We can accurately chart the decline of Gaelic only from the late 19th cent. to the present. For 1755 it has been estimated that just under a quarter of Scotland's population were Gaelic speakers—i.e. some 290,000. The 1881 census noted that those who were ‘habitually’ speakers of Gaelic numbered 232,000 out of a total population of 3,735,000—in high contrast to the 1971 census when Gaelic-only speakers numbered no more than 477 out of 5,228,000. Bilingual speakers were first counted in 1891 when they represented 5.2 per cent of the population, which by 1981 had declined to only 1.6 per cent. There was a greater survival rate of Gaelic in North America, especially in Nova Scotia, where it was estimated that there were in 1880 some 80,000 Gaelic speakers out of 100,000 on Cape Breton Island, though these figures have since diminished sharply.
It is not easy to trace the development of the language from the Irish, as the literature of Scotland was consistently written in a standard Early Modern Irish from the 12th to the 17th cent. The 16th-cent. Book of the Dean of Lismore is the most important exception. Scottish Gaelic literature made its appearance in the 17th cent., but not until 1767 was the New Testament translated into Gaelic by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Support for and promotion of the Gaelic language began in the 19th cent., and in 1882 it became possible to study Gaelic as part of a university degree course. Today children can be educated in Gaelic at the primary level and it can be studied at secondary level. The government has allocated funds for Gaelic education and, along with An Comunn Gaidhealach (the Highland Association, founded 1891), has promoted the use of Gaelic in many areas, such as publishing, broadcasting, and in technological spheres. Since these efforts to save the language have been in place, the number of speakers has increased and the trend seems likely to continue.
Sandra M. Dunkin
1. Of the Celts of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, their languages, customs, etc.: Gaelic coffee, a Gaelic phrase book.
2. The English name for the Celtic language of Ireland (Gaeilge), Scotland (Gaidhlig), and the Isle of Man (Gaelg, Gailck); commonly pronounced ‘Gay-lik’ in Ireland, ‘Gallik’ in Scotland, where it is often referred to, especially by its speakers, as the Gaelic (Does she have the Gaelic? Does she speak Gaelic?). In Ireland it is generally known as IRISH, and formerly in Scotland was referred to as both Erse and Irish. Gaelic was the principal language of Ireland before and after Norse settlement in the late 8c and remained so until the 18c, after which it went into decline under pressure from English. It was taken to Scotland in the 3–5c and was the foremost language of the kingdom during the early Middle Ages. It dominated the Highlands and Western Isles until the late 18c, after which it also went into decline under pressure from English. It is the national language of the Irish Republic (co-official with English), spoken by some 100,000 and read by some 300,000 people; in Scotland it has some 80,000 speakers, mainly in the Hebrides and GLASGOW. It died out as a natural language on the ISLE OF MAN with the last native speaker, Ned Maddrell, in 1974, but revivalists sustain a version of it in an ORTHOGRAPHY distinct from the Irish and Scottish varieties. Gaelic was spoken widely in Canada and parts of the US in the 18–19c, but is now limited to a community of perhaps 5,000 in Nova Scotia, mainly on Cape Breton Island. See BORROWING, CANADIAN ENGLISH, CELTIC LANGUAGES, HIBERNO-ENGLISH, HIGHLAND ENGLISH, IRISH ENGLISH, SCOTTISH GAELIC, SHELTA.
Gael·ic / ˈgālik/ • adj. of or relating to the Goidelic languages, particularly the Celtic language of Scotland, and the culture associated with speakers of these languages and their descendants.• n. (also Scottish Gaelic) a Goidelic language brought from Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries ad and spoken in the highlands and islands of western Scotland. ∎ (also Irish Gaelic) another term for Irish (the language).
Gaelic League an association founded in 1893 to revive Irish language and culture.