Gaelic, it is sad to say, remains a minor language in Scotland today. There was a time when those living in Gaelic regions in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland would have spoken no English but it is not the case now. The majority of folk in Gaelic-speaking regions are bilingual and more often than not would use English in a professional and official capacity, limiting their use of Gaelic to personal relationships. Even in places like the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides, where the majority of the population would be Gaelic speakers, English is also spoken. In 2005 it was estimated that there were 70,000 native Gaelic speakers in Scotland, mainly in the north-west of the country. Hopefully that number has risen in the last 6 years but it is nothing compared to what the numbers were in the past. How did the Gaelic community come to be so small in the first place?
Many historians argue that the decline of the Gaelic language came with the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. Scotland now had to answer to the English monarch. The unification of England and Scotland saw the language of the former come to the fore.The other major event which seemed to spell the death of Gaelic was the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The battle was the final event in a series of Jacobite risings led by Charles Edward Stuart, also known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. He managed to gather support for his cause from some of the Highland Clans who took part in the rebellion. It eventually led not only to their own deaths but the end of the clan way of life. The Battle of Culloden was fought on Drumossie Moor, to the north east of Inverness on April 16th, 1746. The Jacobite rebels were outnumbered by the English troops led by Cumberland by 9,000 to 6,000. The Jacobites were forced to retreat though they managed to take some of Cumberland’s men with them along the way. Most of the clansmen escaped to Inverness but were consequently hunted down by Cumberland’s men.
The final nail in the coffin for Gaelic and the Highland clans came 70 years later. Between 1812 and 1819 thousands of Highlanders were evicted from their dwellings during the Highland Clearances. It resulted in an ethnic cleansing of the area with people either being forced to board emigration ships to the colonies or being burned in their homes if they refused to leave. What was the reason they were being forced to leave their native land? They had to make room for sheep. This event and the Battle of Culloden destroyed the densely populated Gaelic-speaking regions. The native speakers were forced to either disperse or were killed for refusing to do so, resulting in the decline of the language. Even those who remained in the areas were eventually forced to abandon their mother tongue. In 1872 an act was passed which stated that all education in Scottish schools had to be conducted through English. The era of Gaelic-speaking in the Highlands and northern areas of Scotland was well and truly over.
In more recent times, there has been a resurgence in the Gaelic community and it’s not just confined to the Highland areas. In 1973, a
Gaelic-language university, Sabhal Mór Ostaig was founded on the Isle of Skye. It offers members of the local community and indeed the rest of the country the chance to study business, communications and computer technology through Gaelic. Gaelic is still widely spoken on the island as well as on the Isle of Lewis, the Isle of Barra, Uist and in the Hebrides. There is also a growing population of Gaelic speakers in the city of Glasgow. In October 1999, the first fully Gaelic school in the city was established and was attended by 112 students. Today the school educates young children entirely through the medium of Gaelic regardless of ability at entrance level. This increases the likelihood of the language becoming their main form of communicating with one another.
There is also a strong Gaelic speaking community among adults living in Glasgow. In July 2009 a number of people founded the voluntary group Glasgow’s Gaelic Meetup. It began as an avenue for people to come together and converse in Gaelic when language classes had come to an end for the summer. The organisation offers a range of monthly events for its
members, including conversation classes on the last Wednesday of every month. On the third Wednesday of each month the Park Bar plays host to Glasgow’s Gaelic Pub Quiz, providing the entrants with a chance to practice their Gaelic in a relaxed setting. Glasgow’s Gaelic Meetup also championed Scotland’s first ‘Gaelic Awareness Month’ which was held in Glasgow in May of this year. The group also had a hand in setting up Gaelic lessons in the town of Lesmahagow, bringing Gaelic back to the area after more than 600 years!
Members of the Gaelic-speaking community have also adapted themselves to 21st century living. Once every two weeks, Glasgow’s Gaelic Meetup hold Skype conversation classes, giving those who live further afield the chance to improve their language skills. Participants have a group conversation online with a tutor before breaking off into different sections to practice with one another. Everyone usually has different levels of the language so all abilities are catered for. Mygaelic.com is another social forum which caters for people who are interested in learning Gaelic. The website is bilingual and provides its members with the latest news from the Gaelic community across Scotland.
Due to these organisations and further initiatives the future of Gaelic is brightening and more and more people are taking an interest in the language. It will still take a long time for Gaelic to gain a strong foothold in the country but at least it’s beginning to make a comeback.