Gaelic in post-devolution Scotland

Dissertation for MA Gaelic Studies and Politics

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“There shall be a Scottish Parliament” were the opening words of the Scotland Act 1998 that ushered in the era of devolution in Scotland.  In a referendum the previous year, 74% of the electorate opted to devolve a range of new powers to Edinburgh after a long political struggle.

After being “re-convened” for the first time in 300 years on the 12th of May 1999, the Scottish Parliament set to work on re-shaping Scotland in the policy areas that were devolved to better suit what MSPs believed to be the needs of the public and the nation.

Gaelic speakers were accustomed at this point to long political struggles with the powers-that-be at Westminster on behalf of their language and culture, and many viewed the Scottish Parliament as a brand new opportunity to secure Gaelic’s future within Scottish society.

The “Gaelic renaissance” that began in the 1960s saw a new wave of activism by the Gaelic community to encourage politicians to intervene and protect the language, which had been in decline for generations.  Through campaigning efforts, legislation to formally introduce Gaelic-medium Education and broadcasting was enacted in the 1980s and 1990s.  It was hoped that a Scottish Parliament would bring further opportunities to legislate for Gaelic.

This dissertation will examine the progress made in developing Gaelic language policy and status in Scotland since 1999 and determine whether devolution has enhanced Gaelic’s position within Scottish society.

The first chapter will investigate what the positions and beliefs of political actors in Scotland have been towards Gaelic before and after devolution, including that of the Labour/Liberal Democrat-led Scottish Executive and the SNP Scottish Government, as well as evaluating the roles of the opposition parties and wider political culture – with the aim of analysing Gaelic’s position within Scotland’s new political era.

The second chapter will examine the legislation that has been specifically drafted to promote and sustain Gaelic, in particular the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005, and compare with pre-devolution attempts to legislate for the language, evaluating the relative impact that it has had.

The final chapter will discuss the status of Gaelic within Scotland today and review the effects of devolved decision making in improving Gaelic’s presence within Scottish public life.

Throughout the dissertation, the aim is to study both the input factors that have created change for Gaelic, such as the institutional values of the Scottish Parliament and a new found sense of Scottish identity that it has brought to the country, as well as the output factors that have changed the way in which Gaelic is seen across Scotland.

The dissertation ultimately hopes to evaluate what the Scottish Parliament era of Scottish politics has done for the Gaelic language and its’ community, and whether or not it has succeeded in advancing the Gaelic cause.


Gaelic in the devolved political arena

The creation of a devolved political arena where Scottish issues could be debated and legislated for ultimately changed the way in which Scotland’s political parties prioritised their policy platforms.  This meant that parties in Scotland could now propose and implement policies of major consequence in areas such as health and education that the electorate could judge them on.  It also provided control over other areas of cultural significance to Scotland, with one of them being Gaelic, which allowed for legislative influence over Scottish society.

This chapter will discuss Scotland’s political parties’ stances on Gaelic-related issues and define how they have changed with devolution.  It will examine the role Gaelic has played within devolved party politics and evaluate whether the language has been better represented in the new era.  It will also investigate Gaelic’s role within other political elements of post-devolution Scotland, most notably in the debate over Scottish independence, and whether the language has constituted an important part of political discussion.

Party attitudes towards Gaelic

An analysis of party behaviour in Scotland by Hepburn showed that while Gaelic was a policy area in which parties seek to engage, it constituted merely a “valence issue” in the grand scheme of Scottish politics.  (2014: 12)  This is because of its relative population size and the existence of other “dialects” and languages in the country such as “Doric… and Scots or ‘Lallans’”. (ibid.)

All parties believe Gaelic “should be recognised and protected” but also that it “should not be imposed on the Scottish population”.  (ibid.)  This attitude is further explained by the understanding that “Gaelic is an important, constituent part of Scotland’s culture” but not “central to its identity”. (ibid.: 13)

The conclusion of this study was that the Scottish National Party (SNP) was the “owner” of the “language question”, being the most supportive of Gaelic’s position in Scottish society, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats being “previous owners” due to their current positions on maintaining the language and their efforts whilst in Government.  The Scottish Conservatives were deemed to be least supportive of the language, stemming from their position of being “critical of funds allocated” to Gaelic causes although still in favour of its’ revitalisation.  (Hepburn, 2014: 22)

These positions also fall in line with findings in other cultural paradigms such as multiculturalism, where the SNP were now the “owner” while Labour and the Liberal Democrats were sympathetic “previous owners”.  (ibid.: 21)  This indicates that party positions in relation to Gaelic appear to come from parties’ wider social views for Scotland rather than an innate desire to maintain Gaelic culture.

This party support translates into wider public opinion regarding Gaelic, as “those who are more pro-Gaelic seem to be more inclined to identify with the SNP than any other political party on both UK and Scottish levels.” (Chhim & Bélanger, 2015: 5) The reverse of this relationship is also true, with SNP supporters more supportive of Gaelic, as shown by data from the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey:


Conservative Labour Liberal Democrat Scottish National Party Green Party Other Total
Not at all 14.5 9.2 10 9.3 12.5 17.4 10.9
Where it already is 67.8 56.8 72.9 45.5 41.7 52.2 55.9
Everywhere in Scotland 17.1 32 17.1 43.8 45.8 26.1 31.4
Don’t know 0.7 2 0 1.4 0 4.3 1.8
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
N= 152 403 70 290 24 23 1229


Table 1.           “Which political party do you think you would be most likely to support?” vs. “View of encouraging use of Gaelic in Scotland?” (NatCen, 2012)

Interestingly, these figures show a continuation of party-related attitudes from a 1981 survey for An Comunn Gàidhealach where:

“in almost every case SNP voters were most supportive, followed by Liberals and SDP, Labour was intermediate, and Conservatives and those with no clear voting intention evidenced least support of all.”  (Mackinnon, 2011: 5)

These findings collectively show that there is a historic and sustained connection between party identity and support for Gaelic, and one that has not significantly altered since the advent of devolution.  These public beliefs form a cyclical relationship with political decisions on behalf of the parties themselves. This has led to the establishment in MSPs’ attitudes towards Gaelic whereby they themselves “attributed ownership over the issue of Scottish languages to the SNP”. (Chhim & Bélanger, 2015: 5)

Gaelic manifesto pledges in Scottish Parliament elections

While these general themes describe the political parties of Scotland’s attitudes towards Gaelic and provide political context to the post-devolution status of Gaelic, they do little in providing explanatory depth compared with the initiatives they have proposed for moving the language forward.

Gaelic has featured in the manifestos of major parties in all four previous Scottish Parliament elections, although with widely varying endeavour in displaying a vision for the language.

The Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Liberal Democrats and SNP all featured commitments in their 2003 manifestos to place the newly established Bòrd na Gàidhlig on a statutory footing, which was ultimately achieved by the Gaelic Language Act passed in 2005 with cross-party support.  (Scottish Conservatives, 2003: 17; Scottish Liberal Democrats, 2003: 21; SNP, 2003: 18)

However, the major opposition parties at the time, the Scottish Conservatives and the SNP, both made promises in their 2003 manifestos to introduce a much stronger commitment to Gaelic-medium Education.  The Scottish Conservatives said that: “Where there is a demand, [they would] also allow parents, teachers and communities to set up their own schools with state funding” (2003: 16) while the SNP said they would “guarantee in law the right to a Gaelic medium education at primary level, where demand exists”. (2003: 12)  Had these proposals made their way into the Gaelic Act of 2005, it would have marked a significant expansion of Gaelic-medium Education, but they were not adopted by the Labour/Liberal Democrat Executive.

Despite the 2003 promise of a “guarantee” to Gaelic-medium Education, which was copied almost verbatim – with the word “reasonable” being prefixed to “demand” – in their manifesto for their successful 2007 election campaign (SNP, 2007: 53), the SNP have been extremely muted in their legislative action towards Gaelic, as is discussed in the following chapter.

More recently, rather than concrete policy pledges, parties have stated general support towards Gaelic.  In 2011 the Scottish Conservatives said they “remain committed to the promotion” of Gaelic; the Scottish Green Party said they “recognise the cultural benefits of supporting” Scotland’s languages; the Scottish Labour Party said they “support opportunities for learning Gaelic… [and] will encourage Gaelic broadcasting, Gaelic arts and increased visibility for the Gaelic language”; the Scottish Liberal Democrats said they will “support Gaelic-medium Education where there is demand” and the SNP said they “will promote the acquisition, use and status of Gaelic”.  (Scottish Conservatives, 2011: 27; Scottish Green Party, 2011: 19; Scottish Labour, 2011: 88; Scottish Liberal Democrats, 2011: 26; SNP, 2011: 33)

These statements, from each of Scotland’s five largest parties, are almost identically vague about their platform for Gaelic, with none identifying a single actionable policy.  While Scotland’s political parties still consider Gaelic to be an issue worth raising in their manifestos, it is not one that they are highlighting as part of their campaign.

The underlying theme, therefore, of manifesto commitments towards Gaelic is that of grand but tokenistic pledges that promise much but deliver little.  The position of the SNP as “owners” of the Gaelic question can only be justified by their stronger rhetoric on the issue as their actions have been far less powerful.

Gaelic has cross-party support, but no party that has taken the issue forward firmly both in principle and in practice, which has resulted in minimal progress for the language’s position in policy since devolution.  Indeed, the language’s strong cross-party support “might actually be considered a warning sign” in that with no strong debate on the issue it has been relegated to a lower status than is necessary to provide strong, impactful legislation. (McLeod, 2005: 19)

Gaelic and the independence referendum

Gaelic’s presence within normal political life therefore is minimal and rarely used as a party political issue.  This has also been the case during the defining debate of the devolution era surrounding Scottish independence.

The SNP Government’s ‘manifesto’ for independence was published in November 2013 in the form of a white paper entitled Scotland’s Future.  This contained details of how they envisioned an independent Scotland would be run, and included specific information about the role that Gaelic would have in Government and society.

The following is a passage which outlines the ministerial oversight the Government planned to introduce for Gaelic:

“The Cabinet Secretary for Education will have responsibility for primary, secondary, further and higher education, as well as Gaelic and Scots.” (Scottish Government, 2013: 49)

This proposal would actually remove the present Minister for Scotland’s Languages post, which was previously a role called Minister for Gaelic before the remit was expanded to include promotion of Scots.  The Minister for Gaelic position itself was a very late invention of the pre-devolution era, with Labour’s Brian Wilson being appointed to the post after their UK General Election victory of 1997, but the role has proven to be an important feature of accountability between the Government and the Gaelic community.

A further section of the white paper went on to describe what role Gaelic would have in the legislative agenda of an SNP Government of an independent Scotland, stating:

“We plan to create a secure future for Gaelic in Scotland by increasing the numbers learning, speaking and using Gaelic, through Gaelic education in all sectors and all stages such as early years, primary and secondary education. We will continue our support for the work of Bòrd na Gàidhlig in promoting the use of Gaelic in Scottish public, cultural and community life. In addition, we will maintain our support for MG ALBA, which has brought significant benefits for Gaelic.”  (ibid.: 334)

Whilst a firm statement of commitment to Gaelic, there is no suggestion that these measures would go beyond anything that the SNP have proposed for the language in the devolved Scottish Parliament.  This again shows a particular lack of conviction with regards to Gaelic.

The Scottish Government published a Gaelic version of the white paper, albeit a truncated 49-page summary of its contents rather than a full translation.  Rather interestingly, this version did not include any detail whatsoever towards what the language’s position would be in an independent Scotland, with the word “Gàidhlig” being completely absent from the document.  (Scottish Government, 2013)

Although there was an effort towards setting out a position for Gaelic in an independent Scotland it was far from a priority and the tokenistic publication of a Gaelic version of the white paper was even so brief as to ignore the language it was written in and the community to which it was targeted.

It is of note that some sources did both use Gaelic and address it as a referendum issue during the independence campaign.

The popular pro-independence information resource the Wee Blue Book, published by prominent online blogger Wings Over Scotland, was translated fully into Gaelic as An Leabhar Beag Gorm and received a significant circulation throughout Scotland, setting out the arguments for an independent Scotland through the medium of the language.  However, this publication again neglected to suggest how independence could further the position of the Gaelic.  (Wings Over Scotland, 2014)

There was also online coverage of the language as a referendum point through modern media, such as articles on Bella Caledonia – although some of which particularly emphasised the lack of stature Gaelic has had within the campaigns  (McLeod, 2014a) – and a debate held in the language at the University of Edinburgh that is featured on YouTube.  (CeltScotVideos, 2014)

Therefore while the official Yes campaign and the SNP Scottish Government did not advance Gaelic as a major area of interest in the referendum campaign, as neither did the Better Together campaign or any of the parties opposed to independence, the issue was brought into the fray by several other sources.  This shows that while the issue of Gaelic was considered relevant by some sections of society, its position was not of enough importance to be addressed more substantially by the official referendum campaigns.

What it shows more clearly, though, is that the most prominent voices in favour of advancing Gaelic’s cause in the political arena continue to come from civic society rather than political parties, and that devolution has not provided the platform to address Gaelic issues in the way that was first hoped by organisations such as Comunn na Gàidhlig when the Scottish Parliament was re-convened.


Gaelic has not been a major issue in devolved Scottish politics and has been treated as a “valence issue” by major political parties.  All parties believe in the maintenance and preservation of the language and its’ culture, and this has been displayed in the tokenistic presence within party manifestos that it has held that has gradually weakened since the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999.  No party, however, has taken on the Gaelic issue as a central tenet of their political platform.

The SNP are considered by the public and their political opponents as the party most amiable to the Gaelic cause, but as the following chapter will discuss, progress towards legislating for the language has seldom been a party political issue and therefore progress under their leadership has been lacking.

Gaelic was also largely absent from the independence referendum debate, meaning its role in the most consequential political decision in Scottish history was severely diminished.

On the whole, Gaelic has been largely eclipsed in devolved political discussion and this has had consequences for legislation on its’ behalf.

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