Gaelic advocates in Scotland seek to reverse the language’s rapid decline

As John Finlayson grew up, almost everyone in his community on the Isle of Skye was fluent in Gaelic. Now, despite decades of official support for what was once the dominant language of most of the Isles and the Scottish Highlands, the Finlaysons can only think of a single neighbor of their family. on the island speak that language.

“We have been trying to make Gaelic sustainable for many years. So why do we fail? That’s a big question,” said Finlayson, 63, a former principal and chair of the Highland local council’s education committee.

It is a question of growing political urgency amid signs that Gaelic’s long-term linguistic regress has become a habit.

A study of areas where Gaelic is relatively strong, published last year, suggests that Old Celtic may “soon cease to exist as a community language in any part of Scotland”.

“The remaining native networks will not exist anywhere to any significant extent, under current circumstances, beyond this decade,” says research, led by Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, professor of Gaelic studies at the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI).

John Finlayson
John Finlayson can only think of a single neighbor of his Gaelic-speaking family © Charlie Bibby / FT

The Scottish Nationalist government is now considering emulating Ireland – where Gaelic Scotland’s lingua franca is also under pressure – by grouping areas where the language is relatively strong into a “Gáidhealtachd”, a Regions will receive special treatment to support this language.

There was widespread support for Gaelic, Gaelic in the 11th century was spoken throughout Scotland before being eclipsed by Scots and later by English.

Scotland in 2011 Census just over 1% of people can speak Gaelic.

At Skye, a historic center of Gaelic culture, the challenges and complexities of halting language decline are evident.

The Quiraing Range at the northernmost point of Skye
Skye’s northernmost Quiraing Strip © Charlie Bibby / FT

Young people who have learned the language at home or through the Gaelic high school system struggle to find work or find a home on the island, where homes are often occupied by Southerners eager to try life on the island. Island.

Working remotely allowed Katie Kroll, 30, to return to Skye after a decade away caused her Gaelic proficiency to plummet. Now, the lack of fluent local colleagues makes studying more difficult.

“I have a lot of friends my age who are Gaelic speakers who would love to go back to their communities, but they can’t because there’s not much else to do but hospitality and absolutely no accommodation,” said Kroll. speak.

Katie Kroll
A decade away from Skye has diminished Katie Kroll’s fluency in Gaelic © Charlie Bibby / FT

In Staffin on Skye’s jagged north coast, nearly half of residents said they were fluent in Gaelic in 2011. But Aonghas Ros, a founding member of the local community trust, an organization from facility development, said maintaining regular use is a big challenge.

“English is omnipotent, all-encompassing, absolutely dominating. Unless you’re assertive, Gaelic is simply pushed aside,” says Ros.

Aonghas Ros
Aonghas Ros: ‘English is omnipotent, all-encompassing, absolutely dominating’ © Charlie Bibby / FT

Since Gaelic speakers in Scots also speak English, the growing number of monolingual English speakers in the community has a significant impact on the language used in social situations.

When there were only Gaelic speakers on Staffin’s board, meetings were conducted in Gaelic – but that changes if even one board member doesn’t understand the language.

“You always tend to put off the fact that someone is just an English speaker, a monolingual person, otherwise you would exclude that person,” says Ros.

Calum Munro, chair of Highland council’s Gaelic committee, said the researchers’ forecast of native collapse was correct.

“Already late. We know the situation now, so I think ethically we have to face that challenge and try to do something about it,” he said.

What’s controversial. The UHI study calls for the creation of a new grassroots cooperative that will take over some of the responsibilities and resources of Bárd na Gaidhlig, the agency responsible for Gaelic promotion.

Calum Munro
Calum Munro, Highland council Gaelic committee chair © Charlie Bibby / FT

But Wilson McLeod, a professor of Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, said the study was unfair to condemn current policy and failed to provide evidence for his proposals.

Much may depend on the judgment of Shirley-Anne Somerville, who, as Scotland’s education secretary, is responsible for Gaelic policy.

Somerville has promised new legislation to support the language and review of Bárd na Gaidhlig. However, the cabinet secretary has yet to detail how the Gaelic-speaking Gaidhealtachd might work or say what other new policies could help save the language.

Officials have held discussions on the matter in preparation for a more formal consultation. Somerville told the Financial Times in August: “I go into this with a very open mind.

Post office in both English and Gaelic in Portree
Sign Post Office in both English and Gaelic in Portree on the Isle of Skye © Charlie Bibby / FT

While some anglophone Scots intend to spend any extra money on Gaelic, bold actions will be needed to reverse its decline.

Mairi MacInnes, president of Bárd na Gaidhlig, said rights to Gaelic education need to be strengthened, most policies affecting island communities should be revised and more resources should be provided.

The UHI study criticizes the official attention given to teaching Gaelic as a second language – suggesting more focus is needed on supporting native speakers – but MacInnes praises the growing number of language learners This is in the cities of Scotland.

“The use of language is equally valid, whether it is by someone who is learning it, someone who has learned it fairly well, or someone who is new to it all the time,” says MacInnes.

Children's books in Gaelic
A children’s book in Gaelic being used in a nursery on the Isle of Syke © Charlie Bibby / FT

Some Skye residents feel comfortable that young native speakers and learners are increasingly using Gaelic in their daily lives and on social media.

Anna Pelikan, 28, maintains a Gaelic Instagram page and runs a playgroup that introduces language to children.

Pelikan blamed Gaelic’s decline on linguistic oppression and the infamous 18th and 19th century clearing of Central Highlands and Island populations for more sheep.

But she believes there are enough young people today interested in the language for it to revive. “I am optimistic,” she said. “We’re slowly making our way up the hill.”

Anna Pelikan and young children in a playgroup
Anna Pelikan’s playgroup introduces children to Gaelic © Charlie Bibby / FT

Younger speakers are also often more willing to speak imperfect Gaelic than their shy and more vocal elders, an approach that enhances the character of the language and encourages others to use it. .

“Even if your Gaelic isn’t perfect, it’s better to say a few sentences,” says Raghnall Robertson, a 36-year-old businessman in Skye.

Robertson quotes a maxim. “Better to break Gaelic than Gaelic is dead.”

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