Scottish Gaelic - A Guide for the Mainstream Media
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
Gaelic in Today's Scotland
2021 has already seen a continuation of the debate around Gaelic, its status and how pro-Gaelic policy and provision is funded by the tax-payer, in the press and online. Whilst much of this coverage brings the success of Gaelic organisations and their initiatives to the notice of the Scottish public, other coverage continues to attack the language's status, those organisations and the speech-community itself.
Whilst many within the community are resigned to the fact that the spending of public money remains a hotly contested topic, open for debate in a democratic society, such coverage should not extend to the dissemination of information which is neither factual or supported by evidence. Neither should it signify the perpetuation of myths and tropes which are damaging to the community.
The framing of language around minority issues is important and this is underscored by current equalities and hate crime legislation, which seeks to extend respect and dignity to those with a spectrum of protected characteristics. The Scottish Government’s Bracadale Report notes that 'there is a fairly strong argument that Gaelic speaking Gaels belong to an "ethnic group" within the meaning of the current race aggravation.’ In addition, the report notes that ‘there will be some Gaelic speakers who may not consider themselves (or be considered by others) to be members of the Gaelic "ethnic group" but who use the language in aspects of their day lives to whom such protections should be extended.'
Those reporting Gaelic in the media should take into account, firstly, that consecutive public opinion surveys evidence consistent support for Gaelic among the Scottish population. Secondly, the media's own role in shaping and promoting discourse, which often results in misinformation and prejudicial ideas gaining currency and being used, particularly in online fora, to reduce and harass speakers.
Whilst the latter has not yet escalated towards legal proceedings, prejudice towards Gaelic and its speakers continues and the Bracadale report considers that ‘courts could respond appropriately if cases were to arise of criminal offences motivated by or demonstrating hostility towards Gaelic.’ Those reporting on Gaelic issues in the media should consider their own work in the context of such hostility, fully cognisant of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005, which sees the language afforded co-national status in Scotland, and worthy of respect equal to that of the English language.
What is Gaelic?
Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language and part of the Goidelic, or Gaelic, family of languages. As such, it is closely related to the Irish and Manx languages and, more distantly, to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. It is distinct from the Scots language, which is an Anglo-Saxon language, most closely related to English and Frisian.
Gaelic is the longest-established language spoken natively in Scotland. It has a rich history and culture dating back, at least, to the third Century CE.. Academics in the field of Celtic Studies have not reached a definitive consensus on how Gaelic came to be spoken in Scotland. However, it continues to be spoken by a population of c.58,000 people, as per the 2011 Census of Scotland.
Around 87,000 people claim to have some ability in Gaelic, however, and, as of 2021, there are some 127,000 users of Duolingo, representative of the thousands of people, world-wide, engaged with Gaelic learning.
Anti-Gaelic Tropes and Representation in Media
Anti-Gaelic rhetoric and imagery has been a feature of Scottish literature and journalism since the renaissance and continues to this day. The historicity of this is important, as some of what the media promote to audiences still hangs on ideas and beliefs which are outmoded and are no longer accurate within contemporary contexts.
Whilst the minoritised status of Gaelic is not disputed by speakers, advocates and critics alike, Gaelic has a significant literary, musical and oral tradition which continues to enrich Scottish cultural life. All of these this is worth celebrating and reporting.
Up to date demographics can be obtained from the Gaelic Language Board – Bòrd na Gàidhlig – and the Scottish Government. Local Authorities, the majority of which are mandated to create and uphold Gaelic Language Plans, as per the 2005 Act, will be able to provide information specific to their respective regions and Gaelic-speaking communities.
Language to Avoid and Preferred Terms
The following contains a cross-section of anti-Gaelic characterisations, depictions and tropes and suggests more inclusive terminology and phrasing, which will aid media commentators in creating more inclusive, factual and informative content.
Avoid – Dead and Dying
Languages are not living organisms and whilst the personification of Gaelic recurs in literature, it is rarely appropriate to use this in journalism. ‘Biological’ language presents language shift as ‘natural’ or even ‘inevitable’ and masks the human agency of decline, as the result of imbalances of power and economics. Death imagery connotes to Language Extinction, a process where a language ceases to be used in its spoken and written form and transmitted inter-generationally. This is not the case for Gaelic, which is still spoken by its population, a viable medium for written communication, a feature of the educational system. Gaelic is still the language of the home for many, though this continues to be a challenge for families, owing to a matrix of societal issues and reduced support.
Life-support is a particularly harmful characterisation, suggesting that Gaelic will cease to be part of Scottish life immediately, should public support or government provision suddenly cease. Whilst enhanced government provision for Gaelic should be the aspiration for all, within a democratic society, Gaelic-speakers have, for centuries, continued to transmit the language inter-generationally, despite the language’s diminished place in public life and absence of government support.
Prefer – Declining and Endangered
It is accurate to note from government statistics that Gaelic-speaking populations continue to decline, particularly in traditional Gaelic communities in the Hebrides. However, Gaelic-speaking communities are growing in urban centres, owing, in part, to the success of Gaelic-medium Education. This was demonstrated by the last census, which showed a rise in Gaelic-speakers within the school-age demographic. The census demonstrates that populations continue to be literate in Gaelic and our thriving literature and media mean that more Gaelic is being written, read and accessed online than ever before.
UNESCO describes Gaelic as definitely endangered, including the language on its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Gaelic-speaking commentators often refer to the language as being threatened within a neoliberal or globalised context. A recent publication described the language as being in crisis in Hebridean communities, owing to historical and continued marginalisation of Gaelic-speaking communities in the Highlands and Islands. This view should not necessarily be advanced as indicative of the situation across Scotland, however, where urban communities demonstrate growth.
Avoid – Ancient and Obsolete
Whilst Gaelic is the longest-established language spoken natively in Scotland, it is not significantly older than many other languages, which have equally fascinating histories. Despite this, Gaelic still has deeper roots in Scotland than either English or Scots and was the preferred language of the state, Scotland’s majority language, at various junctures in its history. Gaelic’s history is a source of pride, and commentators should guard against ideas of archaism and obsolescence, which are considered pejorative.
Gaelic continues to develop in terms of its lexicon, as it embraces neologisms, coinings and emergent concepts. It is a living language, used as a means of communication by thousands of people on a daily basis, often in the face of diminished opportunity to do so and even hostility. The Gaelic media, which include BBC Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba, demonstrate that speakers are eminently capable of expressing contemporary experience through the language and continue to do so.
Avoid – Not or Never Spoken Here
Etymological evidence demonstrates that a clear majority of Scottish place-names are of Gaelic origin, later Anglicised as Scots and then English became the dominant languages of the country. Claiming that Gaelic was ‘never spoken’ in a locality is inaccurate, therefore, as it would be highly illogical for communities to name a place in a language if it was not the language they used to communicate there. Despite Scots or English being the language of a majority in any given area, this does not negate the presence of Gaelic speakers in a region, historically or currently. Some Gaelic place-names include elements of Brythonic, Pictish, Scots or English origin. Borrowing between languages is normal and occurs around the world, particularly where languages are in close contact.
Prefer – Lesser Used or Subaltern
The 2011 census demonstrates that Gaelic-speakers, native to the area or otherwise, are to be found in every single local authority area in Scotland, even in areas considered to be traditionally Scots- or English-speaking. We may go unseen or unheard, because use of English is a necessity in order to interact with non-Gaelic speakers. In short, you may not know if someone speaks Gaelic unless they disclose it to you.
Mounting anti-Gaelic rhetoric in the media does not encourage Gaelic speakers to disclose their language ability or use the language in public. It contributes to an anti-Gaelic culture when, instead, a sense of pride and respect could be encouraged.
Avoid – Tiny or Insignificant
Gaelic speakers represent 1.1% of the Scottish population and this statistic is often used to reduce the community in the media, as is the case for other minoritised groups. Likewise, it is used to promote ideas around irrelevance or even to encourage further minoritisation. However, 58,000 is not an insignificant number of people. Imagine Ibrox stadium full, with ten thousand people at the gates. This figure does not include those undisclosed on the census, or the thousands in the process of learning the language. Likewise, it does not include communities and individuals speaking and learning the language abroad, in countries such as Canada.
Prefer – Minoritised or Marginalised
The EU Charter of Regional and Minority Languages also includes Gaelic and considers such languages to be ‘traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and different from the official language(s) of that State.’ Smaller, however, does not equate to ‘less important’, ‘less worthy of respect’ or ‘less deserving’ of state provision and fiscal investment. Those advancing such views should do so with caution, providing evidence, whilst they consider how similar language might be interpreted by other minority groups.
The contemporary state of Gaelic is a result of various factors which include pro-English-language legislation, lack of pro-Gaelic policy and societal changes, often catalysed by the media. Whilst it is accurate to remark on Gaelic’s minority status, this is neither accidental nor coincidental. Rather it is more accurate to frame this as minoritised status. The decline of Gaelic is not a foregone conclusion, but rather the result of considered decisions made by consecutive governments and public bodies, as well as historical phenomena such as The Clearances and the events following Culloden.
Gaelic’s place in public life and the media could be best described as marginalised owing to the fact that it is routinely diminished, side-lined and even the butt of censure. The media have a role in reversing this marginalisation by enacting and promoting equality, in line with current legislation and guidance.
Avoid – Forced or Imposed
Gaelic activism has been a feature of Scottish life for centuries and has succeeded in bringing Gaelic-medium education, the Gaelic Language Act and a considerable shift in public perception of the language to the fore. This has historically been the work of grass-roots organisations and initiatives, which, post-2005 now see a limited amout of institutional support. Victories for Gaelic are hard-won in the face of certain hostility from certain quarters, a situation which continues to this day.
The emancipation and visibility of minoritised groups in public life in a marker of civilised, democratic society and the Gaelic community has consistently secured support via democratic means. As such, pro-Gaelic policy, which yields such things as bilingual road-signs, is the result of public demand from Gaelic-speaking tax-payers, who are entitled to see public spending on such initiatives, just as other minoritised groups are supported by the common pot. Gaelic signage in particular is often the subject of gross exaggeration in public discourse, in terms of the sums spent on it and the areas in which it was been rolled out. It is simply one aspect of Scotland’s state Gaelic-language policy, which is applicable across Scotland.
Prefer – Encouraged or Supported
Visibility in public life, enhanced opportunity to use the language across linguistic domains and Gaelic’s continuing presence in the education are just a handful of a number of measures put in place to support and nurture the use of the language across Scottish life. The promotion of Gaelic neither attacks or diminishes the use or prestige of English. Instead, it acknowledges the unique situation of the language and seeks to address need and desire for such provision within the Gaelic-speaking population. Pro-Gaelic policy seeks primarily to facilitate those who are able to and use the language and, secondly, those interested in learning or supporting their children in doing so.
Avoid – Preferential Treatment
When the multitude of services, initiatives and opportunities offered through the medium of English in Scotland are considered, it is likely that government spending here amounts to billions of pounds. In a country where English is spoken by the majority, this is an understandable premise. Scotland, however has a unique linguistic situation, whereby no other country in the world has native-speaking populations, with Gaelic, Scots and English-speakers calling Scotland home. As such, it is appropriate that policy and public life reflects this. The inalienable right to use Gaelic and Scots in Scotland is upheld by the principles embodied in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is in accordance with the spirit of the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Prefer – Nurtured and Acknowledged
Current national and local government policy relating to Gaelic goes some way to acknowledge Scotland’s three-tongued heritage and contemporary language use, yet falls short in affording complete equality to Gaelic-speakers. This might be better understood in terms of equity, which might take into account the challenges that Gaelic-speakers face in using the language to the full and shaping policy specifically for these to be overcome. In short, Gaelic policy-makers and movements aim to centre their work on Gaelic-speaking communities’ specific needs, which are often impacted by intersectional issues such as geographical location, economic deprivation, housing, education, age and access.
Avoid – Waste of Money
Just as percentages are often use to minimise the presence of Gaelic-speakers within Scottish society, public spending is often framed as large sums disproportionately afforded to a particular community. Such reporting often fails to acknowledge how such sums equate, per head, of population, Gaelic-speaking or otherwise. Whilst annual budgets grow and decrease, Gaelic-spending sum toto usually remains around 25p her year, per Scottish taxpayer - a negligible sum, in comparison to the various other initiatives and services funded by the common pot.
Such reporting rarely offsets this in comparison to contributions made by Gaelic-speaking tax-payers and research on this is scant. Likewise, Gaelic cultural industries such as music, tourism, media, whisky and tartan contribute greatly to a wider Scottish economy, but are rarely acknowledged.
Prefer – Value for Money
Gaelic-speakers continue to be underpaid for their time and experience in comparison to their monolingual peers. Frequent expectation is that such individuals will make such contributions pro bono, for the ‘good of the community’ or the maintenance of the language. Those in creative industries continue to expected to work in exchange for opportunities to boost their public profiles. Much of the work being done for Gaelic continues to be voluntary, at grass-roots level. Whilst the sector has grown, there are still very few opportunities to earn a living through the language, in comparison to English-medium opportunities. Funding for projects and paid positions is often piece-meal, budgets tight and contracts short-term within the sector. What is rarely reported is the impact of such projects and initiatives on access to services, Gaelic’s prestige or projects’ long-term legacy.
Avoid – Dialect and Gobbledygook
All languages create new terms and loan vocabulary from others. In this way, Gaelic is not different from the languages we were taught in school, however it is true that Gaelic does contain a certain amount of comparatively newer words, introduced through English, as do other languages. Gaelic-speakers often code-switch, whereby they use a word from another language, often English. Consider too, how English uses such terms as laissez-faire, de facto, or chutzpah and the international origins of much of the terminology we consider our own.
Gaelic spelling or orthography has been developed down the centuries in order to capture the sound and meaning of Gaelic speech on the page. Whilst certain letter combinations are unfamiliar to non-Gaelic-speakers, they are meaningful to Gaelic-readers. The spelling system is, in fact, more logicial and consistent than that of English.
Whilst Scottish Gaelic is closely related to Irish and Manx, it is a separate language and not a dialect of either of these languages. The Gaelic languages all have a common root in an extinct, archaic language known previously as Old Irish. Some academics in Scotland now refer to this language as Old Gaelic, decentering Ireland within a wider Gaelic world and promoting equality between the three Gaelic-speaking peoples.
Prefer – Language and Prestige
Older hypotheses suggest that Gaelic was brought to Scotland with the Dàl Riadans, who migrated from the area of Ireland now equated to Armagh to that which we now refer to as Argyll, as early as the third century. However, this Irish-centric origin story is not the only hypothesis, and other academics suggest that Gaelic may have been spoken in the Western seaboard of Scotland, prior to this. Indeed, neither archaeological or DNA evidence support ideas of mass migration or invasion from Ireland.
Gaelic, in its written form has a literature dating back to the twelfth-century marginalia of Book of Deer, which is world renowned. It is not a purely oral language, though its oral tradition is an intrinsic and valued part of its culture.
In short, there are no facts about the origin of any of the Gaelic languages, simply a number of ideas. Scottish Gaelic is, nonetheless, mutually intelligible, to a degree, with other Gaelic languages, as are other language groups, across the world. Gaelic-communities share strong affinities with each other and are characterised by mutual support.
Scottish Gaelic belongs to Scotland and the use and care for it is therefore the right and responsibility of the Scottish people. Affording the language status and prestige allows speakers to take pride in their language and culture, encourages them to use Gaelic more regularly and to play a role in transmitting it to subsequent generations, to ensure its survival.
Avoid – Backward and Parochial
One of the most damaging tropes to permeate the media is one of backwardness and a lack of cognitive ability and academic attainment. Mounting research demonstrates that this is not the case and has engendered a steady rise in enrolment in Gaelic-medium education, because of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Students in Gaelic-medium education have demonstrated consistently that they regularly out-perform their peers in mainstream education, because of the quality of the education offered through the Gaelic medium. As such, Gaelic-medium education promotes excellence and leads to enhanced opportunity in further education and the workplace. Gaelic educators are well placed to offer support to colleagues working within the educational mainstream and do so regularly, promoting a mutually supportive and collegiate ethos.
Tropes evoking parochialism and rurality also feature in the media and should be used with caution. Whilst it is correct that traditional Gaelic communities communities also intersect with Highlands and Island communities, urban communities continue to grow in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and other areas. Gaelic is not simply the language of a marginalised rural periphery, but a language for all of Scotland. Highland, Island and Urban communities all contribute to a united Gaelic community, whilst being proud of their home communities, which evidence their own diversity. Gaelic-speakers simultaneously belong to additional communities as well, and include people of colour and LGBTQ people as well as immigrants to Scotland who have learned or are learning the language.
Prefer – Outward-looking and Multicultural
Gaelic-English bilingualism offers speakers the ability to view the world from two or more perspectives and this duality of lived experience often leads to tolerance and interest in other languages and cultures. As international interest in Gaelic, and by extension Scotland, grows, so too do opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration. This provides opportunities for commentators in the media to report innovation and success within Gaeldom, both at home and as speakers promote Scotland abroad.
Gaelic fits within a matrix of linguistic and cultural diversity within Scotland, which is worth celebration and nurture and encourages mutual understanding and self-worth. Speakers of community languages such as Polish, Urdu, Mandarin and Arabic, often voice support for Gaelic, shaped by their own lived experiences. Multilingualism and multiculturalism are cumulative, not subtractive. It is particularly divisive and pejorative to set one linguistic community against each other, as a means to assess their worth, contribution to society or the 'usefulness' of their language. Doing so is now considered xenophobic.
Sources and Obtaining Quotations
In order for reporting on Gaelic and its community to be factual and accurate it is necessary to seek out accurate data and analysis, so that this information may be disseminated among the Gaelic community. The mainstream media’s coverage of Gaelic has been characterised by the opposite, often perpetuating misconceptions and mistruths, and information which is outmoded and inaccurate. It is the responsibility of those in the media to ensure accuracy and that the Gaelic-speaking community is represented fairly.
As such, considering the diversity of the Gaelic community, the following organisations can be contacted.
Demographics and policy
The Scottish Government holds data on who speaks Gaelic and where and also commissions reports on language use across linguistic domains and society. Bòrd na Gàidhlig also holds such data as well as ensuring the creation of Gaelic Language Plans, but local authorities and public bodies, as well as apportioning funding for Gaelic, devolved by the Scottish Government.
Local councils also hold data on Gaelic-speaking communities, as well creating Gaelic Language Plans and ensuring their efficacy. This includes a number of initiatives, tailored to their respective local authority areas.
The efficacy of Gaelic policy and other issues related to the language are analysed by academics in Universities across Scotland, which include the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as The University of the Highlands and Islands. Academics from these universities are part of a research consorium known as Soillse. Many such academics advise public bodies and committees such as the Cross-party Group for Gaelic housed at The Scottish Parliament.
Education Scotland as well as Bòrd na Gàidhlig, hold data on Gaelic-medium and Gaelic-learner education in Scotland. Stòrlann are one such body providing educational resources to schools.
Gaelic educators are represented by bodies such as Comann Luchd-teagaisg Àrd-sgoiltean Gàidhlig.
Children and Young People
Parents and communities supporting children are supported by Comann nam Pàrant, which has branches across Scotland.
Young people are also supported by publicly-funded organisations such as Fèisean nan Gàidheal, which runs cultrual iniatives and projects throughout Scotland. Spòrs Gàidhlig and Spòrs Ghlaschu as well as Sradagan also provide extra-curricular opportunities for children and young people.
Creative Scotland funds Gaelic creatives and their projects, often in conjunction with other bodies. Fèisean nan Gàidheal’s remit represents the intersection between young people and the arts. Other organisations who include Gaelic in their remit include Hands Up For Trad, The Scottish Storytelling Centre, Playwrights Studio Scotland and Theatre gu Leòr.
Gaelic literature is the specific remit of the Gaelic Books Council, Comhairle nan Leabhraichean. Other organisations supporting Gaelic literature include The Scottish Books Trust, The Saltire Society and The Scottish Poetry Library.
The primary port of call for those unsure about their reporting of Gaelic would be the internationally respected Gaelic media themselves, which includes, in the first instance, BBC Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba, overseen by MG Alba. Local and community radio, throughout Scotland, also contributes to the diversity of Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland.
Local press is a valuable source of Gaelic-speaking and -interest expertise and includes The Stornoway Gazette, The West Highland Free Press, Am Pàipear and the Highland News consortium.
Speakers of Gaelic are the best source of Gaelic commentary in Scotland and, as such, represent the most appropriate barometer of the efficacy of Gaelic policy, spending and public opinion. Reporting on Gaelic whilst erasing the voices of Gaelic-speakers is not a marker of fair or accurate representation.
Who not to Contact for Quotation
Whilst free speech and press are fundamental to life in Scotland, a number of organisations claim to speak on behalf or from a position of expertise on Gaelic matters, without having the requisite linguistic ability or experience. These include The Tax-payers Alliance, an astro-turf organisation with negligible public support and which has no Gaelic-speakers involved, yet claims to speak with authority on Gaelic matters. Owing to this, commentary from this group regularly enforces the damaging tropes and inaccurate information discussed at length, here. Colleagues in the media should, instead, contact any of the suggested sources instead.
Gaelic-speakers are generally happy to participate in public debate and unsurprisingly often feel strongly about the future of the language and measures put in place to aid its revitalisation. It is always preferable to prefer and platform speakers of the language, when broadcasting such debates, recognising the marginalisation of the community, it’s peripheral position with the mainstream media and reduced opportunity for speakers.
Unfortunately, polarisation consistently permeates such debate, with the central question often reduced down to ‘is Gaelic a good thing or not?’. In contemporary Scotland, it continues to be unacceptable for media to cast a spotlight onto minoritised communities, with a view to inciting prejudice or hatred against them. The benefits that Gaelic brings to Scottish society are clear and should not be contested without significant caveat. Likewise, prejudicial views, damaging tropes and inaccurate information should not be platformed and oxygenated unquestioningly by moderators and participants.
Media representatives should be encouraged to explore their own unconscious biases and how these impact the narratives they themselves broadcast. Likewise more recognition is required within the mainstream media of their power in shaping public discourse around Gaelic and how certain recurrent messages have key detrimental on the prestige of the language at state, local and community level, as well as the confidence and well-being of speakers themselves.
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir (Mark Spencer Turner) holds and MA Hons in Gaelic and Hispanic Studies and an MLitt in Irish and Scottish Studies from the University of Aberdeen. He is an award-winning writer and singer. A regular contributor across Gaelic Broadcasting, Marcas can be seen and heard regularly on BBC Alba and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal and he regularly engages in debate around Gaelic-language issues in the mainstream Scottish, British and Irish media, including Irish-language media. A regular contributor to print and online journalism in Scotland and beyond, as a Gaelic-language and Arts and Books raconteur, Marcas' writing has appeared in most Scottish broadsheets and is featured regularly in Bella Caledonia.
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