Is Scottish Gaelic on the Rise?

March 21 marked the first World Gaelic Week, with more than 100 events scheduled to celebrate the language and its legacy. Moreover, people’s fascination with the Celtic language, which was once spoken widely throughout modern-day Scotland, looks like it’s on track to last well beyond the inaugural celebration of Gaelic—interest has risen steadily over the last couple of years, according to data from VisitScotland, the Scottish government’s national tourism board.

“Gaelic and its rich culture are an important part of Scotland’s tourism offer and provide an extra layer of authenticity for visitors, with a unique culture you can only truly experience in Scotland,” said Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland’s chief executive. “This only strengthens the experience we know means so much to visitors.”

According to VisitScotland’s recent report, interest in Scottish Gaelic–related content increased by 72% over the period 2018–2021. “This proves that Gaelic is thriving, not just here in Scotland but across the world, and I can’t wait to celebrate our language and culture this week on a global scale,” said Joy Dunlop, director of World Gaelic Week.

Scottish Gaelic—related to, but still separate from, the similarly named Irish Gaelic—is spoken by a relatively small population of nearly 60,000. The language’s native speakers are mostly concentrated in the northwest of the country. Like other Celtic languages in the British Isles, the language fell into a steady decline after English rose to prominence in the region.

Hundreds of years ago, the Celtic family was a sprawling and lively family of languages spoken not just in the British Isles but also throughout mainland Europe and modern-day Turkey. That’s not the case anymore, with most, if not all, living Celtic languages spoken by relatively slim minorities in their respective native lands.

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In recent years, revitalization efforts and revival projects have had a fair amount of success—Welsh census data shows that Wales, for example, nearly doubled its number of Welsh speakers from 2011 to 2021. Such growth, however, hasn’t been the norm—the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers declined by about 1,000 from 2001 to 2011 (language data from the country’s 2022 census is not yet available).

However, Celtic specialists appear cautiously optimistic for the language’s future. With interest rising and the Scottish government’s 2016–2021 plan for revitalizing the language, it’s possible that we’ll see an increased number of Scottish Gaelic speakers residing in the country when census data finally does come out. Andrew Warner