Scottish Gaelic in the Celtic Context

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Scottish Gaelic is but one of a wide range of Celtic languages that have emerged over the previous two millennia that still exists today.  All Celtic languages have undergone a decline in their usage in recent centuries, as more dominant languages such as English and French have superseded them.  This essay shall discuss the origins of the different Celtic languages, how successful, or not, they are in the modern world, and how they have been revived over the last few centuries towards the status they held before.  This essay will also go more in depth in its study of Scottish Gaelic, and discuss its decline as well as new efforts to revitalise the language.

The Celts existed as a single people in Eastern Europe between the 9th and 6th centuries BC and moved westward around the time of the Romans.  Their nomadic way of life continued for many centuries more.  Different factions of the Celts shared language, history, culture and personalities. (O’Connor, p1)

The Romans fought against the Celts, dubbing them Barbarians, and it was then that the distinct groups we have today were formed.  Many moved to Britain, creating the nationalities that exist today.  Those that stayed on the continent were almost wiped out by the Romans.

Soon after moving to the British Isles, two groups of Celts formed.  The languages of each group eventually split again over time into the identities we know today.  One group, of what became Irish, Gaelic and Manx speakers, covered a Kingdom known as Dalriada that spanned the Irish Sea and west coast of Scotland, from the Isle of Lewis to the Isle of Man.

The other group of Celts existed primarily in Wales.  Some of the Welsh fled southward during Middle Age conflict, often over religious persecution.  These emigrations created Cornish in Cornwall and Breton over the English Channel in Brittany, France.

During the 9th to 11th centuries, these larger groups further broke down into languages that we can define today.  Gaelic was widely spoken in Scotland at this point, apart from in the Northern and Outer Hebrides, Caithness and the Lothians.  Irish was being slowly confined to the island of its origin, as was Manx.

As noted by many historians, the Celtic languages lost a lot of ground in the last millennium, perhaps only turning the tide in the 20th century.  Of course in Scotland, the effect of the Highland Clearances was a major factor in that, but oppression existed against all of the Celtic languages, as English, or French in the case of Breton, superseded the local languages and diluted the cultures. (O’Connor, p1)

Different languages have had different levels of success in perhaps the most successful in reviving itself, largely due to the heavy protection it received from the Irish Government after its independence from the UK in 1922.  Irish is an official language, as decreed in the Constitution of Ireland.  It is even an official language of the EU, since 2007, meaning it can be used in the European Parliament.

The 2011 Irish census said that in the Republic, 55,000 spoke the language daily outside of the education system and 1.1 million used the language to some extent either in or out of school, which is about 23.9% of the population. (Central Statistics Office (Ireland), 2011)

Irish has been used widely in the media in the Republic of Ireland, with programs regularly appearing on the state run RTE channels, which were formed in the 1960s.  The first solely Irish-language television channel, TG4, was launched in October 1996 and has been very successful, reaching 800,000 viewers every day.

In recent years, Irish publishing has grown as well, with daily, weekly and monthly magazines and newspapers available solely in the language, in addition to columns in the more prominent English-language papers, such as the Irish Times.

Welsh has also been successful, more so than Scottish Gaelic.  In the 2011 census, 562,000 people said that they could speak Welsh, which is 19% of the population, although this figure had fallen by about 2% from the last census a decade before. (Office of National Statistics, 2011)

Welsh education has provided a blueprint for Gaelic and succeeded far earlier than in Scotland.  The first Welsh medium primary school was founded in Aberystwyth in 1939 with the first all-Welsh secondary founded in Rhyl in 1955.  Now, over 20% of all pupils in Wales are taught in Welsh medium schools, compared to Gaelic medium, where figures are as low as 0.4%. (Welsh Government, 2008)

Welsh received its own television channel in November 1982, when S4C launched.  It is the UK’s fifth oldest television channel, after BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Sky1.  The channel was very successful in Wales, and produced some programmes that were of such high quality that English versions were created.  One such example is the children’s show, Sam Tan, which became Fireman Sam in English.

Welsh received official language status in 2011 via the Welsh Language Measure, which was a major step forward in the language’s preservation.  This means that the language can be used in all walks of life and a speaker should expect to be responded to in Welsh.

Manx is possibly the Celtic language that was closest to death when the last native speaker, Ned Mandrell, died in 1974.  UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, declared the language extinct in the 1990s.

But over the last 20 years, funding from the UK National Lottery as well as funding from the Isle of Man’s independent government has seen the language undergo a revival of its own.  Almost 2,000 people now speak the language to some extent, which is about 3% of the island’s population. About 100 of these speakers are completely fluent.  It is now taught at all of the island’s primary and secondary schools, which is producing native speakers again, when coupled with parents who also speak Manx. (Crossan, 2013)

Breton, in a similar vein, has been declared severely endangered by UNESCO although it does have around 206,000 native speakers, which is about 5% of the total population of Brittany.

However, even Breton is growing its speech base, with the number of children learning Breton, via bilingual classes, rising 33% between 2006 and 2012, to a figure of 14,700. (TMO-Fañch, 2007)

Compared with other Celtic languages, Gaelic has not seen the same urgency and enterprise in reviving it in the last few centuries.  This has led to the number of speakers of the language falling to 58,652 in the last census in 2001, which is only 1.2% of the population.  This has fallen from a level of 203,000 a century ago.  Gaelic’s decline has been steady throughout the centuries, but efforts to arrest it have been slow to begin. (Office of National Statistics, 2001)

Gaelic is still not an official language of Scotland.  Despite being given “equal respect” with English via the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act in 2005, this has given the language very little new authority, with the only meaningful changes being that official correspondence and debates in the Scottish Parliament and Scottish courts can be conducted in Gaelic rather than English.

It took until 1985 to create an official Gaelic Medium Education program, when the first Gaelic Medium units opened in Inverness and Glasgow primary schools.   Before then Gaelic had only slowly gained educational worth, being completely ignored by the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, and only accepted as a school subject in 1911.  Universities continued to ignore the subject as an entry qualification until the late 1960s and 70s.

Gaelic publishing has slowed down over recent decades due to the pressures of the modern world.  Important publications such as Gairm, a quarterly magazine that acted as a Gaelic Readers’ Digest, containing many different articles on different subjects in different registers, have stopped being published due to lack of interest.

The last few decades have provided new hope for Gaelic that it might begin a significant revival of its own, however. Gaelic Medium education is becoming larger than it ever has been before.  In 2007, there were 62 primary schools with Gaelic Medium education with over 2,000 pupils. (Scottish Government, 2010)

MG Alba formed BBC Alba, a Gaelic only TV channel that launched in September 2008.  It reaches over half a million people per week (MG Alba, 2012, p10), and has been very successful, but sceptics argue that this is solely due to the controversial showing of SPL football and Pro 12 rugby.

Gaelic publishing is slowly undergoing an improvement as well.  The Gaelic Book Council, modelled after the successful Welsh equivalent, is promoting the use of Gaelic in novels and poetry in a way that they haven’t before.  The GBC created the Donald Meek Award in 2010 to promote excellence in Gaelic novel writing, and it has produced higher sales for some of the works awarded and nominated.  The GBC’s flagship Ur-Sgeul program has created more than 30 titles since its creation in 2003, with the intention of introducing new Gaelic writers with more modern stories. (Gaelic Book Council, 2012, p9-13)

On the whole, it is clear to see that Scottish Gaelic has undergone one of the weakest revivals of all the Celtic languages.  Despite having the 3rd highest number of speakers of all the Celtic languages (behind Irish and Welsh), it has the lowest percentage of speakers within its population, behind even Manx and Breton.  This shows the large amount of work needed to bring Gaelic on a par with other languages.

Significant investment still needs to be put into Gaelic to help it survive, with more Gaelic schools, and a wider presence in everyday society via media.  Official language status would be a major step forward for the language, protecting its unique place in Scottish heritage, and preventing it from falling off the Government’s agenda if speaker numbers do fall below the 50,000 threshold.

By looking at Gaelic’s neighbouring languages, I believe the language can find new initiatives to continue its revival, hopefully one day becoming as mainstream as the Irish and Welsh languages have become in their own domains.  For now, though, the situation is in definite need of improvement.


Central Statistics Office (Ireland), 2011, Census 2011 – This Is Ireland

Crossan, R., 2013, Manx: Bringing a language back from the dead,, BBC News

Gaelic Books Council, 2012, 2011-12 Annual Report

MG Alba, 2012, Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12

O’Connor, N., ?, The Celtic Context for Scottish Gaelic

Office of National Statistics (UK), 2001, 2001 UK Census

Office of National Statistics (UK), 2011, 2011 UK Census

Scottish Government, 2010, Pupils Census 2010            

TMO-Fañch, 2007, Broudic Survey,

Welsh Government, 2008, Schools in Wales

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