History of Gaelic Medium Education in Scotland

17th century
The attitudes towards education and the promotion of Anglicisation have been described as resulting from "confrontation of two disparate societies...Lowland Scotland made plain its anxiety concerning the unreformed society in the north in terms of unease concerning is language, which was identified as the chief cause of barbarity, ignorance and popery" and can be seen as a continuation of such policies going back to 1609 and the Statutes of Iona which saw the Gaelic speaking nobility of Scotland forced to send their children to be educated in English speaking Lowland Scotland; an act which has been described as "the first of a succession of measures taken by the Scottish government specifically aimed at the extirpation of the Gaelic language, the destruction of its traditional culture and the suppression of its bearers." This was followed in 1616 by an act of the privy council which included a requirement that the children of the Highland nobility must be capable of speaking, reading and writing English if they were to be recognised as heirs.

18th century
The history of Gaelic language schools (in the modern sense) in Scotland can be traced back to the early 18th century and the schools of the Scottish Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge or SSPCK. Ironically, one of the primary aims of the society was the de-Gaelicisation of the Highlands and initially its schools taught exclusively through the medium of the English language with the equivalent use of Gaelic prohibited. However the insistence on teaching children in a language which was (in almost all cases) entirely foreign to them resulted in very little progress with regards to establishing literacy in the English language. This situation persisted until the collapse of the Jacobite cause in 1746 with the Battle of Culloden and the consequent collapse of the Gaelic speaking political structures and the pacification of the Highlands by the British Army in the ensuing decades. The change in political atmosphere following the Disarming Act, as well as campaigning by the likes of Samuel Johnson - who was aghast at the fact the SSPCK was actively preventing the publication of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic -- led to the change in attitudes within the Society. Johnson had to say of the matter:

"...there remains only their language and their poverty. Their language is attacked on every side. Schools are erected in which English only is taught and there were lately some who thought it reasonable to refuse them a version of the Holy Scriptures, that they might have no monument to their mother tongue."

Johnson, despite being commonly viewed as both anti-Scottish and anti-Gaelic, was actively involved in campaigning for the production of Gaelic literature and proposed the creation of a Gaelic press in the Isle of Skye. The change in attitudes resulted in the production, by the SSPCK, of a Gaelic version of the New Testament in 1767 with the Old Testament being translated and published in 1801. 1767 also saw the SSPCK switch from English to Gaelic as the language of instruction in their Highland schools. A school in Inverness, Raining School, was also established to provide training for Gaelic speaking teachers.

19th century
The 19th century saw the establishment of the first Gaelic school society -- the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools - in 1811. The society stated its purpose thus:

"(the) sole object being to teach the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands to read the Sacred Scriptures in their native tongue...to maintain Circulating Schools in which the Gaelic language only shall be taught."

The new society attracted much support with similar organisations being founded in Glasgow and Inverness. The early success of the Edinburgh society was such that by 1828 it funded 85 schools in the Highlands and Islands with its sister societies enjoying similar levels of success. However following the early period of success the groups encountered financial difficulties due to poor administration and started to decline around 1830 and by 1850 only the original Edinburgh society remained although this branch, with strong support from the Edinburgh Ladies Association, continued until 1892. This was despite the introduction of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 which effectively put an end to non-English medium education and led to the discouragement of Gaelic with pupils being punished by teachers for speaking the language. The effect of the education act upon the Gaelic language has been described as "disastrous" and the continuation of a general policy (by both Scottish, and post 1707, British) which aimed at Anglicisation.

Pressure upon the Scottish Education Department in the years immediately following the act of 1872 saw the gradual reintroduction of certain measures providing for the use of Gaelic in schools. This pressure led to the undertaking by the department of a survey in 1876 which revealed a "distinct majority" of school boards within the Highlands in favour of the inclusion of Gaelic within the curriculum although it also revealed that some of those in Gaelic-speaking areas were against this. However the continuing reluctance of school boards to take full advantages of the limited provisions made for Gaelic within the school curriculum as well as the problems of financing the Education Act generally saw little use of the limited provisions for Gaelic within the schools. The severe financial difficulties suffered by Highland schools at this time saw the introduction of the "Highland Minute" in 1887 which aimed at aiding designated boards financially while also recognising Gaelic as a specific subject in the higher classes of both elementary and secondary schools. Grants to aid the supply of Gaelic speaking teachers were also introduced.

Despite these small measures towards the reintroduction of Gaelic into the classroom the manner in which the language was taught is thought to have contributed to its decline with the language being taught not as the native tongue of the pupils, via the medium of the language itself, but as an academic subject to be studied only through the English language with ever decreasing numbers of students studying the language.