ROGER HUTCHINSON: There are limited options for Gaelic in the face of a crisis

Roger Hutchinson, on books and other things…..

Perhaps the most important Highland book of the 21st century was published last year.

The findings of ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community’ confirm there is a crisis in the Gaelic vernacular community.

Anybody who has been anywhere near a Gaelic vernacular community in recent times could have told you that, but it is necessary to confirm intuited trends with cold, hard statistics and to break those statistics down into details.

The clue is in its title. ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community’ is a 500-page study by affiliates of the Soillse research facility. 

We have known for many years that the vernacular Gaelic communities of north-western Scotland are swiftly dwindling. 

Gaelic road signs in Skye Photograph, Willie Urquhart

Because we can only be in one place at a time, we rarely grasp exactly how steep is the decline from community to community, from age-group to age-group. Boisdale may have assumed that Staffin was solid, and vice versa, while Sabhal Mòr dreamed that everywhere was like Ostaig.

We know now.

The language as an everyday conversational medium is not at a cliff edge. It has gone over the edge and is hovering like Wile E Coyote in thin air, its legs pedalling furiously to delay a plummet into the abyss.

Our unwilling register of this imminent fall is circumscribed by the fact that the death of Gaelic has been rumoured for centuries.

Wilson McLeod begins his magnificent new book ‘Gaelic in Scotland’ by citing a predecessor at Edinburgh University who in 1958 assured us that Gaelic would be “quite extinct” by the middle of the 21st century.

It will not be extinct in 2050. But neither will it be recognisable as the Highland language of the 1950s. Is it time to bury Gaelic as a community vernacular and preserve it in other environments?

According to the lads at Soillse, we may not have a choice.

In order to flourish, a community language needs communities of work and leisure. Gaelic thrived in the crofting townships when it was the discourse of such everyday activities of ordinary people as the peat bank, the church, the fank and the fishing, as well as the ceilidh. 

Just as it was abandoned by the younger Highland working classes, the language has been adopted by some of the Scottish middle class.

They will lavish affection and money upon it, but it will turn pale and wan in their embrace. It does not have the vocabulary to enjoy its best life in Byres Road.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye

The total number of self-identified Gaelic speakers in Scotland has continued to reduce slightly. Exactly how slightly will only be determined when the Scottish Government gets round to conducting the 2021 census, which will hopefully be before the end of 2022. 

Even if the total numbers level out, there is a huge difference between people with a learned knowledge of Gaelic and native speakers who use it in the post office, the office and the bar.

The first are being taught the language of the second.

Without cradle-to-grave speakers, there is no modern, demotic language to be acquired, and only academic reasons to acquire it.

Nobody can or should deny the progress made, the battles won and the achievements recorded in the last 50 years. Wilson McLeod retails them in dizzying detail. They have been manifold and they probably account for the frustration of the Edinburgh academic’s 1950s tale of a death foretold.

But it was always a gamble whether such staples as a decent television service and the provision of primary and secondary Gaelic medium education would appear in Scotland as the cavalry or the fire brigade.

In the end, they emerged spraying hoses haphazardly, and often in places where no assistance was required.

We have subsequently arrived at a place where Soillse researchers discovered that 70 per cent of teenagers in Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra do not care much for the language and do not primarily regard themselves as Gaels.

That deracination has been a declared ambition of the Scottish state since James VI was a boy and will be regarded by many as a good thing. Along with other Soillse findings, it does not augur well for the future of what was a couple of decades ago the lingua franca of the Western Isles.

To that we can demur, exactly when since the heyday of Runrig was Gaelic considered cool by 15-year-old Hearaich?

Professor McLeod cites surveys taken in the 1960s which indicated “considerable ambivalence towards the maintenance of the Gaelic language” among island youngsters.

We are in an age of identity. Teenagers who once inscribed school books with the words “Donald MacDonald, Portree, Skye, Scotland, Britain, Europe, Planet Earth, the Solar System, the Universe…” are now asked to pick just one.

At any such reductive auction, the softly spoken claim will be drowned in the cacophony.

The chief problem facing those who wish it well lies in the fact that after the introduction, even in a limited fashion, of such voluntary measures as Gaelic medium education and television, if they are deemed inadequate we have no court cards left to play. 

There remain only the aces in the hole. They are, in short, compulsion and bribery.

Both have their attractions. Wilson McLeod reminds us how close the Western Isles Council came to establishing a latter day Lordship of the Isles in the 1970s and 1980s – the “little Gaelic empire” of Father Calum MacLellan (the comhairle still displays its giveaway birlinn motif). 

It fell away, of course.

A revival would require those “Gaidhealtachd” regions recently specified by the Scottish Government to follow a hyper-Welsh model of compulsory Gaelic education, positive discrimination in the workplace and in housing, no other language used in public discourse or entertainment… the 1970s dreamworld of the late Iain Noble…

Bribery is also examined by the Soillse team.

It would mean the state paying parents hard cash to raise Gaelic-speaking children. Offhand, it is difficult to imagine a more perfect way of getting teenagers to abandon the language entirely on their 18th birthday.

Neither of those aces will be deployed, not least because most Highlanders want nothing to do with them.

It is now a long way back to what we might call the organic rather than artificial use of Gaelic, and the distance is likely to grow before ever it shrinks again.

It may be that somewhere in the topmost towers of Scottish authority, it has already been conceded that Gaelic has a future only as a niche interest; an optional extra for some lucky folk.

And yet, and yet, the siren voices sing… the last 500 years have been replete with Scots encouraging or happily predicting the early demise of Gaelic.

The wise old language thwarted them in the 16th century. May it not do so again?

The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, a comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic’, various authors, Aberdeen University Press.

Gaelic in Scotland, Policies, Movements, Ideologies’, by Wilson McLeod, Edinburgh University Press.