By Professor Robert Dunbar, Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

FOLLOWERS of social media and Scottish print media would be forgiven for thinking that there is widespread hostility toward Gaelic in Scotland. Yet, this does not appear to be the case. In 2012, for example, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey indicated that 76 per cent of respondents felt that Gaelic was either very or fairly important to Scottish heritage, and only four per cent felt it was not at all important.

Similarly, Gaelic has for at least three decades enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories introduced a useful funding scheme to support Gaelic education which is still in place. The Conservatives were also the first to increase significantly funding for Gaelic television. In 2001, the Labour government ratified an important Council of Europe treaty which supports Gaelic and other minority languages, and in the 2003 Communications Act it laid the groundwork for a Gaelic television channel.

Gaelic has also enjoyed wide support at Holyrood. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 recognises Gaelic as “an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect with the English language” and requires public authorities in Scotland to prepare Gaelic language plans. Developed by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, it was passed unopposed in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP Government introduced provisions in the Education Act 2016 designed to enhance access to Gaelic-medium education which also gained cross-party support.

Yet, the announcement of a new Gaelic language plan developed under the 2005 Act frequently gives rise to a backlash, often led by local politicians. In 2015, for example, a bitter row emerged in Fife Council regarding their language plan. Some councillors objected to support for Gaelic in Fife, claiming that the language had never been spoken there. Opponents of Gaelic often make this claim. It usually displays a shaky grasp of Scotland’s linguistic history: researchers at Glasgow University have, for example, demonstrated that the language has deep historical roots in Fife.

The most recent stooshie, though, was somewhat different. As reported in Thursday’s Herald, a Labour councillor for Annandale North objected to a new bilingual logo adopted by Social Security Scotland—a national, not a local agency. “This looks much better”, he tweeted, with an image of the logo, photoshopped to remove the Gaelic—not, perhaps, the best demonstration of the principle of “equal respect”. The claim that he could see no connection between supporting Gaelic and advancing the progressive agenda that had drawn him into politics was particularly disappointing, given the history of the language in Scotland. This sorry incident presents Labour with an excellent opportunity to restate its commitment to the principles of its own 2005 legislation, and of respect for diversity in Scottish society; one hopes they will take it.

Part of the wider backlash may be due to a persistent anti-Gaelic agenda in elements of the Scottish print media – with the honourable exception of The Herald – which include gross factual errors and unhelpful rhetoric. Some columnists have used cruel stereotyping of Gaelic speakers of a sort that would be beyond the pale if used in respect of any other minority.

It would also appear that Gaelic is increasingly caught up in constitutional politics. For some, Gaelic has become a convenient stick with which to beat the SNP, even though almost all the current support structures for Gaelic were put in place before the SNP came to power, and enjoy cross-party support. While the SNP Government has been supportive of Gaelic, some would argue that it has not been as ambitious as it could be. Labour and other opposition politicians could better honour the best of their own party traditions by pushing their opponents to do more, rather than less, for the language.