This is an important question, not only because Gaelic has long been spoken as a network language in the south and the east of the country, but also because research now indicates that Gaelic has become a network language in all remaining traditional communities in the northwest as well.
In recent debates about the Gaelic revival in Scotland, one often hears arguments along the lines of: “If we don’t preserve Gaelic as a community language in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it will die out everywhere,” but the truth is, we have already passed that point; we passed it decades ago, in the 70s when many families in the remaining traditional communities stopped speaking Gaelic to their children in the home. Nowhere now in Scotland do we find the density of speakers in all age groups required for community level transmission to function as it once did.
So is Gaelic doomed? Is Gaelic already “dead”?
Well, in the first instance, many sociolinguists now agree that these biological metaphors for language vitality aren’t very helpful. They are super common in regular discourse in Gaelic revival circles, and I must confess, as a short-hand, that I use them too, but they can be misleading. There is no purely linguistic definition of what constitutes a “living” language. Many would say that a “real living language” is one that is spoken as the common language of all age groups in some territorial community somewhere, but plenty of very vital languages are not used in this way, so whether a language is considered living or dead is mostly an ideological question, rather than a material one.
Take an extreme example; take Latin. Most would call Latin a dead language, but Latin is still used every day around the world: in worship, as a creative language to write poetry and prose, you can go to summer camp in Latin, and while it has been a long time since Latin was transmitted as a family language, it was used for centuries in Europe as a lingua franca amongst diplomats and scholars, long after it “died” as a community language in the former Roman Empire.
Or to take a less extreme, more practical example: what about the Manx language? Are our Manx brothers and sisters speaking a “dead” language? The way some speak about the vitality of Scottish Gaelic, I would imagine that there are folk among us who would argue that they are, but I sure don’t think so. I’ll bet the kids at Bunscoill Ghaelgagh don’t think so either.
Further, more generally, it may be the fate of most minority languages around the world that, if they are maintained at all, they will maintained as networked languages. As things are going, in the very near future it is possible that the only languages that will benefit from being used in territorial speech communities will be a few dozen mega-languages. If so, are all minority languages in the world then doomed?
I would argue: not if they are still used. For minority languages anyway, there is nothing magical about territorial speech communities that makes them more stable than networks. If it even proves possible, it will definitely take a lot of effort and resources to maintain Gaelic networks in cities and in rural areas of the Scottish mainland, but given how mobile we are as a society, how connected we are now with technology, and how powerful the ideology of Anglophone privilege is in the UK, it will also take a tremendous input of effort and resources to rebuild and then maintain Gaelic as a community language in Scotland’s islands. I am not saying we shouldn’t try, but if people hope that Gaelic as a territorial language will somehow exist in a more “natural” way than Gaelic as a networked language, they are not yet thinking clearly about the task we face.
So I would argue that the real question then is not whether Gaelic will “live” or “die” as a network language, but can it be maintained as a network language into the future: as a language used in schools, in homes, at work, and socially amongst friends? Is that possible?
The short answer is, we don’t know, and anyone who makes definitive pronouncements one way or the other is speaking out of their Coire Bhreacain. However, I think there are reasons to be hopeful. The examples of Manx and Cornish make me hopeful, and there are other examples as well, but we need a lot more research. As Susane Romaine has written, “we understand more about how diversity is lost than about how it is maintained.” This question is critical, because networks may be the future of our language.
And please let me be clear. I am not at all arguing that we shouldn’t fight to strengthen Gaelic in traditional communities. We definitely should, but to do so, we have to understand clearly how the language is actually spoken, and what it will really take to maintain and strengthen its use. Gaelic is already a network language everywhere in Scotland. That is just a fact, and while I accept that Nis is not Edinburgh, and that different places will require different interventions, at the same time and in many ways, since Gaelic has become a network language all over Scotland, the language maintenance requirements of traditional communities and urban networks are actually progressively converging rather than diverging from each other.
Just one example of this is adult learning. Mention adult learning to most folk in the Gaelic revival, and I am sure that they will think first of networks in urban areas, but actually, if Gaelic is going to be maintained as a dense rural network language in the Islands, lots of adult learning will be required: to integrate incomers, to help parents with children in GME, and to welcome back those locals who either never got Gaelic or only partially acquired the language as children.
I am hopeful about Gaelic as a network language. I live in one such thick, rural Gaelic network in Sleat. Gaelic is the language I speak at home, at work, with Alasdair and Ruth at the Coop, with friends in the community, all day long. And yes, this network depends on the institutional support of the College and Bun-sgoil Shlèite, but similar institutional support can be replicated elsewhere. So then an even better question is: can we come together and build the kind of real open, grassroots movement required to win that same sort of institutional support for all our Gaelic communities wherever they are?
ʾS e The Ultra Violet Grasslands and the Black City geama cleasachd ficsean-saidheans le Luka Rejec suidhichte ann an saoghal meatailt saidhg-dàlach, agus thàinig an leth-bhreac agam sa phost corra latha air ais. Tha e dìreach barraichte…
Am bliadhna, ri linn Covid, thòisich mi a’ cluich Bruidhnean is Teintidhean (Dungeons & Dragons) a-rithist, a’ chiad uair ann an mu thrichead bliadhna, ach an turas seo, le mo theaghlach air Zoom gach seachdain, agus bha e gabhaidh spòrsail. Chan eil mi air mo theaghlach fhaicinn anns na Stàitean ann an cha mhòr dà bhliadhna, agus bha e ro mhath cothrom fhaighinn cabadaich is gàireachdainn ri chèile fad uair a thìde gach Didòmhnaich.
Air sàillibh Covid agus a’ ghlasaidh-shluaigh is dòcha, tha D&D agus geamannan cleasachd dha leithid a’ sìor fhàs nas mòr-chòrdte an-dràsta, ach cuideachd, tha an cultar mun cuairt air na geamannan seo air caochladh agus air iomadachadh mòran bhon a bha mi fhìn nam dheugair agus gan cluich tràth anns na h-ochdadan. Mar eisimpleir dhen iomadachd seo, thàinig mi thairis air na bhideoan aig Ben bho Questing Beast mu Ath-bheothachadh na Seann-Sgoileadh ann an saoghal nan geamannan cleasachd. Bha mi air beagan a chluinntinn mar-thà mun fho-chultar seo, gun robh e car coltach ri fo-chultar nan iriseagan (zines) an lùib saoghail punc, gum biodh daoine a’ cruthachadh nan geamaichean cleasachd aca fhèin, air am foillseachadh gu neo-eisimealach, ach an dèidh dhomh coimhead tro na bhideoan aig Ben, chuir e iongnadh orm cho àlainn ʾs a bha cuid dhiubh. B’ e obair ealain a bh’ annta.
Chaidh mo ghlacadh gu sònraichte leis an fhear seo, The Ultra Violet Grasslands and the Black City, ga sgrìobhadh agus ga dhealbhachadh Luka Rejec, agus ga fhoillseachadh le Exalted Funeral. B’ e an ealain sa gheama a ghlac m’ aire an toiseach. Tha na dealbhan aig Rejec craicte brèagha, ach chòrd bun-nòs a’ gheama rium cuideachd: geama ficsean-saidheans suidhichte ann an saoghal meatailt saidhg-dàlach, le eileamaidean den ghnè an Saoghal a’ Bàsachadh agus dhen gheama Oregon Trail air an cothlamadh a-steach. Chuir mi òrdugh gu Exalted Funeral, agus an dèidh mòran mhìosan, thàinig an leth-bhreac agam beagan làithean air ais. An dèidh dhomh a leughadh a-nis, b’ urrainn dhomh a ràdh gum b’ fhiach e am feitheamh gun teagamh.
ʾS e a’ chiad rud a chanainn, mur h-eil cuideigin eòlach air D&D no geamannan cleasachd mar-thà, chan eil UVG a’ dol a dhèanamh cus ciall dhaibh. Chan e “geama inntrigidh” a tha seo, agus tha D&D fhèin fada nas fheàrr anns an t-seagh sin. Cuideachd, cha b’ e geama do chloinn a tha seo idir. Chan e ʾs gu bheil e gu sònraichte drabasta no dad mar sin, ach a’ smaoineachadh air na nieces is nephews agam, cha chreid mi gun gabhadh iad mòran ùidhe anns na tèaman is cuspairean na chois.
Tha an geama seo ag amas air inbhich, agus gu sònraichte air daoine a tha measail air an stoidhle chluiche ris an canar taigh-cluiche na h-inntinne: ag innse sgeulachd ri chèile bho sgafall togarrach ach tana, agus le siostam de riaghailtean aotram. Tha an geama seo mòr, agus chite gum b’ urrainnear a chluich fad mhìosan, ach tha e cuideachd “gann” ann an seagh: tha an t-ùghdar a’ fàgail mòran spas dha na cluicheadairean a bhith a’ togail an t-saoghail mun cuairt orra fhad ʾs a thèid iad air adhart.
ʾS e sructar a’ gheama “siubhal bho phuing gu puing”. Bidh thu fhèin agus na cluicheadairean eile nur dàna-chuairtearan ann an carabhan a tha a’ siubhal tron Mhacair Os-Bhìolait a dh’ionndaigh a’ Bhaile Dhuibh, a’ lorg ionmhas agus chothroman malairt, agus a’ tachairt ri annasan air an rathad, cuid dhiubh cunnartach. Tha na h-annasan a chruithich Rejec dìreach sgoinneil, ach tha sructar a’ gheama aige a’ brosnachadh nan cluicheadairean agus an rèitire a bhith a’ ruith leis na beachdan aige agus a’ cleachdadh a’ mhic-mheanmna aca fhèin. An àite mhìneachaidhean fada no mapaichean mionaideach, tha an geama ga dhèanamh, gu h-ìre mhòir, a liostaichean de bheachdan air na dh’fhaodadh tachairt.
Mar eisipleir, ma thèid an carabhan agad tron “Forest of Meat”, bidh an rèitire a’ cur dìsinn 12-taobhach, agus a’ taghadh bho lìosa de cothroman agus chunnartan a dh’fhaodadh tighinn am bàrr, agus ma gheibh sibh ochd, mar eisimpleir, seo an suidheachadh:
Cult of the Final Machine has created a botano-mechanical horror that gestates from instar to instar in the bodies of mammals, adapting and growing as it does so. One has picked up the caravan’s trail.
Chan eil barrachd stiùiridh ann na sin. Feumaidh an rèitire agus na cluicheadairean obrachadh a-mach ri chèile dè tha sin a’ ciallachadh, agus sgeulachd a chruthachadh bho chriomaigean beaga mar seo, agus ʾs e sin an spòrs! Tha an inntinn aig Rejec da-rìribh fiar, toinnte ann an seagh math, agus tha an geama lom-làn bheachdan mar a leithid shuas. Chan eil fios agam cuin a bhios cothrom agam fhìn an geama seo a chluich, ach tha e a’ toirt tlachd dhomh dìreach a bhith a’ leughadh troimhe mar sheòrsa pìos ficsein, a’ coimhead air an ealain mhiorbhailich, agus a’ gàireachdainn air na beachdan àraid, cruthachail aig Rejec. Mholainn gu mòr e.
Bha cothrom agam bruidhinn ri Eoin P. Ó Murchú agus sinne a’ cabadaich mun nobhail agus mun eadar-theangachadh a rinn e. Chuir Eoin na ceistean orm sa Ghàidhlig aigesan, agus dh’fhreagair mise sa Ghàidhlig agamsa. Bha tòrr spors agam a’ bruidhinn ris: dithis bhodach a’ cur an t-saoghail ceart, ach saoil, an tuig duine beò na thuirt sinn!
Níorbh fhéidir liom an bunleabhar a léamh toisc go bhfuil mo chuid Gaeilge na hAlban saghas bunúsach, ach iompraíonn aistriúchán Eoin P. Ó Murchú an fuadar is na sceitimíní go dtí an leagan Gaeilge go sciliúil.
Cha b’ urrainn dhomh an leabhar tùsach a leughadh leis gu bheil mo chuid Gàidhlig na h-Alba rudeigin bunasach, ach dh’ath-theangaich Eoin P. Ó Murchú an othail agus an ireapais gu Gàidhlig na h-Èireann gu sgileil.
Tá mé gafa ag ficsean eolaíochta arís agus ag dréim go mór leis an chéad úrscéal eile ó Tim Armstrong!
Tha mi glaicte le ficsean saidheans a-rithist agus a’ dèanamh fiughair mhòr ris an ath nobhail aig Tim Armstrong!
It is vitally important that we build a Gaelic-revival movement that is as inclusive and open as possible. Both tactically and ethically, a revival that excluded any speakers would be a dead end. But to open up the revival to everyone, we first need to redefine the central Gaelic identity, the Gael, to include everyone who speaks the language, regardless of race, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, place of residence, or anything else.
While this path forward is progressive, and precedented in other language-revival movements (e.g. Urla 1988), it is not surprising perhaps that some voices have been raised against the idea. In the course of these counter-arguments, critics have sometimes made their own normative statements about who is a real Gael, voicing, as it were, their understanding of what is ‘common sense’ or what ‘the community’ really believes.
But how do they know? When folk express an opinion on this issue, speaking either as non-Gaels or as Gaels themselves, and making broad statements about who is inside and outside of the group, how do they really know what other Gaelic speakers actually think? As humans, we are pretty poor at estimating the opinions of others, and we tend to see our own views as more average or normal than they actually are. (Kitts 2003, Mullen et al. 1985) Is there really any consensus out there about the identity of a real Gael, and if there is, how would we know?
As it turns out, Gaelic identity is a fairly well-studied question in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology in Scotland. We now have some excellent data on how different groups understand their identity as Gaelic speakers. In this post, I would like to review some of these data and consider what they can tell us about the real state of Gaelic identity in Scotland, and show, unequivocally I think, that the situation is very complex, and that we do not presently have anything like a consensus on this question, in traditional Gaelic communities or anywhere else.
Some of the best recent data on Gaelic identity in traditional Gaelic-speaking communities were collected by a pair of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the late Frank Bechhofer and his research partner David McCrone. As they explained it, they sought to identify those attributes that folk in traditional Gaelic communities consider essential in order to be recognized as a Gael:
So what makes a Gael? Is it a matter of language: if you speak Gaelic, you are a Gael; and if not, [why] not? So, if you are an incomer to the Gàidhealtachd and you become fluent in Gaelic, do people accept you as a Gael? Or is that insufficient? Does someone need to have ancestral roots – traceable through their family? And can you be a Gael if you do not live in the Gàidhealtachd? If speaking Gaelic is not all-important, how do these markers – speaking Gaelic, living in the Gàidhealtachd, and having Gaelic ancestry – stack up against each other? Does having the language trump residence and/or ancestry? Would you be taken for a Gael if you have ancestry, but neither residence nor language?
Bechhofer and McCrone 2014: 127
Bechhofer and McCrone asked a sample of folk living in Gaelic-speaking areas, people who themselves strongly identified as Gaels, if they would accept a range of different kinds people as fellow Gaels, and this is what they found:
80% of these Gaels would accept someone else as a fellow Gael if that person had Gaelic ancestry, could speak Gaelic, but did not live in the Gàidhealtachd.
64% would accept someone as a fellow Gael if that person lived in the Gàidhealtachd and had Gaelic ancestry, but did not themselves speak Gaelic.
58% would accept someone as a fellow Gael if that person spoke Gaelic and was born in Scotland, but did not have Gaelic ancestry.
29% would accept anyone with Gaelic ancestry as a fellow Gael.
28% would accept any Gaelic speaker as a fellow Gael, even if they were not born in Scotland.
As we can see, several markers of identity appear to be important, but not to the same degree by all people, or in the same combination. Some folk were fairly restrictive, requiring a combination of markers including place of residence, ancestry and Gaelic ability, while a significant minority were open to extending membership based on ancestry or Gaelic ability alone.
From these data, it appears that a clear majority (58%) would be willing to consider someone without Gaelic ancestry as a fellow Gael, as long as that person was born in Scotland and could also speak Gaelic, for instance, a Scottish child of African or Asian decent attending GME in Edinburgh or Glasgow. And it also appears that a significant minority of Gaels in this group (28%) would even be willing to consider a new speaker of Gaelic from Seattle like myself as a fellow Gael.
We can imply from these data that those who would take the most restrictive definition of a Gael (i.e. only someone with Gaelic ancestry, who acquired Gaelic in the home and who lives in a Gaelic-speaking area) would be very much in the minority amongst those Gaels actually living in these areas. Based on these data, Bechhofer and McCrone concluded that, “Gaelic identity should be considered as open and fluid, rather than fixed and given.” (2014: 127)
Others have asked some of the same questions, but of learners or new speakers, rather than speakers from traditional communities, and the results are interesting. Some of the most comprehensive research on Gaelic learners in Scotland was conducted about twenty years ago by Alasdair MacCaluim for his PhD thesis. Alasdair asked learners in his survey if they considered themselves Gaels, and surprisingly, while only 23.8% of beginner learners considered themselves Gaels, as many as 56.1% of fluent learners did. (MacCaluim 2002: 180) Also interestingly, only 6.6% of the learners in his survey would define a Gael as anyone who speaks Gaelic (MacCaluim 2006: 195), ironically, a percentage that is significantly lower than the percentage of Gaels living in Gaelic-speaking areas who would do the same (28%, above).
More recently (2014), Wilson McLeod, Bernadette O’Rourke and Stuart Dunmore published a report of interviews and focus-group sessions with 35 new speakers from Glasgow and Edinburgh and found that, “most of the participants […] did not feel themselves to be Gaels.” (21) These data were collected from interviews, while MacCaluim’s data above were collected in a survey, from a somewhat different group, and also, more than a decade earlier, so it is difficult to compare these results directly, but it is fair to say that there appears to be no more of a consensus about Gaelic identity amongst learners and new-speakers as there is amongst people living in traditional communities.
There is a particular subset of Gaelic speakers that is especially important to the future of the language, and that is students in GME. In 2005, James Oliver published results of interviews with high school students in Glasgow and Skye, looking at the differences in identity between students in the GME stream and the EME stream, and he found that, at this stage in their education, most GME students identified as Gaels, while learners and non-Gaelic speakers generally did not:
Are you a Gael
Oliver 2005: 9-10
This shows fairly strong support for Gaelic identity amongst GME students, but more recent research amongst former GME students shows far less support. Stuart Dunmore interviewed 130 adults who entered GME between 1985 and 1995, and he found that only a minority of these graduates still used Gaelic daily, and that very few identified as Gaels:
[…] the majority of Gaelic medium-educated adults’ identification as Gaels was either weak, or rejected out of hand. […] if immersion pupils do not develop social identifications and supportive ideologies toward the languages through which they are educated, it should not necessarily be surprising if they do not then speak the language outside of the classroom, or after completing formal education.
Dunmore 2017: 737
Here Dunmore also proposes that their may be a direct causal link between former GME students’ weak identification with Gaelic on the one hand and their low reported use of the language in their daily lives on the other.
Heretofore, we have been considering Gaelic identity in Scotland, but of course, Gaelic isn’t only spoken here. Dunmore has also recently published results from research conducted on new speakers of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, and he found that Canadian new speakers are markedly more likely to see themselves as Gaels (and proudly so, apparently) than their Scottish counterparts:
[while] a clear rejection of a social identity as Gaels is by no means uniformly expressed by all members of [the Scottish] group, the ethnolinguistic category is overwhelmingly avoided or problematized by most Scottish new speakers in my research. By contrast, Nova Scotian new speakers’ Gaelic identities are frequently expressed in enthusiastic terms, and it is clear that most new speakers in Nova Scotia embrace the Gael(ic) label when describing their identification with the language and motivations for having learned it.
Dunmore 2020: 12
There is much more research on this subject. Recently, the Soillse research team published their extensive survey of the state of Gaelic in traditional communities, with new data on Gaelic identity. And several other researchers (myself included) have conducted quite a bit of qualitative research on this question, but the data above represent some of the best quantitative and quasi-quantitative research to date, and they give a clear picture of the diversity of Gaelic identities in Scotland and Canada.
It is evident that we do not have a consensus on what makes a Gael anywhere in Scotland, among any group of speakers, and therefore, going forward, as we work on the issue of Gaelic identity in our revival movement, it is critical that we build on the most open, inclusive conceptions of Gaelic identity and create a movement that is as broad as possible.
There will be plenty of very active Gaelic speakers who will have no interest in identifying as Gaels, and that is cool too. Everyone should be welcome, but that central identity has to be open to all, or we risk creating a two-tier revival where some speakers are considered more legitimate or valuable than others.
If we insist, as some would, on defining the core Gaelic identity, the Gael, very narrowly, based on some combination of ancestry, place of residence and language, we would exclude most Gaelic speakers in the process. We would exclude most of the young, fluent Gaelic speakers on my course at SMO, for instance. We would also exclude the nearly half of all Gaelic speakers who do not live in the Gàidhealtachd. And we would exclude most students in GME. It should be clear that this would be neither sustainable nor ethical.
But if we create a Gaelic identity that is open to all, it diminishes nobody. All those proud young Gaels in Canada, for instance, don’t diminish Gaels in Scotland in any way, and by the same token, proud young Gaels in Edinburgh or Glasgow won’t diminish Gaels in Lochboisdale, in Staffin, in Shawbost or anywhere else. It is not a zero-sum game. Nobody has to lose. The whole notion of language ownership is regressive and counterproductive in a Gaelic context. Gaelic is big enough for everyone, and the more speakers that we can welcome into our movement, the stronger and more vital the language revival will be.
I am super lucky to work at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The College is a lively and diverse microcosm of the whole Gaelic world. Gaelic speakers come from all over Scotland, and indeed from all around the planet, to work and study here. There are folk here like me, new speakers with no previous connection to Gaelic who are drawn to the College purely out of a love for the language. And there are native speakers from traditional communities who have selflessly dedicated their lives to passing on their language and culture to the next generation. But there are also plenty of folk who don’t fit neatly into either of those two groups.
There are students and staff who have grown up in Gaelic-speaking families, but outside of traditional Gaelic communities: in the East, in the Lowlands, and the cities of Scotland. There are those who were raised in Gaelic but by parents who learned the language as adults. There are those who grew up around Gaelic, and perhaps even spoke some of the language as children, but who did not acquire full proficiency, and who come to the College to learn or relearn the language as adults. There are Black and white students. There are native Scots, immigrants and students from abroad. And of course, there are many students now, of all backgrounds, who acquired some or all of their Gaelic in GME rather than in the home.
And preconceptions notwithstanding, diversity in the Gaelic world is nothing new; Gaelic has always been a broad church. Historically, Gaels have been crofters and fishermen; peasants, clergy and kings; pirates and decedents of Vikings; Lowlanders and Highlanders; Scots, Manx, Irish and Canadians; Catholics, Protestants and Existentialists; scholars, poets and mercenary soldiers; Jacobites and Hanoverians; Tories, Communists, Nationalists and Socialists, and much else. The one thing, perhaps the only thing, that all these different Gaels shared was the Gaelic language itself.
It is in this very diversity that we will now find a way forward for Gaelic. If we can embrace all Gaelic speakers as fellow Gaels, we will have the best chance of building the sort of revival movement that will guarantee a future for Gaelic as a spoken language in Scotland for generations to come.
Check this out! Ciara Ní É from What the Focal just posted an interview with Eoin P. Ó Murchú about the difference between Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic, Gàidhlig na h-Alba, Gaeilge na hAlban) and Irish (Irish Gaelic, Gàidhlig na h-Èireann, Gaeilge na hÉireann). Eoin translated my Gaelic novel, Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach, into Irish, and here he talks about the difference between the two languages and how he approached the translation: