Scottish Gaelic is in real danger of extinction. A study by the University of the Highlands and Islands suggests the language is “in crisis”, with everyday use “at the point of collapse”.

Gaelic (pronounced “Gallic”) is closely related to Irish. It was brought to Scotland by Irish settlers in the fourth or fifth century, and was the country’s principal language until the tenth century. Over the centuries, it has retreated north and west, and its heartland is now the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off Scotland’s west coast.

Multilingual welcome sign at the Last Drop pub on Grassmarket. ©Jonathan Smith/Lonely Planet

The study shows that only 11,000 people now speak Gaelic regularly, most of them 50 and over. Even in the Outer Hebrides, only around 45% of people speak the language. According to Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, professor of Gaelic Research at the University of the Highlands, that may represent a tipping point, beyond which everyday use will vanish. “The decline of the Gaelic community,” he explains, “as especially shown in the marginal practice of Gaelic in families and among teenagers, indicates that without a community-wide revival of Gaelic, the trend towards the loss of vernacular Gaelic will continue.” 

There have been recent hopes of a revival. The TV hit Outlander, which is largely set in the 18th-century Scottish Highlands, features Gaelic dialogue, including words such as chridhe (heart), caraid (friend) and gradh (love). The Gaelic version of language app Duolingo, meanwhile, has proved a surprise hit, with around 400,000 sign-ups.

Reflection of Kilchurn Castle in Loch Awe, Scotland. ©Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Yet Gaelic’s decline as a living language has not been halted by that interest – or its use on road signs in many parts of Scotland, and emergency vehicles across the country. The study is detailed in a new book, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, which suggests that resources need to be focused on Gaelic speaking in communities and social situations, as well as on formal education, if it is to survive.

Scotland’s other indigenous language is Scots, which is closely related to English and has given the world words like wee (small), ken (to know) and dreich (dreary). Gaelic is not the only European language that’s under threat – voice-activated technology has been flagged as a threat to Icelandic. 

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