The Three Languages of Scotland

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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Riddle me this: How many languages are indigenous to Scotland? Any kidding aside about needing a translation for the Scottish brogue, there are in fact three languages of Scotland that are native to the country: English, Scots and Gaelic.

The languages of Scotland reflect the country's history and cultural heritage, and also are a microcosm of how political and social shifts in power can alter what tongue people use to communicate with each other. Even more, Scotland offers insights into how language can shape identity and even destiny. Perhaps most important, the languages of Scotland illustrate that languages heading toward extinction can undergo a renaissance.

Perception of Scots Language Goes From Punishment to Prizes

A 2010 Scottish Government study of “public attitudes towards the Scots language” found that 64% of respondents “don’t really think of Scots as a language.”

Scots is a Germanic language spoken mostly in eastern Scotland; It is sometimes called Lowland Scots to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic language spoken in most of the western Highlands and in the Hebrides.

Languages of Scotland
The Scots language, once derided, is now recognized as part of Scottish heritage.

Scottish writer Gilbert Summers is among the 36% who think that Scots is a language.

"In its 16th century heyday Scots had the same relationship to English as Dutch has to German today--more or less mutually intelligible but definitely different," he said. "Scots exists along a continuum that at one end is dense, colloquial, with different vocabulary and structures while at the other end is very like 'Standard English' but has the odd Scots word thrown in."

"Scots speakers, especially from the heartlands where I come from, 'modulate' in and out of the dense Scots depending on who they are speaking to," he added. "The historian Billy Kay has described Scots as a 'language spoken in private by consenting adults.' "

"Unlike Gaelic, Scots is a low status language, partly because it has no standardized spelling," Gilbert observed. "Sir Walter Scott, the so-called champion of Scotland put Scots into the mouths of the 'lower orders' in his novels, keeping standard English for the main characters."

"When I was educated at first in the 1950s, you could be punished physically for using Scots in class and especially to the teacher - it was considered 'impudent' " he continued. "But you could win prizes for reciting the poetry of Robert Burns, much of which of course is in a form of Scots."

Languages of Scotland Robert Burns Statue
A statue of Robert (Rabbie) Burns, who is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. - Photo: Heriot-Watt University / Facebook

"We are at the tail-end of an education period that started in the 18th century that had the implicit message that you had to speak 'English' to 'get on' " Gilbert said. "Things are changing and Scots is now recognizably part of our heritage."

Indeed, in 2010, the Scottish Government began making a proactive effort to revitalize the Scots language. These efforts include developing a national Scots language policy and educational curriculum, for which Scotland provided around £400,000 in funding.

The country's 2011 census included a question on the Scots language for the first time. 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots and 1.9 million reported that they could speak, read, write or understand Scots.

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Changes in Attitude Toward the Gaelic Language

In 2005, the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language Act, seeking to secure the status of Gaelic as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language.

Yet in 2020, research by a University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) team of Gaelic experts and socio-linguists found that only 11,000 Scottish people living in the country's island communities were regular Gaelic speakers. These latest figures reflect a downward trend; in the 1980s, the number of native speakers fell below 80%.

Donalda McComb grew up being discouraged from speaking her native tongue–Gaelic. Today she is the head teacher (akin to principal in the U.S. education system) of the Glasgow Gaelic School, which is one of a number of schools in which the curriculum is taught in Gaelic. I asked her about the popular view of Gaelic when she was a youngster.

“I grew up on South Uist and I was the third oldest from a family of nine,” she said. “Gaelic was our first language and we lived on a croft – small farm- in a Gaelic speaking community. We had our own hens, sheep and cows. We grew our own vegetables and also cut peat for fuel. It was not an easy life and although we were probably poor in financial terms we did not know it.”

The Listening Place | Languages of Scotland
The Listening Place sculpture in South Uist celebrates the history, bards and agriculture of the area. The verses which are inscribed in stone in Gaelic with translations in English. They were chosen by members of the community and are from poems by Donald MacDonald from South Lochboisdale, and Donald J MacDonald of Peninerine. - Photo: Donald Lyall / Facebook

“When my youngest brother went to school in the early 70’s he went speaking English as by then we had a television which highlights the influence of the media on languages and in this case the decline,” she continued. “Even at that time there were certain areas on South Uist that were identified as Gaelic communities and others that were not. Within Education the message was that learning in English would equip you for the modern world and what use would Gaelic do for you.”

“At the age of 16 in order to progress to higher education I had to move to the Isle of Lewis and stay in a hostel,” she explained. “From then, two years later I went to Glasgow to complete my teacher training. I returned to South Uist four years later and taught in a local bilingual Primary school for two years before returning to the mainland.”

Languages of Scotland
Donalda McComb, head teacher of the Glasgow Gaelic School, grew up on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, in a Gaelic-speaking community. Photo: Meg Pier

“The two years in South Uist set me on the Gaelic medium education path and I became one of the first teachers in a new Gaelic medium unit in Bishopbriggs called Meadowburn on the outskirts of Glasgow,” Dr. MComb recalled. “I taught in Meadowburn for 10 years until I became the Headteacher of the first stand-alone Gaelic Medium Primary school. Six years later in 2006 this campus opened and I have been the Headteacher at Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu since then.”

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The Movement to Increase Numbers of Gaelic Speakers

A total of 58,652 people speak Gaelic in Scotland today according to the last Census, and more than half of them live in the Western Isles and the West Highlands. There has been a steady decline in the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland in the last hundred years. There were 230,806 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 1901 according to the Census.

But a growing movement in support of revitalizing the use of Gaelic in Scotland seems to be gaining momentum. According to the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey conducted by Soillse, an inter-university Gaelic language research project, 76% of people saw the Gaelic Language as being an important part of Scottish heritage.

Perhaps not surprising when you consider the country was named for early Gaelic-speaking settlers known as the Scotti.

Starting Them Young

The number of youngsters speaking Gaelic is now increasing due to the rapid growth of Gaelic schools across Scotland. Children living in 28 of the 32 Scottish Local Authority areas have access to Gaelic primary education.

Since opening in 1999, Glasgow Gaelic School has flourished.

“Our school has a combined roll of over 600 pupils,” said Dr. McComb. “We provide a broad curriculum with many cultural, academic and sporting opportunities. Pupils in the primary have the opportunity to learn violin, fiddle, chanter/bagpipes and the clarsach. They go through an audition process for this. All pupils sing and perform in various school and local national events. The school has a junior and senior choir."

Languages of Scotland
A Glasgow Gaelic School pupil practices the violin. Photo: Meg Pier

Dr. McComb said pupils at all levels of the school participate in the local and national Mod, which is the main festival of Scottish Gaelic literature, song, arts and culture, and one of the more notable cultural festivals in Scotland. The school has a Gaelic arts development officer who promotes, organizes and generates funding for Gaelic arts/culture.

Interestingly, Dr. McComb told me that 60-70% of students do not have a Gaelic connection, but are drawn to the school by word-of-mouth, attracted by its community ethos.

Those who have some familiarity with Gaelic may have fluent speaking parents or grandparents. Many families who moved to the city for work did not teach their children Gaelic as there was a perception that it would not benefit them. Many of these parents express disappointment and are committed to introducing it to their own children.

“There is a perception that the parents of the students are all either doctors or BBC employees, which is not true,” asid Dr. McComb. “There is a wide range of backgrounds including religious that span from Glasgow’s East End to the West End. The West End is considered to be the leafy suburbs with the majority of the residents being affluent professional people. The East End is an area considered to be built up estates with high unemployment and poverty.”

The "Immersion Phase"

She explained that the nursery and primary operates an immersion phase where the language and the work of the class is solely in the Gaelic language.

Languages of Scotland
Sixty - seventy per cent of the Glasgow Gaelic School students do not have a Gaelic connection. Photo: Meg Pier

“The majority of teaching staff are fluent Gaelic speakers but we have some staff in the Secondary who are developing their language skills and some who do not speak Gaelic,” she noted. “This situation is due to the curriculum we offer and the lack of Gaelic speaking staff in particular subjects e.g. computing, chemistry, home economics etc.”

Scottish Languages Offer Opportunities for Bilingualism

In addition to preserving a piece of Scotland’s cultural heritage, Dr. McComb is a firm believer that bilingualism offers many benefits. The school’s motto is “Two Languages, Two Cultures, Many Opportunities.”

“We are preparing the students for a world with fast paced technology and we have to carefully balance the Gaelic culture and language and the requirements for this,” said Dr. McComb. “Our motto is apt as it expressed the importance of having two languages, or three or four, the exposure to other cultures and the many opportunities that underpin the ethos of our school.”

Languages of Scotland
Glasgow Gaelic School promotes the benefits of bilingualism. Photo: Meg Pier

“Bilingualism has many benefits but generally it provides the young people with two windows on the world,” she observed. “Speaking two languages increases their cognitive abilities, informs them of a culture that they may not have encountered or experienced before, broadens their choice of future careers and increases their economic opportunities.”

The three languages of Scotland reflect the country's rich and diverse heritage. The current level of interest in the revival of Scots and Gaelic will soon be revealed. In March of 2022 the Scottish Government began conducting a new census that will include examining public attitudes about the the country's indigenous languages.

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