Gaelic is not dying. Commentators have been predicting Gaelic’s death for some time, but Gaelic is nowhere near going out of use as a spoken language in Scotland. Gaelic will be spoken by learners, new speakers, and native speakers alike long after everyone reading this post is dead and buried. Gaelic communities are, however, rapidly changing, and that change is a cause for deep anguish for many. The political scientist William W. Bostock (1997) has called this sort of distress ‘language grief’, the collective despair that communities can feel when they perceive that their language is falling out of use.
As in any situation where a community is grieving, it can be natural to try to assign blame. We can see this happening in current debates about the future of Gaelic, with claims and counter claims that different groups are to blame for Gaelic’s ‘demise’: academics, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the government, learners, native speakers, Gaelic-medium educators, and so on, but the truth is that no living group of Gaelic speakers or supporters is to blame. The current state of Gaelic speaking communities is the result of political, economic, and social forces acting over centuries. Assigning blame is understandable but thoroughly counterproductive if we want to build the kind of social movement that can actually help to increase Gaelic-language acquisition and use in Scotland.
No one disagrees about the numbers, but there is substantive disagreement about the best course of action. We now have reliable data from several research teams suggesting that the last traditional Gaelic communities in the Western Isles arrived at a kind of tipping point sometime in the late 1960s and 1970s when community-level transmission of the language to children born in those years started to break down. (cf. Smith-Christmas & Smakman 2009; Mac an Tàilleir et al. 2010; Ó Giollagáin et al. 2020)
While many families in these communities still raise their children in Gaelic and/or send their children to Gaelic-medium units, that ‘tipping-point’ generation is now in its 50s and 60s, and for generations below this age, the default community language is overwhelmingly English. Gaelic has not died, but it has changed from a community-transmitted language to a network language everywhere in Scotland now. That is the reality. The question is what to do about it.
There is no reason to believe that in the long-term Gaelic could not be revived as a community-transmitted language in many places in the Highlands and Islands, but this will require years of grassroots language activism in these areas, and anyone who argues that we can build the kind of sustained community-wide support required for such a huge effort in the short-term, or even in the medium-term, is very much underestimating the enormity of the task.
It is also important to recognize that rural communities today are fundamentally different from Gaelic communities fifty or a hundred years ago, and not just in terms of language use. In general, UK society is becoming ever more cosmopolitan, mobile, and atomized, and communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are no exception. Discussions around the Scottish Gaelic revival often suffer from a great deal of romanticism about traditionally Gaelic-speaking communities, but the reality is that both the relative isolation and the intensely communal way of life that once sustained the language in the Northwest of Scotland are now long gone. We cannot go back in time, and in many respects, we wouldn’t want to.
Instead, the work now is to build on our successes over the last fifty years of Gaelic-revival activism and strengthen Gaelic networks throughout Scotland, anywhere Gaelic speakers can be found, from Edinburgh to Shawbost. Sleat in Skye can be seen as one model of what can be accomplished in terms of strengthening a dense rural network of Gaelic speakers. Gaelic in Sleat is not a community-transmitted language, yet, but it is also very much not dead, and there is no reason to believe that we could not replicate many elements this model throughout the Highlands and Islands.
We need to build a broad movement across Scotland to revive Gaelic, and to do that, we need to build solidarity between Gaelic speakers of all kinds, and neither finger pointing nor proclaiming Gaelic’s imminent demise will help us at all in this effort. Of course we have to be realistic about the state of Gaelic, but we also have lots of reasons to be optimistic.
People cannot be scared or shamed into saving a language. Rather, the future of Gaelic can only be built on a foundation of solidarity and optimism.
More on some of the concepts I used above:
Living language — What makes a ‘living’ language is a question of ideology, not demographics. There is no objective linguistic or sociological measure that we can use to say definitively that a language is living or dead. It really is just an opinion. Any language that is in some way still used and passed on could be considered ‘living’ depending on your criteria. The key factor is not speaker density, but language loyalty. If speakers are zealous about using their language and passing it on, that language community will persist and possibly even grow, but if speakers are shifting to using and passing on a new language, it doesn’t really matter how closely they live together; their language will sooner or later pass out of use.
Community-transmitted language — A language can said to be transmitted to the next generation by the whole community when (almost) everyone in a given place speaks a particular language, and that language is used as the common means of social interaction between all generations in most or all situations. Is such a case, children not only acquire the language from their parents and teachers, but also from extended family members, from neighbours, and also critically, after a certain age, from other children. For some, community language transmission is what makes a language ’really’ living, but as above, this is just an opinion rather than some linguistic fact. The best current data strongly suggests that it has been several generations since Gaelic was a fully community-transmitted language anywhere in Scotland.
Network language — A network language would be one that is spoken by a network of speakers spread out more or less densely in any given area and linked by a variety of sites of language use. In the case of Gaelic, such sites might include GME units and schools, Gaelic higher education, Gaelic-language workplaces, Gaelic-language church services, Gaelic events like the Mòdan and the Fèisean, Gaelic activist and special-interest groups, formal and informal Gaelic social centres (such as the proposed Cultarlann in Inverness or the Park Bar in Glasgow), and Gaelic-speaking homes. Gaelic’s future as a network language in Scotland is far from certain, but there is no reason to believe that Gaelic-speaker networks throughout the country couldn’t persist and even grow in the future.
Tha e soilleir gu bheil an deasbad ann an iomairt na Gàidhlig air a dhol a dh’àite gu math dorcha o chionn greis. Tha sealladh agus modh conaltraidh air èiridh nar n-iomairt a nì, ma leigeas sinn leotha, fada a bharrachd cron na feum. Mar sin, gus sealladh agus modh conaltraidh nas cothromaichte agus nas ion-ghabhalta a bhrosnachadh, tha mi fhìn is cuid dhem cho-obraichean air an seiminear shìos a chur air dòigh:
Anns an t-seiminear, bithear a-mach air ceithir ceistean co-cheangailte:
Dè tha ag obair ann an iomairt na Gàidhlig an-dràsta, agus ciamar a thèid togail air an t-soirbheas seo anns an àm ri teachd?
Ciamar a thig sinn còmhla gus na diofar choimhearsnachdan Gàidhlig againn uile a neartachadh?
Ciamar a thogas sinn iomairt airson na Gàidhlig a bhios an dà chuid fosgailte agus eugsamhail?
Gu pearsanta, tha mi gu sònraichte draghail gu bheil an tuigse ùr, dhorcha seo air sgaraidhean a chruthachadh ann an saoghal na Gàidheal a bhios an dà chuid a’ lagachadh èifeachd ar n-iomairt mar ghluasad sòisealta, bonn-a-nìos, ach cuideachd, a’ dùnadh a-mach cuid a Ghàidheil o mheadhan na h-iomairt a rèir fheartan pearsanta mar àite-fuirich, cinneadh is gineil. Tha mi a’ creidsinn gum b’ e dosgainn mhòr a bhiodh ann dhan iomairt againn nan gabhamaid ris na sgaraidhean seo.
Chan eil brìgh sam bith anns an t-sealladh ‘suim-neoni’ a tha air fàs cho bitheanta nar measg o chionn greis, am beachd gun dèan leasachadh anns an dàrna coimhearsnachd cron no dìmeas air coimhearsnachdan eile ann an dòigh air choreigin. Chan ann mar sin a bhios gluasadan sòisealta ag obair idir.
’S e neart a th’ ann eugsamhlachd. Mar a thuirt iomairtiche cànain rium corra sheachdain air ais: cha bu chòir dhuinn uile a bhith a’ sabaid an aghaidh a chèile airson slis nas motha dhen phaidh; bu chòir dhuinn a bhith a’ sabaid còmhla, ri guaillibh a chèile, airson paidh nas motha dhuinn uile.
Tha seo dìreach sgoinneil! Chaidh am program seo a dhèanamh le Cass Ezeji, agus thachair mi an toiseach ris an obair aice nuair a leugh mi an t-alt drùidhteach a sgrìobh i ann an Scottish Affairs o chionn greis. Tha coltas a cheart cho cumhachdach air a’ phrogram seo. Canar gun tèid a sgaoileadh tràth an ath mhìos, agus tha mi a’ dèanamh fiughair mhòr, mhòr ris.
Bha mi air mo dhòigh ghlan a chluinntinn gun deach Tinte na Fairge Duibhe a chur ris an geàrr-liosta dhan duais Gradam de Bhaldraithe am bliadhna aig Oireachtas na Gaeilge (am Mòd ann an Èirinn). ’S e Gradam de Bhaldraithe an duais aca dhan leabhar eadar-theangaichte as fheàrr agus mealaibh-ur-naidheachd air an eadar-theangaichear, Eoin P. Ó Murchú, agus air an fhoillsichear, Darach Ó Scolaí, aig Leabhar Breac. Nach math a rinn iad!!
Níorbh fhéidir liom an bunleabhar a léamh toisc go bhfuil mo chuid Gaeilge na hAlban saghas bunúsach, ach iompraíonn aistriúchán Eoin P. Ó Murchú an fuadar is na sceitimíní go dtí an leagan Gaeilge go sciliúil.
Cha b’ urrainn dhomh an leabhar tùsach a leughadh leis gu bheil mo chuid Gàidhlig na h-Alba rudeigin bunasach, ach dh’ath-theangaich Eoin P. Ó Murchú an othail agus an ireapais gu Gàidhlig na h-Èireann gu sgileil.
Tá mé gafa ag ficsean eolaíochta arís agus ag dréim go mór leis an chéad úrscéal eile ó Tim Armstrong!
Tha mi glaicte le ficsean saidheans a-rithist agus a’ dèanamh fiughair mhòr ris an ath nobhail aig Tim Armstrong!
Chan eil cus chothrom agam a dhol air trèanaichean an-dràsta!
Cha robh mi air trèana sam bith am-bliadhna fhathast agus cha robh mi air trèana ach mu 5 tursan bhon Mhàirt 2020 uile gu lèir.
Ach tha mi air a bhith a’ dol air feadh an t-saoghail tro leabhraichean is bhidiothan agus tha an glasadh-sìos air leisgeil a thoirt dhomh beagan rannsachaidh a dhèanamh air rudan gu math faisg orm agus gus tòrr leabhraichean a cheannach air rudan a tha an dà chuid air an stairsneach agam fhèin agus gu math fad air falbh bhuam!
Seo na leabhraichean is cairtean-puist a tha mi air cheannach bho chionn ghoirid:
A chionn ’s nach urrainn dhomh Ghlaschu a Deas fhàgail an-dràsta, tha mi air a bhith a’ coimhead air na tha air fhàgail de slighean-trama, slighean bus-tràilidh agus seann rathaidean-iarainn air na cuairtean làitheil agam.
Tha mi ag obair air puist mu na leanas an-dràsta. Ma tha beachd sam bith agaibh leig fios – a bheil rud sam bith eile a bu toil leibh fhaicinn?
Rathaidean-iarainn ann an Ibrox agus Baile a’ Ghobhainn
Tramaichean-smùid Bhaile Ghobhainn
Trama-eich ainmeil ann am Fionntamhnach (Fintona) ann an Contae Tír Eoghain, Èirinn (agus rathaidean-iarainn neo-àbhaisteach ann an Èirinn!)
It is vitally important that we build a Gaelic-revival movement that is as inclusive and open as possible. Both tactically and ethically, a revival that excluded any speakers would be a dead end. But to open up the revival to everyone, we first need to redefine the central Gaelic identity, the Gael, to include everyone who speaks the language, regardless of race, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, place of residence, or anything else.
While this path forward is progressive, and precedented in other language-revival movements (e.g. Urla 1988), it is not surprising perhaps that some voices have been raised against the idea. In the course of these counter-arguments, critics have sometimes made their own normative statements about who is a real Gael, voicing, as it were, their understanding of what is ‘common sense’ or what ‘the community’ really believes.
But how do they know? When folk hold forth on this issue, speaking either as non-Gaels or as Gaels themselves, and making broad statements about who is inside and outside of the group, how do they really know what other Gaelic speakers actually think? As humans, we are pretty poor at estimating the opinions of others, and we tend to see our own views as more average or normal than they actually are. (Kitts 2003, Mullen et al. 1985) Is there really any consensus out there about the identity of a real Gael, and if there is, how would we know?
As it turns out, Gaelic identity is a fairly well-studied question in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology in Scotland. We now have some excellent data on how different groups understand their identity as Gaelic speakers. In this post, I would like to review some of these data and consider what they can tell us about the real state of Gaelic identity in Scotland, and show, unequivocally I think, that the situation is very complex, and that we do not presently have anything like a consensus on this question, in traditional Gaelic communities or anywhere else.
Some of the best recent data on Gaelic identity in traditional Gaelic-speaking communities were collected by a pair of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the late Frank Bechhofer and his research partner David McCrone. As they explained it, they sought to identify those attributes that folk in traditional Gaelic communities consider essential in order to be recognized as a Gael:
So what makes a Gael? Is it a matter of language: if you speak Gaelic, you are a Gael; and if not, [why] not? So, if you are an incomer to the Gàidhealtachd and you become fluent in Gaelic, do people accept you as a Gael? Or is that insufficient? Does someone need to have ancestral roots – traceable through their family? And can you be a Gael if you do not live in the Gàidhealtachd? If speaking Gaelic is not all-important, how do these markers – speaking Gaelic, living in the Gàidhealtachd, and having Gaelic ancestry – stack up against each other? Does having the language trump residence and/or ancestry? Would you be taken for a Gael if you have ancestry, but neither residence nor language?
Bechhofer and David McCrone 2014: 127
Bechhofer and McCrone asked a sample of folk living in Gaelic-speaking areas, people who themselves strongly identified as Gaels, if they would accept a range of different kinds people as fellow Gaels, and this is what they found:
80% of these Gaels would accept someone else as a fellow Gael if that person had Gaelic ancestry, could speak Gaelic, but did not live in the Gàidhealtachd.
64% would accept someone as a fellow Gael if that person lived in the Gàidhealtachd and had Gaelic ancestry, but did not themselves speak Gaelic.
58% would accept someone as a fellow Gael if that person spoke Gaelic and was born in Scotland, but did not have Gaelic ancestry.
29% would accept anyone with Gaelic ancestry as a fellow Gael.
28% would accept any Gaelic speaker as a fellow Gael, even if they were not born in Scotland.
As we can see, several markers of identity appear to be important, but not to the same degree by all people, or in the same combination. Some folk were fairly restrictive, requiring a combination of markers including place of residence, ancestry and Gaelic ability, while a significant minority were open to extending membership based on ancestry or Gaelic ability alone.
From these data, it appears that a clear majority (58%) would be willing to consider someone without Gaelic ancestry as a fellow Gael, as long as that person was born in Scotland and could also speak Gaelic, for instance, a Scottish child of African or Asian decent attending GME in Edinburgh or Glasgow. And it also appears that a significant minority of Gaels in this group (28%) would even be willing to consider a new speaker of Gaelic from Seattle like myself as a fellow Gael.
We can imply from these data that those who would take the most restrictive definition of a Gael (i.e. someone of Gaelic ancestry, with Gaelic acquired in the home and living in a Gaelic-speaking area) would be very much in the minority amongst those Gaels actually living in these areas. Based on these data, Bechhofer and McCrone concluded that, “Gaelic identity should be considered as open and fluid, rather than fixed and given.” (2014: 127)
Others have asked some of the same questions, but of learners or new speakers, rather than speakers from traditional communities, and the results are interesting. Some of the most comprehensive research on Gaelic learners in Scotland was conducted about twenty years ago by Alasdair MacCaluim for his PhD thesis. Alasdair asked learners in his survey if they considered themselves Gaels, and surprisingly, while only 23.8% of beginner learners considered themselves Gaels, as many as 56.1% of fluent learners did. (MacCaluim 2002: 180) Also interestingly, only 6.6% of the learners in his survey would define a Gael as anyone who speaks Gaelic, (MacCaluim 2006: 195), ironically, significantly lower than the number of Gaels living in Gaelic-speaking areas who would do the same.
More recently (2014), Wilson McLeod, Bernadette O’Rourke and Stuart Dunmore published a report of interviews and focus-group sessions with 35 new speakers from Glasgow and Edinburgh and found that, “most of the participants […] did not feel themselves to be Gaels.” (21) These data were collected from interviews, while MacCaluim’s data above were collected in a survey, from a somewhat different group, and also, more than a decade earlier, so it is difficult to compare these results directly, but it is fair to say that there appears to be no more of a consensus about Gaelic identity amongst learners and new-speakers as there is amongst people living in traditional communities.
There is a particular subset of Gaelic speakers that is especially important to the future of the language, and they are students in GME. In 2005, James Oliver published results of interviews with high school students in Glasgow and Skye, looking at the differences in identity between students in the GME stream and the EME stream, and he found that, at this stage in their education, most GME students identified as Gaels, while learners and non-Gaelic speakers generally did not:
Are you a Gael
Oliver 2005: 9-10
This shows fairly strong support for Gaelic identity amongst GME students, but more recent research amongst former GME students shows far less support. Stuart Dunmore interviewed 130 adults who entered GME between 1985 and 1995, and he found that only a minority of these graduates still used Gaelic daily, and that very few identified as Gaels:
[…] the majority of Gaelic medium-educated adults’ identification as Gaels was either weak, or rejected out of hand. […] if immersion pupils do not develop social identifications and supportive ideologies toward the languages through which they are educated, it should not necessarily be surprising if they do not then speak the language outside of the classroom, or after completing formal education.
Dunmore 2017: 737
Here Dunmore also proposes that their may be a direct causal link between former GME students’ weak identification with Gaelic on the one hand and their low reported use of the language in their daily lives on the other.
Heretofore, we have been considering Gaelic identity in Scotland, but of course, Gaelic isn’t only spoken here. Dunmore has also recently published results from research conducted on new speakers of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, and he found that Canadian new speakers are markedly more likely to see themselves as Gaels (and proudly so, apparently) than their Scottish counterparts:
Whilst such a clear rejection of a social identity as Gaels is by no means uniformly expressed by all members of this group, the ethnolinguistic category is overwhelmingly avoided or problematized by most Scottish new speakers in my research. By contrast, Nova Scotian new speakers’ Gaelic identities are frequently expressed in enthusiastic terms, and it is clear that most new speakers in Nova Scotia embrace the Gael(ic) label when describing their identification with the language and motivations for having learned it.
Dunmore 2020: 12
There is much more research on this subject. Other researchers have conducted quite a bit of qualitative research on this question, but the data above represent some of the best quantitative and quasi-quantitative research to date, and they give a clear picture of the diversity of Gaelic identities in Scotland (and Canada). We definitely do not have a consensus on what is a Gael is anywhere, among any group of speakers, and therefore, I believe that going forward, as we work on the issue of Gaelic identity in our revival movement, it is critical that we build on the most open, inclusive conceptions of Gaelic identity and create a movement that is as broad as possible.
There will be plenty of very active Gaelic speakers who will have no interest in identifying as Gaels, and that is cool too. Everyone should be welcome, but that central identity has to be open to all, or we risk creating a two-tier revival where some speakers are considered more legitimate or valuable than others.
If we insist, as some would, on defining the core Gaelic identity, the Gael, very narrowly, based on some combination of ancestry, place of residence and language, we would exclude most Gaelic speakers in the process. We would exclude most of the young, fluent Gaelic speakers on my course at SMO, for instance. We would also exclude the nearly half of all Gaelic speakers who do not live in the Gàidhealtachd. And we would exclude most students in GME. It should be clear that this would be neither sustainable nor ethical.
But if we create a Gaelic identity that is open to all, it diminishes nobody. Loads of proud young Gaels in Canada, for instance, don’t diminish Gaels in Scotland in any way, and by the same token, proud young Gaels in Edinburgh or Glasgow won’t diminish Gaels in Lochboisdale, in Staffin, in Shawbost or anywhere else. It is not a zero-sum game. Nobody has to lose. The whole notion of language ownership is regressive and counterproductive in a Gaelic context. Gaelic is big enough for everyone, and the more speakers that we can welcome into our movement, the stronger and more vital the language revival will be.
I am super lucky to work at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The College is a lively and diverse microcosm of the whole Gaelic world. Gaelic speakers come from all over Scotland, and indeed from all around the planet, to work and study here. There are folk here like me, new speakers with no previous connection to Gaelic who are drawn to the College purely out of a love for the language. And there are native speakers from traditional communities who have selflessly dedicated their lives to passing on their language and culture to the next generation. But there are also plenty of folk who don’t fit neatly into either of those two groups.
There are students and staff who have grown up in Gaelic-speaking families, but outside of traditional Gaelic communities: in the East, in the Lowlands, and the cities of Scotland. There are those who were raised in Gaelic but by parents who learned the language as adults. There are those who grew up around Gaelic, and perhaps even spoke some of the language as children, but who did not acquire full proficiency, and who come to the College to learn or relearn the language as adults. There are white, Black and Asian students. There are native Scots, immigrants and foreigners. And of course, there are many students now, of all backgrounds, who acquired some or all of their Gaelic in GME rather than in the home.
And preconceptions notwithstanding, diversity in the Gaelic world is nothing new; Gaelic has always been a broad church. Historically, Gaels have been crofters and fishermen; peasants, clergy and kings; pirates and decedents of Vikings; Lowlanders and Highlanders; Scots, Manx, Irish and Canadians; Catholics, Protestants and Existentialists; scholars, poets and mercenary solderers; Jacobites and Hanoverians; Tories, Communists, Nationalists and Socialists, and much else. The one thing, perhaps the only thing, that all these different Gaels shared was the Gaelic language itself.
It is in this very diversity that we will now find a way forward for Gaelic. If we can embrace all Gaelic speakers as fellow Gaels, we will have the best chance of building the sort of revival movement that will guarantee a future for Gaelic as a spoken language in Scotland for generations to come.
Check this out! Ciara Ní É from What the Focal just posted an interview with Eoin P. Ó Murchú about the difference between Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic, Gàidhlig na h-Alba, Gaeilge na hAlban) and Irish (Irish Gaelic, Gàidhlig na h-Èireann, Gaeilge na hÉireann). Eoin translated my Gaelic novel, Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach, into Irish, and here he talks about the difference between the two languages and how he approached the translation: