Scottish Gaelic ‘at point of collapse’, major study finds

Radical community-based revitalisation programme required to avert demise

Scottish Gaelic, a language closely related to Irish, is on the verge of collapse in the communities where it is still spoken, a major new study has found.

The sociolinguistic study conducted in the Gaelic-speaking communities of the Western Isles, Staffin in the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Tiree in Argyll and Bute, found that the language was rarely used by younger generations following its accelerated decline as the community vernacular since the early 1980s.

The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic was conducted by academics at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Soillse, a multi-institutional research project that includes Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye.

Researchers found that the Gaelic-speaking community had fallen to just 11,000 people, the majority of whom were in the 50-plus age category.


Gaelic-language use no longer extends beyond what the authors describe as “fragile and marginal social networks”.

“This is a more severe crisis than the Irish Gaeltacht. The Gaelic communities are smaller and more dispersed,” report author Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin said.

“The Gaelic communities are collapsing and are moving into the final phase of language shift to English, which will culminate in 10 years’ time in the monolingualisation of community language practice,” he warned.

Some 80 per cent of the resident population reported an ability to speak Scottish Gaelic in the 1981 census but this had declined to 52 per cent by the 2011 census.

During this period a net loss of 9,660 Gaelic speakers was recorded, with those aged three to 17 experiencing a fall of 41 per cent.

Radical action

Without radical action the remaining Gaelic-speaking communities do not have the demographic or societal resources to sustain a communal presence beyond the next 10 years, the report’s author warns.

"Gaelic will cease to exist as a community language in any part of Scotland. Language policy and official language bodies will outlive the actual speaker group and the Scottish people will soon only have Gaelic as a heritage language," said Prof Ó Giollagáin.

While Scottish Gaelic is not a core curricular subject in Scotland as Irish is in Ireland, Prof Ó Giollagáin said there were identifiable similarities between what was happening in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd and the experience in the Gaeltacht.

“The similarities relate to process of demographic contraction and loss of social densities of speakers in the vernacular areas and to the similar irrelevance of formal public supports and provision for the Gaelic communities,” he said.

Under certain circumstances, Irish- and Gaelic-speaking communities will disappear to a point where Gaelic culture will only be promoted as an aspect of historical heritage.

“Post-societal Gaelic culture may continue to serve some national requirement in both countries, but it will not be rooted in appreciable social practice,” he said.

Prof Ó Giollagáin said authorities in both jurisdictions should acknowledge the severity of the threat faced by both languages.

“Political leaders and governmental bodies in both jurisdictions should admit publicly the level of crisis faced by the Gaelic communities and consult with each other about devising feasible measures to help the Gaels in the current predicament,” he said.

“Emphasising heritage at a time of societal crisis is not the way to go.”

Gaelic trust

The report authors call for a radical approach to revitalise the vernacular language and propose a new agenda and strategy for Gaelic revitalisation in the islands.

A model for the revival of the Gaelic community is set out by the researchers. It is a language planning and policy model rooted in a community development framework and would involve the establishment of a Gaelic trust to oversee it.

“We found a mismatch between current Gaelic policies and the level of crisis among the speaker group which must be addressed to face the urgency of the language loss in the islands. The primary focus of Gaelic policy should now be on relevant initiatives to avert the loss of vernacular Gaelic,” said Prof Ó Giollagáin.

There are signs of hope, however, as the greater levels of Gaelic ability in comparison to practice indicates a potential for the more productive use of the language in various social settings than is currently being realised.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.