I’m grateful to John Humphries (no, not that John Humphries, but the publisher and editor of Scottish Islands Explorer) for drawing my attention to the conference to be held later this month on the impact of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, which introduced compulsory schooling for children across Scotland, but excluded the teaching of Gaelic.

It was a subject that greatly interested John Lorne Campbell, who researched and wrote about the effects of the Act, as well as other official attempts to suppress Gaelic, such as the efforts of the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), although its attempts to provide English-only schools had to be abandoned when it was discovered that children who had learned English by rote made no effort to understand what they were saying.

The white haired Coddy of Barra

The Coddy of Barra, storyteller, Gaelic speaker and inspiration to John

The language had once been spoken by all social classes in the Highlands and Islands, but after the failed Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 it became associated with political dissent and the Catholic religion. The landowning and professional classes increasingly spoke English and disdained the native tongue. There was an official campaign to discourage and even eradicate the language, backed by repressive legislation which not only discriminated against Gaelic, but for a while outlawed other symbols of Highland culture, such as tartan.

By the end of the nineteenth century official hostility to Gaelic had lessened, but it was still associated with poverty, under-achievement and reduced social and economic chances, and was steadily eroded by the ‘quieter and more gradual changes’ of anglicisation and economic improvement. In 1908 an editorial in the Glasgow Herald maintained: ‘The first requisite for a Highlander is such a knowledge of English as will open up to him the lucrative employment from which ignorance of English must shut him out.’

The decline of Gaelic was apparent for 100 years before the 1872 Act, but became much more rapid in the 20th century. The last official census figure, released in 2003, showed just 58,000 speakers, just over one per cent of the Scottish population. To try to reverse the decline, the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which aimed both to promote the tongue and remove some of the institutional barriers to its use. It also led to the National Plan for Gaelic.

Hebridean Archives will host the conference on 25 August at Balivanich Primary School on Benbecula.