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Scotland Moves Forward – While Ireland Goes Into Reverse

In Ireland a significant number of government departments and other public bodies, along with many public officials, have spent much of the last decade actively opposing the nation’s Official Languages Act of 2003, a piece of legislation introduced eighty years after independence with the objective of ensuring some form of limited equality for Irish-speaking citizens with their English-speaking peers when accessing state services and resources. As the 2011 report by An Coimisinéir Teanga on the workings of the Languages Act has revealed, the institutional discrimination towards Irish-speakers in our culturally English civil service is as virulent as ever.

In Scotland they have their own problems trying to gain equality and respect for their indigenous Gaelic tongue, in the form of the Scottish language, but the willingness of much of the body politic in Scotland to support the Gaelic Language Act of 2005, particularly the governing Scottish Nationalist Party under Alex Salmond, has led to an increase in the social and cultural standing of Scottish-speakers. Though there is still far to go before true equality and equal access to the resources of the state is reached it is a promising start. But just a start.

Along the way there must be more actions like this one, reported by the Stornoway Gazette:

“Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s Gaelic Language Plan, which was recently published, aims to further promote and strengthen Gaelic in every area of the work and operations of the college, which is the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture.

Sabhal Mòr, along with a number of other colleges and universities, was asked by Bòrd na Gàidhlig to prepare a plan under the auspices of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The Plan was created by the College’s Language Development Officer, Janni Diez, and other college staff who are expert in the field of language development and planning.

It builds on the College’s Language Policy and strengthens Gaelic usage among students and staff at the College. The Plan increases the already-strong status of Gaelic at the college, and will enable Sabhal Mòr to introduce projects and initiatives which will encourage even greater use of Gaelic in a variety of settings and situations.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig Ceannard (CEO), John Angus MacKay, said: “Bòrd na Gàidhlig congratulates Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the publication of its first Gaelic Language Plan. This is another significant milestone in our journey to achieving the aim of the Gaelic Language Act of seeing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of the whole of Scotland, commanding equal respect to the English language.

The plan was submitted to Bòrd na Gàidhlig for approval last year following a public consultation where people could submit opinions on the plan. The plan will last five years before being reviewed.

A copy of the Gaelic Language Plan can be viewed at: website

Following on from earlier news about the petty discrimination faced by some Scottish speakers this report is particularly welcome.

14 comments on “Scotland Moves Forward – While Ireland Goes Into Reverse

  1. Mary G

    Labour were in power until 2007 and so it was the Scottish Labour Party, and not the SNP, that steered through the Gaelic Language Act of 2005. Also, Labour Councils are the ones with the best records on Gaelic education.

    In fact, for all their rhetoric there has been virtually no progress on Gaelic matters under the SNP. Salmond’s eyes are on the separation issue alone. And if that means sacrificing ‘controversial’ topics like Gaelic, then it appears to be the preferred way for the SNP to proceed.

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    • I’m not disagreeing, Mary. The support for Scots Gaelic or Scottish language cuts across party lines, and Labour certainly played a strong role in that. And so did the Tories, with several notable supporters in the party.

      The SNP were relative latecomers to the Scottish language rights movement after a long period of indifference or even hostility. However under Salmond they seem to be making up for that shameful era of inactivity, even if it is in part driven by a broader Nationalist agenda to emphasise Scottish “uniqueness” (a separate Scottish nation needs a separate Scottish national language, etc.).

      Thanks for Commenting. All views much appreciated.

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  2. Màrtainn Mac A Bhàillidh

    Interesting choice of blog to use the “separation” lingo on! How’s that Separate Ireland going for you Seamus? You’ve got to laugh. Anyway which Labour Councils would that be North Lanarkshire or…… North Lanarkshire?

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  3. Mary G

    I don’t find the term ‘separatist’ pejorative – in fact, there have, in history, been many successful and noble separatist movements. And planning to keep the Pound, the monarchy, part of the BBC and perhaps NATO, means that part-separation rather than full independence is perhaps a more accurate definition of the SNP’s ambition right now. But I accept that the terms is open to interpretation, and that is obviously my perspective.

    Séamas, you are right to emphasise the cross-party nature of the progress we have witnessed. It was Michael Forsyth who, in 1985, approved the statutory instrument that allowed new Gaelic units to be funded. He was very fair and supportive in considering the case put by parents at the time.

    As for Councils: Glasgow and North Lanarkshire have, in the last ten or so years, witnessed really healthy increases in the numbers of pupils in Gaelic-medium education. The best records of any councils in Scotland, in fact. Over many years these authorities have invested in new facilities, schools, nurseries, teachers, services, secondary subjects, etc. Both have been Labour councils over this period. Their successes deserve greater recognition.

    Where the SNP have had any power in local government they have been reluctant to use it effectively, as far as I can see, to further Gaelic. Particularly in schooling where councils have the greatest scope to make the biggest impact. Even SNP supporters admit that this is very disappointing.

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    • A steppingstone to freedom? There is certainly precedence for that in the history of the dissolution of the “UK”. In 1923 Ireland achieved a limited form of independence from the British in the form of Saorstát Éireann or the Irish Free State. By 1937 (just 14 years later) the Saorstát had become Éire or Ireland and effectively the fully independent and sovereign nation-state we have today.

      A formula for Scottish independence?

      I think the SNP’s move towards supporting the Scottish language has been slow and fairly difficult at times and not all members are on-board but they are getting there. However there is still far to go and more concrete steps need to be taken. It is no Plaid Cymru or Parti Québécois nor are its language policies anyway comparable.

      However Irish political parties are far worse. None of them have any genuine policies on the Irish language, even Sinn Féin. Rhetoric is the best they can do.

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  4. Mary G

    Sorry – I should have made clear that Michael Forsyth was, in 1985, the Conservative Minister in the Scottish Office who had responsibility for schools.

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    • David Smillie

      I agree that Labour has a good record on Gaelic. And I also think it advantageous that Gaelic should not become an ‘ethnic’ political issue in Scotland as it did in Ireland. However, the SNP also has its Gaelic enthusiasts e.g Mike Russell who I remember struggling through a speech in Gaelic in the Scottish Parliament, accompanied by various whistles, chuckles and catcalls from his political opponents.

      To be slightly contentious for a moment, it has been whispered that Labour’s support for Gaelic came about because they viewed the SNP as a traditional party of ethnic nationalism – wrong as it turned out. Labour wanted to undercut the SNP in the patriotism stakes, and what safer way was there do do that? Gaelic was easy for them to support because it was only spoken by 1.2% of the population and was going to die out anyway in everyone’s estimation at that time. On the other hand, they seemed to block any attempt to help Lowland Scots, which may have been viewed as a much larger and therefore more dangerous marker of national identity. Thus we had the ludicrous situation where Ulster Scots received much more state funding than Scottish Scots despiite the fact that there are hardly any actual speakers of Ulster Scots. Pretty soon Lowland Scots may go the same way.

      Sorry to go on so much about the Scottish situation but I sometimes feel that Irish people see things in Scotland through the prism of Irish nationalist history. Scotland has been an ethnic mixture from the very beginning and this allows our modern nationalism to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

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      • David Smillie

        ‘Separation’ is a pejorative word used by unionists, mostly Labour Party, in Scotland to smear the independence movement.

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      • Some good points there, David, and well worth a debate. I think you could be partially right in the case of a certain opportunism on the part of some Labour or Conservative party members in their support for the Scottish (Gaelic) language and culture. However I’m equally sure some were very genuine in their support, even when it made them quite unpopular or shunned within their own peer groups.

        The ethnic thing, hmmm… I’m not sure that is true. I’ll give you a clip from my reply to James Todd on my post here:

        “But don’t discount the colonial element in all this and the ethnic make-up of the modern population of Scotland. The colonial history is well-known so I won’t go over it. I’m sure you’re fully familiar with it. The ethnic thing on the other hand is far more complex and less understood.

        The English language has been active in Scotland since the 7th century AD following English migration and expansion from what is now northern England, though it remained confined to the south-east corner for most of the next 500 years. However by the 15th century is was dominant in what is now the Borders and Lowlands, roughly half of Scotland. It rapidly gained the upper-hand thereafter. Though the ancestors of many modern Scots were originally Scottish speakers (or related Pictish or Northern Welsh speakers) some undoubtedly were always English speakers.

        That, in part, is where the modern Scots English or Scots language and culture is derived from. A distinct Anglo-Scots ethnicity. In Ireland we have a similar population, an Anglo-Irish one one partly colonial in origin though largely of Native Irish descent but thoroughly anglicised.

        While in Ireland our “ethnic wars” are more straightforwardly post-colonial in nature and compare to many other similar paradigms (indeed we are something of a cliché in this respect), Scotland’s case is more complex.

        I think that the Scottish language is very much seen as an ethnic thing rather than simply as a national thing by some opponents. Scottish, Gaelic, Celtic, etc. Likewise Scots English has an element of ethnicity to it to (Lowland, Borderers, English, etc.).”

        I think there is something here that needs exploring, where history, language, culture and ethnicity mix together. I have encountered very committed Scottish nationalists who are fully engaged in the SNP project but who are divided by the issue of a Gaelic Scotland versus and an English Scotland to a degree that is anything but inclusive. I don’t think Scotland is any more free of “ethnic nationalism” than is Ireland. And that applies to Scottish and Scots/English speakers, as much to Irish and English speakers.

        More so in Scotland since Scots or Scots English is far more distinct as a dialect or indeed separate branch of English than the English spoken in Ireland (which is essentially Anglo-American English). This gives a greater sense of cohesive or group identity.

        There are Irish people who are intensely Irish, nationalist and patriotic, but entirely through the medium of the English language and who have no regard for the native Irish language or culture. And there is their Irish-speaking counterparts.

        In Scotland I think that division is actually more pronounced. It’s just that the “Gaels” are very much in a tiny minority.

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  5. Mary G

    Mike Russell is an enigma. His appointment was greeted with loud cries of approval from Gaelic supporters within the SNP. But his achievements …. well, we are still waiting. Even his cheerleaders admit to disappointment that he has delivered so little when he has the actual power to do so much. Odd, when he is, as you point out, personally committed. He just can’t convert that into political delivery, it seems.

    These whispers you hears were Chinese ones. When Labour Councils started supporting Gaelic education back in the 1980s, the SNP were not even credible opponents, so played no part in the thinking. It was – to a large degree – driven by arguments equality of opportunity, inclusion and protection of minorities. This social justice reasoning was fairly natural for Labour politicians.

    That said, all parties find within their membership individuals both pro- and anti-Gaelic. The upshot is that Gaelic has escaped the ethnic and religious overtones that are more common in Ireland, which has been to the language’s advantage.

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    • See my reply to David above. I don’t buy into the “ethnic” thing, I’m sorry to say. Ethnicity and language is as prevalent, or not, in Scotland as in Ireland. The history of both nations is simply too complex (and to a degree, similar) for it not to be.

      No religious overtones to Gaelic in Scotland? The “language of the Catholic Highlanders” in the words of some anglophone critics? The language alien to “Protestant Scotland”?

      The “escape” is based more on the weaker position of Scottish compared to Irish in the 20th and 21st centuries. But if that changes? Look at the hostility to the Gaelic Language Act? As the legislation has had a more visible effect in public life so the opposition has grown, both in the media and politics.

      As Scottish medium education has grown has not criticism of it grown as well, and been very publicly expressed in the media and in local councils?

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  6. Mary G

    Séamas, the language is anything but alien to “Protestant Scotland”. There are far more Presbyterian churches with services in Gaelic than can be said of Catholic ones. Schools that teach through Gaelic typically have a mix of children who are Protestant, Catholic, of other faiths and without any religion. It is in that sense that the language is – thankfully – not seen as the preserve or property of any religious group. In fact, people in Scotland would more associate Gaelic with the Free Presbyterian traditions, and that would be statistically, correct, than ‘Catholic Highlanders’ as claimed by you above.

    Normalising the Gaelic language in Scotland is a priority. To that end we should expect to find supporters in every political party, and encourage that. You have no evidence to back up your assertion that Labour and Conservative politicians were ‘opportunistic’ in their support for Gaelic, yet you ascribe purer motives on SNP ones, and vest hope in them to improve their policies. This SNP biased dogma is wholly mistaken, and unhelpful to the future of the language.

    Further, it is an unassailable fact that Labour councils have served Gaelic better. They have done so consciously, for years, and long before the SNP was anything like the force it is today. Labour has plenty Gaelic speakers in its midst, and others who believe – honourably – that supporting the language is a matter of equality of opportunity, protection of our culture and heritage, and supporting minority groups.

    While criticism of Gaelic schooling may be heard more often, louder too are the advocates as more families access it. I’ve been in this field for almost 20 years and don’t detect a more hostile environment. Still tough in parts, but on balance a lot better than it was, with more official backing and greater political will, albeit still not enough for my taste ;).

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    • Hi, Mary. When I said Gaelic was alien to “Protestant Scotland” I was of course talking about historic arguments made against the language and culture (that for a period it was associated with a propagandist stereotype of the “Roman Catholic Highlands”, that it was alleged to be of Irish origins rather than natively Scottish, etc.) to be found in some more extreme Unionist, Loyalist, Protestant, anglophone circles. I was not stating that it was literally true merely that it was a historic stereotype encountered in some parts of Scottish society and was in reply to your point about Gaelic in Scotland being free of any religious connotations.

      I could equally have pointed to the another prevalent stereotype of the Gaelic language being associated with the Free Church or Free Presbyterian Church, as you point out.

      Do you believe Ireland is any different in this than Scotland? That the Gaelic language here is the preserve of Roman Catholics only, or that Gaelic medium schools in Ireland do not have a mix of faiths and no faiths amongst their pupils? Please don’t judge Ireland as whole by the situation in the north-east of the country which stems from very a specific legacy of colonial occupation and settlement. The Irish language in Ireland is no more the language of one religious community than the Scottish language in Scotland. That is the point I was making as a response to your claim that the language here has “religious overtones”. In fact, it could be claimed that without Protestants and the Protestant-driven Gaelic Revival of the 19th century the Irish language would be all but disappeared today.

      Even now it should be said that Irish still enjoys some support amongst Protestants (and ostensibly anglophone British Unionists) in the North of Ireland, with the most recent survey showing that 5% of northern Protestants believed Irish was important to their personal identity, 14% supporting the language in general, 21% wanted to hear Irish in greater use, 29% believed it was important that “Northern Ireland” didn’t loose the Irish language and culture, and 41% said they would like to see Irish offered as a language option in state documents, leaflets, notices etc.

      I’m afraid you are misquoting me there. What I said was:

      “I think you could be partially right in the case of a certain opportunism on the part of some Labour or Conservative party members in their support for the Scottish (Gaelic) language and culture. However I’m equally sure some were very genuine in their support, even when it made them quite unpopular or shunned within their own peer groups.”

      I levelled that charge equally at the SNP. In fact I have pointed out on several occasions on this blog the historic antipathy or indifference of the SNP to the Gaelic language (the antipathy in part driven by the perception by some SNP members of the “Irish” origins of the Gaelic tongue – or so they believed. And this was linked to anti-Catholicism within the party, as I’m sure you’re aware of. A point exploited by the Labour Party to their electoral advantage in the likes of Glasgow, etc.). I have frequently acknowledged that the SNP are late-comers to the game, and they to are in part driven by opportunistic motives as part of their greater nationalist agenda. Indeed I stated it in my reply to you above 😉

      However there is no doubt that there are genuine Gaels in all the political parties in Scotland. As for your other points I completely agree with you. However I would say that the hostility in the British/Scottish media to Gaelic has worsened over the last two years (I have several posts on this). That is certainly my perception and the perception of my Scottish-speaking friends. Though, maybe we are looking for offence? 😉

      Thank you for taking the time to Comment, I really appreciate it. And any mistakes on my part, apologies. The views of those at the coalface are the ones that most need to be heard.

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