By Wilson McLeod
Contempt and hostility towards Gaelic language and culture are deeply embedded in Scotland. Since at least the fourteenth century, Gaelic has often been stigmatised as inferior and backward, stereotypically associated with poverty and restricted life-opportunities. At the same time, though, Gaelic is often valorised as a key element in Scottish culture, so that attitudes to Gaelic in the wider Scottish population have been described as a complex mixture of ‘contempt, sympathy and romance’ (Fenyö 2000). Public opinion surveys suggest that only about 10-20% of Scots now hold strongly negative, rejectionist views in relation to Gaelic (McLeod 2020: 279-80), but these harsh attitudes are constantly amplified in newspapers and social media. This hostility may have negative practical ramifications and consequences: politicians and policy-makers may be reluctant to make provision for Gaelic, seeing it as politically risky, and Gaelic speakers may be demoralised, feeling that their language and culture are under steady attack (McLeod 2020: 239-40, 280-81).
An important reason for the perpetuation of misconceptions and prejudice concerning Gaelic is its highly marginal place in the Scottish education system. Although provision for the language has improved greatly since the 1980s, well over 90% of Scottish pupils never study Gaelic or learn anything about it at any point in their schooling. Barely 10% of secondary schools in Scotland offer Gaelic as an option, and seventeen of the 32 local authorities do not offer Gaelic in any of their schools.
Attacks on Gaelic in the media are so routine that the commonest tropes have been assembled on a series of satirical bingo cards (McEwan 2015). Gaelic is said to be a dead or dying language, pointless, primitive, unpronounceable, its speakers inward-looking, backward-looking, demanding special treatment. From the standpoint of minority rights, the context of these attacks is crucial. Arguments of these kind are almost always mounted in order to criticise or oppose government provision for the language, especially in relation to education, broadcasting and signage. In other words, it is not prejudice in the abstract, objectionable as that is, but action intended to do harm to a minority group.
Perhaps the commonest element in anti-Gaelic rhetoric is the claim that too much public money is being spent for the benefit of a small minority group. This is a dangerous narrative to buy into. Black and minority ethnic groups in the UK have always called for justice in relation to ‘needs not numbers’. The anti-Gaelic rhetoric can be understood as an attack on minority rights and recognition in general; by definition, minority groups are relatively small in relation to the overall population. The common tendency to single out and scapegoat minorities is also apparent: Scottish Government funding for Gaelic amounts to less than 0.05% of its total budget, yet critics home in on this tiny tranche of spending again and again.
Intolerance of minorities is also a key element: another very common complaint from Gaelic rejectionists is the claim that Gaelic ‘is being rammed down my throat’. Seeing the language on a station platform sign or hearing it on television is an unacceptable affront. Demanding silence and invisibility from minorities is of course a depressingly familiar proposition.
There are complex issues concerning the possible legal protections available to Gaels and Gaelic speakers, whether in terms of existing equalities legislation or the Scottish Government’s pending Hate Crime Bill. Gaels may satisfy the criteria for protection as an ‘ethnic group’ under section 9(1)(c) of the Equalities Act 2010, on the basis of a long shared history, a distinct linguistic and cultural tradition and status as a minority group within the larger community (Scottish Government 2018: 51-2). An important issue in this connection was discussed by Lord Bracadale in his recent report on hate crime in Scotland (Scottish Government 2018): the fact that ‘some Gaelic speakers . . . may not consider themselves (or be considered by others) to be members of a Gaelic “ethnic group” but . . . use the language in aspects of their daily lives’ (Scottish Government 2018: 52). Lord Bracadale took the enlightened view that ‘the concept of hostility should not be limited to the cases where the victim does in fact have the relevant protected characteristic’ but ‘should also cover cases where the hostility occurs because the victim is presumed to have the characteristic or has an association with those who do’ (Scottish Government 2018: 52). This approach is potentially helpful but the legal position is uncertain, so that some Gaelic advocates have recommended a more explicit protection for Gaelic speakers in the Hate Crime Bill.
The situation of the Gaelic minority in Scotland is quite distinct from that of other minorities in Scotland, and unlike many Black and minority ethnic people, Gaelic speakers are not faced with everyday racism. At the same time, the nature of hostility to Gaelic suggests a wider underlying intolerance that should be of concern to all advocates of cultural and linguistic diversity and minority rights in Scotland. Are anti-Gaelic sentiments the thin end of the wedge in Scotland’s challenge to combat racial prejudice and racism?
Fenyö, Krisztina (2000). Contempt, Sympathy and Romance: Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands and the Clearances During the Famine Years, 1845–1855. East Linton: Tuckwell Press.
McEwan, Emily (2015). ‘Anti-Gaelic Bingo’ <https://gaelic.co/anti-gaelic-bingo/>
McLeod, Wilson (2020). Gaelic in Scotland: Policies, Movements, Ideologies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Scottish Government (2018). Independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation in Scotland: Final Report. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
Wilson McLeod is Professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh. He has written extensively on issues involving minority language policy and minority language rights, particularly in relation to Gaelic in Scotland. He is the author of the recent book Gaelic in Scotland: Policies, Movements, Ideologies (Edinburgh University Press 2020).