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Caithness – Its As Gaelic As Gallaibh!

As the SNP government encourages the growth and development of the Scottish language (Scots Gaelic) across Scotland one of the chief claims from anglophone opponents of the policy is that the language is being “imposed” on regions where it was never spoken. One of the proofs offered for this controversial claim is the area of Caithness where some anti-Gaelic activists have strongly argued that the only languages in this region that can be regarded as “native” are English or even, rather more desperately, Old Norse (due to Scandinavian settlements by Viking invaders in the early Middle Ages). Historians and linguists have long refuted these claims and now further proof of the presence of Scottish-speaking communities throughout the boundaries of what is now modern Scotland have emerged. From a BBC report:

“New research claims that the Gaelic language was indigenous to many areas of Caithness – surviving into the 20th Century.

Opponents of Highland Council’s policy on bi-lingual road signs have often claimed that Caithness heritage is more Norse than Gaelic and that the county was never Gaelic-speaking.

Even where it is conceded that the language was spoken in Caithness, it is often claimed to have been hundreds of years ago.

But a new breakdown of official census figures for the county’s parishes suggests otherwise, showing the remnants of an indigenous Gaelic population still speaking the language into the twentieth century.

It was carried out by Hamburg-based researcher Kurt Duwe and published on the Celtic languages research website Linguae-Celticae.

The 1911 census reveals that 1,985 people spoke Gaelic in Caithness – 6.2% of the population.

The language was, however, in a process of decline, which was to see its demise in the county later in the century.

In the 1881 census 3,422, or 8.8%, were Gaelic-speaking, out of a total population of 38,868.

…Gaelic was spoken by up to a fifth of the population in some civil parishes into the 20th Century.

The official census returns show Reay and Latheron parishes were still 18.8% Gaelic-speaking in 1911, just three years before the outbreak of World War I.

Thirty years previously, the language had been even stronger.

Mr Duwe’s research suggests that the vast majority of these speakers were native-born Caithness Gaels – not refugees from the Sutherland clearances.

Available data from the 1891 census, previously published by Mr Duwe, shows that “speakers enumerated in Caithness were overwhelmingly born and raised in the county”.

The figures seem to support much earlier writings which suggest that in the 18th Century large parts of Caithness – including Wick, Halkirk and Reay – were predominately Gaelic.”

Taken with the overwhelming body of proof that already exists to support the Scottish-speaking nature of the Caithness region and other areas in the Highlands and indeed across all of Scotland hopefully the opposition to the country’s indigenous Gaelic language and culture might step back and rethink their position. Modern Scotland is surely large enough to accommodate two languages and cultures, native and adopted, on a basis of equality and respect.

2 comments on “Caithness – Its As Gaelic As Gallaibh!

  1. David Smillie

    I think a little credit where credit is due, in this case to the Labour/Libdem coalition in the former Scottish Executive. They put a lot of effort into initiating help for Gaelic, but steadfastly resisted any help whatsoever for Lowland Scots. I have my theories about this but let’s just skip over that for now. Anyhow, the SNP have continued to help Gaelic and are beginning to make up some of the deficit in Scots through a first time census question last year. Basically, though, the SNP is focussed on an economic case for independence, and culture is not a priority to them in the way it was for the independence movement in Ireland.

    When it comes to Caithness where I have worked on and off for many years, local councillors have become anti-Gaelic for what some might term parochial reasons. They feel, and this reflects local opinion, that the major native culture of Caithness is Scots/Scandinavian. This culture and language are totally ignored by all the powers-that-be who seem intent on giving Gaelic a prominent place in Caithness that it never historically had. Everyone means well but there has been lack of sensitivity and some small mindedness on all sides and everyone looks a bit bad. Scots language development is at least thirty years behind Gaelic here because of Labour’s obsessions.

    Incidentally, Richard, my (English) window cleaner tells me he had a Gaelic speaking granny from Caithness!


    • I agree, David. There have been several notable activists for the Scottish language (Scots Gaelic) in all parties (in fact several Tory grandees north of the border were quiet active Gaels, strangely enough, as I’m sure you know). The SNP’s conversion to all things Gaelic is a relatively recent phenomenon and is not unrelated to their broader nationalist agenda (eg. a single national Scottish police force). I would not dismiss the “culture war” just yet. It might not be a priority yet – but in the future?

      The case of Scots (Scots English) is an interesting one. Do you think it can escape the “dialectal” brush and develop enough perceived distinctiveness of its own to be categorised as a separate language both by the general public and linguists? At the moment, most academics still class it as a dialect rather a language (though of course the lines between both are blurry, especially in this case).


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