2011 – Bliadhna nan cànainean Albannach. The yeir o Scots leids. The year of Scottish languages.


2011 is a significant year for the languages of Scotland.  This is the census year and after a long and hard campaign by Scots language activists a question about Scots will finally be asked in the Scottish census to be held this coming March.  Prior attempts to have a census question counting the number of speakers of Scots and the number of Scottish people who understand the language were rejected by obstructionist Unionist administrations.  It was only when the SNP administration came into power that the campaign to collect official data about an essential foundation stone of Scottish culture and heritage was finally successful.





As a result of the lack of of official data, it was next to impossible for Scots language organisations to make an effective case for protecting and promoting the language.  If there are no official statistics, it is impossible to prove the demand or need for Scots language education, or the need for Scots language media outlets, or to identify geographical areas where the language remains strong and where measures to protect it should first be concentrated.  Without official data, applications for funding or official protection fell on deaf ears since it was impossible to quantify the language and its speakers accurately.

The previous Labour Lib Dem administration was happy to marginalise and ignore the culture of the land they promoted to tourists as the ‘best wee country in the world’.  They only see the value of Scottish culture as a picturesque attraction to bring in tourist dollars and euros, not as a distinctive and beautiful expression of the human experience which speaks directly to the Scottish people ourselves and informs us of who we are.

2011 is also a significant year for Gaelic.  The 19th and 20th centuries saw a catastrophic decline in the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and a massive retreat in the territorial extent of the language.  It is only within the past couple of decades that effective steps have been taken to protect the language, to promote Gaelic education outside the traditional heartlands of the language, and to begin to give Gaelic the public presence it deserves as a national language of our country.

The previous censuses have shown that the number of speakers of Gaelic continued to decline.  In 1981 there were 82,620 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, in 1991 the number had dropped to 65,978, decreasing yet further to 58,652 in the census of 2001.  2011 is the year when we hope to see signs that the decline is starting go into reverse, or at least to slow its pace.

The figures for the number of young people who speak the language will be most significant of all.  Gaelic has been predominately spoken by the older generations, and as these people reached the end of their life-spans they took the language with them, younger generations were not acquiring the language due to the all pervasive presence of English and the lack of official support and protection for Gaelic.  However Gaelic medium education is now established and growing in popularity, although great barriers still remain to its spread and development.  This is the year when Gaelic language activists hope to see signs of a recovery in the language amongst the country’s young people.

Gaelic also now enjoys a national TV channel which brings the language into homes across Scotland – at least those with a satellite dish or a Sky TV subscription.  The prejudice and ignorance which the language must still overcome was richly illustrated by the failure of the BBC and the broadcasting authorities to ensure that BBC Alba was available on the Freeview platform.  Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland were still deprived of a Gaelic language TV channel.  It’s only within the past couple of weeks that the BBC has announced that BBC Alba will after all be available on the Freeview platform, although details have still to be finalised.

The fundamental problem faced by both Gaelic and Scots is the widespread ignorance and lack of knowledge amongst the Scottish people about our own languages.  Little if anything about the topic is taught in schools, and the teachers themselves are products of an education system which ignored and marginalised the languages.  Even such basic facts like the once widespread presence of Gaelic in Lowland Scotland, or the status of Scots as a language – and not a mere dialect of English – are alien to many.

With the dominance of English we’ve been taught to view our languages separately.  Gaelic and Scots are seen as opposed to one another, a source of division and conflict.  But there need be no conflict between Scots and Gaelic, both are integral parts of a distinctively Scottish story.  They contradict the Unionist lie that Scottish nationalism is backward looking, ethnic and tribalist.  The true history of Scottish languages proves that the Scottish people developed a non-ethnic and non-exclusionary concept of Scottishness – a truly civic nationalism – long before the Unionists came along to claim that role for the British state.

As a result of the systematic marginalisation of Scots and Gaelic by generations of Unionist authorities who see value only in English, debates and discussion about the future of Scottish languages and how we are best to promote and protect them take place in a knowledge vacuum.  Stereotypes, myths, misinformation, and sheer ignorance abound.

Before anyone can have an informed debate, first they must have information.  With this in mind from tomorrow Newsnet Scotland will publish the first in a series of in-depth articles discussing the history of Scottish languages and issues surrounding this essential and fundamental aspect of Scottishness and Scottish identity.  Starting off with a ten part daily series detailing the history of Scottish languages over the past 2000 years and illustrated with previously unpublished maps, we will then continue with a weekly series exploding the myths and stereotypes which the biased media and education system have spread about our languages and culture.

It’s not just in the May elections that your voice will count in deciding the future of our country.  If we want a Scottish voice to be heard we must give Scottish languages a voice, and make Scots and Gaelic count in the census.

Tomorrow : A history of Scottish languages, part 1.