Canada.
19th & 20th century
The introduction of the education act of 1872 in Scotland proved to be another downfall of the Gaelic language. It meant that only the English language was taught in Scotland. Pupils who spoke Gaelic were often teased by other classmates, belted by their teachers or could face corporal punishment if they did not give up the names of other speakers. Emigration being another big contribution to the decline, it’s estimated that over 500,000 Scots emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia over the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The first time I probably saw the Gaelic language in writing was on a road sign up the North of Scotland many years ago. In 2001 when the Scottish government announced plans to erect bilingual signage along many of the trunk roads in the Highlands, it was met with praise but also with fierce criticism. Critics argued that they were a “waste of money” and “potentially dangerous” but there is no evidence of this at all. Fast forward a number of years from when I first saw the Gaelic Road signs, there is now a Gaelic translation for almost every train station in Scotland.
Over the last decade or two there seems to have been major political boosts for the Gaelic language. The Gaelic language act (2005) was set out to secure Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, and on the 13th of February 2006 Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established as a public body in which it is “responsible for the preservation of Gaelic as an official language which enjoys the same respect as English”.
The introduction of the Gaelic schools capital fund in 2008 has led to the number of young people in Gaelic medium education to increase by a staggering 32%. There are over 40 primary schools on the mainland in which Gaelic is taught, with over 20 secondary schools teaching it aswell. All western Isles schools teach Gaelic. In Nova Scotia, Canada in 2014/15 there were 555 pupils participating in Gaelic education across 10 different schools. With many universities across Scotland offering Gaelic courses aswell as in the USA where there are 9 universities offering Gaelic degrees. There are many online and free courses available too, aswell as many apps for mobile phones. The local councils in Scotland also offer courses and classes for the language aswell, these are often fully booked though (speaking from personal experience) which is a really positive sign.
Gaelic is also thriving in the arts scene just now, with many listeners tuning into BBC radio Gaelic. With regards to TV, BBC alba which is only available to those who receive satellite TV has reached an astonishing 600,000 viewers in the past, which is 10x the amount of speakers! Many folk singers and their songs have also inspired people to take up an interest in the language. Singers such as Julie Fowlis, who sings in Scottish Gaelic and in English and who won folk singer of the year in 2008 has reached people from all over the world. With songs featured in the Disney film brave, many people who watched the film and liked her songs took up an interest in the language which is clear judging by the comments you will find on her youtube videos. Many festivals celebrating folk and Gaelic music are now available from Scotland to Canada. Celtic colours international festival being a major festival on Cape Breton.
Perhaps the most recent surge in Gaelic enthusiasts can be credited to a series called outlander which is available on Starz and Amazon. Based on the books written by Diana Gabaldon it tells the story of an 1945 English nurse who travels back in time to the 18th century Scotland. The programme features dialogue in both English and in Gaelic and is popular with viewers all over the globe. The increase in youtube views since the release of outlander is what kind of made me question the revival of Gaelic. Videos on youtube of which when i had watched were sitting around 20,000 views and within around a year after the release of season 1 of outlander, were now sitting up at around 800,000 views! Which is a crazy increase!
Things are looking positive for Gaelic at the moment, with an evident increase in popularity and with the backing/promotion by the Scottish government it could well be on it’s way to becoming a well spoken language in Scotland again. It will be interesting to see how the revival plays out over the next decade or so but for the time being, things are looking really promising for the Gaelic language.
Cúm Gàidhlig beò!