Content associated with: Language questions in Wales   

Language questions in Scotland

Matthew Woollard

The question of language in the census is related to problems of nationality, nationalism and national identity. However in the United Kingdom, at least, questions in the census relating to language are well-removed from the traditional philosophies underlying British census-taking. Questions on language were not part of the 'medical' program which epitomised the British censuses.

During the nineteenth-century questions on language were introduced slowly into the British censuses and these questions can be seen as the first which were successfully introduced through the lobbying of special-interest groups. Language questions had been asked in many European censuses, e.g., in Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Prussia, Sweden and Switzerland all asked such questions in the 1850s or 1860s. Arel has pointed out that most of the discussions in the international statistical community at this time was less concerned with language spoken per se, but with 'cultural nationality'.

The language question appeared later in Scotland than in Ireland (See Language questions in Ireland). According to Kenneth MacKinnon, the Gaelic Society of Inverness (GSI) and others had urged the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, to include a Gaelic language question in the census on the grounds of the "well-being of the people of the Scottish Highlands, and...the promotion of education in that part of the country." The GSI was set up in 1871 to promote Scottish Gaelic and to halt its perceived decline. The GSI were no latent nationalists; in an early meeting "God Save the Queen" had been translated and recited in Gaelic. The question was not included in the Bill discussed in Parliament, but during the second reading of the Bill for the Scottish census, a Mr Fraser-Mackintosh said that he had been asked "for educational and other purposes, on behalf of the Federation of Celtic Associations of Scotland, the Committee of the Free Church of Scotland in the Highlands, both largely representative bodies, as well as by others" to suggest that a question be asked in the forthcoming census about those people who could speak Gaelic alone, and those who could speak Gaelic and English. (Parliamentary debates, 3rd series, 254 (1880), col. 2073–4.) It is clear from discussions in the House that the main motivation for the question pertained to education. (Parliamentary debates, 3rd series, 255 (1880), col. 755.) No amendment was proposed and the Act received Royal Assent later in the year, with no provision for asking a question on Gaelic language speakers. (43 & 44 Vict. c.38.)

However, the question came to be asked at the census in 1881 — it was added hastily after the final preparations for the census had been made. Added to the householders' schedule, in red ink, possibly after printing, was the question: "In column 6 (headed "Where Born") the word "Gaelic" to be added opposite the name of each person who speaks Gaelic habitually". (The householder's schedule is reproduced in the Ninth decennial census of the population of Scotland. Vol. I, p. xxxi.) Its inconvenient position on the page, and its omission from the examples for the householders may have made it harder for those completing the form to notice, but it was certainly answered. Again, as in Ireland, the question was essentially a 'closed' question. (The use of the word 'habitually' may also have caused some problem – one might have complete command of a language but not use it habitually.)

The census report notes that the Registrar General was attempting to collect statistics on the numbers who...are said to be 'Gaelic speaking', or to be in the habit of making colloquial use of the Gaelic language'.) (Ninth decennial census of the population, p. xi.)

The wording of the question and positioning may have meant that the returns for this question were incomplete. The GSI were unhappy with the total number of habitual Gaelic speakers being reported as 231,594 and suggested that 300,000 would be more appropriate. (See the anonymous report in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness for 1881–83). Ravenstein's estimate of Gaelic speakers, rather than habitual Gaelic speakers, of around 9 per cent in 1879 suggests a figure nearer 335,000. (Ravenstein, 1879, 606). Despite this Macdonald reports that the census "strengthened a further demand for more time to be allowed for the teaching of Gaelic in schools; a grant was given for this purpose and Gaelic placed in the schedule of specific subjects." (See Macdonald, 1969–70).

In the following census in 1891, a question was explicitly asked on the householders' schedule. The question read: "Write 'Gaelic' opposite the name of each person who speaks Gaelic only, and 'G & E' opposite the name of each person who speaks both Gaelic and English." The presentation of these results leaves something to be desired. Numbers and percentages of these two groups were reported, so to find Gaelic speakers the reader would have to perform some elementary mathematics, by adding together these number, to ascertain the total number of Gaelic speakers. Making these returns harder to interpret is perhaps indicative of the GRO's indifference to these returns.

Population growth in Scotland between 1881 and 1891 was approximately 7.7 per cent, while the reported increase in Gaelic speakers (total) was some 9.9 per cent. However, of the eight counties which had relatively high proportions of Gaelic speakers in both 1881 and 1891 all but two saw a decline in population. This suggests that there was an undercount of Gaelic speakers in 1881, but that the undercount was likely to be small. It is perhaps also worth noting that some reports of Irish Gaelic speakers in Dumbartonshire (in 1891) were not tabulated. (Sinclair, 27.)

Similar questions were asked in subsequent censuses. The results were reported slightly differently, but analysis is confined to only those over the age of 3.

Thus in Scotland the language question was a successfully lobbied question, which was hardly tedious work for the General Register Office in Scotland. The Celtic associations and the Free Church were attempting to slow the decline of Gaelic and pinpointing areas of Gaelic where resources for education could be diverted.


Anonymous, 'The Gaelic Census of 1881', Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 10 (1881–83), 51–58.

D. Arel, 'Language categories in censuses: backward- or forward-looking', in D. I. Kertzer and D. Arel, eds, Census and identity. The politics of race, ethnicity, and language in national censuses (Cambridge, 2002), 92–120.

M. A. Macdonald, 'History of the Gaelic Society of Inverness from 1871–1971', Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 46 (1969–70), 1–21. [Available here].

K. MacKinnon, 'A century on the census—Gaelic in twentieth century focus'. [Paper available at this site.

E. G. Ravenstein, 'On the Celtic languages in the British Isles: a statistical survey', Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 42 (1879), 579–643.

C. Sinclair, Jock Tamson's bairns. A history of the records of the General Register Office for Scotland (Edinburgh, 2000), 27.

Parliamentary debates.

Census of Scotland, 1881, Ninth decennial census of the population of Scotland. Vol. I, BPP 1883 LXXXI [C.3657] [View this document: Population report, Scotland, Vol. I, 1881]