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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 history of Gaelic at this time is perhaps best described in the poetry of Alexander MacDonald, himself an SSPCK teacher and a fervent Jacobite. This section from the poem "Aiseirigh na seann chanain Albannaich" details some of the history of Gaelic Scotland, and shows how the ideal of a "greater Gaidhealtachd" had come down by the eighteenth century.

 'S i labhair Alba,
 'S Gall bhodacha féin,
 Ar flaith 's ar prionnsan
 'S ar diùcanna gun éis.
 An tigh-comhairl' righ,
 'N uair shuidheadh air binn chùairt,
 'S i Ghàilig lìobhaidh
 Dh' fhuasgladh snaoim gach cùis'.
 'S i labhair calum
 Allail a' chinn mhòir;
 Gach mith is maith
 Bha 'n Alba, beag is mòr.
 'S i labhair Gaill is Gàidheil,
 Neo-chléirich is cléir,
 Gach fear is bean,
 A ghluaiseadh teanga 'm beul.
 'S i labhair Adhamh
 Annam Pàrras féin,
 'S bu shiùbhlach Gàilig
 Bho bheul àluinn Eubh! 11

The ideas expressed here; the linking of the long history of Gaelic, and the Bible were a key aspect of the future view the Highlander took about his language. Gaelic and religion were inextricably linked. The economy of the seventeenth century Gaidhealtachd was also a signal component in the decline of Gaelic. The rising population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created huge problems in agriculture, and stored up problems for the future.

Very little of the land in the Highlands was suitable for improvement farming, the acid soils and the climate counted against it. The rearing and export of cattle had sustained the economy of the Highlands for many years, with grain being bought in in exchange. Moreover the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars created a demand for kelp, and this also helped to keep the Highland economy afloat.

The landlords had after the '45, been engaged in a campaign to improve their lands. They had managed to edge the tacksmen out, and sub-let the land with specified rents and services. The decline in the traditional system after 1746 had facilitated this movement, money and not the armed clansman became the new image of the Highland chief. Many landlords were loathe to allow migration or emigration from the land, as they perceived that for industry to be brought in to the Highlands, then a cheap source of labour was required, particularly with kelp. Populations were therefore crowded on the seashore and insufficient cultivation was carried out on the land itself.

By 1815 the Highland economy was teetering, its flimsy foundations sagging under the combined weight of economic reality and competition. The chemical industry had solved the problem of mass producing soda, thereby circumventing the collection of kelp, moreover, Spanish barilla was again competing with the kelping industry after the end of the war. By 1827, cattle, sheep and wool prices were falling and the restrictions on passenger ships had been removed; the desirability of a large population and curtailing emigration began to revised. Emigration was seen as being both a benefit to the colonies and to the mother country.

The emigration and migration from the Highlands was a major cause of the decline of the Gaelic language. It took place against a changing educational background where the SSPCK was declining in activity and a group of new organisations was growing up; Gaelic Society Schools.

The object of these schools was to teach Gaelic speakers to read the scriptures in their own tongue. The Edinburgh Society began in 1811, the Glasgow Society in 1812, and the Inverness Society in 1818. They attempted to avoid absenteeism and maximise numbers by timing the school year to the farming year, while the school moved to the another township at the end of each year. Religion and education were to be closely bound within these schools. Moreover, the bias between male and female pupils, and the fact that many adults attended the evening and sabbath classes held by them, had important consequences, particularly when coupled with the fact that many adults were taught by their children at home in the evenings.

The Gaelic Schools were able to provide far more books and texts for their pupils to read than had been the case before. Through donation from the Lowlands, Highland regiments, and auxiliary organisations, the Edinburgh Society, in the first twenty years of its existence, had distributed 88,600 elementary books and scripture extracts and 67,400 Bibles, New Testaments and Psalm books to the Highlands.

The Gaelic Schools had a great effect on the Gaidhealtachd between 1811 and the 1840s. They strengthened the deep feelings in the Gael that Gaelic was the spiritual medium and the language of worship and salvation. This had been achieved through teaching the scriptures and nothing else in their own language.

The Gaelic Schools were important moreover, for their impact on the anglicisation of the Highlands. Reports came to the attention of the Society, that people were not satisfied with their children being able to read Gaelic, but were actively encouraging them to learn English, even paying for teachers to instruct in English over extra hours. Why should this be the case?

Firstly, the long tradition of education in English had begun to undermine the value of the language to those who spoke it. Secondly, the ability to read in Gaelic awakened a desire to learn English; for, the numbers of books in Gaelic and English respectively incited this desire, both in the young and the old. It was to come about that education in the home brought about a change in the language amongst the older age groups.

The Gaelic schools also had a wider impact in the Gaidhealtachd, through their geographical location. Whereas the SSPCK schools had congregated in the fringes of the Gaidhealtachd, the Gaelic School Societies targeted the remoter areas of the Highlands, the Western Isles and the areas north and west of the great glen. In doing so they were bring about the anglicisation of the Gaidhealtachd in a far bigger way and extending the reach of English further than ever before. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland consolidated this by setting up schools to serve the Highland parishes, aiming to foster English learning and speaking.

The collapse of the kelp industry had led many landlords to agree to the mass emigration of their tenants; if only to stave off any large scale destitution. The Government belatedly agreed to this and agreed to set up organised emigration to Canada and the Americas, where they would join the earlier emigrant tacksmen. The collapse of 1815 moreover, had brought about a change amongst the landlords themselves. Many of the landlords were bought out, or had to sell out, and new incomers from the south, both English and Lowland Scots took over. This exacerbated the gulf between landlord and tenant, in the 1840's and 50's as the landlord was often absentee, and had no understanding of the people in either language or culture. In many areas the population were moved to new townships on narrow strips of land by the shore, with the interior opened up to sheep. A new era had begun, the Crofter was born.

By setting up crofts the estates were storing up problems for themselves and their tenants. The crofts were often sub-let several times, with only a very bare subsistence level being attainable. When the potato blight reached Scotland, it was these communities which were hit hardest, being almost totally dependent upon it as a source of food. Consequently emigration was the best hope for many of them, some went voluntarily, others were forced on board the ships waiting to take them across the sea. They took with them their Gaelic and their traditions, which were to flourish in areas of Canada. W.J. Watson stated in 1926 at the annual dinner of the Gaelic Society of Inverness that:

The decline of Gaelic is bound up with the general decline of population in the Highlands, and to that extent it is an economic problem.12

I think that this is a fundamentally true statement and a key principle to be remembered in the search for the reasons for Gaelic's decline.

Educational provisions in the Gaidhealtachd between 1850 and 1872, were largely the same as those of previous decades. By 1872, over 300,000 had been educated in the Highlands as a whole with over 100,000 people having been taught to read the Bible by the Gaelic Schools alone; twice as many Gaelic texts had been distributed by them by this time as well.

A dramatic change came about in 1872. The passing of the Education Act, centralised and formalised Scottish education. Gaelic was excluded from the act and this undoubtedly had an effect on both literacy and the language itself. The various bodies which had been in existence in the Highlands continued to operate their schools for a time, and their overall influence was profound on the language.

The lack of provision in the Act was simply a reflection of the ambivalence of the authorities, and the fact that many, (including the Gaels themselves), did not see Gaelic as an educational language. It was not just the lack of legislatory provision that affected Gaelic, but also the fact that many of the teachers and others who could change policy, saw Gaelic as a mark of backwardness, teaching it therefore was a waste of time.

This view predominated due to the fact that, by the end of the nineteenth century, English was known to one degree or another throughout the Highlands, Gaelic was therefore unnecessary as an educational provision. Moreover, as was given in evidence to the Napier Commission by the Rev. James Grant of Kilmuir on Skye:

"Highlanders would like their children to be better scholars than themselves, to be able to read the scriptures in Gaelic, but to be also able to speak English and carve their way through the world."13

Education was clearly seen as a means to facilitate emigration and advancement in an English speaking world. The word of God was preferred, encouraged and permitted in Gaelic, so long as the secular world was in English.

The early 1880s were a period of bitter rural unrest in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Irish Land Act of 1881 led many landlords to fear an extension of unrest to the Highlands. They feared that the activities of the Irish Land League would be copied by the Highlanders, and indeed the government feared the same. The government set up a commission under Lord Napier "to inquire into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland". The Commission took a tour of the Highlands and took a great deal of evidence, in Gaelic and English, yet did not dampen the ardour of agitation as was hoped tending only to inflame it.

The Napier Commission reported in 1884, but failed to put an end to the disputes. The decision by the Land League to form a Crofters Party to contest the General Election in the Highland seats was therefore a new and serious threat to the government coming in the wake of the Irish experience of links between the Irish Land League, the Fenian and the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Highlander was now prepared to fight for his land against the men of another race trying to take it away:

"The language and lore of the Highlanders being treated with despite has tended to crush their self-respect and repress their self-reliance without which no people can advance. When a man was convinced that his language was a barbarism, his lore as filthy rags, and that the only good thing about him -his land- was, because of his general worthlessness, to go to a man of another race and another tongue, what remained that he fight for?"14

Success of a kind was achieved in 1886. Four MP's were elected to Westminster, and produced a promise for a bill to mitigate the distress of the poorer classes in the Highlands. The resultant Crofters' Holdings Act was a major turning point in the attitude of the British government towards the Highlands.

A key piece of evidence for the status of Gaelic by the end of the nineteenth century is the census. The 1881 census was the first to ask specifically whether Gaelic was spoken or not and, from 1891, those speaking Gaelic and English were enumerated. Yet this is not without its problems, there is good reason to believe that the 1881 returns are an underestimate, due to confusion over the phrase 'habitual speakers of Gaelic' in the census. The 1891 census showed an increase in numbers of speakers, from 231,594 to 254,415, due to the different questions, and the previous under-representation. From 1901 only those aged three years of age and over were enumerated; therefore, many of the Highland children speaking mostly Gaelic, yet under three and not attending school and embarking on anglicisation were not recorded.

The figures in Table 1 tell their own tale about the decline of Gaelic. Interesting points to note are that the low percentages of Gaelic speakers in the Lowlands disguise the large numbers of Gaelic speakers actually there but swamped by the larger numbers of English speakers. Problems result from the fact that large percentages in Argyll, and other Highland counties disguise low population density, which the maps 1-11 attempt to illustrate and put into perspective.

What the census figures and contemporary evidence shows, is that Gaelic usage differed by age and sex. The older age groups held onto their Gaelic longest, and spoke it more correctly than the young. Within the young, the men were more conscious of the ability to speak English in relation to status. It was they rather than the women who abandoned their native tongue.

The fortunes of Gaelic in the twentieth century have been mixed. The two World Wars, drew many Gaelic speakers away to fight, many of whom did not return. Those that did, forced through more land reforms as they demanded that the government fulfil their prewar promises. Anti-Gaelic feeling persisted and does so today. The difficulties facing it are more complex than those seeking a militant stance to protect it see.

Educationally, Gaelic has had a different history in the twentieth century. Since 1904 it has been possible to learn Gaelic as a subject in its own right and not as a means of acquiring English. In the early days, the lack of teachers hindered this policy but did not prevent people from getting to the Celtic departments of the Scottish universities. In 1918 Gaelic was given a statutory place in Education, thanks to the efforts of An Comunn, the church and Liberal politicians. This was a victory for the language although it was a 'subject' it was not a language on an equal footing. It was more widely taught than ever before, but the lack of texts, teachers, and the goodwill of the authorities hindered the hoped for success of the Bill.

Since then, Gaelic has had new emphasis placed upon it in Education. Since the 1950s, Gaelic has been used for more and different purposes than ever before. Gaelic is now more in favour as a medium for education than ever. Projects in the Western Isles aimed at enabling children to learn all subjects in Gaelic as well as in English, have been ably supported by Gaelic texts. Although bilingualism has not possibly had quite the desired effect that was sought. MacKinnon's work in Harris primary and secondary schools, showed that Gaelic was either used alongside English or not at all, which only accelerates anglicisation.15 Gaelic has turned full circle, from being reviled and banned to being encouraged and seen as part of a cultural identity.

It is not only through education that Gaelic has achieved a wider spread than ever before. The media has been used to further Gaelic's exposure to a mainly southern audience, and it is here that the growth area in Gaelic is to be found. The media has been a mixed blessing however. The fact that English is brought into homes through the TV, makes it difficult for Gaelic to compete. With little or no current affairs television in Gaelic, and the varying times of broadcast, often late at night, Gaelic is at a severe disadvantage, with only peripheral exposure. The recent provision of funds for Gaelic broadcasting and education may help to reverse this, and the growing number of Gaelic programmes and their technical ability have increased the prospects of a recovery for Gaelic.

What must be remembered in looking for a brighter future for Gaelic is the experience of Ireland and the government attempts at a recovery of Irish. As Desmond Fennell states:

If there is a territory in which the particular language is usually spoken and it is contracting continually through language changes on the fringes, who can stop this contraction? Clearly only the people of that territory by deciding to do so, and by taking appropriate measures. So another way of explaining why the State failed to save the Gaeltacht is by saying that the government failed to perceive this fact and failed to take action accordingly.16

We fail to take this lesson on board at our peril.

The problem for Gaelic, is to find a role in Scottish life and affairs. It has little or no role at present either in the law or wider afield. Attempts by the SDA in the Eighties, Comhairle nan Eilean, An Comunn Gaidhealach and Sabhal Mor Ostaig amongst others have aimed to avert the decline and foster a recovery. Politically only the SNP has any concerted policy regarding Gaelic in Scotland. The other parties having given it little thought or come up with any role for it in Scotland as a whole. What is certain is that it cannot be restored to its former position in Scotland because of the history of persecution it has suffered.

In conclusion then, the reasons for the decline of Gaelic since the sixteenth century have been complex and have covered the political, economic, religious, and social spheres. The legislation of the Scottish government in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries set the tone for most of the subsequent policies followed in the Highlands. The activities of the SSPCK and the Gaelic Schools Societies, meant that Gaelic was hounded in its heartlands and along its fringes. Anglicisation proceeded apace with this educational onslaught; for, by winning over the young to the English language, the Gaelic language would removed for ever in the Highlands. By the nineteenth century, the economic problems of the Highlands hastened Gaelic's decline. As emigration and migration took their toll, the English language began to get a strong foothold in the Highlands and expanded from it. The late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries have seen the decline continue despite the attempts to avert it.

Gaelic was in a paradoxical position by the nineteenth century. The interest shown in Gaelic literature largely ignored much genuine Gaelic culture, being based on claims to antiquity and on the position of the Highlander as 'primitive' rather than on the language itself. The "reinvention" of the Highlands at this time did little to alter the position of the language.

The adoption of English in the Highlands might not have produced an immediate end to Gaelic cultural forms. Coupled with the economic and political position however, and in a society where the literary tradition was oral not written, it made the transmission and retention of Gaelic culture and tradition less certain. Furthermore, the disappearance of the bardic system, through the legislation begun at Icolmkill, meant that by the eighteenth century, there was little or no maintenance of Gaelic through the support of a vigorous native Gaelic literary culture.

Literacy was of course low amongst the Gaelic population, and for those who could read, there were relatively few books in Gaelic available until the early 1800s and the twentieth century. Whilst several Highland Societies and Gaelic clubs in the Lowlands and elsewhere were concerned with the fortunes of the language and its speakers, they only occupied a midway position between the Gaelic and English ways of life.

One object of the Highland Society of London, was 'the promoting the cultivation of the Celtic language" yet that society supported the Gaelic schools "as a means of extending English through Gaelic". This paradox -fostering the external vestiges of Gaeldom yet actively encouraging the decline of the language- in time led the Highlands to deny their own heritage or at least resign themselves to the loss of their language. It is against this background that the decline of the Gaelic language must be seen.

Ewan Innes, April 20 1993

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