Chapter 1: Introduction


1.1 Context

The primary aim of this book is to provide contemporary data and analysis of the societal and spatial extent of Gaelic speakers and Gaelic speaking in the remaining vernacular communities in Scotland. This study is a baseline sociolinguistic survey focusing chiefly on the extent of the use and transmission of Scottish Gaelic as a communal language and on Gaelic-speaking identity in the Western Isles, in Staffin in the Isle of Skye and in the Isle of Tiree in Argyll and Bute.[1] The urgent need for this analysis stems from the fragile nature of the remaining vernacular communities, which has been highlighted in recent research (e.g. MacKinnon 2010a; 2011c; 2012; and Munro et al. 2011). The inter-related research modules in the Islands Gaelic Research Project (IGRP) set out to define the sociolinguistic prevalence of Gaelic in the current bilingual context of life in the islands. The study as a whole will assess the prospects for Gaelic as a vernacular and as a lived identity and determine the context for language-policy interventions which might support the social continuity of Gaelic speaking in the islands. We have prepared this book as an academic report of the IGRP, but we hope it will be of interest to those who are concerned about the fate of threatened linguistic minorities in the contemporary world, and especially to Gaels who are interested in the current reality and future vitality of Gaelic.

Working within the tradition of mainstream sociolinguistic enquiry, this book is the most comprehensive multi-modular study comprising an integrated analysis of the vernacular communal context of Gaelic. Gaelic is now effectively both a minority and a minoritised language in its remaining vernacular communities, most notably communities in the Western Isles (or the Outer Hebrides), which, to a large extent, were intact multi-generational Gaelic-speaking communities until as late as the 1970s and 1980s (excluding the urban settlement of Stornoway in Lewis). Currently, however, only 52% of those in the Research Area report an ability in Gaelic. Excepting the 50+ age cohort, a majority in these islands do not report a competence in Gaelic in the 2011 Census, now rendering Gaelic a minority language in these former vernacular communities. Additionally, Gaelic represents a minoritised formal or institutionalised identity in these communities in that virtually all formal or institutional activity accedes to the functional primacy of English, except for specific Gaelic-medium activity in education and broadcasting.

The research project combines a series of surveys and community consultations as the basis for forming a diagnosis and prognosis of future prospects for Gaelic in the islands. Two surveys were conducted as area-wide surveys: one investigating the preschool age group and the other focusing on the late-teenage cohort, conducted in the four secondary schools in the Western Isles. Two other surveys concentrated on gathering detailed data on three specific areas within the islands. Three small island communities (Scalpay, Grimsay and Eriskay) were selected in which particularly high levels of Gaelic competence were indicated by 2011 Census figures, in order to investigate the sociolinguistic profiles of the strongest remaining Gaelic communities in the islands. The chapters detailing the survey findings are preceded by an analysis of how the language questions in the National Census depict the levels of ability and practice of Gaelic. Kenneth MacKinnon (2011c: 207) has referred to ‘the actuality gap’ between the enumeration of Gaelic ability in census results and the actual social practice of Gaelic in society. Comparing the results from the 2011 Census with the those from the IGRP also reveals a ‘presentational gap’ of how the numbers of those who report Gaelic ability are indicative of the actual social practice of Gaelic in communities in Scotland.

The qualitative aspects of the study are presented in the reports of eight focus group meetings conducted in the four secondary schools in the Western Isles; and in a series of 13 public consultations in the Study Districts, including Tiree and Staffin. The three community surveys afforded participants the opportunity to write comments and observations in the questionnaire forms or to communicate directly with the fieldworkers and researchers of the IGRP on issues important to the participants. Triangulating the results from all of these modules and analyses produced the baseline evidence to illustrate Gaelic familial and community practice at a far more fine-grained level of detail than the National Census can provide.

The on-going rapid contraction of Gaelic-speaking in the islands evidenced in this report provides an opportunity to reappraise how official language policy corresponds to the realities of minority-language endangerment in Scotland and elsewhere. Given that Gaelic is an officially-recognised minority language and that it is the object of significant policy and planning interest at national and regional levels, the data, analysis and proposed model of policy engagement are obviously relevant to other minority-language policy contexts grappling with late-modernity. The results of this project pose fundamental questions with regard to the relevance and efficacy of much minority-language policy, planning and interventions. Of course, with or without (official) support, vernacular decline is common among non-dominant linguistic groups, historically and particularly in modernity (e.g. Batibo 2005; Crystal 2000; Eberhard et al. 2019; Harrison 2007; Krauss 1992; Nettle and Romaine 2000; Ó Giollagáin et al. 2007a,b; Ó Giollagáin and Charlton 2015; Olthuis et al. 2013; Simpson 2007, 2008). The final chapter of the book proposes a new model of language policy and societal engagement to effectively address the trajectory of contraction among the speaker group.

1.2 Social philosophy and societal challenges in minority sociolinguistic transformations

This research is informed by a social-identity perspective (cf. Jenkins 2008: 37–38). We take it that such social identity is embodied in the self-ascribing, established group. Richard Jenkins (2008: 46) writes: ‘First, identity is a practical accomplishment, a process. Second, individual and collective identities can be understood using one model, of the dialectical interplay of processes of internal and external definition’. The continuing existence of a self-ascribing Gaelic group is evident in current socio-cultural activity, collective and institutional processes, independent of its portrayal in this project and in other research. The current vulnerable state of Gaelic group-identity can be assessed from the data presented in this book, especially in Chapter 4.

[1] Residual vernacular networks are to be found in other areas in Scotland, mainly among elderly people in districts such as Wester Ross; the Oban area; Lochaber; parts of the Isle of Skye not studied in this project, in addition to the migrant communities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other urban areas.