Chapter 5: Community Sociolinguistic Survey of Gaelic Use and Attitudes in Three Islands


5.1 Introduction

Chapters 5 and 6 set out the findings of the Community Survey module of the IGRP which comprises two related surveys of three small island communities. This chapter presents the main descriptive statistics from the Community Sociolinguistic Survey (CSS) of Gaelic practice and attitudes to Gaelic in three islands in the Western Isles where Gaelic was until recently dominant: Scalpay (in North Harris SD), Grimsay (in North Uist (south & east) SD) and Eriskay (in South Uist (south) SD). Each of these small islands is now connected by causeway or bridge to a larger neighbouring island.

The data presented in this chapter comprises the first of two inter-related surveys conducted independently of each other. The first survey (CSS) takes a census-based approach with one respondent per household and aims to assess community-wide trends in Gaelic language use, practice and attitudes. The second survey of the Community Survey module is the Speaker Typology Survey (STS), which gathers data from one local advisor per island, as set out in Chapter 6. In addition to the findings of the CSS, this chapter also summarises the main points made in 13 community consultations in the Research Area on the situation of vernacular Gaelic in the respective communities (5.7). 

This IGRP module comprises a detailed quantitative sociolinguistic survey of three indicative traditional Gaelic communities in the Western Isles, and establishes the language competences and practices, as well as the speaker types, aggregated according to age cohorts. The approach adopted in this module borrows, in part, from methodologies in Ó Giollagáin et al. (2007a; 2007b) for Irish Gaeltacht areas, and from the survey of Gillian Munro et al. (2011) of Siabost in west Lewis. Community-based language support initiatives should be grounded in a comprehensive depiction and understanding of the actual dynamics in the bilingualised context of contemporary or historical Gaelic neighbourhoods. An understanding of these dynamics cannot be based on national census data alone, as discussed in section 5.2 (and 2.2; 4.11.3; 6.8).

By extending these methodologies, this module seeks to establish a comprehensive analysis of an as-wide-as-feasible geographic coverage, and among comparable communities within the upper ranges of Study District profiles for Gaelic ability identified in the 2011 Census for Scotland. Following the analysis of the SD data pertaining to section 2.4.3 (Figure 2.25), two of the SDs (i.e. North Harris SD, South Uist (south)), which contain the islands of Scalpay and Eriskay, are at the upper range of highest SD vitality category, which is the Residual nexus of Gaelic ability and Family Household use; and one SD (i.e. North Uist (south & east)), which contains the island of Grimsay, is in the mid-range vitality category, i.e. in the Interstitial nexus. Furthermore, it is likely that these three islands equalled or surpassed the average Gaelic vitality factors of the SDs of which they form a part.

5.1.1 Aims of Community Survey module

The Community Survey module of the IGRP, presented in Chapters 5 and 6, aimed to undertake a mixed-method census-based survey in three small island communities with greater Gaelic vitality than the mean in the Western Isles. The first part of this module, the CSS, gathered data seeking to determine:

  • Socio-cultural background of the local population
  • Reported abilities, practices and attitudes to Gaelic
  • Views on the vitality or fragility of the social use of Gaelic.

The second part of the module, presented in Chapter 6, assesses:

  • Demographic factors
  • Linguistic background
  • Prevalence of home-based transmission of Gaelic
  • Prevalence of school-based acquisition and productive use of Gaelic
  • Speaker typologies.

Given that Scalpay, Grimsay and Eriskay represent relatively strong Gaelic-language profiles, this module of the two inter-related community surveys offers potentially the most positive localised depiction of the current social condition of Gaelic. When assessed together with the research findings of the preschooler (Chapter 3) and the teenager (Chapter 4) IGRP modules, the Community Sociolinguistic Survey provides a detailed understanding of the sociolinguistic dynamics of Gaelic in the Western Isles.

5.2 Literature review; demolinguistics (1881–2011) and sociolinguistic approaches

Table 5.1 is compiled from the data presented in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (2019), Duwe (2003–2012), and Mac an Tàilleir (2006, 2015) and illustrates the Gaelic speaker population of each island, and their percentages where available, from 1881 to 2011.

Census Year

Number of Gaelic speakers

(as % of Scalpay population)

Number of Gaelic speakers

(as % of Grimsay population)

Number of Gaelic speakers

(as % of Eriskay population)


498 (92%)

286 (98%)

464 (99%)


496 (93%)

262 (92%)

424 (93%)


553 (92%)

270 (93%)

440 (92%)


























438 (94%)

181 (92%)

182 (94%)


349 (96%)

173 (85%)

135 (80%)


270 (84%)

143 (71%)

104 (78%)


220 (76%)

102 (61%)

102 (74%)

Table 5.1 Numbers and percentages of Gaelic speakers, by island, 1881–2011