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Gaelic road signs in Scotland: Wikis


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Roadsign in Mallaig

In the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland), the use of the Gaelic language on road signs instead of, or more often alongside, English is now common, but has historically been a controversial issue of symbolic rather than practical significance for people on both sides of the debate.



In the 18th and 19th centuries, map makers recorded Gaelic placenames in Anglicised versions. One would expect important towns like Stornoway or Portree to have slightly different names in different languages, but it is unusual for this to be the case with small hamlets or minor topographical features, and the Anglicisation of placenames was resented by educated Gaels.

In the 20th century, Inverness County Council, which until the latter part of the century was known for its antipathy towards the Gaelic language, was responsible for erecting road signs throughout the Highlands. The council insisted that these be entirely in English and follow the spellings on the Ordnance Survey maps, despite moves in Wales for bilingual signs by special authorisation from 1965, with the Bowen Committee recommending their nationwide provision in 1972. Gaelic language organisations had limited resources and thus did not see opposition to this policy as a priority.

In 1973, however, the issue was forced onto the public agenda as a result of the Skye road sign controversy. The council was planning to build a new road south from Portree, and needed to purchase a strip of land belonging to landowner Iain Noble. Noble offered to donate the land to the council on condition that the three signs which were to be erected on the stretch of road be bilingual. The proposal was fiercely resisted by the council, and in particular by Lord Burton, Chairman of the Roads Committee, who later that same year attempted unsuccessfully to introduce legislation in the House of Lords limiting the use of Gaelic by Scottish local authorities. However, Noble was supported by a petition signed by many prominent Skye residents, and the experience of Wales, where bilingual signposting had already been accepted, was favourable. As the issue had aroused public interest, and a compulsory purchase order might have been slow and expensive, the council negotiated a compromise; Portree and Broadford both received bilingual signposts on an "experimental" basis.

As Noble had hoped, and the council feared, this set a precedent, which was gradually followed throughout the 1980s, becoming generally accepted in the 1990s. Bilingual signposting is now the norm throughout the Western Isles and also in large parts of the mainland on local authority roads.

Current day

In 2001, the Scottish Government announced plans to erect bilingual signage along many of the trunk roads in the Scottish Highlands,[1] in addition to those already erected on local-authority-maintained roads. This project has now been all-but completed, although crucially, has excluded the main A9 trunk road and also the A96 to the east of Inverness. It has however included the A82 trunk route south of Inverness to Glasgow. Pressure is now being placed on the Scottish Government to extend the coverage of bilingual signs to other trunk roads in the Highlands.[2]

See also



  • Hutchinson, Roger (2005). A Waxing Moon: The Modern Gaelic Revival. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 1-84018-794-8.


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