Gaelic is being held back by an institutional “cosy-ocracy”

A major report was published in 2020 which highlighted the Gaelic crisis in island communities. Yet four years on little has changed - indeed a network of development officers will now be removed due to funding cuts.A major report was published in 2020 which highlighted the Gaelic crisis in island communities. Yet four years on little has changed - indeed a network of development officers will now be removed due to funding cuts.
A major report was published in 2020 which highlighted the Gaelic crisis in island communities. Yet four years on little has changed - indeed a network of development officers will now be removed due to funding cuts.
​Continuing with the status quo approach to Gaelic development is now incompatible with sustaining the remaining native-speaking Gaelic communities in Scotland. It is clear from research evidence that the social use of Gaelic in the vernacular communities is mired, under current circumstances, in a process of societal decline.

Despite this challenging reality, publicly funded Gaelic promotion bodies have opted to persist with an unbalanced focus on the civic promotion of Gaelic.

The core problem with the official framework for Gaelic affairs is that it has pursued this civic promotion without prioritising the societal protection of the vernacular community. No credible effort has been made to build public capacity and agency among Gaelic communities to tackle their language planning challenges. This promotion without speaker-group protection has contributed to the current situation whereby the bilingual Gaelic-speaking group in the Western Isles will cease to exist through a social process of monolingualisation, despite the official aspirations of Gaelic public affairs.

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In the continuing erosion of first-language possibilities for Gaelic, the prognosis for the language is that of a marginal non-vernacular secondary language, which in turn can only be maintained as long as public and political goodwill for Gaelic promotion persists.

Among the impacts of the Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community book, published in 2020, was the political response to establish a non-core budget fund of £354,000 to employ a network of Gaelic Development Officers, many in island communities. However, even this relatively small sum was recently discontinued for ‘ideological’ reasons as my UHI colleague, Iain Caimbeul, has previously pointed out in this paper (7/3/2024). Despite the impact of the Gaelic Crisis study on public debate, there has been no serious official engagement with the documented evidence or with recommendations to mitigate the Gaelic societal crisis.

The net effect of the unproductive official consultative process on Gaelic affairs since 2020 is that the public has been consulted back to the status quo, leaving the main issues unaddressed. This outcome arose from a combination of a controlling mindset and evasiveness in official circles, which descended into a containment exercise at the expense of constructive engagement with obvious social challenges.

In the failure to address the reality of the critical vernacular situation, official aspirations for Gaelic are now in an incoherent relationship with the societal reality of the existing communities of speakers. This includes challenging factors such as demographics, an aging population, lack of infrastructure, housing issues, constraints in socio-economic opportunity and limitations in collective capacity building. This disconnect also indicates the Gaelic public bodies may now only favour an imagined utopian future for Gaelic without a first-language community of speakers.

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Additionally, these evasions of social reality help to decouple the advantages and influence of the Gaelic power class from official responsibility for the minority-language collective in decline. It is in effect a politically sanctioned, denialist framework for Gaelic affairs in which the institutional aspirations for Gaelic are prioritised over a properly resourced and systematic approach to develop practical social supports for maintaining Gaelic as a community language.

The current de-societalised approach to Gaelic communities is reliant on a banal reappraisal of the language shift from Gaelic to English in the geography of vernacular Gaels via a naive numbers game by which false hopes can be placed in the increase of (widely scattered) Gaelic learners as compensation for the contraction of the in situ speaker group.

Gòrdan Camshron from the UHI Language Sciences Institute has termed this syndrome as abandonism. Are influential players in Gaelic affairs of the opinion that the language shift to English in the vernacular community is too far gone to justify public resources? The obvious implication of the laissez-faire mindset is that the Gaelic vernacular community in the islands is to be abandoned to its fate, while allowing for activist exertions and assertions in other aspects of Gaelic ‘development’.

The official politics of Gaelic affairs in recent years has demonstrated that acceptable democratic processes of considering alternatives in policy options have, to all practical purposes, been abandoned.

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The lack of open and honest debate, seen most clearly in the insincere official response to the societal reality of speakers and in the prioritisation of sectoral, institutional concerns over social challenges, has perversely inflated the influence of certain sectoral leaders, drawn from arts/media management, academia, education, civic and public policy bodies and language promotion agencies.

Some sectoral leaders do laudable work in their own sectors, but it is difficult to see how this civic approach is relevant to the current Gaelic societal situation. In reality, Gaelic promotion has created the opportunity for the emergence of an elite class of power brokers of fewer than 20 individuals who have dominated the decision-making procedures.

In brief, Gaelic affairs in Scotland are controlled by non-democratic processes at a critical period for the social continuity of the speaker community. It could be argued that the inertia arising from the reluctance of the power brokers to adapt to the societal reality of the vernacular community has its origins in the disregard for democratic values in how Gaelic affairs is officially conducted in Scotland.

The common interest of the power brokers has been to shut out the challenges of the community from their institutional concerns. They have in essence established a cosy-ocracy. This cosiness helps explain why the evidence of the Gaelic Crisis book was deemed to be an affront to the well-established nexus of sociolinguistic discourse, the official management of Gaelic development, and aspects of language activism and politics.

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Will the new Scottish Languages Bill afford opportunities for actual reform? As the status quo approach to Gaelic policy is not a feasible option for community continuity, the primary issue therefore centres on the capacity of the Bill to engage with the level of societal crisis of the speakers. If the bill will only allow for a rebureaucratisation of the current framework, those charged with the implementation of the legislation will again struggle to demonstrate its relevance to real-world issues.

The nod to the social geography of the vernacular community in the ‘Areas of Linguistic Significance’ designation of the Bill may actually prove to be another impediment to the strategic prioritisation of sustaining Gaelic-speaking communities, as the areas with 20%+ Gaelic speakers, i.e. one of four designations, are placed on a par with areas with a ‘historical connection’ to Gaelic, i.e. areas with little or no contemporary societal use of Gaelic.

The pointless denialism about the Gaelic social crisis over the last four years has led to strategic paralysis. As alternatives have not been adequately considered, I think that everything is still to play for in achieving a credible sense of purpose for a community-development approach to Gaelic promotion and protection. The starting point for this is an outcome-focused discussion where opinions receive a respectful hearing and where all plausible options at improving current circumstances are given due consideration.

Addressing the Gaelic vernacular crisis first entails prioritising a societal approach rooted in community development for the Gaelic-speaking communities; providing public resources to build on socio-economic initiatives indicating practical advantages of Gaelic community development; a new educational framework rooted in group cultural capital based on a model of minority-language communal renewal; and a social strategy to compensate for lack of comprehensiveness and lack of first- and second-language complementarity in current policies. The time for a new productive approach to Gaelic affairs in Scotland is well overdue.

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(Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the UHI Gaelic Research Professor. This article is a summary of his talk to the recent Islands - Present event organized by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in UHI North, West and Hebrides, Stornoway: ‘Present but not counted: Addressing the societal condition of the Gaelic vernacular community in the islands.’)