Scotland's linguistic landscape: the lack of policy and planning with Scotland's place-names and signage

Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

Paper given by Davyth Hicks on 24 April 2002


This paper discusses theoretical, practical and comparative aspects of factors affecting Scottish place-names and signage. It deals mainly with the usage of Scottish Gaelic signage. Scottish Gaelic language activists have reached a point where, after campaigning for bilingual signage, there is no clear, coherent policy as to where they should go and a lack of agreed Gaelic forms, so lending some urgency to this issue.

This paper highlights the lack of policy and planning over the linguistic landscape and draws comparisons with signage policies established by other bilingual communities. In so doing it illustrates how far behind Scottish Gaelic is in legislative terms with regard to basic human linguistic rights compared to those secured by other communities, even ones such as Wales which fall under the remit of the same state (the United Kingdom). It draws together the various forms of evidence in order to conclude with recommendations and to carry forward debate on the Gaelic signage issue in Scotland.

The following topics will be discussed with detailed examples in order to raise questions and to examine the lack of policy:

Theoretical background

It has to be considered before commencing this discussion just how much signage has spread over the last hundred years with the advent of the mass use of cars and the use of commercial signage. A century ago there would have been a landscape largely devoid of signs. That there has been no language policy in response to this growth reinforces the low status that Gaelic has in Scotland.

The concept of 'linguistic landscape'

It is in the language planning field that issues related to the idea of linguistic landscape first emerged. In Belgium and Quebec language planners recognised the importance of marking the boundaries of linguistic territories through the regulation of language-use on public and commercial signs including billboards, shop fronts and street-signs as well as place-names. It is here that we find what is known as a 'territorial' solution to language problems.


A clear demarcation or linguistic boundary does not exist for Gaelic and of course Gaelic is in a very different linguistic situation from Flemish or Québecois. Hard and fast linguistic boundaries would not be useful in helping Gaelic reverse language shift (hereafter RLS) because if we made a linguistic boundary in Scotland there would be difficulties defining it, and fixing any such boundary would mean that people outwith that boundary would be outside the projected Gaelic-speaking area. So, for example, Central Belt Gaelic speakers would not be included in this territory, making such a territorial solution both exclusionary and unworkable.

However, I would like to get away from a strictly territorial approach and propose that the term 'linguistic landscape' be used without the notion of hard territorial linguistic boundaries and use it more as an apt way of describing signage and place-name issues.

Landry and Bourhis (1997) have stated that the linguistic landscape has two functions, informational and symbolic; their discussion is summarised below. In addition, it is proposed that the linguistic landscape has a mythological or folkloric function.


Landry and Bourhis have noted (1997) that the most basic function of the linguistic landscape is to serve as a marker of the geographical territory inhabited or previously inhabited by a language community. As we have seen, in Belgium it has been used to serve to delineate the territorial limits of a language group. The usage of a language on public signs may also convey the expectation that the language in question can be used to obtain services from public and private establishments in a territory. However, a feeling that one's own language is not respected can be experienced when the language of public signs is not matched by the ability to use it for obtaining services. Landry and Bourhis state (1997:25) 'Such discrepancies are most likely to occur in bilingual environments in which the relative status and functions of competing languages are unstable . . .'

Landry and Bourhis have noted (1997:26) how the linguistic landscape can also provide information about the sociolinguistic composition of the language groups. Public signs can be monolingual, bilingual or multilingual. The predominance of one language on public signs relative to other language groups can reflect the relative power and status of competing language groups. In this situation we find that the majority of signage is written in the language of the dominant language group with only a few signs in that of the weaker language group.

Symbolic Function

It is reasonable to assume that the absence or presence of one's own language on public signs has an effect on how one feels as a member of a language group within a bilingual setting. Having one's language enshrined on most private and public signs should contribute to the feeling that the in-group language has value and status. Landry and Bourhis have suggested (1997:27) 'that the symbolic function of the linguistic landscape is most striking in settings where language has emerged as the most important dimension in ethnic identity'. They also suggest that the presence of the minoritized language (Gaelic, for example) in the linguistic landscape 'can contribute most directly to the positive social identity of ethnolinguistic groups'(1997:27).

Exclusion of Gaelic from signage can convey a message that it is not valued and has little status in society. Furthermore, such exclusion conveys the idea that Gaelic is of little use for conducting public affairs. This reinforces the diglossic situation that Gaelic is in to the advantage of the dominant language, English. Absence of the in-group (Gaelic) language on signage may also consolidate a sociolinguistic norm leading group members to use their own group language in an ever-declining range of language domains.

In combination with other measures of exclusion (e.g. the unavailability or banning of education in the minority language), Landry and Bourhis state (1997:29): 'absence of the in-group language from the linguistic landscape can lead to group members devaluing the strength of their own language community, weaken their resolve to transmit the language to the next generation, and sap their collective will to survive as a distinct language group'. These are all symptoms that we see with Gaelic.

Landry and Bourhis have noted (1997:28) how: 'Absence of the minority language on public signs may lead activists to lobby . . . [the] authorities to include the minority language on government signs'. Such demands may be backed by graffiti campaigns designed to add the subordinated language to signs within the existing or ancestral linguistic zone of the minority group. More radical graffiti campaigns may block out or deface signs in the dominant language and replace them with words in the minority language.

Landry and Bourhis add (1997:26) that: 'Dominant group authorities often control the police and judicial apparatus needed to repress such graffiti campaigns, though the financial cost of replacing defaced public signs may be such that the authorities may eventually reach a compromise over the language of public signs'.

Recent campaigns have been seen in Cornwall, Brittany, Euskadi, and Catalunya and most effectively in Wales. Indeed it would appear that it is a norm for a language movement to conduct a signage campaign of some kind. So despite the humble nature of our signage graffiti campaigns can provide a dynamic portrait of both current and past conflicts over the language of signage and show, according to Bourhis and Landry, the level of vitality that the minoritised language group has.

Following on from this Landry and Bourhis propose (1997:29) that the systematic use of the in-group language on signage may result in a 'carryover effect' that can contribute to the emergence or maintenance of a sociolinguistic norm favouring greater use of the in-group language in an increasing range of language functions, both public and private. The prevalence of the in-group language on signage contributes to the status of the language which in turn affects how group members perceive the strength and vitality of their own language group.

Landry and Bourhis go on to illustrate empirically that signage can influence language choice. From their studies in Quebec they demonstrated the 'carryover effect' of the linguistic landscape on language behaviour. They state that: 'The presence or absence of the in-group language in the linguistic landscape is related to how much speakers use their in-group language with family members, friends and neighbours' (1997:45). The results of their study suggest that the presence of public and private signs written in the minority language may act as a stimulus for promoting the use of the minority language in a broad range of language-use domains. In addition, with what they term as low- and medium-vitality groups, such as Gaelic, they state that they need to ensure the visibility of their own group language on public signs to help maintain or restore the use of their own group language in key domains. Weak-vitality groups deprived of visible signs of their language in the linguistic landscape may lose the will to use their own language in certain language domains this further eroding their position. A good strategy for weak groups is to maintain their language on private signage.1 Landry and Bourhis conclude that these informational and symbolic functions of the linguistic landscape may constitute an important factor in the processes of language shift and language maintenance. They add that (1997:46) language planners and activists can ill afford to ignore the issue of the linguistic landscape, not only as a tool of RLS but also as another front in 'consolidating vitality'.

Mythological / Folkloric

To Landry and Bourhis's conclusions it may be added that there is a mythological function to the linguistic landscape of especial importance to societies that have kept their native religion, for example, and to a certain extent with Celtic and Germanic groups. This function is that places in the landscape are named in such a way as to provide a focal point for various traditional stories, sagas and myths that are part of the in-group's traditional culture. For example, we have Strath Bran, and the stories about a hound, Bran, of Fionn mac Cumhaill. In Cornwall we have various places associated with Arthur, in Scotland we have various places that hark back to the earlier P-Celtic period with mentions of names like Mabon, a personal, but also a deity name, found in southern Scotland. In this way names of mythological content act to give added sense of place and belonging of the in-group to its territory and a feeling of timelessness, of having been there since the Iron Age. Equally such names are all-important to other indigenous cultures, especially ones who have suffered from genocide such as the native peoples of the Americas and Australia. Often the surviving name referring to a deity is all that remains of their culture. Such places help the mnemonic device needed in storytelling. They provide the trigger for the story, numerous of which are the 'how this place got its name' type story found, for example, with older Gaelic native speakers. In this way names help the traditional culture to be transmitted and they help cast a thread back hundreds if not thousands of years (see Meek 1998).

One last point especially to bear in mind considering Gaelic is how place-names, and therefore signage, not only represent existing linguistic territory but also past, ancestral territory. It is evident from the amount of interest shown in names that people intrinsically feel that the names on the landscape are identifiable with community and nation. To take away any of these names and replace them with other names in a different language takes something away from the community; it can feel like invasion, as if territory is literally being added to the neighbouring language group. It means that names become jealously guarded. They may not reflect the actual linguistic divide at all. In Wales the start of Welsh place-names very much marked the language border well into the 1900s. On the Cornish border, where the language actually faded hundreds of years ago, Cornish names abruptly start and along with the Tamar provide a clear and distinct political border. Names give this sense of place, of living in history.

Furthermore, names on signage re-affirm our sense of place but signage does not stop at place-names; words jump at us with every glance, and in Scotland it has become the practice, except for the Western Isles and Skye and some areas of the north-west coast, for the signage to be monolingual and in the dominant language - English. With this usage it utters a denial that Gaelic ever existed and so acts to de-legitimise Gaelic usage amongst users and non-users alike. Every sign and label in the linguistic landscape from those on the roads, on the street, at work, at school, to those on jam-jars, is in the automatic default language - English. This is not the norm in large parts of Europe, with their respective state and minority languages, but has become the norm in Scotland.

It is worth adding Mónica Pereña's comment (1999) on Catalan onomastics that 'toponymy, as a living element which is sensitive to events, is also a delicate, weak element which often depends merely on the memory of the people and on oral tradition. It is, in short, a basic element which orientates and guides, and which consequently should be precise and well-established'.

Function of signage in the RLS effort

The function of bilingual signage for the RLS effort can be seen in three ways:

  1. the relegitimization of the minoritised language as it becomes an accepted official form;
  2. the reinforcement of the minoritised language in the overall RLS effort;
  3. if Landry and Bourhis are correct, the increase of minority language usage across an increasing range of domains.

Examples of signage policy and issues from other bilingual communities

Legislation can only go a certain way in helping RLS. However, with signage policy it may be shown that much can be done by legislation. Introducing signage in the minority language in itself can be seen as an important part of what I call the re-legitimisation of the language from an earlier point where the language has been de-legitimised. It is not an end in itself and has to be seen as only part of the totality of the RLS effort. However, its effect is far-reaching. I shall not attempt to enter into the realm of economic theory and measure their 'value' as Grin has,2 other than to state that it may be measured in social-capital value. Place-names provide a sense of place to the minority language speakers and for everyone travelling through the land an instant language and history lesson. We may look forward to the day when Europe's rich mosaic of languages are rightfully reflected in its signage.

Signage as an issue : Carinthia and Nafarroa

Besides Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany there has been recent controversy over signage issues in both Carinthia, Austria and the Navarre part of the Basque Country.

In Carinthia the signage issue hit the headlines when Jörg Haider of the euphemistically entitled Freedom Party clashed with the Slovene minority using inflammatory language. Brigitte Alfter, writing for Eurolang3 in 2001, reported that Haider stated that he 'would do anything he could' to avoid an increase in the current number of bilingual signs and later indicated that the signs represented a 'sneaking Slovenisation' of the southern part of Carinthia. In response the Austrian Constitutional Court, to Haider's chagrin, raised the issue of enforcing Austrian minority rights laws such as bilingual public education, bilingual signs and recognition of minority languages as official languages in certain regions. In addition, they changed the minimum requirement for bilingual signs from 25% of minority language speakers in a given area to 10%. Haider refused to implement this ruling and more recently has called for all bilingual signs to be removed. The situation remains unresolved at the point of writing.

In Nafarroa, meanwhile (also starting in early 2001) the regional government decided to reduce the legal status of Basque in the so-called 'mixed' Castilian/ Euskara area. They stated that all the bilingual signs in the mixed area were now to be in Spanish only along with all official documents; this was to take immediate effect.4 Criticism came immediately from the Basque community there, but without redress. However, the President of Nafarroa, Jose Luis Casteljou, has condemned the decision. Again this situation is still ongoing and both examples illustrate the political fallout and anger raised on issues of signage and place-names.

Cymru / Wales

The signage campaign in Wales: the successful use of direct action to win bilingual signage

The signage campaign in Wales was begun in 1964 by Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), who started writing letters to local authorities and then went on to replace some signs that had been anglicised with the name in its correct form. By 1967, facing official intransigence, English signs were taken down, with activists giving themselves up to the police. The authorities then moved to the position where each separate sign had to be applied for (cf. the remarkably similar current Highland Council policy in Scotland). As Ned Thomas observed (1971:86): 'Everywhere direct action is the child of bureaucracy'. In October 1968, after further letters to the authorities, the painting campaign started after Cymdeithas decided at its AGM: 'that Cymdeithas start an illegal, non-violent campaign to ensure to Welsh its deserved place in every aspect of local and central government in our country'.

From then on English-only signs were painted out. Instructions were precise and responsible, signs were chosen to be deleted, with warnings to avoid danger and private signs. The campaign started in January when fifty Cymdeithas members defaced signs and went to Betws y Coed police station to admit what they had done. Fines ranged from £2 to over £50. All Cymdeithas members pleaded not guilty on moral grounds as they were not guilty of malicious damage. It was conviction, principle and conscience that had stimulated their actions, not malice or vandalism. Many refused to pay the fines and many were imprisoned or had property seized as a result.

In 1969 the then Secretary of State for Wales, George Thomas, stated that he did not like these tactics and the Government, while accepting a principle of 'equal validity', did not accept bilingualism. Cymdeithas issued a twelve-month amnesty while the authorities were again written to.1

The General Meeting of November 1969 resolved: 'that we inform all the local authorities of Wales that we are stopping the painting of signs for a year and press them in the meantime to erect every sign in Welsh (giving priority to Welsh) in spite of the recommendations of the Welsh office'.

In 1970 further imprisonments and protests followed. By October Cymdeithas decided the following:

Since the truce has come to an end and the local authorities have not responded to our requests (with some exceptions) we must move to eradicate the remaining English road signs. A proclamation will be placed on these signs and then we will proceed to remove them systematically, avoiding as before any signs which warn of danger.

The authorities were again written to and some local councils began to move towards adopting a bilingual policy. However, in December 1970 removal began at Post Mawr/ Synod Inn. The list sent out of signs to be removed included: English-only names of towns (Swansea); misspelled Welsh names (Caerphilly); English-only signs on government and council buildings; car park; lay by; in; out; no exit; station; bus station; British Rail; bus stop; public-footpath; scenic route; mountain road; ancient monument; toilets; gents; ladies; picnic area; camping; caravan park; alternative route; waiting limited.; road clear; no through road; litter; no litter; library; town centre; pier; to the beach; museum.5

By February 1971 the government stated it was going to set up a committee to look at the issue but at the same time arrested eight leading members of Cymdeithas for 'conspiracy to move and destroy road signs'. They were given suspended sentences of up to a year.

Protests and arrests rocketed, signs continued to be destroyed and the state responded in an increasingly strong-arm way throughout 1971 and on into 1972. By September 1971 however, the battle had been won. Even before the Bowen Committee reported, local authorities abandoned erecting English-only versions although the Welsh Office had responsibility for them, while the Welsh Office itself was said to be preparing for a wholesale changeover.

The emergence of a signage policy

Place-name recommendations to the Bowen Committee are also of interest in our comparison with Gaelic, as they show the development of a policy.

Technical aspects of signage in the UK follow the advice given by the Worboys Committee in 1963, for which there is not space to discuss in detail.6

Present day signage policy after the Welsh Language Act (1993)

Following the Welsh Language Act of 1993, Welsh Councils had to prepare Welsh language schemes. Part of this dealt with signage. For example, Cardiff's signage policy states:7

All newly provided and replacement public information signs for which the County Council is responsible, including highway signs, those on vehicles, and external and internal signs at buildings owned or occupied by the County Council, will be bilingual.

It further stipulates that:

For highway and road traffic signs, and public car parks, new and replacement bilingual signs will be provided in the course of maintenance and improvement works. However, it is proactive in this replacement,8 stating: 'A ten year programme for the replacement of all highway and road traffic signs will be implemented to ensure that, ultimately, every sign of this type in the City and County of Cardiff is bilingual. Within this programme, priority will be given to those signs in the City Centre and on the main access routes to the City.

A Monitoring Report (19/10/1999)9 asked for: 'Confirmation that every new sign is bilingual or in English and Welsh treating both languages equally and a description of the arrangements to ensure that this is done'. The Council's answer stated: 'All new signs are bilingual along with replacement signs. Considerable progress has been made with highway signs and the County Council is confident that this key element of the Scheme will be completed within the extended periods specified. Furthermore, contractors operating on behalf of the County are informed of the requirements of the Scheme'.

Legislation in Euskadi and Catalunya


The law is as follows:

Basic law of the standardization of the use of Basque (1982)

Article 10

  1. The official names of the territories, urban areas, groups of population, geographical features, urban roads and, in general, all place-names of the Basque Autonomous Community, will be established by the government, the Provincial Institutions of the Historic Territories or local corporations in their respective areas, always respecting the original Basque, Romance or Spanish, with the correct academic written form of each language.

    In the case of a conflict between the local corporations and the Basque Government over the official names mentioned in the previous paragraph., the Basque Government will resolve the conflict after consulting the Royal Academy of the Basque Language.

  2. Traffic signs installed on the public highway will be written in bi-lingual form, while respecting in all cases the international norms and the need for security and legibility by the users.

  3. If these names are considerably different, both will be considered official, with regards to highways signs.10


From the 1998 law on language policy:

Article 18

  1. The Catalan version of the place-names of Catalonia are the only official ones, in accordance with the linguistic norms of the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, except those of the Aran valley, where they shall be in Aranese.

  2. Decisions regarding the names of municipalities and comarques are governed by the legislation on local authorities.

  3. Decisions on the name for urban streets and villages of every kind are the responsibility of the local councils, and decisions on other names in Catalonia, including inter-city roads, are the responsibility of the Generalitat.

  4. Names that paragraphs 2 and 3 refer to are the legal ones for all purposes and signs shall be written accordingly. The Generalitat, heeding in all cases the international regulations which have become part of internal law, shall regulate the normal use of Catalan on public signs.

We can see that both of these are substantial pieces of legislation with the clear aim of normalising and relegitimising both Basque and Catalan in their respective linguistic landscapes. While Gaelic is not as widely used as Basque or Catalan, it is a policy such as this with such a scope that would benefit Gaelic both in its relegitimization and for its increased usage.


Even in the 21st century Breton still has to deal with policies of linguistic genocide from a French state driven by a centralist, jacobin mind-set. However, incremental progress is being made toward bilingual signs. Several major towns and cities have bilingual signs e.g. Kemper. Even in Roazhon / Rennes many of the street name signs are bilingual. Brittany offers a useful contrast to Scotland, albeit with a far greater number of Breton speakers compared to Gaelic speakers in Scotland. It is here that we have the Breton-speaking population in the west yet with high densities in the two cities, Rennes and Nantes, areas that were never very strongly Breton-speaking. This compares well with the distribution of Gaelic speakers on the northwest coast and islands and high concentrations in the Central Belt.

Current policy appears to involve the community at commune or town level deciding on signage. Research into place-names is currently being conducted at the Karaes branch of Ofis ar Brezhoneg in order to supply the correct forms to local councils. This follows on from the work of the Skol Uhel ar Vro (Institut Culturel de Bretagne) which under Divi Kervella set up Ar Greizenn Enklask war an Anviou-lec'h ar Panellou-henchan, (the commission for toponymie and signalisation). This body is paid for by the Breton regional authority.

We may ask the question that do any of these (or others) offer a useful model compared to Scotland's linguistic situation? Only indirectly. We know that Gaelic usage is far less than Basque or Catalan, but principles may be more important than numbers in this context. Not only are we reflecting the linguistic rights of Gaelic speakers in our signage, but are we not also reflecting the shared Scottish linguistic heritage and the inheritance of most Scots to a broader Gaelic heritage.

European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML)

Scottish Gaelic was included at the Part 3 level in the UK's ratification of the Charter in 1999. Under Part 3, Article 10, para. 2, (g), the ECRML provides for regional and minority language place-names.

It states:

2) (preamble) 'In respect of the local and regional authorities on whose territory the number of residents who are users of regional and minority languages is such as to justify the measures specified below, the parties undertake to allow and/or encourage:

the use or adoption, if necessary in conjunction with the name in the official language(s), of traditional and correct forms of place-names in regional and minority languages'.

Currently the process of enforcement of the Charter in the UK is under way and it is not possible to discuss what the outcome will be. It is, however, explicit (so far) that the UK has adopted a minimalist approach to the Charter. This is evidenced by the continuing failure of local and national authorities to take any measures to develop or implement a coherent bilingual signage policy.

Scottish signage: the macro picture

Issues with Gaelic and Scots: Scotland's present and past linguistic situation

Scotland herself has a diverse linguistic heritage. Medieval Scotland had a linguistic mosaic and the charters we have demonstrate that many scribes may have been multilingual. Scotland then was made up of five distinct ethnic groups. Often it is only with place-names that we can seek to discover anything about these peoples yet incredibly, despite this untapped wealth of information, they are ignored. There are now no place-name departments in Scottish universities and no funding for research.

Scotland's five historical ethnic groups

Scotland's  five historical ethnic groups - 
click for full-size image [171K]

Firstly we have the Pictish language which, although once found all over northern Scotland, was eventually driven into the north-east, after which the language declined after the linking of Pictavia with Gaelic-speaking Scotia.11 Gaelic spread out from its earlier base in Argyll to encompass all of northern Scotland. Eventually from the tenth century onwards it spread into southern Scotland. Galloway remained a Gaelic-speaking area until the seventeenth century.

In the south the earlier language was British. It developed in the same way as Old Welsh to Middle Welsh and was known as Cumbric ( cf. *Combrec > Cymraeg 'Welsh') by the tenth century. It provides Scotland with her oldest literature, Y Gododdin being referred to as 'The Oldest Scottish Poem' (Jackson 1969). Cumbric declined rapidly in the twelfth century (after a tenth-century expansion) as the burghs were set up and Anglo-Norman landlords brought in English-speaking farmers, so reinforcing existing English speaking areas, or, in some cases such as Lanarkshire, Gaelic speakers displaced Cumbric speakers.

However, English was not a recent arrival, the Anglians having been established in south-east Scotland since the mid-seventh century as the northern part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Even though their power waned they left their language which would develop from northern middle English, or Inglis, into Scots. The other language which has made a mark on Scotland's toponymy is Norse, which was still spoken in the Orkney's until the nineteenth century (known as Norn). It was found along many of the coastal areas from Galloway to Lewis with extensive settlements in Caithness. It is in some of these previously partly Norse-speaking areas (i.e. in the twelfth century), such as the Western Isles, that we find the strongest surviving Gaelic-speaking communities today.

Scots became the language of commerce and prestige, and importantly for place-name research, the language of official documents as it gradually replaced Latin. In the medieval period and with the development of the Baltic trade it spread up the north-east coast. Gaelic held fast along the Highland Line12

Illustration map -
click for full-size image [103K]

and in the south-west. However, with the collapse of Gaelic Scotland, a process symbolised by the Statutes of Iona of 1609 and the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the notion spread that Gaelic somehow held Scotland back from being 'North British'. Not only was English power against Gaelic but much of the lowland Scottish establishment as well. In the face of prejudice and a hostile education system Gaelic declined away to the west coast and the islands, and this situation and process of decline remains today (see Withers 1984).

Today the linguistic map is made up of Scottish Standard English mingled with some Scots speakers and increasingly marginalised Gaelic-speaking communities in the Western Isles with a large numbers of speakers living in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is with place-names, however, that we can see this diverse linguistic heritage and see the earlier extent of Gaelic usage throughout much of today's Scotland.

The process of anglicisation

Charters in the Middle Ages were written in Latin and later in Scots. It was a time of low literacy levels. The government was Scots-speaking, and when noting orally transmitted Gaelic names it appears they spelled them using Scots. It is not that there was not a Gaelic spelling, just that there was no role for Gaelic in official documents. For example, even though we have Gaelic A' Mhorbhainn, charters such as those published in RMS (Thomson et al 1882-1914) spell it as Morvarne, 1476, today spelled as Morvern. Also we have Raterne, 1488, RMS, for Rath Eireann and Bin Wreck on Pont's map for Beinn Bhreac.

The Ordnance Survey (OS) Gaelic names policy

The OS today does have a Gaelic names policy drawn up with the Gaelic liaison committee.13 This may reflect the current attitude of the OS towards Gaelic and has some controversial aspects to it. For example, within the natural environment category it states (2000:6) for landform features that historical mapping, local usage and the Gaelic committee will be consulted but for water features the committee will not be consulted. Within the man-made feature category it states that 'map preference will be given to the English only depiction', suggesting somewhat that Gaels both pre-date, and did not name, man-made features or water features. Overall the OS policy reflects a minimalist approach to Gaelic usage where Gaelic is offered as a favour rather than a right.

The usage of signage casts an actual and imagined line of demarcation of language usage. On crossing the Severn, the Tamar or the Channel one is immediately struck by the change of language on place-name signage and it is this combination of a language change with a political border that gives place-names and signage their political bite. In Scotland this perception seems to remain at the Highland Line, although this has not been a linguistic border for a hundred years. Therefore when planning our bilingual signage should we follow this perception, and what should we do about Gaelic speakers in the Central Belt?

This leads onto the following important and key questions:14

Current Scottish Executive 'policy' and ongoing issues

A recent letter (27th April 2001) from Sarah Boyack, the previous Scottish Minister for Transport, outlined current practice. Firstly, bilingual roadsigns were found to require special authorisation and before this could be granted 'several important road safety and technical issues had to be resolved'. After taking 'some time' over this a format was established. The format will be both languages in the same type-face with Gaelic in green above English in black. On trunk roads the format is for Gaelic in yellow above English in white. The executive sent 'formal authorisation' to the Highland Council to put up these signs in April 2001. There is still no sign of these signs!16

This unresolved issue has progressed further with one Highland Councillor, Dr. Michael Foxley, accusing the Executive of 'institutional racism' because of their inertia over the erection of bilingual signs.

Furthermore the Executive now finds itself in the unenviable position of contravening the ECRML (Part 3, Art.10, para.g.) which the UK has ratified, mentioned above.

A current website forum set up by Highland Council has given us a view of an evolving Highland Council 'signage policy'. It states that bilingual signs can go up when two criteria have been met. These are:

  1. that bilingual signs be approved by the local community following a consultation exercise;
  2. that they only be erected once the English-only signs have become damaged.

As can be seen it is hardly the principle of 'active offer', or anything proactive about it at all. Rather the paradigm from which this operates is a kind of grudging admission that some signs have to be provided. But as we can see nothing about what level this signage is to go down to, i.e. street level, or town planning level. Other get-out clauses indicate that there will be no bilingual signage on trunk roads at all. Of interest though is that Highland Council have stated that where the Gaelic form is close to the English one the Gaelic only will be used and they add, tellingly, so as to 'avoid the general clutter of bilingual signage'.17 Meanwhile the familiar default is still in operation i.e. for English-only signs. Despite these promises and pro-Gaelic Council petitions English-only signs are still going up.

It reflects the general malaise of a monoglot English-speaking paradigm being the constant default position of all government bodies, whereby English is always the assumed correct official form and where everything for Gaelic has to be campaigned for. As I have shown, in other countries bilingual signage is implemented de facto, without question, it is the norm, it has full legislative backing, and it has become institutionalised. Here, if there were no campaigners, it is unlikely that anything would happen and the government would dismiss the signage issue. One may conclude that these government agencies are not the people to trust with the Scottish people's linguistic landscape and heritage.

So when planning for signage, should there be a national policy, a regional one, or a local one, all of these, or a combination of these? It may be asked as well as to what extent, if any, we should include in our signage the other historic languages: Cumbric, Pictish and Norse.

Scottish signage: problems with practice and implementation

Linguistic problems

The anglicisation process appears in the documentary record as early as the Pont maps (sixteenth century) and with Blaeu (1633), much of Scotland is still, unfortunately, controlled by a small elite of landowners running large estates. It was here on many of these estates that implemented policies of the anglicisation of place-names. In the 1850s the British government published its Ordnance Survey of maps and these also acted to anglicise Gaelic place-names. When I say 'anglicise' this process happened in two ways: 1) the translation of the Gaelic form into English (Gaelic Drochaid Neithich to English Nethybridge), with the English version then becoming the official form; or 2) the rendering of the Gaelic form into a soundalike word in English (e.g. Kyle of Lochalsh derived from Gaelic Caol Loch Aillse). This process has continued today with little modification and has played its part in de-legitimising the language. It has meant that we have had the creation of what are effectively 'gibberish' place-names which mean nothing in either English or Gaelic but have become the official form today.

Disempowerment by design

We have seen that the Executive has determined that Gaelic names appear above the English one in green. But is this acceptable? It may be argued that the black version 'looks' more 'official' than the green version, thus reflecting the power relationship between the two languages, leading to disempowerment by design. It may be argued that the Gaelic version should be in black as the proper official form and that the anglicised versions should be in a less bold colour. In Gwynedd, Wales, for example, the Welsh form on signage always comes first.

Levels of signage: evolving an appropriate policy for Scotland

'Levels of signage' refers to what extent signage is applied into the landscape. The Scottish Executive appears to assume that only place-name signage is at issue here. It is not. The issue is every level of public-sector signage down to the toilets in the local tax office. Beyond that there is the further issue of the usage of bilingual signage in the private sector.

It means also street signage. Are anymore 'Acacia Avenues' acceptable as part of Scotland's place-name heritage when her own languages are ignored? It means also that Gaelic and Gaelic signage has to have its place in all stages of town-planning, and indeed as the Welsh have found with their language, there is a great need for an awareness of the needs of Gaelic speakers within town-planning and how certain projects can impact detrimentally on Gaelic language use.

Initial Recommendations


That the state be made aware of its obligations to do with signage, pursuant to ECMRL Part 3 for Gaelic and Part 2 for Scots. It should take immediate proactive action whereby bilingual signs are assumed to be the norm unless certain other criteria overrule this.

Gaelic / Scottish Place-Name Board + Gaelic Language Board (+Scots)

The creation of a Scottish Place-Names Board, either free-standing or working with, and funded by the Gaelic Language Board and/or a separate Scots Language Board.

The functions of this board will be to:

  1. Conduct research into current and lost forms of place-names. It is explicit that there is the immediate need for the establishment of a Scottish place-names board researching into names in Scots and Gaelic in order to provide the correct forms for signage and mapping. Examples of the current crisis are the re-naming of relief features in Arran where the original Gaelic forms, as the language has lost ground there, have been replaced by often superficial nicknames in English given by the climbing, rambling and fishing population (Consolation Tor, Pagoda Ridge, Rosetta Stone, Laidler's Bend, Two Rock Pool, Sharp's Pool). In addition, much research needs to be undertaken to establish the correct Gaelic forms in place-names throughout Scotland.

  2. That as a matter of urgency the Scottish Executive, in consultation with a Gaelic Language / Place-Name Board, devise a place-names policy for signage in Scotland. (c.f. the 1972 Cymdeithas proposals above).

    It is envisaged that this policy may vary according to area and the wishes of the local community. These will include issues of whether to have Gaelic-English signage, Gaelic-Scots signage, Scots-English signage, or perhaps all three. The principle to be applied should be that of 'active offer'. The norm will be to replace English monolingual signage with bilingual signage. Furthermore, it is suggested that Gaelic monolingual place-name signage should be encouraged. This will aid the normalisation process. If a community wants English monolingual signage each separate sign will have to be applied for. There have been some complaints about Gaelic signage from those in the tourist industry who, in the press, have been suggesting that Gaelic signage may somehow mislead tourists. It may be asked as to how they know what language the visitor speaks. To a European, for example, English will seem just as foreign as Gaelic.

  3. Policy could operate on three levels, national, regional and local. At a national level for example, at airports, stations, motorways, it is suggested that all signage should be bilingual Gaelic and English (e.g. at Dublin airport with Irish and English signage and Barcelona airport with Catalan, Spanish and some English signage). Which language comes first will need to be established. The principle at the national level is that as Gaelic is a national language then it should be represented on the signage of its national institutions. Therefore as Edinburgh is the national capital and is host to many of these national institutions it follows that Gaelic should be included in its signage. Rennes for example is the 'regional' capital of Brittany.18 It is not perceived as traditional Breton- speaking area but has many bilingual street names.

It is a travesty that there is not today one single post in any Scottish University that deals with onomastics as a discipline. This needs to be redressed. However, thanks to the Scottish Place-Name Society, we do have a voluntary body offering expertise.

For the provision of private sector signage it is suggested that the Executive proposes a Scottish version of the very successful Kontseilua project Bai Euskarari ('Yes to Basque').19 This has recently adopted by the Bretons as Ya d'ar Brezhoneg. The project encourages the private sector to introduce bilingual signage at work and in their advertising.


Allison S. (1973). Symbolau Cyfiawnder: Arwyddion Dwyieithiog yng Nghymru. Cardiff: Cwmni Gwasg Rydd Caerdydd.

Grin F. & Vaillancourt F. (1999). The cost-effectiveness evaluation of minority language policies. Flensburg: ECMI.

Jackson, K. (1969). The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Landry, R. & Bourhis R. (1997). 'Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality:An Empirical Study'. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16, No.1, 23-49.

McNeill, P & Nicolson R. (1975). An Historical Atlas of Scotland. St. Andrews. Meek, D. (1998). 'Place-names and Literature: Evidence from the Gaelic Ballads', in The Uses of Place-Names, ed. by Simon Taylor, 147-168. Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press.

Ordnance Survey (2000). Gaelic names policy / Clàradh Tìre Poileasaidh Ainmean Gàidhlig. Edinburgh: HMSO.

Pereña, M. (1999) 'Onomastics: national identity and international image. Another element in the process of linguistic and cultural recuperation in Catalonia'. Paper delivered to the 7th International Conference on Minority Languages, Bilbo, Euskadi.

Thomas N. (1971). The Welsh Extremist. Talybont.

Thomson, J.M., et al, eds. (1882-1914). Registrum Magni Sigilii Regum Scotorum. Edinburgh.

Withers C.W.J. (1984). Gaelic in Scotland 1698-1981. Edinburgh: John Donald.

1 There has been a marked increase of private sector signage in Breton in Brittany. How much of this is tokenistic remains to be seen, but it is a strategy that more Gaelic businesses could undertake. ^
2 For example see Grin and Vaillancourt (1999:15-27). ^
3 Eurolang is the minoritised language news agency set up by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages. Its website is The articles dealing with this issue are dated at: 5/12/01; 14/12/01; 19/12/01; 20/12/01; 8/1/02, the last by Margret Oberhofer.^
4 Reports are from Eurolang on 12/2/01; 12/3/01 by Jaume Clotet; 18/4/01 by Johan Häggman and 10/12/01 by Eurolang (editor). ^
5 A similar campaign in Scotland may be envisaged in Scotland although it would be arduous removing all the 'passing place' signs. ^
6 Details can be obtained from HMSO.^
7 See ^
8 This contrasts significantly with present day Highland Council policy outlined below, which stated that it will only erect bilingual signs as they come up for replacement. However, new English-only signs have been spotted in the area meaning that Highland Council is not even fulfilling its own promises.^
9 ... . ^
10 This is the current law, but how is it implemented? Below are some points on implementation gathered from sources in the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC, which are of interest in considering a signage policy for Scotland.
'1. The first point is to clarify who can decide what. Some aspects are defined by law, some not.
a.. Thus, the names of the provinces in the BAC and Navarre are decided in Madrid;
b.. the names of the three traditional territories of the BAC (ie. coterminous with the provinces of almost identical name) are decided by the Batzar Nagusiak (ie. Parliament) of each territory;
c.. each council decides its own name in the BAC and in Navarre;
d.. the name of each administrative entity within local councils in the BAC (i.e. smaller administrative divisions within a council: not all councils have them - they are most common in rural council areas where subdivisions are useful for certain more local purposes: most are in Araba) is decided by the body concerned, but within the context of a Basque Government-run procedure.
e.. Each local council is responsible for its street names (again I believe this is valid for both the BAC and Navarre);
f.. on the other hand, there is nothing written on other local place-names which do not fall into any of the above categories.
2. The second point is who can make the decisions stick or, in official parlance, how they are to be 'made official'. Perhaps this is pointless from a UK point of view, but in the BAC one thing is to decide who can choose what name, another to say which body can declare it official (usually by publishing it in an official gazette). Hizkuntza Politika Sailordetza (i.e. the Basque Government's subdepartment for language policy) has set up a Toponimia Batzordea (Place-name Committee) to establish the criteria for making decisions by local councils official. It has met about once a year for the past several years and has got nowhere.
3. Who does the work? The usual motivation for carrying out work of this sort arises from a desire to update maps and get the names right. The usual system in the BAC is to award a grant to a person or persons with suitable university training to carry out the work; however, the grant varies considerably, sometimes permitting only very superficial work and, elsewhere, much more long-term work. The money almost invariably comes from official bodies: the local council, provincial government, Basque Government, depending on whose map it is. The same system has been used in Navarre in at least one major project for the whole of Navarre.
4. Re. quality control. Usually, the grant-holder has his/her work overseen by somebody from the Royal Academy of the Basque Language. In Biscay province, the work has on occasion been overseen by the Labayru Institute, which has also done some work in this field. Sometimes the work is given directly to the Academy to carry out.
5. Criteria. The Academy has a Naming Committee which establishes criteria for choosing amongst the different documented forms gathered by the researcher. In addition, some councils submit the result of the work to the Academy's Naming Committee, so that it can give its opinion on the proposals. However, the opinion is not binding and is not necessarily followed.
6. Availibility of data. A number of books have been published to discuss the place-names of various areas. Much of the information has been gathered on the web-site: in the section on Basque, subsection Toponimia, based on work commissioned by the Basque Government from Deiker, an institute within the University of Deustu. Once again, it seems the motivation was (apart from gathering basic information) providing material to decide names to be put on maps. ^
11 Map 1 is taken from McNeill and Nicolson (1975:117). ^
12 Map 3 is taken from C. Withers (1984:26). ^
13 This can be downloaded from their web site ^
14 Readers are invited to send in their views to the website in order to initiate debate on this subject. It is planned that such contributions will be published and will add to the eventual establishment of a place- name policy^
15 These questions will go up on the websites of both the Scottish Place-Name Society and the Language-Planning and Policy Unit in the Edinburgh University department of Celtic and Scottish Studies. Also it is anticipated there may be other questions which arise derived from the above.^
16 A recent statement (May 2002) from the Executive about Gaelic signage which, although we cannot call it a 'signage policy', makes it fairly clear that Highland Council can go ahead with bilingual signs in their area of responsibility i.e. local roads, and that Gaelic signs are also to be erected on the new section of the A 830, a trunk road, and the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. It also implies that all trunk roads in the Highland Council area will now have bilingual signage. So why are English only signs still going up in the Highland Council area? When will Highland Council issue a statement outlining their programme for the implementation of bilingual signage in their area according to the ECRML?
   A more recent announcement (January 2003) from the Executive indicates that bilingual signs are now to be permitted on the following routes: A87 Skye Bridge to Uig, A87 Invergarry to Skye Bridge, A887 Invermoriston to A87, A830 Fort William to Mallaig, A835 Ullapool to Dingwall/Tore, A828 Ballachulish to Connel Bridge, A85 Tyndrum to Oban, A83 Tarbet to Kennacraig/Campbeltown and A82 Tarbet to Inverness. Although welcoming this progress, Gaelic campaigners were irritated by the Executive's failure to designate the A9 (Perth to Inverness to Thurso), which is by far the most important trunk road in the Highlands. ^
17 See the Highland Council website Gaelic discussion forum, ^
18 Although with reunification of 'Loire Atlantique' Nantes would have a strong claim to be the Breton capital. ^
19 This policy can be downloaded from Kontseilua website: ^

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