In a community leisure centre, five long posters hang from the hall’s ceiling. On one of them, the words “D’Alba” – meaning “Your Scotland” in Gaelic – are printed in a large, colourful design. The others advertise language courses, using buzzwords to stand out, like “heritage”, “fun”, “history”, “opportunity”, and “heart”.
The posters are not unique in the town of Fort William, nested in the middle of the Scottish Highlands and popular with tourists due to its proximity to Britain’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis. Many travel from across the UK, Europe, and further afield to climb the mountain and explore the surrounding countryside, but many tourists also encounter a local curiosity along the way: Gaelic. Despite Scottish Gaelic being spoken by only 5.5% of the Highlands, the language is visible on most of the region’s road signs and other official notices. In the western Highlands, it’s not unusual to see the word “Fàilte” over doors alongside “Welcome”, or even “Taigh-Osda” underneath “Hotel”. Gaelic may not be heard too often in these parts of the Highlands, but it’s certainly visible.
In Irish Gaelic, there is a popular phrase: “Beatha teanga í a labhairt”, or “a language lives when it’s spoken”. How strong is its Scottish sister-language, if that is the case? In the café within the Nevis Centre, underneath those five posters, a young waitress’ attitude to Gaelic appears to be representative of her generation.
“No-one really speaks it around here,” she says, with a certain tone of resignation. “My father does, but he’s from the islands.” She refers to the Hebrides or Western Isles, the westernmost Scottish islands where over half of the residents speak Scottish Gaelic. “If he’s on the phone to his family, or if we go over to visit, he’ll speak Gaelic with them, but that’s it.”
When I ask whether her father would use the language with her, her expression is somewhat devil-may-care. “If he were to [speak Gaelic], I’d understand it, but I wouldn’t be able to answer back. It’d be a one-way conversation!”
The waitress’ colleague, a shy girl sitting by the coffee machine, joins in the conversation. “Gaelic is taught at school here, but you don’t hear it or see anyone use it outside the classroom.”
“Gaelic speakers would be a community within the community,” the first waitress adds, without realising that she has just contradicted her earlier declaration of “no-one” speaking Gaelic locally. Such a statement is not entirely surprising, however. The UK census of 2001 put the population of Fort William at a clean 10,000, with a Gaelic-speaking population of 7.3%. That works out at around 730 people; a small number, and yet that figure is higher than the average for the Highlands.
The waitress’ reference to the local schools, however, is of particular interest. While English is the common language used in schools across Scotland, just under 3,900 primary and school students attend Gaelic-medium schools, the majority of which are in the Western Isles. In the Highlands, this works out at 3.7% of all pupils, however when Gaelic classes in English-medium schools are included, the amount of pupils who understand Gaelic rises to 7.6% in the Highlands, and 86% in the Western Isles. In Fort William, a Gaelic-medium primary school, Bun-Sgoil Ghàidhlig Loch Abar (Loch Aber Gaelic Primary School), was opened in 2015, boosting the prospects of the language in the area.
The difference in figures shows that although there is a considerable difference between the mainland Scotland and her islands, there is still some evidence of the language being preserved by the younger generation. That view is echoed by the forty-something year old taxi driver I meet on the way from Fort William to my holiday accommodation in Glen Nevis.
“The older generation will know Gaelic, and the young ones know it because of the Gaelic [primary] school, but my generation and those below me wouldn’t know any. We didn’t care about it, but the generation below me, they’re putting their kids into the Gaelic school. I don’t know how strong the language ever really was in this area, but at least the kids will know it now.”
Despite the taxi driver’s doubts, Fort William has a strong Gaelic heritage. The town played host to the Royal National Mòd, an annual Gaelic language and cultural festival, a total of eight times, most recently in 2017. Today, the town’s bank, library, train station, supermarket, and tourist signs all display Gaelic alongside English, yet it appears it will take a few more years until the children of the town will make their old language heard on the streets again.