The Gaelic language has given so much to Scotland, and beyond. 

Place names and ceilidhs, drams, cloths and choruses. From the language comes a culture that’s always punched well above its weight.

And the Outer Hebrides have always been among its heartlands.

Nowhere in the country is Gaelic more widely read, understood and used.

And nowhere in the country is more crucial to its survival as a living language.

To this day you can step off the ferry and be as likely to hear a ‘Fàilte’ in welcome as you are a ‘Hello’.

Work is being done to revitalise the Gaelic language across the country, the islands included.

But if history is anything to go by, there is much work to do.

The Gaelic language then

Scottish Gaelic came to our shores in around 500 AD. By the 17th century it had become a uniquely Scottish language - separate from its Irish cousin.

It’s use peaked in the early 1600s, but the changing political and religious preferences of the ruling class, plus the perceived instability of northern, Gaelic speaking regions, put the language on a shoogly peg.

In 1609, James VI passed his Statutes of Iona, binding clan chiefs to educate their heirs in lowland, Protestant, English-speaking schools - setting the tone for what was to come.

Over the next 200 years, the Gaelic language was suppressed and in some cases vilified, like in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite efforts to reclaim the throne and the subsequent Highland Clearances, essentially confining the dialect purely to speakers’ homes.

Scottish Gaelic was further displaced with the proliferation of industry and education that promoted use of English and Scots, often by law.

Once the balance was tipped, active suppression was replaced with inactive preservation. 

English became overwhelmingly used in Scotland and the Gaelic language retreated northwards.

The Gaelic language now

After centuries of falling numbers, the only region left in Scotland where a majority of residents have some Gaelic is the Outer Hebrides.

As of the 2011 census, 52.3% of the islands’ population reported being able to speak the Gaelic language. The next closest region was Highland, where a distant 5.4% reported the same.

Nationally, between 1991 and 2001, the census reported an 11% drop in Gaelic understanding. Since 2001 there has been a 1% drop. 

A small but positive sign of slowing decline.

But simply stopping the decline isn’t enough. The nation needs proactivity to grow the Gaelic language.

And the appetite is there.

The Scottish Government passed the Gaelic Language Scotland Act in 2005, legally requiring that Gaelic be as equally supported and respected as English.

The act established Bòrd na Gàidhlig, a principle development body that can require public institutions to prepare Gaelic language plans. In 2016 the Scottish Government released theirs - built on: 

  • Identity and Visibility (e.g. dual language signage)
  • Communications and Publications (e.g. Gaelic translations of Government Departments)
  • Staffing and Training

There’s also a growing uptake in Gaelic-medium education, where pupils can be taught primarily in Scottish Gaelic. As of 2018, 4,343 were learning this way across the country, and that number is rising.

In a show of commitment towards protecting and growing the Gaelic language, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Islands’ Council, announced that from summer 2020, Gaelic will be the default language for children starting school in the Outer Hebrides, unless their parents opt-out.

And out of the classroom, organisations like the Feis movement have been instrumental in encouraging the Gaelic language within small Outer Hebridean communities - focusing on things like youth arts, community skills and employment opportunities.

The Gaelic language’s future 

Language creates a sense of place. It creates a culture. 

If the Gaelic language disappeared, Scotland would lose a link to her past, but more than that, The Outer Hebrides would lose a rich and vibrant totem of everyday life. 

The islands have always played a key role in preserving Scottish Gaelic, often taking action where the government has not.

For some, the increased statutory support seems to be focussed on the cities and infrastructure of the mainland.

Dual language signage, emergency vehicles and official government publications are great for awareness, and an encouraging start.

But they’re just a start. 

The Outer Hebrides live, breathe and speak the Gaelic language - plus the songs, stories, drinks and dances that light up the world. 

If these green shoots of national recovery continue, then the seeds will have been planted, protected and cultivated by the Outer Hebrides.

Mar sin leibh.