Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save

The Highlanders are generally quite proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their uniqueness. I know, because I’m engaged to one. From their faithfulness to Scottish football, to their pride in adorning the kilt and embracing Céilidh dances and the traditional events of the Highland games, one could say that a typical Highlander is in no doubt about his/her identity, and keen to show that to the world. So you can imagine my surprise when I met not just one but five Highlanders who all expressed annoyance at talks about saving Gaelic by encouraging children to study it at school and the introduction of Gaelic into bilingual road signs (see above picture). They unanimously argued that Gaelic is a dying language and that it is useless and impractical for their children to spend their time on – time which was presumably better spent on learning languages like Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual road signs, they insisted, were the product of a profit-making scheme by the government to attract tourists to Scotland – tourists who might find Gaelic exotic and exciting.

While more than 6000 languages exist today, Swerdlow (1999) predicted that by the year 2100, the number of languages on our planet could fall to 3000. Schaefer and Ebokhare (1999) who investigated the loss of African languages in southern Nigeria concluded that English is giving rise to the abandonment of indigenous, minority languages. But this phenomenon of the global spread of English giving rise to the extinction of indigenous languages is not a new one. We in the UK need to look no further than Scotland and Ireland to see how English has not only taken over the local languages, but perhaps also their culture. If one believes in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we see the world through the tinted lenses of the language we speak, then despite attempts to keep out the English, whether it be by historical wars waged by William Wallace or wearing ABE (Anyone but England) T-shirts at the World Cup, the Highlanders are already allowing the imperialism of their culture and their view of the world by taking on the English language.

In response to my passionate plea, these North-Eastern Highlanders claimed that Gaelic was not only unrepresentative of their identity, but that it was spoken mainly by people from the Western Isles such as those in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and that those in the East originally spoke Norwegian dialects. They then jokingly stated that if the government had wanted to preserve their historical roots, the road signs should have been in Norwegian. I found all this quite interesting, but a little hard to believe, so I decided to go ahead and do my own research on the origins of Gaelic.

While my friends are right about the fact that Gaelic is now seen as a regional language spoken largely on islands like Skye, Harris and Lewis, historically, it was actually the language spoken by the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how old Gaelic is but there is written evidence of the language dating back to as far as the 5th Century. Gaelic flourished for many centuries and even replaced Pictish as the main language of Scotland north of the River Forth in Edinburgh. It only began to suffer a decline in status as a national language in parts of mainland Scotland in the 13th Century, gradually being displaced by English. Ngugi (1986) describes how colonial powers devalue the culture of the local people and try to replace their language with that of the colonizer, and, in this way, control the way the people perceive themselves and the world, thus dominating and colonizing their minds. Yet, the Highlanders stubbornly resisted and the language survived.

The highland-lowland line emerged and Highland Gaelic, or what we know as Scottish Gaelic today, eventually became one that distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders, who had their own brand of Lowland Gaelic, a dialect that is now completely defunct. Having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years, Scottish Gaelic preserves knowledge of pre-feudal ‘tribal’ laws and customs and was representative of the Highlanders and their traditions. These traditions, alongside the language, were unfortunately persecuted during the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites, made up of an army of mostly Highlanders, failed at their attempts to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover.

The Highlanders and their language were further tyrannised during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, where masses of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to make way for agricultural reforms of the then British government.Waves of mass emigration to North America and Australasia meant that these immigrants had to learn the lingua francas of the countries they immigrated to, i.e. English, and subtractive bilingualism occurred.

Even in the 20th century, despite the council fiercely resisting continuous attempts to allow for bilingual road signs, it was not until 1973, when this was finally allowed. However, today, many with Scottish ancestry fail to realise that they belong to a culture that has its own language and take for granted the new rights they now have to celebrate this language. It’s a bit like the generations of women who have campaigned for the right to vote, only to have lots of women, decades later, not even bothering to head to the polls on election day. We humans do have a propensity of taking things for granted, things that generations have fought to have.

Most Scots would be pleased to have organisations like Historic Scotland to look after, to preserve, and to show off their amazing irreplaceable heritage. Places like Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and tell a story of the history of a people, a story of where we come from and what we were, and places like this need to be conserved and studied with care.

Yet, many do not seem to see a parallel between these places and a complex language like Gaelic, which is filled with historical clues to the beginnings of the Scots. Perhaps an organisation like Historic Scotland could be accused of being formed for the profit-making, tourist-attracting schemes of the government, more so than the use of Gaelic on road signs. But no one would ever think that. It is, after all, not difficult to see the connection between historical monuments and the history and culture of a people. It is much more difficult to see that connection between a language and one’s culture, perhaps because language infiltrates every part of our everyday life and, therefore, is much more easily overlooked.

So, no, if we don’t believe in taking a wrecking ball to Eilean Donan Castle, then let’s not let Gaelic die.


Ngugi, W.T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schaefer, R.P. and F.O. Egbokhare (1999) ‘English and the pace of endangerment in Nigeria.’ World Englishes 18/3:381-91.

Swerdlow, J.L. (1999) ‘Global Village’, National Geographic 196/2:2-6.

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Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

27 thoughts on “Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save”

  1. Hey Chia-

    I enjoyed the convergence of personal, historical and larger linguistic movements here.

    It hurts somewhere I can’t quite explain when I hear anyone say that any language isn’t worth “saving”. For me it’s no different than the last of a tree species or a very endangered animal. Diversity is under threat a bit all over these days.

    I’ve spent many a night wondering how it’s gotten here, and how to move in a direction that seems healthier. My easiest answer is “local”, and yet it’s not easily to live 100% local considering the average lifestyle and vocational opportunities most of us “walk into”.

    Likewise, my life partner is ‘bretonne’ and her native language is diminishing fast, though there are many locals that hold very tightly to it. Maybe that’s what was most surprising to you, and to me while reading your thoughts.

    Cheers, brad

    1. Thanks Brad for your comments. I have to admit that before getting into linguistics, I was one of those guilty of thinking, ‘So what if languages die? What’s the big deal?’ This is why I think it’s important for the lay person to see the connection between a language and their history, their identity and their culture. Your analogies to dying tree species and endangered animals just hit the nail on the spot. Diversity is indeed hard to maintain in an era of widespread globalisation. Your ‘local’ answer is probably what’s leading many to ‘glocalisation’ as a solution, but unfortunately the most evident realisation of glocalisation at the moment seems only to be sneaky ways big international conglomerates use to break into local markets (think of the teriyaki burgers that Macdonalds sell in Japan)…

  2. The topic of the successful renaissance of Hebrew usually comes up in such discussions. In fact, I found myself discussing it on the remote island of Skellig Michael in Ireland last summer!
    One “advantage” that the revival drive for Hebrew had was that Hebrew became the only language people coming from every imaginable place in the globe had in common. In comparision, people in ireland /Scotland do have a common language they are using.
    Thanks for a fascinating post (I liked your reference to women and the vote!)

  3. Langauge is so central to our being that it’s hard to be objective about it. In my view, it’s not something we can think ourselves into doing; it’s something we have to feel.

    My wife is Chinese and we live in Beijing but we nearly always speak English at home, unless we use Chinese or Nepali (another language we both kind of know) “for fun”. This makes Chinese an endangered language at home because it’s never really used for real communication ~ our common language is English, for better or for worse – for me for the worse as it prevents me from improving more than I (what little) have done. When in the classroom, I find I sometimes have to cajole my students into using English when doing group work – even when we are doing a speaking skills lesson. I understand their reluctance in a way – they just feel incomfortable using this language when another seems more natural and is the one they usually use with one-another.

    I guess my point is that languages can’t be externally controlled – choosing to use one language over another is something which comes from the inside out. I’ve noticed how I, like many expats in China, use what’s called ‘Chinglish’ with other expats and Chinese people. I think it’s a group thing. There have been several attempts to ‘stamp out’ Chinglish but stopping people from using a language is just as difficult as trying to make them use it. It has to come from inside.

  4. Yes, the complex issues of language and identity. Ignorance seems to play a big part though, the people who argue most loudly against minoritised languages like Gaelic are often totally ignorant of most facts relating to the topic, even rather obvious ones. “It’s dead” – then what am I speaking? “It’s a Western Isles thing” – then why is there a sign saying Kirkintilloch outside the pub? “Mandarin is more useful” – you’ve taken it up then? and incidentally, football isn’t really useful either.
    I like your wrecking ball analogy, I’ve always used the Panda, as in “fine, if we’re busy exterminating things on the verge of extinction, here’s a gun, let’s go shoot some badly-evolved species of grass eating bear called the Giant Panda while we’re at it” 😉

    1. Thanks Naomi, Chris, Alasdair and Akerbeltz for your encouraging comments, but I’m not sure if I’m advocating the teaching of Gaelic in particular here. I agree with Gordon’s very sound comments that it is a really tall order to try and save a language or to enforce Gaelic as an L1 or an L2 in schools, and it would be harsh to judge the Highlanders (who incidentally are my friends) for not wanting their children to ‘waste’ time on learning what they consider is a dying language.
      What I would like, however, is for people to be more aware of how knowledge of languages is not simply about practicality and how many more people I can use that language with, but also about preserving a culture and its history. I think I was just surprised at how many people who are so proud of their culture and heritage didn’t seem to see the language as part of it…
      Preferably, all the parents out there who still speak Gaelic as a mother tongue (alongside English of course) would use the language at home and remind their children to be proud of it. My partner is a Highlander but he doesn’t speak Gaelic, so even if we were to send our future children to Gaelic school, neither of us would be able to use the language with him/her and as Gordon says, forcing the child to speak Gaelic might drive the final nail into the coffin… But if one of us did speak Gaelic, I think it would be great if we could pass on the language to the future generations…

  5. Wow, thank you so much for putting this out there! It’s good to know that the current battle to try and get people to see what’s really at the heart of the decline of Gaidhlig (or any other minority language for that matter) is being highlighted! I hope many Scots read this and see the true importance of Gaidhlig! ‘S math a rinn thu!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments Chrissie. It is quite a battle trying to persuade everyone to spend their time making sure a language survives, doesn’t it? Much easier to leave it to the hands of organisations like Historic Scotland…hahaha…but with a language so much more commitment is needed from everyone…

      Do pass it on to all your Scottish friends and hopefully we can raise more awareness of the issue…


    A very interesting post. Coming from Scotland myself, I’ve got to admit that when my students as me “What language do you speak in Scotland?” I will only sometimes mention Gaelic and refer to it basically as an almost-dead language.

    My initial gut reaction to your post’s title was “let it go”or “Gaelic has had its time, we should move on” however in wanting to post a reply I’ve got to think more closely about it. I’m not sure if I have a distinct opinion one way or the other about this but I do have a few points I’d like to share:

    1. Apparently being bilingual protects the brain ( and, this being the case, I can see that a bilingual society would be mentally healthier if nothing else. I also remember talking with a Czech student who admitted that he loved the fact he was Czech because he also spoke English therefore he could understand what most people were saying but if he and his friends wanted some privacy… well, most Europeans don’t speak Czech. I’m sure I know a lot of Scots that would enjoy that advantage over the English.

    2. The concept of saving a language is a very noble one but it is a lot of work. By taking on a dying language as an L2 (what it would be for most people in Scotland) you are really committing a lot to something with limited rewards… before people take offence to this, let me explain. Being native English speakers, I think we are ‘cursed’ in a way by natively speaking the most used language on the planet. In this way I think we often tend to view languages by the numbers – I know English, I can communicate with X number of people in X number of countries; if I learn Spanish I will be able to communicate with Y number more people in Y number more countries. The available time that most people have for language learning is limited and therefore trying to push the usefulness of Gaelic is a hard sell.

    3. I appreciate that, actually, you are not advocating Gaelic as an L2 but rather as a dual L1 – Scotland should focus more on Gaelic in the schools and the classrooms (the scenario that your highlander friends rejected). All I can say to that is that you’re asking a lot. Admittedly it’s been a few years since I was at school but if they were going to teach Gaelic in the same way I was taught French and German… then you might as well put the final nail in Gaelic’s coffin right here and now.
    This has turned into a much longer post than I had intended but I’ll finish by saying this. I think that more Gaelic would probably be a good thing for Scotland. Having grown up there with the distinction of having English parents I was sensitive to the tensions and a certain amount of resentment the Scots have towards the English. In my mind, this makes the culture a very ‘anti-’ culture. “Tell me about the Scottish.”, “We’re not English”. If the Scots could replace that first negative reply with something more positive like “We speak Gaelic.” then immediate the cultural definitions would start off on a more positive note.

  7. Oh I’m with you on “teaching” it as a subject. But then the world has moved on and the neat thing about immersion teaching is, it’s not a subject. Being taught through the medium of English may have made you hate calculus for what it is but hardly the English language for being the medium. Feel free to substitute any language for “English” in the above.
    The sad thing is, while having teeth doesn’t make you a dentist by general consensus, having a language seems to make everyone a linguist o.O Our ideas of what puts kids off something, I suspect, are rarely spot on. But I have yet to come across a kid who said “I hated being taught in X ” (except for those who were taught in an L2 they didn’t really speak, like my mother who was Cantonese L1 with very little English and then was sent to an English medium secondary school…) – they just hate maths or science or biology or whatever.

    1. Your point seems to support TBL (task based learning) and I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be something that makes that last mile, those last few percentage points the most difficult. If we focus on the language then the language is difficult, if we use the language as a tool to focus on something else, then that something else is difficult and the language just gets dealt with!

      Bringing it round to Gaelic: drama, music and games in Gaelic would spread the language quickly amongst children without reverting to verb tables and “the pen is on the table”.

    2. I love what you said about having teeth not making you a dentist but having a language making everyone a linguist! How true!
      The rise of the communicative era in English language teaching has seen the development of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) and TBL, alongside other communicative approaches to teaching. Yet, the teaching of other languages seems slow to benefit from this turn in language teaching and the Applied Linguistics research done in this area. Hopefully, we can see more of that not just in the teaching of Gaelic, but other languages as well!

  8. As someone whose father and Aunties all had Gaelic as their first language, it’s a source of sadness to me that the language is dying. I think the acceptance by ‘local’ Gaels that the language is dying is also an acknowledgement that you cannot divide a language from its culture and its community. The community described to me by my father was one full of humour, pranks, stories. It was above all an oral culture, and one thing you notice about the old Gaels is their way with words whether in Gaelic or English. That community has been replaced by something else. The interdependence is no longer there. The community is in transition. It may well become as closely-knit as before depending on how the future unfolds. For now, we have many people in the islands who have no wish for that kind of intimacy. If they learn Gaelic, what has that achieved? As the old Gaels say “you can’t put trousers on a cat”!

    At one time in my life I advocated the encouragement (not teaching) of Gaelic in all the primary schools of Scotland. One ‘champion’ amongst the teachers of the school to encourage its use in an informal ‘club’ setting, backed up by dedicated social networking online. Don’t let it anywhere near examining boards! This is to be the ‘secret’ language not understood by social workers, policemen or even other teachers. I would suggest that if you get kids young enough to adopt the language through choice and in a spirit of resistance, you will have sown the seed of a movement which could spread and take hold.

    1. What a lucid post, Duncan. Your sentiments are moving and yet you bravely acknowledge the waves of changes that are inevitably happening. So many of us sometimes romanticised the old times (which are in many ways romantic themselves) and find it difficult to face the present…I love your idea of it being a secret language amongst the kids! BTW, where in the Western Isles are you from?

      1. Originally from Skye. The Irish tried everything to make the language catch hold, from making it compulsory in schools to positive discrimination in college admissions. They seem to have failed. A more subtle approach is required, making a virtue out of Gaelic’s absence from commerce, Government and politics (forget about the lip-service). This is a secret society which should owe nothing to any politician or Government department. In fact the best thing that could be done for Gaelic would be for David Cameron to ban it!

  9. Very interesting article and debate. I live in the Western Isles and have been both a learner and teacher of Gaelic as well as some other languages, having trained in ESOL. These issues do engage deeply felt emotions early on – one of many catch-22s in this situation. (Why should young people, teenagers in particular, do the “right thing” just because it’s they’re told it’s the “right thing to do”?) So framing the issue in cataclysmic terms like “to save or not to save” (i.e. let it “die”) may crystallise/ossify an issue which actually needs some wiggle room in which people can work out their own relationship not just with Gaelic, but also how that relates to their other language or languages. If we acknowledge people’s tendency to “self-medicate” their language behaviour as a universal characteristic, then we have to find a way of working with that, encouraging an aware and informed approach to “barefoot dentistry”, if you will…

  10. Hi
    I read your article with interest. The naysayers still have a very negative outlook on their own language and identity which has been impressed upon them by successive British Governments. You may wish to examine the role of the Education (Scotland ) Acts starting King James, all openly hostile to the Gael. As a result, It is not long since the West Highlanders have been allowed to be educated in situ. It has since been the custom to be educated elsewhere. So many have gone to Oxford and Cambridge and enthusiastically pursued and promoted the values of an alien culture on their return. When this happens where are the things of value to be drawn from? where are the men of culture to stand up and encourage the view that our culture is worthwhile? Very few chose or choose that route – it is not easy. What is easy is to go with authority’s desired outcome which has always been an end of gaelic in the UK
    The French are proud of their own language, as are the Germans and the Spanish, yet English is commonly spoken throughout their domain because it is the common language between us for economics and commerce. So let us stand equal to them and be proud of speaking Gaidhlig whilst we also speak English – after all it is the oldest continuously spoken language in Western Europe.
    Highland language, education, customs and dress has been under continuous active duress from Culloden to the present day, but government are the ones who lead us. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of big businesses book and form pressure groups to continually present our case at every opportunity at every level, (maybe starting with Highland Councillors). Then perhaps the highlanders will not be SCARED to propound their heritage as a good thing.
    It is lovely to see people like yourself, however tentatively, come out of the corner and start to speak up. Beannachd ort is saoghal fada
    Allan Thornton

    1. Sorry but Gaelic is not the oldest continuously spoken language in western Europe…… Basque has that honour with a difference of some thousands of years

      1. Sorry, Ute, but it was not my intention to portray Gaelic as the oldest spoken language in Western Europe. There are quite a few others too, including Basque, and like Gaelic, I believe that these language, and their corresponding cultures, should be preserved and should remain active as there is so much we can learn from them, and they certainly make the world a fuller and more interesting place…


  11. Good comments, especially from Akerbeltz. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that going around Scotland (and even some part of northern England is like wandering around enjoying the scenery in monochrome – it’s there, and you may be impressed, but there’s something missing that you may not even be aware of at first.

    It is a challenge to bring up the next generation with a minority language, but it’s not impossible. After all, we live in societies that afford us considerable freedoms, and don’t actually forbid us from speaking minority languages. As it happens, I rarely speak to my two offspring in anything else, although we occasionally diverge into a major European language not spoken much in Scotland. (It’s a minority language here.)

    It’s like any other part of parenting – you pay in terms of effort, salary, time, etc., but in the end the investment is probably worth it. (Putting it another way: choose not to invest or make those sacrifices for your family, and you’ll probably get back what you invested.)

  12. Support for Gaelic and all Scotland’s languages.
    A language is not just an instrument, it’s a way to think and see the world around us. I confirm all cognitive benefits bilingualism brings. It also helps to resist to Alzheimer’s disease!
    Languages are not life forms, they are not made to die, they can be immortal if their speakers won’t stop speaking them for any reason. we discovered benefits of bilingualism after many studies. ancient people didn’t know them, that’s why many ancient languages are dead, otherwise they would still exist because none of them would’ve been dumped.
    I didn’t discover these things, many other people know about this and many people will in the future. I will ALWAYS support the preservation of every language, no matter how many speakers it has (don’t care about it). Keep Gaelic, Scots and Scottish English dialects alive and don’t let RPies* destroy them, just like Catalans are keeping their tongue. I’m with you, even if I’m not Scottish. Good luck. Best wishes.

    Sorry for possible mistakes, English is not my mother tongue.

    P.S.: 70% of the world’s population doesn’t speak English sufficiently well to hold a conversation with a native Anglophone.
    *RP English speakers.

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