Census shows increase in young Gaels

The last 10 years has seen a marked improvement in the prospects for the Gaelic language in Scotland, with more young people declaring themselves speakers of the native tongue — largely as a result of developments in Gaelic-medium education, it is argued.

The long-awaited publication of the Gaelic element within the 2011 national census has shown that, while there is still a slight decline in overall numbers, the situation has improved when it comes to those under the age of 20.

The data shows that there are 58,000 speakers of Gaelic in Scotland in all, down from 58,652 in 2001. However, that small rate of reduction is far less than in previous census results. For example, in 1991 16,662 fewer Gaelic speakers were recorded than in 1981.

The relative halt in the decline, coupled with a rise in speakers under 20, has provided Gaelic supporters with a much-needed boost.

Iain Campbell, chair of the national Gaelic development agency Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said: “We know that the 2001 census figures showed a marked decrease in the decline of Gaelic speakers. This was attributable to the growth of the numbers of children acquiring the language through Gaelic-medium education.

“Given the growth in the numbers in Gaelic-medium education over the last two decades, we expected that the rate of decline would be further reduced as a result of further growth of the numbers of children and young people now speaking Gaelic. This is clear evidence that the policy aims of the National Gaelic Language Plan are taking effect.”

A larger number — 87,000 — reported they could speak, read, write or understand Gaelic, down from 92,396 a decade ago.

The Scottish Government minister for Gaelic, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan, said: “While the census shows a slight fall overall, we can take real encouragement from the growth in Gaelic speakers under the age of 20.

“This increase in the next generation of Gaelic speakers, helped by a 12 per cent increase in pupils entering primary one of Gaelic-medium education, clearly demonstrates that our investment in the language is paying off.”

He added: “Our efforts to support Gaelic and create more learning opportunities for all ages has also significantly slowed down the decline in the overall numbers of speakers, many of whom tend to be in older age groups.”

MG Alba chief execuitve Donald Campbell said the census results demonstrated there was now a “stable base of Gaelic speakers”.

“There are positive signs for the future of the language in Scotland and our objective for Gaelic media is to continue the work that will help the language flourish over the next decade and beyond,” he said.
“Much has been achieved in encouraging Gaelic in Scotland and, after many decades where the future of the language had been questioned, it is good to see that today’s young people will be at the heart of helping Gaelic thrive in future years.”