LANGUAGE AND POLITICS 2001: QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY OF BELFAST
GAELIC AT ITS ELEVENTH HOUR – PROSPECTS FOR SURVIVAL
In December 1999 the Scottish Executive set up a task force chaired by John Alick Macpherson to examine arrangements for the public support of Gaelic organisations, and to advise on future policy. Its report was published in September 2000. In December 2000 a Ministerial Advisory Group on Gaelic (MAGOG) chaired by Professor Donald Meek was established to progress the Macpherson Task Force Report. It specified language planning and development as one of its four areas of concern, and was asked what is the objective of maintaining and promoting the language.
As the group member appointed with this remit, I have suggested that Gaelic is uniquely significant to Scotland in the continuing story of the Scottish people from their earliest origins; the key to most of Scotland’s cultural heritage, placenames and personal names; and powerful symbol of identity in a globalising and anglicising world.
Above all I would put forward, the concept of normality and normalisation in this context. Throughout history Gaelic has always been a normal and continuing aspect of Scottish life and culture. Although displaced as the language of government and the majority, Gaelic is nevertheless an essential constituent of Scottish life and culture. Most of its speakers and fellow-citizens wish it to continue to be so in the future. The language is a national resource and asset to be maintained and developed. It has a defining contribution to make to Scotland as a whole, and our image abroad.
Gaelic Language in Society
In the past those in power ceased to treat Gaelic as normal in everyday life and administration, and its speakers often came to accept this situation as legitimate. Today this is questioned, as these attitudes have reduced the extent to which the language is used and spoken. Normality implies passing on the language to future generations, and in regaining its rightful place in public life: media, administration, education, arts, and commerce - both visibly and audibly.
The present position of Gaelic in Scottish society has become highly precarious. At the time of the 1991 census only one Gaelic speaker in three lived in a local area where Gaelic was the majority language. Only one Gaelic speaker in three lived in a family in which all of whose members spoke Gaelic. Over 40% of all Gaelic speakers lived outwith the Highlands and Islands in Lowland Scotland, and only 37% in the Gaelic majority areas: Western Isles, Skye and Tiree.
Gaelic is not only precarious geographically, there is a demographic deficit with only one Gaelic speaker in five (20.5%) in the under-25 age-group (where one in three is the working minimum for speech-community viability.) Between 1981 and 1991 the national net loss of speakers was around 1,300 annually. During this period the incidence of Gaelic amongst 3-15 year-olds in the Western Isles fell from 67% to 49%.
Surveys over the past thirty years have clearly indicated that English has been displacing Gaelic between the generations in family life. The language has considerably weakened in the workplace, church and community life. There are residual strengths in crofting and potential strengths in education. In this last domain, there have been very considerable gains in Gaelic-medium education since its inception in 1985. In 2000/01 there were 34 Gaelic-medium nursery schools providing for 413 children and about 120 voluntary groups providing for about 2,000 children. In the primary sector 60 Gaelic-medium units were educating 1,862 pupils through the medium of Gaelic, and in the secondary sector there were 14 secondary schools educating 326 children in Gaelic-medium streams. In the Western Isles however, only 25.7% of primary pupils were in Gaelic-medium units, compared with 30.7% in Skye and 52.4% in Tiree. The Gaelic-medium primary sector would thus need to be increased some five times merely to keep pace with net language loss as experienced between 1981-91. At present only the preschool sector is operating at this level, and the numbers do not translate into primary one intakes. The secondary sector fails to provide Gaelic-language continuity: 249 P7 Gaelic-medium pupils in 1999/2000 were represented by only 144 S1 Gaelic-stream pupils in 200/01. However, 32 schools were returning a total of 270 fluent Gaidhlig pupils in S1 in this school year.
The pace of Gaelic-English language-shift
Recent research studies of the Gaelic community illustrate the speed of decline in family transmission in Scotland as a whole, and in the Western Isles in particular. The weakness of Gaelic family transmission compared with Welsh in 1991 means that a single Welsh-speaking parent was better at passing on the language than were two Gaelic-speaking parents, although this process differed in various areas of Scotland. Despite the small size of its Gaelic community, the most effective area for family maintenance of Gaelic was Skye & Lochalsh. The extent of marriage and family formation between Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers means that effective transmission of the language must be supported outwith the home. This has long been the case in Wales. Without effective Gaelic-medium education, and modern cultural infrastructure, there are no realistic prospects of maintenance of the language-group.
The extent of use of Gaelic in everyday life has changed rapidly and considerably. Respondents in a mid-90s survey reported how public uses of Gaelic had declined since they were young. Gaelic was maintained best in exchanges outwith the home in the street, etc. Use of Gaelic in shopping declined further, and in church life even more, and at social events, clubs, etc. even further still.
There is considerable loss of Gaelic speakers through death, and this is only partially offset with gains through family transmission and Gaelic-medium education. The only sector which has operated at a comparable level to match net language-loss over recent years has been the pre-school sector. To secure the future prospects for Gaelic this level would need to be matched in the primary and secondary sectors.
Death is not the only source of loss. Migration is also important. There is substantial migration from majority Gaelic areas to the rest of Scotland, and beyond. When this happens many originally Gaelic-speakers seem no longer to regard themselves as such after they have not used the language for a long time. This seemed to be the case in 1991 for Gaelic speakers who had been long resident in Lowland Scotland. The people were still substantially there ten years on from 1981 – but many no longer regarded themselves as Gaelic speakers.
Securing Gaelic for the future
Following extensive public consultations, the Gaelic development agency Comunn na Gaidhlig (CNAG) published its proposals for legislation and ‘secure status’ for Gaelic, and a strategy report ‘Gaidhlig PLC – a development plan for Gaelic’. Misunderstandings about Secure Status for Gaelic (e.g. over bilingual motorway signs in Ayrshire, court proceedings in West Lothian in Gaelic on demand, etc.) can be put into perspective by the recognition given to Romansch, with a similar number of speakers to Gaelic, in Switzerland, a society very comparable in size to Scotland. In over fifty years none of these fears has been realised, and without national recognition the prospects for Romansch would today be bleak to say the least. Status in itself would cost nothing, and might not by itself do a great deal for Gaelic. It would however be the necessary condition for a lot else. For example, BT enables telephone users in Scotland to use Welsh ‘because it is an official language’ (which it isn’t) – and denies similar facilities for Gaelic. Fears and questions about Gaelic are still based on outmoded 19th century models of language in society, and failed examples of language-policy elsewhere. Secure Status proposes specific provisions for Gaelic in its heartland, in the rest of its historic area, and in the rest of Scotland.
Much money is today committed to Gaelic which would have seemed ‘millenial’ twenty or thirty years ago. It is however currently only about £200 per year per Gaelic speaker, and very small change indeed compared with what is spent per head on English language initiatives. It has sometimes been regarded as intended by itself ‘to do the trick’ and reverse the steep decline in Gaelic speakers by this year’s census. This decline is the result of powerful social and economic forces which unplanned largesse will not by itself overcome. Research is needed into both the macro causes in society as a whole, and into the micro causes at the level of the family, community and the individual. A sound research basis is essential to effective language planning and policies for support of the language. Unco-ordinated ad hoc measures and impulse funding, however generous, needs to be targeted and strategised in a coherent pattern according to an overall scheme. Without Secure Status, appropriate research, and results feeding in to a national strategy, the Gaelic decline will become irreversible, and the living community will vanish as it has done for Manx and Cornish – where today strenuous efforts are being made for their revival.
For Gaelic to be maintained, there will need to be fresh policy initiatives. Education will need to be developed, and integrated, at all levels – with swift response to parental demand. Priorities for infrastructure will need to be forthcoming for Gaelic within the family and the community. This infrastructure needs to be available not only in ‘heartlands’ but for Gaels elsewhere in Scotland and beyond. Gaelic communities cannot flourish without economic stability. The language needs to be enhanced and normalised in everyday life. There are already strengths to build upon. Demographic growth can be demonstrated for some age groups and areas between recent censuses – although masked by overall losses. Family transmission has stood up better in some areas than others. Build on these facts. Research the reasons.
This then is the challenge facing the Gaelic community today: not merely the resolve to maintain itself, but the means to understand the social and economic processes which are making this difficult. The advisory group (MAGOG) is remitted to recommend a means of strategising the revitalisation of Gaelic. It will need considerable governmental goodwill and co-operation in order to do this. Any continuing body remitted to undertake language planning and normalisation will need a firm resource and research base from which to develop its work. If Gaelic is to be maintained as a living community language in Scotland, there will need to be commitment and political resolve on the part of the Scottish Executive. These are the issues confronting Gaelic and its speakers today. There is nothing inevitable about any social or human processes, given the will. So, at its 11th hour and 59th minute we can still ensure a continuing future for Gaelic. We do have the will and we can mobilise the power - let us use them!
Comunn na Gaidhlig (1999) Inbhe Thearainte dhan Ghadhlig – Secure Status for Gaelic, Draft Brief for a Gaelic language act, Inverness: CNAG
Comunn na Gaidhlig (no date) Gaidhlig plc – a development plan for Gaelic. Inverness: CNAG
Macpherson, J.A. (2000) Revitalising Gaelic - A National Asset (The Macpherson Task Force Report), Edinburgh: Scottish Executive ISBN 1-84268-025-0
Author / affiliation
Kenneth MacKinnon is Visiting Professor and Emeritus Reader in the Sociology of Language at the University of Hertfordshire, Honorary Fellow in Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, and an associate lecturer in Social Sciences, Education and Language Studies of the Open University. He is also currently an appointed member of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Gaelic (MAGOG), for language planning and development.