Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2011 Census recorded that there were 87,100 residents of Scotland aged three or over with some knowledge of Gaelic, including 57,600 able to speak it. It is mostly spoken in the Western Isles, the Highlands and the region of Argyll and Bute in the south-west Highlands near to Glasgow. However, a significant number of speakers are dispersed throughout Scotland on account of migration.
According to the 2011 Census more than 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots, a language evolved from the Old Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Scots is also influenced by Old Norse from the ninth century. There are different variants of Scots spoken in the northern islands of Shetland and Orkney, the Highlands and Lowlands, with Lallans spoken in the Lowlands near the border with England and Doric spoken near Edinburgh.
The proportion of minorities in Scotland has increased considerably. Besides white: other 102,000 (1.9 per cent), white: Polish 61,000 (1.2 per cent) and white: Irish 54,000 (1.0 per cent), the largest community was the Pakistanis 49,000 (0.9 per cent), followed by the Chinese 34,000 (0.6 per cent), Indians 33,000 (0.6 per cent), Africans 30,000 (0.6 per cent), Caribbean/Black (0.1 per cent), Arab 9,000 (0.2 per cent), Bangladeshis 4,000 (0.1 per cent) and Gypsy Traveller 4,000 (0.1 per cent).
The original Scots, who gave their name to Scotland, the northern part of the island of Great Britain, were Gaelic-speakers from Ireland who settled in the west of Scotland in the fifth century. The territory had long been inhabited by Picts, and after centuries of war the Scots and Pict crowns were unified in 843. The use of the Gaelic language spread, even south of the border. Gaelic was never predominant in the Lothians, where people spoke Lallands, a dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Lallands accrued elements of Latin, French, Icelandic and Gaelic and developed into a language in its own right, Scots.
Following the eleventh-century Norman invasion, many English-speakers fled to Scotland, and in the following centuries English was also used as a language of trade by merchants from the European mainland who traded in Scotland. At the beginning of the fourteenth century Edward I of England was determined to incorporate Scotland into his kingdom. There followed long and destructive wars for 300 years. Southern parts of the land were occupied by English forces, and areas were planted by English settlers. Scotland had been converted to Christianity by the Celts, but there was no Gaelic or Scots Bible; English gained prestige as the language of the Church. The Reformation divided lowlanders, who became Protestant, from Gaels, who remained Roman Catholic. James VI of Scotland viewed Gaelic citizens as savages and settled the more ‘civilized’ lowlanders in the Highlands. This disrupted Gaelic contacts with Ireland, which had helped keep Gaelic culture alive. It also entrenched animosity between Gaelic- and Scots-speakers, and dislocated Gaelic from Scottish nationality.
In the sixteenth century Scots adopted a standard form and became a literary language with poetry written by Robert Henrysoun, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and David Lyndsay.
James VI acceded to the English throne in 1603, uniting the two crowns and ensuring the departure of the Scottish court to England. The Act of Union 1707 united the two parliaments and made English the language of legislation for all the countries of Great Britain. Scotland retained its independent institutional framework in law, local administration, education and religion. By 1714, when a non-Scottish dynasty came to the throne, Scots Highlanders were on the defensive. After the Battle of Culloden in 1745 the clan system was dismantled; a monetary economy was introduced; and the Highlands were opened to ‘development’. The Highland Clearances, when crofters were forced off the land they had farmed for centuries to make way for sheep, devastated the environment and forced many to emigrate. Robert Burns would have joined the migrants if his first book of his poems, published in the Scots language in 1786, had not been successful. Burns became the standard bearer for the Scots language in Scotland and worldwide.
The Education Act (Scotland) 1872 enforced ‘universal’ education but contained no provisions for the teaching of Scots or Gaelic, accelerating linguistic assimilation. This Act introduced new forms of knowledge that had no relation to Scots and particularly Gaelic culture, and laid the basis for a system which identified able children and took them away from home. In the early 1990s the Scottish guidelines to schools for the national curriculum for ages 5 to 14 included Scottish culture as a subject, which allowed for the teaching of Scots language and literature. The Merlin Press was set up in 1995 to publish Scots-language teaching materials. The oldest universities, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, established degree courses in the language, literature and culture.
Gaelic fared better on account of the continuing support of emigrants and the founding of An Comunn Gaidhealach (the Highland Association) in 1891, with its annual Gaelic cultural festival, which developed into an education pressure group. In 1958 Gaelic became the medium of instruction in primary schools in Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, and in 1959 Gaelic radio and television broadcasting began. The Highlands Regional Council introduced bilingual Gaelic-English education in 1978. The Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean), set up in 1975, adopted a bilingual Gaelic-English education policy. In the south-west Highlands, near Glasgow, bilingual Gaelic-English education was launched in 1985. The 1990 Broadcasting Act set up a fund for radio and television programmes in Gaelic, which was administered by the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee. The committee was replaced by the Gaelic Media Service in 2003 in accordance with the 2003 Communications Act, which updated the terms of reference to take account of the new media environment.
The Scots continued to fight for political independence. Between 1889 and 1927, 21 legislative attempts were made to regain Scottish independence. In 1928 an assortment of organizations campaigning for Home Rule and self-determination came together to form the National Party of Scotland. In 1932 this merged with the Scottish Party to become the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1978 the Devolution (Scotland) Act was passed, but it was not put into effect because less than 40 per cent of the electorate voted in the ensuing referendum. Devolution was part of the Labour government’s manifesto in 1997. The referendum vote was valid this time and a large majority was in favour of devolution with tax-raising powers. Elections were held in 1999 and resulted in a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in the Scottish Parliament. Gaelic and English were adopted as official languages.
The Scottish National Party first gained power in the Scottish Parliament when it formed a minority government in 2007. Since then, it has continued to be the ruling party, but it went from being in the majority after the 2011 election to leading the Scottish government from a minority position in 2016.
In 2005 the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act, which aims to increase the number of Gaelic-speakers and promote the use of the language and culture throughout Scotland. In November 2006 the Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Language Board) laid out a five–year plan to halt the decline in the number of Gaelic-speakers and increase its use in a number of public and workplace settings. A third National Gaelic Language Plan is currently in place, running from 2018 to 2023. It promotes local Gaelic language plans, to be implemented by local authorities. It is also intended to encourage awareness-raising and a more positive image for Gaelic.
The independence movement in Scotland is increasing in strength. A referendum was held in 2014 on the future of Scotland, with the majority (55.3 per cent) voting to remain within the United Kingdom. However, there have been calls for a second referendum on the issue. Such sentiments have strengthened in recent years. Scotland voted to remain in the EU during the 2017 Brexit referendum, and many Scots resent being forced to leave because of anti-EU sentiments elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish government’s comparatively capable handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has also strengthened calls for independence.
Campaigners for the Scots language are lobbying to achieve at least the same level of official recognition for Scots as there is for Gaelic. The language and literature are taught as part of the national curriculum in schools. It is an optional subject for higher secondary school. There are many academic projects concerning the Scots language, history and culture, which are also included in Scottish Studies degrees at universities in many countries. Burns Night on January 25 (his birthday in 1759) has become a popular international event and celebration of Scots culture. In recognition of its importance to Scottish culture, the 2011 Census included a question on the Scots language for the first time, with some 1.5 million reporting that they could speak and 1.9 million that they could read, write or understand Scots. The UK government has recognized Scots as a regional language under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The Scottish National Party’s conference approved a resolution in 2019 calling for a Scots Language Board, similar to the Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Language Board). Activists started a campaign ‘Oor Vyce’ in 2020 for official protection and promotion.
Updated October 2020
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