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The Social, Economic & Political Reasons for the Decline of Gaelic in Scotland

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1993

Synopsis:  This essay describes the various reasons for the decline of Gaelic from the tenth to the twentieth century by discussing the social, economic and political patterns involved.

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The complex interconnections between the economy, politics and the resultant social situation, make the study of the decline of Scots Gaelic particularly involved. Over the last three centuries or so, all of the Celtic languages have declined to a greater or a lesser degree; for various reasons and at many different hands.

Scots Gaelic has had a colourful history. It has declined from a position of strength in the the early tenth or eleventh century where the bulk of the population spoke Gaelic, to a situation now, where about 1.6% of the population speak it. It would be simplistic to say that it was part of a "grand plan" by an essentially hostile English government in an attempt to create a unified country and rid itself of a political burr in the north. Yet this attitude is the one which has gained credence in the past particularly amongst the 'Gaelic Nationalists' of various hues who ignore the history of the language.

The fact is that while this view does indeed have some truth in it, it is at best a half truth, and at worst it is downright false. We have to look not to one reason for Gaelic's decline but to many, all of which have inter-linked and coalesced with each other in a lethal -if that is not to overstated a word- cocktail.

The key to understanding the reasons for the decline of Gaelic is to look for the first signs of a divergent Scotland, a split between a fundamentally homogeneous country and a divided Highland-Lowland nation. By about 1400, the distinction between Lowlander and Highlander appears to have become firmly established. John of Fordun wrote in 1380 about the different languages spoken in Scotland and the different societies that had grown up about them:

The manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken amongst them, the Scottish and the Teutonic; the latter of which is spoken by those who occupy the seaboard and the plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coast are of domestic and civilised habits, trusty, patient, and urbane, decent in their attire, affable, and peaceful, devout in Divine worship, yet always ready to resist a wrong at the hands of their enemies. The highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, clever and quick to learn, comely in person, but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to the diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel. They are however faithful and obedient to their king and country, and obedient to their king and country, and easily made to submit to law, if properly governed.1

The above passage had many precedents in earlier writings; what is interesting, is that all of the views expressed, except the final one, were used to justify pacification of the Highlands, the heavy handed legislation post 1745 and the attempted extirpation of Gaelic. If there is a seminal reason for the decline of Gaelic it is the divergence of the Highlands from the Lowlands in the thinking and perceptions of people in late medieval Scotland, the beginnings of which we have illuminated by Fordun.

The forfeiture of John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, in 1493 created a power vacuum in the Highlands which the government attempted to fill by using 'loyal' clans to 'police' the Highlands. These clans however, the Campbells in the south, and the Mackenzies in the North-West, soon took advantage of their crown appointed lieutenancies to aggrandise the land of other clans. By the sixteenth century, the divergence between Highlander and Lowlander had grown to a great chasm. The growing perception that the Highlands were lawless and therefore a problem, was exacerbated as much by the linguistic separation as by the geographical and 'social' clash2

By the sixteenth century, James VI had two key principles in mind for his Highland policy; money and plantation. In 1597 he ordered all land and title holders in the Highlands to come south with their titles in an attempt to gain more money for the exchequer. James believed that the Highlands and particularly the Isles were holding out in giving their true provision. Secondly, in 1597 he ordered the setting up of three burghs in the Highlands. The plan was that they would be peopled by his loyal lowland subjects who would then exert a control over the unruly Highlanders. Two attempts to do this in Lewis, failed due to the hostility of the Leòdhasaich.

The involvement of the MacDonalds in Ulster, meant that they were becoming involved in Anglo-Scottish relations as never before. The Elizabethan government had been faced with Highland mercenary troops, who would profess support for Elizabeth or claim that they were acting under the king of Scots trying to deny the English in Ireland. A joint policy between the two counties was required, for the problems of the Scottish and the English crown were in a sense one and the same. After 1603 a unified strategy did indeed emerge.

The removal of the Scottish crown south in 1603 meant that the Highlands became even more remote to the seat of government. James had always been antagonistic towards Gaelic regarding the clans as "wolves and boars"3 and the fact that the Government of Scotland now fell to the Privy Council caused Highland excesses to be blown out of proportion and to be used as excuses rightly or wrongly, for military and other actions against the Highlanders.

Joint action in Ulster and the Isles was not long in coming. The Island Chiefs were imprisoned on board ship in 1608 by Lord Ochiltree, at the same time as the Lord Deputy in Ireland was suppressing a rebellion in Ulster. The Privy council were asked to stop the recruitment of mercenaries to Ireland and to deal with Irish refugees who fled to Scotland. The problem was not to be finally solved until the plantation of Ireland cut off the Scottish Gael from his Irish brother

Government policy in the Highlands under went several changes of degree under James. The use of the Campbells had had some success, but the creation of Campbeltown and the extension of Kintyre to the earldom of Argyll had also meant that the Campbells had increased their power to an enormous extent. It was now seen that it had simply lead to the replacement of one marauding clan by another at crown expense. Bishop Andrew Knox saw as a solution the 'general bond'. He achieved this in 1609 when 9 chiefs agreed to the statutes of Icolmkill.

The statutes were wide ranging in scope covering everything from the extension of the reformed ministry to the provision of inns and the trying of malefactors. A key statute here is the sixth one as it gives an understanding of the polices followed during the period:

The quhilk day, it being undirstand that the ignorance and incivilitie of the saidis Iles hes daylie incressit be the negligence of guid educatioun and instructioun of the youth in the knowledge of God and good letters for remeid quhair of it is inactit that every gentilman or yeaman within the said Ilandis, or any of thame, haveing childerine maill or femell, and being in goodis worth thriescore ky, sall put at the leist their eldest sone, or haveing no children maill thair eldest dochter, to the scullis in the Lowland, and interneny and bring thame up thair quhill that may be found able sufficientlie to speik, reid and wryte Inglische.4

The effect that this particular clause actually had is debatable; what is important however, is that it was one of the first of many acts concerned with the status of the language, and the government attitude to Gaelic. Gaelic was seen by the state to be closely related to "ignorance and incivilitie". A way round this would be to teach English, thereby removing the root cause of the problem, Gaelic.

On the 10th of December 1616, the Privy council passed an Act which began this phase:

Forsameikle as the Kingis Majestie having a speciall care and regaird that the trew religioun be advancit and establisheit in all the pairtis of this kingdome and that all his Majesties subjectis especiallie the youth, be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godliness, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglishe toung be universallie plantit, and the Irische language, whilk is one of the cheif and principall causes of the continewance of barbarite and incivilitie amongis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolishit and removeit; and quhair as thair is no measure more powerfull to further his Majesties princlie regaird and purpois that the establisheing of Scooles in the particular parroches of this Kingdom whair the youthe may be taught at least to write and reid, and be catechised and instructed in the groundis of religioun.5

The Act goes on to look at other problems, key to the "incivilitie", chief amongst these is how residence in the Highlands meant that the Highlanders were unable to "reforme thair countreyis" and how they should not be allowed to succeed to property unless they could "wryte, reid and speik Inglische".

The 1616 Act made provisions for a school in every parish in Scotland, and, when ratified in parliament in 1633, the Bishops were given the power to impose taxes for school maintenance. Although this power was revoked in 1646, and parish heritors held responsible for the salary and accommodation of the schoolmaster, the Act Rescissory in 16616, gave Bishops the charge of providing the school funds.

A 1695 Act7 provided that in a Highland parish were no minister served, the stipend was to be used to build and maintain schools "for rooting out the Irish language, and other pious uses".8 The next year, the Act for Settling of Schools9 made the heritors again responsible for the provision and operation of schools in their parish, this act formed the basis of educational provision until 1872.

These Acts resulted in many schools being set up in Lowland Scotland. The coverage in the Highlands was very poor. The scattered population, communication problems, lack of money, (a common problem), and the prevalence of Gaelic, were all major barriers to Highland education. For fifty or so percent of the Scottish population living north of the Tay around this time, Gaelic was the only language.

The attempts to unify Kirk, State, the Highlands and the Lowlands together, led to a realisation that it could only be achieved through a unified political and religious jurisdiction in Scotland. Gaelic therefore, would have to be used to administer religion to the Highlander. The Church of Scotland began a programme to provide a Gaelic speaking ministry, and Gaelic texts of the scriptures.

The common paradoxical situation, with schools aimed at extirpating Gaelic, and a policy of religious worship in Gaelic, only makes sense when it is taken on board that the education itself was emphasising the Bible and religious instruction. It made sense therefore to express the tenets of religion in the native language which would in turn bring about the use of English in everyday speech. Gaelic was to be the "missionary medium"10 for an anglicisation policy through education.

The eighteenth century was to be a century of enormous change for Gaelic and for the Highlands. The Union of the Parliaments, Jacobitism, and Improvement, would all exert great pressures to add to smaller problems at a domestic level; such as the provision of clergy and Gaelic texts.

In 1688 200 Irish Old Testaments were shipped to Edinburgh for distribution to the Highland parishes to aid in literacy and religious instruction. Only 109 of these had been distributed by 1698, mostly in Argyll and Ross. The problem lay both in the unwillingness of the Kirk and the Bibles themselves. They were printed in Irish type, and contained a different orthography and idiom which was a major hindrance in the Highlands. A Latin type edition, together with an edition of 3000 Gaelic catechisms was belatedly produced and distributed in Scotland, but by 1704 some parishes still had not received their allotments of Testaments and catechisms.

One group overshadowed everyone else in bringing education and religious teaching to the Highlands and other 'uncivilised' areas of the country; the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. It's Scottish wing, the SSPCK had been formed by royal charter in 1709, and by 1715 had twenty five schools running. The SSPCK desired to wear out Gaelic and spurned the use of the Gaelic catechism and psalter.

The education policy of the SSPCK was often contradictory and ambiguous. It eventually had to conceed that there was no point in teaching pupils English, in English, when they didn't understand it in the first place. To increase comprehension, it resolved that the catechism would be used, and translated from English into Gaelic, although Gaelic itself was never to be spoken. This led to widespread rote learning in SSPCK schools where the pupils had no comprehension of what they were reading.

While adopting comparison as its key educational method the SSPCK was also rethinking its attitude to Gaelic texts. In 1741 a Gaelic-English vocabulary was introduced and in 1754 the SSPCK put forward a plan for a New Testament with facing pages of Gaelic and English texts. It was ready by 1766 in time for a new direction change in policy. They had finally realised that the comparative method was not working as the pupils were leaving the schools unable to speak English because they had no understanding of it. Gaelic and English would now be read alongside one another, as as a means of learning English with understanding. By 1781 they were already noting the changes in desire of people to learn English and explore new knowledge.

The SSPCK achieved much in determining the fortunes of Gaelic. The location of its schools mirrored the geographical decline of Gaelic over time, and it maintained an antipathy towards the language which fitted the political mood of the country outside the Highlands. Moreover, through banning the use of Gaelic, it brought about an attitude change whereby English was seen as the only medium for education. Thus, anglicisation was the first step to bringing Gaelic Scotland into a Greater Britain.

The history of Gaelic at this time is perhaps best described in the poetry of Alexander MacDonald, himself an SSPCK teacher and a fervent Jacobite. This section from the poem "Aiseirigh na seann chanain Albannaich" details some of the history of Gaelic Scotland, and shows how the ideal of a "greater Gaidhealtachd" had come down by the eighteenth century.

 'S i labhair Alba,
 'S Gall bhodacha féin,
 Ar flaith 's ar prionnsan
 'S ar diùcanna gun éis.
 An tigh-comhairl' righ,
 'N uair shuidheadh air binn chùairt,
 'S i Ghàilig lìobhaidh
 Dh' fhuasgladh snaoim gach cùis'.
 'S i labhair calum
 Allail a' chinn mhòir;
 Gach mith is maith
 Bha 'n Alba, beag is mòr.
 'S i labhair Gaill is Gàidheil,
 Neo-chléirich is cléir,
 Gach fear is bean,
 A ghluaiseadh teanga 'm beul.
 'S i labhair Adhamh
 Annam Pàrras féin,
 'S bu shiùbhlach Gàilig
 Bho bheul àluinn Eubh! 11

The ideas expressed here; the linking of the long history of Gaelic, and the Bible were a key aspect of the future view the Highlander took about his language. Gaelic and religion were inextricably linked. The economy of the seventeenth century Gaidhealtachd was also a signal component in the decline of Gaelic. The rising population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created huge problems in agriculture, and stored up problems for the future.

Very little of the land in the Highlands was suitable for improvement farming, the acid soils and the climate counted against it. The rearing and export of cattle had sustained the economy of the Highlands for many years, with grain being bought in in exchange. Moreover the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars created a demand for kelp, and this also helped to keep the Highland economy afloat.

The landlords had after the '45, been engaged in a campaign to improve their lands. They had managed to edge the tacksmen out, and sub-let the land with specified rents and services. The decline in the traditional system after 1746 had facilitated this movement, money and not the armed clansman became the new image of the Highland chief. Many landlords were loathe to allow migration or emigration from the land, as they perceived that for industry to be brought in to the Highlands, then a cheap source of labour was required, particularly with kelp. Populations were therefore crowded on the seashore and insufficient cultivation was carried out on the land itself.

By 1815 the Highland economy was teetering, its flimsy foundations sagging under the combined weight of economic reality and competition. The chemical industry had solved the problem of mass producing soda, thereby circumventing the collection of kelp, moreover, Spanish barilla was again competing with the kelping industry after the end of the war. By 1827, cattle, sheep and wool prices were falling and the restrictions on passenger ships had been removed; the desirability of a large population and curtailing emigration began to revised. Emigration was seen as being both a benefit to the colonies and to the mother country.

The emigration and migration from the Highlands was a major cause of the decline of the Gaelic language. It took place against a changing educational background where the SSPCK was declining in activity and a group of new organisations was growing up; Gaelic Society Schools.

The object of these schools was to teach Gaelic speakers to read the scriptures in their own tongue. The Edinburgh Society began in 1811, the Glasgow Society in 1812, and the Inverness Society in 1818. They attempted to avoid absenteeism and maximise numbers by timing the school year to the farming year, while the school moved to the another township at the end of each year. Religion and education were to be closely bound within these schools. Moreover, the bias between male and female pupils, and the fact that many adults attended the evening and sabbath classes held by them, had important consequences, particularly when coupled with the fact that many adults were taught by their children at home in the evenings.

The Gaelic Schools were able to provide far more books and texts for their pupils to read than had been the case before. Through donation from the Lowlands, Highland regiments, and auxiliary organisations, the Edinburgh Society, in the first twenty years of its existence, had distributed 88,600 elementary books and scripture extracts and 67,400 Bibles, New Testaments and Psalm books to the Highlands.

The Gaelic Schools had a great effect on the Gaidhealtachd between 1811 and the 1840s. They strengthened the deep feelings in the Gael that Gaelic was the spiritual medium and the language of worship and salvation. This had been achieved through teaching the scriptures and nothing else in their own language.

The Gaelic Schools were important moreover, for their impact on the anglicisation of the Highlands. Reports came to the attention of the Society, that people were not satisfied with their children being able to read Gaelic, but were actively encouraging them to learn English, even paying for teachers to instruct in English over extra hours. Why should this be the case?

Firstly, the long tradition of education in English had begun to undermine the value of the language to those who spoke it. Secondly, the ability to read in Gaelic awakened a desire to learn English; for, the numbers of books in Gaelic and English respectively incited this desire, both in the young and the old. It was to come about that education in the home brought about a change in the language amongst the older age groups.

The Gaelic schools also had a wider impact in the Gaidhealtachd, through their geographical location. Whereas the SSPCK schools had congregated in the fringes of the Gaidhealtachd, the Gaelic School Societies targeted the remoter areas of the Highlands, the Western Isles and the areas north and west of the great glen. In doing so they were bring about the anglicisation of the Gaidhealtachd in a far bigger way and extending the reach of English further than ever before. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland consolidated this by setting up schools to serve the Highland parishes, aiming to foster English learning and speaking.

The collapse of the kelp industry had led many landlords to agree to the mass emigration of their tenants; if only to stave off any large scale destitution. The Government belatedly agreed to this and agreed to set up organised emigration to Canada and the Americas, where they would join the earlier emigrant tacksmen. The collapse of 1815 moreover, had brought about a change amongst the landlords themselves. Many of the landlords were bought out, or had to sell out, and new incomers from the south, both English and Lowland Scots took over. This exacerbated the gulf between landlord and tenant, in the 1840's and 50's as the landlord was often absentee, and had no understanding of the people in either language or culture. In many areas the population were moved to new townships on narrow strips of land by the shore, with the interior opened up to sheep. A new era had begun, the Crofter was born.

By setting up crofts the estates were storing up problems for themselves and their tenants. The crofts were often sub-let several times, with only a very bare subsistence level being attainable. When the potato blight reached Scotland, it was these communities which were hit hardest, being almost totally dependent upon it as a source of food. Consequently emigration was the best hope for many of them, some went voluntarily, others were forced on board the ships waiting to take them across the sea. They took with them their Gaelic and their traditions, which were to flourish in areas of Canada. W.J. Watson stated in 1926 at the annual dinner of the Gaelic Society of Inverness that:

The decline of Gaelic is bound up with the general decline of population in the Highlands, and to that extent it is an economic problem.12

I think that this is a fundamentally true statement and a key principle to be remembered in the search for the reasons for Gaelic's decline.

Educational provisions in the Gaidhealtachd between 1850 and 1872, were largely the same as those of previous decades. By 1872, over 300,000 had been educated in the Highlands as a whole with over 100,000 people having been taught to read the Bible by the Gaelic Schools alone; twice as many Gaelic texts had been distributed by them by this time as well.

A dramatic change came about in 1872. The passing of the Education Act, centralised and formalised Scottish education. Gaelic was excluded from the act and this undoubtedly had an effect on both literacy and the language itself. The various bodies which had been in existence in the Highlands continued to operate their schools for a time, and their overall influence was profound on the language.

The lack of provision in the Act was simply a reflection of the ambivalence of the authorities, and the fact that many, (including the Gaels themselves), did not see Gaelic as an educational language. It was not just the lack of legislatory provision that affected Gaelic, but also the fact that many of the teachers and others who could change policy, saw Gaelic as a mark of backwardness, teaching it therefore was a waste of time.

This view predominated due to the fact that, by the end of the nineteenth century, English was known to one degree or another throughout the Highlands, Gaelic was therefore unnecessary as an educational provision. Moreover, as was given in evidence to the Napier Commission by the Rev. James Grant of Kilmuir on Skye:

"Highlanders would like their children to be better scholars than themselves, to be able to read the scriptures in Gaelic, but to be also able to speak English and carve their way through the world."13

Education was clearly seen as a means to facilitate emigration and advancement in an English speaking world. The word of God was preferred, encouraged and permitted in Gaelic, so long as the secular world was in English.

The early 1880s were a period of bitter rural unrest in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Irish Land Act of 1881 led many landlords to fear an extension of unrest to the Highlands. They feared that the activities of the Irish Land League would be copied by the Highlanders, and indeed the government feared the same. The government set up a commission under Lord Napier "to inquire into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland". The Commission took a tour of the Highlands and took a great deal of evidence, in Gaelic and English, yet did not dampen the ardour of agitation as was hoped tending only to inflame it.

The Napier Commission reported in 1884, but failed to put an end to the disputes. The decision by the Land League to form a Crofters Party to contest the General Election in the Highland seats was therefore a new and serious threat to the government coming in the wake of the Irish experience of links between the Irish Land League, the Fenian and the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Highlander was now prepared to fight for his land against the men of another race trying to take it away:

"The language and lore of the Highlanders being treated with despite has tended to crush their self-respect and repress their self-reliance without which no people can advance. When a man was convinced that his language was a barbarism, his lore as filthy rags, and that the only good thing about him -his land- was, because of his general worthlessness, to go to a man of another race and another tongue, what remained that he fight for?"14

Success of a kind was achieved in 1886. Four MP's were elected to Westminster, and produced a promise for a bill to mitigate the distress of the poorer classes in the Highlands. The resultant Crofters' Holdings Act was a major turning point in the attitude of the British government towards the Highlands.

A key piece of evidence for the status of Gaelic by the end of the nineteenth century is the census. The 1881 census was the first to ask specifically whether Gaelic was spoken or not and, from 1891, those speaking Gaelic and English were enumerated. Yet this is not without its problems, there is good reason to believe that the 1881 returns are an underestimate, due to confusion over the phrase 'habitual speakers of Gaelic' in the census. The 1891 census showed an increase in numbers of speakers, from 231,594 to 254,415, due to the different questions, and the previous under-representation. From 1901 only those aged three years of age and over were enumerated; therefore, many of the Highland children speaking mostly Gaelic, yet under three and not attending school and embarking on anglicisation were not recorded.

The figures in Table 1 tell their own tale about the decline of Gaelic. Interesting points to note are that the low percentages of Gaelic speakers in the Lowlands disguise the large numbers of Gaelic speakers actually there but swamped by the larger numbers of English speakers. Problems result from the fact that large percentages in Argyll, and other Highland counties disguise low population density, which the maps 1-11 attempt to illustrate and put into perspective.

What the census figures and contemporary evidence shows, is that Gaelic usage differed by age and sex. The older age groups held onto their Gaelic longest, and spoke it more correctly than the young. Within the young, the men were more conscious of the ability to speak English in relation to status. It was they rather than the women who abandoned their native tongue.

The fortunes of Gaelic in the twentieth century have been mixed. The two World Wars, drew many Gaelic speakers away to fight, many of whom did not return. Those that did, forced through more land reforms as they demanded that the government fulfil their prewar promises. Anti-Gaelic feeling persisted and does so today. The difficulties facing it are more complex than those seeking a militant stance to protect it see.

Educationally, Gaelic has had a different history in the twentieth century. Since 1904 it has been possible to learn Gaelic as a subject in its own right and not as a means of acquiring English. In the early days, the lack of teachers hindered this policy but did not prevent people from getting to the Celtic departments of the Scottish universities. In 1918 Gaelic was given a statutory place in Education, thanks to the efforts of An Comunn, the church and Liberal politicians. This was a victory for the language although it was a 'subject' it was not a language on an equal footing. It was more widely taught than ever before, but the lack of texts, teachers, and the goodwill of the authorities hindered the hoped for success of the Bill.

Since then, Gaelic has had new emphasis placed upon it in Education. Since the 1950s, Gaelic has been used for more and different purposes than ever before. Gaelic is now more in favour as a medium for education than ever. Projects in the Western Isles aimed at enabling children to learn all subjects in Gaelic as well as in English, have been ably supported by Gaelic texts. Although bilingualism has not possibly had quite the desired effect that was sought. MacKinnon's work in Harris primary and secondary schools, showed that Gaelic was either used alongside English or not at all, which only accelerates anglicisation.15 Gaelic has turned full circle, from being reviled and banned to being encouraged and seen as part of a cultural identity.

It is not only through education that Gaelic has achieved a wider spread than ever before. The media has been used to further Gaelic's exposure to a mainly southern audience, and it is here that the growth area in Gaelic is to be found. The media has been a mixed blessing however. The fact that English is brought into homes through the TV, makes it difficult for Gaelic to compete. With little or no current affairs television in Gaelic, and the varying times of broadcast, often late at night, Gaelic is at a severe disadvantage, with only peripheral exposure. The recent provision of funds for Gaelic broadcasting and education may help to reverse this, and the growing number of Gaelic programmes and their technical ability have increased the prospects of a recovery for Gaelic.

What must be remembered in looking for a brighter future for Gaelic is the experience of Ireland and the government attempts at a recovery of Irish. As Desmond Fennell states:

If there is a territory in which the particular language is usually spoken and it is contracting continually through language changes on the fringes, who can stop this contraction? Clearly only the people of that territory by deciding to do so, and by taking appropriate measures. So another way of explaining why the State failed to save the Gaeltacht is by saying that the government failed to perceive this fact and failed to take action accordingly.16

We fail to take this lesson on board at our peril.

The problem for Gaelic, is to find a role in Scottish life and affairs. It has little or no role at present either in the law or wider afield. Attempts by the SDA in the Eighties, Comhairle nan Eilean, An Comunn Gaidhealach and Sabhal Mor Ostaig amongst others have aimed to avert the decline and foster a recovery. Politically only the SNP has any concerted policy regarding Gaelic in Scotland. The other parties having given it little thought or come up with any role for it in Scotland as a whole. What is certain is that it cannot be restored to its former position in Scotland because of the history of persecution it has suffered.

In conclusion then, the reasons for the decline of Gaelic since the sixteenth century have been complex and have covered the political, economic, religious, and social spheres. The legislation of the Scottish government in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries set the tone for most of the subsequent policies followed in the Highlands. The activities of the SSPCK and the Gaelic Schools Societies, meant that Gaelic was hounded in its heartlands and along its fringes. Anglicisation proceeded apace with this educational onslaught; for, by winning over the young to the English language, the Gaelic language would removed for ever in the Highlands. By the nineteenth century, the economic problems of the Highlands hastened Gaelic's decline. As emigration and migration took their toll, the English language began to get a strong foothold in the Highlands and expanded from it. The late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries have seen the decline continue despite the attempts to avert it.

Gaelic was in a paradoxical position by the nineteenth century. The interest shown in Gaelic literature largely ignored much genuine Gaelic culture, being based on claims to antiquity and on the position of the Highlander as 'primitive' rather than on the language itself. The "reinvention" of the Highlands at this time did little to alter the position of the language.

The adoption of English in the Highlands might not have produced an immediate end to Gaelic cultural forms. Coupled with the economic and political position however, and in a society where the literary tradition was oral not written, it made the transmission and retention of Gaelic culture and tradition less certain. Furthermore, the disappearance of the bardic system, through the legislation begun at Icolmkill, meant that by the eighteenth century, there was little or no maintenance of Gaelic through the support of a vigorous native Gaelic literary culture.

Literacy was of course low amongst the Gaelic population, and for those who could read, there were relatively few books in Gaelic available until the early 1800s and the twentieth century. Whilst several Highland Societies and Gaelic clubs in the Lowlands and elsewhere were concerned with the fortunes of the language and its speakers, they only occupied a midway position between the Gaelic and English ways of life.

One object of the Highland Society of London, was 'the promoting the cultivation of the Celtic language" yet that society supported the Gaelic schools "as a means of extending English through Gaelic". This paradox -fostering the external vestiges of Gaeldom yet actively encouraging the decline of the language- in time led the Highlands to deny their own heritage or at least resign themselves to the loss of their language. It is against this background that the decline of the Gaelic language must be seen.

Ewan Innes, April 20 1993


  1. cf. Alexander Grant Independence and Nationhood pp201
  2. The extent to which -as has been argued- the clash between the ‘kin based’ Highlands and the ‘feudal’ Lowlands is a reason for Gaelic’s decline, is unclear and to my mind a red herring anyway. The Lowlands were as much ‘kin based’ as the Highlands and feudalism did exist in the Highlands although in a modified form.
  3. G. Donaldson. James V-James VII pp230
  4. Register of the Privy Council 1609 Vol. IX pp 28-29
  5. R.P.C. 1616 Vol.X pp 671-2
  6. A.P.S. 1661 Vol.VII pp 17-18, 26, 130.
  7. A.P.S. 1695 Vol. IX pp 448
  8. Ibid
  9. A.P.S. 1696 Vol. X pp 63
  10. Campbell, J.L. Gaelic in Scottish Education and Life (1950) pp 54
  11. Rev. A. MacDonald & Rev. A. MacDonald ‘The poems of Alexander MacDonald’ pp5
  12. Watson, W.J. ‘Decline of Gaelic in Scotland’ Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Vol. XXXIII pp 257
  13. Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland 1884-5 P.P. XXXII App. A, Part III, pp7
  14. ‘Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.’, P.P 1884 XXXV, pp 463)
  15. MacKinnon, K. Language, education and social processes in a Gaelic community. (1977)
  16. D. Fennell. ‘Can a shrinking minority language be saved?’ Minority Languages Today ch.4 pp36

Gaelic Speaking Population

By County


1881 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1951 1961 1971
Scotland % 6.76 6.84 5.57 4.56 3.47 2.97 1.98 1.64 1.78
Counties %
Aberdeen 0.25 0.59 0.48 0.38 0.30 0.26 0.26 0.21 0.65
Angus 0.24 0.57 0.50 0.42 0.29 0.27 0.18 0.19 0.56
Argyll 65.25 60.88 54.35 47.06 34.56 33.17 21.69 17.20 0.72
Ayr 0.33 0.89 0.73 0.58 0.50 0.41 0.33 0.30 0.59
Banff 0.58 1.08 0.88 0.66 0.48 0.31 0.31 0.29 0.73
Berwick 0.09 0.29 0.26 0.34 0.24 0.26 0.24 0.21 0.57
Bute 22.70 0.34 15.71 12.02 4.57 5.17 2.28 1.64 1.90
Caithness 9.48 11.96 9.16 5.62 3.76 2.59 1.25 0.90 1.55
Clackmannan 0.04 0.82 0.57 0.77 0.51 0.48 0.28 0.31 0.57
Dumfries 0.02 0.29 0.26 0.33 0.23 0.28 0.22 0.17 0.51
Dunbarton 2.02 4.13 2.96 2.46 1.44 1.34 0.89 0.77 1.04
East Lothian 0.83 1.50 1.29 1.19 0.59 0.45 0.38 0.33 0.52
Fife 0.08 0.42 0.42 0.60 0.33 0.29 0.21 0.23 0.56
Inverness 75.99 73.24 64.85 59.07 50.91 43.97 30.57 25.91 22.02
Kincardine 0.05 0.35 0.27 0.30 0.29 0.30 0.25 0.32 0.70
Kinross 0.16 0.96 0.85 0.61 0.85 0.76 0.61 0.46 0.73
Kirkcudbright 0.03 0.19 0.27 0.33 0.28 0.28 0.29 0.26 0.54
Lanark 1.28 2.40 2.19 1.86 1.29 1.19 0.90 0.22 0.57
Midlothian 0.60 1.57 1.28 1.05 0.70 0.63 0.45 0.23 0.53
Moray 2.63 5.64 4.48 2.98 2.08 1.38 0.59 0.53 0.88
Nairn 20.32 27.07 15.29 10.54 6.47 5.19 1.69 1.79 1.64
Orkney 0.12 0.31 0.26 0.31 0.27 0.27 0.21 0.25 0.56
Peebles 0.02 0.57 0.51 0.69 0.38 0.44 0.36 0.39 0.91
Perth 12.10 11.95 9.94 7.70 5.25 4.21 1.90 1.53 1.68
Renfrew 2.15 3.17 2.30 1.90 1.31 1.12 0.67 0.59 0.81
Ross & Cromarty 76.57 76.92 71.76 64.01 60.20 57.29 46.05 41.31 35.12
Roxburgh 0.05 0.35 0.29 0.32 0.24 0.22 0.21 0.21 0.39
Selkirk 0.05 0.29 0.26 0.30 0.20 0.24 0.24 0.27 0.72
Shetland 0.04 0.25 0.21 0.17 0.44 0.15 0.11 0.10 0.42
Stirling 0.49 1.60 1.55 1.55 0.82 0.67 0.41 0.38 0.71
Sutherland 80.40 77.10 71.75 61.75 52.25 44.05 25.26 18.83 14.51
West Lothian 0.12 1.02 0.97 0.74 0.23 0.23 0.17 0.22 0.55
Wigtown 0.08 0.20 0.29 0.31 0.35 0.36 0.22 0.32 0.55


Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland (1814-74)
Aitken, A.J. & MacArthur, T. Languages of Scotland (1979)
Cameron, A.D. Go Listen to the Crofters: The Napier Commission and crofting a century ago
Campbell, J.L. Gaelic in Scottish Education and life (1950)
G Donaldson Scotland: James V-VII
Durkacz, V.E. The decline of the Celtic Languages (1983)
W Ferguson Scotland: 1689 to the present
A Grant Independence and Nationhood: Scotland 1306-1469
Haugen, E. et al (eds) Minority Languages Today (1980)
Hunter, J. The making of the Crofting Community
MacDonald, A & A. Revs Poems of Alexander MacDonald (1924)
MacInnes, J. "Gaelic Poetry and Historical Tradition" The Middle Ages in the Highlands Inverness Field Club (1981)
MacKinnon, K Language, Education and Social Processes in a Gaelic Community (1977)
Murison, D.D. "Lingustic Relationships in Medieval Scotland" The Scottish Tradition: Essays in honour of R.G. Cant ed. G.W.S. Barrow (1974)
Parliamentary Papers Commission of Inquiry into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland 1884-5 XXXII-XXXVII
Privy Council Register of the Privy Council
Thomson, D. (ed.) Gaelic in Scotland (1976)
Watson, W.J. "Decline of Gaelic in Scotland" Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Vol XXXIII
Watt, D.E.R. "Education in the Highlands in the Middle Ages" The Middle Ages in the Highlands Inverness Field Club (1981)
Withers, C.W.J. Gaelic Scotland - The Transformation of a culture region
Withers, C.W.J. Gaelic in Scotland 1698-1981 - The geographical history of a language (1984)
Withers, C.W.J. "The decline of Gaelic in Northern Scotland 1698-1901" Discussion papers in Geolinguistics no.7 Staffordshire Polytechnic