In Context: Scottish Languages Bill
What is it about?
The latest Programme for Government presented the Scottish Languages Bill as one of 14 new bills the government intends to introduce over the next parliamentary year.
The legislation was formally introduced to parliament on November 29, on the eve of St Andrew’s Day.
Its objective is to support and give an official status to Scotland’s indigenous languages – Gaelic and Scots – to ensure their “long-term growth”, according to education secretary Jenny Gilruth.
The bill aims to strengthen Gaelic medium education, give further powers to the Gaelic public body Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and provide support to areas of linguistic significance (ALS).
According to the Scottish Government, local authorities can award the ALS status if at least 20 per cent of the area’s population has Gaelic language skills, a historical connection with the use of Gaelic or provides Gaelic education/hosts other significant Gaelic activity.
The bill would build on current status statements from the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which introduced Bòrd na Gàidhlig to ensure public bodies complied with the Gaelic Language Plan. However, the bill would replace the plan with a new strategy, expected to enjoy a higher status as it would be issued directly by Scottish ministers.
It would also be the first time that Scots has featured in legislation.
What would the new measures be?
Among the measures to support Gaelic are strengthening the power of ministers to give guidance, set standards and promote the education and the use of the language as well as making clear to local authorities their duty to provide Gaelic education.
It would also require Bòrd na Gàidhlig to provide reports on the progress of the Gaelic language strategy and on whether public authorities are complying with their duty to promote the use of the language.
However, under the new bill, the board would report to the Scottish Parliament directly rather than through ministers, increasing “its voice and leverage”.
What do people think?
The Scottish Government launched a public consultation on the bill in August 2022, with responses taken until December 8 of that same year.
Carried out through Citizen Space, the call for views received 750 responses. Participants outlined a lack of funding, accessibility, and community engagement as major barriers to the survival of Gaelic. They outlined investment in teaching resources and cultural activities as well as making Gaelic a compulsory subject in Scottish education systems among potential measures to raise awareness of the language.
Respondents also called for a restructuring of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and for it to be awarded further legal powers to enhance its credibility.
When asked about the Scots language, deploying more educational services and debunking the stigma around its use were set out as top priorities. However, some participants also warned that a political focus on these languages could result in social divisions across Scotland.
These concerns echo public outcries on prior Scottish Government investments to promote the Gaelic language – including its recent £3m spend on Gaelic education and projects.
How prevalent are these native languages?
According to the 2011 census, around 80,000 Scots speak Gaelic, which amounts to 1.1 per cent of the population.
Eilean Siar, known as the Western Isles in English, has the highest prevalence of Gaelic, with more than half the population able to speak the language.
The census also revealed that around 1.5 million people could speak Scots, with an additional 267,000 able to understand the language but not read, write, or speak it.
The Shetland Islands, Aberdeenshire, Moray, and Orkney have the highest prevalence of Scots speakers.
Haven’t languages suffered a blow recently?
Yes, the University of Aberdeen announced it was considering scrapping its language degrees, including its Gaelic course, shortly after the bill was introduced.
According to the university’s senior vice-principal Karl Leydecker, low enrolment numbers for courses made it “unsustainable” to continue running the programmes.
Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba warned that Scotland “couldn’t afford” to lose these languages when presenting the potential cut to First Minister Humza Yousaf. Since then a petition to halt the plans has received more than 15,000 signatures and the University and College Union is balloting staff at Aberdeen over strike action.
What is next?
The bill is currently at stage one. Committees are examining and gathering views to produce reports for a chamber debate about it.