Senior politicians in Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking areas have called for the language to be given much greater priority in civil and public life to stop it dying out.
Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance secretary, and Alasdair Allan, a former minister, said Gaelic had to be given precedence or parity in all areas of public life and the economy across Gaelic areas of the Highlands and islands.
Academics at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) warned last week Gaelic was in terminal decline in Scotland because it was spoken habitually by only about 11,000 people. These are mainly elderly Gaels living in the Western Isles.
The team led by Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin said next year’s census was likely to show that only 45% of Western Isles residents could speak Gaelic, a figure that puts it on the cusp of non-viability.
Forbes, the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, who chairs the Scottish parliament’s cross-party group on Gaelic, said: “I cannot overstate how critical the next few years will be. This research is sobering and stark and I think all of us should actively work to ensure these predictions don’t come true.
“Every organisation in the private and public sectors, particularly in the Highlands and islands, faces a choice of either facilitating or reversing the decline of Gaelic.”
The research found that although about 52% of residents in Gaelic-majority areas were able to speak it, it was used infrequently at home or in social situations. Teenagers claimed to self-identify as Gaels and felt positive about their heritage but rarely spoke it.
Allan, the MSP for the Western Isles, said greater effort was needed by Gaelic speakers to reverse decades of subtle or overt pressure to prioritise English in their daily lives, including within Gaelic-speaking families. It meant much less deference to English speakers in social or work situations in Gaelic-majority areas.
“The language can only survive if its speakers take action themselves, to use the language, and use it in the community,” he said. “Schools are vitally important, but I think the next step is definitely through the community.”
The UHI report has exposed fresh tensions and challenges for public bodies charged with protecting Gaelic, particularly Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the official Gaelic language body.
It is based in Inverness, on the other side of Scotland from the majority-Gaelic communities in the Western Isles, Skye, Tiree and parts of the west coast, and blamed for putting too much emphasis on its use in schools, and too little in wider civic and cultural life.
Gaelic revival campaigners said Western Isles council had become much more active in protecting the language. It recently made it the default language in all schools. A council spokesman insisted Gaelic was often the primary language in meetings and official communications. Full council meetings are bilingual, he said.
The spokesman said the council had an apprenticeship programme where all 50 recruits were expected to either use or learn Gaelic in their jobs.
“The future of Gaelic is inextricably linked to the economy and population retention,” he said. “Our biggest export is our young people, and the future of Gaelic is dependent on enabling them to meet their life aspirations without having to leave or at least return.”
Highland council, based in Inverness, said it was committed to promoting and investing in Gaelic. However, its Gaelic committee, formed in February to lead on that work, had not yet met due to the coronavirus outbreak. It has no chair or deputy chairs in post or a workplan but is due to meet in August to begin that process.
• This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Kate Forbes is the cabinet secretary for finance in the Scottish parliament, not the justice secretary.