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Tongue tied: the fight to keep Gaelic alive

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Cultures
An old blackhouse on the Island of Lewis An old blackhouse on the Island of Lewis Anneka/Shutterstock
27 Apr
For many living in the Outer Hebrides, the Gaelic language is a cornerstone of their narrative culture. But like many minority tongues, it’s in danger of dying out as generations modernise. Mark Rowe investigates those pushing to keep the ancient tongue alive

In a more visited, or more vocal part of the world, the Na Gearrannan blackhouses, a mesmerising collection of restored traditional Hebridean dwellings on the west coast of the Island of Lewis, would be a shoe-in for UNESCO status and brandished on the front cover of every tourist brochure. Their double-drystone walls, thatched roofs and interiors based around a sooty central hearth – which is one disputed explanation for their name – were occupied up until the late 1970s.

In the small souvenir shop attached to the dwellings, it’s not the key rings and fridge magnets that catch my attention. As I pay for my gifts, the two people behind the till, both in their early twenties or younger, talk to one another in Gaelic, or Gàidhlig. This takes me by surprise: I’d assumed that Gaelic was a dying language, and like threatened minority languages the world over, only spoken by the older population, shunned by the younger generations.

It turns out that Iain Murdo Macmillan is 21 and has just graduated in Gaelic from the University of the Highlands and Islands. After finishing his summer job at Na Gearrannan, he will begin work as a primary school teacher in a school where only Gaelic is spoken for the first two years. His sister Kathyrn, 17, plans to take the same route.

‘I was brought up in a Gaelic household. My grandparents, my aunties spoke it, my parents insisted that only Gaelic was spoken in the house,’ he says, before elaborating on why the language is important to him. ‘Gaelic is in our ancestry, it’s the language of the croft, of the community. It’s in my identity, it’s more than just something that’s spoken.’

Gaelic roadsignMost roadsigns in the Hebrides are dual language (Image: Stephen Finn)


A traveller to the Outer Hebrides can’t help but notice the way in which Gaelic is increasingly visible, particularly in written form, where just about every interpretation board or museum is presented bilingually.

I make this observation to Bill Lawson, a trustee at the Seallam Centre on South Harris. The building overlooks the truly breathtaking sands of Northton (Taobh Tuath in Gaelic) and Scarasta, and Seallam presents a haunting account of how Gaelic’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with politics, famine and economics.

‘Our first language is Gaelic, it is engraved in our traditions,’ says Lawson. ‘For many years it wasn’t cool to speak vernacular Gaelic. The whole system tried to tell you that Gaelic was a dying language. There is no point in resurrecting languages that are already dead, but Gaelic is alive.’

That’s a sentiment widely shared across the isles. ‘The Western Isles is the only place you will hear Gaelic spoken freely,’ says Alasdair MacLeod, a councillor at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles council. ‘Gaelic has a rich heritage of song and poetry, of looking at the environment and the world in a different way. It permeates every strand of the community from crofting to the church, it’s our heritage. The weather, the landscape, the moors, the names of hills resound with Gaelic.’

That much is true, as I discover while walking across the moors of the isles.

Leaving Northton, I pick up an old walkway known as Bealach Eorabhat, the Coffin, or Corpse Road, a track that took the 19th century dead from the stony east coast to the thicker soils of the west for burial. For the most part, these were crofters kicked off the more fertile west coast soils during the Highland clearances.

The relocation of the dead was necessary because of the undentable nature of the landscape. Giant, immoveable rocks stick out of the ground: this is the land of Lewisian gneiss, a metamorphic rock among the oldest on the planet. The gneiss is hard, acidic and impermeable, which means that the deep seated u-shaped glens, rocky summits and boulder strewn hillsides have changed little since the last ice age 14,000 years ago.

Beaches and sandy shores bookend either side of this pass, (beach is translatedf as traigh). Wildlife is everywhere, the must-see otter is biast-dubh; for walkers, a footpath is frith-rathad. North Uist is a literal translation of Uibhist a Tuath; but South Uist is referred to historically as Tir A’Mhurain, or ‘Land of the Bent Grass’. The island of Benbecula becomes Beinn na Faoghla, or the ‘Mountain of the Ford’.

Later I head for South Uist and the Kildonan Museum, located just off the island’s exhilarating main road where, without particularly looking out for them, I had spotted a herd of red and a pair of golden stags. The museum expands on how Gaelic was embedded in the isles and how the oral culture of South Uist came to be one of the strongest in the world. People would gather in the blackhouses and tell stories and songs; often the best story tellers were men who had only themselves and neighbours for company. This culture was all but eviscerated during the First World War by the sheer numbers of men lost on the Western Front.

Gaelic held on by its fingertips. ‘For older people who come from rural Harris and the Uists, the first language is Gaelic,’ says Chris Ryan, a keen walker and guide on the Hebrides. ‘They may not be able to write or read it, but they can speak it.’

That lack of formal Gaelic education was accompanied by a surprising hostility. ‘Sixty years ago you would have been belted for speaking Gaelic in the playground,’ says William MacDonald, the council’s senior education officer. ‘People didn’t see Gaelic as having any place in the wider world. Life changed incredibly. You think of access to television, now the internet, the ferries, people move back and forward all the time. That’s so very different to the way it was.’

Scots Gaelic speakers in the 2011 census (Image: SkateTier)Scots Gaelic speakers in the 2011 census (Image: SkateTier)


Gaelic appears to be as impermeable as those island rocks, though it has been helped by the 2005 Gaelic Language Act, which gave it a legal status it hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Across the Western Isles, Gaelic-medium primary schools are increasing, as are more regionalised secondary schools. Just under half of all children go to Gaelic-medium schools, where they speak and learn Gaelic exclusively for their first two years. In Harris, the Uists and Barra, that figure is 70 per cent. English is introduced in the third year, so that when children reach their final year of primary school they are fluent in both. Last spring, a further six Western Isles primary schools were given Gaelic-medium status.

‘We live in a world where English is a really strong language, such a strong culture,’ adds MacDonald. ‘We want to promote Gaelic as more than just a language, we want it to be part of children’s lives. We want the janitor and the dinner ladies to speak Gaelic to the children.’

Things are more challenging at senior school, as MacDonald acknowledges. ‘We don’t always have enough qualified teachers in all the subjects,’ he said. Arts subjects are well catered for but science teachers are harder to come by. ‘We want Gaelic to get into mathematics, the sciences and engineering to show that it can reach across all society.’

Supporters hope that by bolstering the language at grass roots level, island culture can in turn retain its distinctiveness. It’s a sentiment, a goal, that appears to pre-date the surge in nationalist sentiment across Scotland.

‘This is the last-chance saloon for Gaelic,’ MacDonald declares. ‘When we started in 1985, Gaelic was spoken in just two schools. We look at Gaelic as an indigenous language, a way of life, a culture. Our aim is to get 60 per cent of young people included in Gaelic in some way, such as cultural activities, music, that is what keeps it alive.’

The University of the Highlands and Islands is one of the few offering courses in Gaelic (Image: Claudine Van Massenhove)The University of the Highlands and Islands is one of the few offering courses in Gaelic (Image: Claudine Van Massenhove)


An additional curiosity gives Gaelic supporters hope that the language may yet truly thrive. MacDonald has noted the willingness of incomers – particularly from England – to buy into the Gaelic ethos, learn the language and send their children to Gaelic schools. ‘It’s good that people have moved into the community and look to become integrated,’ he says.

‘A lot of people who come into the islands are actively trying to learn it, especially the people from England, they are making such an effort to learn the language and the culture,’ agrees young Macmillan. ‘Gaelic is on the up in many ways, but it’s people on the island themselves who are giving up on it. It’s a shame, but some see Gaelic getting funding and other things not, so they feel hard done by. Perhaps they were forced to learn it when they were younger. My own primary school teacher didn’t make us learn Gaelic, she just engaged us with it.’

But are there enough people like the Macmillan siblings able to nourish the language in its home soil? Townships such as Northton, the home of Seallam, are typical of the challenges facing the Western Isles. Of 41 crofts, only nine are now occupied by island families. The school opened in 1908, had 87 children at its peak, but closed in 1983 with just three pupils.

Lawson too has noticed that many of the children learning Gaelic in Gaelic-medium schools are from families of incomers, often from England. ‘There’s an element of defiance,’ he says, ‘a reaction to the monoculture you see elsewhere. A lot of people here feel Edinburgh is just as far away as London.

‘But we also see this in the Gaelic diaspora, especially in the US. The first generation left the islands, the second generation had little or no interest in their heritage. But the third generation, the fourth, they feel rootless, they care about where they came from. It’s not who you are, but where do you fit in, it gives you a consciousness in a place. If people are just an amorphous body, then Gaelic doesn’t matter in the least, but why does any language matter?’

ScotRail dual language slogan (Image: Kay Roxby)For Gaelic to survive, it’s hoped that the language will find its way into more commercial arenas (Image: Kay Roxby)


Everyone agrees that well-intentioned support for the language in isolation will not be enough. ‘There are jobs opportunities in Gaelic, and learning it may keep you here,’ says Lawson. ‘If you want to keep people on an island you have to get key things that belong to them.’

As Gaelic schools spread, so will the demand for Gaelic-medium teachers. Another benefit of the Gaelic Language Act is that all organisations must pay attention to the language and will generally require a Gaelic development officer. Ryan points out that not all jobs are in tourism. ‘My daughter is a nurse, and Gaelic is in demand in the geriatric wards of the hospital in Stornoway,’ he says. ‘If people suffer from dementia, the first language they lose can be English, so there is a demand for Gaelic speakers.’

Yet Lawson worries that young families with the infant Gaelic speakers of the future will have no choice but to leave for the mainland. ‘I wonder how many children will stay long enough to learn it on the islands if there are no jobs for their parents. The pay can be poor, housing is expensive. You can’t make a living by cleaning a holiday home on a Saturday changeover.’

‘As Bill Clinton may have said – “It’s the economy stupid”,’ agrees MacLeod. ‘It’s the same for rural communities and islands everywhere. Without economic opportunities people are not going to hang around. There’s a link between the strength of the language and the economy. People don’t move in just because there is a school. They move here if there is enough money to keep a house. That relates back to younger people, why we need to encourage them to learn Gaelic.’

Macmillan identifies other simple measures that could give Gaelic a boost among younger generations. ‘You don’t have Gaelic on Facebook, or in Microsoft Word, we need that,’ he says.

The bigger picture, as MacLeod is only too aware, is that minority languages all over the world are under threat. Gaelic is fighting against a daunting trend. ‘If Gaelic died out, we would lose a part of our soul,’ he says. ‘Why does Gaelic matter to me? It’s my first language, the first language in the community I live in. It’s part of my being, my heritage and it’s difficult to imagine life without it. We are not backward looking, this is forward looking.’

That’s a widely shared sentiment. ‘It’s away of life to me personally,’ says MacDonald. ‘If Gaelic died out it would be a tragedy. My parents were both raised here, the language links me to the island. I would be sad if my children did not have Gaelic, I’m glad they do. The core of my being comes from the Gaelic connection.’

Mark Rowe is the author of Outer Hebrides, The Western Isles of Scotland from Lewis to Barra, out now, published Bradt (www.bradtguides.com)

EDIT: An earlier version of this article mistranslated ‘traigh’ as meaning beaches or sandy shores. This has been corrected to just ‘beach’ (singular).

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