Gaelic in a community context


Ariel view of Stornoway

The Gaelic language is valued as a source of cultural enrichment to many, but it is highly threatened as an actively functioning language in communities. This tension both defines the current condition of Gaelic and highlights its main social and cultural challenge – its survival as a lived societal reality. Fluently spoken Gaelic survives as a “community language” principally of the Outer Hebrides. That is today’s social reality for the majority of habitual vernacular speakers. Yet the language and associated culture may hold enormous symbolic importance for Scotland as a whole, with many people who don’t speak it well or at all nevertheless investing in it the status of a “national language” of Scotland. That is today’s aspirational vision for many enthusiastic cultural activists.

Linking vision to reality can often be a challenging task, and such is certainly the case with Gaelic. Whether at political and administrative level in national or local government, whether in Gaelic activist circles or institutional support structures, whether indeed in the minds of individual speakers and learners in the Hebrides or on the mainland, the challenge of aligning aspiration with the facts on the ground has turned out to be a formidable one, despite the sea-change in societal attitude in recent times which has turned Gaelic from the progress-blocking encumbrance it was once viewed as into a valued and life-enhancing asset for individual, community, and nation.

UHI has already established a specialist Gaelic interest, with a fresh applied linguistic sensibility towards community practice in the island townships where the language is still spoken for everyday practical reasons – in the kind of contexts, in other words, which uniquely foster ordinary everyday communicative competence, the essential foundational skill from which finer aesthetic achievements may, yet need not, flow. The latest research emerging from this re-oriented academic focus points unambiguously to a growing crisis that casts a shadow over future aspirations for the language (see The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, Ó Giollagáin et al. 2020, Aberdeen University Press). Without some new intervention, Gaelic will cease to operate as a community language in the islands within the next decade. And without vernacular speakers to model its use, the aspirational growth of “new communities” in other locations will be deprived at birth of the everyday sustenance it needs. Recognising the distinctness of these constituencies enables positive acknowledgement of their inter-connectedness and interdependence.

As a “minority language”, Gaelic is by no means unique in facing existential crisis. Literally thousands of other languages around the world are predicted to face societal disuse in coming years or decades. There is much to learn from international linkage and comparison from Global North and South. The University of the Highlands and Islands has hosted both its own Language Sciences Institute, and the broader “Soillse” network of Scottish universities with a research interest in maintaining and developing Gaelic language and culture. With a grounded close-up view of Gaelic community life at home, and an outward-looking and inter-disciplinary engagement through CIALL with other national and overseas stakeholders in linked issues, it offers a unique position and perspective to address linguistic and cultural concerns of both national and international relevance in collaboration with other academic and community partners.