The 19th century in the Highlands was a time of poverty and conflict but things were beginning to change for the better by its end. In Gaelic, 1891 saw the launch of the first organisation set up in support of the language. An Comunn Gàidhealach’s first achievement was to create a major music festival, the Mod, which continues to this day to promote Gaelic music and to raise the profile of the language. It also set up local branches and, at national level, took part in political campaigns such as that which led to the inclusion of a clause in the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act. This act gave official recognition to Gaelic by requiring the new educational authorities ‘make adequate provision for Gaelic in Gaelic-speaking areas’.
The next phase of the Gaelic revival began just after the Second World War, running through to around 1980, and saw the voluntary sector, represented by An Comunn, being overtaken by a new cadre of activists. They initiated important developments in Gaelic publishing, broadcasting and education, either by gaining positions of influence within existing institutions (such as the BBC) or by setting up parallel systems for Gaelic (such as the Gaelic Books Council from 1968).
The main characteristic of this phase was the evolution of a professional infrastructure for Gaelic development, largely funded from the public purse.
The emphasis in education now was on developing Gaelic as a medium of teaching. The Inverness-shire Gaelic Education Scheme (in the 1960s and 1970s) and the Western Isles Bilingual Education Project (from 1975) are examples of this, both aiming to encourage Gaelic-speaking pupils to use the language ‘as a natural language for the exploration and description of experience’.
There are three main strands to the third phase of the Gaelic revival.
Gaelic medium immersion education (GME), based on a Welsh model, was one of these. Starting in the early 1980s this has now spread throughout the country, with some 4,000 youngsters involved at all stages.
In immersion education children are taught almost entirely in the target language, even where most of them do not speak it. The approximately 80 per cent of children in GME who come from non-Gaelic speaking homes learn to understand the language quickly and are able to communicate freely in it by the end of their schooling.
GME is regarded as the best hope for the future of Gaelic, creating new Gaelic speakers in communities where parents no longer have the language.
There are also learners’ classes in primary and secondary schools. Information on Gaelic education generally is available.
The second strand in the revival has included a renaissance in Gaelic (and Celtic) music - which continues to gain popularity both among Gaels and in the wider Scottish public - and the development of a comprehensive broadcasting service in Gaelic, including a dedicated Gaelic television channel (described more fully in the case studies).
The third strand in the revival has been the adoption by the Scottish Parliament of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act in 2005. This created a non-governmental public body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which advises the government on Gaelic. The body is also required to produce a national plan for Gaelic and to assist other public bodies in producing plans. The key principle enshrined in the Act is that ‘the Gaelic and English languages should be accorded equal respect’. A copy of the Act (2005) and of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s first National Plan for Gaelic (2007) can be accessed here and an overview can be seen in the box below.
Box 3 Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005
The Act – an Overview
3. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 establishes a body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the Bòrd), to promote the use and understanding of the Gaelic language and enables the Bòrd to require certain public bodies to prepare and implement plans which will set out how they will use the Gaelic language in the exercise of their functions.
4. Section 1 establishes the Bòrd with the functions of promoting the use and understanding of the Gaelic language; promoting and advising on Gaelic language, culture and education matters; and reporting to the Scottish Ministers on the implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in relation to the Gaelic language.
5. Section 2 requires the Bòrd to develop a national Gaelic language plan setting out how it proposes to exercise those functions.
6. Sections 3 to 8 enable the Bòrd to require relevant public authorities to prepare and implement Gaelic language plans. These plans will set out how the public authority will use the language in connection with the exercise of its functions.
7. Section 9 provides for the Bòrd to issue guidance on the provision and development of Gaelic education.
The Gaelic revival of the past 100 years has followed two contrasting trajectories, one showing a steady improvement in the language’s status while the other shows the number of Gaelic speakers steadily falling (although the rate is slowing down). Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s National Plan for Gaelic (2007) set a target of 65,000 Gaelic speakers by 2021. While some regard this as optimistic, it does seem likely that the number will stabilise in the medium term, albeit at a lower figure than this target.