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Scottish Gaelic

Gaelic in Scotland

Gaelic came to with the Gaels or Scots from Ireland when they settled in Argyll around 500 AD and spread out when the Kingdom of the Scots extended throughout the country. Gaelic reached its zenith around 1100 AD when it was spoken from Caithness in the north to Annan in the south and from Fife in the east to the Islands in the west. Gaelic was the language of the kings of Scotland until Malcolm Canmore married his wife who spoke no Gaelic. Henceforth the influence of Gaelic began to wane among the aristocrats of the Lowlands. Gaelic was still spoken in Carrick and Galloway in the 17th century, but it was at its strongest in the Highlands and Islands.

At the time of the Lordship of the Isles Gaelic culture and scholarship underwent a revival and expansion. Classical Gaelic was used in the poetry of the MacMhuirich family in Uist until the 18th century. Another flourishing occurred in Gaelic poetry at the still time under the influence of poets such as William Ross, Alexander MacDonald and Duncan Bàn Macintyre, but the wheels of fortune were turning.

In the 17th century a series of anti-Gaelic laws emanated from Parliament in Edinburgh; after the Battle of Culldon other laws were enacted against Gaelic language and culture; organisations such as the SSPCK would not allow Gaelic to be used in their schools until the end of the 18th century; and the Education Act of 1872 ended the use of the language in the education system. The Highland Clearances began in the late 18th century and continued for a hundred years. Many believed they would never get a fair deal in the Highlands and left for Canada of the Lowland cities.

Despite the injustice handed out to Gaelic speakers, the language was not destined to die off. Gaelic culture underwent a revival in the 19th century in areas such as poetry, prose and music, and the revival has continued to the present day. Between the two World Wars, Gaelic was to be heard on radio and was taught in schools. Poets such as Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith and George Campbell Hay rose to prominence after the Second World War. More novels are being published today than at any other time. Gaelic medium education began in the late 20th century and more Gaelic medium schools are in the pipeline. Young people can be educated through the medium of Gaelic at all levels from playgroup to university. Radio nan Gàidheal has been in operation since the 1980s and a television channel, BBC Alba, began broadcasting in the early 2000s.

Despite satisfaction with such optimistic developments, the situation facing Gaelic at local level is not entirely positive. The 2001 Census showed that fewer than 60,000 people could speak Gaelic although over 92,000 can understand it. There were no parishes in which Gaelic remained as strong as it had been 100 years earlier. There were areas even in the Western Isles where Gaelic had become a minority language, and only one mainland parish, Lochalsh, could muster a Gaelic speaking population of 20%.

The 2011 census, shows that the number of Gaelic language speakers in Scotland - 58,000 - has almost stabilised at 2001 Census figures. Detailed analysis showed that this was to a significant extent attributable to the growth in the numbers of children acquiring the language in Gaelic-medium pre-school groups and Primary Education.