When many think of Scotland, images of tartan, kilts and bagpipes will usually be the first to spring to mind. But Gaelic culture, from which these distinctly Scottish icons derived, is very rarely credited as being the source.
Only around 1% of Scots can speak the Gaelic language at present, which may be a contributing factor. As a result, the connection between Gaelic and ‘Scottishness’ is often not made, with the two being thought of as very separate things by many.
Despite this, Scotland, and Scottish culture as we know it today, owes a great deal to Gaelic.
Scotland is immersed in Gaelic culture, whether it realises it or not.
“Gaelic’s there as an ever-present, but we don’t always realise it I think, and that’s largely because it doesn’t really feature directly in many people’s lives”, says Dr. Aonghas MacCoinnich, professor of Gaelic and Celtic at Glasgow University, who believes that Gaelic was fundamental to the creation of Scotland as we know it today.
Many famous Scottish family and place names derived from the Gaelic language, such as Buchanan Street in Glasgow, whilst many words were also borrowed into English, such as slogan, glass and bog to name just a few.
“If you went back to 1800, it would be twenty percent [who spoke Gaelic], and back to 1500, that would be half of all Scots spoke Gaelic, so in previous centuries, it was a much greater part of our life”, said Dr. MacCoinnich.
The Gaelic language significantly declined over the centuries due to a variety of political, societal and linguistic factors.
But in 2005, the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Government, which aimed to safeguard Gaelic by making it an official language of Scotland.
Since then, several Gaelic schools have opened, such as Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu (Glasgow Gaelic School) in 2006, the largest, and only Gaelic school for both primary and secondary pupils, and Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Inbhir Nis (Inverness Gaelic Primary School), which opened in 2007.
The Scottish Government says that by 2021, nearly 5,100 students in Scotland were enrolled in Gaelic-medium education – a 92% increase over the figures in 2009.
So, has the reemergence of Gaelic education effected how Scotland embraces its cultural heritage?
According to Dr. MacCoinnich, the revival of the language has been significant in allowing Scots to better recognise and realise their cultural origins.
“We’ve seen the growth of large numbers of people, many of whom had no connection with the language or culture, [who] have taken up Gaelic, and that’s really given Gaelic a shot in the arm – it’s been a wonderful development.
“That’s been really really good… things such as the Gaelic Language Act and the adoption of Gaelic signage.”
Gaelic is now visible in many everyday places, such as on road signs and in train stations. For example, Scotrail translate their slogan “Scotland’s Railway” to “Raile na h-Alba” on every train, whilst many stations have the Gaelic place name underneath the English version.
“I think it’s a really important thing for Gaelic that people are aware of it, because the worst thing that could happen to Gaelic is that people just don’t know it exists”, said Dr. MacCoinnich.
The increased awareness and visibility of the language, alongside more Gaelic-speaking opportunities, has allowed for innovative programmes to be created in line with the growing demand.
In 2020, a Gaelic-speaking sports organisation, FC Sonas, was founded in order to boost the language and culture within football. By not only promoting the use of the language in the sport, FC Sonas believe in a methodological approach to using Gaelic during coaching sessions, which can provide cognitive, physical and mental health benefits.
Donnie Forbes, co-founder of FC Sonas, said that by founding the organisation with footballer Calum Ferguson, it provides the opportunity for people to learn the language in a fun environment, making it more accessible.
“When we think about a classroom-based education, it’s a lot about auditory learning, it’s a lot about visual learning. However, it kind of misses the kinaesthetic learning type, which is learning through doing, and for us, football provides a unique opportunity to do that.”
The ‘Tartan Army’, the famous followers of the Scotland national team, represent Gaelic culture wherever they go, not only because they take kilts and bagpipes abroad, but because their name derives from an icon of Gaelic culture.
But before the inception of FC Sonas, the Gaelic language itself had a very minimal presence in Scottish football, which was another driving factor behind the creation of the organisation.
“We kind of see ourselves as pioneers of sport and language, and how we can use multiple languages”, said Donnie.
“We know the cognitive benefits of speaking a language, we know the cognitive benefits of playing sport, so we want to really pioneer that and provide that comprehensive learning opportunity for young people to compliment what the schools are already doing.”
Only one native-Gaelic speaker, Johnny MacKenzie, has been capped by Scotland, which occurred in the 1950s. However, Donnie hopes that FC Sonas can provide a benchmark for Gaelic to become a mainstay of Scottish football going forward.
“Calum [Ferguson] and I felt growing up the opportunities that we had through Gaelic-medium [education] were limited to all the cultural aspects of Gaelic.
“There was a lot of opportunities in music, there was a lot of opportunities in drama – however, we were passionate about getting out in the outdoors, playing football in particular, and for us we felt we needed to evolve with the society and provide more opportunities for young people.”
As a result, it is hoped that the increased opportunities to learn Gaelic in a diverse range of environments will not only allow the language to spread, but will allow Scots to realise, and thereafter, embrace Gaelic culture as being a fundamental part of their identity.