Almost every part of private and public life in Scotland has been under scrutiny in the big debate going on surrounding Scottish independence. Certainly the economy, membership of the European Union and how state services will change are the biggest issues to the population but smaller questions with less perceived impact can still be important in the bigger picture as they change the minds of people that are caught in the middle of the debate. The status of Gaelic is one such question that I was hoping might prove important to me in choosing between voting Yes and No in the referendum. Unfortunately though, the issue hasn’t been answered satisfactorily by either side in the debate so far.
To the vast majority of the population, it doesn’t really matter what happens to Gaelic after the referendum. I’m painfully aware that Gaelic speakers only make up 1% of the population and that we aren’t a target audience for either of the campaigns in the independence referendum.
I do think that Gaelic would play a bigger role in the independence debate, though, if there was less certainty over how the Gael population would vote. I can say with confidence that over 75% of Gaelic speakers will vote Yes in the referendum this September, from what I’ve picked up from the community. This is not a choice based on Gaelic though, but one – particularly for those in the Highlands and Islands – as part of a larger Scottish population that are against the policies of the “Tories” and the other parties of the right that are so popular and strong in England but so weak in Scotland. It’s the ideology of the Gaelic speakers that cause them to support independence, not the status of the language itself.
Even though we Gaelic speakers are a small population, though, I expected that there would be a little more said about Gaelic in the debate. The only word on the language with any real weight comes in “Scotland’s Future”, with only the summary being translated into Gaelic but much more being said about the language in the body of the paper. The Scottish Government stated that they would continue their support for Gaelic in much the same way as they do at the moment. There’s nothing about English, Gaelic and Scots sharing equal official status – just that Gaelic’s “equal respect” would continue as it does now. Gaelic was just one of many questions that were brushed over with a cookie cutter “little will change” message in the white paper, something that was heavily criticised by Better Together. I was hoping that the white paper would give more information on the status of Gaelic, but that can come after independence if Scotland votes Yes. On the other hand, I couldn’t find anything meaningful about Gaelic’s status in the United Kingdom if Scotland were to stay as part of the Union in September. Again, we Gaelic speakers are a small group, but I was hoping there would be some mention of us somewhere, but apparently not.
I have little idea at the moment if Gaelic will be better off in an independent Scotland. The Scottish Government has made a lot of progress with the language since its inception in 1999, with the Gaelic Act of 2005 being perhaps the most important piece of legislation in history for the language and further support on the way in the shape of a new Gaelic Medium Education bill, in consultation at the moment.
The question I have is whether legislation like this has been brought about because we are a part of the UK or has that made no difference? Are we, and our politicians, more likely to support our heritage because we are a small country in a bigger kingdom or would we focus more closely on our heritage if we had our own state? Our Parliament definitely has the powers it needs at the moment to promote Gaelic as much as it needs and we don’t need independence for that. But as with everything else, independence would give Scottish people the power over Scottish policies and surely that must be a good thing for minorities such as Gaelic speakers that we would have more power and a louder voice.
I can’t really be sure of the answers to this question, but I do believe that neither independence nor union will be bad for Gaelic. There’s no real evidence to say that Gaelic will receive more support as a part of the UK or in an independent Scotland. Even though there will undoubtedly be big changes in government and life in Scotland if independence happens, Gaelic won’t change much. And it’s not often in the modern day that Gaelic is steadfast in a changing world.
I’m still not fully certain, but I’m leaning towards a Yes vote in the referendum. But if a campaign was to promise that they’d heavily support Gaelic in exchange for our votes, I’d make up my mind for sure.