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National Census: Reflecting on the Gaelic data

By Fañch Bihan-Gallic


Seo sinn! After over 2 years of waiting, we finally have the data from the Scottish National Census for Gaelic. The final result is pointing out something we have all been aware of in the Hebrides, and that brings the future of the language into focus even more sharply than it already was.




Indeed, for the first time in history, less than half of Na h-Eileanan Siar speak Gaelic, with 45% of residents saying they spoke the language. Only four areas report over 50% speakers: An Taobh Siar and Nis (55.3%), Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh and Beinn na Faoghla (54.9%), Barraigh and Bhatarsaigh (50.8%), and Uibhist a Tuath (50.7%). Na Hearadh are down to 49.8%, and we all know the decline will continue. More worrying: From 43% of Gaelic speakers reporting Gaelic as their main home language in 2011, we are down to 5%. In Harris, it is 164 people out of 894 Gaelic-speakers who report Gaelic as their main daily language. In only eleven years. Smaoinich.

This goes to show that despite national efforts to promote Gaelic publicly, the decline of Gaelic as a living, community language has accelerated rather than slowed down. We need policies that understand that languages are alive through communities. It means addressing depopulation, housing, the economy, and much more. It means making Gaelic an integral part of all of it in our islands. It cannot just be an afterthought. An leig sin eileanan Ghàidhealach dhan chloinn no Innse Gall dha-rìribh?

Can we as Hebridean Gaelic speakers do anything? Is urrainn gu dearbh: Bruidhinn i. Speak it. How many Gaelic speakers do we know that we address in English? How often do we speak English to Gaelic-medium pupils, including our own children and grandchildren, rather than help develop their bond to the language through family and community usage? How often do we yield to English in social contexts when we shouldn’t? It is no easy task to change some of these behaviours we have all integrated through decades of being forced into them, but after tremendous historical efforts to destroy Gaelic, we must make an extraordinary effort to save her. Mura h-eil sinne ga dhèanamh, cha dèan duine sam bith e.

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