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The Social, Economic & Political Reasons for the Decline of Gaelic in Scotland

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1993

Synopsis:  This essay describes the various reasons for the decline of Gaelic from the tenth to the twentieth century by discussing the social, economic and political patterns involved.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The complex interconnections between the economy, politics and the resultant social situation, make the study of the decline of Scots Gaelic particularly involved. Over the last three centuries or so, all of the Celtic languages have declined to a greater or a lesser degree; for various reasons and at many different hands.

Scots Gaelic has had a colourful history. It has declined from a position of strength in the the early tenth or eleventh century where the bulk of the population spoke Gaelic, to a situation now, where about 1.6% of the population speak it. It would be simplistic to say that it was part of a "grand plan" by an essentially hostile English government in an attempt to create a unified country and rid itself of a political burr in the north. Yet this attitude is the one which has gained credence in the past particularly amongst the 'Gaelic Nationalists' of various hues who ignore the history of the language.

The fact is that while this view does indeed have some truth in it, it is at best a half truth, and at worst it is downright false. We have to look not to one reason for Gaelic's decline but to many, all of which have inter-linked and coalesced with each other in a lethal -if that is not to overstated a word- cocktail.

The key to understanding the reasons for the decline of Gaelic is to look for the first signs of a divergent Scotland, a split between a fundamentally homogeneous country and a divided Highland-Lowland nation. By about 1400, the distinction between Lowlander and Highlander appears to have become firmly established. John of Fordun wrote in 1380 about the different languages spoken in Scotland and the different societies that had grown up about them:

The manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken amongst them, the Scottish and the Teutonic; the latter of which is spoken by those who occupy the seaboard and the plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coast are of domestic and civilised habits, trusty, patient, and urbane, decent in their attire, affable, and peaceful, devout in Divine worship, yet always ready to resist a wrong at the hands of their enemies. The highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, clever and quick to learn, comely in person, but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to the diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel. They are however faithful and obedient to their king and country, and obedient to their king and country, and easily made to submit to law, if properly governed.1

The above passage had many precedents in earlier writings; what is interesting, is that all of the views expressed, except the final one, were used to justify pacification of the Highlands, the heavy handed legislation post 1745 and the attempted extirpation of Gaelic. If there is a seminal reason for the decline of Gaelic it is the divergence of the Highlands from the Lowlands in the thinking and perceptions of people in late medieval Scotland, the beginnings of which we have illuminated by Fordun.

The forfeiture of John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, in 1493 created a power vacuum in the Highlands which the government attempted to fill by using 'loyal' clans to 'police' the Highlands. These clans however, the Campbells in the south, and the Mackenzies in the North-West, soon took advantage of their crown appointed lieutenancies to aggrandise the land of other clans. By the sixteenth century, the divergence between Highlander and Lowlander had grown to a great chasm. The growing perception that the Highlands were lawless and therefore a problem, was exacerbated as much by the linguistic separation as by the geographical and 'social' clash2

By the sixteenth century, James VI had two key principles in mind for his Highland policy; money and plantation. In 1597 he ordered all land and title holders in the Highlands to come south with their titles in an attempt to gain more money for the exchequer. James believed that the Highlands and particularly the Isles were holding out in giving their true provision. Secondly, in 1597 he ordered the setting up of three burghs in the Highlands. The plan was that they would be peopled by his loyal lowland subjects who would then exert a control over the unruly Highlanders. Two attempts to do this in Lewis, failed due to the hostility of the Leòdhasaich.

The involvement of the MacDonalds in Ulster, meant that they were becoming involved in Anglo-Scottish relations as never before. The Elizabethan government had been faced with Highland mercenary troops, who would profess support for Elizabeth or claim that they were acting under the king of Scots trying to deny the English in Ireland. A joint policy between the two counties was required, for the problems of the Scottish and the English crown were in a sense one and the same. After 1603 a unified strategy did indeed emerge.

The removal of the Scottish crown south in 1603 meant that the Highlands became even more remote to the seat of government. James had always been antagonistic towards Gaelic regarding the clans as "wolves and boars"3 and the fact that the Government of Scotland now fell to the Privy Council caused Highland excesses to be blown out of proportion and to be used as excuses rightly or wrongly, for military and other actions against the Highlanders.

Joint action in Ulster and the Isles was not long in coming. The Island Chiefs were imprisoned on board ship in 1608 by Lord Ochiltree, at the same time as the Lord Deputy in Ireland was suppressing a rebellion in Ulster. The Privy council were asked to stop the recruitment of mercenaries to Ireland and to deal with Irish refugees who fled to Scotland. The problem was not to be finally solved until the plantation of Ireland cut off the Scottish Gael from his Irish brother

Government policy in the Highlands under went several changes of degree under James. The use of the Campbells had had some success, but the creation of Campbeltown and the extension of Kintyre to the earldom of Argyll had also meant that the Campbells had increased their power to an enormous extent. It was now seen that it had simply lead to the replacement of one marauding clan by another at crown expense. Bishop Andrew Knox saw as a solution the 'general bond'. He achieved this in 1609 when 9 chiefs agreed to the statutes of Icolmkill.

The statutes were wide ranging in scope covering everything from the extension of the reformed ministry to the provision of inns and the trying of malefactors. A key statute here is the sixth one as it gives an understanding of the polices followed during the period:

The quhilk day, it being undirstand that the ignorance and incivilitie of the saidis Iles hes daylie incressit be the negligence of guid educatioun and instructioun of the youth in the knowledge of God and good letters for remeid quhair of it is inactit that every gentilman or yeaman within the said Ilandis, or any of thame, haveing childerine maill or femell, and being in goodis worth thriescore ky, sall put at the leist their eldest sone, or haveing no children maill thair eldest dochter, to the scullis in the Lowland, and interneny and bring thame up thair quhill that may be found able sufficientlie to speik, reid and wryte Inglische.4

The effect that this particular clause actually had is debatable; what is important however, is that it was one of the first of many acts concerned with the status of the language, and the government attitude to Gaelic. Gaelic was seen by the state to be closely related to "ignorance and incivilitie". A way round this would be to teach English, thereby removing the root cause of the problem, Gaelic.

On the 10th of December 1616, the Privy council passed an Act which began this phase:

Forsameikle as the Kingis Majestie having a speciall care and regaird that the trew religioun be advancit and establisheit in all the pairtis of this kingdome and that all his Majesties subjectis especiallie the youth, be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godliness, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglishe toung be universallie plantit, and the Irische language, whilk is one of the cheif and principall causes of the continewance of barbarite and incivilitie amongis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolishit and removeit; and quhair as thair is no measure more powerfull to further his Majesties princlie regaird and purpois that the establisheing of Scooles in the particular parroches of this Kingdom whair the youthe may be taught at least to write and reid, and be catechised and instructed in the groundis of religioun.5

The Act goes on to look at other problems, key to the "incivilitie", chief amongst these is how residence in the Highlands meant that the Highlanders were unable to "reforme thair countreyis" and how they should not be allowed to succeed to property unless they could "wryte, reid and speik Inglische".

The 1616 Act made provisions for a school in every parish in Scotland, and, when ratified in parliament in 1633, the Bishops were given the power to impose taxes for school maintenance. Although this power was revoked in 1646, and parish heritors held responsible for the salary and accommodation of the schoolmaster, the Act Rescissory in 16616, gave Bishops the charge of providing the school funds.

A 1695 Act7 provided that in a Highland parish were no minister served, the stipend was to be used to build and maintain schools "for rooting out the Irish language, and other pious uses".8 The next year, the Act for Settling of Schools9 made the heritors again responsible for the provision and operation of schools in their parish, this act formed the basis of educational provision until 1872.

These Acts resulted in many schools being set up in Lowland Scotland. The coverage in the Highlands was very poor. The scattered population, communication problems, lack of money, (a common problem), and the prevalence of Gaelic, were all major barriers to Highland education. For fifty or so percent of the Scottish population living north of the Tay around this time, Gaelic was the only language.

The attempts to unify Kirk, State, the Highlands and the Lowlands together, led to a realisation that it could only be achieved through a unified political and religious jurisdiction in Scotland. Gaelic therefore, would have to be used to administer religion to the Highlander. The Church of Scotland began a programme to provide a Gaelic speaking ministry, and Gaelic texts of the scriptures.

The common paradoxical situation, with schools aimed at extirpating Gaelic, and a policy of religious worship in Gaelic, only makes sense when it is taken on board that the education itself was emphasising the Bible and religious instruction. It made sense therefore to express the tenets of religion in the native language which would in turn bring about the use of English in everyday speech. Gaelic was to be the "missionary medium"10 for an anglicisation policy through education.

The eighteenth century was to be a century of enormous change for Gaelic and for the Highlands. The Union of the Parliaments, Jacobitism, and Improvement, would all exert great pressures to add to smaller problems at a domestic level; such as the provision of clergy and Gaelic texts.

In 1688 200 Irish Old Testaments were shipped to Edinburgh for distribution to the Highland parishes to aid in literacy and religious instruction. Only 109 of these had been distributed by 1698, mostly in Argyll and Ross. The problem lay both in the unwillingness of the Kirk and the Bibles themselves. They were printed in Irish type, and contained a different orthography and idiom which was a major hindrance in the Highlands. A Latin type edition, together with an edition of 3000 Gaelic catechisms was belatedly produced and distributed in Scotland, but by 1704 some parishes still had not received their allotments of Testaments and catechisms.

One group overshadowed everyone else in bringing education and religious teaching to the Highlands and other 'uncivilised' areas of the country; the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. It's Scottish wing, the SSPCK had been formed by royal charter in 1709, and by 1715 had twenty five schools running. The SSPCK desired to wear out Gaelic and spurned the use of the Gaelic catechism and psalter.

The education policy of the SSPCK was often contradictory and ambiguous. It eventually had to conceed that there was no point in teaching pupils English, in English, when they didn't understand it in the first place. To increase comprehension, it resolved that the catechism would be used, and translated from English into Gaelic, although Gaelic itself was never to be spoken. This led to widespread rote learning in SSPCK schools where the pupils had no comprehension of what they were reading.

While adopting comparison as its key educational method the SSPCK was also rethinking its attitude to Gaelic texts. In 1741 a Gaelic-English vocabulary was introduced and in 1754 the SSPCK put forward a plan for a New Testament with facing pages of Gaelic and English texts. It was ready by 1766 in time for a new direction change in policy. They had finally realised that the comparative method was not working as the pupils were leaving the schools unable to speak English because they had no understanding of it. Gaelic and English would now be read alongside one another, as as a means of learning English with understanding. By 1781 they were already noting the changes in desire of people to learn English and explore new knowledge.

The SSPCK achieved much in determining the fortunes of Gaelic. The location of its schools mirrored the geographical decline of Gaelic over time, and it maintained an antipathy towards the language which fitted the political mood of the country outside the Highlands. Moreover, through banning the use of Gaelic, it brought about an attitude change whereby English was seen as the only medium for education. Thus, anglicisation was the first step to bringing Gaelic Scotland into a Greater Britain.

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