Identity, Attitudes and Support for Gaelic Policies:

Gaelic Speakers in the Euromosaic Survey 1994-95

Kenneth MacKinnon


Introduction: the Euromosaic Gaelic Survey

(Link back to Ferintosh Webpage)

In 1994 the Euromosaic Project was set up with funding from the Commission of the European Communities Task Force Resources Humaines to undertake a study of language use, attitudes and vitality in 48 minority language groups within the member-states of the European Union, and to undertake a detailed language survey of initially eight such language groups. The present author was commissioned to undertake both such studies relating to Gaelic language speakers in Scotland. The results of the Euromosaic study on production and reproduction of language (European Commission, 1996), and the present author’s report on the state of the Gaelic language in 1994 have already been published. (MacKinnon 1994)

The language-use survey undertook a detailed questionnaire interview of 333 questions with 300 subjects quotaed for area, age, gender, and occupational class in each of the eight language groups. In the case of Scottish Gaelic there was a sample size of 322 subjects interviewed in the Western Isles, the Isle of Skye, the mainland Highlands, and the Lowland ‘Central Belt’ area. The numbers in each case approximately corresponded to the proportions of all Scotland’s Gaelic speakers usually resident in each area. This survey was the first ever language survey to be undertaken of Gaelic speakers nationally throughout Scotland, and reported within the public domain. Analysis of results relating to Gaelic language use, attitudes and support within the family, between the generations, and in the community have already been published. (MacKinnon 1997, 1998, 2000)

A report on the remaining areas of inquiry: analysis of identity, language attitudes, and support for Gaelic policies has to date not yet been published; and this paper represents the first publication of these data. Results are presented on respondents’ Gaelic and other identity, typified attitudes towards the Gaelic language in contemporary Scotland, and the extent of perceived support for it by various bodies and subjects. The results are presented nationally in terms of the survey as a whole, for the Western Isles (the principal area where Gaelic is still the everyday community language), and for the remainder of Scotland.


Question 47 of the survey questionnaire asked respondents: ‘Do you feel yourself to be: Gael, Highlander, Islander, Leodhasach, Hearrach, etc.(i.e. local identity). Scottish, British, European, Other (specify)?’ The categories of response were: ‘Yes, very much so’, ‘Yes, on the whole’, or ‘No, not really’. The results are summarised in Table 1, below.

Amongst the sample as a whole, the most strongly asserted identity was ‘Scottish’: the category ‘yes, very much so’ being assented by 80.7% of all respondents. However, within the Western Isles sub-sample, local identities, such as ‘Leodhasach’, etc., were more strongly claimed – by 88.5% - a level significantly exceeding the ‘Scottish’ category, which was assented by 77.7%. Significantly too, the category of ‘Gael’, although strong as an identifier, was not so strongly assented as either ‘Scottish’ or local identities in either the Western Isles sub-sample, or in the sample as a whole.

Differences between the sub-samples were quite consistent with expectation, with Western Isles respondents showing significantly stronger local and ‘Islander’ identities compared with respondents in the rest of Scotland. Although there were some other interesting contrasts, none were significant. Claims of ‘British’, ‘European’, and ‘Other’ identities were quite markedly low compared with all the others within the sample as a whole and in each sub-sample – and obviously this was at a very high level of significance.

Attitudes towards Gaelic

Subjects’ attitudes towards Gaelic were explored by eleven questions. Five of these were posed positively, and six posed negatively, in mixed order in Question 48 of the survey questionnaire. Responses were given on a five-point Likert-type scale. This procedure enabled distribution of support levels to be demonstrated and compared as shown in Table 2, below.

The most strongly assented ‘positive’ statement was (iv) that ‘to keep their true identity the Highlands and Islands need their Gaelic speakers’. This was supported by 94.1% of all respondents, and by 95.3% in the Western Isles. The next most strongly supported was statement (vi) that ‘in order to work in the public sector in Gaelic areas, one should be able to speak Gaelic’. Overall 84.7% of respondents supported this, and 84.4% in the Western Isles. Closely following this in strength of support (and in terms of ‘agreeing strongly’, exceeded it) was statement (viii) that ‘it is essential for children in the Highlands and Islands to learn Gaelic’. Amongst all respondents 77.8% supported this, and amongst Western Isles respondents 82.3%. Public and parental opinion in this regard seems more supportive than education authorities realise. Closely similar in support was statement (ii) that ‘it seems a good idea for local authorities to support Gaelic in their administration’. Overall 83.7% of all respondents, and 83.5% in the Western Isles supported this (although ‘very strongly’ by only 33.3% and 28.4% respectively).

Five statements concerned attitudes towards Gaelic. These were expressed negatively. Statement (vii) that ‘Gaelic has no place in the modern world’, was disagreed by 90.6% overall, and by 88.3% of Western Isles respondents. Very closely comparable were the responses to statement (v) that ‘speaking Gaelic is low class’. Overall 89.6% disagreed with this – 51.6% strongly so, and in the Western Isles these proportions rose to 90.4% and 56.3% respectively. Of all respondents 70.0% - and in the Western Isles 64.7% - resisted the idea in statement (iii) that ‘Gaelic is a dying language’. Statement (ix) that ‘the Gaelic language is unsuitable for business or science’, was resisted by 63.6% overall, and by 57.8% of the Western Isles respondents – although strongly so by only 13.5% and 10.9% respectively. Marginally the Western Isles respondents were less supportive of their language in these respects than Gaelic speakers elsewhere in Scotland.

Two statements elicited attitudes concerning instrumental utility of Gaelic in personal advancement in life and work: one positive and one negative. Statement (x) ‘that Gaelic helps get promotion in jobs’ was agreed by only 27.8% overall (6.7% strongly so), and by 14.0% (4.8% strongly so) in the Western Isles. Statement (i) that ‘to get on, there are more valuable languages than Gaelic’, was disagreed by 36.0% overall (9.3% strongly so), and by 24.0% (4.8% strongly so) in the Western Isles. Gaelic is thus perceived very realistically as lacking in status for job and career advancement despite its advances in the occupational sphere in recent years.

Individual and Organisational Support

Respondents were invited to assess on a one- to ten-point scale the extent to which they regarded individuals and organisations as giving support to the Gaelic language. The three types of individuals were the respondent him/herself, the respondent’s friends, and incomers to the Gaelic communities. The organisations were the government (in 1994/5 this was Conservative, and the Scottish Executive had not yet been set up), the Scottish Office (at that time a department of the Westminster government, and Conservative controlled), the respondent’s local authority (‘Independent’ in the Western Isles and Highlands), other public bodies (e.g. ‘quangos’), private business, and the churches. The results in terms of mean values of ‘marks out of ten’ are given in Table 3, below.

Respondents very clearly regarded themselves as the most supportive of all sources for the Gaelic language. The next most supportive overall were the respondent’s friends. The next most supportive entities – and the most supportive of all organisations – were perceived as the churches. Next most supportive were the respondents’ local authorities. In the Western Isles, whose local authority has bilingual administrative and educational policies, mean support was high at 6.600 points, as compared with 3.951 elsewhere.

The least supportive of all sources was seen as the then Conservative (Westminster) government – which might seem rather severe in view of the advances made for the language during its period of office, e.g. educational special grants, initiation and support for Gaelic-medium primary units, the establishment of a Gaelic television fund, and broadcasting improvements. Private business was perceived as the next least supportive field for the language, very closely followed by the Scottish Office. There might be some consolation for Scottish Conservatives that support for Gaelic was perceived as significantly higher in the Scottish Office than within the government itself.

Were a similar survey to be conducted at the time of writing, it might be hypothesised that levels of support by the following New Labour government, and the Scottish New Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at the Scottish Executive might be generally seen by Gaelic speakers as very considerably more supportive for the language than their predecessors at Westminster and the Scottish Office. In 1997 a Minister for Gaelic was appointed within the new government, the Gaelic Television Fund was extended to a Gaelic Broadcasting Fund, and with the establishment of the Scottish Executive two Gaelic task forces were constituted in 1999 to recommend Gaelic language and broadcasting policies. (Macpherson 2000, and Milne 2000) In December 2000 a Ministerial Advisory Group on Gaelic (MAGOG) was appointed to recommend language-planning policies. A follow-up to the 1994-95 Euromosaic Survey would be timely – especially if its sample could be extended to compare with the decennial Irish CLAR surveys. (O Riagain 1997)

Conclusions and Implications

The perceptions of Gaelic speakers in ethnic terms as ‘Gael’, ‘Highlander’ did not appear to be so strong as national identity as ‘Scottish’, or more specifically local terms as ‘Leodhasach’, etc., or ‘Islander’ with Western Isles respondents. Appeal to language as an identifier would seem to be more effectively made and tied in with these latter identity-markers than taking for granted that Gaelic-speakers have some pre-eminent view of themselves as ‘Gaels’ or ‘Highlanders’. ‘British’ and ‘European’ identities were very much less salient, with little difference between them.

Gaelic was perceived very strongly as essential to a sense of Highland and Island identity, and there was a widespread measure of support for pro-Gaelic policies in local administration and education. Views regarding the viability of Gaelic were perhaps unrealistic – but its fitness and propriety for modern life were well upheld. Instrumental attitudes towards the language in promotion and career advancement were evident, bearing witness to low status perceptions, and perhaps unawareness too of the very real advancement in Gaelic-linked employment opportunities of recent years.

The respondents in this sample seemed to couch language-support very much in individual terms, and to see the churches still very much in their traditional roles as bulwark for the language over and above local and official authorities. Private business and the former Conservative government were perceived as very low in support (the latter perhaps somewhat unfairly). The local authority was seen as moderately supportive by Western Isles respondents – on much of a par with respondents’ personal friends generally.

The implications of these results for policy development should embolden authorities in the Highlands and Islands with a more upfront and proactive spirit in strengthening Gaelic policies in public administration. Gaelic speakers appear to be very supportive of such developments. Authorities do not always seem to realise that they have Gaelic-speaking as well as non-Gaelic-speaking constituents, and who also pay taxes and vote. Higher public awareness needs to be developed of the real advances in status and opportunities for Gaelic in the occupational spectrum. Quangos and private business might appear to be fitting targets for early attention by Gaelic development bodies. Business has not yet fully realised the goodwill factor inherent in Gaelic. Signage and labelling are generally and unthinkingly English-only – ‘hence reaching everybody’. However some businesses have a Gaelic term as a logo or business name, and supermarkets have begun to institute bilingual signage. A recent report has drawn attention to the reality of a ‘Gaelic economy’ and has estimated its value. (Sproull, with Ashcroft 1993) There are Gaelic audiences and listenerships. The economic potential of these deserves more economic attention. It would be interesting also to test public perceptions of the present government’s support for the language compared with the last one.

In addition to the various measures for Gaelic, which the Scottish Executive has commenced to develop, the Westminster government signed the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages on 2nd March 2000, and ratified it, including Gaelic, later that year. The matter of ‘secure status’ for Gaelic, in which is subsumed a distinctive manner in which Gaelic could be officially recognised and accorded national and legal status, still ‘lies on the table’ and awaits response from the Scottish Executive. Meanwhile through the ratification of the European Charter Gaelic has gained some form of recognition at United Kingdom and European levels.

Although the results of the Euromosaic Survey are interesting, they indicate the need for more specifically attitudinal research on Gaelic. The survey indicated the rapid inter-generational decline in language use within the family, from between grandparents to present-day parents and their children, and in community usage from when the respondent was young to the present-day. Likewise the survey showed up weakness of Gaelic usage in work domains. (MacKinnon 1998, 2000) We do not as yet know what ‘turns people on’ and ‘what turns people off’ in their use of Gaelic in these situations. Any effective language strategy needs such research, and this need is still yet to be realised.

The Euromosaic Gaelic Survey was a small-scale quota questionnaire survey. Its format and wording were common to other Euromosaic lesser-used language surveys. Despite these drawbacks, it could however be regarded as a useful pilot for a national survey on similar lines to the decennial Irish CLAR surveys undertaken in 1973, 1983, and 1993 (O Riagain 1997). Surveys of similar scale have been undertaken in a Gaelic context for the arts (Sproull and Chalmers 1998), broadcasting research, in which the present author was consultant for methodology (Shaw 1996), and an official national survey for Scots (Mate 1996). A national Gaelic language-use and attitudes survey of similar scale and scope is well overdue as a basis for effective policy-making. Recent census results point to a need to know what is going on if trends are to be reversed for Gaelic as they have for Welsh in Wales. The results of the 1991 population census may very well bring home in dramatic fashion the need for immediate and effective research and policy-making if Gaelic is to have any sort of future as a community language in Scotland.


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MacKinnon. K. (1994) Gaelic in 1994: report to the E.U. Euromosaic Project. Ferintosh: SGRUD Research.

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MacKinnon, K. (1997) Gaelic as an Endangered Language – Problems and Prospects, (paper to the Workshop in Endangered Languages. University of York 26 – 27th July 1997) Bath: Foundation for Endangered Languages.

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MacKinnon, K. (2000) Neighbours in Persistence – Prospects for Gaelic Maintenance in a Globalising English World, in:- McCoy, G., and Scott, M. (eds.) Aithne na nGael – Gaelic Identities, Belfast: Queen’s University Institute of Irish Studies / Ultach Trust ISBN 0 85389 766 2 (pp. 144 – 154).

Macpherson, J. A., (chair) (2000)Revitalising gaelic – a national asset, Edinburgh: Scottish executive ISBN 1-84268-025-0

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Milne, A. (chair) (2000) Gaelic Broadcasting Task Force Report, Edinburgh: Scottish Executive.

O Riagain, P. (1997) Language Policy and Social Reproduction, Oxford: University Press ISBN 0-19-823518-6

Shaw, I., (1996) Gaelic Survey: BBC Radio nan Gaidheal. London: BBC Broadcasting Research (not for publication).

Sproull, A, and Chalmers, D., (1998) The demand for Gaelic artistic and Cultural Products and services: Patterns and Impacts, report to the Gaelic Arts Agency, Glasgow: Caledonian University.

Sproull, A.. with Ashcroft, B., (1993) The Economics of Gaelic Language Development Glasgow: Caledonian University, and Inverness: Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Gaelic Television Committee and Comunn na Gaidhlig.


Kenneth MacKinnon is Visiting Professor and Emeritus Reader in the Sociology of Language at the university of Hertfordshire, Honorary fellow in Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, and Associate Lecturer of the Open University in Social Sciences, Education and Language Studies.

Contact address: SGRUD Research, Ivy Cottage, Ferintosh, The Black Isle, by DINGWALL, Ross-shire IV7 8HX Scotland. Tel/Fax: 01349-863460 e-mail: