Will Gaelic be able to survive a global language revolution?

2004 September 28
Will Gaelic be able to survive a global language revolution?

Despite centuries of repression, Gaelic is still alive, but now it is under threat from the rising dominance of English. By rights, it should have been long dead. It should have disappeared with the claymore and the peat fire, with the poets reciting the deeds of the clan, with the black highland cattle on the hills. After all, Manx went. And Cornish followed that.

Yet Scottish Gaelic, the language of a lost society, clings on determinedly, like a stubborn small rock in the tide of English engulfing the world. And the Prince of Wales went to pay tribute to its survival.

The Prince visited Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, Scotland's only Gaelic-language university-level college, to encourage staff and students in their mission to preserve the tongue that contains so much of Scotland's history and culture in its nouns and verbs and adjectives, but seems to be so steadily slipping away.

The 2001 census showed that for the first time, regular native speakers of Gaelic had dropped below 60,000: there were 58,552 of them, compared to 65,978 a decade before. Yet Prince Charles made no reference to this fact and instead homed in on what is surely the essential point: «The miracle is,» he said, «that Gaelic has survived at all.»

Can it continue to do so? As we enter the 21st century there are real fears for the long-term subsistence of such a minority language - but there are real hopes as well.

Gaelic's major problem is that it is indeed a relict: the society of which it was the linguistic expression, the tribal life of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, is no more. That came to an abrupt and bloody end at Culloden Moor near Inverness on 16 April, 1746 when the forces of the British Crown, led by the Duke of Cumberland - Butcher Cumberland, as he is remembered - defeated the clansmen who had rallied to Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite revolt.

The Highlanders were massacred - the Camerons, the Stewarts of Appin, the Frasers, Macdonalds, Mackintoshes and Macleans - but the defeat meant far more than just a lost battle. The government determined that the wild men of the hills would never again be a threat to national security, and their customs were proscribed: they could no longer bear arms or wear the plaid (the traditional tartan dress). But a more profound change was that the clan system itself ceased to exist as a functioning social organism.

Before Culloden, clan chiefs had been the benevolent fathers of their people - clann means children in Gaelic - but afterwards they became Anglo-Scottish gentlemen who preferred to disport themselves in the salons of Edinburgh rather than bestride the glens of Argyll, and their clansmen became merely a source of rent and income rather than a family.

Gaelic speakers, already at the geographical margins of Britain, thus became socially marginalised - there was no more formal Gaelic society - and the inevitable decline of their language set in.

It had had an immensely long and noble past. The six Celtic languages of Britain (and Brittany) came originally from central Europe and arrived here long before the Romans did, in two related groups of three – Irish, Scottish and Manx, known as Q-Gaelic, and Welsh, Cornish and Breton, known as P-Gaelic.

(Note for linguistically minded readers: this is because of a consonant shift at the beginning of the word for head, which is ceann in Gaelic, and pen in Welsh. Further note for linguistically minded readers: the first group are much harder to learn than the second.)

Scots Gaelic itself comes from the Ulster dialect of Irish, and was brought across the short leap of St George's Channel about 300ad by an Ulster tribe called in Latin the Scotti, who settled in Argyll and gave their name to Scotland. (Although only in English: the Gaelic for Scotland is Alba.)

Over the next 700 years Gaelic became the language of all of the country: Macbeth, the 11th-century Scottish king and the model for Shakespeare, was a Gaelic speaker. But in the 12th century, in a major cultural shift, Norman-French and Scots (the Scottish dialect of English) ousted Gaelic from the Lowlands, and the Celtic language retreated to the fringe, to the land with which it will always be associated, the Highlands and Islands.

This was where Gaelic had its glory days. It flourished especially under the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of the Clan Donald who for 300 years ruled the whole of the Scottish western seaboard as a Gaelic-speaking state, from their castles at Finlaggan on Islay and Ardtornish on the Sound of Mull. They ruled by seapower, using the birlinn, or Highland galley, to enforce their will from Skye to the Isle of Man.

The Lordship of the Isles itself was abruptly abolished by the Scottish King James IV in 1493 and absorbed into the Crown, where the title is now held by the Prince of Wales. But Gaeldom and Gaelic continued to prosper as long as the clans did, for another two and a half centuries, until Culloden.

Yet there was worse to come. In the 19th century many of Scotland's Highland landowners realised they could make more money from sheep than from rents, and in an example of early ethnic cleansing, threw the small-farming communities off their land.

The marginalised Gaelic speakers were now physically evicted. The Clearances were so brutally effective that they expelled the vast majority of remaining Gaelic speakers from the mainland, leaving the language's only real strongholds in the Western Isles.

Thus by the 20th century Scottish Gaelic was a shrinking linguistic relic on the edge of Britain, apparently destined to go the way of its two Celtic relatives, Manx and Cornish, both of which died out. As the modern age invaded remote communities such as those where Gaelic was spoken, with mass communication, rapid transport, radio and television, its chances looked even slimmer, and by the 1960s you could confidently predict its demise.

Yet it did not happen. For in the 1970s, a feeling for minority languages revived across Europe, from Basque and Catalan, to Breton and Welsh, and Gaelic was swept up in the tide. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, founded in 1973, was but the most visible symbol: perhaps even more important was the revival of teaching in schools, not just teaching the language, but teaching in the language, using Gaelic itself as a medium of education.

About 60 primary schools in Scotland now teach lessons in Gaelic, including Glasgow's Bunsgoil Ghaidhlig Glaschu, where no English is taught. Glasgow, in fact, has nearly 6,000 Gaelic speakers, the largest grouping after the Highlands and Western Isles.

The revival is manifested in many other ways - especially in the media. Several newspapers are published, such as An Gaidheal Ur (The New Gael) and Am Pàipear Beag (The Little Paper - the Gaelic version of the West Highland Free Press). Gaelic radio and television are broadcast, there are modern Gaelic singers and poets, and websites by the dozen. Most of all is the enthusiasm of young speakers, such as those Prince Charles met on Skye.

But will it be enough? For, despite the enthusiasm of the young, most native speakers are older, and the pool is shrinking. The Scottish Executive gives encouragement, spends 13m GBP a year on the language, and is putting a Gaelic Bill before Parliament, but can Gaelic count for long in a global village, when English is driving all before it?

Angela Gillies (Angela Nicilliosa in Gaelic) hopes and thinks it can, but it will need more help than it is getting at the moment. She is the marketing officer for Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and watched Prince Charles tour her college. «He gave us a great lift,» she said. «But we do need more assistance. We need incentives for young people to enter Gaelic-medium teaching, we need to raise Gaelic's profile. We don't get nearly as much help as Welsh does.»

She is hopeful, but she recognises that Gaelic does face real difficulties. And perhaps an ominous straw in the wind was the attempt by Comunn na Gaidhlig, the Gaelic Development Agency, to have Harry Potter translated into Gaelic. Bloomsbury, the publisher, at first agreed, but has gone back on the request, saying it would take too long. Let us hope the sad response from the agency is not a sign of things to come: «Tha luch iomairt an dochas gun deanadh Eanruig Potter dusgadh dhan chanan am measg clann og.» («Campaigners were hoping Harry Potter would help spark a revival of the language among the young»).

The Independent - 28 September 2004