Gaelic is a founding language of Scotland and was at some time in the country’s history spoken almost everywhere. The only modern administrative regions which have no significant Gaelic heritage are the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Gaelic has been spoken here since the formation of the kingdom of Alba (Scotland) in the 9th Century AD (and for many centuries prior to that). It is still spoken today, which makes it Scotland’s oldest surviving indigenous language.
The southern border of Scotland owes much to the Gaelic-speaking monarchs of the 11th Century and the Gaelic character of early Scotland is recognised in the country’s English name; ‘Scot’ originally referred to a speaker of Gaelic, whether from Ireland or Scotland. With the demise of Pictish and Cumbric, Gaelic became the politically and numerically dominant language in Scotland and was to remain numerically dominant until around the 15th Century. In the Declaration of Arbroath, an appeal to the Pope in 1320 for official recognition of Scotland’s independence, the country’s nobles make clear that their identity is Scottish (ie Gaelic) and that they are not Britons, Picts, Scandinavians or English. The national identity had been forged, to a very large degree, by the Gaels. To many Gaelic-speakers today, the language is still central to their Scottish identity.
The Gaels have produced many of Scotland’s national icons – the kilt, sporran, bagpipes and tartan (not to mention whisky) – all being Gaelic inventions. The Gaelic language covers large parts of Scotland and it is impossible to understand that landscape without a serious engagement with the language. The landscape vocabulary is very rich and descriptive – there are, for example, well over a hundred words for a hill, mountain or slope. Without a body of people able to read and speak Gaelic, how will non Gaelic-speakers be able to interpret the Scottish environment? Scotland needs the Gaels!
The Gaelic language carries with it a unique culture and way of viewing the world. We have completely different words and traditions regardingScotland’s natural heritage from those belonging to the English language and culture. Gaelic has a fantastic treasury of oral tradition, with stories that are powerful in imagery and imagination. Gaelic poetry, song, dance and music are also extremely valuable and unique aspects ofScotland’s cultural heritage.
But it’s not all about the past. The development of Gaelic Medium Education, the creation of modern dictionaries and internet-based resources and the establishment of Gaelic broadcasting (such as the television channel BBC ALBA) demonstrate that the Gaelic community is determined to ensure that the language has a future. The Scottish Parliament has been supportive, passing the Gaelic Language Act in 2005 – which places Gaelic on a legal basis as a national language of Scotland. This is in thankful contrast to the infamous 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, which excluded Gaelic from the newly-created state education sector and which caused very serious damage to the place of the language in public life and to its status in the public eye. The legacy of the 1872 Act remains with us, unfortunately, as the vast majority of Scottish children still learn nothing about Gaelic in their formal education.
As modern Gaelic speakers we belong to a small language community (although still in the top half of world languages based on speaker numbers). We are centred in Scotland but we have a global spread through the diaspora and through our learner community, and there remains a notable Gaelic presence in parts of Canada and the United States, particularly Nova Scotia. We have sister Gaelic languages in Ireland and the Isle of Man, with whom we have strong connections, and we also maintain valuable cultural links to our Celtic cousins in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.
Many learners of the language come from outside the traditional language area, a welcome development that adds diversity to our community. For example, there is a large number of Germans who have become fluent Gaelic-speakers, some of them now working in the Gaelic economy inScotland. And that’s another reason for Scottish children to speak Gaelic – the language has distinct economic opportunities which are not available to those who do not speak it.
Our language is both local and internationalist, ancient and modern.
It offers wonderful opportunities – cultural and economic – and it is part of a new, outward-looking Scotlandwhich respects itself and wants to showcase the best of Scottishness to the wider world. It is also widely recognised that bilingualism and multilingualism offer cognitive advantages over monolingualism. The growth of Gaelic Medium Education (which produces bilingual children) in places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness owes something to parental recognition of those advantages.
These are exciting times to be alive in the Scottish Gaelic community. Wherever you live, and whatever your background, you can make a signficant contribution to the world by learning Gaelic and supporting its use in public life. Come and join us!