Thursday, March 31, 2022


by Scarlet Peterson

Scarlet Peterson is a MA student in French Linguistics at the University of Illinois. In the future, Scarlet hopes to become a professor. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

Ever since Brexit, the Scots have been considering independence more seriously than ever. Although there is still much debate surrounding the topic (and setbacks due to COVID-19), the notion is still not far from reality. And, with the recent alliance between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Green Party, the political clout behind independence is stronger than ever (Dallison). Many Scots insist that, if independence from the United Kingdom was realized, they would be more capable of managing their internal affairs and preserving their identity (Learmoth). A fundamental aspect of this identity is contained within the Gaelic language, a minority language spoken by 1.7% of the Scottish people. Already spoken by a sliver of the population, this slice of Scotland is disappearing at an alarming rate, with a decrease of 5% of speakers from 2001 to 2011 alone (Campsie). Because the transmission of Gaelic has skidded to a halt in the vernacular communities, action must be taken immediately to preserve the language (Ewing). The question is: could an independent Scotland realize this goal more effectively than the status quo?

Three principal problems pose a threat to the preservation of Gaelic: a decay of the vernacular communities, a lack of education of and in Gaelic, and a paucity of meaningful venues where Gaelic is spoken regularly. If these are effectively addressed, the language will find far more stable footing than it currently has.

This graphic shows the percent of survey respondents who said they spoke Gaelic — the highest concentration is in the islands. 
By SkateTier - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
First, the Scottish Isles are seeing an exodus. As 25% of native Gaelic speakers live there, this marks the end of natural transmission, a dramatic change in the vitality of the language (Ewing). To combat the depopulation crisis, the SNP has proposed a “National Islands Plan,” part of which contains an “Islands Bond” (Ewing). Though this is subject to change, and may vary from island to island, the most publicized policy is an offer of 50,000 pounds to young people and families who agree to stay in or move to islands that are most at risk. The goal is to support one-hundred individuals and/or families up to the end of the parliament in 2026, making the monetary cost 5 million pounds over the next five years.

Not much data is available to project the efficacy of this initiative. In cases like this, adverse selection paired with simply funding individuals who were already planning on making the move is a risk. Provided that it does work, however, there is some hope for the Gaelic language. A 2014 study by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas addressed language acquisition and attitudes of those who move to (or move back to) Gaelic-speaking areas. The research found that migrants’ use of and fluency in Gaelic increased (even if just at the basic level). Additionally, the observation was made that incomer families were more likely to put their children in Gaelic immersion schools than local families (Smith-Christmas 22). This would lead to the rising generation being strong in Gaelic, but without access to proper education, this would have no long-term effect.

Historically, Gaelic-speaking individuals were related to a poor, rural, and uneducated class. For example, they were referred to with degrading names, such as “nattie” or “slicer” (Giollagáin). After the Highland Clearances, the language was repressed (Clarke 399). But, public opinion has since taken a turn, and now values the preservation of Gaelic, and furthermore, recognizes the vital role that easily-accessible education plays in that goal. This is actively supported by the SNP (Davidson). Representative McMillan, in a Scottish Parliamentary debate on the National Gaelic Plan, stated:

I welcome the additional demand for primary school Gaelic education, which has increased by 79 per cent, and the additional demand for secondary school Gaelic education, which has increased by 48 per cent. I would like more young people to have that opportunity, but it is clear that the situation surrounding the transition to secondary school is now challenging (Ewing).

The representative then goes on to discuss how finding qualified teachers will be the next stumbling block in the face of this process. But, with new Gaelic immersion schools announced in both Glasgow and Edinburgh within the past year, the future is looking bright for the language, at least in the face of early education (Swanson, Sandelands).

The Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu teaches students through Gaelic

By MacSteaphain - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

But, when students grow up and graduate, any language skills will be lost if there is no venue in which to use them. To accommodate this, the SNP has suggested establishing a “recognized gàidhealtachd,” or area where Gaelic is spoken (Davidson). However, no official has offered a definition of what a “recognized gàidhealtachd” would look like, or what policies would be attached to it. Additionally, the SNP has proposed vague plans to increase the amount of Gaelic used when interacting with the public (Campsie). But, again, these plans lack substance; the simple truth is that when goals and timelines are not explicitly defined, they are not likely to be realized.

But, to conclude with the overall question: would an independent Scotland better face these challenges than an allied one? Considering the activity of the SNP regarding the preservation of the Gaelic language, I would suggest that there would be little, if no difference. In fact, if Scotland did decide to break from its southernly neighbor, the end would be detrimental, if only slightly so. The UK uses the Barnett formula in order to divide its annual budget—the truth of this is that it almost always favors Scotland relative to England (Learmonth). In fact, for every pound spent on an English citizen, 1.30 is spent on a Scottish citizen (Learmonth). Katy Gordon, an economy spokesperson, stated “At some stage the nationalists are going to have to admit that if they ever achieved independence they would be throwing away billions of pounds a year for public services.” Considering that much of language preservation is in public policy—such as funding vernacular communities and schools—this is not something to be taken lightly, nor divorced from the overall issue at hand. So, in the meantime, provided that Westminster maintains its distance and Scotland continues to exercise its devolved powers over education and culture, one can expect the status quo to be the most effective option available.



Campsie, Allison. “More Gaelic to Be Used at Scottish Government under Plan to Save ‘fragile’ Language.” The Scotsman, July 2021,

Clarke, Amy. “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Uses of History in Scottish Nationalist Politics, 2007Present.” Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 66, no. 3, Wiley-Blackwell, Sept. 2020, pp. 396–414. Academic Search Ultimate.


Dallison, Paul. “Scottish Greens Back Coalition Deal with SNP.” Politico , 28 Aug. 2021, Accessed 20 Oct. 2021.

Davidson, Gina. “Scottish Election 2021: Gaelic Education Needs Boosted to Preserve Language, Says SNP.” The Scotsman, Apr. 2021,


Davidson, Jenni. “SNP to Explore Creation of a Designated ‘Gàidhealtachd’ as Part of Measures to Support Gaelic.” Holyrood, Apr. 2021,,snp-to-explore-creation-of-a-designated-gidhealtachd-as-part-of-measures-to-support-gaelic.

Ewing, Annabelle. “National Gaelic Language Plan – in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd June 2021.” TheyWorkForYou, MySociety, 23 June 2021, Accessed 23 Sept. 2021.

Giollagáin, Conchúr Ó, and Iain Cambeul. “Chapter 8: Contemporary Sociolinguistic Profile of Gaelic in Language Planning and Policy Context: Relevance of Management Models.” The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic, Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2020. 

Learmonth, Andrew. “Spending in Scotland 30 per Cent Higher per Person than in England Because of Barnett Formula, Says IFS.” Holyrood, 31 Mar. 2021,,ifs-say-barnett-formula-leaves-spending-in-scotland-30-higher-per-person-than-in-england. Accessed 20 Oct. 2021. 

Sandelands, Drew. “New Gaelic Schools Set to Get Go-Ahead in Glasgow.” Glasgow Times, 24 Mar. 2020, Accessed 20 Oct. 2021. 

Smith-Christmas, Cassie. “Language and Integration: Migration to Gaelic-Speaking Areas in the Twenty-First Century.” Soillse, Soillse Project , Feb. 2014,

Swanson, Ian. “Police HQ and Old Hospital in Running to Be Site of Edinburgh's New Gaelic School.” Edinburgh News, 9 Sept. 2021. Accessed 20 Oct. 2021.


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