The effect of Gaelic education on speaker distribution in Scotland

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Gaelic has undergone the beginnings of a revival across Scotland in the most recent decades.  While speaker numbers are still falling, and the dangers to the future of the language are still real and threatening, there has been success in arresting the steep and sharp decline that could well have seen Gaelic disappear from Scotland altogether.  Aside from cultural efforts to restore the language through its’ always vibrant cultural scene, Government policy from both the UK and Scottish Governments have seen new innovations within Gaelic language planning that have allowed the language to grow and develop.

The most important and by far the most wide-reaching of these policy implementations was the introduction of Gaelic medium education (GME) in 1985.  Along with pre-existing programmes to teach Gaelic to learners in secondary schools, this has introduced a new and previously rare way of learning the language separate to intergenerational transmission which had sustained Gaelic for generations and centuries.  With thirty years since its introduction, we are beginning to see that GME has been effective in producing a new generation of Gaelic speakers.  The explosive growth of Gaelic medium education from its start as two schools in the Western Isles to over ninety schools across Scotland has been at the very heart of the revitalisation of the language.

Part of this new generation’s significance to the language is that it has expanded the range of Gaelic beyond its’ traditional heartlands of the Highlands and Islands to schools across Scotland.  Fourteen of Scotland’s thirty-two local authorities now include some provision for Gaelic medium education within their schools, and speakers can be found in every local authority.  Gaelic is alive and rooted in communities across Scotland.

This project shall investigate whether education has helped contribute to a change in the distribution of Gaelic speakers across Scotland and the strength of the connection between the two phenomena.  This shall be done through analysis of Scottish census data from recent decades, both before and after the introduction of GME, as well as through analysis of academic investigations into both the Gaelic medium education’s growth and the change in the Gaelic community’s distribution in recent years.

This research is important in the field of Gaelic language planning, as it allows us to ascertain the effectiveness of education as a means of creating new Gaelic speakers with the aim of growing the Gaelic population once again.  Education is now seen as the most important method of doing so, as data has shown that the numbers of Gaelic speakers learning the language from their parents has dropped significantly and that this is a major contributor in Gaelic language shift.  In a comparative study of Welsh and Gaelic, O’Hanlon noted from 2001 census data that “a maximum of 0.5% of 3 year olds in Scotland have acquired [Gaelic] by means of intergenerational transmission in the home” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p.2), which is less than “the 1.6% required” to maintain the language on a constant level.  O’Hanlon’s further research into the reasons for choosing Gaelic medium education helps to show the reasons why education is growing in its’ distribution, but there is a lack of evidence so far for the other side as to why intergenerational transmission is failing.

Preliminary research into the topic of education’s distribution was undertaken as part of the doctoral thesis of Milligan, whose work covered public perception of Gaelic and some discussion of the distribution of learners of the language throughout Scotland.  While the thesis was focused on the role of learners in the revitalisation of Gaelic, it also touched upon GME as a critical part of reversing language shift that has been centuries in the making.

Gaelic medium education is now accepted and welcomed across Scotland.  A study by Market Research UK (MRUK) for BBC and Bòrd na Gàidhlig in 2003 found “Fifty-six percent agreed, and 31% strongly agreed that ‘school pupils should be enabled to learn Gaelic if they so wish’”. (MRUK in Milligan, 2010, p. 6) While these figures indicate broad support amongst all parents, the specific motivations for enrolling children in Gaelic medium education across Scotland have only recently been investigated.  A recent report from the University of Edinburgh commissioned for Bòrd na Gàidhlig suggested that the key factors included heritage (of family and also of the ‘Gaidhealtachd’ and Scotland more generally), educational benefits (bilingualism and smaller class sizes) as well as the opportunities provided to Gaelic students as part of their education and extra-curricular events.  (O’Hanlon, et al., 2010, pp. 46-59)  These factors help to explain why Gaelic education is growing throughout Scotland, although they do not provide a massively significant level of explanation individually – with the Market Research study being too general in its’ questions and the University of Edinburgh study focussing on qualitative data rather than large-scale quantitative surveys.   Such explanations would be immensely helpful for public bodies to identify the ways in which Gaelic education needs to be marketed and to whom it should be targeted if it is to grow.

In researching the topic of population changes, it is necessary to take a macro view of the population which means that the best course of action is to research using available quantitative data.  This allows us to see the effects of the changes in education and the distribution of Gaelic speakers plainly and objectively, and requires a minimum of time-consuming qualitative research.  The ethical considerations for such research are also much less difficult, as all data is anonymised prior to analysis.

For the bulk of the information on the distribution of Gaelic speakers, the most informational data that can be used is from Scotland’s decennial census – which since 1881 has recorded the number of Gaelic speakers within each local authority, although with changes in the question asked to determine Gaelic ability as well as local authority boundary changes it can prove difficult to establish an accurate longitudinal conclusion from the data.

This census data has shown that the overall trend in Gaelic has been a sharp decline in the number of speakers.  Overall numbers have halved since World War II and dropped by 30% since 1981. (Scotland’s Census)  The dangerous situation in which Gaelic has found itself was one of the reasons for the implementation and strong backing for GME and the results of it have been felt in recent years.  Gaelic speaker numbers are now plateauing after 40 years of continuous decline, falling only 1.8% in the period between 2001 and 2011.   Interestingly, the number of speakers under 20 years old grew by 0.1% in the same period – which can be attributed to the successes of education. (Scotland’s Census)

Six distinct “Gaelic areas” were defined by the 2001 Census’ Gaelic Report to describe the general distribution of the language’s speakers throughout Scotland.  These are: Eilean Siar, Skye & Lochalsh, Rest of Highland, Argyll and Bute, Other main Gaelic areas (namely the islands of North Ayrshire, the north of Perth & Kinross and the north of Stirling council areas) and Rest of Scotland.  Despite traditional beliefs that Gaelic was strongest in its’ heartland areas, as defined by the specific areas identified, “Users outside Gaelic areas (as stipulated in the Gaelic Report) constitute 51.9% of the wider Gaelic community with ‘any ability’, 65.1% of the ‘understand only’ community, and 43.2% of the ‘speaking’ community” according to the 2001 census. (Milligan, 2010, p. 43)  These show a very distinct shift in Gaelic’s distribution from the traditional idea of the Gaelic heartland.

These numbers have also been backed up by evidence over the last twenty years that has shown that although overall speaker numbers are down, Gaelic is still growing any many parts of Scotland.  Over the last twenty years Gaelic speaker numbers have increased in 15 out of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, while in the last ten years this figure goes up to 20.  The gains have not been made in traditional Gaelic areas, with the highest increases coming in areas such as Aberdeenshire, Orkney and East Ayrshire while the biggest falls have come in Argyll & Bute and Eilean Siar. (Scotland’s Census 1981, 1991, 2001)

At the same time, Gaelic medium education has also expanded rapidly, and is now available at 61 primary schools and 36 secondary schools across Scotland in 14 local government authority areas.  It now serves over 4,000 Gaelic medium education pupils as well as a further 7,000 in learners’ streams throughout primary and secondary school.  (Pupils Census Supplementary Data 2014, Tables 6.16 & 7.13)  We are seeing both that education and the Gaelic speaking population are spreading out further across the country – but determining causality between the two is difficult, although something that this project aims to identify.

To investigate the distribution of Gaelic education in Scotland, the best source of information is the Scottish Government’s Pupils Census, formerly known as the Pupils in Scotland report.  These outline the number of speakers in various streams of Gaelic education in both primary and secondary schools around the country, breaking the figures down into local authorities.

There is a limitation to this data, however, in that data relating to Gaelic is only available since 2005 and that learners are excluded from the reports between 2008 and 2010, which is problematic when trying to take as wide-ranging an approach to education data as this research intends to.  While the datasets available do allow us to take a look at the relative growth and change of Gaelic’s distribution in that time period, it also critically misses the ‘tipping point’ that the 2001 Gaelic report noted where more speakers were found outwith traditional areas for the first time.

However, despite these limitations we can use the Scottish Census and Pupils Census figures to build up a picture of where Gaelic is spoken and being learned in Scotland.  In response to the question whether or not Gaelic education has positively impacted on the number of speakers in each local authority, the following table highlights the difference between the percentage of students in education studying Gaelic as part of their curriculum compared with the percentage of Gaelic speakers in the local authority.

Percentage of students in Gaelic medium education vs. total speakers in local authorities (Pupil Census Supplementary Data 2014, Tables 6.16 & 7.13; Census 2011, Table QS211SC)


Primary (%) Secondary (%) Education Total (%) Gaelic Speakers in L. A. (%) Difference (%)
Aberdeen City 0.23 0.11 0.18 0.76 -0.57
Argyll & Bute 9.39 4.96 7.39 4.03 3.36
East Ayrshire 0.32 4.91 2.30 0.49 1.82
East Dunbartonshire 5.12 0.31 2.90 0.89 2.01
Edinburgh City 2.99 0.28 1.92 0.69 1.23
Eilean Siar 100.00 87.07 94.23 52.23 41.99
Falkirk 3.06 0.00 1.81 0.42 1.39
Glasgow City 1.30 0.94 1.16 1.03 0.13
Highland 7.86 10.42 9.00 5.36 3.64
Inverclyde 0.36 0.00 0.20 0.54 -0.33
North Lanarkshire 0.58 100.00 0.80 0.41 0.39
Perth & Kinross 4.74 3.14 4.05 0.90 3.16
South Lanarkshire 0.19 0.13 0.16 0.41 -0.25
Stirling 10.46 0.26 5.72 0.90 4.82
All local authorities 1.92 1.40 1.70 1.12 0.58
Population totals 4,022 7,327 657,570 57,375


This data shows that in 11 of the 14 local authorities where Gaelic was offered as a subject that the proportion of students learning Gaelic was higher than in the general population.  This could predict a growth of the language in general in these local authorities, and although often such figures would be noted with a warning that not all those in Gaelic education go on to maintain their proficiency after leaving school, evidence from the 2011 census shows that the 16-24, 25-34 and 34-49 age cohorts either maintain or grow upon the numbers in the previous cohort, meaning that any “loss” of speakers from education is being offset by adult learners. (Census 2011, table LC2120SCdz)  The difference in proportions between education and the population is generally strongest in traditional Gaelic areas such as Eilean Siar, Highland, Argyll & Bute and Perth & Kinross, although Stirling performs very well also.  This suggests that the re-growth of Gaelic will not necessarily take place outside of the Gaelic heartland but more consolidate within it and that therefore while the change in distribution may be aided by education, it certainly cannot be the sole factor involved.

Further research into this topic could include looking at the efforts of adult learners and programmes to develop new speakers of the language away from state education.  These have had limited success in attracting new learners to the language, but the time commitment and intellectual effort required to reach a high degree of fluency means that they may not be the most effective way at promoting growth of the language.   These have also been typically centred in locations already in Gaelic areas, which does not change the distribution of speakers.

Migration is certainly an issue that has caused a decline in the number of Gaelic speakers in the traditional heartlands, as the much noted phenomenon of a “brain drain” from the Highlands and Islands has seen many leave in search of work over the centuries.  However, census figures at the moment show that the population in these areas as a whole is growing – with the population of the Highlands growing by 11.1% and Eilean Siar growing by 8.5% between the 2001 and 2011 censuses (Scotland’s Census 2011, Release 1b, Figure 3) so it cannot be that migration is a large factor in the distribution change.  One further point of research that could be covered by this project is whether the number  of incomers to the Highlands & Islands that have, or go on to learn, Gaelic is lower than the number of Gaelic speakers that leave – and whether or not this has a significant impact upon the distribution of the language.  As a matter of historical research it could prove useful and informative, however the migration from the Gaelic heartlands does not seem to explain the recent changes in the distribution of speakers.

Another question that arises from this research is whether intergenerational transmission has been replaced somewhat by education as the main method through which people learn Gaelic.  Identifying the changes involved in learning Gaelic would also help explain the change in distribution of the language if it was proved to be significantly different, but the research required into the topic is not as overtly accessible from the census data and would require deeper study.

From the initial research into the link between the distribution of Gaelic speakers and Gaelic education it does appear that there is a connection, although how causative it may be is unclear and is something that further research through this project would hopefully reveal.

Word Count – 2,273 words (exc. table and bibliography)


Milligan, L., 2010. The Role of Gaelic (Learners) Education in Reversing Language Shift for Gaelic in Scotland. PhD. Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen.

O’Hanlon, F., McLeod, W. & Paterson, L., 2010. Gaelic-medium Education in Scotland: choice and attainment at the primary and early secondary school stages, Edinburgh: School of Celtic & Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.

O’Hanlon, F. 2014. Choice of Scottish Gaelic-medium and Welsh-medium education at the primary and secondary school stages: parent and pupil perspectives, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Pupils Census Supplementary Data 2014, Edinburgh: National Statistics

Scotland’s Census 1931, 1981, 1991, 2001, 2011, Edinburgh: National Records of Scotland

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