Islands-first policy needed to revitalise Gaelic, new research concludes

Gaelic on Skye roadsigns, but it’s daily usage is in decline, the researchers warn

Gaelic needs to first be revitalised among island families or it will stop becoming a living, community language new research has warned.

The study of areas like Staffin, Tiree and the Western Isles has been labelled as the most comprehensive social survey on the state of Gaelic communities ever conducted.

The findings conclude that the language is in crisis, and that within remaining vernacular communities of Scotland the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin.

Researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Language Sciences Institute and Soillse, a multi-institutional research collaboration which includes Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye, outline the findings in a new book published today

The authors of ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic’ urge a radical new agenda and strategy for Gaelic revitalisation in the islands.

They argue for the creation of a community development trust for Gaelic-speakers that is island based and under the direct control of the community.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Professor of Gaelic Research at the University of the Highlands explained the motivation behind the new book.

He said: “It is important that we are clear about the immense scale of the challenges involved in reversing the ongoing decline in the use of Gaelic in these areas.

“Our statistical evidence indicates that the Gaelic vernacular community is comprised of around 11,000 people, of which a majority are in the 50 years and over age category.

“The decline of the Gaelic community, as especially shown in the marginal practice of Gaelic in families and among teenagers, indicates that without a community-wide revival of Gaelic, the trend towards the loss of vernacular Gaelic will continue.

“We found a mismatch between current Gaelic policies and the level of crisis among the speaker group which must be addressed to face the urgency of the language loss in the islands.

“The primary focus of Gaelic policy should now be on relevant initiatives to avert the loss of vernacular Gaelic.”

In order to make Gaelic policy viable, the researchers called for a re-aligning of national policy to address the decline in the use of Gaelic as a community language.

Whilst some elements of national policy have had some success, such as the numbers of primary pupils in Gaelic Medium Education, without an overarching revitalisation approach, as outlined in their research, the authors believe the decline in the Gaelic vernacular community will rapidly continue.

Iain Caimbeul, research fellow at the Language Sciences Institute in the University of the Highlands and Islands added: “If Scotland is to continue to give practical expression to its commitment to sustaining cultural diversity, it is vital that strategy for the Gaelic group is rooted in the broader context of community revitalisation.

“We hope this research will be valuable to those interested in seeking to shift public policy assumptions from a sole dependence on the school system for creating the next generation of fluent Gaelic speakers.

“It is vital that we change the basis for allocating resources to protect against further decline.”

The book, ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic’, is available from the Gaelic Books Council