SPICe frequently receives enquiries about the replacement of road signs with bilingual versions. This blog addresses some of the most common questions received, namely the rules and costs associated with their introduction.
Who benefits from bilingual road signs?
The 2011 Census data shows that approximately 1.7% of Scotland’s population, around 87,100 people, have some Gaelic language skills (including 32,400 people with full skills in Gaelic), with 49% of Gaelic speakers living in the Highland, Eilean Siar and Glasgow City council areas.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the principal public body in Scotland responsible for promoting Gaelic development, states that “Gaelic provides a unique selling point and distinctiveness to a Public Authority” and it can increase brand strength “if developed creatively”, while Visit Scotland names Gaelic as one of 7 things that are “uniquely Scottish”.
By encouraging the implementation of Gaelic Language Plans, Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s objective is to “secure the status of Gaelic as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language” by encouraging greater use of Gaelic and increasing the visibility and audibility of Gaelic among other measures. The replacement of English only road signs with bilingual ones feeds into this aim.
Is there a statutory duty to introduce Gaelic traffic signs?
No. The Gaelic Language Act (Scotland) 2005 led to the establishment of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the National Plan for Gaelic. Under the Act, Bòrd na Gàidhlig has the power to require public authorities in Scotland to prepare statutory Gaelic Language Plans, which can include proposals for the introduction of bilingual traffic signs. (The approach is different to the one taken in Wales, where Welsh Language Schemes and, more recently, Welsh Language Standards include clauses which require that signs are bilingual.)
Scotland’s road network is managed by two types of road authority. Transport Scotland is responsible for the development, management and maintenance of the trunk road network, while the management and maintenance of local roads is the responsibility of local authorities.
Most local authorities (24) have published Gaelic Language Plans, which are available on the Bòrd na Gàidhlig website. Other local authorities have published draft Gaelic language plans on their individual websites.
Transport Scotland does not currently have a published Gaelic Language Plan.
What actions have local authorities committed to?
Although the vast majority of local authorities have published at least a draft Gaelic Language Plan, the commitment to introducing bilingual road signs varies.
A third of all councils have committed to replacing either threshold road signs or key high-profile signs, as part of ongoing maintenance, while eight local authorities which have produced Gaelic Language Plans have no plans to introduce Gaelic road signs, the City of Edinburgh Council being one such example.
About a quarter of local authorities (including The Highland Council) have set the objective of extending the introduction of bilingual signs to all or most roads.
The remaining councils have committed to replace only ‘Welcome to’ signs marking local authority boundaries.
It is also worth noting that the National Gaelic Plan 2018-2023 makes no mention of bilingual road signage.
How much money has been spent on Gaelic road signs?
Information on the specific amount spent by Transport Scotland on the construction and maintenance of bilingual road signs is not held, as evidenced by a number of Freedom of Information requests received by the Scottish Government.
The original rationale for introducing bilingual road signs focussed on trunk roads that pass through communities where Gaelic is spoken and which lead to west coast ferry ports. The trunk road bilingual direction sign policy involving the A82 from Tarbert to Inverness and those trunk roads leading to the western ferry ports (Kennacraig, Oban, Mallaig, Uig and Ullapool) was agreed with Highland and Argyll and Bute Councils in late 2002. In the period up to 2010, over £2 million was invested in providing signs on the A87, A887, A830, A835, A828, A85, A82 and A83. Since then, any work done has been replacing existing signs.
In 2016, the Scottish Government responded to an FOI request confirming that £115k was spent on signage as part of the £5M Crianlarich Bypass project, with 44% of signs being bilingual.
A similar FOI response from June 2019 confirmed that the bilingual direction sign policy was to be extended to include the A9 trunk road as part of the dualling programme between Perth and Inverness.
As for local authorities and their responsibility for local roads, those councils with a bilingual traffic signing policy generally only introduce such signs when existing signs are replaced due to age or poor condition or entirely new signs are required – minimising any additional costs. This is specifically mentioned in most Gaelic language plans (see The Highland Council Gaelic Language Plan or East Lothian Gaelic Language Plan).
Are bilingual signs making roads less safe?
Since the introduction of bilingual road signs, some concerns were raised regarding a possible threat to road safety, as drivers may spend longer reading the signs. The Scottish Government commissioned a study into the effects of bilingual signs on road safety in Scotland. This was completed by the Transport Research Laboratory over three years and published in August 2012, concluding that bilingual road signs do not contribute to a significant rise in road traffic accidents, although they may force drivers to reduce their speed:
“It is concluded that on those trunk roads where bilingual signs have been installed, while there is evidence that bilingual signs may have increased the demand of the driving task, that this increase can be absorbed and managed by the driver and therefore does not result in a significant increase in crash risk and accident involvement. Analysis of accident data in Scotland concurred with this conclusion, as it found no evidence that, overall, accidents increased or decreased as a result of bilingual sign installation.”
A Scottish Government FOI release from February 2019 showed that, of the 11 complaints regarding bilingual signs received by Transport Scotland since 2002, only one was specifically related to signs distracting drivers.
A petition was lodged on 17 March 2020 calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to review whether public bodies are complying with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 to ensure that the Gaelic language, and therefore linguistic diversity, is fully recognised and promoted in Scotland. The petition is currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee.
Alexandra Gherghiniş, Enquiries Assistant
Blog image: “Now that’s a sign” by Tamsin Slater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0