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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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3.2.1 Politics and economics

The displacement of Gaelic by Norman French at the court of King Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret in the 11th century is an early milestone in this process. This was followed by the gradual establishment of Scots as the language of the new Lowland burghs from the 12th century. Over the course of the following centuries, Gaelic has been driven back inexorably towards the north and west of the country.

Attempts by the Scottish Crown to bring the Highland and Islands under their control included legislation, such as the Statutes of Iona of 1609, aimed at weakening Gaelic, in particular among the clan aristocracy. The statutes stipulated, for example, that the eldest sons of clan chiefs were to be educated in English at Lowland schools.

Galleys, a symbol of the power of the Highland clans were also banned by the Statutes of Iona
Figure 17 Galleys, a symbol of the power of the Highland clans were also banned by the Statutes of Iona

A state of ‘diglossia’ developed over time in which English became the language of government and public life, with Gaelic confined for the most part to social interaction in lower-status home-neighbourhood domains.

In modern times, the main issue has been lack of positive support for Gaelic in law rather than active discrimination against it. This has been the focus of a political campaign which is described in the next section.

The Gaelic speaking heartland of the Highlands and Islands has suffered particularly badly from poverty, unemployment and emigration over the years, accentuated by events such as the Clearances and potato famine of the 19th century and the world wars of the 20th. This has impacted on Gaelic in two main ways.

Firstly, it has meant that Gaelic-speaking communities have been broken up and the Gaelic speakers, mostly young, dispersed to places like Glasgow or Canada.

More insidiously, the economic situation created a widespread perception that Gaelic was of little or no financial value, which in its turn led to schools ‘educating children for exile’ and to parents opting against passing the language on to their children.