Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2017, 12:01 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : Scots

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : Scots, 2008, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The 2001 Census recorded 58,652 people able to speak the Scottish Celtic language Gaelic out of 92,396 people who have some ability in the language, according to the Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Language Board). The total population of Scotland in 2001 was 5.06 million. Gaelic is mostly spoken in the Western Isles, the Highlands and the region of Argyll and Bute in the south-west Highlands near to Glasgow. However, a significant number of speakers are dispersed throughout Scotland on account of migration.

There were 100,000 speakers of Scots, a language evolved from the Old Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Scots is also influenced by Old Norse from the ninth century. There are different variants of Scots spoken in the northern islands of Shetland and Orkney, the Highlands and Lowlands, with Lallans spoken in the Lowlands near the border with England and Doric spoken near Edinburgh.

New minorities were 2 per cent of the total population of Scotland. The largest community was the Pakistanis 31,793 (0.6%), followed by the Chinese 16,310 (0.3%), Indians 15,037 (0.3%), Africans 5,118 (0.1%), Bangladeshis 1,981 and people from the Caribbean 1,778.

Historical context

The original Scots, who gave their name to Scotland, the northern part of the island of Great Britain, were Gaelic-speakers from Ireland who settled in the west of Scotland in the fifth century. The territory had long been inhabited by Picts, and after centuries of war the Scots and Pict crowns were unified in 843. The use of the Gaelic language spread, even south of the border. Gaelic was never predominant in the Lothians, where people spoke Lallands, a dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Lallands accrued elements of Latin, French, Icelandic and Gaelic and developed into a language in its own right, Scots.

Following the eleventh-century Norman invasion, many English-speakers fled to Scotland, and in the following centuries English was also used as a language of trade by merchants from the European mainland who traded in Scotland. At the beginning of the fourteenth century Edward I of England was determined to incorporate Scotland into his kingdom. There followed long and destructive wars for 300 years. Southern parts of the land were occupied by English forces, and areas were planted by English settlers. Scotland had been converted to Christianity by the Celts, but there was no Gaelic or Scots Bible; English gained prestige as the language of the Church. The Reformation divided lowlanders, who became Protestant, from Gaels, who remained Roman Catholic. James VI of Scotland viewed Gaelic citizens as savages and settled the more 'civilized' lowlanders in the Highlands. This disrupted Gaelic contacts with Ireland, which had helped keep Gaelic culture alive. It also entrenched animosity between Gaelic- and Scots-speakers, and dislocated Gaelic from Scottish nationality.

In the sixteenth century Scots adopted a standard form and became a literary language with poetry written by Robert Henrysoun, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and David Lyndsay.

James VI acceded to the English throne in 1603, uniting the two crowns and ensuring the departure of the Scottish court to England. The Act of Union 1707 united the two parliaments and made English the language of legislation for all the countries of Great Britain. Scotland retained its independent institutional framework in law, local administration, education and religion. By 1714, when a non-Scottish dynasty came to the throne, Scots Highlanders were on the defensive. After the Battle of Culloden in 1745 the clan system was dismantled; a monetary economy was introduced; and the Highlands were opened to 'development'. The Highland Clearances, when crofters were forced off the land they had farmed for centuries to make way for sheep, devastated the environment and forced many to emigrate. Robert Burns would have joined the migrants if his first book of his poems, published in the Scots language in 1786, had not been successful. Burns became the standard bearer for the Scots language in Scotland and worldwide.

The Education Act (Scotland) 1872 enforced 'universal' education but contained no provisions for the teaching of Scots or Gaelic, accelerating linguistic assimilation. This Act introduced new forms of knowledge that had no relation to Scots and particularly Gaelic culture, and laid the basis for a system which identified able children and took them away from home. In the early 1990s the Scottish guidelines to schools for the national curriculum for ages 5 to 14 included Scottish culture as a subject, which allowed for the teaching of Scots language and literature. The Merlin Press was set up in 1995 to publish Scots-language teaching materials. The oldest universities, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, established degree courses in the language, literature and culture.

Gaelic fared better on account of the continuing support of emigrants and the founding of An Comunn Gaidhealach (the Highland Association) in 1891, with its annual Gaelic cultural festival, which developed into an education pressure group. In 1958 Gaelic became the medium of instruction in primary schools in Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, and in 1959 Gaelic radio and television broadcasting began. The Highlands Regional Council introduced bilingual Gaelic-English education in 1978. The Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean), set up in 1975, adopted a bilingual Gaelic-English education policy. In the south-west Highlands, near Glasgow, bilingual Gaelic-English education was launched in 1985. The 1990 Broadcasting Act set up a fund for radio and television programmes in Gaelic, which was administered by the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee. The committee was replaced by the Gaelic Media Service in 2003 in accordance with the 2003 Communications Act, which updated the terms of reference to take account of the new media environment.

The Scots continued to fight for political independence. Between 1889 and 1927, 21 legislative attempts were made to regain Scottish independence. In 1928 an assortment of organizations campaigning for Home Rule and self-determination came together to form the National Party of Scotland. In 1932 this merged with the Scottish Party to become the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1978 the Devolution (Scotland) Act was passed, but it was not put into effect because less than 40 per cent of the electorate voted in the ensuing referendum. Devolution was part of the Labour government's manifesto in 1997. The referendum vote was valid this time and a large majority was in favour of devolution with tax-raising powers. Elections were held in 1999 and resulted in a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in the Scottish Parliament. Gaelic and English were adopted as official languages.

Current issues

The independence movement in Scotland is increasing in strength. In May 2007, the Scottish National Party became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, ousting the Labour-Liberal coalition that had governed for the previous 10 years. During the election campaign, the SNP promised a referendum on Scottish independence within the lifetime of the parliament - usually four years.

Gaelic education

In 2005 the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act, which aims to increase the number of Gaelic-speakers and promote the use of the language and culture throughout Scotland. In November 2006 the Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Language Board) laid out a five year plan to halt the decline in the number of Gaelic-speakers and increase its use in a number of public and workplace settings. In 2005-6, there were 2,068 pupils in 61 Gaelic-medium primary schools and units, including Glasgow's Gaelic only primary school, in 2005-6. At secondary level there were 315 pupils learning in Gaelic, while 981 fluent speakers and 2,718 new learners were taught Gaelic as a subject. The rapid expansion of Gaelic education, has led to a shortage of teachers. Around 300 hours a year of Gaelic TV programmes are broadcast by public broadcaster BBC and commercial channels Scottish Television, Grampian Television and Channel 4. In early 2008, the BBC gave the go-ahead to a Gaelic TV channel, which will be available on satellite and cable - this initiative is to receive substantial extra funds from the Scottish Executive.

Scots-language campaigners

Campaigners for the Scots language are lobbying to achieve at least the same level of official recognition for Scots as there is for Gaelic. The language and literature are taught as part of the national curriculum in schools. It is an optional subject for higher secondary school. There are many academic projects concerning the Scots language, history and culture, which are also included in Scottish Studies degrees at universities in many countries. Burns Night on January 25 (his birthday in 1759) has become a popular international event and celebration of Scots culture.

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