Attitudes to Gaelic in Scotland

Professor Lindsay Paterson

This project aimed to fill the gap in evidence on public attitudes to Gaelic in Scotland with a module of questions on attitudes to Gaelic in the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey of 2012. It explored views about the use of Gaelic in public areas, the place of Gaelic in education, the use of Gaelic in broadcasting, the place of Gaelic in regional, Scottish and British identities, and attitudes to the future of Gaelic. The Gaelic language has acquired growing prominence in Scotland in recent decades, but there was very little evidence on public attitudes to the language, especially those of the Anglophone majority. The objectives of the project were to generate high-quality quantitative data that would provide answers to the research questions.

Ethical issues

There were two unusual aspects to the ethical approval of this work.

Ethical approval involved a partnership between the University of Edinburgh and ScotCen Social Research, which runs the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA). ScotCen is the Scottish arm of NatCen Social Research, the UK’s leading provider of academic social surveys. More recently (from 2008), NatCen introduced a system of formal ethical review for all NatCen studies, via Research Ethics Committees (RECs). This system is consistent with the ESRC's Research Ethics Framework. The SSA received full REC ethical review in 2009. Each year SSA goes through an expedited ethical review to address any issues arising from new question topics or changes to procedures. Issues NatCen pays particular attention to on SSA are: informed consent; confidentiality and data security; question sensitivity; and facilitating participation. This partnership approach to ethical approval requires that the lead academic organisation respects and trusts the ethical procedures of the partner. 

The second distinctive ethical feature of the work concerned bilingual operation. It was decided that, so far as was practicably feasible, the work of the project would be conducted bilingually in Gaelic and English even though the main operating language would be English. The language to be used in carrying out research in multi-lingual settings is not only a matter of practicalities; it is also ethical. No-one in Scotland can speak only Gaelic, but it was decided here that, on ethical grounds, it would not have been acceptable to have conducted the survey only in English.

There were three main aspects of the bilingual working: 

  • All the survey materials were translated, and respondents were given the option of completing them in Gaelic. Since ScotCen did not have suitably trained bilingual interviewers, this translation in practice was used in the form of an audio file in which questions were asked in Gaelic and to which the respondent would answer on a laptop, all in the presence of a ScotCen interviewer. A supplementary grant from Bòrd na Gàidhlig paid for this work. Although in the event no respondent did choose the Gaelic option, the work left bilingual materials that could be used for future training.
  • The paperwork for the project’s advisory board was provided bilingually to the extent that that was affordable. 
  • Both of the public briefings on the results of the work were provided bilingually. One of these was issued during the campaign associated with the referendum on Scottish independence held in September 2014; this bilingual publication probably raised the profile of the Gaelic language during that debate.


The two main lessons correspond to the two aspects of the ethical issues noted above:

As social scientific research becomes more extensive, for example in the era of ‘big data’, partnership working is likely to become more common. Where a well-developed ethical framework has been provided by one partner, it may then be desirable for all partners to adopt it.

Researchers should consider and demonstrate cultural sensitivity in research design and delivery. In our research, although the main operating language was English, participants were given the option to complete the survey materials in Gaelic.