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December 10th 1616

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The destruction of Gaelic

Though there are Gaelic speakers still living in Perthshire there are no longer any Gaelic communities. There is a provincial mod held at Aberfeldy, enthusiastic evening classes in most towns in Perthshire but nowhere will you find groups of children speaking Gaelic as their natural tongue. Yet even at the end of the 18th Century it was still the language of Highland Perthshire.

Time and again the point is made in the First Statistical Account. Comrie “The common language of the people is Gaelic”  though it is pointed out that all the young people can speak English. Killin “Gaelic is the language generally spoken in the country.”  Kirkmichael “The prevailing language in the parish is Gaelic.”  Logierait “The language spoken here is a corrupted dialect of the Gaelic.”  But there were ominous qualifications. “All the young people can speak English.”  “The Saxon dialect of the Lowlands is pretty generally understood here.”  Etc.

Gaelic, though it was still spoken by some 30% of the people of Scotland was already a language under siege. The Highlands had always had the reputation of being a wild lawless area and there had grown up the somewhat naďve belief that introducing the English language would in some way act as a civilising agency.

These ideas go back at least as far as the reign of James 6th. Privy Council December 10th 1616, “Forasmeikle that the Inglishe toung may be universallie planted and the Irishe language, which is one of the chieff and principale causes of the continuance of barbaritie and incivilitie among the inhabitants of the Isles and Heylands, may be abolished and removit……”  This was an act concerning schooling in the Highlands and at the time did not prove particularly effective.

In the 18th Century things began to change. Roads were built and many communities were for the first time exposed to a wider world. The population in many parts of the Highlands, certainly in Highland Perthshire, increased quite considerably.

This was due to a number of factors - Improvements in agriculture allowed more people to live off the land, in particular potatoes became more widely grown. “The people here (Fortingall) live a full half of the year mostly upon potatoes.”  Small cottage industries, notably spinning and distilling grew up in the Highland communities. Lastly, inoculation against smallpox substantially reduced infant mortality. All these factors brought forth something of a population explosion and an exodus of many of the younger people into the towns.

At the same time there was a realisation that a basic education in, and a knowledge of, English were necessary requisites for a successful life in the towns. Parish schools were set up in which instruction in reading and writing was given, but it was reading and writing in English.

It was inevitable that the Highlands should become a bi-lingual community but the tragedy was that those in authority unconsciously, and in many cases consciously, equated English with civilisation. In the name of progress Gaelic and Gaelic culture was deliberately destroyed.

James 6th would have been proud.

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