A history of Scottish languages – part 10


by Paul KavanaghScotland 2000

Read part 9

2000 AD : Gaelic has suffered a catastrophic decline and has now almost entirely vanished from almost all of mainland Scotland except for a few pockets in the north west.  As recently as the 20th century it was possible to find Gaelic speakers in every part of the Highlands, but now the traditional Gaelic of most areas has died out completely.  Even in districts such as the Cowal peninsula there were still surviving native Gaelic speakers until well into the second half of the last century. However this last generation of native speakers has now passed away in most Highland districts close to the Lowlands.  The language fares rather better in the islands and on the west coast, but now only the Western Isles and a small corner of Skye have a Gaelic speaking majority.  (Only some 37% of the total population of Skye claimed to speak Gaelic in 2001.) Everywhere else in Scotland Gaelic is now spoken by a minority in a sea of English.

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 9

Scotland 20002000 AD : Gaelic has suffered a catastrophic decline and has now almost entirely vanished from almost all of mainland Scotland except for a few pockets in the north west.  As recently as the 20th century it was possible to find Gaelic speakers in every part of the Highlands, but now the traditional Gaelic of most areas has died out completely.  Even in districts such as the Cowal peninsula there were still surviving native Gaelic speakers until well into the second half of the last century. However this last generation of native speakers has now passed away in most Highland districts close to the Lowlands.  The language fares rather better in the islands and on the west coast, but now only the Western Isles and a small corner of Skye have a Gaelic speaking majority.  (Only some 37% of the total population of Skye claimed to speak Gaelic in 2001.) Everywhere else in Scotland Gaelic is now spoken by a minority in a sea of English.

The solid coloured areas of Gaelic on the map are the districts where the language was spoken by over 50% of the population according to the 2001 census. In districts in heavy shading Gaelic speakers represent between 20% and 50% of the total population.  Areas in light shading are those where Gaelic speakers represent between 10% and 20% of the local population.  Speakers in these areas tend to be predominantly elderly.  The census counted a total of 58,552 Gaelic speakers in the whole of Scotland.  A total of 92,400 people in Scotland claimed to have at least some knowledge of the language.

Although the demographic fortunes of Gaelic have been calamitous, its political fortunes have fared somewhat better in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st.  Gaelic now has a degree of official support and recognition which it was denied in the past, and bilingual Gaelic-English education is widespread in the remaining Gaelic regions and increasingly popular elsewhere.  The language now enjoys a public presence in the form of Gaelic television and radio broadcasting, and is used on signs in public places in the Highlands and to some extent elsewhere.

Gaelic in Scotland, along with Welsh in Wales and Irish in Northern Ireland, is now legally protected thanks to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML).  This European treaty, to which the UK is a signatory, obliges the Westminster government to make funds available to support, promote and develop the language, to ensure its presence and availability in the educational system, to provide public signs in the language to guarantee and promote its public presence, to establish radio and tv channels broadcasting mainly or exclusively in the language and as far as possible to ensure the right of Gaelic speaking citizens to deal with government agencies through the medium of Gaelic.  In the case of Gaelic, the Scottish government and agencies of the Scottish government and local government act as agents of the UK government under the terms of the treaty.  It is due to these international treaty obligations of the Westminster government that the public presence of Gaelic has greatly increased in recent years.  Although Scots is also recognised by the UK government as a minority language of the UK warranting official protection and recognition, the British government only signed chapter 2 of the treaty in respect of Scots whereas it signed chapters 2 and 3 in respect of Gaelic.  Chapter 3 is the section of the treaty obliging governments to ensure a public presence for the language and its use in the broadcast media and educational system.  It is because of this decision of the British government that in recent years Scotland has witnessed a great improvement in the public presence of Gaelic, but not a corresponding improvement in the public presence of Scots.  Despite the hysterical claims of some, especially certain Unionist journalists writing for the UK press, this difference is not part of some imaginary nationalist plot to foist Gaelic on the whole of Scotland at the expense of Scots.  It is directly the result of a Westminster decision taken by a Labour government.

In 2005 the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act.  The act aims to establish Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, and to ensure that it is treated with “equal respect” as English.  The act also established Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic Language Board) a government quango charged with promoting and strengthening the language and increasing the number of speakers.  The implementation of the act by the Scottish executive (as it then was) was a direct result of British governmental treaty responsibilities incurred by the signing of the ECRML.  The act has been criticised as it applies only to devolved functions.  Agencies of the British state which are not devolved, such as the Post Office or the Driving and Vehicle Licencing Agency are not bound by the act, and have on the whole failed to implement it.

The future for Gaelic is still bleak, but there are small signs of hope that efforts to secure the language will have a positive outcome.  Gaelic medium education is increasingly popular, and well established in areas where the language retains a presence.  It is also spreading in the larger cities where there are substantial Gaelic speaking communities, and attempts are being made to make the language accessible to students and pupils in other parts of the country.  Although the provision of Gaelic in the education system remains patchy outside the last Highland strongholds of the language, there has been a massive shift in public and professional attitudes.  No Gaelic speaking schoolchild now has to fear punishment or disapproval from teachers because they have used the language in school.

This year’s census will be crucial, as language activists hope that the figures it produces will display signs of the recovery of Gaelic amongst the youngest generation.  Should this prove to be the case, it will provide an enormous boost for the language and will be the first concrete evidence that the tide is beginning to turn in the long and sad decline of Scotland’s Celtic language.

Even so, in the long term the challenges faced by Gaelic are extreme.  Unlike Welsh, which still retains a substantial number of speakers living in districts where the language is spoken by most people, the Scottish Gaelic speaking population is small and scattered.  The total population of the Western Isles, the only local authority district where a majority still speak Gaelic, is only some 26,000.  Of these around 60% claim to speak Gaelic, so only approximately 15,500 people out of a total Scottish Gaelic speaking population of 58,500 live in areas where Gaelic is still a community language and speakers can reasonably expect to use the language regularly in their daily business and interactions outside the home.  Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is for Gaelic to establish ‘virtual’ Gaelic speaking communities, centred around bilingual Gaelic schools and Gaelic organisations in predominantly non-Gaelic speaking areas.

Scots has in some respects fared even worse than Gaelic. The fact that Gaelic and English are different languages is in the realms of the obvious, but Scots was in competition with a language to which it was extremely closely related and with which it already had much in common.  Whereas competition with English saw a geographical retreat of Gaelic, the competition with English saw Scots being worn out from within as Scots words, grammatical constructions and pronunciations were replaced by their English equivalents in a piecemeal fashion.  Today most Scots in the Lowlands do not speak traditional Scots, rather they speak varieties which contain lesser or greater proportions of Scots and English depending upon the social occasion and the people they are speaking to.  In recent decades the amount of Scots which goes into this mixture has become very slight indeed for many people in the larger cities and towns.  However the number of Scottish people who retain a passive knowledge of Scots (they understand it but don’t usually speak it themselves) is far higher.  Most adult Scottish people in the Lowland have a large passive repertoire of words and constructions which they heard older generations using, but they do not generally use these words and constructions in their own speech.  In previous decades, it was possible for Scottish children whose parents tried to use English with them to acquire Scots from other children in the local community, but this is becoming less likely to happen as the proportion of active speakers of Scots in the population decreases.

Scots now has a presence in the educational system, although when it is used it is usually taught as a subject and is not used as a medium of education.  The further development of Scots in the school system is greatly hampered by the widespread ignorance amongst teaching staff of the issues which affect the language.  Most of these teachers are themselves products of an educational system which at best marginalised and sidelined Scots and at worst actively punished its use.

Traditional Scots probably preserves itself best in rural districts in the North East, but it is impossible to state with any degree of precision how many people speak the language or to pin point accurately the districts where the language remains strongest.  The number of people who understand Scots is considerably higher, but many modern Scots would find difficulties with much of the traditional vocabulary of Scots.  The picture ought to become much clearer later this year as for the first time a question will be asked in the census about Scots.  Getting this question into the census has been the result of a long campaign by Scots language activists.  Under the previous Labour – Lib Dem administration, there was considerable official obstructionism to adding such a question to the Scottish census.  The Labour party in Scotland simply has little or no interest in promoting Scottish culture – other than when it can be shown to be a direct benefit in cash terms to the tourism industry, or when they are forced to take action as the result of international British treaty obligations.  The saying “some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing” was scarcely more apt.

It is hoped that by identifying areas where the language is still relatively strong, efforts to maintain Scots and efforts to increase its presence in the educational system can be better targetted.  It is widely expected that the number of people who identify as Scots speakers will be substantially greater than the number who identify as Gaelic speakers.  This will give language activists powerful ammunition to use in future campaigns to exert pressure on the UK government to grant Scots the same degree of protection and recognition under the ECRML as it currently grants to Gaelic.  The UK government already officially recognises that Scots is a language (and not simply a dialect), and it will be difficult for them to justify granting a higher level of official protection to one of Scotland’s languages than to another Scottish language which has even more speakers.  The real reason for British lack of co-operation in this matter is probably the cost implication.  If Scots were to achieve the same legal status as Gaelic, it would have major implications for the language in terms of educational provision, public presence and broadcasting.  It could even lead to the establishment of a national Scots language TV channel.

For all these reasons it is vital that the Scots language question in this year’s census receives maximum publicity. The campaign is being led and promoted by the Scots Language Centre who have collaborated with the census authorities in producing a website to explain the question to the public.  This website will also contain audio files of Scots in order to make it easier to recognise the many different dialects and styles of the language.  Newsnet Scotland will do its part to support the publicity campaign.

Scots still suffers the immense handicap of lacking a recognised written standard, and until one is established it can only hope to survive as a dialect of English.  The lack of a common written variety of Scots means that Scots speakers have no real means of distinguishing Scots from non-standard English.  Everything which is not standard English in Scottish speech tends to be regarded as ‘Scots’.  However everywhere in the English speaking world dialectal forms of English are giving way to the standard and to emerging urban colloquials which are fundamentally derived from the standard.  There is a great shortage of information here, as the only model of language standardisation which Scottish people are familiar with is the English model of a single prescribed form of the language which is not very tolerant of dialectal and regional variation. However there are many different kinds of language standardisation, such as the Norwegian model which has two different standards each of which permits considerable local variation, or the Rumantsch Grischun model (used by the Rumantsch language of Switzerland) where the standard is explicitly not intended as a replacement for local dialects and is not based on any single Rumantsch dialect.  Rumantsch Grischun was codified on the basis of maximum intelligibility, and is used solely by the government in official publications and public notices.  Rumantsch speakers are only taught to read Rumantsch Grischun, they continue to write in their own local dialects.  The existence of Rumantsch Grischun and a common spelling system for all the dialects means that dialect texts are now more easily accessible to speakers of other dialects, and has also led to a great increase in the public presence of the language.  Instead of squashing local dialects, some forms of standardisation actually foster and promote dialect writing.  However in Scotland any attempt to create a standard Scots language immediately runs into the accusation that it is artificial and contrived.  People who make this argument rarely appreciate that all codified standard languages – including English – are by definition artificial and contrived.

The fact remains that there is an immense barrier of linguistic ignorance to overcome, and it’s the responsibility of Scottish language geeks like me to start telling our fellow country people what the real alternatives and possibilities are.  That’s one of the reasons I wrote this short history of Scottish languages.

The language maps which accompany this series are multicoloured and ever changing.  The past 200 years have seen Scotland’s languages come under a serious threat to their long term survival and unless the actions already being taken to protect them are built upon and further developed, we risk losing them entirely, and future maps of Scotland’s languages will show only one colour.  Things have improved, there is no doubt about that, but the road ahead is fraught with difficulties and challenges.  This is a crucial time for Scotland’s languages.  The decisions made by our generation will determine whether they live or die.


The numbers 1-10 in Scottish languages

It’s all very well blythely discussing different languages, but it’s always helpful to get an idea of what they looked like on the page and how they were related to one another.  The known languages of Scotland belong to two different language families, the Celtic languages and the Germanic languages.

Proto-Celtic was probably introduced into Britain during the early Iron Age.  Eventually it came to be spoken in Scotland.  It is not known what language or languages it replaced.  Proto-Celtic evolved into different branches in situ once it was already established in the British Isles.  The varieties of Celtic which developed in Britain and Ireland are conventionally referred to as Insular Celtic.  The two branches of Insular Celtic are Brittonic (or P-Celtic) which arose in Britain, and Goidelic (or Q-Celtic) which arose in Ireland.  The extinct Gaulish language of Roman Gaul was also a P-Celtic language and was seemingly closely related to Brittonic.  The terms P-Celtic and Q-Celtic have fallen out of favour amongst modern linguists.  Although all ‘P-Celtic’ languages display the common (albeit minor) innovation of changing original Celtic kw to p, ‘Q-Celtic’ languages are negatively defined.  They are simply those Celtic languages in which this change failed to occur.  Some ancient Continental Celtic languages, Celtiberian and Lepontic, were also ‘Q-Celtic’ but this does not necessarily imply that they had a particularly close relationship to Goidelic within the Celtic languages.  In fact the ‘Q-Celtic’ Lepontic was apparently an early form of the ‘P-Celtic’ language of the Cisalpine Gauls.  Although it was once widely believed that Celtiberian and Goidelic were closely related within Celtic, this is no longer thought to be the case.  Celtiberian and Goidelic are best thought of as descended from peripheral dialects of a large and ancient Celtic dialect complex. Brittonic and Gaulish descend from dialects closer to the core.

Brittonic is the language into which proto-Celtic had evolved in Britain by the time of the Roman invasion.  Meanwhile in Ireland proto-Celtic had evolved into the language known as Archaic Irish.  This was the form of Gaelic originally brought to Scotland in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Classical Irish was the literary language of Gaelic speakers from around 1000 AD until the early 18th century.  The proto-Celtic, Brittonic, and Archaic Irish numerals given here are simplified linguistic reconstructions.

Cumbric and Pictish were daughter languages of Brittonic.  Pictish was an earlier offshoot from Brittonic, diverging from other Brittonic varieties during the Roman period.  The other Brittonic languages diverged from Late Brittonic in the post-Roman period. Old Welsh was the close relative and contemporary of Cumbric and Pictish.  Since Cumbric and Pictish were not recorded, the Old Welsh numerals are given here.

The Germanic languages represented in Scotland belong to the West and North Germanic subfamilies. (There was a third subfamily, the now extinct Gothic or Eastern Germanic. It was never spoken in the British Isles.)  West Germanic originally developed along the North Sea coast of Germany and Denmark, North Germanic originated in Scandinavia.  Both arrived in Scotland in the post-Roman period.  These two Germanic subfamilies were introduced separately into Scotland, the West Germanic Old English from around 600 AD onwards, and Old Norse from 800 AD onwards.  Scots is the native development of Old English in Scottish territory although it was subject at various periods to strong influence from more southern varieties.  English developed out of southern dialects of Old English and was introduced into Scotland from approximately 1600 onwards.

By the Middle Ages the Norse of Scotland had evolved into the Norn language. Norn was never adequately recorded but was apparently rather similar to Faroese. The Faroese numerals are given here to represent Norn.

  • Proto-Celtic : oinos dwai treis kwetweres kwenkwe swexs sextam oxtu nowan dekam
  • Brittonic : oinos dau tris petwar pempe swexs sextan oxta nowan dekan
  • Old Welsh : un dou tri petguar pump chwech saith oith naw dec
  • Archaic Irish :  oinas dau tris kwetur kweggwe swes sextan oxtan nouin dekan
  • Classical Irish :  óen dáu trí cethir cóic sé secht ocht nói dech
  • Sc. Gaelic : aon dà trì ceithir còig sia seachd ochd naoi deich
  • Old English :  án twá þrí féower fíf sex seofon eahta nigon tíen
  • Scots :  yae twa three fower five sax seiven acht nine ten
  • English :  one two three four five six seven eight nine ten
  • Old Norse : einn tveir þrír fjórir fimm sex sjau átta níu tíu
  • Faroese : ein tveir tríggir  fýra fimm seks sjey átta níggju tíggju


Links and Resources

Further Reading:

There are many books dealing with Scottish languages individually, too many to list here.  For advice on books about or in Scots it’s best to contact the Scots Language Centre.  For books on or in Gaelic the best resource is Comhairle nan Leabhraichean (the Gaelic Books Council).  Links to these organisations’ websites are given below.

General :

The Scottish Place Names Society http://www.spns.org.uk/ – The best resource for Scottish place name studies.

School of Celtic Studies http://www.celt.dias.ie/english/ – Academic papers on all aspects of Celtic languages and their literature, with special emphasis on Old Irish.

Old Irish & Classical Irish :

Old Irish Online http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/iriol-0-X.html – Series of online lessons in Old Irish, and technical explanation of the development of the Goidelic languages from proto-Celtic.

eDil http://www.dil.ie/ – Fully searchable dictionary of Old and Classical Irish.

Pictish :

Language in Pictland http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/2081/1/languagepictland.pdf – Pdf version of Katherine Forsyth’s monograph “Language in Pictland”, the most up to date scholarly treatment of the scant surviving information about the Pictish language.

Pictish Oghamhttp://web.onetel.net.uk/~hibou/Pictish%20Inscriptions.html – Transliterations and partial interpretations of the Pictish Ogham inscriptions.

Old & Middle Welsh :

Old and Middle Welsh http://people.pwf.cam.ac.uk/dwew2/old_and_middle_welsh.pdf – Technical description of Old and Middle Welsh, the language which most closely resembled the unattested Cumbric. This paper (in pdf format) is intended for linguists and assumes the reader has an understanding of linguistic terminology.

Modern Sc. Gaelic :

Comhairle nan Leabhraichean http://www.gaelicbooks.org – Includes an online Gaelic bookstore.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/index_en.html – Gaelic educational college in Skye. Maintains a large database of Gaelic resources.

An Comunn Gàidhealach http://www.acgmod.org – The leading Gaelic promotional and educational organisation, organisers of the annual Mòd.

Gàidhlig air an Lìon (Gaelic Online) http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/gaidhlig.html – Links to grammar pages, online lessons and much more.

Dwelly’s Gaelic Dictionary http://www.cairnwater.co.uk/gaelicdictionary/index.aspx?Language=en – The biggest and most comprehensive Gaelic dictionary.  Fully searchable both Gaelic to English and English to Gaelic.

MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language http://www.wordgumbo.com/ie/cel/sco/macbain.txt – Text file version of the only easily available etymological dictionary of Gaelic.  Dated, but useful for tracing the history of Gaelic words.

Old English :

The Electronic Introduction to Old English http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/resources/IOE/index.html – Online series of lessons in Old English. Like most textbooks of Old English it teaches the West Saxon dialect of the former kingdom of Wessex in South West England. This is by far the best attested dialect. Scots descends from the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, which is attested in only a few manuscripts.

Scots :

The Scots Language Centre http://www.scotslanguage.com – Your one-stop-shop for all things Scots.  Information and resources about all aspects of Scots, articles, essays, Scots in the news, links to information about the language and a whole lot more.

Dictionar o the Scots Leid http://www.dsl.ac.uk/dsl/ – An indispensible resource for Scots. Includes pages on the history, grammar and development of the language as well as the online versions of both the Scottish National Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue.

The Scots Language Society http://www.lallans.co.uk/ – Organisation campaigning for greater recognition of Scots.

Wir Ain Leid http://www.scots-online.org/grammar/index.asp – A grammar of traditional Scots.

Old Norse :

Old Norse for Beginners http://notendur.hi.is/haukurth/norse/ – Short series of online lessons introducing the language of the Vikings.

Old Norse Online http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/norol-0-X.html – A more technical introduction to Old Norse.

Norn :

The Norn Language http://www.nornlanguage.110mb.com/ – Excellent website detailing all that is known about Shetland, Orkney and Caithness Norn. Includes an attempt to revive/recreate Norn, called Nynorn (New Norn).