And Gaelic is particularly popular amoung young adults in Scotland.
With so many trolls out there endlessly bashing on Gaelic, it is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that Gaelic is actually quite popular in Scotland. And while fluent speakers represent only a small percentage of the total Scottish population, in general, Scots are very supportive of the language, want to learn it, want their kids to learn it, want it to thrive in the future, and are happy to spend money to help it grow.
Below I have collected some statistics on public attitudes toward Gaelic and Gaelic development that demonstrate this support. Most of these statistics come from the most recent edition of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey published in 2022, but I have included some stats from the 2012 survey as well. These are large, reliable and independent surveys carried out each year on behalf of the Scottish Government, and from time to time questions about Gaelic are included.
As you will see below, I decided to highlight the opinions of young adults in Scotland. Young adults are particularly supportive of Gaelic, and for the future of language, this is extremely encouraging to see. Young adults, of course, are the folk that will shape Scottish culture and politics in the years to come, but also, many young adults are either currently raising young children or will be raising young children soon, and if they support Gaelic, they may decide to speak the language to their children in the home if they have it, and/or place their children in Gaelic-medium education when it comes time for school.
If you are aware of any other encouraging statistics about public support for Gaelic in Scotland, please let me know in the comments. Of course it is also important to recognize that Gaelic is struggling just now as a spoken language throughout Scotland, but focusing only on the bad news gives a lopsided picture of the opportunities we have to revitalize the language.
Unorganized public support—in and of itself—will not save Gaelic, but if we, as Gaelic activists, can come together and build a strong revival movement that is open and inclusive and harness this broad support, turning it into actual political power, then Gaelic really could have a bright future in Scotland.
The vast majority of Scots support Gaelic as an important part of Scotland’s cultural life. Overall, 79% of adults in Scotland think Gaelic is ‘very important’ (34%) or ‘fairly important’ (45%) to Scotland’s cultural heritage’, (ScotCen 2022: 43) while 90% of young adults aged 18-29 think the same (41% very important; 49% fairly important; ScotCen 2022: Annex Table 6.3). In our fractious and fragmented modern democracies, you almost never get 90% of folk agreeing on … well … anything at all, so it is pretty amazing that here in Scotland, such an overwhelming majority of young adults agree that Gaelic is important part of our shared culture.
And a surprisingly large minority of Scots consider Gaelic an important part of their own personal cultural heritage. Overall, 31% of adults in Scotland say that Gaelic is either ‘very important’ (9%) or ‘fairly important’ (22%) to their own cultural heritage, (ScotCen 2022: 39) while 43% of young adults aged 18-29 say the same. (16% very important; 27% fairly important; ScotCen 2022: Annex Table 6.1) This is a somewhat surprising statistic because it is much larger than the percentage of fluent young Gaelic speakers in Scotland (about 1% of the population). This means, of course, that most of these young adults who feel that Gaelic is an important part of their own heritage don’t actually speak much or any Gaelic themselves, but imagine if some significant fraction of these young adults were to decide to learn Gaelic and had access to high-quality, inexpensive or free Gaelic tuition to do so: what a difference that would make to the health of the language throughout the country. This single statistic represents a huge Gaelic development opportunity. Other countries have successfully brought large numbers of adults to fluency in threatened minority languages. There is no practical reason we couldn’t do the same here as well.
And as further support for this idea, the most recent survey found significant demand for more and better Gaelic learning opportunities in Scotland. Overall, 39% of non-fluent speakers report that they would like to speak Gaelic better than they currently do either ‘very much’ (17%) or ’somewhat’ (22%), while 59% of young adults aged 18-29 year olds report the same views. (ScotCen 2022: 13) Research has consistently shown that adult Gaelic learning provision in Scotland is piecemeal, underfunded and poorly organized. (MacCaluim 2007; McLeod et al. 2010) If we could convince the authorities to properly fund and organize the adult Gaelic learning sector, there is no reason that we couldn’t convert this unmet demand into literally thousands of new fluent Gaelic speakers.
There is also strong support for teaching all young Scots at least some Gaelic in school. 55% of adults in Scotland strongly agree (22) or agree (32) that all children in Scotland should be taught Gaelic as a school subject for an hour or two a week. 64% of young adults aged 18-29 think the same. (ScotCen 2022: 50-1)
And at the same time, there is significant interest in Gaelic-medium education (GME) amongst Scottish parents. While only about one percent of Scottish primary school children attend GME (Morgan 2020), in the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 11% of Scottish adults said they would be very likely to send their children to GME if it was available in their area, and a further 17% said they would be fairly likely (reported and analysed in: O’Hanlon and Paterson 2017: 51). So why aren’t 27% of school children currently in GME? It’s not because there is a lack of teachers (there is, but that is a problem that can be solved); rather, it’s because councils across Scotland keep dragging their feet, decade after decade, refusing to set up new GME schools. Until parents have a clear statutory right to GME for their children, councils will continue to hold the Gaelic revival back.
And finally, most Scots are more than happy to spend money on Gaelic development. Overall, 70% of adults in Scotland feel that the amount the Scottish Government are currently spending on Gaelic is about right (48%) or too little (22%), and 79% of young adults aged 18-29 hold these views. Crucially, the respondents to the questionnaire were given an estimate of Scottish Government actual spending on Gaelic to inform their answer: “The Scottish Government currently spends £24 / £29m every year on promoting the use of Gaelic, for example in TV, education and publishing. This comes to around £4.80 / £5.20 for each person in Scotland. Do you think this is…?” (ScotCen 2022: 57-8) This means these answers are significantly better informed than many opinions you might find on twitter or in the comments below newspaper articles online.
Trolls will troll, and the anti-Gaelic voices are persistent and loud, but the silent majority in Scotland is actually very supportive of Gaelic. If we as activists can turn this inchoate support into a) organized political support for the language and b) active new speakers, Gaelic definitely can be developed into a much more widely-spoken language in Scotland.
Morgan, Peadar (2020) Dàta Foghlaim Ghàidhlig 2019-20. Inbhir Nis: Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
O’Hanlon, Fiona and Paterson, Lindsay (2017) “Factors influencing the likelihood of choice of Gaelic-medium primary education in Scotland: results from a national public survey.’ Language, Culture and Curriculum 30 (1): 48‒75.
MacCaluim, Alasdair. (2007). Reversing Language Shift: The Social Identity and Role of Adult Learners of Scottish Gaelic. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona.
McLeod, Wilson, Irene Pollock, and Alasdair MacCaluim. (2010) Adult Gaelic learning in Scotland: Opportunities, motivations and challenges. Inverness: Bòrd na Gàidhlig
ScotCen Social Research. 2022. Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2021: Public attitudes to Gaelic in Scotland – Main report. http://www.gaidhlig.scot/en/news/SSAS/