What is a Gael?

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 GaelFluent SpeakersLearnersNo GaelicTotal
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.

Gàidhlig agad? Gàidheal a th’ annad!


Bechhofer, Frank, and David McCrone (2014) “What makes a Gael? Identity, language and ancestry in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 21(2): 113–133.

Dunmore, Stuart S. (2017). “Immersion education outcomes and the Gaelic community: identities and language ideologies among Gaelic medium-educated adults in Scotland.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38(8): 726–741.

Dunmore, Stuart. (2020). “Emic and essentialist perspectives on Gaelic heritage: New speakers, language policy, and cultural identity in Nova Scotia and Scotland.” Language in Society, 1–23.

Kitts, James A. (2003) “Egocentric bias or information management? Selective disclosure and the social roots of norm misperception.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(3): 222-237.

MacCaluim, Alasdair (2002) Periphery of the periphery?  Adult Learners of Scottish Gaelic and Reversal of Language Shift. Tràchdas PhD. Dùn Èideann: Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann.

MacCaluim, Alasdair. (2007). Reversing Language Shift: The Social Identity and Role of Adult Learners of Scottish Gaelic. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona.

McLeod, Wilson, O’Rourke, Bernadette, and Dunmore, Stuart (2014) New Speakers’ of Gaelic in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Soillse, [www.soillse.ac.uk accessed 1/6/2014].

Mullen, Brian, Jennifer L. Atkins, Debbie S. Champion, Cecelia Edwards, Dana Hardy, John E. Story, and Mary Vanderklok. (1985) “The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis tests.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 21(3): 262-283.

Oliver, James (2005) “Scottish Gaelic Identities: Contexts and Contingencies.” Scottish Affairs 51.

Urla, Jacqueline. (1988) “Ethnic Protest and Social Planning: A Look at Basque Language Revival.Cultural Anthropology, 3(4): 379–394.

Chaidh seo a phostadh ann an naidheachd. Dèan comharra-lìn dhen bhuan-cheangal.

5 Responses to What is a Gael?

  1. This is an excellent blog Tim!

    Well written and lots of food for thought. I very much agree with your argument and philosophy.

    A couple of thoughts. Firstly, is Gael the primary identity of Gaelic? As you say, new speakers tend to identify as Gaelic speakers rather than Gaels. Even amongst native Gaelic speakers, I wouldn’t say that the identity of Gael tends to be a key personal identity. I’d say that local identities like say, Siarach, Leòdhasach and Eileanach are the most important to most people. People might well identify as a Gàidheal too – but I’m not sure that this equates with the English term Gael. If you asked people to talk about their personal identity in Gaelic and English, would they give you the same answer in both languages? I’m pretty sure that people might say in Gaelic that they are a Gàidheal but in English say that they are a Gaelic speaker (rather than a Gael). And in whatever language, Gaelic speaker might be placed above Gael in any case.

    Gàidheal is obviously a spectrum which originally meant a Gaelic-speaking Highlander but now ranges from a non-Gaelic speaking Highlander to a Gaelic speaker regardless of where they are from. The term Gael in English, however, tends to be used for the ethnic pole whereas in my experience, the Gaelic term Gàidheal tends to be slightly further towards the linguistic pole. I’ve sometimes heard people use “na Gàidheil” in Gaelic to mean Gaelic speakers in general for example but I’ve very rarely seen the term Gael used except to “other” people – by non-Gaelic speakers complaining about “the Gaels getting too much money” or people in Gaelic communities saying that non-Gaelic speakers born in Gaelic communities are Gaels whereas fluent learners aren’t. And more recently, some people have also been arguing that the Gaelic community should be defined in ethnic not linguistic terms.

    I also would argue that the use of the word Gael in English has become far more widely used in the current (somewhat toxic) debate about Gaelic over the last 18 odd months than ever before. It’s relatively uncommon historically and as I say, Gael doesn’t equate to Gàidheal!

    I think that the identity of Gaelic speaker is the key one to be promoted and I personally find the term Gael quite problematic for the reasons mentioned above. I think we should primarily define ourselves as luchd na Gàidhlig – a term with a long and distinguished heritage!

    • Thuirt lasairdhubh:

      Alasdair chòir,
      Mòran taing airson tighinn a-steach an seo! You will laugh, but I actually was specifically thinking of you when I wrote: “There will be plenty of very active Gaelic speakers who will have no interest in identifying as Gaels, and that is cool too.” And I like your point that their may be a difference between ‘Gàidheal’ and ‘Gael’. I think you are probably right. And we mostly agree about all of this stuff I think. Where we diverge is perhaps in the programmatic. In both of these essays in English, I am doing two things with two different hats on: looking at the research with my sociolinguist’s hat on, then thinking about what that implies for the Gaelic revival movement with my activist hat on. My take is that the identity ‘Gael’ is *very* old, deeply embedded, and not going anywhere. In my own research I have found, while respondents may be reticent to speak about the identity because they are aware of how fraught it is, they definitely have an opinion! So on the programmatic side, and because successful language revival is always about a strong shared identity, I am arguing to rehabilitate and reassert the Gael identity as a completely non-racialized, linguistic identity of mutual belonging for all Gaelic speakers *if they want it*. If not, again, the revival has to be open to everyone with Gaelic, and people should be free to define themselves however they want. We all have a right to do that. But given how deep the Gael identity goes, I strongly believe that it should not be closed off to anyone who speaks Gaelic. ‘S e gaisgeach a th’ annad, Alasdair! Ceud mìle taing!!

  2. Good stuff Tim.

    Great article and I agree with what you say about shared identity. I still think it should be a linguistic one around the language (Gaelic/Gaelic speaker) rather than one of Gael. I actually don’t feel that “Gael” as used in English is particularly old and embedded at all – unlike equivalent terms in Gaelic. And at the moment, it’s increasingly being used to ethnicise the debate and divide the language community and to “other” and delegitimise using Gaelic in urban and non-traditional contexts. I think by sticking to a purely linguistic identity and legitimising promoting the language as a *language* we can avoid a lot of divisive identify politics.

    Anyway, an important and interesting article and an interesting and important debate. More power to your elbow Tim!

  3. Tim a charaid, lorg mi an seann phost bloga seo agus smaoinich mi mu do dheidhinn agus mun phost inntinneach agad an seo! Beachd inntinneach a bh’ aig Liam MacIllIosa (seanair an Ard-Ollamh Uilleam MacGilliosa) agus aig Ken MacFhionghuin mu a bhith a’ ceumanachadh mar bhall den choimhearsnachd Ghàidhlig. Sùill aotrom ach smaoineachail air a’ cheist – dè th’ ann an neach-ionnsachaidh Gàidlhig fileanta? https://treanaichean.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/eoin-baistidh-air-an-central-line-gaidhlig/

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