Gaelic: Getting Out of The Last Chance Saloon

‘Gaelic language in “crisis” in island heartlands’. ‘Warning Gaelic “could be dead” in 10 years. ‘Gaelic “disappearing” from Scottish island communities’. These were the apocalyptic headlines a couple of months ago.

These stories were based on two years of research by a collaboration of Scottish universities headed up by the University of the Highlands and Islands. The study looked at those places where Gaelic is still a community language: the whole of the Western Isles, Staff in on Skye and Tiree.

Curious to see what they had found in a bit more detail, and particularly to see what they had unearthed on Tiree, I ordered the full report, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community. It is 480 pages of solid reading. The researchers had gone beyond the Census figures and looked at children in Gaelic pre-school units and surveyed teenagers in the Outer Isles. And a few of you may remember a 2016 public consultation they held in An Talla. It is blindingly obvious that Gaelic is much less part of day-to-day Tiree life than it used to be.

A little over a century ago, in 1901, almost half (44%) of the island’s population could only speak Gaelic. By 1981, 74% of the Tiree residents reported that they could speak some Gaelic. This was down to 38% at the last Census in 2011, and the figure is expected to fall to 31% by next year. This is the lowest percentage in any of the communities where Gaelic is commonly spoken, and compares to 66% in South Uist.

But the study found that ticking ‘yes’ next to the census question ‘Can you speak Gaelic?’ is not the same thing as what they call ‘active Gaelic speakerhood’. Although half the children on Tiree can speak Gaelic (thanks to the outstanding work of the Gaelic medium unit), Gaelic is only spoken by adults and children in 15% of households on the island. In a detailed study of teenagers in the Western Isles (not Tiree), almost half could talk Gaelic at least reasonably. But they tended not to use it talking to their parents or to each other, particularly when they were discussing important things like gaming, music or films. Surprisingly, more than half did not consider themselves ‘Gaels’.

The numbers of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has been falling for 150 years. The 1872 Education Act – which built five new schools on Tiree, but because of which Gaelic was deliberately downgraded and stigmatised – has been a huge factor. So were centuries of discrimination against Highlanders as a poor and backward people – something that has only recently changed.

Tiree has been particularly badly hit because of our endless migration to find work in Vancouver and Glasgow. You can’t blame a lack of money. Last year £28 million was spent in Scotland on Gaelic broadcasting, teaching and the quango Bòrd na Gàidhlig. But most of this is topdown spending, designed to raise the language’s status and its ‘visibility in the public space’.

For example, Scottish Natural Heritage is now bound to create a glossy Gaelic Language Plan, updated every five years. This includes policies such as ‘We will continue to use a bilingual version of the disclaimer that accompanies all SNH e-mails’. This is not to belittle the efforts of SNH staff. The point is that this sort of spending does not get teenagers talking to each other in Gaelic in Balephetrish. The report recommends a change of tack. We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and expect things to turn around.

We have to do something radically different, and we mustn’t expect government to come up with the answer. We need to put our resources into basic things, like encouraging mothers to speak to their children in Gaelic at home and like making it cool for teenagers to talk about Call of Duty in Gaelic. Exactly what the Tiree Trust’s outstanding Gaelic Development Officers – Ishbel Campbell, for the last two years, and now Rhoda Meek – are doing. Just more of it.

Tiree entered what the authors dispiritingly call the ‘moribund phase’ some time between 2001 and 2011. This is when less than 45% of a community speaks Gaelic, and less than 15% of family households have Gaelic as their main language. The figures for Tiree nine years ago were 38% and 15%. We are drinking in the last chance saloon. Some would say that we have taken up the dinner, bed and all-day breakfast option there. But we might be able to turn the situation around.

The two bright spots are that that Gaelic is still spoken in 15% of the island’s family households and that 51% of our young people can speak Gaelic. The job in hand is to make them to want to keep speaking it. That needs commitment from Gaelic speakers and non-Gaelic speakers alike to get to a situation where at least half the island can speak some Gaelic. Do we have that? If you want to continue this discussion, do contact me.

Dr John Holliday | 220385 |