Scots Gaelic Needs a Strong Advocate - It is Time for a Gaelic Language Commissioner

A leading advocate for Scots Gaelic in the movement to revitalize the Celtic Tongue has called for the appointment of a Scots Gaelic Language Commissioner. The Post would be similar to current offices held in the Welsh and Irish Governments.

Professor Rob Dunbar, Chair of Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is quoted in an article posted to the website “Herald Scotland” (linked below) noting defects in the enforcement mechanism that is intended to ensure compliance with Scottish language law as it applies to Gaelic. It is these defects that have prompted Professor Dunbar to call for a Scottish Language Czar: “The whole enforcement mechanism is very poorly developed and what recourse members of the public have is very unclear.  I have a concern that for many the Gaelic language plans that have been created are not being implemented very vigorously and I suspect in many cases the plans get put on a shelf and the public never find out about them. The plans have not had a very dramatic effect in terms of increasing the use of Gaelic because they are not being implemented and they are not being enforced and it is time to look at the creation of an office that can look at what is going on and holding public bodies to account.”

Dunbar’s comments were triggered by the case of 49 families in Scotland’s East Renfrewshire. The parents request for Gaelic primary school education was rejected by the local Council. The Council placed what some have interpreted to be unreasonable conditions in meeting the parents request for the provision of Gaelic medium primary schooling for their children.  The Council in turn has been criticized for noncompliance with the 2016 Education (Scotland) Act. The 2016 Legislation places the onus on local Councils to “… investigate the case for a Gaelic school or unit whenever the parents ask for one, as long as there is sufficient support...”.  Clearly when 49 families submit a request for Gaelic medium schooling that meets the “sufficient support” clause in the legislation.

Under 2016 language law it is the responsibility of the Bòrd na Gàidhlig to develop policy and compel public bodies, such as the East Renfrewshire Council, to report on the status of Gaelic language plans.  The current arrangement lacks a mechanism to investigate non-compliance with Scottish Gaelic statute.  The Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established as a public body by the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The legislation was designed to promote the use of Scottish Gaelic, secure the status of the language and ensure its long-term future.  The Act sets out 3 main aims for Bòrd na Gàidhlig: to increase the number of persons who are able to use and understand the Gaelic language; to encourage the use and understanding of the Gaelic language; and to facilitate access, in Scotland and elsewhere, to the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture".   The Bòrd is required to prepare and submit to Scottish ministers a national Gaelic language plan every five years.

Citing the performance of the role of Bòrd na Gàidhlig in enforcing Scottish Gaelic language law, Professor Dunbar is quoted as follows: “I have some sympathy with Bòrd na Gàidhlig because on the one hand they are working with public bodies to prepare a language plan, but they are also expected to follow up and push public bodies that are not implementing (such as the East Renfrewshire Council) so that is a difficult position. A Commissioner would provide a sense that there was an ombudsman for the public and also a watchdog to ensure Gaelic language plans don’t sit on the shelf for five years gathering dust.”

The Irish model sadly shows that having a Language Commissioner in place does not ensure follow through on legislative mandates when it applies to the Gaelic tongue.  Ireland's first Language Commissioner (An Coimisineir Teanga) Seán Ó Cuirreáin was appointed language commissioner by the President of Ireland in February 2004 on the advice of Government following resolutions approving the appointment in both houses of parliament. He was reappointed in a similar manner for a further 6-year term of office in 2010 but announced in late 2013 that he would stand-down from his position in February 2014 out of frustration because various government agencies were not, despite the actions of Ó Cuirreáin, following through on their statutory obligations as they apply to Gaelic.

In fact, Ó Cuirreáin’s successor, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, is no more successful than his predecessor. In April of this year Ó Domhnaill issued a scathing condemnation of the Irish Government’s failure to comply with the Official Languages Act. The Irish Times reported: “Ó Domhnaill, has concluded that language schemes for public bodies have failed to achieve their goals and need to be urgently replaced. The schemes, under the Official Languages Act, were introduced to ensure that at least some services in councils, local authorities, State agencies and departments would be available in Irish. This was to be particularly so in Gaeltacht areas, where native speakers would have access to services through Irish. However, Mr. Ó Domhnaill’s report has found that almost half (56) of the 116 schemes have expired. Six of the schemes have been expired for seven years or more.”

In contrast to Dublin's malign indifference to the Irish language, the situation is different in Scotland.  Scots Gaelic enjoys genuine support from Edinburgh and with the right man, or woman, in the Scots Gaelic Language Comissioner's chair, the future of the Celtic tongue of Scotland can be a bright one.


This blog is provided for general informational purposes only. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and not necessarily those of