Reversal in the Decline of Scots Gaelic - An Historical View

The Scotsman has an article, linked below, highlighting an historical map of the Gaelic language in Scotland which, among other things, illustrates the effectiveness of the British governments persecution of the Gaelic tongue: “Published in 1895, the map which charts the prevalence of Gaelic speaking in Scotland, is the first of its kind. Produced by Edinburgh map company Bartholomew’s, the map contains information distilled from the first census, in 1881, that counted Gaelic speakers in Scotland.”

The article written by Alison Campsie, who writes on Gaelic language affairs for the Scotsman, frames the description of the map through citations from an essay written by linguistic professors Wilson McLeod and Charles Jones of Edinburgh University on the decline of Scots Gaelic. Their detailed history of Gaelic speaking in Scotland is found in their work: “Standards and Differences, Languages in Scotland, 1707-1918”, published by Edinburgh University Press (Linked Below).

In the mid 1700’s 25 to 30 per cent of the Scottish population of 900,000 spoke Gaelic. By the start of the 19th Century, the proportion was around one-fifth of the population. By 1881, it had dropped to 6.2 per cent. By 1921, the number of Gaelic speakers had fallen to 158,779 (3.3 per cent of the national population) …. Gaelic by this time, had become a minority language in most Highland parishes.”:

The are many reasons for the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers. McLeod and Jones cite the Scottish Civil Wars of the 1600’s, the Act of Union of 1707 and subsequent transfer of civil authority to London, the demise of the clan system and the tragedy of the highland Clearances, among other factors in the great sweep of British history.

However, there is one “nail in the coffin” so to speak, that did monstrous damage to the Celtic language, “The Education (Scotland) Act 1872”. This vicious legislation introduced compulsory schooling for children across Scotland, but excluded the teaching of Gaelic.  The move has been regarded as hugely damaging to the use and promotion of the language.  Even before the (1872) act was introduced, education authorities were actively discouraging Gaelic and pushed young speakers towards speaking English fluently. The Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, set up in 1709, was said to have been "outwardly hostile" towards Gaelic in its work educating young Gaels.  It told teachers to ban its use in schools and playgrounds. Following the act, “children caught speaking Gaelic were belted and faced further corporal punishment if they did not give up the names of classmates they had been talking to.”  - BBC News August 1, 2012

Things are looking up. A change is taking place to right the historical wrongs against Gaelic embodied in the 1872 Act. There has been a stunning victory for Scots Gaelic in the Scottish Parliament.  Under the 2016 Education Bill Scotland’s local authorities will be required to provide a public education in Gaelic if requested by parents. This statute applies even if the area has no history of Gaelic speaking.  In reaction, Scotland’s Bòrd Na Gàidhlig issued the following statement hailing this historic breakthrough for the Celtic tongue of Scotland:

 “This final part of the Parliamentary process has left Gaelic, and Gaelic education in a much stronger position than ever before. We have an entitlement across Scotland for Gaelic-medium primary education which will ensure that Councils will treat seriously and consistently, the aspirations of parents for Gaelic education while working within a national framework. The detail of the application of this legislation will be developed by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and its partners, and we are well down the road of preparing the Statutory Guidance…for full implementation”.

In 2015 data issued by “National Records Scotland” it was shown there had been a sharp rise in young people with Gaelic Language skills.  Drawing on 2011 census data, the trend is a dramatic increase in the number of children speaking Gaelic.  This is very good news for the future of the Celtic tongue of Scotland.  A spokesman for the Gaelic board, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, added at the time: “It is very encouraging that the decline previously seen has almost stabilized and that there has been growth in Gaelic speakers between the age of three to 19. This is evidence of the successes of Gaelic-medium education.”

The future of Scots Gaelic is with it's children and the future is bright.

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