Bbc – capital – can £27m a year bring a language back from near death

My family story illustrates what linguistics experts call intergenerational breakdown. In 2018, along with about half of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages, Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s list of imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’. Research suggests that one of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority languages is a thriving economy. As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres, meaning people are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold.

That puts me in the same boat as most Scots. The 2011 census showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic skills.


In a population of five million-plus, this amounts to 87,100. Of these, only 32,400 were able to understand, speak, read and write it. Which is why the Scottish government is investing millions in trying to save it – through broadcasting, cultural and education projects. This ranges from Gaelic groups for pre-schoolers to ensuring the police and ambulance services have Gaelic language policies in place.

In Scotland, news of £2.5m of further public funding for a new Gaelic dictionary has stirred debate. Over the past four decades, successive governments of different political stripes have all supported the language. But critics say the policy is artificial and nostalgic and the cash should go to teaching modern world languages such as Spanish. “If Gaelic is dying does it deserve a financial kiss of life?” wrote columnist Brian Beacom in The Herald.

“It’s very easy to use an economic argument that monolingualism would be much more cost effective and that would reduce conflict and create economic efficiencies,” says Dr Marsaili MacLeod, lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and a champion of language rights. “But we would lose something if we all became one international nation with one language. People today really value cultural diversity and there’s a fear that we’re losing that through globalisation and English as a global language.”

Spoken in Scotland for more than 1,500 years, in Medieval times it was the primary language for swathes of Scotland. But over the centuries usage shrank back to the Hebrides and the Highlands. In 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, British government troops defeated Jacobite forces. Afterwards, state suppression of clan culture and traditions included banning Gaelic.

It was further weakened over the following century by the Highland clearances, when landowners evicted crofters from land rented for generations so that sheep farming could be introduced for higher profits. The resulting mass migration means that today there are Gaelic-speaking communities in Nova Scotia in Canada as well as in New Zealand, Australia and the US.

Then in the 1970s a pioneering business model emerged on the Isle of Skye. Landowner Sir Iain Noble turned disused farm buildings into the Gaelic college and cultural centre Sabhal Mor Ostaig and set up an hotel and a whisky distillery. He insisted that Gaelic was to be the normal working language of the estate. This was a new idea. “Nobody in the 1950s and 1960s in Scotland was working in an office in the medium of Gaelic,” says McLeod.

Thinking began to change. Politicians became interested in the idea of Gaelic as a motor in economic development, particularly in peripheral areas. “From the early 19th Century onwards, the economy of the Highlands and islands had been in perpetual crisis with out-migration, serious population decline, serious underdevelopment, and poverty,” says McLeod.

The 1980s brought key language policies with increased public funding for Gaelic arts, culture and education and especially for television. In 2005 the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh passed a law to promote and protect Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, with the aim of it “commanding equal respect to the English language.” Since then, Gaelic education has been growing. Even parents arriving in Scotland from countries such as Germany and Turkey are sending their offspring to Gaelic-medium nurseries and schools.

But for lovers of Gaelic, the language is beyond price. With 18 letters in its alphabet, no direct equivalent for ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and five syllables needed to say ‘please’, it is very different from English. It gives access to a unique treasure trove of history, literature, song and storytelling — and vocabulary to express ideas not readily put into English.

To learn more about great-great-grandfather Angus, I need to head to the windswept and wildly beautiful tip of the island of Lewis, the most north-westerly point in Europe. It’s here that descendants of migrant families find their way from north and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to a trim white-painted former schoolhouse – home to a museum and café run by the Ness Historical Society.

Living in the Gaelic heartland, where the highest concentration of speakers is found, how does she feel about new learners with no link to the language? “I spent my life teaching Gaelic to people from every place under the sun but the day we lose the natural communities where Gaelic is spoken I think Gaelic is going to become like Latin,” she says. “It’ll be a dead language.”

Latest research into the Gaelic language labour market identifies the key sectors as public administration, creative industries, education and tourism. Women are taking up more of these jobs than men. This is probably because many new posts are in education, early learning and childcare – sectors employing a higher proportion of females. The study by Skills Development Scotland projected that 98,000 new jobs would be created across the country between 2015 and 2027.