Why the Gaelic Crisis Matters

The recent threats to cut the Bòrd na Gàidhlig add to the sense of dread in vernacular communities. It has galvanised the grassroots resistance that the whole left should support. By Tòmas MacAilpein.

In February 2024 it was revealed that the Scottish Government planned to cut funding to Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the agency responsible for Gaelic. The budget agreed by the Scottish Parliament removed the additional funding which the Bòrd had received over the last three years, which amounted to just £354,000 in 2023/24.1 The loss of this money – an insignificant sum in terms of the national budget – would not just lead to the loss of three jobs at Bòrd na Gàidhlig itself but could mean that Gaelic development officers across 27 organisations will be laid off in the months to come.2 This would be a staggering blow to Gaelic at the community level.

Gaelic speakers, including even official bodies, rightly voiced their anger in response to this decision and in a way not seen before. At the time of writing there is a reasonable chance that the Government will, in fact, find the small change needed to reverse this cut if enough pressure is put on them.3 But it needs to be seen as part of a bigger picture of the long-term decline in Gaelic funding and, most importantly, of the existential crisis facing Gaelic communities.

Where’s the Money for Gaelic?

The Scottish Government has tried to claim that it stands up for Gaelic, and has protected Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s core budget under difficult financial circumstances.4 As the Gaelic activist group Misneachd has repeatedly argued, however, Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s funding has been consistently eroded by inflation since it was formed in 2006.5 Not only that, but before the Bòrd’s original budget of around £5 million was set, experts recommended that it would require double that amount to fulfil its role. If the Scottish Government had properly funded Bòrd na Gàidhlig to begin with, and ensured that its funding had kept pace with inflation, it would have a budget today of around £17 million. Instead, it limps along on less than a third of that.6 Both Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Comunn na Gàidhlig (CnaG), which focuses on youth work, have complained strongly, in their responses to the Scottish Languages Bill consultation, that the level of funding for Gaelic is not sufficient even to maintain the status quo let alone to grapple with runaway language shift. CnaG has called for an independent commission to judge what funding would be necessary to adequately address language revitalisation, and in the meantime urged that Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s budget should be increased to £10 million.7

It is one thing to talk about budgets and another to talk about what they should be spent on. Gaelic community development work focusing primarily on vernacular communities in the islands to bolster intergenerational transmission and everyday social use of the language is one of the most neglected areas of Gaelic development. And yet many sociolinguists would argue that in comparison to national Gaelic plans for public bodies, cultural events, broadcasting, and even Gaelic-medium education, this is by far the most important area for language revitalisation.

The Gaelic Crisis and the Scottish Languages Bill

The release of census results each decade is met with a sense of dread among Gaelic speakers as yet another decline in our numbers is uncovered. The situation now is critical. In 2020, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, the most detailed research into the health of Gaelic in key island communities, was published. Using surveys and focus groups, and looking at different age groups, the research team behind the book spelled out unequivocally that ‘the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse’. In even the strongest examples, the density of native speakers is becoming too low to sustain everyday community use, and the language is being marginalised to older generations, whereas the vast majority of young people are no longer brought up to speak it. They claim that ‘[w]ithin the next ten years, most of the communities will be at or will have entered the moribund phase on current trajectories’. In their conclusions they argue that national language policy is focused on ‘formal symbolic institutional provision’ and is unfit to deal with the crisis. They recommend a very different approach based on participatory community development.8

The Gaelic Crisis generated considerable debate but, so far, no real policy changes. Nonetheless its findings and criticisms have influenced the framing of the Scottish Languages Bill which has been going through consultation, and aims to increase provision for both Gaelic and Scots. According to Misneachd’s detailed response to the Bill, there are a great many problems with it but overall it represents a significant opportunity. The Bill would strengthen Gaelic-medium education, introducing standards and ensuring that it is promoted by Ministers. There would be increased accountability of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and a Gaelic language strategy would be put together at a ministerial level. But the biggest change is the potential to create ‘Areas of linguistic significance’. This could allow for focused community development in the islands – but also in certain urban networks – to address the Gaelic crisis. The glaring issue with this is not only that the Bill is incredibly vague about the functioning of these ‘Areas of linguistic significance’, but it aims to deliver them without any funding increase! In other words, without strong grassroots pressure the Bill could result in yet more symbolic provision. Misneachd, on the other hand, shows how a huge increase in Gaelic development officers, local participative language planning and budgets, could make these provisions work.9

Why Care about the Gaelic Crisis?

Perhaps you have no connection to Gaelic and zero interest in it. That’s fine. It is down to Gaelic speakers to fight for our language and ensure it thrives in everyday life. What we would ask from others, but above all from socialists and the left, is solidarity. Time is running out for the Gàidhealtachd, and we have a chance to shift national language policy in its favour. Even were funding for the language to be greatly increased from its present allocation, it would represent a tiny fraction of the overall Scottish budget. And yet Gaels, and the many supporters of Gaelic, pay taxes, and – if we have to make this argument – spending on the language is an investment that produces an economic return.10

Scottish society owes it to the Highlands and Islands: a region cleared, plundered, ecologically devastated, its rural population peripheralised and ill-treated by distant politicians, its language and culture finally being erased. To lose our strongholds in the vernacular communities of the islands would be an irreparable loss, the breaking of centuries of linguistic and cultural continuity which could not be made up for elsewhere. But to focus funding on the revitalisation and empowerment of these communities is the right thing to do both for Gaelic as a ‘language-in-culture’ and for the people of the islands. Gaelic community development must be linked to radical action on housing, infrastructure and transport, sustainable employment, land reform, and bottom-up ecological restoration. This, along with the devolving of power to a regional and local level, would go some way to heal the historic wrongs done to the Scottish Highlands.

Gaelic is important to Scotland as a whole and, along with Scots, one of the great examples of our country’s intangible cultural heritage. It should be accessible and enjoyed by all. It is important to give priority to the heartlands of the vernacular communities, among other reasons, because what happens there will have a profound impact on Gaelic everywhere. As a Glasgow Gael, though, I take seriously the development and support of the language in the city. Recognising the growing relative importance of speakers in the cities and the strong demand for Gaelic-medium education there, we need to work towards strengthening urban linguistic networks, and increasing language use socially and among families. I look for inspiration to the strongly working class and social justice-oriented example of the Irish-language movement in West Belfast.11 Again, though, urban Gaelic community development – for example, as an ‘Area of linguistic significance’ – would require meaningful funding as well as strong collective participation from speakers.

Those of us who care about Gaelic and the vernacular communities must reject arguments that pit the issue of language revitalisation against other issues. We need to fight on many different fronts and link our struggles together. We can draw on a long history of Gaelic radicalism: from Iain MacMhuirich (John Murdoch), Màiri Mhòr, and the land struggle in the late 19th century, to the left-wing nationalist journalism of the early 20th century, the poetry of Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean) and Murchadh MacPhàrlain (Murdo MacFarlane), and the grassroots optimism of the ’70s co-operatives, comainn eachdraidh (historical societies), and early bilingual education in the Western Isles. We should renew this tradition and go further in bringing socialism and the Gaelic movement together: ‘Airson Tìr agus Teanga’ (For Land and Language).


The next few years will be decisive for Gaelic and vernacular island communities. The Scottish Languages Bill offers us a chance to directly tackle the Gaelic crisis through focused community development and empowerment. But the Scottish Government’s failure to properly acknowledge this crisis, its lack of commitment to increasing funding towards language policy, and its outrageous cut to Gaelic community workers while consulting on the Bill all signal the danger that it will try its best to distract with warm words rather than far-reaching action. Gaelic speakers should get behind Misneachd’s concrete proposals for ‘Areas of linguistic significance’, focusing on island communities but also including urban linguistic networks. Wider Scottish civil society, socialists and trade unionists should openly back funding and legislation to deal with the Gaelic crisis. You should do this because losing our communities of native Gaelic speakers would be a crime and a loss to us all; because boosting language revitalisation there also supports the communities themselves, builds self-confidence and creates much-needed socio-economic opportunities in areas of depopulation; because Scottish society has a great historical debt to the Gàidhealtachd, and must address the many injustices of infrastructure, housing, rural poverty, land and ecology in the Highlands; because Gaelic is an important part of Scottish cultural life, with an increasingly significant presence in our cities; because most Scots are in fact supportive of the language and many would like to speak it themselves or give their children the opportunity to acquire it. Along with political, economic and social issues, the Scottish left should care about cultural diversity, cultural democracy and autonomy. It should strongly defend Gaelic and Scots. But whether that solidarity is forthcoming or not, the speakers themselves won’t go down without a fight.

Tòmas MacAilpein lives in the south of Glasgow and writes on working class history through Gaelic sources.

  1. Niall O’Gallagher, ‘Gearraidhean air fàire aig Bòrd na Gàidhlig’ (27 February 2024), <https://www.bbc.co.uk/naidheachdan/sgeulachdan/ckm3m5n6v87o/>. ↩︎
  2. BBC Naidheachdan, ‘BnaG “fhathast a’ coimhead” ri dòighean gus Sgeama nan Oifigearan Gàidhlig a chumail a’ dol’ (7 March 2024), <https://www.bbc.co.uk/naidheachdan/sgeulachdan/cx0zqxw8ln8o/> ↩︎
  3. Indeed, since the article was written this is exactly what happened. Responding to considerable criticism, the Scottish Government agreed to protect, for now, the 27 jobs in the Gaelic community scheme by giving Bòrd na Gàidhlig an initial payment of £175,000. This is good news but we should point out a few things. Firstly, if Gaelic speakers are angry enough and united politicians will find the money for our language and communities. However, this funding is only another stopgap and could just as easily come to an end in another year. Gaelic community development remains incredibly precarious, under-resourced, and sidelined. While the Scottish Government is now claiming that its reversal of this cut is proof of its support for Gaelic, as this article argues, it barely scratches the surface of what’s needed to address the Gaelic crisis. Lastly, even this small announcement has been met by a barrage of hate towards the language. Such hostility would be on a far greater scale were Gaelic communities to receive the financial support they deserve. Gaelic speakers and supporters across Scottish society must be prepared to counter that. ↩︎
  4. Severin Carrell, ‘Fears for future of Gaelic language as community workers’ jobs under threat’, Guardian (10 March 2024). ↩︎
  5. Misneachd, ‘Response to the Response to the Scottish Languages Bill’ (31 January 2024) < https://www.misneachd.scot/post/741393921785135104/freagairt-misneachd-air-bile-nan-c%C3%A0nan-albannach/>. ↩︎
  6. Christopher Lewin. 2023. ‘Gaelic community development and the Gàidhealtachd question’, Scottish Affairs, 32: 161. ↩︎
  7. Bòrd na Gàidhlig, ‘Scottish Languages Bill Consultation: Response by Bòrd na Gàidhlig’ (8 March 2024), <https://www.gaidhlig.scot/gd/freagairt-bile-nan-canan-albannach/>; BBC Naidheachdan, ‘CnaG: Feum air “fada a bharrachd” a chosg gus a’ Ghàidhlig a chumail beò’  (5 March 2024), <https://www.bbc.co.uk/naidheachdan/sgeulachdan/c8v3m89r8yqo/>; Comunn na Gàidhlig, ‘Freagairt ChnaG air Bile nan Cànan Albannach’ (22 November 2022), <https://cnag.org/freagairt-chnag-air-bile-nan-canan-albannach/>. ↩︎
  8. Quotes from Conchúr Ó Giollagáin et al., ‘Summary Research Note on The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community’ [2020]: <http://www.soillse.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/Research-NoteGe%C3%A0rr-BEURLA.pdf/>. See: Conchúr Ó Giollagáin et al., The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 2020). ↩︎
  9. Misneachd, ‘Response’, ibid., pp 8–9. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., p. 3. ↩︎
  11. I explore these ideas in Gaelic in the latest issue of Buaidh (Earrach 2024) available here: </https://issuu.com/misneachd/docs/buaidh_ireamh_5_earrach_2024/>. ↩︎