THE Gaelic language is in crisis. A report published last year found it was in terminal decline in what were until recently its remaining heartlands. Unless something drastic happens, within a decade there will no longer be any part of Scotland where Gaelic is still the everyday language of the majority of the community and used as the primary vernacular language of social interactions in streets, shops, churches and public spaces.

The loss of Gaelic as an everyday community language would be a devastating blow to hopes for the survival of the language, depriving it of a body of native speakers who are comfortable using the language across a range of different social contexts and in the full panoply of linguistic registers, from colloquial and casual, to formal and literary, which any modern language requires in order to thrive and flourish in the 21st century.

Saving Gaelic will be a collaborative effort involving first and foremost those communities where Gaelic retains a significant number of native speakers, as well as native Gaelic speakers elsewhere in Scotland and the growing number of Gaelic learners. In order to be successful, initiatives which hope to secure the future of Gaelic as a community language must come from and be led by native speakers from those communities where Gaelic still retains a significant presence.

However, there is another group of people in Scotland who need to be involved in efforts to promote Gaelic who are not usually considered, and that is the vast majority in Scotland who know no Gaelic at all. Gaelic speakers in Scotland do not exist in isolation from non-Gaelic Scotland; their views on the language are shaped and formed by the attitudes which are widespread among the great majority of Scots who don’t speak or understand Gaelic.

This means that if we wish to foster more positive attitudes towards the use and transmission of Gaelic among native-speaking communities, we cannot do so without also fostering more positive attitudes towards the language among Scotland’s non-Gaelic speaking majority.

This will involve more than simply offering greater provision of opportunities to learn Gaelic or expanding access to Gaelic medium education in Scottish towns and cities, although both of these are certainly required.

I am not proposing that Gaelic classes should be compulsory in Scottish schools. That would be counterproductive, creating a generation of pupils who would feel the language had been foisted upon them. It would do nothing to change prevailing social attitudes to the language within Scotland.

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The decline in the Gaelic native-speaking communities would continue and we would have succeeded only in producing thousands of people with a smattering of “school Gaelic” who don’t speak the language comfortably and naturally and who merely resent that they didn’t instead learn a language they perceive as being more “useful”.

What needs to be done in order to change prevailing social attitudes is to give people reasons for wanting to learn Gaelic, so that they become motivated to acquire a functioning command of the language and a willingness to use it in social situations. It means teaching people why Gaelic is important and valuable. Sadly, there is immense ignorance in Scotland about the linguistic heritage of our country.

Our schools have historically not valued Scottish culture and have until recently seen their primary role as being to discourage the use of Scottish vernaculars in case it got in the way of the acquisition of English.

That at least has begun to change but it remains true that most people in Scotland have a shocking lack of knowledge and awareness of the role that Gaelic, and Scots, have played in Scottish history and culture.

Even worse than that, some influential people wear their ignorance as a badge of pride, perhaps in the mistaken belief that this validates their knowledge of English.

How often have we heard some local councillor or other (invariably) Conservative politician object to the provision of bilingual signage on the spurious grounds that Gaelic was never spoken here where they represent a town whose name is merely an anglicised respelling of an original Gaelic name. Most people in Scotland are unaware that Gaelic has been, at one time or another the dominant or majority language of every part of the Scottish mainland except the extreme south east.

There was even a time when Gaelic was spoken natively in Edinburgh and Midlothian. Reflecting this, there is a significant cluster of Gaelic place names in East Lothian around the town of Gullane – itself a Gaelic name, from Gualann, which in place names usually refers to the brow of a hill.

Even in the extreme south east, in the Borders, you can find examples of Gaelic place names or place name elements. These are testament to a time when Gaelic was culturally and politically important throughout all of Scotland.

Most people do not realise Gaelic was still spoken in parts of the Lowlands until relatively recent times. It was current in Galloway and South Ayrshire until at least the end of the 18th century and possibly into the early decades of the 19th.

In fact, the very name Scotland reflects the Gaelic language. In Late Latin the word Scotti meant Gaelic speaker, as it did when it was borrowed into the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Scotland literally meant the land of the Gaelic speakers; indeed it was first used in Old English to mean Ireland. It was only later that the name Ireland became established in English and the name Scotland shifted in meaning to refer solely to the land of the Gaelic speakers on the island of Britain.

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Not only is the Gaelic language written into the Scottish landscape itself, it is also at the root of the very existence of Scotland as a nation. However, negative attitudes and stereotypes abound about the language. The remaining communities of native speakers cannot help but to be influenced by this negativity, which seriously hampers efforts to promote and develop the language in its remaining heartlands.

That’s why every Scottish child must learn about Scotland’s rich and complex linguistic heritage and the vital roles that Gaelic and Scots have played in Scottish culture and in the very creation of Scotland and a Scottish identity.